The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Saving Dhaka’s heritage

by Christopher Shay

From the back of a rickshaw in the busy streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, Taimur Islam shook his head and pointed to an old residential building being torn down. “There’s goes another one,” he said. “It never stops.

Islam, an architect, is the head of the Urban Study Group, a small band of architects founded in 2004 that are campaigning to save the cultural heritage of Puran Dhaka, the most historic area in the city. The group has documented some 3,000 heritage buildings in Puran Dhaka, most of which have fallen into disrepair and are in danger of destruction. With about 700,000 inhabitants, the 24-sq-mile area is one of the most densely populated parts of an already packed city.

“It’s dirty. It’s messy. It’s crowded,” Islam said about Puran Dhaka, but that is part of its charm.

There are colourfully decorated rickshaws around every bend, tea shops on every block and kids playing cricket wherever they eek out the space. Calls for prayer echo from the mosques, and samosa sellers invite passers-by into their shops — oftentimes offering foreigners free samples.

To raise awareness of Dhaka’s heritage before it disappears, Islam runs two Urban Study Group walking tours a week for Bangladesh’s expatriate community and the rare tourist. A small donation of 500 taka is requested per person. Starting at 8 am and usually lasting until 11 am on Friday and Saturday, Islam guides people through the confusing warren of alleys to 400-year-old forts, tranquil Christian cemeteries and colonial mansions. He offers 10 different tour routes – each one shows a different part of Puran Dhaka and each is a fascinating three-hour history lesson through Dhaka’s past.

Dhaka became the Mughal capital of Bengal in the early 17th Century, during which the city was bustling trading metropolis. The Mughals built caravansaries (accommodations for camel caravans), palaces and bazaars, remnants of which can be seen on the walking tours. Trade flowed through the city, and a few merchants — many of them Hindu or Armenian — acquired great wealth, building stately colonial mansions next to the Buriganga River. Dhaka was one of the largest, most important cities on the subcontinent.

But it did not last. With the British takeover of Bengal in the mid-18th Century, Dhaka’s population and influence declined as the empire’s new colonial capital, Calcutta, flourished. By 1824, a visiting Anglican bishop from Calcutta called Dhaka a city of “magnificent ruins”.

After partition— when Pakistan, which included Bangladesh, split off from India in 1947 — most of the remaining Hindu merchants left, abandoning their homes. The wealthy Armenian community, which once numbered around 300 families, almost all died or left.

On one typical tour, Islam leads the group through the chawkbazaar, a 400-year-old bewildering maze of street market stalls, packed with everything from electronic goods to sweets. Just south of the bazaar lies the Barakatra, once the tallest structure in Dhaka. Built in the 17th Century, it housed 22 shops and acted as a grand inn for travelling merchants. Today, only about half the Mughal building stands, and ramshackle residences — even a public bathroom — have been cut into the building. You can still stand in one of the two remaining gateways and imagine trading caravans passing through.

Though the grand old merchant homes are falling apart, Islam’s tours take visitors into the courtyards to meet the families now living there. Bright saris hang on ornate, rusty railings. Kids play hopscotch in front of chipped colonnades. An 18th-century Armenian Church and a Christian cemetery dated to around 1600 – two quiet havens in the din of Puran Dhaka – offer respite from the often hot and dusty surrounds. The tour also includes pausing at one of Puran Dhaka’s small tea establishments for a short break of Bangladesh’s deliciously sweet tea.

The tours often end at the Buriganga River, which he calls the “beating heart of Dhaka”. On one tour, he takes the group to a rooftop overlooking the river, to see the heavily trafficked waterway filled with small, wooden boats, ferrying people and goods across.

Islam’s goal to restore Dhaka’s heritage buildings and attract tourists is going to be a challenge. As people have migrated from rural areas to the city, Dhaka’s population has increased from about 6.5 million in 1990 to about 15 million in 2010, with many of new residents living in slums. There is pressure to build up and modernize the city’s overburdened infrastructure. Boxy, concrete buildings pop up quickly and are often shoddily constructed, and the city says more than 20% of the buildings would collapse if it were hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale. Additionally, conserving the city’s cultural heritage does not appear high on many politicians’ to-do lists.

While the Urban Study Group has had some notable successes, like preventing the destruction of the 400-year-old Shakhari Bazaar, Islam is pessimistic about Puran Dhaka’s future. At this rate, he said, “the buildings will all be gone in three or four years.”

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