Sonargaon, meaning Village of Gold, has deep historical and cultural resonance in South Asia and beyond. It was the flourishing capital of the independent Sultanate of Bengal from around the 13th century AD until early 17th century AD. Its unique location at the confluence of three major rivers – Meghna, Sitalakhya and Brahmaputra (now moribund) leading into the Bay of Bengal - gives it both its historic and cultural significance. Historically it served as an important inland port connecting ancient Bengal with the Middle East and Far Eastern countries and was described by numerous early travelers, including Ibn Battuta, Ma Huan, Niccolò de' Conti and Ralph Fitch as a thriving centre of trade and commerce.
Culturally, its specific geographic and ecological context made Sonargaon unique in the production of ‘ exceedingly fine cotton wool employed in manufacturing the very delicate, beautiful Muslins of that place’ (Roxburgh 1832). In particular, Sonargaon was mentioned by Abul Fazl and Ralph Fitch (16th century) as a place “where the finest cotton cloths are made.” .Jamdani is the most intricate variety of Muslin. The art and skill of making Jamdani was ‘exclusively possessed by the weavers of Dacca arangs(market)’ (Mitra 1978: 42; Gillow and Barnard 2008). Jamdani weavers have retained this rare, unmatched skill for centuries. Jamdani was registered as the first Geographical Indicator (GI) product of Bangladesh in 2016. In 2013, UNESCO inscribed Bangladesh’s Jamdani as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
Sonargaon was perhaps the earliest site of production of Jamdani and it expanded northward along the banks of river Sitalakhya (CPD/NCCB 2014). There are several reasons for concentration of Jamdani on these sites - it was the production site of cotton specifically suited to prepare Jamdani because of the particular soil ecology and freshness of the sea air (Allen 1912; Taylor 1851; Basu 1955); the quality of water with appropriate mineral content and climate of the region, particularly the temperature and the level of humidity was suited for Jamdani yarn and weaving; the river system facilitated the distribution and marketing of finished products within the region and to the wider world through the Bay of Bengal; and the implements for making Muslin were easily available in the region. Despite various attempts, it has been impossible to recreate good quality Jamdani in any other region.
Jamdani, the loom-woven figured Muslin, the “chef d’oeuvre of the Dacca loom” ( Watson 1886), was the most treasured of Muslins. What makes Jamdani 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 Indian weavers to weave Jamdanis. This interaction increased significantly under the patronage of the Mughals, which took Muslins and Jamdanis 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, forbidden in Islam. The designs are skillfully adapted to the weave of the fabric, the finest designs being the ones with gently flowing curves instead of sharp outlines. The names 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. Because of its unique history, its remarkable range and diversity of designs that Jamdani is unmistakably representative of Bangladesh.
Another 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. Therefore, it is essential to nurture this inter-generational transmission of skill to keep the craft alive.