Eid Celebration in Dhaka through Ages

The tradition of celebrating Eid as a festival in Bengal is quite old, might be older than we generally assume. There are traces of Muslims and their festivals especially the two Eids since the arrival of Islam in East Bengal. Though the celebrations and other arrangements were basically for the relatively richer upper-class which included mostly the rulers and businessmen and their families, there were no restrictions for the common people to participate in those festivals. When Dhaka became the Mughal capital of Bengal, there is no doubt that the celebrations for the festivals like Eid, Ramzan and Muharram got bigger with endorsements from the ruling society.

Unfortunately, there are almost no well documented description of them. The famous memoir named Baharistan e Gayebi, a 17th-century chronicle on the history of Bengal, Cooch Behar, Assam and Bihar (which describes the time period between 1608 and 1624) is written by Mirza Nathan has a brief account of the activities in the cities and barracks or camps during the Ramzan and Eid in Bengal (Mirza Nathan passed his military career in Bengal probably as a general His father Malik Ali, later entitled Ihtimam Khan, came to Bengal as Mir Bahr (Admiral of the imperial fleet) in 1608 along with Islam Khan Chisti. Mirza Nathan accompanied his father to Bengal and joined the imperial service) We can only imagine that even before that the Afghan/ Pathan rulers who were also Muslims probably have celebrated Eid and brought the muslim community together. But it can be guessed that the festivals became more and more significant in the life of Dhakaites during Mughal period as city grew in prosperity.

Though the description of Mirza Nathan does not portray the situation in Dhaka during the festival, it depicts the way Ramzan and Eid was observed among the Mughals in Bengal. It was quite common among people from all ages in the barrack to gather around the camps during Ramzan at the time of Iftar and Sehri. It should be noted that Dhaka was still just a Mughal outpost back then, so the city was centered around the old Afghan fort (which is the old central jail area at present). Another significant event in the month of Ramzan was to search for the new moon in the sky at the evening just before the Eid day. The moment the moon was seen, the soldiers would blow bugle and blank fire, the artillery would fire the cannons and fireworks would have started. These activities continued till midnight. On the Eid day, feasts were arranged at the palaces, forts and barracks and would continue for all day and night. There would been gatherings of the courtiers and riches. Parties involving singing and dancing of the beautiful ladies were arranged. Apart from these, the high officials of the Mughal administration would also give handsome charities to the poor on that day.

The first written account of Eid celebration of Dhaka can be found in the book Nawbahar e Murshid Quli Khan written by Azad Hossain Bilgrami (Murshid Quli Khan was in this city from 1700 to 1702). Historian Abdur Rahim quotes from the book that, during the reign of Nawab Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan (1727-1739), his deputy (Naib) would go from the old fort to the Eidgah (which is now situated at the present day Satmasjid Road, Dhanmondi) in the morning for Eid prayer along with a glorious procession for about 2 miles while giving away money to the poor abundantly on the way. This description seems a bit exaggerated. Anyhow, the famous Eidgah in Dhanmondi was approximately built in 1640s by a courtier of the court of Subahdar of Bengal Shah Shuja (ruled between 1641-1661), named Mir Abul Quashem. From the accounts of historian Munshi Rahman Ali Tayesh (writer of the book Tawarikh-e-Dhaka), it can be known that even though the area around the Eidgah was getting consumed by forests as Dhaka was shrinking then; people still went there for Eid Jamaat in the later part of the nineteenth century. A fair was also arranged by the locals where people came from far away. Bengalis incorporated the fair with other activities of the festival as it is an integrated part of their culture.

Later, the Naib Nazims of Dhaka added the biggest attraction of the Eid festival, a splendid procession of Eid. Fortunately, quite a few paintings of that grand procession by a painter named Alam Musawar are available at the National Museum in Dhaka (in total 39 paintings can be found including few of the procession for Muharram). It is unknown when the procession started. Historian Muntasir Mamoon assumes that when the Naib Nazims shifted and started to reside at the Nimtoli Palace (the construction of the palace finished in 1766), they took the initiative for the procession.

The procession used to start from the palace, meandered along different streets, obviously covered the Chwak and Hussaini Dalan area and finally ended from where it began, at the gate of the Nimtoli Palace. The procession included large elephants adorned ornates, heavily decorated camels, horses and palanquins etc.. The Naib Nazim used to lead the procession himself; sitting on top of an elephant at the front. It also had people waving flags of various bright colors, playing different types musical instruments especially drums and bugle, numerous infantries carrying well decorated umbrellas etc. There used to be street performers of various types too. Huge gatherings would take place to witness the unique event and the bystanders included from local to Mughal and English. Unfortunately, the procession did not continue for a longer period of time, as the last person from the dynasty of the naib nazims died in 1843. Probably, it stopped way before he died, because of lack of endorsements. This information is supplemented by the fact that Bishop Heber (1783-1826; christian missionary and a writer) saw the Nimtoli Palace already in dire straits when he visited Dhaka in 1824.

The British eliminated the traditional post of Naib Nazim and overhauled the ruling system. Later in the nineteenth century, the Khwaza family ultimately became the leader of the muslim community in the city. They gained fame as the Nawab family of Dhaka. During this period, the city was decaying, as a result, Dhanmondi Eidgah became a place too far to travel. So even when there were Eid prayers, only the locals would attend. The main two Eid jamaats of city then were at the Lalbagh Shahi Jame Masjid and the Nawabbari Masjid.

The Nawabbari or the famous Ahsan Manzil was also the best placefor the new moon sighting on Chanrat (the night before Eid). If the new moon was seen, the news would be disseminated with blank fires from the canons of nawabbari. People used to gather around the pond of nawabbari, Gol Talab for the news. Fairs were arranged at different locations of the city like Chawk, Armanitola, Ramna Green etc. where there were open spaces. Not only people from all walks of life gathered, but also the members of the nawab family used to visit them.

Feasts, parties with dancers and singers were organized at the nawabbari by the nawab family. Though entry was barred for the common people there. Dramas, theatres were staged and in the end bioscope shows were arranged at the nawabbari as a part of the Eid celebration. Apart from these activities, it is said that the nawabs actually started the tradition of Qasida (an old tradition of Old Dhaka. During the time of Sehri, groups of people would sing Qasida to wake up the Muslims in a neighborhood) which may not be completely true, but they have definitely revived it. Also, they appointed Imam and Hafez at numerous mosques for proper arrangement of Tarabeeh and Khatam e Tarabeeh in Ramzan. About 70-80 years ago, in the 30s or 40s of the twentieth century, these traditions continued as we get to know from the memoirs of various persons from that period. The fairs of Chawk and Ramna got bigger and famous.

James Taylor, the civil surgeon of Dhaka, wrote in his account of Dhaka (1840) that the whole month of Ramzan is a festivity. Hakim Habibur Rahman (1881–1947, was an Unani physician, litterateur, journalist, politician and chronicler) also restated that in the 1890s in his book. It is true that the Dhaikites used to get prepared and still get ready not only for the Eid but also for the whole month of Ramzan. But most of the older traditions and unique foods are lost in time. The Subahdar, Naib Nazim or Nawabs are now part of the history. On the other hand, newer aspects of the festival have been added like special television programs, concerts, the shopping spree on Chanrat etc. The event of new moon sighting, fireworks, Eid fairs have continued. Eid procession, singing Qasida, more and more Eid fairs have started to take place again with new enthusiasm and the festival has become all embracing.  

 

Bibliography

  1. Md. Alamgir, ‘Muslim Bangla’r Oprokashito Itihash: Dhaka’r Nawab Poribarer Obodan’, Khoshroz Kitab Mahal, February, 2014 (in Bengali).
  2. Muntasir Mamoon, ’Purano Dhaka: Uthsab O Gharbari’, ‘Dhaka Samagra 1’, Anannya, January, 2003 (in Bengali).
  3. Hakim Habibur Rahman, ‘Dhaka: Ponchash Bochor Age’, Papyrus Ed., (translator: Muhammad Rezaul Karim) 2005 (in Bengali). (1st published in 1945)
  4. Syed Muhammed Taifoor, ‘Glimpses of old Dhaka. A short historical narration of East Bengal and Aassam, with special treatment of Dhaka’, revised and enlarged second edition, 1956
  5. Muntasir Mamoon, ‘Dhaka: Sriti Bistrir Nogori 2nd Part’, Anannya, February, 2009 (in Bengali).
  6. James Taylor, ‘A Sketch of the Topography and Statistics of Dacca’, The Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, March 2010 (1st Edition published in 1840)
  7. Mirza Nathan, ‘Baharistan e Gayebi’, Dibyaprokash, (translator: Khalekdad Chowdhury) January, 2012 (in Bengali). (English Ed. first published in 1936)
  8. M. A. Rahim, ‘Banglar Shamajik O Shangoshkritik Itihash (2nd part)’, Bangla Academy, January, 2012 (in Bengali).

Dhrubo Alam, is a civil engineer, specializing in transportation, who now works as a Transport Planner in Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements. He is also interested in urban planning and history, especially on Dhaka.