Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Painam Nagar - Crumbling Opulence in a Ghost Town (Sonargaon)

Sometime between 1895 and 1905, in a small area in the old part of the ancient city of Sonargaon, a single narrow street became a prosperous site of fervent construction of opulent mansions. Rich Hindu merchants, mostly clothes traders, put all the stops to build elegant homes characterized by graceful arches, columns, elaborate stairs, intricately designed pillars, and brick walls. However, during the partition that would eventually separate India and Pakistan, a tumultuous chapter in the Indian subcontinent, this schism resulted to violent in-fighting between the Muslims and the Hindus. The Hindu merchants who practically owned much of Painam Nagar (also called Panam City) fled to India to resist imminent death, leaving their mansions to the care of poor tenants.

Decades of political strife throughout Bangladesh, then under the political tutelage of Pakistan (most were Muslims thus they went with Pakistan during the "partition") hasn’t allowed the merchants to return. These lavish mansions have fallen into decay, their brick walls crumbling along with their rich historical past.

As a result of this, the whole street of Painam Nagar, including its 50 mansions, has become a ghost town. Despite absence of the most basic necessities – no electricity, no water lines, no sewage disposal system – many of these houses have poor tenants who refuse to leave (nor get relocated). And if you’ve been inside one of the slums of Mumbai or Tondo, you would realize the sheer despondency of the tenant’s living conditions. Mumbai and Tondo slums suddenly seem posh.

Why the Restoration and Heritage Departments of the Bangladeshi government have all but neglected Painam Nagar is such a wonder. I am aware that restoration of 50 mansions wouldn't be cheap, but preservation of history is priceless. I read several articles regarding plans to relocate these tenants (there must have been half a dozen generations since the owners abandoned their mansions) and start restorations, but these have turned out to be mere publicity stunts in the last 5-10 years or so. Nothing concrete has happened.

These present tenants will fight getting relocated, but I really can’t imagine a harder life than staying in Painam Nagar. They hardly look like inhabited homes. At least the other slum dwellings elsewhere in Asia have vestiges of home partitions (living room, sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom). The ones we saw here have none! Government-aided transfers can’t be worse.

I am pretty sure that restoration of these mansions would eventually pay off in terms of tourism, not to mention the historical implications in a nation too pulverized by civil war, poverty, cyclones and other disasters, and population explosion.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Up next: A travelogue in visiting Painam Nagar - Getting inside some of these decrepit and abandoned houses.


Siddhartha Joshi said...

Wow...these mansions are wonderful, so beautiful. My heart also bleeds at the thought of losing these forever due to the neglect of authorities...

eye in the sky said...

Ditto... but mostly to the children who grow up here. :-<