Munshibari Estate: Quiet and isolated→ Syed Ismail Ashraf
Off beaten path towards cooler regions in the southeast of the hustle and bustle of the capital Dhaka, lie a quieter territory in Comilla unintruded by the rapid urbanisation and struggles of daily metropolitan life. Two hours away lies a sprawling land, free from traffic and buildings. In the centre lies an old feudal estate namely Munshibari Estate that has a very Indo-Persian touch. In a calm village called Taltoli exist remnants of a mansion and a community of living quarters, lakes, religious and education centres. Local people tell of a Turkish family of traders that settled here in the 1700s. They were instrumental in preaching Islam. They were well versed in many languages. Later they held rights to tracts of land around the area which they governed on behalf of the Nawab in Murshidabad.
One can approach to the estate by boarding a boat.
Being able accountants and calculators, the family quickly rose to function as officials in the colonial British government which gave them the family title of ‘Munshi’ meaning the ‘Secretary’ in Urdu language. In the 1800s, the family joined the Jute trade with the British East India Company when the East Bengal villages started producing it for regional consumption. This was a promising start, as Bangladesh was destined to become the largest exporter of raw jute in the world.
Moving around the estate, the eyes are greeted by a serene and shimmering view of a water body, a treat in the blistering heat of Bangladeshi summer. The pond is a soothing view. On top of a flight of old stairs from the pond’s edge stands an old mosque called the Munshibari Taltoli Jame Masjid. A marble plaque says it was established in 1891 by one Huss’eynud-Din Munshi, no doubt a patriarch of the family. Locals say that since then, the Islamic clergymen began calling on the local faithfuls to the Friday prayers. Built by local masons and artisans, the fascinating Indo-Saracenic and Islamic blend is quite a treat to the eyes in a space of green openness. Four imposing minarets line the four edges of the structure.
Inside, from the main hallway, the main prayer room holds the prayer oval where the head clergy or imam sits in a throne-like piece of old furniture also called the musalla. He delivers sermons here occasionally, heard from an antique loudspeaker on top of the roof, guarded by the minarets. Carved into the walls is a small library for scriptures in Arabic and Bengali used during Islamic lessons. The pond is mostly used now for Islamic ritual purification. Another flight of stairs lead to the top of the mosque. Adjacent to the structure lies a quaint living quarter for the resident holy man.
There is a school nearby, called Taltoli Primary Public School. It was initially called Bilayet-un-Nissa Primary school during the era of the British rule and of East Pakistan. It’s named after Bilayet-un-NissaKhanem, the wife of Khan Abdul Hamid Munshi. He made a school for her because she wanted to attend lessons outside of the residence. During that era, Muslim women were not allowed to visit outside of their residences regularly without male supervision. This is why the family employed regional islamic teachers from the mosque to deliver lessons in urdu, farsi (persian) and Arabic. Overtime it recruited more local students. In 1971, the Government of independent Bangladesh took over the school as a public primary school under national curriculum.
The history was interesting. Most of the family descendants do not live on the estate anymore, although it is owned by them. Travelling around the complex, it is easy to imagine life in the simple days, walking from the main living quarters, peeking through residences of the joint families, young children trotting off to attend school, while the faithful approaching the family mosque to answer the call to prayers. The ruins now make one reminisce about the old days, before they have to return to the upbeat pace of life, in a place like the ever evolving Dhaka.