Where is Bangladesh ?
AWAY TO THE north, the world’s tallest mountains rise to rip the clouds and receive the snows of Asia. With warmth, the water runs. The sacred Ganges flows southeastward, offering a corridor to the invaders who have, through time, crossed the high passes to the northwest and descended to unsettle and reshape the history of the Indian subcontinent. The Brahmaputra skirts the Himalayas and writhes westward. The rivers meet and merge, moving on to gather the Meghna and distribute streams on their run down to the Bay of Bengal. Their silt has built the widest delta in the world.
Wondrously green, the delta spreads, implacably flat. The topography is handmade, every elevation requiring an equal and opposite excavation. Dug and borne in head loads, earth has been shifted and heaped into platforms. Embanked by rivers or standing in isolation, meandering mounds of earth make islands on the land, surrounded in one season by sheets of silvery water, in another by lush fields of rice.
The earthen platform lifts habitable space out of the damp. The village has one foundation, and it has one roof. Trees stand and branch to weave a canopy of leaves against the sun. Upon the shared foundation, beneath the shared roof, individual buildings are lifted once more on earthen platforms of their own. Built of layers of clay or blocks of clay or impaled posts, they are screened and covered by bamboo and thatch or tin. Domical stacks of rice straw stand among the buildings. The clean, smooth floor of the village widens into spaces for work and contracts into paths, following walls behind which buildings cluster around familial courtyards. Life flows out of the buildings into the courtyards where food is prepared in fair weather, and out of the courtyards into the expanse of the village, shaded by trees and confined by its foundation of earth.
Home is not the frail building. Houses rise and fall. But the place of dwelling remains and familial spaces join, spreading to include, within the comp ass of home, the one building of permanent materials that endures through the cycles of calamity: the mosque or temple.
Devotion accomplishes the minimum of architectural presence in a niche. The mihrab can stand alone, materializing the niche of the Holy Quran in which God’s light gathers and glows through which prayer is sent by the faithful, assembled beneath the sky on high holy days. The Hindu deity can shelter in a roofed niche, a stage of sticks or clay, open to veneration. But generally the holy alcove is enclosed, ideally in masonry buildings wide and shallow, offering one or three doors to the front. Inside the mosque, one or three mihrabs point toward Mecca, so the local congregation will join in orientation with all the others in the world. Inside the sanctuary of the temple, one or three clusters of images look out, drawing the gaze and the prayers of the devotee across the threshold. The long face of the mosque or temple is usually cooled by an arcaded porch. The buildings differ in that a walled courtyard, like the courtyard of the village home, encloses the front of the major temples, while the rural mosque stands free, but they are architecturally alike at the core, and they are alike in function. Both accept devotion and donation, consolidating as symbols of collective pride and settings for collective performance. Both unify the community of faith, providing through repetitive ritual a sacred argument for the interaction that is normal in the middle of the village and that is necessary at its edge where people cooperate to control the relentless waters and force the soil to yield food.
Below and beyond green fields spread into an unfenced patchwork expanding in vast central spaces crossed by raised paths and worked by teams. Villages form forested hillocks on the rim of the horizon.
Settlement on the delta localizes the pattern of the agricultural open field village, found from the Bay of Bengal to the Irish Sea. At the northwestern extremity, on the medieval landscape of England, the stone church, stepping down from tower to nave to chancel, assembled a ring of wooden homes, beyond which the farmer’s holdings scattered through the broad fields. In the middle, in Anatolia, where the pattern consolidated in the Neolithic, the village occupies a slope. The minaret spires above the terraced pile of houses. The fields cluster in the valley below. The rocky pastures ascend to the ridge crest. At the southeastern edge, in Bangladesh, there are sixty-eight thousand villages, rambling toward connection on their mounds, while the fields fan away and the storm clouds gather.
Along its northern and eastern borders, Bangladesh tilts up, but in the middle it is flat and fertile, layered with clay and free of stones. Through it rivers run, receiving lashings of rain and rising slowly into floods that drive people and snakes to higher sites. The wide quiet landscape is incomplete without people. Bangladesh is, like Ireland, predominantly rural; its space is twice that of Ireland, but its population is more than thirty times larger. No view over the land lacks people moving: plowmen following oxen in the mud, boys slinging water from field to field, women in groups, collecting the sun in saris of gold, rose, and crimson, on their walk from the bathing place at the riverside. At night, lanterns prick the dark with amber, marking bamboo stalls along the lanes. The lights flicker with the ceaseless stream of people in numbers in motion.
The great rivers, going south, inscribe a chevron pattern on the land. The Ganges, called the Padma, intersects with the Brahmaputra, called the Jamuna, and flows on to meet the Meghna at the heart of the delta. Just upstream, the Meghna had received the Dhaleswari, and upstream again, the
Dhaleswari had released then regathered the Buriganga. On the northern bank of the Buriganga stands Dhaka, city of the delta.