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     Volume 7 Issue 33 | August 15, 2007 |

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Cover Story

The classic horse carriage, a symbol of the good old glory days

Dhaka is celebrating its 400th year and much of the celebration is centred on Old Dhaka, a city immersed in history and tradition. In the 18th century, Dhaka, once known as the City of Nawabs, was one of the most important cities in the world, owing to the flourishing culture of trade and business. Dhaka was the central point of major political events that characterise the history of Bengal, East Bengal or East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh. As it's crumbling, yet spectacular architecture is evidence to, Old Dhaka represents a glorious and glamorous past. Yet there is so much more to Old Dhaka than merely its architectural splendour. It is the warm and vibrant life in Puran Dhaka as it is locally called, that has sustained despite the decaying infrastructure and utter neglect from the authorities to maintain and preserve this living symbol of our glorious history.

The Infectious Warmth of the Old City

Elita Karim
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Old Dhaka is known for its rich food, horse carriages, wedding band parties, bakorkhani and buildings going back to the Mughal era. Yet another feature of the older part of town is how it is the home to not only the typical Dhakkaiyas who have been living in this area for generations and speak their own dialect, a curious mix of Urdu and Bangla, but also people hailing from all over the country. Some areas are filled with people originally from Chittagong and Noakhali while other areas are no less than a mini Sylhet or a mini Barisal. One such area is Kahettuly. Known for the famous Shap Mondir or the Snake Temple, Kahettuly is a small area comprising of narrow lanes and homes with massive rooms. This area is a mixture of old buildings and new apartment blocks.

One of the most popular areas in Old Dhaka, Shakhari Bazar (Right). The insides of a traditional Old Dhaka home (left).

One of the most interesting features of this area is that families from the southern part of the country have been living here for generations together. “I was born here in 1951 and have been living here since,” says Shahid Hossain Chowdhury. Hailing from Chittagong, Chowdhury's father had moved to Kahettuly in the 1930s and had housed himself in one of the old buildings. With the typical uthan or courtyard that was a typical feature of most Old Dhaka houses, Chowdhury grew up experiencing both the colourful culture of Old Dhaka and rituals from Chittagong as well. “As a youngster, I remember a lot of relatives and family members coming down to our place from Chittagong for work purposes or just for visits,” says Chowdhury. “I would end up letting go of my room for an aunt or a cousin. Surprisingly enough, it never bothered me. I rather enjoyed it since I was made to stay in a spare little room up on the rooftop. Because of the proximity of some of the old buildings in this part of town, I used to have many of my conversations with my friends and neighbours on the rooftops of our homes. We did not have a telephone back then. A simple message through one of the younger boys would have my friends get up on their rooftops as well. We would have nightlong discussions about a small kite flying contest we would organise comprising of houses only on a single block, a film or a stage play we wanted to go to or we would even get one of the younger boys to get us tea and biscuits from the store downstairs.” Kahettuly was and still is an area where grocery stores and confectionary shops belonged to an uncle or a boro bhai (senior friend), adds Chowdhury. “Getting tea and biscuits on credit was not a big problem even in the middle of the night,” he says. “Everybody knew everyone in the area and that is why we had a lot more trust and faith in people back then, not to mention the feeling of safety and security that is absent today.”

Chowdhury remembers Ramadan, Buddha Purnima and Durga Puja fondly. “Any kind of religious festival was a treat for the children back then,” he says. “During Ramadan, we used to have holidays and would stay up late at night. At 3 am, right before seheri, some of us would even go and get a haircut from the barbershop next door. The whole place used to be lit up and colourful papers were hung all over the area. During Puja, my friends and I would walk miles with our Hindu neighbours and participate in their rituals as well. For a young boy back then, eating was probably one of the greatest passions,” he smiles. “Our Hindu neighbours would make sure that we had eaten properly and would ensure our safe return home as well.”

Famous shops and confectionaries in Lalbagh, Luxmi Bazar, Shakhari Bazar and Chawk Bazar.

Chowdhury and his family continue to live in Kahettuly in the same house even today. What he loathes today about Kahettuly is the number of wires that are running through the area. “It's very sad,” he says. “You can hardly catch a piece of clear sky from your uthan, without seeing broken down wires, all bunched up and almost falling on the ground. I wish the authorities would take care of this since this is not safe at all.”

One of the most popular areas in Old Dhaka is the Shakhari Bazar. Many temples dot this narrow street. Over the ages Shakhari Bazar has been elevated to the level of the most popular centre for religious festivities. As one of the most densely populated areas in the world, Shakhari Bazar also has the largest concentration of the Hindus in Dhaka. At present there are about 10,000 people living in Shakhari Bazar and that within an area of 4.6 acres of land makes it one of the highest density areas of the world. Along with adjacent mohallas viz. Tanti Bazaar, Go-al Nagar, Jhulan Bari, Pannitola, it's also like a sanctuary to the Hindu community.

Murshed Sayeed, who owns a health club called South Avenue in Gulshan originally comes from Bangshal, an area known for its bicycle factories. Even though the family has moved to Gulshan from Bangshal at least two decades ago, the well known Old Dhaka frenzy has not left them. “My father and younger brother go to Bangshal every day even now,” he says. “My father has his business there and my younger brother helps him out.” A very common feature of Old Dhaka is how an office is housed right next to a home, Murshed explains. “Either you have an office downstairs of your two or three storied home or the office building behind your home,” he says. Murshed remembers his grandfather's home on Bangshal road, which was always filled with people, family members and cousins. “We were a joint family,” he says. “We had an uthan under an open sky, something that is not seen anywhere now. Now we have moved away to homes which are probably bigger, but I still miss the good old days.” His father had begun the first shop on Bangshal Road decades ago. “Later on, business picked up and he moved to a different line of business,” he says. “Now there are many shops on Bangshal road. My father had set up his business in Bangshal a long time ago which is still running well,” says Murshed. “He has not changed the location because he has the necessary market in Bangshal.” This is how business is done even today in the old part of town. Commodities are brought in depending on the demands made by the locals in the particular area.

A popular spot in Bangla Bazaar, Beauty Boarding, a boarding house where famous writers and personalities would hang out

Apart from the business connection, Murshed and his family have many close relatives in Old Dhaka and thus the emotional link is always there. Many families of Old Dhaka, to escape the congestion, the crowded streets, to enrol their children into good schools or universities or to be part of the new urban elite, have moved into the better parts of the city like Gulshan and Baridhara. But many still proudly adhere to their Puran Dhaka traditions, regularly eating Old Dhaka's famous foods being one of the most important ones. At any given day breakfast at Murshed's house, for instant, will include some of the most popular items such as tehari or nanna biryani or koliji and brain masala and paratha from Star, brought all the way from the old part of town.

But going to the specific spots in Old Dhaka and sampling its mouth-watering delicacies there is a whole new experience. 18-year-old Durdana Hussain says that after classes she and her friends hang out at the Nurani Lacchi stand in Chawkbazar. “I don't live here,” she says. “I live in Kahettuly but I come here often with friends to hang out.” Yet another famous food store is the Hajir Biriyani located on Kazi Alauddin Road. Starting

Old Dhaka is known for its old style architecture and buildings some of them being centuries old.

from school students, officials to the retired gentlemen around people from all over Dhaka come all the way here for a plate of biriyani. Some of the other famous food spots are the New Cafe Corner in Bangla Bazaar, Royal Hotel in Lalbagh and Hotel Al Rajjak on North South Road.

“There are two categories of people in Old Dhaka,” says Murshed. “One group tends to wake up early in the morning and the other group sleeps in late.” Nevertheless, what they eat after they wake up is nothing less than a steaming plate of tehari. Vegetables are not very popular during meals. Some families in the area do take it easy on the food and have something light at times. “For instance, paratha instead of tehari,” explains Murshed.

“Something that I really miss is the Nan Katai, a kind of biscuit that road side sellers would sell from house to house,” says Murshed. “I also miss Ramadan in Banglshal. Even today, during Ramadan, people usually stay up the whole night, eat seheri and then finally hit the bed.” Till then, it seems that the whole area is lit up with music and lights and mini festivals are happening in all the blocks.

For those who opted to sleep at night, quite an anomaly according to Murshed, there was a typical Old Dhaka wake up call for seheri. “There are small groups of men who go around knocking on door to door to wake people for seheri,” he says. “Right before Eid, they come and get their bakhshish. This is a usual practice in Bangshal even now. From 3:30 pm, the area use to become filled with food sellers wearing colourful hats selling iftar,” he adds, a sight that is hardly seen today. In fact, on Kazi Alauddin Road, people are seen buying and selling fresh plates of tehari even at 3 or 4 am in the morning, adds Murshed. “And this is simply because of the shoe factories in that area which employ many people who are the prime customers of this tehari.” Each area, explains Murshed, has a speciality owing to trade. For instance, Tatibazar is famous for its gold shops, Nawabpur for its hardware, Chawkbazaar for a mixture of products such as toys, cosmetics and so on. To an extent, people's life styles and food habit revolve around these trades in the respective areas as well.

Over the years, many of the Old Dhaka traditions and the New Town trends have fused together, especially where the younger generation is concerned. Many Old Dhaka natives have moved to the new part of town. Similarly the young Old Dhakaites are also introducing elements from the new town into their homes, for instance the emergence of practice pads with modern equipment and sound systems for upcoming musicians, studio setups for media personnel and much more. Raihan Kabir, a 21-year-old student of a private university in Dhanmondi, has a passion for films and documentaries. He plans to study film making in the future and work in Dhaka. He thinks that growing up in Bakshibazar has led him to experience the real Dhaka that many of his friends at university have missed out on. “For any artist in Dhaka, an experience of Old Dhaka is very much necessary,” he says. “Only then can an artist learn and move forward.” Raihan's favourite pastime is watching movies and documentaries in the home theatre system that he has installed in his home in Bakshibazar. “The electricity is a major problem though,” he says. “Many of the houses here still do not have generators and we experience a lot of power cuts at least 4-5 times a day.”

Old Dhaka is also known for its old style architecture and buildings, some of them being centuries old. Rokeya Begum grew up in Wari, an area filled with such structures. Originally from Sylhet, 56-year-old Rokeya says that her grandfather had moved to Wari decades ago and since then they had been living here.

“In fact, both my parents grew up in Wari and so did my husband,” she explains. “Just a short walk from my home and I can go visit my cousins, great uncles and aunts and my parents!” Famous for its elegant styled windows and the age old walls, Wari is one of the many areas in Old Dhaka that speaks of the sophisticated architecture that once existed here in Dhaka. “What I really like about Wari is that everyone knows everybody,” she explains. “Compared to all the other places in Dhaka, I feel safe here and know that my children are also safe when they walk to the nearby mosque or the grocery store.” As a child, she was very fond of kite flying and loved the long Ramadan nights. “Even though my sisters mostly kept to their rooms, I used to practically gallivant from one house to another in Wari,” she remembers. “We had an uthan and a well where we would wash our clothes.” When she was around seven or eight years old, Rokeya had discovered a hole on one of the corner walls of the uthan. “We had a joint family and had lots of cousins coming in and out the whole day,” she says. “I would usually sneak out of the hole and go next door. The grownups would hardly ever miss me since I would be back before mealtimes. My aunts would however wonder why I still looked dirty despite the bath that they had given me just an hour back!”

Many of the ancient structures are being replaced with modern-day
apartment buildings.
A wedding at Old Dhaka would be incomplete without the traditional
wedding band party.
Shakhari Bazar has been elevated to the level of the most popular centre for religious festivals.

Mealtimes were nothing less than a family reunion where extended family members would join in as well, says Rokeya. “Every weekend, our cousins and relatives who lived a little away from Wari would come with vegetables and fruits from their garden and have lunch or dinner with us,” she says. “Tehari, puris, tea made with cream and a special biscuit that we used to get here are just some of the things that I miss today.” Rokeya had also discovered yet another passageway to her friend's place next doors on the rooftop. “Since many of the houses were closely built, these passageways were bound to spring up then or later,” she says. “My grandfather's house, where I grew up, was filled with mazes. And at that age, I would also climb up the window and get on the shed to go up to my uncle's balcony. I could use the staircase of course, but it was more fun that way!”

Something that Rokeya's family has still not let go of is the frequent family reunions. “Since most of us live in the same place, it is not very difficult to get together now and then,” she says. “However, people have also become very busy. Many of our children have also gone off abroad to study or they work in Dhanmondi or Gulshan.” Rokeya says that the homes belonging to her family members have been left the way they were built ages ago, except for essential renovations. “I want my children to experience what we did when were their age,” she says. “They might discover a passageway or two which I probably missed!”

The magnificent architecture and the structures have been rapidly wearing down for many years. Rokeya says that because of negligence by the authorities, the ancient structures are practically breaking down into pieces. "We used to have a small balcony on the east side of our grandfather's house," says Rokeya. "Two years ago, the balcony suddenly collapsed. The balcony was hardly ever used by any of the members and thankfully nobody got hurt because of the collapse."

Several ancient structures have also collapsed at the Shakhari Bazar, because of lack of maintenance on the part of the authorities. In fact over the last two years whenever there is an issue of safety of buildings, the typical example given is of Shakhari Bazar. It has been stereotyped as the ultimate example of congestion, blight, and dilapidated buildings.

Muntasir Mamun, in his book, Dhakar Prothom, says that Dhaka (now known as Old Dhaka) was a very important city even in the past. There was a time when the capital was moved to Murshidabad and even before that, thoughts were given to Jahangirnagar for taking up the capital position as well. However, due to the tremendous growth and development of the city thanks toy the tradesmen in Dhaka, the capital was soon shifted here. Even after 400 years, Old Dhaka is still a happening part of the city with remnants of its traditional lifestyle, being a melting pot of the different cultures and rituals brought in by people from all over the country.

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