The Distinct Cities of Bengal

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By Fatiha Polin and Dhrubo Alam

The Roots of Urban Branching
The history and the political boundary of Bengal are greatly determined by its geographical position, like many other countries of the world. Comprising an area of 144,000 square kilometers, it is on the northeastern side of the Indian subcontinent, bounded north, east and west by India and on the south by Myanmar (Burma) and the Bay of Bengal. Being the largest deltaic region created by the silt disposition of mighty rivers as Ganga-Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna bestowed highly fertile soil and life-sustaining resources. Because of this natural fertility, kind climate, and fabled riches, Bengal has always attracted new settlers, traders, and conquerors, mostly from the west.

Traces of urban centers or large cities in Bengal have been found dating back more than 2,000 years. Though the economy was predominantly agricultural; the trades (especially cotton and ‘Muslin’, a very fine piece of clothing), both internal and international also flourished. Cities mainly started to take shape as a growth, production and trade center and port. But there have also been administrative (the city of Pundranagar), military (Dhaka, was considered as a Mughal outpost though it was also a trade center) cities or even cities for education and knowledge gathering center (Paharpur was a Buddhist monastery-based city). This article provides a brief overview of few of the famous human settlements in Bengal from the ancient period to present day.

Mahasthangar (Pundranagar)
The earliest site of Mahasthangar meaning a ‘Great place’ is actually the ancient city of ‘Pundranagar’ as illustrated in the literature of Maurya, Gupta, Pala and Sena dynasty. Sir Alexander Cunningham discovered the city in 1879 from the descriptions of the Chinese traveler Xuanzang (602-664). Finally in 1930, after finding scriptures on a plate, Mahasthangar has been proven as the famous city. It is presently located in the Bogra zila (district) and foundations of ancient structures and relics are still found all over the district.

The rectangularly shaped city on the bank of Korotoa River was 1,523 meter in the north-south direction and 1,372 meters in east-west. It was surrounded by moats, ‘beel’ (large waterbody) and the River Korotoa. It was the capital of the state of Pundrabardhan of ancient Bengal and worked as the political, administrative and commercial center. It had a prominent center or citadel for the higher class in the middle and nucleated settlements for the general people in the fringes.

Xuanzang visited the city in between 639 CE – 645 CE and stated that he saw 20 Buddhist ‘Vihar’s and 100 Hindu temples. The foundations of some of those places have been found after excavations. Relics from Gupta (240 CE-590 CE), Pala (800 CE-1200 CE) and Sena dynasty (1070 CE-1230 CE) have been found there. But there is evidence of far older structures than those periods.


The first structure from the north is the ‘Govinda Bhita’, situated very close to the river. Then there are ‘Bairagi Bhita’, ‘Parasurama’s Palace’ and ‘Jiyat Kunda’ (well of life) within a rectangular enclosure. In the middle portion, there is the ‘Mankalir Kunda’ mound and ‘Khodar Pathar’ mound, which can be accessed from ‘Dorab’ gate or the gate near Jiyat Kunda on the eastern side. There are also few dwellings on the south enclosure and can be accessed by ‘Burir Darwaza’.

Another significant structure, the Gokul Medh, situated about a mile south-east from the citadel revealed a large podium of a Shiva temple. The 43 feet high base is an elaborate cellular construction with 172 blind cells of varying dimensions.

Excavations in the 1960s, digging about 30-31 feet below the ground, found maximum 17 cultural layers. Evidence of relics from Maurya Empire (322 BCE–187 BCE) and Shunga Empire (185 BCE–75 BCE) have been found. Actually, this is the only place in Bangladesh, where relics from the Shunga dynasty have been found. The number of cultural layers proves there have been human activities even in the Sultani period here. Also, in some of the locations, British mints from the nineteenth century have been found. But most of the buildings and places have been deserted by then, and in the end the lifeline of the city, River Korotia moved away and dried up.

The fort city of Bhitargarh is situated in the northernmost district of Bangladesh called Panchagarh meaning city of five forts: the Bhitar Garh, Bodeshwari Garh, Hossen Garh, Meer Garh and the ‘lost’ Meer Garh. Legend has it as the capital of King Debeshwar of the Kamrup region in ancient time and under the Jalpaiguri district in the British period. The city measured 6.4 km from north to south and 4.8 km from east to west.

The remainings of the Garh is basically a three-layered fortification system with an inner fort and two outer layers to protect that. Located on the north portion of the Bhitargarh, the inner fort is known as the King’s palace and measured about 575.75 meters by 378.75 meters. There is also a water reservoir of 590 meters by 363.63 meters with surprisingly clear water. The middle enclosure is about half a mile long with another water tank.


The outermost enclosure is about four miles long from north to south and only two miles wide. This was used as the settlement of the common people and thus named ‘Harirgar’. It is entirely surrounded by a moat with a fresh supply of water and an earthen rampart or two in some places. Most probably there were access doors on the wall and the doorways were uncovered. One of them was called ‘Jomduar’ and the other ‘Kalduar’.

A small river called Talma (the Chao river on the last British map) starting from the Jalpaiguri district entered through the north wall up to a place called Beerbandh and went across the south of second fortification layer. The river penetrated the last wall on the south and meets the river Korotoa on the east of Panchagarh district. There was another small river running north-south on the east of the Bhitargarh fort. Those rivers actually supplied water to the moat of the fort. There is still a water reservoir called “Trimohoni” which might be a part of that small river.

Though some of the parts of Bhitargar is encroached by villagers and some are covered by mango groves, a group from the University of Liberal Arts of Bangladesh (ULAB) are constantly working on site and found some valuable relics from the past.

Sonargaon or ‘Suvarnagram’, meaning ‘Golden Town’ is the medieval administrative and maritime center which served as the capital of early Muslim rulers between 1296 CE-1608 CE. The exact location of the city is a matter of dispute but there still remains some of the building edifice and ruins of that time (mostly Sultani period, 14th-15th century) around Narayanganj area, especially in Bandar. Measuring about 48 miles in length and 20 miles in breadth, the site is bounded by the river Meghna and Arial Khan on the east, River Banar and Lakshya on the west, River Lakshya on the south and Old Brahmaputra and Dhaleswar River on the north. This connectivity handed the city its privilege of being an important inland port.


The most notable of the mosques which still remains in Sonargaon is the Goaldi mosque, situated about half a mile north-east of the ‘Panam Nagar’. The graceful mosque was built by Sultan Hussain Shah in 1519 CE with three richly carved mihrabs and stone columns inside. This is one of the best examples set by the Department of Archaeology of Bangladesh in terms of restoration. Also, the single-domed square mosque built by Sultan Fateh Shah in 1484 CE was renovated without disturbing the original mihrab. There is the tomb of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah built in about 1410 CE in Mograpara is one of the earliest ruins of Sonargaon as well as the Muslim period. The tombstone of the mausoleum was constructed out of a single black basalt and decorated with a row of billets and beaded pattern.

Sonargaon came into the hands of Mughals in 1611 CE. But as Dhaka started to flourish as the capital of Bengal, this city started to lose its importance. It was shown only as a settlement in Renell’s map (1781). However, the river fortification system that was set up by the Mughals still exist and it is still present in the forms of the Sonakanda, Hajiganj and Idrakpur fort (the last one is located in Munshiganj district).


Though another city of Panam was established in the vicinity, mostly by the Hindu rich businessmen and grew in the 19th and 20th century as a trade center (especially for Muslin and cotton), it was also eventually abandoned.

Despite this, the lavishly built residential buildings in Panam Nagar can be said one of the finest examples of residential complexes of early colonial and late Mughal period. It was almost in ruins before the Government of Bangladesh declared it as a historical site, restored and established it as the National Folk Art and Crafts Museum in 1980. The system of construction, use of material and its association with the Hindu merchants, and Mughals make it a remarkable place to explore the evolution of architecture in Bengal spanning at least 500 years. The arched openings, louvered windows with stained glass, traditional ornamentation ‘Chinni Tikri’ on wall and columns, cast iron railing adorned the whole place as a magnificent edifice of that time. The recent restoration work with the collaboration of Youngegone’s corporation and the University of Asia Pacific (UAP) as the technical consultant of the Ministry of culture, Bangladesh in 2015 is an excellent endeavor to restore it’s lost glory.

Several groups of Muslim saints and Sufis started propagating Islam after Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji established himself as the conqueror of Bengal. In spite of his legendary conquest, most of the preachers intended to spread the message of Islam. However, the Khan Jahan Ali of ‘Khalifatabad’ (present-day Bagerhat) possessed both of the qualities and be the unclaimed ruler by his noble virtue and competency of a successful administrator. Although very little has been known about his origin and there happened to be many ambiguous myths; there is no doubt about his divine qualities. He was a prominent practitioner of Sufism and was instrumental in converting the locals.

It is still unclear, what has brought him here; was it to establish human settlements in the remote, inhospitable region of Bengal far away from Delhi Sultanate or was he simply decided to live in peace here. He moved on to building a road and also built many mosques and excavated enormous ‘Dighis’ (large pond) along his way to his final destination, Bagerhat.

According to Satish Chandra Mitra, Khan Jahan took a long voyage to Bagerhat across Nadia along the river Bhairab, by crossing the mighty Ganges River and appeared at Barobazar in Jessore. Thus Barobazar became the first township, among the four townships (e.g. Barobazar, Murali Qashba, Poyogram Qasba and Bagerhat) established by him in Bengal.

Laid out on an earlier Hindu-Buddhist township known as Champanagar, the settlement in Barobazar was named after the twelve (Baro) saints living prior to Khan Jahan. It is said, when he appeared there, the saints welcomed him wholeheartedly. The small township of Barobazar encompasses an area of about 6.44 km and still bears the significance like Gorar Mosque, Golakata Mosque, Jor-Bangla mosque and Pir pukur mosque.

The distinct architectural style and method of construction have given unique characteristics to the settlements plotted by him. Though much confusion prevails about his early life, the significance of this great warrior to the development of southern Bangladesh is unparalleled. He has been compared with emperor Shahjahan and termed as influential as him in that region by famous historian A K M Zakaria. The famous Shatgombuj mosque (60-domed mosque, which has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list), the tomb of Khan Jahan and Muhammad Taher’s stone tomb are just a few of his notable structures.

Dhaka, the capital of present-day Bangladesh, officially started its journey as the center of the Mughal ‘Subah’ (state) of Bengal about 400 years ago. But even before the Mughal invasion, the city has been famous for manufacturing muslin, cotton, and other goods. The name Dhaka was first observed in the west on the Portuguese map of Joao De Barros (1550).

Generally, the Hindu and Muslim rulers (in the Sultani period) established their capital scattered over the region according to their strategic locations and sometimes their convenience. Reminiscents of that can be traced in some parts of Bikrampur, Bhawal, and Sonargaon. But it is still a matter of research to find out the exact time and reason for the establishment of Dhaka, as a city. Unfortunately, very few structures of pre-Mughal era namely Binat Bibi’s Mosque in Wari or Laxmi Narayan Temple in Laxmibazar are still standing in the city.

So far we know, In 1610, when Islam Khan was sent to establish the Mughal hegemony in the eastern part of Bengal and take control from the Pathans (Afghans); which he eventually did. It became the provincial capital of Bengal and also the base to defend the Portuguese and Magh raids. They constructed a significant number of forts along the river and secured the most convenient way of transportation. Thus they advanced further up to Cooch Behar to the north and Assam to the east, and to Chittagong and Arakan to the south. As an administrative and military headquarters

Dhaka expanded rapidly under the Mughal rule, along the Buriganga river, on the natural levee. Evidence of two Pathan forts before the Mughals can be found from the historical sources. One was situated at the mouth of Dholai Canal, which was called Fort of Beg Murad. The main center of the city was the central jail area (which has been recently shifted). When the Mughals captured the city from them, they were still using the fort and set up Chawkbazar (then called Padshahi Bazar) as the city center. But eventually, they built other structures like Bara Katra, Choto Katra, Lalbagh fort etc. The whole town around the old fort (the central jail area) and neighborhoods like Bakshibazar, Amligola, Mughaltuli, Pathantuli, Khaje Dewan (residential areas for the civil servants of the administration), Urdu Bazar (place for the barracks), Chawkbazar (marketplace for common people) etc. still bears their connection to that period.

The city saw its fortune faltered, whenever the administrative capital was relocated somewhere else. Finally, the rise of Kolkata as the capital of British India led to the insignificance of Dhaka in East Bengal. There was a sudden short period of rejuvenation after the Bengal partition in 1905, which culminated in the construction of many colonial buildings like Curzon Hall, Old High Court, Dhaka Medical College etc. But also other than them, there are many colonial structures, starting from the 18th century like various churches built by different communities, residential buildings etc. scattered around all over the city.

Dhaka has seen many ups and downs during the course of its history. It has been the capital of the state or province intermittently for a long time and finally emerged as the capital of Bangladesh in 1971. Though rapid urbanization and unplanned expansion have put Dhaka in a precarious and challenging position, it cannot be denied that the city has achieved amazing development since the independence of Bangladesh.

From Borders to the Bay: a Metropoli-desh
Cities are and always will be the continuous process of evolution of mankind. Influenced by the political, social, economic and cultural forces cities rise and fall, but never stay in a state of stagnancy. The quite common notion of ancient Bengal as ‘gram-Bangla’ or Rural Bengal may not be essentially true. According to renowned historian and archaeologist A K M Zakaria, Bengal was never only rural, there have always been large settlements, trade and administrative centers, some even more than 2,000 years old. Notwithstanding the weathering due to climate and riverine landscape, the number of heritage sites and relics are quite astonishing. The discovery of sites like ‘Wari-Bateshwar’ and ruins in Khulna-Jessore-Sundarban region in recent past, proves there still remains many doors of the history of Bengal waiting to be opened and explored; in search of ancient urbanization.

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