Wholesale chaos at Chawkbazaar
A road just past Dhaka Central Jail reaches a place teeming with people. It's difficult enough to walk there let alone maneuver a car or any other vehicle. This is a preview of Chawkbazaar where there is seemingly no end to the alleys or to the crowds of people.
Everywhere there is some sort of busy activity going on. Someone or the other is at some point carrying baskets, boxes, cartons or any other container of goods. Sacks of rice, pulse and other essential foods are being loaded or unloaded onto vans. People bump against each other casually as if this is a normal style of moving around.
But that is only one aspect of the market. There are hundreds of alleyways which lead to others which at times could lead to a dead end. It's a maze that only the denizens seem to know well enough to unravel.
The vastness makes you wonder not what you can find in this market but rather what you cannot. Clothes, shoes, cosmetics, jewellery, crockeries and glorious food. Electronics include juicers and ovens as well as audio equipment and other entertainment gadgets. Kids can find toys as well.
This is a wholesale market where customers buy goods in bulk. Of course that does not mean that the sellers do not break form tradition and honour a few requests to sell one or two units. It's a big break form your usual run of modern high-rise markets. Chawkbazaar is mainly a one storey unit where some of the shops have been extended to another floor.
Chawkbazaar was established back in the Mughal era during the reign of Murshid Kulikha. The word 'chawk' means 'nakhas' which is an Arabic word. It stands for slave trader. While some traded human beings came here for entertainment of all kinds, it was also rumoured to be a place for social gatherings.
Mainly such bazaars sprang up wherever generals would set camp requiring rest, relaxation and replenishment f their troops. In the seventeenth century Maan Singh set up such a camp in what is now the Central Jail with Chawk Bazaar developing around it. It was initially a 200 foot square structure with a low wall surrounding the place.
The subsequent British rulers renovated the place and stretched the length 460 feet raising the wall to 4 feet. The main entrance contained the famous cannon named Mariam. During the Ramadan months many different Mughal food items were sold in the open street markets.
An interesting tradition of the denizens of old Dhaka is mentioned in historian Najir Hossain’s book. According to custom a new groom was supposed to be taken for seven rounds around the huge market before he could sit for the ceremony. Seven was not a fixed number. Grooms at times took the trip twice before saying their vows. Only some of the oldest families in the locality still maintain this tradition.
Chawk Bazaar is about 400 hundred years old and its design has remained stuck in a time limbo. It still contains hundreds of different sized shops lining very narrow streets of about 3-4 feet in width.
The streets are often named based on what is primarily sold there. For example a street where mainly glass bangles are sold is known as 'Churir Raasta'. So if you go there and hear the phrase don't assume that the name stands for the other bangle meaning of 'churi' which means robbing.
Basically it isn't very difficult to find the material you need as all you have to do is find the right alley with a name corresponding to what you are looking for.
A little further along the market and you will enter what is known as the Imamganj area. Here you will find huge shops that cater to all your catering needs. Cookeries, aluminum utensils, buckets, mops, melamine items as well as all kinds of killer items like knives and cleavers are available here.
The best part is that items can be bought at wholesale prices. A jar of crème which might cost 200-250 taka in the fancy city shops can be easily bought at around 150 taka form Chawkbazaar. One of the most attractive places in Chawkbazaar is the area that deals with matters of the stomach. These places contain all the regular items as well as some you never see in the city. So items even have names that are enough to make your saliva glands start working overtime. For food connoisseurs missing out on such a place is close to a crime.
These are mostly traditional shops that are handed down across generations. Some owners have been doing business for 40-50 years.
It is a bustling place that becomes ghostly quiet starting form early evening. It wakes up every morning to the footsteps of thousands of people. It is a place where tradition is still maintained leaving an animated testament to history.
Source: Muntasir Mamun's 'Dhaka Smriti Bismiritir Nagari'
By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
Fishy business at Swarighaat
From dawn till dawn
Swarighaat is a place where in the wee hours of the morning it becomes a raging and smelly fish market. Fish are sold in baskets or drums. The revered hilsha lie frozen still in piles of crushed ice. And it is a crazy place indeed as hawkers scream out their prices and the buyers scream in counter. But after all the screaming between the people reaches an agreement the proud new owners quickly load their wares onto a rickshaw, van or car and scamper off. All this starts from 5 in the morning and by 9 it becomes a quiet, desolate place. In the span of a few hours all the shouting dies down and the fish are on their way to lie on someone's plate far far away. Or maybe not that far away.
By the boatloads
This is the daily scene played out over many years. Swarighaat is an ancient and the only wholesale fish market in Dhaka. It is situated alongside the banks of the Buriganga River. During the Mughal era 'swaris' or passengers would board or depart at this point.
It is now primarily used as a fish market where fishermen from the far off districts bring their wares on boats. Buyers then cart off the fishy characters to the markets in the cities.
The fish market is maintained by a committee of 71 fish mongers. 'Champatoli Maachghaat Porichalona Committee' director Abul Hasnat informed that boats loaded with fish start docking here every night after 3. The buyers in Dhaka preorder the fish by placing the booking and depositing the required amount.
The director also informed that these days the amount of fish available in the local rivers has decreased so much that imports have to come in form India and Burma to meet demands. As a result prices have gone up.
Alive and kicking in a fish sort of way
All kinds of fish can be seen skittering, splashing around, twisting, squirming and generally showing that they are alive and kicking. The general public hardly ever sees such fresh live fish. In the markets the fish dead for a couple of days are preserved in formalin. Because of this, one particular banker was seen purchasing a few choice items. He prefers coming here on his weekends as not only is there fresh fish but also the prices are quite low. Big hilsha are easily available at 400-500 taka per kg and paangash is available at 50-60 per kg. Fish for many big events like weddings and puja are often bought directly from Swarighaat.
Cool business, literally
Where there is fish there is the need for ice. It preserves the fish better than anything else. There are quite a few ice factories in that particular where the cool material is sold at 40-50 taka per kg. Many people make a part-time living out of carting, crushing and selling these huge blocks of ice to the fish vendors. Form 5-9 in the morning the ice business provide extra income to many jobless people who can earn as much as 200 taka per day.
All chopped up and some place to go
Other part-timers also include the people who clean and chop up the fish into preferred cuts. Having a big sharp cleaver as their main tool they earn 4-5 taka per fish and work on more than 30 fish a day.
Fish connoisseurs claim that the taste of fish bought form Swarighaat is more delectable than those bought form stores in the city. Primarily the same fish, those in city stores lie in cold storage for a few days. Connoisseurs may claim that this causes them to lose some of the flavour (the fish, not the connoisseurs).
It's a place that hustles and bustles for a short time every morning. Those who can bother enough to go all the way will find resplendent choices that will leave their taste palettes well satisfied.
By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny