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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Bagerhat, Bangladesh

Written by Richard Taylor
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“No crocodiles today,” said Nazmul.  “It’s too cold.”

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We’d made our first stop of the tour.  Well, the second – we’d pulled up earlier by a pastiche of tents and kiosks so Nazmul could get a cup of tea.  But ultimately, we’d reached the Dargha Mosque and Khan Jahan Mausoleum, a place of pilgrimage, honoring the saintly Turkish general who’d been responsible for the birthing of this “lost” city.  Nazmul parked the car and took me inside (that I was allowed into the mausoleum was unusual in itself) where an old gentleman received us kindly and pointed out the general’s crypt.  There were no other visitors, which also seemed odd, until we were outside again, where a large throng had already descended the steps to the “crocodile pond.”  This was the Thakur Dighi in fact, a man made water tank common to the district but the lush vegetation had encroached over the centuries and the place looked as natural as sunlight.  Several men had stripped down to their briefs and were already bathing in waters reputed to have a healing effect on disease and ill fortune.  I’d been informed that the boldest would touch the big reptiles on the nose and was disappointed that I wouldn’t see this bit of bravado.  But it was January in Bangladesh and rather bracing for a dip in the pond.  Except for the bathers, many of the attendant families, certainly the children, were bundled in toques and scarves and they regarded me curiously in my short sleeves.

      “Please sir, one photo?”

      They came towards me, singly or in groups, putting their arms around me, grinning broadly at their cell phones, eager to pose with the strange heavy northern tribesman who lived among the glaciers.

      This went on for about twenty minutes.  Nazmul was getting impatient.

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I’d come to Bagerhat prematurely.  The Calcutta-Dhaka bus got no further than the border – a nationwide bus strike pre-empted travel to the capital and direct trains to Dhaka were unavailable so I took the train south toward the Sundarban district, which I had wanted to see anyway.  Any preconceptions of Indian rail travel apply also to Bangladeshi – packed to the grates, passengers on the roof, et al, but the locals shoved out a space on one of the benches and helped me climb out the window when we reached our destination (the regular exit was hopelessly blocked – it was every Bangle for himself).  I eventually reached Khulna, the capital of the district and starting block for tours to the mangrove forests and the restored lost city of mosques – Bagerhat.  My hotel had arranged for a driver (that was Nazmul) and we set out the next morning.  Given the cycle of monsoon and flood, I’d expected the lush flatness of the surroundings – rice fields and fish farms dominate the region and they belie the nation’s unofficial title as The Most Crowded Nation on Earth.  Traffic was sparse on the two-lane highway, often beautifully lined with trees.  But for the odd farmer, ox-cart or child traversing the narrow stick bridges that spanned the irrigation canals, the landscape was pastoral and peaceful and similarly empty.

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Fifteen miles south of Khulna, Bagerhat began as Khalifatabad, founded in the fifteenth century by the Turkish commander, Ulugh Khan Jahan.  Considered a pir, a saintly person, he lived simply, eschewed titles and had no coins minted with his image.  Bagerhat itself had been considered lost for centuries until the first ruins were discovered and the lush overgrowth was gradually removed to reveal the rest.  Along with the series of mosques were an equally important chain of water tanks or ponds, the two major survivors being the Ghoradighi and Dargadighi and the pond we were currently visiting.


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“Okay sir?  We can go now?” Nazmul asked me finally, once my novelty value had faded.  We took the car along a narrow dirt path, through a small village and stopped on the west side of the pond.  Nestled in a clearing, surrounded by bamboo fence was the Nine Dome Mosque.  Unlike the Dargha mosque and mausoleum, which seemed to be maintained with a regular coat of reddish-brown and cream paint, the current mosque was more in line with the district’s other structures – unpainted brown brick, which looked untouched by time.  There were no visitors here, no pilgrims, just a gaggle of geese feeding among the sparse grass and women passing with their washing.  The mosque sits unobtrusively, part of the village, simple and beautiful.

Nazmul then took me to Bagerhat’s showpiece, the Shat Gombuj Masjid, with its sixty pillars and seventy-seven domes (an option chosen perhaps because the expertise was unavailable to build a large single dome).  It may have been deliberate though.  This lack of looming dome has the effect (in keeping with the general’s modesty perhaps), in producing a massive structure that does not impose.  Like the Nine Dome Mosque, the Shat Gombuj is of a piece with the landscape, humble brick and earth tones.  A beautiful pond spreads behind it, festooned with pink lilies – another massive water tank I gathered, grown wild with the landscape.  Two women were chatting along its southern bank and as I lifted my camera to record the scene, they discreetly turned their heads away.

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Opposite the main entrance of the mosque is a museum, filled with ornaments and tools and photographs detailing the history of the city and its excavation.

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Nazmul had excused himself to grab a bite to eat and chat with the vendors and I walked to the other side of the road, where an old gentleman was standing on the causeway between fish ponds, slowly unfurling his net.  He smiled and greeted me with extremely red teeth (as in parts of India, a lot of the locals chew paan a mix of betel leaf and areca nut, resulting in little red spit blotches decorating walls and streets).  From the huts at the end of the causeway, others emerged to say hello.  The old man introduced them in turn; his son, his granddaughter, his grandson and they shook my hand and pumped me for information.

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“Okay sir?  Are you ready,” said Nazmul, pulling up with the car.  I said my goodbyes to the little family and we headed back to town, leaving behind this beautifully unassuming ‘heritage site’ of ponds and villages and mosques.  All man made.  All perfectly natural.

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©Richard Taylor

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 June 2015