On the back of elephants

Historians tell Muhammad Ibrahim Ibne Towhid about the real stories behind the names of various areas in Dhaka 

elephantsOften, as a teenager, while passing through green road area of Dhaka, I asked my rickshaw puller to notify me when we are entering ‘Bhooter goli’. It was not because I am scared. I wanted to look at the houses that I passed and identify which can be the ‘haunted house’ that gave the lane its name.
While talking to a senior journalist, it was learnt that the lane may have had a different name. ‘When the British ruled this part of the country, someone named Mr. Booth may have lived in the area. While to the British, this may have been “Booth’s lane”, when translated and pronounced by the Bengalis, the name became “Bhooter goli”,’ he speculates.
Other parts of Dhaka city have even stranger names. Historians and urban experts shared the various motivations behind such names with New Age Xtra recently.
Mesbah Kamal, faculty member at the history department from the University of Dhaka, tells New Age Xtra that most areas in Dhaka got their names based on historical events that took place there, prevalent culture, famous people living there or the kind of commodity or service available in the area.
Many imaginary stories have been created centred around the 400 year old city, says Kamal. According to history, most streets and settlement of Dhaka were named by the Mughal, French, British and Bengali rulers over time. Some of the names have changed on numerous occasions.
Due to political reasons, change of power, class conflict and differences in religious perspectives, the names of settlements were altered time and again.

elephants2Dhaka is over 400 years old. It was named the capital four times and has been called a ‘mega city’, ‘a city of mosques’ and by many other names.
Travelling back in time, this city has a history with elephants and many places have been named with names associated with elephants, according to historians.
The headquarters of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), currently located near the New Market, is known as the Peelkhana. In Persian, ‘Pil’ means elephant.
During the Mughal reign and also during the British rule, majority of the elephants were kept in this area and hence it has been known as Pilkhana or a place where elephants are kept.
Elephants walked all the way towards today’s Dhanmondi to have their food. The place named Kalabagan was told to be a place where there were lots of banana trees, which elephants loved.
Elephants walked all the way from Pilkhana to Dhanmondi, and the road in between was named Elephant road.
On a different note, Dhanmondi once had a large market where rice was sold. The word ‘dhan’ means rice and ‘mondi’ means a place where things are sold or a marketplace.
Coming back to the story of elephants, after having their meals, the elephants went for shower. As they again walked through today’s Elephant road, they crossed a bridge or pool. This place came to be known as ‘Hatir pool’ or Hatirpul. The historian points out that there was a bridge here that the elephants may have crossed regularly.
Another interpretation behind the name of Hatirpul is that the area had a bridge, on the entrance of which were the sculpted heads of two elephants. Whatever the case may be, this place definitely bears the history of elephants.
The elephants are told to have walked all the way to Hatirjheel and took shower in these ponds. As we know the name of the place today, we can associate them with the history of elephants also.
The redecorated canal of today was a massive water body at the time, as has been found in many research papers and historical documents over a hundred to 200 years old. Some of these documents also claimed that this waterbody may have once been a river that later narrowed down to a canal.
The history of the elephants linked with different places of Dhaka city have been elaborately mentioned in the book ‘Dhaka: Smriti bisritir nogor’ by Muntasir Mamun. There are two parts of the book, where the history of many lanes, markets, places and streets of Dhaka have been mentioned.
Mamun shares with New Age Xtra, ‘I have tried to present a history of the 400 year-old city’, while adding that the city owes most of its names to the legacy of elephants left around the eighteenth century.
At the time, Dhaka relied heavily on the powerful animals as the elephants were used to travel through forests and most importantly carried materials for construction of bridges and railways. Elephants kept in Dhaka were sent to different parts of the country to be used in heavy lifting in different projects.
But with the emergence of new transports, elephants are now a rarity in Dhaka.

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