Letter from Bangladesh

A Family's Passion


November/December 2013



One morning in 1933, on his way to school in a small village in eastern India, a teacher named Hanif Pathan happened upon a group of construction workers who, while doing some foundation work on a house, had discovered a terracotta pot containing a cache of silver coins. In the days and weeks that followed, Pathan started to look for more coins in a three-mile radius around his village, Bateshwar, in what is now Bangladesh, roughly 40 miles northeast of the capital, Dhaka.


He discovered that the best time to search was after the monsoon season would erode low-lying soil, and he continually came across semiprecious stones and scattered potsherds with intricate designs, simply sticking out of the ground. He learned that other villagers were also finding gems, which they had taken to calling Solaimani pathor, or “stones of the Sulaiman,” the Islamic prophet who wore an onyx pendant to ward off evil.


Pathan spent the next three decades traversing the length of Bateshwar and its neighboring village to the north, Wari. He made an inventory of his findings—which included more pots full of coins—and stored them in his house. Trying to attract the attention of international experts, he submitted countless articles about his finds to newspapers. The day in 1955 that the local Daily Azad published one of his articles, Pathan ran to the classroom of his 15-year-old son, Habibulah, to show him the paper. According to Habibulah, now 73, that was the day when he realized he would eventually be carrying on his father’s passion.


“One day, while walking to school in the rain, I found an amethyst bead,” Habibulah told me last year when I visited the archaeological site known today as Wari-Bateshwar. “I felt as if I had hit upon a king’s ransom. I was so elated that I never took my eyes off the ground from that day onwards. I would look for relics and often found a coin or two to bring to my father. As his eyesight and hearing began receding, I acted as his eyes and ears.”


Hanif Pathan passed away in 1989. Today, Habibulah, also a schoolteacher, lives in the same tin-roofed, concrete house he grew up in and looks after a modest museum in its annex. There, artifacts are piled onto shelves that reach seven feet high. Habibulah is actively involved in present-day excavations archaeologists are carrying on about a five-minute drive from his home.