Investigating Diversified Traditional Textile-based Architectural Style in Panam Nagar, Sonargaon

Title: Investigating Diversified Traditional Textile-based Architectural Styles of Panam Nagar, Sonargaon

Theme: Architectural Heritage and Interpretation of Cultural Practices

Ms. Humaira Tabassum (Chittagong, Bangladesh)

M.A. Student in Heritage Conservation and Site Management at BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg, Germany

HeritageForAll International Internship Program 2021 “Musealization of Cultural Identity”


Bangladesh, in its ancient times, was a very reputed maritime and commercial center because of its close proximity to Bengal bay, which is a part of the Indian Ocean. It boasted of a diversified architectural style throughout different periods and regimes which was vastly a contribution of historic textile commerce that attracted many foreign traders and settlers in this region. Panam Nagar of Sonargaon in Bangladesh is a dilapidated ancient urban trade center where environmental and geographical contexts were defined the evolution of its intangible heritage (ICH) as well as ICH contribution later to the development of its uniquely diversified architectural style. Today, it is a representative case study of multiple challenges and conflicts in the field of heritage conservation in Bangladesh. This article will study the multifaceted transformation, this city has gone through, in terms of tangible along with intangible heritage through different ages. In conclusion, this article may also discuss the revitalization of this region confronting all the existing challenges and conflicts.


Context of Sonargaon:

Bangladesh, a South-East Asian country lying adjacent to Bengal bay, is one of the countries influenced by the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system, a transboundary river system spanning multiple countries in the Indian Subcontinent. Bengal, in the Middle Ages, was formed of present-day Bangladesh, the Indian states of West Bengal, and Assam’s Karimganj district. Medieval Bengal acted as entrepôt in the Silk Road route because of the Brahmaputra River, which connects this region to the broader Indian subcontinent (Yang, 2008). Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, along with other smaller tributaries, flowing adjacent to Dhaka (or Dacca in earlier times), presently the capital of Bangladesh, have resulted in the development of a commercial center of weavers and artisans in Sonargaon.

It is assumed by many historians that, ‘Sonargaon’ might be the fabled land of ‘Suvarnabhumi’ (Tan, 2015). In Bengali, the word ‘Sona’ meant gold and ‘gaon’ meant ‘ham-let/village’. Both ‘Suvarnabhumi’ and ‘Sonargaon’ meant ‘Land of Gold’, which was a region famous for its trade routes among ancient travelers and sailors. Presently Sonargaon is Upazilla (sub-district) of the greater Narayanganj district of the Dhaka division and Panam Nagar is an abandoned city of Sonargaon Upazilla. Fig. 1 & 2 show the current location of Sonargaon. Due to slight changes in the geological conditions of nearby rivers, the boundary of medieval Sonargaon is still uncertain to some extent. Fig. 3 shows the nearby archaeological sites of Sonargaon whereas Figure 4 intends to draw a rough picture of medieval Sonargaon.

Fig. 1. Bangladesh in World Map (Tabassum, n.d.)
Figure 2. Current Boundary or Location of Sonargaon (Tabassum, n.d.)
Figure 3. Sonargaon Archaeological Sites (Nasirkhan, 2021)
Figure 4: Medieval Sonargaon (Hussain, 1997 edited by Tabassum, 2021)

Context of Panam Nagar

Though this paper specifically discusses Panam Nagar, it becomes necessary to mention Sonargaon to understand its overall context. From an archaeological perspective, three groups of settlements have developed in Sonargaon: a. Northern group, b. Southern group and c. Bandar group. Panam lies in the northern group of settlements. The elite class of Hindu merchants inhabited Panam Nagar, who carried out extensive trade in cotton fabrics. (Akhter,2004) This region was very much reputed in the ancient world for its Muslin textile trade whose history can be dated back to the times before the 13th century.

Figure 5. Google Earth View of Panam Nagar (Tabassum, 2021)
Figure 6. Panam Nagar Layout (Asiatic Society, 1997)

According to fig. 6 & 7, the whole settlement developed in linear configuration along Panam street. Panam Nagar is surrounded by canals and water bodies from all sides with the Pankhiraj canal on the north side. A branch of Brahmaputra was connected to the Pankhiraj canal (Ray, 2016). The dimension of the street is 60m in length and 5 miles in width (Sharmin, 2019). During its discovery, Panam Nagar had 60 houses but currently, there are 49 houses (Sharmin, 2019). It consists of all categories of buildings- single-storied, double-storied, and triple-storied buildings (Sharmin, 2019).

The framework of the Problem

With many consequential events following the partition of India in 1947, Panam Nagar fell into oblivion when the whole city stood witness to the displacement of Hindu merchants and traders to India, the annihilation of the Bengal’s inherent Muslin trade, and later many social conflicts. Though one or two buildings in the area have seen the light of admirable conservation efforts, most of the area has been left dilapidated and ignored. Today, Panam Nagar is enlisted in the List of National Heritage and the List of the Archaeology Department for protection and conservation. Unfortunately, in a developing country like Bangladesh, heritage conservation is not prioritized when other basic needs of the majority population are not met. Cultural historic structures are often demolished to meet the housing needs and economic needs of the majority population.

Due to the above-mentioned reasons, the creation of only tourism and recreational facilities is not enough. It is important to come up with sustainable, economic, region-specific, and community-inclusive solutions for this lost urban heritage. Regarding this issue, the 1987 ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas (known as the Washington Charter), referring to the 1976 Recommendation and other international documents, also suggests conservation of historic towns and cities with the help of tools necessary for conservation (protection, restoration, … etc.) and “adaptation to contemporary life” (Preamble and definitions). Such adaptive reuse solutions are also proposed by the Department of Archaeology. Comprehension of the true extent of the heritage of Panam Nagar is significant to assist the policy-makers and stakeholders to assess the nature and necessity of appropriate, sustainable, and ideal adaptive reuse of Panam Nagar.

ICOMOS (1996) states that “Recording should be undertaken in order to an appropriate level of detail in order to provide information for the process of identification, understanding, interpretation, and presentation of the heritage, and to promote the involvement of the public”. Unfortunately, the absence of a proper management plan, lack of proper studies related to the cultural heritage of a site results in failed conservation attempts in Bangladesh. Hence, identification of ideal adaptive reuse of the urban area is only possible by analyzing the cultural significance of the region in multiple layers. Again, according to ICOMOS (1996), “New work such as additions or other changes to the place may be acceptable where it respects and does not distort or obscure the cultural significance of the place, or detract from its interpretation and appreciation”. Hence, it is also important to undertake such adaptive reuse guidelines which will also prioritize cultural significance and cultural heritage interpretation of the site.

Analysis of Cultural Values in Terms of Tangible and Intangible

Analysis of Historic Value

In accordance with the Illustrated Burra Charter, “Historic value is intended to encompass all aspects of history—for example, the history of aesthetics, art, and architecture, science, spirituality, and society. It therefore often underlies other values. A place may have historic value because it has influenced, or has been influenced by, a historic event, phase, movement, or activity, person or group of people. It may be the site of an important event. For any place, the significance will be greater where the evidence of the association or event survives at the place, or where the setting is substantially intact than where it has been changed or evidence does not survive. However, some events or associations may be so important that the place retains significance regardless of such change or absence of evidence.” (ICOMOS, 2013) It is important to understand how intangible factors of Muslin trade have influenced the development of Panam Nagar from a historic perspective.

Muslin’s History Since Ancient Times

“Thy bride might as well clothe herself with a garment of the wind as stand forth publicly naked under her clouds of muslin.”

Petronius, as mentioned by Gorvett (2021)

One of the famous first-century roman poets, Gaius Petronius Arbiter lauded the soft and transparent nature of the fabric and named it “Ventus Textiles (the woven wind)” in Satyricons (Gorvett, 2021). Works of the 14th century Berber Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta and the 15th-century Chinese voyager Ma Huan highly praised Muslin in their works (Gorvett, 2021). Its fine characteristics made it famous among ancient Greeks and Romans, also among Arabs as mentioned by an Egyptian author in the book ‘The Periplus in the Erythrean Sea’ (Gorvett, 2021). Ralph Filch, a consultant to the British East India Company, reported the best and finest cotton cloth in all of India to be found at Sonargaon (Eaton, 1996).

Figure 7. Sonargaon Shown in World Trade Map Published in 1650 AD
(Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, collected by Eshika, 2010)

During the significant Mughal Empire in South Asia, founded in 1526 by a warrior chieftain from Afghanistan, Muslin adorned the courts of emperors and saw its widespread trade across Persia (modern-day Iran), Iraq, Turkey, and the Middle East (Gorvett, 2021). Mulmul Khas (“special clothing” or extremely fine Muslin) started its journey in the late 16th century during Emperor Akbar’s half-century of reign. It was deemed suitable for Indian summers and hence, men’s outerwear ‘the Mughal jama’ with a suited top and a pleated skirt was introduced during Akbar’s reign (Islam, 2016). Muslin’s association with Mughals was evident in the 1665 painting of princes Dara Shikoh and Sulaiman Shikoh who wore Mughal jama made of Muslin (Fig. 9) (Islam, 2016).

Figure 8. Mughals in Muslin (Islam, 2016)
Figure 9. Parisian Ladies in their winter dresses for 1800 (Cruikshank, 1799)
Figure 10. Portrait of Josephine (Gerard, 1801)

Whereas in traditional culture this fabric was used to make Saree and Jama, traditional cloth in the Indian subcontinent for men and women, it transformed the huge and complex structured dressing style of the Georgian era into sleek and minimalistic Empire Line Style in France and later in Regency-era Britain in the close of the 18th century (Islam, 2016). The expensive fabric was dedicated to women of the then-contemporary socialite class, for example, French queen Marie Antoinette, French empress Joséphine Bonaparte and Jane Austen who preferred modern and sleek dressing styles. Josephine Bonaparte appeared in a white Muslin dress instead of a coronation robe in the painting “Portrait of Josephine” (Fig. 11) by François Gérard, which is a part of the exhibition at Hermitage Amsterdam (Siegal, 2015). Famous satirical print by Isaac Cruikshank “Parisian Ladies in their winter dresses for 1800” (Fig. 10) portrayed the beauty of light, translucent, brightly colored Muslin dresses which draped European women in that time (Cruikshank, 1799 scanned by Churchyard, 2006). “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”, a special event organized by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, was the first to exhibit Muslin in Britain in 1851. (Gorvett, 2021)

Evolution of Panam Nagar with Textile Trade

The location setting of Panam Nagar at the confluence of different rivers and its reputed Muslin heritage was the prime reason for its being a significant trading hub. The situation also encouraged the change in political landscape from time to time with the change in ur-ban or architectural setting in the area. Fig. 12 & 13 show the development of two distinct architectural styles in Panam Nagar.

Mughal Rule

The urban setting in the Panam Nagar was also influenced by Muslin heritage to some extent during the Mughal rule. It is known that the Khashnagar Dighi (Dighi means lake), in the proximity of Panam Nagar, was reputed among Muslin workers to make the Muslin exceptionally white. The area Khashnagar was also known as Keorsundar, as same as Katare Sundar of Sonargaon, which is mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th-century document showing the detailed records of the administration under Emperor Akbar of the Mughal regime. Not that much history of Panam of that time period is known to us as the structure of buildings of that time has been decayed to a great extent. But Mughal style architectural features are strongly evident in many structures in Panam Nagar. Besides the lakes, the main bridge on the Pankhiraj River, with three pointed-arched openings, strongly reflected Mughal style. Brick architecture was very common at that time. The domes were built by the diagonal placement of bricks which could support loads of the brick walls. Corners, cornices, walls, columns, and ceilings exhibited floral decoration. The most common feature was the square-shaped plan layouts of the houses and the multiple pointed niches in the exterior and interior walls of the buildings. No dedicated entrances are present in these buildings. (Sharmin, 2019)

Figure 11. Mughal style building in Panam City (reproduced by the author from Google Street View)
Figure 12. Colonial structures in Panam (Mytriphack, 2019)

Colonial rule: In the nineteenth century, English businessmen or the British East India Company helped flourish this region to export Muslin fabrics from this region to Europe (Hossain, 2007 mentioned by Sharmin, 2019). The arrival of the colonial traders introduced a unique architectural style in Panam Nagar which, in some cases encouraged the development of Indo-Saracenic Architecture in Panam Nagar. The revivalist architectural style developed in British India by the British architects was inspired by Mughal architectural style in the Indian subcontinent and less often, from Hindu temple architecture was reputed as In-do-Saracenic architecture (Sheeba & Dhas, 2018).

Structures in the nineteenth century Panam strongly echo pure colonial architecture or Indo-Saracenic architecture in many cases. In general, the important features of buildings in Panam Nagar have raised plinths above ground, defined prominent entry, and Corinthian columns which acted as a load-bearing column for semi-circular arches of the balconies or for simple decoration on the façade, which differentiated these buildings from the Mughal style buildings. Ornamentation of the elements classified the buildings into types: some just bore the basic colonial features but others had intricately decorated features. The decorative features include floral decorations on the column capital, plinth, keystones, sculptures, cast-iron railings, and windows, etc. ‘Chinnitikri’ was another innovation of the colonial period. It was actually a decoration type with mosaic where small chips of Chinaware-plate, pieces of colored glass, porcelain, and jewels were used as shown in fig. 14 & 15. Due to the absence of glass in the native region of Bengal, ceramics were imported from Holland, broken into pieces, and later used on the exterior of the buildings. (Sharmin, 2019)

Figure 13. Chinnitikri on exterior walls (Youngone Corporation, 2018)
Figure 15. The design was decorated with different types of colored tiles at an old building at Mograpara in the historic city of Panam Nagar. Mograpara, Sonargaon, Narayangonj, Bangladesh. November 2, 2008. (Photo by: Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, n.d.)

Many assume the internal functional layout in many buildings was designed to accommodate Muslin trade or Muslin production as the internal functional dimension of those structures does not support residential purposes.

Analysis of Aesthetic Values

“Aesthetic value refers to the sensory and perceptual experience of a place—that is, how we respond to visual and non-visual aspects such as sounds, smells, and other factors having a strong impact on human thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Aesthetic qualities may include the concept of beauty and formal aesthetic ideals. Expressions of aesthetics are culturally influenced.” ICOMOS (2013) Aesthetic values of Panam Nagar are associated with both tangible and intangible components, which have made this urban region a unique settlement in ancient Bengal.

Though today any inexpensive, gauzy, lightweight, machine-milled cloth is called Muslin, the world has forgotten the real hand-woven, high-end luxurious, translucent Muslin from Bengal. Even at that time, there were different types of muslin and the finest was named “Baft Hawa (Woven Wind)” which was purely soft and light as wind and made exclusively in the Bengal region. According to the accounts of certain travelers, Muslin of 91m or 300 ft could be passed through the center of a ring. Another added snuff box that could easily contain 60ft or 18m of Muslin. (Gorvett, 2021)

The grandly artistic Mughals incorporated an additional level of beauty to the Muslin by adorning the Muslin with Persian-derived motifs called Buti and embroidery known as Chikankari. Fixating on the aesthetics of Muslin and drawing inspiration from Persian poetry, Mughals gave names to different varieties of Muslin: Abrawan (flowing water), Shabnam (evening dew), Tanzeb (ornament of the body), Nayanshukh (pleasing to the eye), etc.(Islam, 2016). Though women favored white Muslin, painting by Cruikshank (1799) showed European women in brightly colored Muslin.

Panam Nagar is a unique settlement as it contains all the layers of the history of ancient Bengal. The tangible forms reflect different time periods and different styles and in some cases, an amalgamation of different styles has also occurred here. The artistic beauty and creativity observed in the structures in Panam are representative of the unique architectural style in the Indian sub-continent, especially, the Indo-Saracenic architectural style. Even if the place has decayed with age and time, this region still instills a feeling of grandeur in the visitors’ minds. The unique style of each structure makes this region vibrant. Later the aesthetics used in the decoration and ornamentation of the structures in the eighteenth century is observed in other architectural styles of the Bengal region.

Analysis of Scientific Values

Illustrated Burra Charter also says, “Scientific value refers to the information content of a place and its ability to reveal more about an aspect of the past through examination or investigation of the place, including the use of archaeological techniques. The relative scientific value of a place is likely to depend on the importance of the information or data involved, on its rarity, quality, or representativeness, and its potential to contribute further important information about the place itself or a type or class of place or to address important research questions. To establish potential, it may be necessary to carry out some form of testing or sampling.” (ICOMOS, 2013)

Since Panam Nagar is the last remaining settlement of Bengal, it is important to study how the geographical context, political context, and intangible artistic values of this region have shaped the form and pattern of the architectural style of an urban settlement in this region. Muslin production has shaped the urban and architectural functions of Panam Nagar. This unique example shows how sustainable settlements could be formed by incorporating both intangible and tangible elements in the society or how tangible structures of the society could evolve with the accommodation of the intangible cultural values of the society. Again, such examples may be used to understand the lost intangible values through analyzing the existing tangible elements of a settlement.

Again, the scientific value of the research involving Muslin’s heritage is immense. Recently, the lost art of Muslin production has been discovered to some extent and it proves that if the revival of Muslin is possible with more effort.

Muslin’s Production

The complicated weaving process was strictly controlled by some site-specific and time-specific conditions. The unique rare cotton plant “Phuti karpas” (Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta), grown on the banks of the Meghna river, produces the finest Muslin cloth. It produces stumpy and easily frayed unlike the slender, long strands of Gossypium Hirsutum the cotton of Central American origin that is used worldwide. The sample shown in figure 16 is preserved in Calcutta, India. As the fibers could not be worked with using industrial machinery because of their frailty, local people mastered the indigenous technique to produce the finest textile, Muslin. According to Islam (2016), when soaked in Meghna’s water, it shrank contrary to common cotton logic; alternate sections of its ribbon-like structure flattened and became stronger to withstand the stress when wound in the loom. (Gorvett, 2021)

Figure 15 Rare cot-ton plant (Shahidul Alam/Drik, n.d.)
Figure 16 . Upper jaw of catfish (Shahidul Alam/Drik, n.d.)
Figure 17. Jamdani weaving technique (FDCI, 2019)

The first step of the production process was Ginning, the name for cleaning or combing the fibers. The cotton balls were cleaned by the sharp-toothed jawbones of the Boal catfish (as shown in fig. 17), native to the lakes and rivers of the region (Gorvett, 2021). The finest fibers were selected for Muslin and these fibers were obtained with the help of a bamboo bow tightly strung with catgut, named as Dhunkar (Islam, 2016). When the bow was strummed in a definite manner, the lightest fleece flew in the air separating from the heavier fibers and a theory behind it was that the strumming created a vibration in the air with the reduction of air pressure which allowed lighter fibers to be pulled upwards (Islam, 2016).

As it required a very delicate touch and humidity, young women sat spinning the fabric on the moored boats or on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the early morning or in the late afternoon to utilize the humidity derived from the river. Also as old women could not see the fine threads, this part of the process was completed by young women, whose songs could be heard while spinning the yarn. There were tales from passing travelers on boats about the mermaids singing on the banks while weaving Muslin in the early misty morning. (Islam, 2016) The weaving process took months to create embroidery and beautiful designs on the fabric. The same technique to create royal tapestries in medieval Europe was employed here to create geometric shapes depicting flowers as same as today’s jamdani designs. (Gorvett, 2021) Fig. 18 portrays a distinct technique of weaving where, no help from the machinery is required, the whole design is handmade, and is never repeated.

Architectural Evolution to Accommodate Muslin Trade

For many years researchers have been perplexed regarding the buildings’ use in Panam Nagar as the functional layout of the structures differed to a large extent from the ordinary residential structures in Dhaka. Eshika (2010) has used the method of space syntax to study the spatial organization of different house patterns of Panam Nagar in order to understand the internal functional layout of the houses. Space syntax is a research program that is used to investigate the inter-relationship between spaces in a spatial complex. Three forms of house patterns have dominated 19th century Panama. Central Hall type; b. Central Courtyard type; and c. Consolidated type. Some characteristics of the house patterns have been discussed in this chapter.

A. Central Hall Type:

Another house pattern in Panam Nagar contained a covered double heightened hall-type space in the middle showcasing highly ornamented openings adorned with colorful stained glass. These grand two-storied houses expressed the grandiose and wealth of Muslin traders and merchants. It existed on the ground floor or the first floor and it was the prominent center of all functions in the house though not always was it located in the center of the building. Transitional veranda space sur-rounded the hall and other spaces of the building were connected to the veranda too. (Sharmin, 2019). Fig. 19 & 20 show this pattern of houses in Panam Nagar, where intricate decorative features are still evident.

Figure 18. Plan of Central hall type house (Sharmin, 2019)
Figure 19. View inside an abandoned building (milosk50, 2019)

The central hall was very much accessible from the main road through transitional spaces like corridors or veranda (a roofed semi-outdoor space or porch associated with an outdoor open-air function). The rooms were connected to the hall through corridors and all these functions were arranged such that they served the central hall. The position and organization give an idea that it served a social purpose. A small chamber was found in many cases which had access from only the central hall, which was a typical characteristic of Hindu temples. Such a hypothesis was also supported by its ornamentation, orientation, and location of the small chamber. In Hin-du temples, a small chapel is always found which remained isolated from other spaces but has access from only one space which was less bounded and was designed for mass gatherings. In conclusion, the above-mentioned assumptions as well as the analytical results obtained through the space syntax program postulates the visitor–inhabitant social relationship of the hall. (Eshika, 2010)

During the restoration project of Bara Sardar Bari in Panam Nagar, the chief conservation specialist Ahmed (2018) talks about the internal functional layout of the structure and he made assumptions linking the structure to the Muslin trade in the region. The structure has a double height hall, most rooms of the building are very much linear not suitable for residential purposes and the rooms beside the hall are very small. Also observing some rings/hooks hanging from the roof, Ahmed (2018) believes all evidence point out that, the linear rooms were used to accommodate handloom machines, the rings were used to hang them and the small rooms beside the hall accommodated the guests who came for muslin auction. (Ahmed, 2018)

b. Central Courtyard Type

The native house patterns of most regions of the Indian subcontinent were courtyard house patterns which had the prime advantage of ventilation within the houses in a tropical climate. Similar was the condition in rural Bengal where almost all common activities were carried out in the courtyard. (Sharmin, 2019) The courtyards were strongly integrated with the other spatial functions of the house whereas the living and the service spaces have always remained segregated in the houses of this sub-continent to maintain the boundary between formal and informal functions and to maintain the privacy of the living/ service spaces of the houses. Similar characteristics are strongly evident in the house patterns of Dhaka too.

Figure 20. Inside a courtyard of a house. (Anik, n.d.)
Figure 21. Plan of a courtyard centric house (Sharmin, 2019)

Many buildings in Panam Nagar have followed the above-mentioned pattern to some extent. In Panam Nagar, the houses were two-storied with the courtyard enclosed, paved in brick and open to the sky. As the whole inner house overlooks into the courtyard, the functions are also centered on the courtyard though the courtyard does not remain necessary in the middle of the house. Generally, the courtyard is surrounded by the verandah on three sides but is lined with a boundary wall on one side. The verandah ensures access between the courtyard and the other rooms adjacent to the courtyard and in the inner part of the building. The enclosing walls of the courtyard have arched openings but do not possess that much decorative feature as observed in double-height hall-type houses. (Eshika, 2010)

According to Eshika (2010), this typology bears somewhat similar characters to the residential structures in Dhaka. Hence, it is quite fair to assume that, the residential structures of the muslin traders followed these house patterns. Similar to the Central hall-type houses, this category also served the commercial purpose of Muslin trade in 19th century Panam Nagar. Fig. 21 & 22 intend to explain the functional layout through the internal view of the courtyard and the plan layout of the house.

C. Consolidated Type House Pattern:

This house pattern of Panam Nagar was the most unusual and totally one of a kind in the whole Dhaka region.

Figure 22. Plan of a consolidated type house (Sharmin, 2019)

The front and the rear part of the house, i.e., the northern and the southern part of the houses, have the largest room whose length is equal to the width of the house. These spaces of the house are very much integrated into the formal outdoors and bear extensive openings to the outdoors which explains their commercial inter-face of the structure. These two-storied structures bear the stair to the first floor in the front-end room of the house. All these characteristics indicate very little privacy, much more permeability, and more integration between the user groups. (Eshika, 2010)

Generally, one or two rooms are present in the middle of the whole structure, whose smaller dimensions and lack of ventilation defy all rules of residential purpose. These rooms are accessible from whether the northern part or the southern part and remain enclosed on all three sides. (Eshika, 2010)

All the above-mentioned spatial characteristics support the hypothesis that these might not be used for residential purposes, rather for commercial purposes where the formal visitors from the main road could easily access the interior of the house and the informal guests could access from the rear end. (Eshika, 2010)

Analysis of Social Values

According to Burra Charter, “Social value refers to the associations that a place has for a particular community or cultural group and the social or cultural meanings that it holds for them.” (ICOMOS, 2013) The socio-economic condition of the society vastly depended on the Muslin trade which reflected on the architectural condition of the urban region. The rise and decline of Muslin strongly defined the rise and decline of the community in the urban region.

Vivid accounts of many travelers, from the ancient age to the colonial times, give an idea about the social structure of Panam and its cotton trade-based economy. Ralph Filch came to Sonargaon in 1586 and found the best textile and cotton here. He came during the Muslin rule of Isa Khan and accounted for the simple living styles of people who lived in small houses made of straw, did not eat meat, and lived on rice, milk, and fruit. According to his accounts, many people were rich and a good deal of rice and cotton cloth was exported to the whole of India, Ceylon, Pegu, Malacca, and other places. (Ray, 2016) This scenario explains the socio-religious pattern of the region as dominated by the followers of Hinduism, as the Hindus and Jains refrained from eating meat. There was a socio-religious border dividing the Hindu and Muslin settlements (Wise, 1872). As a common feature of Hindu settlements, the ponds were oriented along the North-South direction (Hussain, 1997:104). During the reign of Emperor Aurangazeb, Sonargaon exported Muslin worth nearly Rs. 1,30,000 annually to the court of Delhi which was called Malbul-i-Khas (Ray 2016). James Taylor, a commercial resident of Dhaka in the mid-eighteenth century, stated about 300 to 400 Muslin weavers were registered with the Sonargaon factory of the English East India Company. (Chaudhury, 2020)

According to Wise (1872), most inhabitants were Muslin traders and money-changers and Hindu Taluqhdars who paid Government revenue directly to Dhaka treasury. ‘Notes on Sonargaon’ (1874) describe a time when the area saw a decline in socio-economic condition with the decline in Muslin trade in the late-eighteenth century due to geopolitical condition when the capital was shifted from Sonargaon to Dacca and he found only 50 weavers working there (Ray, 2016).

Again, the period between the early nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw a revival of Panam Nagar and Muslin trade totally backed by East India Company. This scenario supported the fact that the inhabitants in that period were not descendants of ancient Muslin weavers rather a different class of people who came here for a profitable purpose (Hussain, 1997 mentioned by Eshika, 2010). Sharmin (2019) has mentioned their origin to be Calcutta, Mumbai, Patna, and other parts of India. This was the time period when Panam Nagar saw the development of highly decorated and expensive colonial architecture as the British colonials developed a systemic organization of the trade with the construction of factories, commercial buildings for traders.

Unfortunately, the colonials who invested in the prosperous Muslin trade in Bengal; were the ones who played a significant role in the destruction of the heritage. According to the accounts of the book, ‘Goods from the East, 1600-1800’ (2015), the colonials started documenting and later meddling with the delicate process of Muslin production in the late Eighteenth century (Gorvett, 2021). Firstly, they replaced the region’s usual customers with those from the British Empire. Secondly, they pressurized the weavers to produce larger amounts of Muslin with fine details within a very short period of time. The weavers failed in the process and fell into debt. Finally, the well-documented reports on Muslin production in Bengal helped power looms of the cotton mills in Lancashire to produce cheap, factory-produced cotton textiles. Taxes, tariffs aided this product to win the European as well as Indian markets. These factors marked the absolute end of Muslin, only Jamdani “the figured Muslin” has survived.

Present Condition and Conflicts

It has been more than half a century that the colonials left and only recently the researchers associated with “The Bengal Muslin” an initiative by Drik PL, a multimedia organization based in Bangladesh, have been able to re-invent the indigenous technology (Bengal Muslin, n.d.). UNESCO has listed the traditional weaving process of “Jamdani Muslin”, a type of Muslin, in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2013 and again, the Geographical Indication status was awarded to it as a product of Bangladesh in 2020. With such appreciable revival efforts of Muslin, it must be kept in mind that the background of Muslin is deeply rooted in the heritage of Panam Nagar. But unfortunately, the conservation of Panam Nagar has seen negligible efforts from different stakeholders.

Figure 23. Panam structure condition (Hasib, 2009)
Figure 25. Panam Street condition (Hasan, 2019)

Legal Issues, Ownership Issues, and Policy Formulation:

With the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the-then India was divided into Muslin-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India; and the infamous phenomenon was named the partition of India. This incident created forceful displacement of Hindus from their original abode to India and forceful displacement of Muslins from their original abode to Pakistan. Still, many Hindus stayed behind as they could not leave behind their land of ancestors. Pakistan was again comprised of two parts: East Pakistan (currently Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (currently Pakistan). Another phenomenon of fearful migration happened during 1964-1965. Due to Indo-Pak conflicts during this time, the final displacement of Panam’s wealthy merchants to India occurred. As they left behind their properties, their land properties were denoted as “Enemy property” with the introduction of the debatable “Vested Property Act” by the then East Pakistan government. According to this law, the government had every right to seize these properties which closed the return of Panam’s Hindus. According to the government, since the Hindus fled East Pakistan to support India, they were considered enemies of the state. These political situations reflect human rights violations in both India and Pakistan. The forceful displacement of communities sealed the fate of Panam Nagar and marked the death of the city. Again, because of the ‘Vested Property Act’, ownership of the properties of Panam becomes conflicted. The city was empty for a long period of time after 1965. But later, some properties were illegally grabbed by local communities, some were leased by the government for 99 years and some claim that they bought lands from their Hindu neighbors when they left. (Sharmin, 2019)

When Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971 and even then after 30 years of independence, about 250 residents inhabited Panam. These inhabitants were using the historic structures without maintaining the deteriorating historic buildings. The structures were collapsing with age and climate change. As a result of the continuous demand of academics and civic society of Bangladesh, the Government of Bangladesh listed 10 acres of land as a protected site under the Antiquities Act of 1968 in March 2003 without cultural value and impact assessment. It is worth mentionable that, the community grew roots in the region, has become attached to Panam, and has new cultural dynamics have grown between the community and the region. But without proper analysis and studies, the Government announced the community to migrate from the region. This created strong protests from the community and they did not co-operate the conservation efforts at any level. This situation created strong emotions of disapproval among this community. Though the majority of this community was illegal, they lived there for more than 30 years and created a new layer of heritage values. Later, the army-backed government helped evacuation of the community from this region in 2006. (Sharmin, 2019)

Tourism in Panam Nagar

In 2015, the government created tourism opportunities in the site by arranging two controls at the entry and the exit and by imposing tickets in order to earn some revenue for the conservation of the site. (Sharmin, 2019)

Though now it has turned out to be a renowned tourist spot in Bangladesh for local people, the lack of proper management and strategic plans and the lack of interpretation plan has reduced the tourism potential of the site to a large extent. The tourists and visitors who come here do not get the opportunity to come in contact with the complete heritage of the site which results in incomplete interpretation of the site.

According to Islam (2019), there is a noticeable dearth of many tourism facilities here including accommodation, transportation, marketing facilities, interpretation facilities, etc. Hence, tourism potential in Panam Nagar has not reached its full potential.

Structural Condition of the Site

Floods and moisture content due to heavy rainfall or condensation are the common problems Panam Nagar faces today due to the tropical climate and climate change factors in Bangladesh (Akhter, 2004). Cracks and fractures, crystallization of soluble salts, etc are other problems seen in the brickworks of Panam (Peter Marquis-Kyle, 2004 mentioned by Sharmin, 2019). Again, salt migration, insect attack, fungal growth, etc. problems are also observed in the woodworks in Panam’s structures. Rust is seen in the wrought iron used in railings and cast iron used in columns. (Sharmin, 2019)


According to Sharmin (2019), different sectors of community members and civic society are the stakeholders of this region and it is stated below:

National Authorities: Ministry of Culture is responsible for maintaining, protecting, and promoting the cultural heritage of Panam Nagar. The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for collecting funds for the conservation of the site through tourism. The Ministry of Antiquities is responsible for monument protection issues in the region. Department of Archaeology is responsible for maintaining the proper security of the archaeological ruins.

Tourists: Tourists and visitors are the main target group for tourism in this region. The revenue collected from the tourists is used as funding for the conservation of the site.

Local Community: Travel agencies, accommodation providers, community members involved with Restaurants, retailers and shopkeepers, transportation operators, etc are all involved to provide services to the tourists. Most of the facilities are organized in the nearby Sonargaon area to cater to the needs of Panam’s tourists. Though most of the facilities are not of top-notch quality, they are averagely able to provide the services.

Research institutions: The contribution of the research institutions is worth mentionable. It is the sole role of the civic society, for which now Panam is enlisted as a protected site. Though it is undeniable, the civic society has a lot more to do in this case.


Identification of Buffer Zones

The lakes and water bodies surrounding Panam Nagar can be identified as the boundary but the buffer zone must be properly identified and implemented. The illegal encroachment by vendors and small shops near the boundary creates a visual disturbance. (Sharmin, 2019)

Proper Documentation

The archaeology department, different academics, and different heritage organizations already have worked for documentation of conditions of Panam Nagar to some extent. But documentation of the total region of Panam Nagar is required with a detailed analysis of all the structures. As the condition of all the structures is different and unique, it is important to take appropriate steps of conservation for each building.

Preservation and Restoration

The poor and vulnerable condition of the structures has already been discussed. Though the actual glory of the buildings is lost with the passage of time, the area still evokes a sense of grandeur. It is high time to take appropriate steps for the conservation of the structures without destroying the integrity and authenticity structures. It is a shame, visitors do not get to appreciate the internal magnificence of many structures due to a lack of conservation.

Nature of Adaptive Reuse with Community-inclusive Policies

The author recommends sustainable cultural use of the area through adaptive reuse, which is a very significant conservation tool. But adaptive reuse should not eradicate the past cultural values of the structures. This study has identified how cultural values have developed in this region and how different structures reflect those cultural values.

The whole area can be developed as a cultural center exhibiting the Muslin heritage. Recently researchers have been able to recreate the ancient Muslin by growing the rare cotton plant. The stakeholder community can participate in both the tourism sector and economic sector related to Muslin. This will encourage community participation in the development of this region. Eviction of communities that have been living here for many years is not a sustainable solution. But this process can only be initiated by creating awareness among people about the cultural significance of the area. As the generation of Muslin weavers is now gone, rather a different generation of community stakeholders has grown their roots here. It is important to elevate the socio-economic condition of the community living here by creating employment opportunities for them and respecting the cultural significance of the area. This step will also solve the problem regarding the lack of interpretation by the tourists.

The buildings which are still structurally sound can be utilized for a variety of purposes. The existing buildings, preferably the buildings with courtyards that were previously used for residential purposes, can be used as motels for tourists. This will keep the region lively and vibrant all through the day. Again, the other buildings which were used for commercial purposes in the previous times, preferably buildings with double-heightened halls, can be used as the exhibition center of Muslin. Other consolidated small houses could be converted into small shops, souvenir centers or small residential accommodation, etc.
If the existing structures cannot meet the demand of residential accommodation of the community living there, a new housing unit may be constructed after a strict guideline plan is proposed which will control building height, setback, building material, massing, etc. It is important to consider that such buildings must blend in with the environment but should not be confused with the construction of previous times. The proper distinctions must be made so that people understand them as new development activities. The structures which are not structurally sound should be treated as exhibits and properly restored with enough protection steps to restrict human use.


Very few cultural heritage sites in Bangladesh have survived the destructive forces of time. Many sites have been taken over by nature, whereas others have been spoiled by human interventions. Panam Nagar is one of the last few surviving ancient urban settlements which still bear testimony to Bengal’s heritage. It is high time we take significant steps to protect this region from passing into oblivion. It is very important for us to inject life into this frozen masterpiece of Bengal to help its natural process of evolution as a sustainable urban settlement. This study strongly reflects the co-dependent relationship between intangible factors, communities, and lastly, the tangible skeleton of a settlement. If one of these three elements is ruined, the settlement finds it very difficult to survive. Heritage values assessment proves multiple layers of values lying under the fabric of Panam Nagar. Such values were instilled not only by Muslin weavers in ancient times but also by the communities, legal or illegal, inhabiting the streets of Panam. For the sustainable and region-specific solutions to conflicts, we cannot deny any underlying values. Panam Nagar already shows us, how ignorance of any heritage values will lead to unsuccessful or failed attempts of conservation. This study provides the necessary grounds for future research into adopting community-inclusive and sustainable solutions for multifaceted problems Panam Nagar faces today.


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