The Division of Khulna is considerably influenced by
the tributaries of the Ganges, which find their way into the Bay of Bengal
through a vast maze of waterways, making two-thirds of Khulna marshland
or dense jungle consisting of mangrove swamps, an absolute haven for wildlife.
The great tidal forest of the Sundarbans ,
as this lower area is called, an ideal habitat for the Royal Bengal tiger,
stretches along the indented coastline of the Bay of Bengal for about
170 miles (276 km) and in places penetrates up to 80 miles (128 km) inland
from the sea. The heavy mangrove forest floor of the Sunarbans is intersected
by shark- infested rivers with their bewildering maze of evershifting
In this inhospitable region, the affluent city of Khulna, known in history as Khalifatabad was laid out by a little-known warrior saint Ulugh Khan Jahan,
in the mid-l5th century, at the present location of Bagerhat,
the "abode of the tigers." Khan Jahan came from Delhi to settle a Muslim colony in this swampland in the early-15th
century and was no doubt the earliest torchbearer of Islam in the south.
Legend has it that he constructed about 360 mosques and as many freshwater
tanks, as well as palaces, mausolea and other public buildings in a very
short space of time. He also constructed a network of roads linking important
centers in Bengal with his city.
Today, most of these buildings have been swallowed up by the rivers and
jungles, although a few spectacular ruins can still be traced, half-hidden
in the luxuriant coconut groves and tall palm trees. Only a handful of
the mosques still stand. examples of Tughlaq architecture of stark simplicity
imported from Delhi - simple brick structures with tapering corner towers
projecting like the bastions of a fortress, a form not usually associated
with a house of prayer.
Of the surviving mosques, the Shait Gumbad Mosque is the most magnificent, and certainly the largest brick mosque surviving
in Bangladesh. Its name, meaning '60 domes', is misleading as in reality,
it is roofed over with 77 small domes supported by a forest of slender
columns covering a large prayer hall and giving it the appearance of a
medieval church crypt. At sunrise when the rays of the sun penetrate the
eastern entrances, the Interior comes to life. There is little adornment
to this building other than the carved stone decoration to the central
mihrah at the western end of the prayer hall. The exterior facades, with
slightly 'battered' walls, have discernible curving cornices - a concession
to the local style. There is access to the corner turrets from where the
faithful were formally called to prayer. Behind the mosque is a large
freshwater tank known as Ghora Dighi, adding to the serene
ambience of this beautiful rural setting.
Close to the Shait Gumbad are another three mosques, all very similar
in style and design. Just across the new highway is the Singar Mosque
and on the west bank of the Ghora Dhigi is the Bibi
Begni, while the Chunakhola Mosque is surrounded
by paddy fields. All of them are single-domed structures with massive
brick walls and attached circular corner turrets. The Mausoleum of Khan
Jahan, the warrior saint himself, is located along a small road not far
from the previous group of mosques. It is an important pilgrimage center
for all Muslims. The mausoleum and adjacent mosque are perched on the
edge of another enormous tank known as Thakur Dighi,
home to some benign marsh mugger crocodiles. The saint's sepulchre follows
the typical style of a single-domed brick structure with corner turrets.
In the center on a raised platform is the saint's sarcophagus, which is
built of stone and beautifully engraved with verses of the Quran, as well
as the date of his demise on October 25, 1459.
The mound on which the mosque and mausoleum are set was raised by the
excavated earth of the 1.67-million-square-foot (150,000 square-meter)
lake. A broad flight of steps leads down to the large expanse of water
where a colony of crocodiles lives. Two notable characters, Kala Pahar
and Dhola Pahar (meaning 'black and white mountain'), are fed daily with
offerings of live chicken by the mutwalli (caretaker) of the
tomb a custom not usually associated with Islamic practices.
In the vicinity there are several other mosques in varying stages of
decay. At the northwest corner there is a fine domed brick mosque with
stone columns supporting the roof and, at the road intersection, there
is the mighty Ronvijoypur Mosque, which boasts the largest
dome in Bangladesh, spanning over 35 feet (11 meters).The walls are massive,
measuring over nine feet (three meters) thick, with simple but small arched
openings on three sides, producing little light to the somber interior.
Khulna is a thriving industrial and shipping center. There are some amazing
industrial relics to be found - mammoth steam engines abandoned along
the tracks, dejected steel hulks of passenger ferries or coasters floundering
on the river banks, all mingling with the intense activities of a bustling
One of the most interesting ways of reaching Khulna and subsequently
the Bagerhat monuments is to travel there by boat from Dhaka on the 'Rocket
Service', a relic of the British Raj . The boats are vintage
paddle steamers with accommodation ranging from steerage to First Class.
The trip takes anything from 20 hours to 24 hours, depending on the state
of the rivers, and is a wonderful way of exploring the Sundarbans, seeing
the river life and reminiscing on what travel in India must have been
like at the beginning of the century. It is also possible to hire a boat
or join a trip through the Sundarbans from Khulna to Kuakata and Heron Point, where there is a guest bungalow and plenty of wildlife
to be seen. You may get the chance to see the Royal
Bengal tiger, which grows to enormous size in the Sundarbans
and whose propensity for eating humans is legend.