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     Volume 2 Issue 100 | January 4, 2009|


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An Architect's Dhaka

Dr. Mahbubur Rahman

Part Eighteen

Nearly 350 years old Ambar Shah Masjid at Karwanbazaar, overwhelmed by an ugly pastiche architecture and additions that threatens its authenticity.
DESPITE drawbacks and undesirable activities, the RajUK initiated a few projects to restore and improve several heritage structures/buildings in Dhaka. Far from being a consistent policy, such attempts owe to personal interest of the high offices, individual initiatives and often the intervention of the highest office. Among these are the monument at the Bahadur Shah Park, Dakhini Mosque in Dilkusha, Ambar Shah Mosque at Karwanbazaar, etc.

Bahadur Shah Park had all the makings of a European city centre with major colonial civic establishments around an oval-shaped island juxtaposed on two main city roads the east-west oldest pre-Mughal road and the first major colonial period axis road connecting the Sadarghat with the expanding city in the north. By late-19C it had mosque, church, school-college-madrasa, bank, news office, library, hostel, etc. set up around the node. It all started with a small European club a century earlier. The premise was called 'Anta Gharer Maidan' as the members used to play billiard. The English later demolished the structure and created a green round-about in front of the St. Thomas Church. The club was shifted to Ramna, which may still own some part of the land on paper around the Park.

It is where the captured sepoys of the 1857 Revolt were hanged though they hadn't actually started the fight in the Lalbag Fort. It was also the scene from where the accession by Queen Victoria and annexation of India was announced amidst much funfair in 1858. The Nawabs of Dhaka took it on them to beautify and maintain the park; there is an obelisk erected by the British in memory of the pre-mature death of the Nawab's grandson. But the other monument, a simple dome on corner walls with four portals symbolises this place. This was erected in 1963 to commemorate the Centenary of the Revolt. Though a design competition was called, it was won by the DIT itself. As then there was no skilled person to make trees for the model, the authority chopped down all the trees of the park. Two years back the DCC (Dhaka City Corporation) undertook a renovation work of the park.

Bahadur Shah Zafar the last Mughal emperor presided over an area that barely extended beyond Red Fort. With no imperial ambitions, he indulged in Urdu ghazals. His court, although decadent and pretentious for a company pensioner, included writers of high standing, including Ghalib. Zafar, symbol of unity among all Indian creeds during the revolt against the colonisers led by the local soldiers, took refuge at Humayun's Tomb on the verge of British victory. Major Hodson surrounded the tomb and forced his surrender. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon in 1858, marking the end of 332 years of Mughal rule in India. He died in exile on 7 November 1862, and was buried near the Shwedagon Pagoda, which became a Dargah that I visited 140 years later. Talks of bringing back his remains to Mehrauli, adjoining the Qutbuddin Kaki's mazaar didn't bear any fruit.

Pakistan views Bahadur Shah as the last vestige of the Muslim state in India, to be resurrected in 1947. India views him as one of its first nationalists actively opposing British rule. In 1959, the All India Bahadur Shah Zafar Academy was founded to spread awareness about his contribution. Movies and dramas have depicted him as hero. There are roads bearing his name in New Delhi, Lahore and Varanasi, and a statue was erected at Vijayanagaram palace. And we have renamed Victoria Park after him.

Shah Jalal Dakhini, a Gujrati saint and preacher, was executed by the men of Sultan Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah and buried along with his disciples here in 1475-76.

The small mosque may have been built by Nawab Ghani in 1854-55, who owned the Dil-khoosha garden and several important structures around, many of which are retained and well maintained. About 140 years on the same architect involved in the conservation of Ahsan Manjil was brought in to help RajUK renovate the mosque; on its surface the fawn colour guniting was used as popular then. During the Mughals the area belonged to a naval officer Mirza Mukim. To the north and east, at the outskirt of the expanding city was the now extinct Kamalapur river/canal. A major part of the garden is now within the Bangabhaban complex, which also houses the grave of Shah Niamatullah from early 16C and another old mosque near the gate, the Manuk House, and Dana Dighi. Shahid Matiur Shishu park in front of the complex has the modern City Theatre and a historic water body.

Kawranbazaar was a caravanserai and check post for the northbound travellers, frequently visited by army convoys during Mir Jumla's Assam expedition. The alignment of this road, one of the earliest highways like the Grand Trunk road built earlier that connected Sonargaon with Gaur from east to west, has largely been retained as the Mymensingh road. The urban hamlet was situated just at the outskirt of Mughal Dhaka beyond the Ramna gardens and jungles. Next to it the Europeans set up their factories in Tejgaon. The small three dome mosque was built in 1679-80 in the Shaista Khani style by Malik Ambar Shah, the chief court eunuch. To facilitate movement and retiring of the passengers, he also built a well, bridge and garden. The bridge over the Pandu river (Hatirjheel) existed till the 1960s between Bangla Motor and SAARC Fountain.

I find this mosque less discussed in literature, and often not included while details are discussed on Khan Mirdha's or Shahbaz Khan's mosques representing the same style. Moreover, the beauty of this well-proportioned mosque has been tarnished by the unsympathetic renovations and alterations. As RajUK carried out conservation of this mosque, the Archaeology Department (DOA) refused to include it in the protection list, blaming RajUK for damaging the architectural elements and thus reducing its heritage value.

Conforming to prevalent style, Ambar Shah Mosque was built on a thakhana (podium), which has now subsided due to unabated construction activities in the vicinity, some obnoxious and threatening the stylistic integrity of the historic structure. Its mihrab, mimber and some structural members were built in Rajmahal basalt. The middle-dome is higher than the side-domes placed on semi-pendentives. The high shoulder is embellished with merlons in the form of petals. There are about 20 corner turrets and slimmer pilasters all around its four facades, topped by deformed cupolas going slightly above the parapets.

However, RajUK does not always act responsibly or in time. It's delayed and non-committed response and absence of a mechanism to enforce Building Code made it impossible to stop demolition of Jagannath University Library Building. We drew media's attention to its demolition, and asked RajUK to stop the unauthorised construction. However, all attempts for saving the building went in vain as it was not listed, and based on a wrong notion, government bodies do not seek building permission.

Conflict is common between RajUK and DCC on their jurisdiction to identify and demolish unsafe buildings; this has saved Shankharibazaar temporarily. As they were locked in a debate, conservation action groups joined forces to save the neighbourhood. RajUK has also been lax in its commitment to develop a list of heritage structures and sites independently or in cooperation with the DOA and the Institute of Architects Bangladesh as the Building Construction Rules require.

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