In the Folds of Islampur by Tamanna Khan

September 4, 2011

The Daily Star August 12, 2011

Islampur Road, which runs parallel to the River Buriganga connecting Banglabazar with Mitford Road, is home to the largest wholesale market for cloth in the country. With numerous thread-like lanes on either side of the road crowded with pedestrians, trucks, pick-up vans, cycle vans, rickshaws, three-wheelers, motor bikes, and cars, Islampur almost takes one’s breath away, literally speaking. The perpetual bustle of the area accentuates our overt infatuation with one of the basic necessities of civilisation — clothing.

Although the legendary Dhakai Muslin can no longer be found in the innumerable stores located inside the newly constructed high-rises or the dilapidated buildings from the past, anything from hospital bed-sheets to expensive garment materials are available in Islampur. ….

Islampur acts as the hub for the fabric business. Most of the customers in Islampur come from different district towns of the country. ….. The grey-haired Mohammad Yakub, who often visits Lutfur’s shop (Haji Muhammad Lutfur Rahman, owner of New Moon Fabrics that sells curtain and seat cover from the other side of the Buriganga, reminisces: “Once the Nawabs of Dhaka treaded this road in their horse drawn carriages and shopped at the fancy shops on both sides of the road.”

The ruins of the Nawab-bari  gate now lead to rows of tiny cloth stores, selling both retail and wholesale fabrics to customers who throng the market for Eid shopping. Among the group of university students and burkha-clad women haggling with the street side shop owners, it is hard to find the likes of the Nawab family. Neither do the muddy lanes running alongside deep ancient gutters, overflowing with sludge, help in conjuring up the lost aristocracy of the place.

Only Ahsan Manzil, the palace of Dhaka’s Nawab, situated on the western side of Islampur validates Yakub’s reminiscences. Being near the river, trade and commerce have always thrived in Islampur, which is named after Mughal Dhaka’s founder, Nawab Islam Khan Chisti. The Islampur mosque constructed during his time still stands proof of the neighbourhood’s importance 400 years ago. Nazir Hussain in his book “Kingbadantir Dhaka” (The Myths of Dhaka) states that Islampur was originally the business centre for fruits and local elders still call the place Aampatti (Mango colony). He also mentions that the British had set up agencies to conduct wholesale cloth business here in 1773, during the Company era.

Romel, owner of Samantha Fabrics, situated in one of the markets inside the crumbling Nawab-bari gate, acts as a middleman buying excess fabrics from ready-made garment factories and selling the same to tailoring shops. “Large stores like Cats Eye, Seal, Rex and Westecs also buy from me for making pant pieces (trousers),” he says. He cannot say where the fabrics are originally from as the exporter’s sticker are no longer to be found on the rolls. “The quality of the fabric is judged by its thickness and the quality of thread. The price of the material depends on the construction of the thread,” informs Romel. However, he adds, tailors do not understand the measurement of the thread and buys fabrics based on colour requirement. …..

Though foreign fabrics mostly from Asian countries are available in Islampur, almost 80 percent of the merchandise comes from textile mills situated in Narsingdi, Madhobdi, Roopganj and the other districts near Dhaka, informs Abdus Sattar Dhali, president of Islampur Bastro Babshayi Samity (Islampur Cloth Traders Association). Trucks and pick-up vans carrying merchandise from these districts park right on the road since most of the markets do not have any parking lot. ….

One of the major problems of Islampur is its unnerving traffic jam. “Nothing has been done to widen the road or improve communication to keep pace with the growth of business here,” says Dhali. He complains that the road is badly in need of repairs but no step has been taken. “We have employed community police who works alongside traffic police to control the heavy traffic on Islampur Road,” he says noting that even this step is not enough to handle the pressure of Eid shoppers.

Once a renowned shopping area for all sorts of consumer goods, Islampur now appeals only to fabric traders and a handful of consumers who dare to cross the sea of traffic and search through the nooks and corners for their desired fabrics. There are no markets exclusively selling a particular type of fabric, neither any written directions to help with the search. In spite of Islampur’s inconvenience, customers do manage to find the finest cotton, silk, chiffon, georgette, brocade to adorn and facilitate life starting from the first blanket for wrapping a newborn to the shroud covering the dead. Traders and ordinary people who frequent the place somehow seem to know their way through the maze of colourful fabrics of different print and texture and miraculously, trading activity goes on uninterrupted at Islampur braving all kinds of odds.

**Fabrics for bed-sheets, curtains, cushions, seat covers, varieties of men and women’s wear in all price ranges and quality can be found in Islampur.

**Being a wholesale market, Islampur faces the rush of Eid a month before Ramadan, when retailers start replenishing their shelves with new fabrics.

**Truckloads of merchandise arriving from textile mills located in Dhaka’s adjacent districts
are carried by porters to the stores inside the thread-like lanes of Islampur.

**Approximately 100 markets trade fabrics six days a week from morning till evening in Islampur.

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