Mughal Dhaka and its river fortification system
When the Mughals tried to establish their stronghold in this part of Bengal the worst enemy they faced, besides the indomitable Baro Bhuiyans (twelve landlords), were the calamitous nature and the riverine landscape. The streams of constantly shifting water pierced the land into parcels of various sizes and shapes. Another alarming fact for them were the continuous raids by the Magh (Arakanese) and Portuguese (along with a few Dutch) pirates, who came from the Bay of Bengal through large rivers (namely Meghna and Brahmaputra). The horse-riding Mughals understood that in order to lay down their empire in Bengal they had to secure the waterways first.
Subedar (governor) Islam Khan, who in popular culture is thought to be the founder of the township of Dhaka, expanded and strengthened the naval forces (Mughal Nowara or the naval fleet) and appointed a Commander in Chief or Meer-i-Bohor. It is said that within a century, the Mughals probably built three forts along the rivers around the city at strategic locations with a view to securing the capital. Though there is a persisting controversy about whether it was Mir Jumla or Islam Khan who actually built them, there is no doubt about their purpose. The three forts are sometimes referred to as the "Triangle of Waterforts" and consists of the Idrakpur, Sonakanda and Hajiganj forts.
The Idrakpur Fort was the first fort to be constructed among the "Triangle of Waterforts". It is located about 25 km south-east of Dhaka, at the Munshiganj town, on the west bank of the river Ichamoti. At the time, the river ran along the side of the fort, but subsequently dried up in the twentieth century—a portion of the present Munshiganj town is actually built on top of that area.
The fort was probably built by Mir Jumla in the 1660s as a defence against the Magh (Arakanese) and Portuguese pirates. As stone was unavailable and expensive, the principal building material was burnt brick. Use of this local material can be seen in the joineries on the doors. The same technique prevails in the Hajiganj and Sonakanda forts too.
The fort is rectangular in shape and divided into two sections. Among them, the polygonal western portion is larger and elongated towards the north-south. The quadrangular eastern part is much smaller. The walls and plinth of this fort is much lower than the other forts. There is no significant void in the wall except a small hole on the merlon (the solid upright section of a battlement) and another hole between the merlons. The four open bastions at the four corners were the most effective in attacking the enemies. There were sixteen merlons on each of the bastions. All the gateways resemble the Mughal architectural style of large vaulted openings. The fort also has a water reservoir which provided fresh supply of water for the inhabitants inside.
It was not a siege fort, and because of that it only had a weak defensive wall. Like most other forts in this region it provided shelter, for the soldiers who encamped here, in the rainy season when the raids were frequent. Another significant feature of the fort is a big circular drum in the south, which is further defended by a wall. This area must have been provided for mounting a cannon, to keep raiders away, with long range bombardment capabilities.
As the Ichamoti River silted, the southern side of the fort became buried up to the parapet. Moreover, for a while, a portion of the compound was being used as a residence of the District Commissioner (DC) of Munshiganj and the rest serves as a jail. Although the fort is not exactly preserved in its original condition, it has survived negligence and destruction because of being reused for that spell of time.
The fort is situated at the Bandar area of Narayanganj and is on the eastern side of the Shitalakkhya river. It is just south of the present-day Rupshi residential area (once the Rupshi Jute Mill area) which is also about a distance of 25 km from Dhaka city.
Like the Idrakpur Fort, this was also used for protecting the nearby settlements and Dhaka from the raids. Back then, the area was a very important strategic location for Mughal defences, as the Shitalakkhya, the Dhaleshwari and the Brahmaputra rivers met at this point. Nowadays, the three rivers have shifted towards the west, south and east respectively. At the same time, the Brahmaputra has mostly dried up, and the flow of the Dhaleshwari has decreased significantly, which undermines the utility of the fort at the present.
It is assumed that the fort was built in the Mughal period, but it is not known whether it was commissioned by Mir Jumla or someone before him. It is rumoured that the fort was a Magh or Portuguese fort, and was then captured by the Mughals. This statement, though, cannot be backed up or verified with proper sources and is most probably just gossip.
The fort is a rectangular shaped structure with a circular section on the west where there is an elevated platform. This base was used for bombardment by long-range heavy cannon. It also has other spaces for placing cannons at different sides. The premises most likely did not have any other buildings inside, as no ruins can be found. It was common practice for the Mughal army to establish army camps with tents and temporary settlements with mainly wooden structures when necessary within the fort. The fort was in ruins, before the Department of Archaeology took up the work of restoration and maintenance—it is today a well maintained remnant of Mughal Dhaka.
This fort is very close to Dhaka (about 20 km), located at the outskirts of Narayanganj city. It falls to the western side of the Narayanganj-Demra Road while moving outwards from the town. It is evident from old maps and records that the fort was built along the river side, but here too the channel over time shifted quite a bit towards the east.
The pentagonal shaped fort is the most elevated one among the three. It is located on the western bank of the Shitalakhya River (opposite of the Sonakanda fort) at a place where it meets the river Buriganga. Measuring approximately 250 by 200 feet; the fort is elongated along the east to the west. The walls are about twenty-feet-wide and the five segments of the fort are not equal. The corner of the walls are curved and there used to be bastions for cannons. There are several battlements on the wall along with some platforms connected to the walls to operate the cannon. There is a large square platform on a corner. The interior space was likely used as the premises for troops to stay, retreat and move forward during a battle. It is known that the famous Subedar Mir Jumla stayed here quite often and from here, started some of his conquests.
After the British period, the fort was abandoned and it started to fall apart. The Department of Archaeology has taken it under their jurisdiction and repaired it. Today, it can be seen at its original state.
OTHER FORTS AND DEFENCE SYSTEMS
Besides the three river forts mentioned, the Mughal fortification network system also consisted of some other forts. There were two forts at Fatulla, on both sides of Buriganga River. They can be seen in Rennell's map of the region and were probably structurally similar to the Sonakanda fort. One of them was also called the Dhapa fort. There was another one made by Beg Murad at the connection between the Dholai Canal and the Buriganga River, near the present-day Mill Barrack area of the old town. This was a Pathan fort rather than a Mughal one, but once captured, it was kept in use. In Keraniganj, on the other side of Buriganga River, the Jinjira Palace also used to be a fort, as has been described by some historians and archaeologists.
Another important component of the defence system of the Mughals was the platform for cannons (marked as Octagon in Rennell's map) in the Moglani's Char, in the middle of Buriganga, opposite to the present day Sowarighat. The legendary cannon named Kale Khan or Kale Zamzam was placed there. This was a huge cannon, one which has become a part of the folklore of Dhaka and amazed the British. There was another one, smaller in size called Bibi Mariam, now kept at the Osmani Uddan in Gulistan area. But Bibi Mariam was never used from Moglani's Char. The larger Kale Khan is said to have drowned in the river as Moglani's Char was vanishing due to the Buriganga's flow. Both the cannons were built by locals with instructions from the Mughals.
The Mughals invested heavily in developing a river fortification system in Bengal not only with a view to protecting their empire, especially from raids by Maghs and others, but also to expand their territory, using the forts as their base camps for campaigns. There were also forts in other areas like Egarosindur, Daudkandi, etc. by the side of rivers or in strategic positions. Most of these have been destroyed and are in ruins now. Dhaka, as the capital of the Bengal Subah, served as a base camp for launching expeditions and invasions of other kingdoms nearby for further expansion of the Mughal empire. It was only after claiming Dhaka, the Mughals expanded the empire to Assam, Tripura, Chittagong and Sylhet regions—then too, the conquered areas were not always in complete subjugation. Dhaka was also the capital of the one of the most prosperous regions of the empire, which not only provided raw ingredients for production and food but also a handsome revenue and elephants for the army. Therefore, the objective was to keep the city under absolute control and create a stable political situation here. This was a chief reason for the construction of this expansive fortification network system, which included river forts, palace forts and capital or settlement forts.
Dhrubo Alam is Transport Planner and Fatiha Polin is Research Associate of the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements.
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