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What do we want Old Dhaka to be?

  • Published at 11:59 am November 23rd, 2021
old dhaka
Old Dhaka / SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Revisiting the ancient designs of the city of magic

Our beloved Dhaka is growing like mycelium on the ground. It is still taking shape based on various demands and expectations of its inhabitants. 

It's difficult to define the “true” characteristics of Dhaka. I will therefore not make the mistake of defining Dhaka. This piece is an attempt to shine a narrow shaft of light on a specific strip of Dhaka. 

This part of Dhaka is what we know as Puran Dhaka or Old Dhaka. I am interested in discussing how the “oldness” of Old Dhaka adds significant value to the cosmopolitanism of this city. 

Even though there are no dividing lines between Old Dhaka and the newly extended Dhaka, Old Dhaka has its own distinct identity with regards to culture, living style, and social atmosphere. 

Photo shows an illustration of Old Dhaka by Dr Zahedus Sadat Rizel Those of us who live outside of Puran Dhaka/Old Dhaka, identify Old Dhaka in various linear ways. Some of us know Old Dhaka for various foods, especially biryani, kababs, and sweets; some know the place for cheap electronic goods or wholesale markets for different commodities. 

Some people also identify the place as a maze of lanes which once made Dhaka famous as the place with 52 bazaars and 53 lanes.

History woven into structure

People from extended Dhaka visit the place for various purposes: Food lovers go there to eat cheap and delicious food; housing developers may visit the place to sell their dreams of making Puran Dhaka a shining example that can be compared with Singapore and other modern cities. 

Some people also go to Old Dhaka to revisit their beautiful and long-lost pasts -- for example, my father, in my boyhood days, took me to the Lalbagh area to show me where he spent his childhood and the school he had attended. 

Many people also visit this place to feel the “exotic oldness” and to visualize the glory that has been lost in time. I also took various interests at different times about this particular place. 

Recently, I started to visit Old Dhaka again. The first place I visited was Shakhari Bazar. I had visited the area many times in the past -- sometimes to buy musical instruments, sometimes to use the place as a by-pass to reach other places, and when I was invited by some friends to attend their puja-ceremonies. 

But now, I have started to pay attention to the place as a visitor. It's difficult to get a clear view of the architecture of Shakhari Bazar, as the buildings are hidden by a jungle of sign-boards and different cables. So it was only recently that I first noticed the plank-like building structures along both sides of the narrow street, which looked like ribs on the two sides of the spine.

It is evident from the design of the buildings that they were made by people of the same group, but the work was done during different eras, when efforts were made to maintain the buildings by adding masonry work, plumbing, and sometimes rebuilding the structures according to the requirements at that time.

If we look carefully at the historic buildings of Shakhari Bazar, under the patches of mortars, bricks, and layers of cement, blended together are the styles of works of Mughal, British, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi periods. It seems like artists of different eras have worked on the same canvas, and the images can be seen through chipped-off layers. Visiting this place gave me a feeling of time-warping. 

Transforming through the ages

Visiting and talking to the people there also gave me the most fascinating realization that it is not only the buildings that have gone through transformations; there have been layers of transformations that took place within this place in various aspects, such as cultural and economical transformations. 

Another interesting thing is that there is strong connectivity of Shakhari Bazar with the different lanes and bazaars through the styles of language, cultures, and other factors. 

I also find that in Old Dhaka, people use their social network, cooperation, culture, and solidarity to lead a secure, social life within various limitations. I had a chance to learn about other lanes where communities live in clusters. 

One such example is Rabidas Para, where a sect of people who are cobblers live in a cluster. There are also examples of people of different professions and backgrounds living together. 

For example, there is the “Panch Bari” culture of families from various professions and backgrounds living in a big house together like a big family. In such living situations, they depend on each other and share their values like a family.

But the Panch Bari culture is now almost extinct, just like other identities of Old Dhaka, due to the pursuit of cosmopolitan dreams. Some are demolishing the old structures and traits of Old Dhaka. I am sure they have their own logic behind the demolition. On the other hand, some people of Old Dhaka want to keep their heritage and culture alive. We see now that there is a tension between the status-quo and future dreams.

Reflections, retention

My intention of sharing these snap-shots of Old Dhaka is to help us ponder whether we should change the identity of Old Dhaka to join the race of being cosmopolitan like the rest of Dhaka. 

Going beyond buildings, we need to also think about the various communities and their connectivity with the people and places of Old Dhaka that had organically grown through many transformations. Old Dhaka is a complex and interesting umbrella-like society that has many diversified sociocultural and economic structures. Although many communities are economically struggling here, it is important to note that this collective society has taken shape and has survived over the ages. So we can call it sustainable. 

 In many countries, such as the US, the government spends millions of dollars every year to sustain subsidized housing programs such as HOPE VI and RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration) to create diversified societies -- which already exist in Old Dhaka organically, without having to spend any of our tax-money. 

Again, during the global recession in 2008-2009, the government of the US tried to initiate various methods to overcome the domino effect of economic down-fall. One such initiative was to encourage small businesses and small diversified enclaves inside big metropolitan cities because these enclaves help to protect the local economy or work as catalysts to slow down economic avalanches. 

In Old Dhaka, such sustainable catalysts have already existed for hundreds of years.

Our heritage, our culture, our identity 

We also need to remember that if we focus on establishing first world-like structures and take the path of rapid changes, we are at risk of losing our identity. 

Sabine Baumgart, a European city planner, mentioned in her research on Dhaka that by demolishing the ancient city, we have been erasing the cultural heritage of Dhaka and with it, our identity and history. 

She warned that this process is irreversible. If we demolish our history, we will never have evidence and traits of the past, and then we will not be able to find the right directions, or to change courses if we need to, for the development of Dhaka.

Also, if we fail to preserve our identity, then there is a risk that anybody from outside will be able to assign their chosen identity on us. The recent “migration” of our precious heritage of regional saree weaving to India can be taken as an example here. They understood the value of preserving this heritage. And it will not be surprising if our regional saree designs become part of India's heritage in the future, especially if we fail to preserve our history and don't take care of our heritage.

Again, in respect of any archaeological findings, we still have to depend upon historical knowledge and expertise from the Western world. If we fail to acknowledge our historical heritage and build our own capacity for any fundamental development, we will continue to be dependent on other countries for skills, knowledge, and other required aspects.

Now is the time to contemplate what we want Old Dhaka to be: Whether we want certain lifestyles, cultures, and economic structures to be nurtured sustainably, or whether we want to go for the trend of rapid change by demolishing historic structures that adversely affect communities and their social networks.

Dr Zahedus Sadat Rizel is a geographer currently researching urban transformations in Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]gmail.com.

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