“What’s in a name?”A lot, apparently. The name of place can tell you a lot about it, often hinting towards a glorious history or commemorating an honourable individual. Dhaka, being an age-old city, has left evidences of its magnificent past through street and area names. Understanding these namesakes help draw a vivid sketch of unimaginable times of yore.
Before going into particular locality names, the first question is of course about the origin of the entire city itself. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to why the city is called Dhaka -- several theories only. A widely accepted one relates to a certain species of trees, called 'dhak', which once grew in abundance in this region. And through the association of 'dhak', the land came to be known as Dhaka.
In your visit, you've probably been to Dhanmondi. Ever wondered why it's called such? The concrete jungle of the area has replaced the ample paddy fields this place once occupied. 'Unmilled' rice is called 'dhan' in Bangla. The word 'mondi' is derived from 'mondon', which means ornament or jewellery. The golden hue of ripe unmilled rice looked like gold jewels. Hence, the name 'Dhanmondon' was assigned; but with the passage of time, the name eventually evolved to Dhanmondi.
Today, it's hard to imagine paddy fields in Dhaka. History -- truthful yet incredible -- says Dhaka also featured numerous gardens. 'Bagh' or 'bagicha' are common suffixes to names of several places.
For example, Shahbagh -- a rather celebrated place, with the advent of the recent mass uprising against war criminals that took place there -- was once probably a Mughal garden (or part of a larger garden premise that used to cover an even broader area) known as 'Bagh-e-Shahensha' (Garden of Emperor). Fast forward to British rule, for the ease of pronunciation, the place was renamed Shahbagh.
The British rule saw the royalty and influence of Nawabs. After the death of Khwaja Ahsanullah -- the second Nawab of Dhaka who was enormously wealthy and a great philanthropist -- his daughter Paribanu earned her share of inherited property. That area, since then, is called Paribagh. It is also believed by many that the area once had a garden. 'Pari' in Bangla means fairy; however, the name has rather come from the name, Paribanu.
It's not always true that an area having the suffix 'bagh' or 'bagicha' in its name must have had a garden. Swamibagh for example, was named after a certain saint, Lingaswami. Probably, the area didn't have any garden there: 'bagh' is just a common suffix used in names of localities.
There are a few ancient neighbourhoods in Old Dhaka that has derived its name from the profession of the people living there. People of the same profession living as one community were very common.
For example, Shankahari Bazaar is a locality where people, since pre-Mughal times, involved in the craft and trade of making items out of conch shells ('shanka' in Bangla) live and work there -- as they still do today. The 'shankaris' – people involved in this craft -- live in the area known as Shankahari Bazaar.
And it's not just professions, gardens, important people and the like that we commemorate. There are several alleys in Dhaka named Bhoot-er-Goli. 'Goli' means alley, and 'bhoot' translates to ghost, so the English version should read, Ghost's Alley.
Are these places haunted? Well, not quite. But many years ago, people did believe they were. As the story goes, there was once a community of people, very poor in their economic condition, who did all the 'dirty' jobs of keeping the city clean. They also used to work in morgues.
Whenever they came across an unclaimed dead body, they used to bury it, only to collect it back after a few months in order to take away the bones, with which they reconstructed the skeleton in order to sell it to academic institutions. They used to call these skeletons ghosts.
The common opinion among people was that these skeleton-ghosts come alive to haunt the living at night. And hence the name, Bhoot-er-Goli became the name of the alleys where the people of that community lived.
You may think that history is obscure and inscrutable. But simply the names of places can sometimes print a vivid picture. They are constantly whispering ancient tales; all we have to do, is listen.
Reference: Dhaka Sthan Naamer Itikotha, edited by Mostafa Jahangir Alam
Disclaimer: Certain locality names have more than one theory (some more acceptable and some less) regarding their nomenclature.