There is an incongruity of a kind in a country that takes pride in its history and yet is not keen about preserving its heritage. In Bangladesh, where history has constantly been a passionate player in its evolution through the decades, there has been at the same time a rather regrettable absence of the urge to preserve all those sights upon which time has stamped the seal of its presence. Old buildings are ignored or pulled down to make room for apartment complexes aimed at drawing economic profits. Sometimes places of such historical interest as the old Ganobhavan have constantly had their status changed, with the result that citizens at some point tend to forget that it was once a place where some momentous deliberations on the emergence of Bangladesh were conducted.
Out of all this note of despair comes a bit of good news. In association with the Norwegian embassy in Bangladesh, World Heritage Convention and the Bangladesh government, UNESCO has come forth to assert itself in the matter of a preservation of cultural heritage sites in the country. The move, which involves a training programme aimed at long-term management of heritage sites and properties in Bangladesh, now comes encapsulated in the document under review. The work is certainly an eye-opener for anyone deeply worried about the existing conditions of our heritage sites, for the simple reason that it details not only the plenitude of the sites but also the grave need of all that must be done to maintain them. A particular difficulty with the preservation of heritage sites in Bangladesh is the nature of the climate which does not guarantee long-term preservation of such sites. Even so, with all the history that forms the basis of Bangladesh’s modern existence, it is important that work on keeping these edifices of history, if one might put it that way, going.
So what does this compendium on Bangladesh’s heritage sites give us? It begins, and naturally ends too, with a recapitulation of history insofar as the construction of the various monuments in the country are concerned. From that point of view, the work is as much about a need to maintain these historical sites as it is about the stories behind their making. Think of sites like Paharpur or, more specifically, the ruins of the Paharpur Vihara. And, then again, there are the many mosques, temples and stupas which remain a powerful testament to the legacy behind the growth and expansion of civilization in this part of the world. This analytical work recreates that history in all its dimensions, which certainly is a most delightful occurrence.
The bigger emphasis in the work, though, is the detailed working of the ideas that ought to go into a preservation of the sites. It is surely disturbing to know that over the years not much has been done at an institutional level on the part of the government to maintain such a powerful historical legacy. The causes, if one were to reflect on them, could be either a lack of knowledge about the means to be employed for such heritage preservation or sheer indifference to the thought of preserving the past in the interest of the future. And we have paid for that failure, which is of course one powerful reason why UNESCO has now come into the picture.
The underpinning of the story is in the training and capacity building section of the work. In other words, the work is a clear hint of how planning for a preservation of historical monuments and sights is essentially based on mathematical precision, which precision is again dependent on the level of training imparted to those who will be on the maintenance team. A reading of the subjects covered in the training programme gives one a fairly good idea of what to expect from this work. Briefly, all ideas of a preservation of the heritage sites, of the nature of the training and capacity building programme are contained in such critical areas as spatial planning, brick conservation and management. So what you have here, when everything is said and done, is a concerted movement towards recreating the past, in all its various dimensions and colours, on the fundamentals of the environmental exigencies of the present.
The work deserves to be publicized on a wider scale through the media and at the institutional level. Bangladesh’s department of archaeology and UNESCO, along with the editorial board and the clutch of experts behind it, have done a commendable job. They have reinforced our understanding of history. Perhaps we now have a fresh new opportunity of building on such an understanding of a past that has shaped our world and, with that, our world view?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is with The Daily Star