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Lalbagh a signature of our Mughal past
If one ever wanted to fully realise Dhaka's depth of history, one need only visit Lalbagh Kella. It is the symbol of Dhaka's rich Mughal heritage. Construction commenced on Lalbagh Fort, or Fort Aurangabad in 1678, during the Subahdari (vice-royalty) of Prince Mohammed Azam, the son of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
He laid the foundation of the great fort at Lalbagh, but was transferred before its completion. Though his successor, Shaista Khan, stayed in Dhaka for ten years until 1688, the fort was not completed. Some say that he considered the death of his daughter, Bibi Pari in 1684, to be a bad omen. Her tomb is now a part of the magnificent fort.
The fort was built on the river Buriganga on the southwestern part of the old city. The river has now gone further south and flows at quite a distance from the fort. Charles Doyle's painting (1809-11) shows that more than half of this east-west oblong fortress touched the water of the river on its south and southwestern sides.
For long the fort was considered to be a combination of three buildings (the mosque, the tomb of Bibi Pari and the Diwan-i-Aam, a large pavilion for public imperial audiences), two gateways and a portion of the partly damaged fortification wall. But recent excavations carried out by the Department of Archaeology of Bangladesh have revealed the existence of other structures and it is now possible to guess a more or less complete picture of the fort.
In the present fort area of 18 acres, excavations have revealed remains of twenty-seven structures with elaborate arrangements for water supply, sewerage, roof gardens, and fountains.
Lalbagh Kella's most visible and iconic image is that of the southern gateway. Seen from the front it is a three-storeyed structure with a fronton, bordered with slender minarets. From inside it gives the impression of a two-storey structure. The gateway on the northeast is a much smaller and simpler construction. The third gate, now in the centre of the northern boundary wall, was left incomplete. The present one is a recent reconstruction.
The southern fortification wall, running westward from the South Gateway, stretches up to the huge bastion in the southwestern corner of the fort. It runs northward for a distance, and is then lost. The boundary wall on the eastern side, connecting the southern and northern gateways, is a modern wall, and it is now assumed that the fort originally embraced areas further east, beyond the present Shaista Khan Road.
Part of the name of the fort refers to it being a garden fort, and that is what is most magnificent about it.
The gardens stretch in their manicured beauty all over the 18 acres, with the three majestic buildings of the Diwan-i-Aam, the tomb of Bibi Pari, and the mosque stretching across the middle of the greenery.
Taimor Islam, renowned architect and team leader of the Urban Study Group that campaigns for the conservation of old, landmark buildings, debates whether Lalbagh fort is actually a fort, especially considering some of its structural elements.
“There has been debate among historians and archaeologists as to the exact purpose of the fort. The gate houses in Lalbagh are slightly different from the typical Mughal fort. They are more delicate. For example, the southern gateway has a fronton, but there are also balconies at the sides, which are not characteristic of forts. There are also minarets that add a soft, delicate touch,” said the architect. The implication is that Lalbagh fort was not used for protection. So what was its purpose?
“It is possible that the viceroy or governor did not stay inside the fort, but instead at one of the other forts or the nearby Bara Katra, and made his way to Lalbagh to use it as an audience fort,” Islam speculated. Given the Mughals' reputation for extravagance, this would not seem unlikely.
Also in favour of this theory is the question of where inside the fort the viceroy would stay, since the three constituent buildings are the mosque, the audience hall and the tomb of Pari Bibi, leaving little space for a royal residence.
The inevitable issue when talking about historical buildings in Bangladesh is conservation. When it comes to a heritage sight, the surrounding areas also become important.
“Lalbagh Fort has not yet been nominated as a World Heritage sight. This is mainly because of the buffer zone, which is the surrounding area of the fort. The buffer zone is now filled with modern high-rises that are only separated from the historic structure by three feet. Also, the southern gate has been obscured from view by the Ansar Camp,” said Islam
In addition, some renovation work, according to Taimur has been neither here nor there, with the entire northern wall rebuilt without a thought to being consistent with the original construction.
Lalbagh fort is and should be the pride of all Bangladeshis as it points to a glorious past. It is up to the nation to keep interest alive in the site by visiting it and seeing it as a prime tourist attraction. Only then will the relevant authorities pay it the respect it deserves and restore it to its true glory.
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