Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Old Sonargaon

A couple of Fridays ago I made a trip with a few other VSO volunteers to Old Sonargoan, about an hour or so outside of Dhaka. This was the first capital of Bengal following the Muslim invasion in the 13th century, and site of some of the oldest buildings in the country.

The journey out was typically irritating, with buses and trucks attempting to use our van as a pinball to bash about the road. New highlights in Dhaka’s road management system were revealed, such as the policy of digging a big hole in a major routeway, and then walking away. Occasionally, our traffic jam was interrupted by open road, and suddenly we left the city and were into the countryside.

We arrived at a parkland area in which there is an old museum and a moghul palace. The museum has little to recommend it – the best stuff has long since found its way to London and Edinburgh. This was clearly collected from the ground after even the most hard-pressed antiques dealer had discarded it as junk. The grounds however, were really lovely, with lots of greenery and shaded walks, and a brown pond doubling as an open toilet. We spent a good few hours walking about the waterways and bandstands, and saw a few games of cricket being played, as well as arguing as to whether candy floss is called candy cotton or fairy floss. I won this, pointed out to the assembled Canadians, Americans and Australians that we invented this language.

We saw a few craft stalls and some people weaving silver and gold thread into long sari cloth, which was really fascinating. The looms were sunk into the ground with a foot well for operating it, and colourful threads handing from the top. This was formally a Hindu area and there were remnants of temples and colour to break up Muslim austerity.

In our strolling we managed to acquire two small girls who chased us for baksheesh the whole way round. Their efforts were rewarded with 10 Taka and endless photographs – climbing trees, climbing bridges, climbing more trees and hitting rival street kids moving in on their patch. They even sneaked into the old moghul palace (a grand building seriously suffering the effects of neglect) to harass us further. At the end, we each had a coconut from a stall. They pack them up high here when still green, and the end is hacked off. A straw lets you drink the milk from inside this huge cup, before they slice it in two and make a scope so that you can eat the flesh. The husks are then used to stuff pillows. We were able to give some to our little companions, who were decidedly disappointed that this was not more Taka.

The next stop took us to the country’s oldest Mosque, built in 1509. Rather than the all powerful symbol of new rulers, this was a tiny box like building not much more than 20 by 20 metres, hiding away in low forest. Compare this to the grand churches and castles of Europe and it gives an idea of how much wealth Europe has had for so long, and how long Bengal has gone without. Again, this had seen much better days. We also visited what is now a small village but was once a compound of grand Hindu buildings. Today, these red brick and stone palaces are falling apart, crumbling at the base as more and more homeless families cram into less and less space. There is not enough money here to provide sanitation, so preserving buildings is way off the priority list: and hence these grand structures wear their decline as a sad badge of past glories. Out side the village, a large temple was more like the set of an Indiana Jones film – blackened stone fights with the jungle to stay prominent, yet even in this isolated spot, small children arrive to ask for money, and a family attempts to make a living in the bowels of the building’s dark spaces.

This little part of Bangladesh is a fitting metaphor for the poverty of the nation, where so much cultural wealth is being lost as the daily struggle to survive takes place over its ancient stones.

1 comment:

Maria said...

Bangladesh full of violence and got some terrorist attack.