The Dacca of Today


Today Dacca stands at the parting of the ways. Behind it lies the past, with its three centuries of memories that crowd close around its crumbling mosques and palaces. Before it, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there has suddenly dawned a new future, fraught with great possibilities to the capital of a newly created province under British rule. Raised suddenly to eminence by Islam Khan, it held for almost a century its proud position as capital of all Bengal. Then, suffering eclipse as suddenly as it had risen to fame, for two centuries it lay apart from the stress and hurry of great events, its splendid traditions neglected and forgotten. In later years, under British rule, it has occupied but a humble place as the headquarters of one of the many districts of Eastern Bengal. Now, after its long sleep, there has come a re-awakening, and once more the name of Dacca figures among the capitals of the East. The city which has suffered so many vicissitudes bears unmistakable traces today of the transition through which it is passing. It is like an old garment with a patch of new cloth flung carelessly here and there upon its dim and fraying texture. The city of many mosques and ruined palaces, of moss-grown walls and crumbling turrets, of tortuous alleys and narrow winding byways, of secluded sunless courts and crowded tenements, still survives, wrapped in its impenetrable cloak of mystery, its countless secrets buried deep in its inmost heart and jealously safeguarded against prying eyes through all the years to come. But in the midst of it, startling in its newness, brick-red against the time-worn grey, a modern city has begun to rise. As yet it is but in its inception, and its first beginnings give but a faint forecast of what it will one day be. Yet already, in a marvellously short space of time, a temporary Government House has sprung into existence, the centre and symbol of the new life that has dawned for the old-time city. The permanent Government House is to rise later, a stately building befitting the new capital, overlooking the racecourse close by the ancient mosque and tomb of Haji Khaja Shahbaz, the merchant prince of Dacca in the days of Shaista Khan. Other buildings, designed to house the army of officials which follows in the wake of governments, are rapidly giving a modern aspect to the timeworn city, the twentieth-century ‘purple palaces of the Public Works ‘contrasting strangely with the graceful domes and minarets of the mosques and palaces of a bygone age.

Yet even today there are times when the city assumes an aspect that is wholly reminiscent of the past. Most of the great festivals, though still celebrated, have lost much of their one-time splendour and magnificence, but there is one that still retains all the vigour of its earlier days. It is the special festival of the Dacca weavers, known as the Jamastami, and held in honour of Krishna’s birth on the twenty-third day of the lunar month of Sraban (August). Then, for a time, the quiet, sleepy city is transformed. Vast crowds, in all their Oriental picturesqueness, gather from far and near, thronging the main streets from end to end. It is like a scene from the middle ages as the time for the great procession draws near. This might, indeed, be the very city of Shaista Khan. All that is modern seems to have disappeared, hidden by the gaily dressed crowd that fills the roadway and swarms at every vantage-point. From window, balcony, and housetop, group beyond group looks down, alive with colour and expectancy. A company of elephants, ponderous and magnificent, stands drawn in line, waiting to take its place in the long procession as it passes. The blazing sun[1] beats down, and scarce a breath of wind stirs in the air. Yet, hour after hour, the intense interest holds, undaunted by the heat of the day. And then at last it comes. Slowly, amidst a scene of indescribable excitement the great procession heaves in sight. Merged in the crowd, a veritable sea of heads, it sways from side to side, ever moving like some restless tide that rolls onward almost imperceptibly yet steadily draws near. Huge effigies, representations of gods and goddesses, or grotesque figures of beasts and men in all the glory of tinsel and paint, are borne aloft, the wonder and admiration of the crowd. Some of the erections, lightly constructed of bamboo, stand fifty feet high, depicting whole stories in the glittering scenes and figures that adorn them. The subjects chosen for representation exhibit the widest catholicity of taste. The Fall of Port Arthur, a strangely modern and foreign incident to figure in this old-world festival, is shown in tier on tier of one of the most magnificent structures, the designer’s idea of war and of Eussian and Japanese being quaint in the extreme. Behind, more in keeping with the celebration of the great god’s birth, follows a huge car with an immense representation of Krishna, ablaze with colour and the flash of jewels. And so, with its wonderful Eastern fascination, the great procession winds slowly on, and for a few brief hours the quiet, slow-moving Dacca of today is stirred by a passing memory of the life and pageantry of the viceregal capital of the olden times.

But deep down in the heart of the city, close by the river-bank, something of the old aspect it must once have worn in days gone by still remains. Time and climate, and the vandal hand of man, have done their worst, crumbling even the massive walls that the Muslim architects loved to build, and putting to base uses once proud and noble buildings. Yet much of their dignity and beauty survives even in decay. It is pre-eminently a Muslim city, a city of mosques built by the Faithful, strong in the belief that for him c who builds a mosque on earth God will build seventy palaces in Paradise.’ Of pre-Muslim days, before Islam Khan sailed down the river in search of his new capital, there is little to be told. Whether it was already a city with a history of its own, or whether its existence began with the coming of Islam Khan, is still open to dispute, so vague are the traditions that linger round the beginnings of things in Dacca. The Dhakeswari Temple, from which, one tradition has it, the city takes its name, is the most celebrated Hindu building in the district, but its origin is shrouded in mystery that none may penetrate. First built, it is said, by Ballal Sen, on the site where he found the image of the goddess hidden in the jungle, it was restored by Man Singh during his brief stay in the city, the famous Rajput general rejoicing to find this symbol of his creed among the many mosques of another faith. But all signs of these older buildings, if such existed, have disappeared. The present temple is only some two hundred years old, and is said to have been built by a Hindu agent in the employ of the East India Company. Beyond its vague traditions, and the veneration in which it is held by the Hindus for many miles around, there is little of interest in the Temple of Dhakeswari of today.

There are few other buildings whose memories carry them back into the remote past beyond the days of Islam Khan. Binat Bibi’s mosque is probably the oldest building now standing in the city. It was built in 1456 AD in the days when Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah was King of Bengal, with his capital away at Gaur, over a hundred and fifty years before Islam Khan set out to found his new capital in the East. Small and solidly built, with no architectural pretensions, its only interest lies in its antiquity, and in the fact that its existence proves that there were Muslims settled where Dacca now stands long before the days of Islam Khan. Who Binat Bibi was, or what memory of her the mosque perpetuates, has long since been forgotten.

In the centre of the town, near by the place where the old fort once stood, survive the remains of another mosque, built, according to the inscription, only two years later than Binat Bibi’s. Struck by lightning and shaken by the earthquake of 1897, it has at last, after more than four centuries, succumbed to the ravages of time, and only the walls remain. It was built while Nasiruddin was still King of Bengal, and the inscription, which has survived intact, states that it was finished on 28 Shaban 1458 AD The walls, some four feet thick, stand firm as if invulnerable against the onslaught of storm and time.

But it was not until the hundred years of Dacca’s viceroyalty that there grew up the numberless mosques and palaces that still dominate the city today. Of Islam Khan, the founder of the city, but few memories survive in brick and stone. In Islampore, a quarter of the city which still preserves his name, stands the most important building which tradition ascribes to Dacca’s first Viceroy. It is a plain, unpretentious mosque, designed for utility and permanence rather than for architectural effect, and to such good purpose that for three hundred years it has survived the vicissitudes of the city, and today the voice of prayer is still heard within its walls as in the days of Islam Khan.

Of the old fort, built by Ibrahim Khan, the third Mughal Viceroy at Dacca, nothing now remains. Containing the Palace, the Courts of Justice, and the Mint, it stood on the site at present occupied by the lunatic asylum and the central jail. It was in the palace in the fort that the Naib Nazim was living when Lieutenant Swinton, the English Agent, came in 1765 to take over the Dewani on behalf of the East India Company. Another residence was found for him and his successors, and the buildings in the fort were used for many years as the headquarters of the newly established British rule in Dacca.

Next to the viceroyalty of Shaista Khan, it is that of Shah Shuja, the pleasure-loving son of Shahjahan, who was doomed to so tragic an end, which has left its impress most deeply marked on Dacca. Some of the finest buildings in the city bear witness to his taste in architecture and his love of magnificence and display. The son of the builder of the Taj at Agra, it was small wonder that he set himself to beautify the capital in the East over which he had been called to rule. The Bara Katra, the beautiful building that faces the river half a mile down stream from the Lalbagh fort, probably was originally intended as a palace for Shah Shuja. It is effectively designed, stately and imposing as it towers up, turning its solid front to face the river. Its central gateway is x)f magnificent proportions, lofty, with domeshaped roof, flanked by smaller entrances and crowned by two octagonal towers. Within is a veritable network of rooms and corridors and terraces, grass-grown now and long since disused, open to all the winds of heaven, a home for bats and owls and every creeping thing. Built by Mir Abul Kasim, the Dewan, in 1644, so great was its beauty when it reached completion that the inscription declares that it puts High Heaven to shame, and is itself a foretaste of the Paradise to come. But Shah Shuja, for some reason unexplained, appears never to have used it as a residence. He established it as a caravanserai, a public halting-place where travelers and the poor might find rest and shelter. ‘Sultan Shah Shuja was famed for deeds of charity,’ ran the inscription which once stood over the city gate of the Katra. 1 Wherefore, being hopeful of the mercy of God, the sacred edifice was endowed with twenty-two shops attached to it, on the rightful and lawful condition that the officials in charge of the endowments should expend the income derived from them upon the repairs of the buildings and upon the poor, and that they should not take any rent[2] from any deserving person alighting therein. So that the pious act may reflect upon the monarch in this world, and that they should not act contrariwise, or else they would be called to account on the day of retribution.’ Shorn now of much of its glory, with its walls broken and decayed, robbed of its northern gateway, and with new buildings crowding it close, it bears upon its face the impress of ‘Ichabod ‘writ large. Yet, so long as the walls remain, nothing can destroy its charm, and it is to be hoped that the new Government will not fail to preserve what is left of one of the most beautiful buildings of the Dacca of a former time.

Another memorial of Sultan Shuja’s viceroyalty is the Hossaini Delan. The tradition runs that Mir Murad, Superintendent of the Nawara, dreamed a dream in which the Imam Husain appeared to him and desired him to build a house of mourning in memory of his martyrdom. The very next morning Mir Murad started to build the Hossaini Delan. Here, from that day to this, the great festival of the Mohurrum has been celebrated with all its traditional pomp and circumstance. Lit with a thousand lights on the tenth day of the festival, its courts filled with a throng of eager worshippers, it still retains something of the life and interest of other days. Within a mausoleum close beside it lie buried the last four Naib Nazims of Dacca, Nawab Nusrut Jung, who died in 1822; Shams-ud-Dowlah, 1831; Kumr-ud-Dowlah, 1834; and Ghaziuddin, with whom the line ended in 1843.

A curious tradition lingers round the Churihatta mosque, which is yet another survival of Sultan Shuja’s time. It is said that it was originally built as a Hindu temple, a tradition which its vaulted roof and general appearance tend to confirm. The story is told that a Hindu officer of the Mughal Government was ordered to build a mosque, but that, taking advantage of the absence of the viceroy and the chief officers of Government from Dacca during the interval when the city had ceased for a time to be the capital of all Bengal, he built a temple instead, and it was not until it was finished and the idols were placed within it that the fact came to the knowledge of the viceroy. Thereupon orders were issued to cast out the idols and consecrate the building as a mosque of the true faith. In seeming corroboration of this story there was found in the compound some years ago a stone image of the Hindu deity Basudev, which may have been one of those ignominiously cast out of the temple by order of Sultan Shuja. But if this story is true the case was an exceptional one, since the Muslim conquerors in Eastern Bengal interfered but little with the worship and religious beliefs of the Hindus, whose temples everywhere remained unmolested in close proximity to the mosques of the Faithful. Keligious persecution on any extended scale is one of the evils which Eastern Bengal has escaped through all the many vicissitudes of its long and chequered history.

More than a mile beyond the limits of the present city stands all that remains of the Idgah, the once beautiful building where, in the old days, the Faithful of the city came to offer up their prayers at the great Id festival. Only a single line of wall survives, exquisitely pierced and traced, though sadly broken and fast crumbling to decay. Once the great city of Dacca lay close all round, extending for miles on either hand. The Idgah was in the very centre of the busy life of court, and mart, and camp, and many a stirring sight it must have witnessed as the crowd of white-robed worshippers thronged from every quarter of the vast city to celebrate the welcome festival that closes the long fast of the Eamazan. Now the portion of the city that once lay close around the Idgah has utterly vanished, leaving it solitary and neglected, stranded alone in a wide waste, as if mourning for the days of its glories that have for ever passed.

Beyond the Idgah, further away from the city, lay another centre of interest, the memories of which have long since grown vague and dim. Out in the waste, half hidden in bramble growth, a well and a broken arch are the only visible signs of the Sikh monastery that once flourished here. The well is known as Guru Nanak’s Well, after Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. There is a local tradition that the great teacher once visited Dacca and drank from this well, to the waters of which miraculous properties have ever since been attributed. Another and more possible story is that it was Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru, who came to Dacca in the time of Aurungzeb and gathered about him a large following, which has never quite died out in the city. Close by the racecourse there is a Sikh temple where the Sikhs still meet and worship.

Much had been done, during this first period of Dacca’s prosperity as capital of Bengal, to beautify the city and make it worthy of the honoured position it had so suddenly acquired, but it was not until the long viceroyalty of Shaista Khan that Dacca became famed as the city of mosques and palaces. Himself a great builder, he gave to the architecture of the day in his own capital so distinctive a style that it soon came to be known as Sliaistakhani. It must have been almost immediately on his arrival in Dacca that he com menced[3] his first work, the Chhota Katra. Overlooking the Buriganga, only a hundred yards away upstream from the Bara Katra, it is a beautiful building, well proportioned, with massive walls that have stoutly withstood the ravages of time. But later years have treated it with scant respect and put it to base uses, making of it a storehouse for coal and lime. Within the courtyard a small circular mausoleum once covered the grave of Bibi Champa who gives her name to this quarter of the city, Champatoli. Of the lady herself nothing is known with certainty, but it is probable that she was one of the daughters of Shaista Khan. Over the door of the mausoleum, it is said, there was once a tablet bearing an inscription, but if such existed, it has long since disappeared, and nothing now remains to tell the story of Bibi Champa. As so often in Dacca, only the name survives. All else is dead.

Close to the Chhota Katra is the Chauk, the market square, its centre filled with a jumble of tiny booths, closely packed on market days with a bantering, gossiping crowd of humanity. Right in the centre, half hidden by the booths, stands a huge cannon, a curious survival in the midst of the busy mart. There is no authentic record of its history, but tradition says that it was one of two such that Islam Khan brought with him when he came to found here his capital. The other one is said to have been lost in the river, and even today the superstitious native attributes to this lost gun the curious sounds, as of the distant booming of a cannon, which are occasionally heard in the vicinity, and to account for which no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming. Known locally as the Barisal guns, the deep, vibrating sounds can be distinctly heard in Dacca, and it is small wonder, no other explanation being to hand, that the native superstition attributes them to the gun that lies deep down beneath the river. The gun that still remains in the market-place has become in consequence an object of great veneration, and those who come to buy and sell, place their votive offerings round it before the business of the day begins, with a muttered prayer that their enterprise may prove successful.

Overlooking the Chauk from the west is a handsome three-domed mosque, built in the Shaistakhani style of architecture. Eaised on a hollow platform some ten feet high, it towers up, a solid mass of masonry, overlooking the flat low-roofed booths of the bazaar. Here the Naib Nazims in the old days came in state to repeat the timehonoured prayers at the great festivals, and though much of the pomp and state have disappeared, the feet of the Faithful still throng the courts of the Chauk Mosque, and, illuminated at the time of the Id or the Bakrid, it still retains something of its old life and colour.

But the most beautiful of all the buildings erected by Shaista Khan is the mausoleum he caused to be raised over the tomb of his favourite daughter, Peri Bibi. She was the wife of Prince Mahomed Azim, third son of the Emperor Aurungzeb, and he it was who acted as Viceroy of Bengal during Shaista Khan’s two years’ absence from Dacca in 1078 and 1G79. During that time he commenced building a fort which was to be worthy of the capital of a great province, and which he named, after his august father, Fort Aurungabad. It has, however, always been generally known as the Lalbagh Fort, and it is perhaps around it that memories gather closest in Dacca. Planned on a generous scale, it was destined, like many another Muslim building in Eastern Bengal, never to reach completion. In the second year of his viceroyalty Prince Mahomed Azim was recalled to assist Aurungzeb in his lifelong struggle with the Mahrattas, and Shaista Khan returned, after this brief interval, to take up again the reins of government in his much-loved capital. But the Lalbagh Fort, though far advanced, was little likely to find favour in the eyes of Shaista Khan. It was no child of his, and but few Muslim governors were content to carry out the designs of their predecessors and complete the buildings that they had begun. And in this case there was another reason that brought the Lalbagh Fort into disfavour with Shaista Khan. It was while her husband had been busy in the building of it that his favourite daughter, Peri Bibi, the ‘Lady Fairy,’ as she was affectionately called, had died suddenly. To a superstitious Court that alone was sufficient to stamp the enterprise as unlucky, and Shaista Khan added but one thing to his predecessor’s work, leaving the rest unfinished. Within the walls of the Fort Peri Bibi lies buried, and over her grave rises the stately mausoleum that the great Viceroy raised to her memory. It is reputed the finest building in all Eastern Bengal. In the inner apartment, built of marble and chunar stone, with doors of sandalwood, lies the tomb itself, and over it a graceful dome exquisitely proportioned. Round the inner sanctuary runs a cloister divided into compartments, once embellished with fine mosaics, which time and many vandal coats of whitewash have done much to obliterate and destroy. But though long neglected and fallen upon evil days, it still remains an abiding monument of Peri Bibi and of Shaista Khan.

Of the Fort itself only the battlements facing the river, with terraces and turrets and two imposing gateways, still remain. Grass-grown and falling to decay, the old red walls, with the thin, flat Muslim bricks here and there destroyed and broken, have but grown the more picturesque with age, the high-arched gateway, rising tier on tier, looking out like a watchtower over river and land. The river that once flowed beneath its walls has now receded, as if it, too, deserted it in its decay.

Within the Fort, facing Peri Bibi’s tomb, stands the Hummam, a two-storied building with stone pillars and turreted roof, now repaired and modernised without, until it looks strangely out of place in its old-world setting. Within, on the lower floor, was the Hummam, the bath from which the building took its name, while the upper floor was used by Prince Mahomed Azim as his Hall of Audience. In later times, it too has fallen on less prosperous days, being recently used by the Bengal Police, whose brand-new quarters, hideously incongruous, now crown the ramparts a few hundred yards away. Further off, beyond the mausoleum of Peri Bibi, against the western wall of the Fort is Prince Mahomed Azim’s mosque, built and finished by him during his brief viceroyalty. Today it bears deep upon it the impress of desolation. The goats and cattle wander unmolested through its once sacred courts and precincts, and the voice of prayer is no longer heard within its gates.

The last stirring events enacted within the walls of the Lalbagh Fort were in the dark days of 1857. Since then the uneventful years have passed and left no record of their passing, save in an added touch of decay and desolation. It is still owned by the descendants of the proud Amirul-Umara Shaista Khan, to whom it was given as a favour by the Emperor Aurungzeb. In 1844 it was permanently leased from his heirs by the Government of Bengal at an annual rent of sixty rupees, which is still drawn by the direct descendant of the former Viceroy. Close beside the Bara Katra lives this twentieth-century representative of the once proud family and traditions of Shaista Khan. He is a pathetic figure in the midst of the decay and desolation, a reminder of a day long dead. As he moves through the silent, deserted rooms of the Bara Katra, or walks with humble tread over the historical ground of the Lalbagh Fort, the thoughts go back irresistibly to the great Viceroy, the Amir-ul-Umara Shaista Khan, Lord of the Nobles, and the contrast between his magnificence and the fallen fortunes of his latter-day descendants is a living sermon on the vanity of human greatness. Sadly fallen from the high estate his family once held, and bereft of its once great possessions, the pathetic figure of the heir of Shaista Khan moves like a shadow amidst the scenes and memories of the past.

Some two miles north of the present city there is yet another memorial of Shaista Khan, almost rivalling in elegance and beauty the famous mausoleum of Peri Bibi. The Satgumbaz mosque, so called from its seven domes, stood in the beginning right on the edge of the northern bank of the Buriganga, but the river, fickle in its course like all the rivers of the East, has now receded, leaving a mile or more of low-lying rice land between it and the walls of the mosque by which it once flowed. It is a picturesque building, standing alone on the bank and framed against the low marshland, its seven exquisitely proportioned domes outlined against the sky. In the centre are the three large domes, flanked at the four corners of the mosque by the four smaller ones, each crowning an octagonal tower. Towering above, a slender willowy palm looks down upon them all, adding the last touch of Eastern colour to the scene. The inscription that once stood over the entrance has disappeared, but otherwise the mosque is in a good state of repair, and, though lonely and deserted now that the city and the river have withdrawn, the voice of prayer still ascends from it to heaven as in the days of Shaista Khan.

Though the Amir-ul-Umara has left behind him so many evidences of his viceroyalty in brick and stone, little remains of the residences where he kept his Court and spent the long years of his stay in Dacca. It is probable that when visited by Tavernier in 1666, which was some twelve years before the Lalbagh Fort was commenced, Shaista Khan was living in the palace known as the Katra Pakartali, which once stood to the north-east of the mosque in Babu Bazaar, on the site of the Modern Medical School and Zenana Hospital. Of the palace itself, of no great pretensions even in its heyday one would gather from Tavernier, no trace survives today. But the Babu Bazaar Ghat, close by, still exists, with the foundations of the Naubut Khana still visible, and the mosque, a small, plain building, must be much as it was in the days of Shaista Khan, but little changed by time. The inscription upon it, unique in this respect among all the inscriptions in the city, is in Persian prose, composed apparently by the Viceroy himself. It is said to have been built during the first period of Shaista Khan’s governorship, but the inscription has been so much damaged by fire that the date is no longer visible. To the north of the mosque stood the mausoleum of another of the Viceroy’s daughters, Shahzadi Khanam, known as Lado Bibi; but this too has been swept away by the modern builder to make room for modern improvements, and the plain, utilitarian structure of the Zenana Hospital now occupies its site.

With the departure of Shaista Khan at the close of his long viceroyalty, the period of Dacca’s greatest prosperity came to an end. Since that date few buildings of interest have risen to beautify the city, which for so many years was left forgotten to sleep its long sleep. Khan Mirdha’s mosque was one of the last buildings of note erected while Dacca was yet the capital of all Bengal. During the viceroyalty of Murshid Kuli Khan it was built by the order of the chief Qazi of the city, the Defender of the Law, as he is described in the inscription. The mosque has fallen now on evil days, the lower floor being used as stalls for the municipal bullocks, and furnishing a barely sufficient income to pay for the muezzin and to light the mosque at sundown. In a better state of repair is the Lalbagh mosque, a large, solid building, just beyond the southern wall of the Fort, with space sufficient for some fifteen hundred worshippers, but with few of the architectural pretensions that mark all the buildings connected with the name of Shaista Khan. It was built on the eve of the final desertion of Dacca by the viceroys of Bengal in the days of Farrukh Siyar, who was destined so shortly afterwards to set out from his eastern capital to ascend the imperial throne at Delhi.

It was in the Nimtoli Kothi that the last scenes of Muslim Dacca were enacted. Turned out of their palace in the old fort in 1765 when the East India Company took over charge of the Dewani, Nawab Jusserat Khan moved, after a brief stay at the Bara Katra, into the Nimtoli Kothi, which was to be his home and that of his successors until 1843, when the last Naib Nazim died childless, and the Company gathered up into its own hands the last remnants of the sovereignty which it had in reality so long held. The Nimtoli Kothi, which for nearly three-quarters of a century had housed the fading glories of the Naib Nazims, was then put up to auction, and many of the buildings were pulled down. The Baradari, however, a large hall of fine proportions, still survives. It was here that the last of the Naib Nazims held their court, and in imagination one can conjure up again the scene, the great pretensions, the effort at display, the pomp and ceremonial, the pathetic adherence to custom and tradition, and hovering over all, unmistakable but indefinable, the spirit of a departed glory and a lost cause.

In the Dacca of today the Nawab Khaja Salimullah Bahadur plays a large part. In no way connected with the old Nawabs of Dacca, whose line expired in 1843, the present title was at first bestowed by the British Government in 1875 as a purely personal distinction upon Khaja Abdul Ghani Mia, grandfather of Nawab Salimullah. The rise of the family to wealth and influence reads almost like a romance of the days of Shaista Khan. Born in Kashmir, Khaja Abdul Hakim, the founder of the family, set out early in life, like many another of his countrymen, to seek fortune at the Imperial Court. There his promising career was cut short only by the final overthrow of the Mughals, and, doubtless attracted by the rumours of the wealth of the Eastern Province which had always been looked upon in olden days as the treasure-house of the Court of Delhi, he set out to pursue his fortunes on the outskirts of the Empire. Establishing himself as a trader in Sylhet, such success attended his efforts that he was soon able to send for his father and brothers from Kashmir, severing all connection with his old home and settling down with the determination to secure a position for himself in Eastern Bengal. In the next generation the family removed to Dacca, and gradually acquired large landed property in that district and in Barisal, Tipperah, and Mymensingh. It was left, however, for the Nawab Abdul Ghani to reach the highest dignities and honours. The wealthiest and most influential Zemindar in Eastern Bengal at the time of the Mutiny, he loyally placed all his resources at the disposal of the British Government, and himself did much to allay the unrest among the native population. Liberal and enlightened, he was foremost in the relief of distress and in all works of charity, many of his gifts being on a princely scale. To him Dacca owes its splendid water supply, upon which he spent some two and a half lacs of rupees. The foundationstone of the waterworks was laid in August 1874 by Lord Northbrook, the first Viceroy to visit Dacca since Azim Oshan, Aurungzeb’s grandson, had shaken the dust of the city off his feet over a hundred and sixty years before. Created Nawab in 1875, a distinction which was made hereditary in 1877, and K.C.S.L in 1886, Abdul Ghani died full of years and honours in 1896. His son, Khaja Ahsanulla, who had long been in charge of his father’s vast estates, succeeded, and for seven years worthily carried on the great traditions of loyalty and generosity which had been bequeathed to him. It is to him that Dacca owes the installation of the electric light which has done so much to improve the city. Created Nawab in 1875, Nawab Bahadur in 1892, and K.C.I.E. in 1897, he only survived his father seven years, and his son the present Nawab Khaja Salimullah Bahadur now reigns in his stead. The British Government has already shown its appreciation of the loyal assistance he has given to the making of the new Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam by conferring upon him the distinction of the C.S.I, at the commencement of the present year. The leader of the Muslim community in Eastern Bengal, he holds a position of unrivalled influence and dignity in the new Province of today.

Of the various European factories that were established in Dacca during the period when the city was the capital of Bengal all trace, save in one instance, has disappeared. The English factory, the first insignificant outpost in Eastern Bengal of the race destined in the end to found an empire of which Shaista Khan himself could never have dreamed, was started during the early years of the great Viceroy’s long reign, in 1668. It stood on the site now occupied by the Dacca College, and for a hundred years it formed the centre of English interests in Eastern Bengal. The French factory, founded within a few years of it, stood where a portion of the palace of the present Nawab now stands, close by the river. For over a hundred years it maintained its struggle for existence, in constant rivalry with the other factories, until it was taken by the English in 1757 during the war with France. The Mitford Hospital now covers the site of the Dutch factory, which survived until 1781, when it, too, was swept out of existence after its long struggle. All that remains today of the various factories is a portion of the house which the Portuguese once made their headquarters. It must have been in those days a fine, commodious building; but, like everything else in this city of the long sleep, it is sadly fallen and decayed, retaining but a memory of its better days.

The English cemetery, picturesquely situated a little apart from the noise and stir of the great city, is full of many memories. So utterly unlike the ordered graveyards of the West, there is something strikingly alien and pathetic about this ‘God’s-acre ‘of the East. The quaint Moorish gateway, the avenue of sad whispering casuarina trees, the luxuriant vegetation, the moss-grown pyramids and obelisks, seem to accentuate the sense of exile and decay. As one moves along the narrow paths among the graves, some surmounted by pretentious mausoleums, some beneath modest headstones, some with only a mound of earth to mark their site, one is irresistibly carried back in thought to those early days of the English pioneers when death lurked near, and few families escaped homewards leaving no toll behind them in the graveyards of the East. It was among the children, the young Englishmen fresh from home, and the young Englishwomen who had braved the dangers of the unknown to share a brother’s or a husband’s lot, that death was busiest. How many hopes and ambitions have been laid to rest beneath those silent stones ! Here lies the infant child of James Kennell and Jane Thackeray, a model of whose grave in silver, taken by the heart-broken mother to her English home, is still among the possessions of the family. Here, beneath the oldest inscription of all, lie the remains of the Eev. Joseph Paget, Chaplain of Bengal, who died while visiting Dacca, aged only twenty-six, on March 26, 1724, just two years less one day since his arrival in India, his sudden death leaving Bengal without a chaplain for two years and five months. Not far off stand the monuments of Thomas Teake, October 1750, and Nicholas Clerembault, November 1755, chiefs of the Dacca factory, the former aged only thirty-two. Here, side by side, beneath a curious double tomb, lie Bobert Crawfurd, factor of the Company, and his wife, the latter dying in June 1776, aged twenty-three, and the former surviving her less than two months. Beading strangely beside these English names is the inscription to one Wonsi Quan, erected by his friend Wona Chow in 1796, both Chinese converts to Christianity. Still more strange is the most imposing monument of all, which bears no inscription to tell who rests beneath. A high octagonal Gothic tower with eight windows, the whole surmounted by a cupola in the same style, it stands nameless, dominating the whole cemetery and jealously keeping watch over the three graves that lie within. Only the vague tradition survives that it is the tomb of ‘Columbo Saheb, a Servant of the Company,’ but a search among all available sources fails to bring to light any such name in the Company’s annals. Even so long ago as 1824, Bishop Heber, who consecrated the cemetery on July 10 of that year, could obtain no further information about it from the officials of the day. Silent and impressive, the towering mausoleum keeps well the secret that it holds.

[1] Photograph: The Line of Elephants at The Jamastami Festival in Dacca

[2] Photography: 1 The Satgumbaz Mosque and 2 The Bara Katra

[3] Photography: Guru Nanak, The Founder Of The Sikh Religion


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