To the naturally enquiring mind, this, unquestionably historic site, about 90 minutes travel from Dhaka, presents a fascinating puzzle.
Often described as the ‘Ancient capital of Bengal’, what is most often visited by tourists is, in fact, very evidently from the architecture of the fine buildings, in fact a nineteenth century collection of palaces and merchant mansions, very evidently largely occupied by wealthy Hindus..the judge from the number of temples that abound.
In fact, what is the fine couple of palaces, probably built by revenue gatherers, called Zaminders, during the period of British rule, and a wonderful street of superb remains of nineteenth century mansions such as would grace any historic city in the world, is clearly the residential part of what must have been a bustling centre of trade.
This is, certainly, one of the most outstanding pieces of circumstantial evidence to support the view that the rich trade through the great rivers of Bangladesh, that probably began with the evolution of the Ganges Basin industrial civilisation of the 2nd and 3rd millennia BCE, continued to generate considerable wealth from trade until, at least, the early 20th century.
But the ancient capital spoken of was, in fact, more probably located some miles south of what is now known as Panam City.
There is evidence that the village of Mograpara was probably the capital set up by the Khilji invaders from Afghanistan, who seized the entrance to this valuable trade between China and the rest of the world in the 13th Century. The Khilji were Muslim descendants of the army left behind by Alexander the Great after his decision not to seek to conquer these lands himself. The name ‘Sikander’ is still common in the area, and on the fringes of Mograpara stands the basalt tomb of Sikander, the third Sultan.
As far as can be traced, no archaeology has ever explored beneath the ground in the area, that once stood on the banks of the Brahmaputra, one of Asia’s great rivers, originating in distant Tibet, north of the Himalayas, which was, itself, the main part of what the Chinese refer to as the ‘Southwest Silk Road’. Today, it stands closer to the banks of that another great river of Himalayan origin, the Meghna.
The banks of that great river can be reached in a five minute drive from the row of mansions, and is clearly linked by a canal, presumable as much for the stately craft of the wealthy, as for their cargoes.
Fascinating as Panam, and Mograpara may be to visit, despite the lack of conservation work being undertaken, and the complete lack of archaeological information, anyone who has read the journals of such distinguished visitors as early 14th Century Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveller, the 15th Century Ma Huan, the escort of the great Chinese fleet that came in about 1415, and Ralph Fitch, the English merchant who visited in 1586, might well be bewildered by what they see.
No sign, for example, of the Jain merchants who Fitch so vividly describe, as ‘eating no flesh, and clad only in a small piece of cotton. There seems to be no mistaking the religious affiliation of such, and it is certainly consistent with the great Jain strength, that continues today, in trade and commerce.
It is not always easy to follow the historiography of local historians, without allowing for the Islamic bias that emerges in every twist and turn of local history. In vain one might quote to them the Holy Prophet himself, ‘Seek ye knowledge even unto China’, which appears to be an injunction to seek knowledge for its own sake, the fact remains that, although Muslim influence is very evident in the area..and we recall that Islam itself arrived in Bangladesh with Arab traders in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet..the fact remains that trade here, for centuries, and probably millennia was carried out, certainly by Hindus, probably by Buddhists, and apparently by Jains too.
But that there must have been the walled and fortified city described by the 14th Century Chinese is far from evident. In Mograpara, what may be a strongly constructed gatehouse may mark where a rampart, almost certainly of mud, as at other city sites in Bangladesh, once protected that place.
An early warehouse of East India Company, still standing, just, in close proximity to the Mughal period bridge at one end of Panam City, with a couple of apparent mansions being restored as modern dwellings nearby, may well predate the 1765 acquisition of Revenue gathering rights by the Company. The bridge itself may, perhaps, mark the entry to this trading centre of the Grand Trunk Road, extended in early 16th Century by the last of the Pashtun Emperors, to Kabul in the west, and Sonargaon in the east. Another of the many clues to the importance of the place, that is not entirely evident elsewhere.
The warehouse is described as being for muslin and indigo. Of the former trade there is little doubt. For centuries Sonargaon is said to have been a centre for the weaving of the muslin so loved by aristocrats of the world for centuries; even today, a lower quality cloth known as Jamdani continues to be produced.
Muslin almost certainly originated in Bangladesh, and so great was the trade across the world that the pre British period population of nearby Dhaka is believed to have numbered over a million..at a time when London was less than half that number.. engaged in the trade.
The mention of Indigo is probably also true, but likely to have been less bulky, and probably of less value that the fabrics warehoused in the building.
By far and away the most conspicuous religious evidence points to numbers and wealth of Hindus, there being a number of fine, particularly Shiva Temples in the vicinity. A couple of mosques of pre Mughal and Mughal period stand together a few km from Panam, but, strangely, it is not easy to clearly identify any Jain temples, and certainly no Buddhist.
Working out both historical sequence, and archaeology would probably take the earnest student a lifetime. And, with land being filled in for construction, it may well be that the mystery of Sonargaon will never, in fact, be solved.