An Architect's Dhaka
Dr. Mahbubur Rahman
THE young architecture student, now in Minneapolis, did a beautiful presentation of the mosque all in black ink dots and won the competition by defeating many artists. Haji Khwaja Shahbaj, a rich Kashmiri merchant or head mason, is said to have lived in Tongi, but offer Maghreb prayer every evening in the mosque he built in 1679 in pure Shaista Khani style. Given that areas in between Tongi and this mosque were mainly jungles which were cleared to make out a passage for Mir Jumla's army going to Assam expedition, it appears incredible.
There were few settlements along this road now broadly identified as the Mymensingh Road, in Karwanbazaar, Tejgaon and Kuril, with bridges, wells, mosques and inns for the travelers, government officials and army (Karavansarai). For many years this point was the limit of the city. Though it is often said that the famous Dhaka gate near this mosque was built by Mir Jumla, more likely it was built by Magistrate Charles Daws, a workaholic, in 1825 when he started to develop the area north of it as a recreational park by using the inmates of the just established central jail. This gate was (partly) demolished along with other structures when the British started to build various civic buildings in the area in 1905. The current one was erected by General Azam Khan, a more active Martial Law Governor of East Pakistan, which too may have been relocated to its present position while widening the road.
Photos used with the first episode, Daily Star Campus, August 10, 2008
1 & 4. Lalbag Fort gate and walls in a dilapidated stage before restoration. Both are separately listed as heritage structures by the Archaeology Department.
2. Armenian Church
3.Bahadur Shah Park. Scaffoldings were set during a recent renovation.
5. Now demolished 160 years old Jagannath University Library.
6. Backside of the Nimtali Deuri.
7. Greek memorial, TSC.
8. Riverside view of Pink Palace (Ahsan Manjil).
9. Ruplal and Raghunath House.
We also came to know the history of Nimtali Deuri through our association with the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh after their organization of 'Dhaka, Past, Present and Future', a seminar in 1989. My students at BUET did a project on the extension of Society Complex in early-1993, when they prepared measured drawings of the Deuri, the gatehouse of the Nimtali Palace. The half-octagonal structure bears all the distinguishing marks of a Mughal building. The opening on the city side (west) is larger than that on the inside, which has two balconies at the top possibly used to play bugle to announce arrival of dignitaries (nawabatkhana). This is the more ornate side which has featured in all the photographs taken of it!
One such person was Bishop Hebar who has left a vivid description of the palace in its dieing days. He mentioned a "really a handsome gateway (Nimtali Deuri) with an open gallery, where the 'Nobut,' or evening martial music, is performed, a mark of sovereign dignity … a very handsome hall, an octagon, supported by gothic arches, with a veranda round it, and with gothic windows … One chamber with twelve doors known as 'Baraduari' for the individual entrance of the 12 Sardars (leaders) of the mahallas of the city.”
In 1704 a dispute between the Subehdar Azimusshan and the Diwan (Treasurer) Murshid Quli resulted in the capital of Bengal being shifted to Murshidabad and later Dhaka assigned a Naib Nazim (Deputy Governor). The first Naib was Farrukhshiar, who later became the emperor at Delhi. During his time in Dhaka, a large mosque with no dome was built at the south-east of the Lalbag Fort, which has undergone many refurbishments, the last as late as this month, making the original structure totally obscure! The British allowed the Naibs to continue nominally, shorn of powers from 1765-1822 and holding only the title and an allowance from 1822-43. When the last Naib Ghaziuddin Haider died (1843) leaving no heirs, the title became extinct.
The Naibs were the main patrons (Imam) of the Shia community in Dhaka. Many Shias who used to dominate Dhaka's socio-cultural scene migrated to cities like Lucknow and Murshidabad after Ghazi's death. Later Alimullah, the Sunni who purchased the Andarmahal of Ahsan Manjil complex to initiate the beginning of Dhaka's Nawab family, did bear the expenses of some of their activities. The British recognized this by appointing him the Mutawalli of Hussaini Dalan, the main shrine of the Shias. During Eid and Muharram, colorful processions would take place with the crowd rallying between Nimtali Deuri and Hussaini Dalan. A painting depicting such a scene originating from in front of the Deuri, juxtaposed on the major northbound highway, is now kept at the National Museum.
Bara Duari with twelve doors, a vestibule to the Naib's Darbar, existed within the Anwar Pasha Bhaban, now a Dhaka University Staff Quarter at the east of the Deuri which was previously used as the National Museum. The museum that started in a room at the medical college eventually found home in the present not so inspiring structure at Shahbag, though it had all the ingredients required to become a landmark civic building. There were other historic structures, both older or built later, in the vicinity of the Deuri and on the western edge of the Osmany Udyan, and inside the Udyan. To its north in within science campus and Sohwrawardi Udyan, and in and around Shahbag.
As an outcome of the fourth year architecture design project mentioned before, we organized an exhibition of the students' work and a day-long seminar on architectural heritage conservation that culminated into the only book on architectural heritage conservation in Bangladesh, published by the Society.
The book used a water color wash on an axonometric cut section of the Deuri by a young Lecturer of architecture on its cover, and other sketches, for example Ahsan Manjil, inside by another young architect, who was working with us in a documentation project on old Dhaka's heritage structures. Coincidentally both these architects were winners of Shankar International Children Painting Competition, and later became famous designers.
The Asiatic Society has ever since contemplated conservation of the Deuri building that has three levels, and convert it into a display and sales center or city museum. It was built around 1765 under the supervision of Lt. Swinton who rushed to Dhaka from Lakshmipore (Noakhali), which was being ransacked by vandals (sufi, fakirs). The Deuri may have been the first structure in Dhaka to have used iron joists in a style popularly known as the Ganga-Jamuna (rafter-purlin), and also part of the first major colonial period structure.
We submitted a proposal that the current dilapidated hall room be demolished which was declared structurally unfit nearly 20 years ago, so that the front (west) of the Deuri is opened up to the public, who can arrive in a plaza to be created there, connected to a green lawn through underneath the gate and flanked by two structures on its north and south, and the space used for events with the Deuri in the backdrop. I had an opportunity to design the new building on its north, containing a 200-seat octagonal hall echoing the Deuri, a library with a mezzanine floor, project offices, guest house, etc., the integration of the Deuri in the whole scheme in mind. This 'Friendship Building' was partly built about a decade after its design, in a version changed by the Society people.
Committees were formed in the late 1990s to take steps to have the Deuri conserved, but I guess those never sat as being a committee member for two years I was never notified of any meeting despite my repeated request to sit and discuss the matter. Talks were abounding that Norwegian help is coming. I left the country in 1999.
In the meantime the Society has achieved possibly its greatest accomplishment an encyclopedia in Bangla under the able leadership of its current president. I learnt that it is taking more of such great projects including that of conserving the Deuri situated within their premises, as part of celebrating Dhaka's 400 years (as the capital). It has put a mediocre portal in the triangular island in front of its complex, sponsored by a bank.
But is Dhaka only 400 years old? Or should we at all celebrate the fourth centenary of being the Mughal capital? I will say no, and perhaps write on this issue next.
The origin of the name of Dhaka is obscure; we have read at least seven related theories. According to the first one, the name was derived from the Dhak tree (Butea Frondosa) which was in abundance in the location. Dhaka's civil surgeon James Taylor in 1840 wrote about these trees with red blossoms. So what happened to them (some say it was named after an old Dhak or shaded tree on the river, like Achin Brikkhya)?
Another one is related to the Dhakeswari Temple, which pre-dates the present city (not the current structure which is only about 200 years old). Dhakeswari or Dhaka-Ishwari means concealed goddess who (statue) was found in a jungle there, and then the temple was established by Ballal Sen. There are however many other myths related to Ballal Sen, his birth, or his mother being exiled in a wooded area north of the river.
Another one goes like this after arriving at the Pakurtali/Babubazaar which was close to the Afghan Fort (or was it near the Beg Murad Killa or Chadnighat), Islam Khan asked to beat drums and sent soldiers in three directions (except the river on the south) till they could hear the beats, and delineate the city limits accordingly (also suggested that it were actually a group of Hindu worshippers beating drums on the river bank. Similar stories we can find with other kings and with other places, even in Europe and the New World (America).
Or the name could have been derived from an ancient indigenous dialect called Dhaka Bhasa. It was definitely an outlying watch-station, or Dhakka, of the Mughals even before 1608, between two prosperous areas of Bikrampur and Sonargaon, under a Thanadaar. Kalhaan's Rajtorongini too confirmed this. In the Akbarnama, Dhaka is referred to as a thana or a military outpost, and in the Ain-i-Akbari, Dhaka-baju is a pargana (revenue district) in Sarkar Bajuha (under Sultan Barbak Shah, with a Shahar Qazi in 1460!).
There are yet two other theories that of Dhaka being completely submerged under flood water, or being covered with many large shade trees. That's with the name. What about the settlement?
There was definitely a settlement(s) here before the Mughals selecting it as the new location of their capital of the eastern province; given the urgency and military and political acumen Islam Khan was known for, they couldn't just select some virgin land for new establishments. The earliest reference of pearl, spice and muslin from cities in this part of the world is found in Periplus Moris Erythrea (Circumnavigation of Red Sea) written in the first century AD. Pliny the Elder (23-79), an ambassador in the Mauryan court, also mentioned Muslin in his narratives.
That Mediterranean people had trade connections with this part of the world at least since around 2500 years ago is evident from findings of stones, beads, punch coins etc. in Wari-Bateswar, not far from either Sonargaon or Dhaka. My hunch would be that the ancient city Ptolemy mentioned (Sounagarha or capital of Gangariddi) could have been the Aham Rajar Garh in Wari-Bateswar, a place we visited last summer after the day the excavation was officially closed for the season.
Grameen (phone) taking away all the profits at least giving some back to the citizen by sponsoring the excavation. I know of another incident of a large-scale heritage conservation in the private sector that they sponsored (that of conserving Chittagong Railway Station; after all Grameen Phone owed some favor to the Railway as they started by using their communication network). So far pit dwellings, a street or wall, water basins, etc. have been unearthed. It is situated on a high land enclosed possibly by walls and moats, now lowly paddy fields, very close to the old course of the great river Brahmaputra.
Children in the area would still find these apparently precious knick knacks and in the hope of making some quick bucks bring to Prof. Sufi Mustafiz who is leading the excavation. In fact such findings in the 1930s first draw the attention of a local school master Hanif Pathan, who and later his son took the mission of having this officially recognized as an archaeological site, and excavated and researched upon since then. People with titles such as Daad, Pathan, Eusufzai and Dewan in the area remind us of the historic connection with the Pathans and Afghans during the medieval period, a period widely regarded as the Golden Era of Bengal, when it is said that Bengal Sultans even sent relief to the poverty stricken and resource starved Arabs. There were possibly several other periods when the wealth and power of Bengal was unparallel in the world. For example, during the Gupta period, or even before that during the rule of Vijaysingha. Vijaysingha initiated the Indian (read Bengal) domination of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia (Indonesia, Kampuchea, Thailand, Laos etc.), both politically and culturally. Wari findings will not only prove the existence of improved ancient urban civilization in Bangladesh, possibly older than 2500 years, but also establish a continuous trail of urban settlements over the centuries along the Brahmaputra.
Over two hundred years later (than the Greek-Egyptian testimony), a pillar inscription in Allahabad during Samudra Gupta's reign mentioned of Davaka as an eastern frontier kingdom (Allahabad Prashasti eulogy for the great emperor by the poet-laureate Harishen). Thereafter it remained part of Pala Buddhist Kingdom of Kamrup (7-8C), and then of the Senas. It (greater Dhaka area) was also known to be under Gaur in the 1270s, and then suffering obscurity for half a millennium due to the rise of Bikrampur, Savar (Sambhar) and Sonargaon (Subarnagram) as commercial centers.
It is not easy to say how far to the North Pre-Mughal Dhaka extended. It is known that there were (urban) settlements up to Shahar Khilgaon to the North-East (area around Arambag-Fakirapool across the water bodies of Segunbagicha-Motijheel). Besides Miron's Nala, there is the Mazaar of Hazrat Shah Jalal Dakshini in Dilkusha area, killed by the staff of Shams al-Din Eusuf Shah in 1475 as his Sufi disciples became threat to the Sultan, and the mausoleum of Hazrat Shah Neyamatullah Butshikin, a disciple of Khwaja Mainuddin Chisti of Ajmeer, he built a one-dome mosque within the premises of the present Bangabhaban. In fact there are still few historic structures of various periods remaining within the premise which obviously are not accessible to general public; many others either inside the enclave or just to its north and west have been destroyed. Mausoleum of Peer Yemeni, who died in the early fourteenth century, and a mosque exist less than a kilometer from it near Nur Hussain Square.
To the West of the old Fort in the Naswala or Nasara Gali (Christian Alley in Girda Killa area, inhabited by soldiers and auxiliary staff in early-seventeenth century), there was a big mosque built in 1457 by one Khan e Jahan (probably the Chief Minister). It fell down during the 1897 earthquake, though one of the darwazas (entrance gate) stood for many decades afterwards (till 1960s). The foundation stone inscription of this mosque is kept at the Dhaka National Museum. The area could have been part of Mobarakbad where Fakhruddin Mobarak Shah took refuge when ousted from Sonargaon by Kadar Khan. Two other temples existed nearby even before the Mughals came to Dhaka at Aliskhana and Atishkhana; Churihatta (1649) and Khan Mohammed Mirdha's mosques (1706) may have been built on their ruins. Unfortunately the mosque at Churihatta near another historic mosque at the Chawkbazaar is no more there since few weeks back.
Mirdha's mosque in Atishkhana, built on behest of Qazi Ibadullah, is one of the oldest listed buildings in Dhaka. It is one of few such mosques raised on a high podium, built during the Mughal period, and mainly in Shaista Khani style. There are few other such mosques (built on a high podium) which are interesting; the use of the rooms beneath the podium has been of particular interest. Among many suggested uses are shops to bear the maintenance expenses, cells/rooms for poor travelers, madrashah or even stable. I read somewhere, cannot remember now where, that these were raised on high podiums as surrounding areas were infested with snakes and wild beasts, or perhaps to take them above flood levels. Whatever the reasons were, these have created an interesting form along with typical three domes on octagonal drums, paneled/recessed front moldings, octagonal pilasters and turrets, etc. Among such examples are, besides the Mirdha's mosque, Musa Khan's mosque, Kartalab Khan's mosque, Azimpore Gore masjid, Siddiquebazaar Jame masjid, etc.
An evidence of developed pre-Mughal settlement is the Ali Shah Bogdadi's mazaar in Mirpur (1480), on the river Turag, and Katasur on its downstream (where the Shatgambudj masjid is). These and the Binat Bibi's mosque, the oldest surviving building in the city built in 1456-57, are the proofs of the city's existence during the Illyas Shahi dynasty; these Sultans reigned more than 150 years before the Mughals arrived. Some other early settlements and buildings outside the believed circle of Mughal Dhaka at its beginning were the domed mosques of Hazrat Chisti Behesti, a brother of Islam Khan buried in Mahalla Chistia (on the grounds of the premises known as the old High Court building). Among the early buildings are also the Bibi ka Raoja on Buriganga, used as a Husseini Dalan or Imambara, built in 1600, and another old Imambara near Dhakeswari temple.
Bengalla, a small town of 'fifty two bazaars and fifty three lanes' lying between the river and the Dulai Nalla with its centre near the Banglabazaar refers to pre-Mughal Dhaka. The Portuguese cartographer and navigator/explorer Joao De Barros considered the above at the north of the river (Buriganga) prominent enough to be shown in his map of the area prepared in 1550. Ralph Finch described the city of 1586. During that time a Bangla Town was mentioned by the European which could very well be the Banglabazaar, believed to be the oldest part of Dhaka settlement besides Dhakeswari area.
There is documentary evidence that Shankharis (conch-shell craftsmen) and Basaks (weavers) have been living here with substantially established business infrastructure long before the arrival of the Mughal rulers.
Islam Khan Chisti transferred the capital of Subah Bangala from Rajmahal to Dhaka in 1610 and renamed it Jahangirnagar after the name of the emperor in 1612-13. The name Jahangirnagar was used only officially; to the general people Dhaka was more popular. All foreign travelers and company officials used the name Dhaka in their records and dispatches. We however have established a Jahangirnagar University on river Bangshi in Savar an urban settlement which has a known history that pre-dates that of Dhaka.
(Writer is a Professor of Architecture, North South University)