Is Dhaka 400 or 1500 years old?
Dhaka is the capital that is ever-growing within its confines, with its colours, chaos and hustle. It has always been a bit difficult to trace the origin of this madness of a city, and the exact time it came to be.
Historians are divided when it comes to the age of Dhaka. While some believe the city is around 400 or so years old and did not come to be before the Mughal era, others say there is substantial evidence for the city to be of almost 1,500 years old.
Historians like HE Stapleton, Nalini Kanta Vattroshali, Ahmed Hasan Dani, and Abul Kalam Mohammad Zakaria mentioned the heritages found in Pilkhana, Tejgaon and Chawkbazar in their books as proof of Dhaka's 1,000-year-old urbanisation.
Those heritages include sculptures and coins found in Pilkhana, Bashudeb sculpture found in Churihatta in Chawkbazar and Harishankar sculpture found in an old pond in Tejgaon during excavations.
A group of young researchers has been on the quest to find the capital's real age for 14 years now. Dhaka's Sthapotto Bisoyer Grantha Pranayan Committee (Committee for Documentation on Architectural Sites in Dhaka), headed by Dhaka University's former vice chancellor Prof AAMS Arefin Siddique, reported that according to its findings, the city is almost 800 to 1,000 years old.
Prof Siddique said their group of young researchers has been working to find out the history of the city. "Manda shilalipi (inscription)" and some other evidence prove that the city's over 1,000 years old, he said. "We are still continuing our exploration."
He said the statue of lord Shiva, discovered during a prolonged study by the Committee for Documentation on Architectural Sites in Dhaka, also offered a new gateway to the history as well as ancient art and heritage of this region.
It is a stone statue of Nateshwar, a depiction of dancing Shiva on the back of his bull-carrier Nandi, found at Sarangadhar Jeu Akhada in the capital's Chawkbazar in 2011.
According to experts, the presence of the Shiva statue is a testament to the rule of the Chandra dynasty in this region as well as a rich civilisation in the 10th and 11th centuries. This dynasty ruled sometime during this period.
Nalini Kanta, sculpture expert and one of the founders of Bangladesh National Museum, in his book titled "Iconography of Buddhist and Brahminical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum", mentioned that many Nateshwar statues have been discovered in the south-eastern districts, especially in Dhaka and Tripura (currently greater Cumilla).
Tarun Sarkar, a member of the research team, said sculptures made of stone have been found at different locations in Dhaka, supporting the city's existence before the Sultani era.
According to researchers and experts, no sculptures of black stone were made after the Turkish invasion of the region.
"In the 12th century, when Ikhtiar Uddin Mohammad Bin Bakhtiar Khilji invaded this region, many Hindu families supposedly hid the sculptures of their gods and goddesses underground and in the water bodies. Many such sculptures have been found in different waterbodies near different ancient temples in the city, indicating much older urbanisation in the city that we know to be Dhaka," said Tarun.
"However, the artefacts were lost due to the lack of proper protection and preservation," he added.
According to the committee, the ancient history of Dhaka, especially components of the Gupta, Pal, and Sen periods were ignored during research. Many excavations had been done outside of Dhaka but the country's capital remained overlooked, except for the Lalbagh fort.
"Coins from the Gupta era, which are at least 1,500 years old, were found in the capital's Pilkhana. The existence of the coins was mentioned in Dani's book as well. But there remains no trace of them now, except for in photographs," said Tarun.
Gupta emperors established their dynasty in India in 280 AD and ruled the subcontinent till 550 AD.
During the first period of the 20th century, gold coins from the Gupta era were found in an old pond in what is known to be the BGB headquarters now. The transcript of the coins was first published in the sixth part of the new series of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in April 1910, as part of an article by HE Stapleton titled "Contributions to the history and Ethnology of North Eastern India".
According to Stapleton, there was a habitat in Dhaka before the Mughal period, and the coins -- found 100 yards southwest of Nawab Rashid Khan's pond -- were proof of that.
Stapleton also mentioned that one side of the coin contained a picture of a king carrying a bow, while the other side had a queen or goddess drawn on it.
Dr Habiba Khatun, former professor of Islamic history and culture at Dhaka University, said there is a shilalipi in a mosque at Shatgaon, on which it was written that "the son of a revenue officer of Dhaka, established the mosque in 1467".
Habiba, who is also an expert on sculptures during the Sultani era, said, "It means Dhaka was a revenue collection place at that time. In that sense, we can say Dhaka's history goes way back, even before 1467."
Historian Mosharaff Hossain said, "We can trace back the history of Dhaka to at least 1,500 years back if we consider Allahabad Prashasti, an important epigraphic evidence belonging to the period of the Gupta empire."
Harisena, a court poet of the Gupta king Samudra Gupta, wrote and composed the Prashasti in praise of his patron, elaborating on the Gupta rule and administration, he said.
According to the inscriptions, the names of kingdoms in remote areas include the name "Dabok", which refers to Dhaka.
"Three inscriptions were found in West Bengal's Birbhum, Narinda's Binodbibi Mazar and Old Dhaka's Churihatta mosque, proving the existence of a small city here in Dhaka long before the Mughal era," he said.
"Even if we just consider the Gupta era coins, they date back to between the 7th and 8th centuries. This suggests that Dhaka is at least 1,300 years old," he said.
The argument, however, remains inconclusive. The reason for the knowledge gap when it comes to the capital's age is the negligence in excavation work to find out more about it.
A few years back, excavation work started at the old establishment of Dhaka Central Jail in the capital's Najimuddin Road area as part of its development after the relocation of the central jail to Keraniganj.
However, the work stopped after a year. Not much can be known about the findings of the excavation.
Archaeologist Prof Sufi Mustafizur Rahman, who was directly involved with the excavation work at the central jail, told this correspondent that they got many clues and evidence on Dhaka's real age, which might surpass all the estimates made by historians.
"We plan to submit a detailed report in this regard to the home ministry soon," he said.