Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sonargaon, Bangladesh – Whispers From an Ancient Capital (An Introduction)

There’s always a palpable buzz of excitement when you suddenly realize you’re visiting a part of history. In this case, it is Sonargaon, the ancient – and first capital – of Bangladesh, long before it became a separate country (from India and Pakistan).


Vikramapura was the cultural and political center of ancient Bengal but everything about it has been passed on through word of mouth. It’s a mythical city that has died in the early inhabitant’s failure to document its existence. There are no documents to show the exact boundary of its territorial unit; no relics; no traces of a very distant past, except for historical hearsay handed down from centuries of Chandra, Sena and Varman rulers that stretch from the 10th century to the 13th century. It is believed though that it existed somewhere in the southeast of Bangladesh.

By the 13th century, a Hindu ruler named Danujamadhava Dasharathadeva felt the need to transfer his dominion to an uncharted region called Suvarnagrama, a name that gradually evolved into its present nomenclature. Sonargaon. The “golden village,” as it was literally translated (or “golden town”). It was a promising place bound by its riches, and its rivers: Meghna River to the east, Shitalakhya River to the west, Daleshwari River to the south, and Brahmaputra River to the north. But like most ruling forces, time wasn't kind and the Hindu ruler gradually lost grip of his power and influence, and with the arrival of the Muslim rulers, he was eventually overwhelmed. Sonargaon was soon annexed to Lakhnauti (under the rule of Shamsuddin Firuz Shah). It became an exigent town as a port and source of “mint”.

In the 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Sonargaon boasted of direct trading connection with China, Java (Indonesia) and Maldives, as noted in the annals of Moroccan adventurer Ibn Batuta. Hou Hien, a Chinese translator, described it as a fortified wall city with tanks, bazaars and a bustling emporium of trade.

With time, it had several change of hands in terms of administration - from the Tughlaq rulers then the arrival of the mughals (Isa Khan, then Musa Khan). With the fall of Musa’s regime (1611), Sonargaon was gradually demoted. Dhaka rose as the capital. And Sonargaon gradually slipped into near obscurity – rotting in its rich but ancient past.

During the early 20th century, Painam-Nagar was developed somewhere in the area of medieval Sonargaon which became a trading center of cotton fabrics. Sonargaon soon again flirted with commercial life. Hindu merchants – “cloth merchants” - built showy colonial houses on a narrow single- road, but a cantankerous, albeit impetuous history has halted the rebirth of Sonargaon. There were (1) the great division between Pakistan and India, (2) the anti-Hindu massacre (the muslim population grew tenfold), and (3) the Indo-Pakistani War (1965).

Most of these affluent Hindu merchants fled to India, and Painam-Nagar virtually turned into a ghost town. These days, the southern town of Mograpara is starting to stir into life. This is where most tourists arrive from Dhaka. From here, a rickshaw can be hired to visit sites.

Though most of the ancient Sonargaon (10th to 13th century) have disappeared like Vikramapura, a few reminders of the succeeding epoch have remained: the Goaldi Mosque, a pre-Mughal bridge, a single rajbari (a Raj-era palace built by a landlord called “zamindar” converted into the Folk Arts Museum), a mausoleum, and some minor mosques.

Located 27 kilometers (some say 29, LP says its 23) southeast of Dhaka, Sonargaon magically transports you into the past – into this long forgotten and neglected land that has “dwindled into a village with dense jungle”. If you want local color, and grassroot Bangladesh, this is probably one of the best places to visit.

The bus ride from Dhaka will take 40 minutes to 1 hour, on a measly 15-taka ($0.20 or PhP8.80) bus ride. Be sure to tell the bus conductor that your destination is Mograpara, otherwise, your “Sonargaon” (pronounced “sho-nar-gahn”) will take you to Pan Pacific Sonargaon, says LP. I had great company - my guide Mafuz and a sweet Swiss girl I kept calling Helen, until she corrected me at our last itinerary. “It’s Karin,” she bashfully smiled. She is a doctor too. Ain’t that nice?

This is the Eye in the Sky who feels the need to do a little introductory piece.

Next up: the actual visit in Sonargaon.

Rajbari Palace turned into a museum.

Dessert? No, they're supposedly a daily staple eaten like rice - and despite its delectable look, it doesn't have a taste. (They say it does.)

Tombs, Sonargaon has a lot of.

"It's Karin," says she. My friend from Bern has traveled far and wide and even scaled mountains.

Intricate designs found at the Goaldi Mosque which has a pre-Mughal design (built 1519).


Ola said...

I do not really know the history of Bangladesh so thank you for introducing me this subject.

The leaves with rice look really strange:)

eye in the sky said...


Same observation about those rice-based food on leaves, although they look delicious when you're just looking at them.

Sonargaon is an interesting place because it's absolutely untouched by the modern era.

Misterio Vida said...

marvelous... untouched side of bangladesh culture..thanks for sharing :)

eye in the sky said...

@ Muhammad Israr:

I like the idea that a good deal of the past is still part of the present.

Misterio Vida said...

our past defines our present..and our present will define our future.... :)

eye in the sky said...

@ Muhammad Israr: I like that. That statement is a valid reply to a question like "What is history for? Why do we need restorations? Why do we have to study history?" Each question is answerable by that.

hema sharma said...

very beautifully written

eye in the sky said...

@ hema sharma:

Thank you for your kind words. :->