Day 2 – A warrior-saints legacy – The historic mosque city of Bagerhat
Location: In a room in the Hotel Singapore, Mongla, Bangladesh
Yes, the name of the hotel I’m spending the night in is Hotel Singapore, though the hotel itself doesn’t do Singapore much justice. It is a simple affair, basic rooms with stained walls, and priced at 150 taka you cant really complain. Located in Mongla, the set-off point for my day long trip to the Sundarbans tomorrow.
Started off the day on the Rocket, which reached Hularhat station, located in Pirojpur district at around 930 am in the morning. It was a good nights rest in the crew’s cabin, despite being a little cold. The early morning mist obscured both banks of the river, but through the mist I still could see the fishermen out in their little sampan like boats for the days catch. The locals rate freshwater fish more highly than the sea-water variety.
So there’s a local guy, Jasim on the boat, who’s an aircraft engineer. He approaches me and strikes up a conversation. He’s going back over the weekend to see his family, and invites me to visit him. I politely decline (remember i have 5 days to blitz through everything). He speaks good English, and asks me where I am going. We talk for a little while, during which time I learn a little bit more about Bangladesh, the poverty, the aspirations of a nation.He also tells me to avoid any food that anyone offers me.
In the course of the next few days, i would meet many a local who shows great interest in the foreigner. Most of them start to surround me and gawk, each time i stand around in any public place for a period of time. It’s worse for the ang mohs, since I’m still Asian. A smile normally gets a return smile, and they leave me alone. There’s a few of the educated types, who speak English, and would love nothing better than to get to know the foreigner, asking him which country he comes from, his job, his marital status and purpose of visit. They are genuinely interested and very helpful too, there is usually one who comes up to sit next to me in the bus, for example, and offers directions. Without their help, I would probably take much longer to find my way around. Most of them will offer their emails, phone numbers and one even offered me his passport photo. So Alim, Jassim, Talat Mahmud, Halim Nazrul and M.A.Matin, thank you for your help in advance, sorry i gave out my standard alternate email that I never bother to check, and if you’re reading this, do drop me a comment or message. And as per what you say, “Wish you better future & God bless you. Thank you.”
Getting off the Rocket to the Bangladesh countryside proved to be an experience in itself. Outside of the city, I was lost and it would be hard to find anyone who understood me. Luckily Jasim was there, we took a Tempo, which is something like a shared Tuk tuk, and while he got off halfway, he made sure that the driver brought me to the Pirojpur bus stop. Oh and he paid for my ride as well.
The country buses. Ran down yet functional, the idea is to squeeze in as many as possible. Women sit up front, near the driver, and foreign tourists like me get placed somewhere at the front, where it’s “safer”. There’s always the driver, and then there’s the conductor, who’s job is to collect the fares from the passengers. His job is also to lean out the door and call out the destination. However, his third function is the most important. He acts as the side mirror for the bus driver. He goes “CLEAR! CLEAR!” or at least something like that, and makes sure the bus doesn’t get into an accident. His function is even more critical on my bus, since the side mirror is busted!
So, buses travel on roads that are too narrow. There’s only one lane for each direction, and scarcely any road shoulder. When a bus tries to overtake, it definitely needs to cut into the oncoming lane. And how they do it! With pompous horning, the driver will annoy the vehicle in front till they slow down, the driver will then swerve out and back in, all the while with heavy traffic coming from the opposite direction. It was like a case of “Chicken”, with the buses always coming out tops because the oncoming CNGs won’t stand a chance. Someone here really needs to consider wider roads, at least provide an additional half lane for vehicles to shift to the left to allow another to overtake.
I reached Bagerhat at noon, and took a moment to get my bearings. Lunch was rice, or “bhat” and fried egg curry, fish in curry. All good. Then one of the rickshaw wallahs pulled up near me and asked me my destination. I arranged a price with him to Bagerhat’s ruins (50 taka). This fellow was to be the bane of my day. I initially wanted a one way trip, but he insisted on waiting for me, so I let him. The agreed return trip was 100 taka, but he argued for 200 taka at the end of the whole ride, citing waiting time and extras. I was pretty pissed and refused to give in, some other locals joined the commotion we create and went “give him the money, he’s a poor man” etc. In the end I just gave him the money. No point spoiling the rest of my stay for 2 SGD. Moral of the story: Don’t take the these rickshaw-wallahs, cab drivers, whatever, that come up to you. Always pick your own. Heck, actually, I already knew that, but I didn’t do what i preached.
Ok. Let’s go on to the main event for today, Bagerhat’s historic mosque city is a group of 15th century structures with the same architecture, founded during the pre-Mughal period by a warrior-saint Khan Jahan. Also known as ‘Khalifatabad’, it is one of three in Bangladesh designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The main structures of note are the Shait Gumbad Mosque, also known as the 60 domed mosque, on account of the (actually more than) 60 domes found on the roof and the Khan Jahan’s mausoleum. Along with these two structures are a score of various mosques in various states of (dis)repair. Tangled in the undergrowth, some are more well preserved than others, but the defining characteristic for me are the number of domes, ranging from 1 to the 60 on .Besides the Shait Gumbad Mosque, and it’s surrounding smaller mosques, there is also the tomb of Khan Jahan, a single domed structure that serves as a pilgrimage site for locals to pay their respects to an important man in Bangladeshi history. More information about the Mosque City of Bagerhat can be found on http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/321
It was a friday afternoon, which here in Bangladesh meant that it was a public holiday. The more pious amongst the locals were doing their afternoon friday prayers at the Shait Gumbad mosque. The rest, and the Hindus, were there for a picnic. Besides the mosques and multi-domed structures, the heritage site was also known for its dighis or ponds, possibly for irrigation, created by the multi-talented Shah Jahan when he conquered this area. The atmosphere was very family friendly, walking around the edges of the pond (actually pond is an understatement, the dighis were huge, 200 to 300m long rectangular ponds. There’s one section near the Khan Jahan tomb where people are washing in the pond to absolve themselves of sin. As usual, I was the subject of attention, with everyone “you are from Singapore? Can i take your picture?” being very interested in the foreign traveller who goes to Bangladesh as a tourist.
Some more shots of the interior of Shait Gumbad Mosque.
On the way back to Bagerhat town by rickshaw, we detoured to what seemed to me a temple. Since my rickshaw wallah spoke no English, and the temple was devoid of any signs that I could understand, I was left to guess as to the purpose and origin of the temple. It’s pretty well kept and there’s a boy (who again doesn’t speak English) who i think is the groundskeeper or his son. He let me look around and take pictures. I think based on the symbols that I saw, it would seem that it is a combination of different faiths. In the middle is the Hindu Aum, then clockwise is the Muslim star and crescent, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David, what I think looks like the Siokh Khanda symbol, the Buddhist Dharma wheel and the Swastika, which is probably Jainism. I initially thought that it could be a Baha’i temple, but then it is missing the nine pointed star, and I can’t find Taoism and Shinto anywhere. Also, in the photo, the Aum is the central symbol, so that might mean something.
From Bagerhat, I took the bus to the port town of Mongla, which is barely 5km away from The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, and my next destination. The bus to Mongla was a 3 hour bus ride which meant i arrived in Mongla late in the evening at around 8pm. I could not really fathom why the bus ride took 3 hours, since in my guide book it was supposed to be a 1hour plus ride.
Mongla. Met a Mr Ferdaus who is the front desk manager of the Government owned Pashtur hotel. Mahmud from back in Dhaka had linked us up and he would help me with the arrangements for tomorrows’s Sundarban trip. Rooms at the Pashtur was 900 taka, but normal rooms were full, only A/C rooms (1600 taka) were available. I was already half-shivering and didn’t need A/C so i did the 2 taka boat ride (will move when they get 20 people, or you can pay for the entire boat 40 taka to move you across, 40 taka is less than 1 SGD) across the river, to find, surprise surprise: Hotel Singapore.
Hotel Singapore is a 150 taka (i think) basic accomodations with stained walls, a simple bed and toilet set up. It is clean though, and quite sufficient for the traveler who just needs a place to plop down his bag and stay the night. I went out to look for some dinner, this Bangla freshwater fish curry dish is starting to grow on me, before going back to my room for an early night. Tomorrow: An entire day out on boat along the canals of the Sundarbans.
Original post: http://furiouspanda.blogspot.com
More photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/morphred/