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The city of mosques

  • Published at 12:01 am September 24th, 2016
  • Last updated at 02:15 pm September 24th, 2016
The city of mosques

Lying on the fringes of the famous Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove swamp forest, but also close to the shores of the delta of three of Asia’s most famous rivers, Brahmaputra, Meghna, and, above all, the Ganges, it is difficult to know how to balance the advantages and disadvantages that led to the growth of what is now known as “one of the 15 lost cities of the world,” according to Forbes Magazine.

Archaeological and some documentary and circumstantial evidence suggest that the city that we know today for its rich Islamic heritage, created in the 15th century, had far more ancient foundations.

It would be rather strange if it had not. The mangrove swamp was well-known to ancient travellers and merchants from across the world since very early times, located, as it is, on the edge of the entry to the great international trading centre for which we have evidence from, at latest, the middle of the last millennium BCE.

And we have many reasons to suppose that such habitable lands on the fringes, in proximity to the Bay of Bengal, would probably have been occupied long before our recorded history.

Indeed, the evidence of an early Buddhist settlement in the locale is compelling, though we may well doubt if it survived by the time of the early 15th century arrival, thereabouts of the warrior Turk, Khan Jahan Ali.

Clearly a well organised, charismatic soldier and devout Muslim, it is unclear what motivated his arrival in these lands that are now Bangladesh. However, as a soldier of the declining, brutal, Tuqhlaq regime in Delhi, it might be unsurprising that he should have sought pastures new; especially pastures that were both wealthy, and troubled.

Not that he would have found much to comfort him in the times of the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty, then the short lived Raja Ganesha family, and the restoration of the Ilyas Shahi that ruled in Bengal independently throughout his lifetime.

It is believed, however, that he left the service of the Delhi regime, following the sacking of that city by the infamous Mongol, Tamerlane, in the last years of the 14th century.

After serving the succession of Nawabs of Bengal, he received the grant of these remote lands beside the waters of the Ganges delta, on the fringe of the mangrove swamp, and removed himself with an apparently large number of probably, similarly displaced, and evidently loyal followers, to build the new city that we now know as Bagerhat.

And, as a forerunner of many other such cities around the rapidly changing world, it became, it seems, in very few decades of work, a very modern urban centre.

For a few centuries subsequently, it may have been abandoned, but once the clearing of vegetation that had engulfed it was cleared, it emerged as one of the most startling, small Islamic cities in the world.

One might almost say, a “time capsule” of such traditional, medieval Islamic civilisation.

It was the brick road -- shown to me by graduates of Jahangirnagar University, who I was glad to have working with me at the time -- that first struck me as the very epitome of modern urban development.

Clearly brick-making skills, probably made by slave labour, though supervised and trained by Khan Jahan’s entourage, were one of the earliest innovations, which, combined with very evident architectural skills, bear testimony to a group also rich in engineering and non-military skills.

No new community is built, today, without first laying out the road system. And, in a sense, it shares with such notable sites as Fatepur Sikri, a former, short-lived capital city of the Mughal Dynasty in today’s India, amongst others around the world, a short, but substantial life.

A life that has in the past half century been slowly uncovered by human endeavour from the forces of nature.

The durability of both many places of worship, and well-built “barrack blocks,” suggest that although it seems that most accommodation was probably built of wood, this was a settlement built to endure.

It is, however, clearly the array of mosques which are the most lasting mark of this “lost” city.

Why, we might well ask, were so many needed? Especially if we accept a premise that other faith groups probably lived within the settlement?

Some sense of the original community can still be found in the area of the tomb of Khan Jahan, on the banks of the large tank known as Thakur Dighi, which, in the traces of animist cultural traditions commonly seen at such sites across Bangladesh, retains crocodiles in the waters, carefully conserved.

It is not only the simplicity of the fine buildings of the tomb, with the close proximity of that of his best friend, Ali Taheerer, which appeal; it is also the row of shops and teashops that line the approach road.

In one of those shops, things such as Chakra stones, and East India Company coinage are on sale amongst more usual tourist trinkets, revealing a cultural diversity, perhaps, of which Khan Jahan, like most of his contemporaries, it seems, would probably have approved ... unlike some of the more vociferous in today’s calling?

It is, of course, however, the “Sixty Dome” mosque, which draws most eyes; misnamed, of course, since the 60 pillars produce some 77 domes!

Curiously, whilst the external prospect is not especially lovely, the magnificence and similarity of the pillared interior to that of many Gothic contemporary edifices in Europe is particularly striking. But the totality, built from brick in the slightly earlier Tughlaq tradition of that somewhat brutal regime elsewhere in India, may not be the loveliest of mosques, it is the most famous, becoming listed a UNESCO world heritage site.

Single dome mosques characterise most of those built in the original development of the “new city,” and, as originating in a pre-Mughal period can easily be compared, if not exactly in beauty, certainly in dignity, with those of the Mughal era with which Bangladesh abounds.

Both the nine dome mosque, that stands on the western side of Thakur Dighi, and the splendid 10 dome mosque in nearby Krishnanagar, are masterful reflections of  simplicity of design, and excellence of build of the sparsely decorated modesty of all these original masterpieces.

The district today is said to contain over 300 mosques, which, apparently somewhat superfluous to the relatively sparsely inhabited area, may also raise questions about the number of original mosques for what would seem to have been a not especially numerous, original Muslim population.

Not that evidence of other buildings of great age is not plentiful, although today, most are represented more by mounds that are actual remnants.

The site of Khan Jahan’s residence and private mosque has been identified, and some barracks and barrack mosques have been largely uncovered.

It is arguable that more extensive excavation and clearance will eventually reveal a great deal more about the ancient history of the area within and around today’s town.

And it will almost certainly prove to have been, like the rest of Bangladesh, a rich, as well as ancient history.

It is just, perhaps, that so remote from  Dhaka, today’s demands on the area continue to be more aqua and agricultural than commercial or industrial... at least for now! And this fairly recently rediscovered, fascinating, urban development probably represents more of a potential tourist attraction than simply economic.

What preceded the urban development may, yet, throw more light on the heritage of this corner of the country.

The tantalising evidence of both Hindu and Buddhist earlier times, and its obvious proximity to those ancient routes of sea trade could prove, as in so many sites in Bangladesh, slowly emerging from the rich alluvial deposits of millennia of seasonal flood waters, to suggest a prospect of even further enrichment of the historic heritage of, not just the beauty of Bangladesh, but also the fascination of that heritage.

From the soils of Bangladesh are slowly emerging a number of, hitherto lost, great, and potentially very significant cities: Wari Bateshwar, Bhitagarh, and Egarosindur amongst the least obvious.

None can offer, yet, quite the level of tangible evidence of a rich past as Bagerhat; but then the Bagerhat we see today has a visible history of only about six centuries, whilst the others have had a thousand years and more in which to become hidden, and are certainly never likely to enjoy quite the visible and tangible appeal of this fine, ancient, and modern City of Mosques.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.