Preserving a National Heritage
Hana Shams Ahmed
A miniature model of the street
An intricately lined street. The smell of bakorkhani. The sound of prayer bells from Puja mandaps in the vicinity. And a picturesque set of buildings lined up delicately against each other, like those out of the pages of an old history book. These are the sights and sounds of Shankhari Bazaar that have preserved the aura and mystery of the Mughals and colonial times making this part of Old Dhaka a unique architectural and archaeological wonder.
But age has taken its toll and for how long the narrow streets of this mahalla (traditional neighbourhood) will be able to survive the apathy and antagonism of the concerned authorities is anybody's guess. It has already had its share of bad press when 19 people died in a building collapse in 2004 and an alarming 91 buildings were marked for demolition. But why demolition instead of restoration? USG (Urban Study Group) a voluntary organisation, formed by a group of architects and students from BRAC University have been campaigning for the conservation of Shankhari Bazaar's structures since June 2004.
USG organised an exhibition at the National Museum titled 'Save Shankhari Bazaar' with drawings, images and models of the location. The exhibition was sponsored by UNESCO. What fascinates the viewer's attention on entering the gallery is a large panoramic view of present day Shankhari Bazaar. With a collage of 140 photos placed side by side it gives the visitors a complete picture of the place with shops, houses, temples and even the modern constructions. Although the modern constructions are easily distinguishable from the antiquated ones, for the benefit of the visitors, the former have been kept colourless while the focus of the exhibition retains colour.
Another noteworthy exhibit on display is the miniature model of both sides of the street carved out of wood, which took about 10-12 days to complete. Photographs of the <>mahalla<> from all angles were accompanied by short descriptions of historical facts and design specifications. Every single structure lining the street has been meticulously numbered for identification. Celebrations carried out in the neighbourhood including the biggest Hindu festivals have been skilfully encapsulated in the photographs taken by USG members.
Shankhari Bazaar, which is located near the intersection of Islampur Road and Nawabpur Road, the two main thoroughfares of Old Dhaka and only a block away from the Buriganga River, derives its name from the craft of making involving shankhas. Shankhas are intricately decorated bangles crafted from slices of Shankha or conch-shells. Shankha is the symbol that indicates that a Hindu woman is married. Shankhas are also a common content in Hindu religious ceremonies. Photos of craftsmen working with shankhas and carving images of deities also feature in many of the photographs at the exhibition.
The photos displayed at the exhibition focus on the unique characteristics that make up Shankhari Bazaar. If this ancient mahalla is demolished or not restored soon enough, this historical relic will be lost forever. It is the oldest area in the country and as such deserves the status of a national heritage site instead of just a passing glance from outsiders. “Dhaka is a 400-year-old city,” says Taimur Islam, the team leader of USG who, along with his wife Homaira Zaman and architecture students from BRAC University set up the voluntary organisation, “but we use it just as a date. When the Mughals came to Dhaka they settled in Old Dhaka, and it's Old Dhaka that gives it this age.” He illustrated this fact by comparing it with ancient European cities.
“When we look at photos of London or Prague, we can instantly identify the cities,” he continues, “what makes Dhaka unique is Old Dhaka.” A legal framework is needed to conserve and preserve this old neighbourhood to give it an appearance of variety and richness. Bangladesh does not have a policy for architectural conservation. This poses a serious problem in executing and implementing conservation projects. The USG made a presentation to the mayor two years ago detailing all the aspects of conserving Shankhari Bazaar's heritage. But although he diplomatically appreciated their hard work he dismissed the whole project on the grounds of it being 'very good for a seminar but not practical for our country'. For the politicians to comprehend the importance of this conservation project there needs to be awareness in the general population and this exhibition is sure to touch the right chords.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006