The Shankha Story
Photos: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
During the last decade, Dhaka has experienced enormous changes in terms of architecture, lifestyle, and also the job market. Some of the professions that we used to see twenty years back, are now in the verge of extinction, and have been taken over by modern careers. One of the areas which still holds on to the heritage of the past is none other than Shankhari Bazar.
According to James Wise, a famous civil servent, Shankharis first came into then East Bengal during Ballal Sen's regime. They were first allocated in Bikrampur. In the 17th century, after the Mughal period started the Shankharis came to Dhaka. Astonished by their craftsmanship, the Mughals promised these artisans an entire area dedicated for shankha. It is the same area that we now know as Shankhari Bazar. Mughals had to pay sky-high prices for purchasing lands in this area, as it was one of the most expensive localities in Dhaka. Till 1793 these artisans did not have to pay taxes for their buildings. The place was partly demolished by the Pakistani army during the liberation war, but some of the architectures are still there.
If one looks at some of the remaining buildings from the Mughal period, one can notice that most of the buildings look exactly the same. Most of the structures are two storey buildings surrounded by many other old, rickety buildings. "The Shankharis were given very little space, and they had to manage with whatever was given to them," says Taimur Islam, heritage conservationist of Urban Study Group. "Most of these houses are not wide and look more like a cramped alleyway. The corridors are 10 to 20 feet long."
Most of the artisans, who lived during that period, were followers of Krishna and Vishnu. They celebrated their main religious festival on the Bangla month of Bhadra. During this time they would take a five day holiday, and prayed to the sage Agastya. They believed that Agastya, who once concurred a demon named Shankha Ashur, used the same tools that the artisans use to cut Shankha. "Artisans who used to live in a different area were socially boycotted. This is one of the reasons why Shankharis have been living here for such a long time," says Taimur.
Like other historical sites, Shankhari Bazar had its fair share of problems. The artisans went through severe torture under the reign of Jamindar Abdur Razzak and Raja Ram Ray, son of Raja Raj Ballabh. It is said that when these jamindars were in power, they used to kidnap women from the Shankhari area. According to James Wises's articles, Shankhari Bazar used to be very unhygienic for which epidemic diseases were common in the area.
Other than being the ultimate hub of Shankhas, Shankhari Bazar is also used for celebrating the Holy Festival. People from all over the city come to this place to celebrate the festival of colours. The area turns into a vibrant locality with loud music and dancing.
This is one of the few areas in our country which is struggling to keep its roots alive. In this age of modernisation, places like Shankhari Bazar can remind us of our roots which are as glorious as the Shankha itself.