Sonargaon, the birthplace of Jamdani
The old capital of Bengal, the once thriving city of Sonargaon, used to be part of what was historically known as Dacca (presently Dhaka), is a place of deep historical and cultural significance in South Asia and beyond. Because of its unique location at the confluence of three major rivers – Meghna, Sitalakhya and Brahmaputra, which lead into the Bay of Bengal – it was the site of the flourishing capital of the independent Sultanate of Bengal in the 13th century AD until the early 17th century AD. It served as an important inland port connecting ancient Bengal with the Middle East and Far Eastern countries and was described by numerous early travellers, including Ibn Battuta, Ma Huan, Niccolò de’ Conti and Ralph Fitch as a thriving centre of trade and commerce. Its specific geographic and ecological context also made Sonargaon unique in its production of some of the finest cotton fabrics in the world, particularly Muslin. To traders who came from all around the world, Muslin was a commodity unique to only this region, and therefore highly sought after and as valuable as exotic spices if not more.
One of the most intricate varieties of Muslin is the Jamdani, the art and skill of its weaving process is exclusively possessed by the weavers of the region. Jamdani weavers have retained this rare, unmatched skill for centuries. UNESCO inscribed Bangladesh’s Jamdani as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, and it was registered as the first Geographical Indicator (GI) product of Bangladesh in 2016.
In 1983, Sonargaon became a sub-district of Narayanganj district, Dhaka Division. The main source of income comes from agriculture and commerce. The main cottage crafts are weaving (particularly Jamdani), and wood, bamboo and cane works used to craft the Jamdani looms.
Sonargaon is a popular tourist destination in Bangladesh because of its rich history. The architectural style of the area is heavily influenced by the Sultanate, Mughal, and British colonial periods. The historic city includes several pre-Mughal and Mughal monuments, and historical tombs. The exquisitely built colonial style residences of Panam Nagar, a prominent cloth trading centre in the latter part of the 19th century, are under the protection of the Department of Archaeology.
In 1975, world renowned artist Zainul Abedin set up the Lok Shilpa Jadughar (Bangladesh Folk Arts and Crafts Museum) in Sonargaon. Currently efforts are underway to establish a Jamdani resource centre in the museum to showcase Jamdani motifs with their descriptions.
Roots of Jamdani in Sonargaon
It is now widely accepted that Sonargaon was the birthplace of the famed Jamdani and it expanded northward along the banks of river Sitalakhya. There are several reasons for concentration of the fabric on these sites. It was the production site of cotton specifically suited to prepare Jamdani because of the particular soil ecology. The quality of water with appropriate mineral content and climate of the region, particularly the temperature and the level of humidity was also suited for Jamdani yarn and weaving. Due to these favourable conditions that were unique to the area, it has been impossible to recreate quality Jamdani anywhere else, despite various attempts.
The Craft of Jamdani
Jamdani, without a doubt, is the most treasured of all the Muslins. What makes it exceptional is its unique range of designs, both geometric and floral, which are not found in any other textile tradition of the region. These designs are considered to be of Persian origin by historians. It is known that Muhammad bin Tughlak, the 14th century Sultan of Delhi, brought in Persian weavers to work with indigenous artisans to weave Jamdanis. This interaction increased significantly under the patronage of the Mughals, who took Muslin and Jamdani to unprecedented heights of excellence and led to the substantial presence of Muslim weavers around Dhaka. It is therefore not an accident that all Jamdani motifs and patterns are made up of delicate geometric representations of flowers, leaves and creepers and not human or animal images, which are forbidden in Islam.
The names of the patterns have changed over the years from Persian ones like Panna Hazara to the indigenous Hajar Buti, but the weaving technique, the loom and the tools have remained the same over centuries.
Economic contribution of Jamdani
The economy based around the production of Jamdani, does not only involve the livelihoods of weavers, but an entire cast of artisans, both men and women, involved in the preparation of the yarn and crafting of the loom. A key characteristic of Jamdani weaving is that all designs and layouts are drawn from memory and passed on from generation to generation, from father to son, from master to apprentice, through verbal instructions. It is therefore essential to nurture this inter-generational transmission of skill to keep the craft alive, as the decline of Jamdani would affect an entire community of artisans with little resources except their rare skills.
Efforts to revive Jamdani
Currently the Jamdani industry is struggling to survive in the small villages of Sonargaon and its neighbouring areas. It is in decline because of competition from low cost power loom sarees, poor wages and an absence of direct access to the market. Demand for high-end Jamdanis would substantially improve the livelihoods of weavers and encourage transmission of skills.
Various efforts have been made to revive the craft. In 1996 Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) set up a Jamdani Village in Sonargaon, giving weavers land and other facilities for their workshops. Various organisations collectively mobilised resources to provide services including credit, access to raw materials and marketing facilities. Research and documentation from museums and private collections made it possible for weavers to replicate original designs. Major exhibitions have raised awareness about the rare skill of the weavers and created a greater demand for high-end sarees.
Challenge of Jamdani
Jamdani Festival 2019 proposed to the World Crafts Council to grant Sonargaon the status of ‘World Craft City’.It is hoped that if Sonargaon is recognised as a WCC Craft City by virtue of this craft, it will mobilise the artisans and the government towards a shared commitment to create favourable conditions for the transmission of knowledge of Jamdani and marketing of the textile to ensure its survival in its original form. More importantly, the recognition will safeguard the cultural diversity worldwide and reward its social and economic impact on the lifestyle of its community. Because of various threats to the structures from flooding and neglect, Sonargaon was placed in 2008 watch list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund. Recognition as a WCC Craft City would further motivate attention and resources to Sonargaon. Most importantly, this recognition would aid in ensuring sustainable livelihoods for not only weavers, but all artisans involved in the crafting of the loom and implements and the intricate pre-weaving processes.
- There are 26 Jamdani villages along both sides of the river (Sayeedur 1993).
- As of 2013 it is estimated that around 15,000 people from 3,000 families are involved in the Jamdani industry, which employ about 15,500 weaving units (Suman 2013).
- It is estimated that about 2,000 pieces of Jamdani sarees are being produced per week in the region. Low-end Jamdanis fetch less than GBP 100, but high-end Jamdanis fetch GBP 350-500 or more (Ashmore 2018).
- In addition to domestic demands, Jamdani is supplied to South Asia, Europe, Middle East and North America. The increasing demand of the Jamdani is evidenced by a report published by the International Jamdani Handloom Textile Fair in 2011, organised by Bangladesh Weavers Product and Manufacturing Business Association (BWPMBA). It mentioned of a spot order worth BDT. 0.12 Billion (Iqbal, 2014).
Farina Noireet is a writer and editor from Bangladesh. She worked as a journalist at The Daily Star and Dhaka Tribune, and presently works as a Senior Editorial Assistant at Bengal Publications. She loves animals, music, books, cooking and travelling – which she had the opportunity to do extensively around Bangladesh during her time working at the World Food Programme.