Echoes of a Ritzy Past: Panam Nagar

The past sometimes can be relived just by reading a book or by looking at a piece of brilliant artwork or at times visiting a place of historic importance. A similar feeling surpasses when one is walking the streets of Panam Nagar. The streets of Panam gently unfolds the rows of faded red bricked stranded houses echoing the past lineage and history of a period that was once dominated by the three different cultures at different period of time.

Located in the ancient city of Sonargaon, Panam Nagar has a rich cultural history. Sonargaon was the seat of the Sena and the Deva dynasties till the thirteenth century when the river Brahmaputra ran its course through these areas. Later, after the thirteenth century and middle of fourteenth century the Delhi Sultanate rulers included Sonargaon into their sultanate’s domain. From that time to the time of the Mughals Sonargaon was considered the main capital of undivided Bengal and it was once a thriving cultural as well as maritime trade centre during the Mughal occupation. With the fall of the Mughal Empire this city lost into oblivion and then later during the colonial period with the emergence of the Panam Nagar in Sonargaon area this city was able to regain its lost pride again.

When one enters the streets of Panam Nagar, it is very natural to be caught up in awe with the unique architecture displayed along the roadside; with the streets which now lay abandoned and disserted echoing the hustle bustle of a period bygone. Though, once dominated by the Mughals, today the city presents an entirely different picture with a combination of both Hindu as well as colonial architecture. Yet, when looked closely the traces of its Muslim ancestors are found in ceiling decorations, brick and wooden artworks. Also there are some other architectural edifices like the Goaldi Masjid built during the time of Aurangzeb which is housed near Panam Nagar in Sonargaon which showcases the Mughal connection. ‘

The present standing architectural specimens of this city shows the change of style which were later infused by the coming of the Hindu merchant class in the late 19th century. This merchant class included mostly the Shahas and the Podders who are credited with the construction of these present standing buildings mostly as residential houses for private use. Thus, for nearly a century the city of Panam belonged to these Hindu merchant class families popularizing itself as an upper-class merchant centre. Previously, this place was more religious in nature with masjids, temples, religious ghats, and ponds, later with the occupation of the merchant families the architecture shifted to being more secular in nature with residential buildings, private indoor temple and wells taking their places.

As a deserted town this city’s history can now be understood and studied only from these stranded buildings which are a unique architectural study in itself. The Archaeological Department of Bangladesh have identified in total at present fifty-two (52) buildings in dilapidated condition with thirty- one (31) building standing on the North side and twenty-one (21) in the south of the east- west axis road. The buildings are mostly two-storied with eight (8) recorded single storey buildings and few are three storied. Studying and looking closely at the buildings in Panam, one can identify two distinct varieties of structures: namely the compound style which has a big courtyards, ponds, gardens etc. The second type belongs to the majority of the buildings that are running along the streets categorized as the urban street front houses.

The first kind of buildings i.e., the compound style are few in numbers and are mostly found at a distance from the main street. For example, the Sardar Bari house, located at the south end of Panam Nagar is an excellent example of this style of house which at present has been converted into a Folk Art Museum. It is a double storied building having seventy chambers of various sizes. This house was established as the Bangladesh Folk and Craft Foundation by the renowned painter of Bangladesh Zainul Abedin. Today, this centre attracts a lot of tourist and displays the rich art and culture of Bangladesh mainly Jamdani, Kantha and other folkarts. Another example of such compound house is Anand Mohan Poddar’s House which is locally known as Awal Manzil as it is believed that Awal Manzil took over the ownership of the house from Anand Poddar. The main attraction of the house is its two courtyards and two ponds with two ghats having stairs. Decorations can be seen around the pilasters, arch and cornices.

Even though these big compound houses are unique examples of architecture showcasing the luxury and grandeur of that time but the main attraction are the street facing urban houses that really catches the tourist eye. These houses are of varying sizes displaying a homogenous synchronization amidst the difference in layout and style. Most of the houses are closely connected to the road therefore one can see a high plinth or verandah in-front of these houses. These buildings were constructed mainly from bricks and sometimes lime was used as plaster.  Bricks were used of varying shapes ranging from rectangular, semi-circular, round to angular depending upon the shape desired in the construction of the building. The decorations in these buildings are the highlights of colonial influence and the rich extravaganza of high class merchant community. One can see the Greek-styled Corinthian pillars with decorative lattice and floral motifs carvings used in the balconies and porches of many houses. There is also use of terracotta plaques with beautiful floral decorations seen mainly on the entrance doorways of some houses. Again some ceilings had various motifs carved into them making them stand out uniquely adding elegance to the entire architecture.  A few houses still provide evidences of tiles being used in black and white checked pattern. Use of mosaic and colorful glasses for windows which is again a typical European style is found evident in some of Panam City’s buildings. The use of woods for roofs can also be seen along with use of broken China, known as Chinitkri work. Another feature was the typical do-chala or chou-chala hut type roofing found commonly in Bengal is seen in many buildings here. All these different variation of design and decoration infused together in construction of these architectures bears testimony to the inescapable European as well indigenous influence of that period. The confluence of Hindu, European as well as the old Mughal patterns resulted in an individualistic architectural design for the houses of Panam Nagar. When one stands in the middle of the street the view is mesmerizing with tall buildings standing closely to each other as if presenting an architectural symphony. The houses looks similar but there are difference in the placement of verandahs, porticos, balconies and the decorations which makes one building to stand out distinctively than the other one.

This place which is still unknown to a lot of people is one of the best living example displaying the art and architecture of the colonial period merged with Hindu beliefs in a presently Muslim dominated country. With the division of India and Pakistan, this region being no more a part of India, Sonargaon fell into the trap of religious riots and the Hindu merchants fled to India leaving this city abandoned. Such a beautiful city which was once the main economic and cultural centre at present bears the ruinous evidence of its historical glory. Therefore, one must come to Panam Nagar at least once to relive and feel the virtual ambience of the crowded streets of this once upon a time Hindu Merchants Town. There are other areas worth visiting when one is in Panam Nagar like, Panam Bridge, Gwaldi Mosque, Takshal (mint), the graveyard of Gias Uddin Azam Shah etc.