a tranquil old house
I have always been fascinated by old houses, and over the past year, been searching out buildings that retain traditional styles. A month ago, some friends invited us to their residence in old Dhaka.
On June 16, Tamim and I set off for Old Dhaka. As our car drew up in front of the Dhaka Central Jail and got stuck in the crowded streets, the years seemed to roll back by four centuries, reminding us of the wonderful riverine city Dhaka used to be.
The history of Dhaka goes back a long way. The city area was ruled by the Buddhist kingdom of Kamarupa before passing to the control of the Sena dynasty in the 9th century. Many believe that the name of the city was derived after the establishment of the Goddess Dhakeswari's temple by Raja Ballal Sen in the 12th century.
The Dhaka area of that time was identified as Bengali. After Sena dynasty, Dhaka was successively ruled by the Turkish and Afghan governors descending from the Delhi Sultanate before the arrival of the Mughals in 1608. The city was called 'Jahangir Nagar” in honour of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. In that time, the city stretched for 12 miles in length and 8 miles in breadth and is believed to have had a population of nearly a million. The city had expanded massively during the time of Mughal General Shaista Khan.
The historical Chawk Mosque was built in 1675 at Old Dhaka. The beautiful palace, Chhoto Katra, was also built in 1671 during the time of Ruler Shaista Khan. Between the 16th and the 19th century, Dhaka was a resourceful city. Portuguese and French traders also came here at that time in pursuit of business. The Afghan Fort in Dhaka was located at the present Central Jail.
We took the Sat Rawza, the road opposite the Central Jail, and reached Armanitola. Armenian traders played a significant role in Bengali trade and commerce in the 17th and 18th centuries; The Armenian church, cemetery and Armanitola still bear their name. We stopped in front of the Armanitola School - a beautiful old red brick building that evokes memories of those days. The Old Tara Masjid is located adjacent to the school and has an aura of sanctity and holiness. We took the road opposite to the Masjid, Abul Khairat Road. Our destination: Abul Khairat Zaminder House.
Lira, a member of the Abul Khairat family, is an acquaintance of ours. She met us in front of the house gate to show us around the estate, which was once a beautiful Zaminder House. This house, in fact, dates back to the early 19th century. In 1804, Abul Khairat was the Zaminder of Dhaka. His father, Nur Baksh, had purchased 5 acres of land here and built this Zaminder house. Today, the house is divided into several parts among their descendants. Lira gave us the tour around the various parts, and introduced us to the family members, all of whom were very hospitable to us.
The main building is in the front of the land, and is surrounded by a garden. There was once an exquisite fountain in the garden, which is now overgrown but retains its majesty. A grand set of stairs leads up to the entrance, which even in their current broken state are magnificent. The arch-shaped entrance itself is almost twelve feet high, and opens in two doors. An intricate piece of ornamental ironwork adorns the front of these doors, with graceful curves. The building is made of red bricks, like other buildings of the British period. The arched theme also applies to the windows, which are large and have floral arrangements on top. The beautiful khorkhori windows are now covered by creepers and pigeon nests. The lovely pigeons sit silently on the curving belts of the windows, making the scene ever so picturesque.
We then proceeded to another part of the house , which was a single-storied white building. This building has some superb floral designs on the windows. The windows themselves are four parted; the first two shutters are wooden khorkhori and the inner shutters are glass with wooden frames. These windows are also arch shaped, and have decorative stained glass arrangements.
We were truly excited with the entire house as we explored it. We were soon joined by Md. Zahangir, who is the grand son of the late Abul Khairat. Md. Zahangir is a talented painter, and we saw some portraits of his ancestors that he has painted. He showed us around his living room, which has a very high koriborga ceiling of white wood that looks fabulous to this day. One could perceive the age of the house from the furniture, some of which is very old. The curtain rods are brass, from over a hundred years ago; to add to the ambience, various antique arms are hung on the walls.
At long last, we reached the back end of the house, which is very obviously well maintained. The beautiful white stairs have railings and hand rails befitting a family of such antiquity.
The doors of the rooms are painted white, as are the windows; there are also several stained glass doors that are almost a hundred years old but which still look splendid in their triangular patterns. The furniture is vintage, and arranged very tastefully. Various hunting trophies, such as deer's heads, are mounted above the doors, and in one room we saw an antique China vase arranged elegantly with a corner display and a traditional easy chair.
The experience of exploring one of the grand old houses of the city was an exhilarating and enriching one that gave us a new appreciation of the heritage and styles of our culture. This heritage should be preserved for its beauty which is, in a word, timeless.
Nazneen Haque Mimi
Photo Credit: Tamim Sujat
Special Thanks: Md. Zahangir