In many districts of Bangladesh, the houses and palaces of older kings – small ones or the mighty ones like Ozymandias – and zamindars have been preserved; but not in Rajbari district
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
The stranger of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias poem found two "trunkless legs of stone" of King Ozymandias standing in the desert, while a "half sunk, a shattered visage lies" beneath.
The stranger also found these words inscribed underneath the statue, telling the world the story of a mighty king of kings.
But long gone are the days of kings, and those of zamindars.
However, history remains; so remain the desolate kingly palaces and houses as witnesses.
In many districts of Bangladesh, the houses and palaces of older kings – small ones or the mighty ones like Ozymandias – and zamindars have been preserved; but not in Rajbari district.
And interestingly, the word Rajbari directly translates as "palace".
Even the name of the district has arguably been derived from Raja Surjo Kumar of Laxmikol, or from the court name (Rajbari) of Majumder Zamindars of Banibaha, which was established in the eighteenth century.
But Raja Surjo Kumar, who lived not a long time ago – in the late nineteenth century – now has almost nothing to prove his existence in history.
Even the rubbles of his palace can no longer be found.
It simply does not exist anymore.
The debris, however, existed even five years back.
But now, one cannot even recognise the place; maybe except for a pond with a decorated ghat on the other side of the road.
Everything is gone.
History did not just treat Surjo Kumar cruelly, but also many others who went before and after him.
For example, King Shangram Shah, or the Majumder Zamindar dynasty of Banibaha.
Rajbari, the princely palace of Majumder Zamindars, was a fabulous creation established in the eighteenth century. Rassundari Devi, a Zamindar's wife from Banibaha, Rajbari; who is reportedly the first full-fledged biographer of Bengali literature, mentioned this palace in her book. But it doesn't exist anymore. Similarly, ill-fated is King Shangram Shah of Banibaha region or Zamindar Bhoirob Majumder, of Meghna, Pangsha. Their palaces have been reduced to debris today.
Now these are past kings and nobles who are still remembered by their names. But there are others who still have their grand houses intact, but their names are long gone.
Lost in history
Ziaul Haque is an official at Gopalganj district administration.
He is the oldest son of late Giasuddin Ahmed – who used to be a bench-clerk – commonly known as Peshkar Saheb.
Sometime in the 1950s, Giasuddin and his brother Mohammad Ali bought a majestic zamindar building in Baliakandi of Panchuria union, which later came to be known as Peshkar Bari – while the name of the original owner remains in oblivion.
Ziaul Haque could not shed any information about the original owner of Peshkar Bari. "I have been living here since I was born. I do not know exactly when and from whom my father and uncle bought this house. It could be that it belonged to some older Babus."
In Panchuria union of Rajbari district, there are at least four such old and majestic houses.
Shafiqul Islam Shimul, owner of a medicine store at Peshkar Mor, lives in one such house.
Almost half of the house however has been destroyed.
"My father bought this house from Bonomali Saha. Saha was the smallest of the zamindars. The biggest of the zamindars used to live in the house which is now known as Peshkar Bari."
He too could not say what the name of the big zamindar was – the original master of Peshkar Bari.
There are three such zamindar houses in Baliakandi region of Panchuria union.
All of them are situated within walking distance, down the railway track from Peshkar Mor.
The buildings here stand tall till date, except for their original owners who are lost in history.
These are now personal properties.
"There is no future"
Abu Reza Ashraful Masud is the editor of Weekly Anusandhan newspaper in Rajbari. This senior journalist is known as Babu Mallik locally.
Mallik is currently working on a book about the history of Rajbari district.
"These houses should not have become personal properties in the first place. Whoever bought them, got them through manipulating the papers, since most of them worked for the local administration back then," said Mallik.
"These buildings should have been government properties and part of our heritage," he added.
Kazi Alamgir, chairman of Panchuria Union, however does not see a future for these buildings.
He is aware of the potential for tourism in the union, but such a future is simply not feasible in his opinion.
"These buildings are now personal properties. As there are lawful owners of these houses, I do not see any future for these buildings except for all of it ending up in rubble. There is no future," Alamgir said.
But Mallik does not quite agree with Alamgir.
"Possible, certainly. But that depends, if we have an honest and courageous administration, especially a deputy commissioner," said Mallik.
Mallik sounded enthusiastic about the tourism prospect for the district, if all of these historic sites are well preserved.
"If you look at the location of Rajbari, this district is located in the middle of the map. People from around 20 of the southern districts move through our roads on their way to Dhaka. Moreover, you can go to any place from here very easily. So, if we can establish our district as a tourist destination, it can have a brilliant future," Mallik added.
Maiden recognition in a quagmire
In 1892, Zaminder Girija Shankar Majumder and Abhay Shankar Majumder built the first building of Rajbari Government High School.
The school now has new buildings, but the oldest building – though not operational – stands as a symbol for thousands of its students.
In 2013, the administration decided to destroy the building and build a multi-storeyed one in its place.
But the decision angered its former and current students.
In the face of their continuous protests, the administration backed down from their decision.
Following a visit of officials from the Department of Archaeology, the administration promised that the building would be preserved.
But six years down the road, in 2019, the administration again decided to take down the building, only to back down in the face of further protests.
The Business Standard asked Md Farid Hossain, a senior assistant secretary at the Department of Archaeology, why such things continue to happen.
"Actually, the central government appoints the deputy commissioner as local representative and s/he is in charge of everything of that district, from law and security to culture and archaeology."
"The Department of Archaeology does not have a large manpower. All the instructions have to come from the local administration. So, only the local deputy commissioner of that particular district can answer such queries," Farid Hossain replied.
Since the first time the local administration promised to preserve the building in 2013, there have been two new deputy commissioners.
Even the DC who promised its conservation last time in 2019, is gone.
Now the current Deputy Commissioner Dilshad Begum, when contacted, replied that no report of such a site reached her.
"Some students came to me about the school building and I told them how to apply properly for conservation, after communicating with the archaeology department. But ever since – maybe because of the pandemic – they did not come to me."
Local newspaper editor Mallik – also a former student of this school – is one of the frontline campaigners for the conservation of the school building.
He said, "There is already an application submitted at the DC office. If they look for it, they will find it. But if they want us to submit the application again, we will do it."
Photos: Golam Mohiuddin Shohan