The Financial Express

Encroachment on the country's history

The plaster has fallen off several parts of the old building in old Dhaka due to the lack of preservation and restoration efforts     —bdnews24.com The plaster has fallen off several parts of the old building in old Dhaka due to the lack of preservation and restoration efforts     —bdnews24.com

The mindless destruction of the village residence of the first female student of the University of Dhaka --- Lila Nag (1900-1970), may not surprise many. It occurred just over a week ago. The ancestral house of Nag was situated at the village in Rajanagar upazila in Moulvibazar. The woman who passed out from the university with an MA in English in 1923 was also an anti-British revolutionary. The bungalow-style residence turned highly dilapidated; as it remained vacant for decades in a row. Instead of renovating the house, unscrupulous influential people, evidently with backing from the local administration, levelled the house with little signs of its hundred-year presence.

The veritably vacant house had long deserved to be taken care of by several authorities. They include, most importantly, the government Department of Archaeology, the district administration --- and, of course, the University of Dhaka. As common practice, the 100-year-old university is not supposed to save a worn-out structure, related to it directly, from going extinct and, that too, one located quite far from Dhaka. But Lila Nag's residence was a special case. Apart from being the first female student at the university, Lila Nag was part of the British-ruled India's Independence Movement in Bengal. A comrade-in-arms of Pritilata Waddedar and many other fiery ladies of the time, Lila Nag's ancestral residence could well have been given the status of a national heritage site. Surprisingly, this thought has never dawned on the Dhaka University authorities. In all probability, the site cleared of the dilapidated house, is set to witness a well-built administrative or residential building in the near future.

The incident was the latest in the series of demolition of houses, which once stood in glory and their inherent status. Thanks to the opportunity to get away with these unconscionable activities, grabbing or destroying historic buildings have lately emerged as a national trait. As reported in the media, there are dozens of syndicates who move across the country in the lookout for long abandoned structures. Hundreds of old and architecturally and historically important buildings have thus been razed to the ground. Those include unused temples, mosques, 'stupas', palaces and 'zemindar houses' and similar installations. But the most easy-to-access of these buildings are the dwellings remaining vacant for long.  Many of these houses were once owned by people now enjoying permanent place in history.

To speak from a Stoic's view, the pouring of emotion over near-extinct establishments leads us nowhere. In short, it's an expression of cheap sentiment. The crux of the matter is nothing lasts forever. As seen in life, the moment a living cell is formed, it begins decaying. Since the early dawn of civilisation, countless number of palaces and royal installations has been built across different regions in the world. They range from structures built in pre-Christ Greece, Rome and other ancient European territories. Prior to these, the thriving empires of Mesopotamia, Assyria, Sumer, Babylon etc featured the architectural excellence of the times. Ancient India also didn't lag behind. This Eastern territory saw the growth, one after another, of the urban city planning in Mohenjodaro and Harappa. The neighbouring China kept growing in its own style, being influenced by different forms of Buddhism and adopting a number of urban architectural forms like the encirclement of cities with walls. In fact, India and China emerged through the ages as two cradle of later civilisations. Many completely unlikely places also witnessed the growth of the centres of civilisation. A most prominent of them was Mali, an African kingdom which saw the founding of one of the earliest royal dynasties, universities and cultural centres.

The flipside is, over time all of these representations of material, intellectual and cultural growth began fading. Except a few, the splendour of royal achievements of most of the kingdoms and monarchies began vanishing in quick succession. The process of decay started with the earliest of these royalties --- the rule of the Egyptian Pharaons founded during nearly 5,000 BC. Only the pyramids remain erect today in the vast expanses of sand. Gone are the palaces and underground treasures of Ramses-II, King Tut et al. They have long crumbled into dust. The Egyptian hieroglyph has lost its earlier relevance on being replaced by Aramaic and Berber.

In spite of these inevitable decaying processes, humans couldn't belittle the importance of basking in their days of glories --- be they representative of mundane superiority or those related to the uplift of intellectual and cultural levels.  The region of Bengal also cannot extricate itself from this age-old process. The historic and the supposedly immortal homestead of Atisa Dipankara, the Buddhist scholar who reached the far-away land of Tibet from East Bengal, now exists only in the loose pages of handmade books or 'punthis'. Even the exact location of Atisa's house in Dhaka's Munshiganj district where he was born in 982 AD has been made blurry by the dust of time. The poetry lovers in the 21st century remain passionately overwhelmed by the lyrical verses written by the medieval poets of Bengal. But there are few records in writing about their exact places of birth, the days of adolescence, youth and the old age --- if anyone of them lived longer. Coming to the relatively modern times, inquisitive scholars are found continuing their search for the birthplaces of many a great Bengalee. Except the venues of birth of Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Meer Mosharraf Hossain and Jagadish Canndra Basu, locating the ancestral villages of dozens of great Bengalees turns out to be a daunting task. Upon becoming exhausted, lots of enterprising and intrepid people had to give up their search efforts.

Befitting the trends of post-modernism, the search for the roots of the greats living 100 to 200 years ago resumed in full vigour. Students of antiquities in the developed countries do not have to confront the hurdles created by land grabbers in discovering a lost spot where a now-forgotten person was born or lived once. Those societies never allow the unscrupulous quarters to grab the historic spots, thus creating impediments to the efforts of locating the interested people's sought-after spots. In Bangladesh, the original homesteads of many famous people living in the past, especially in the middle ages, have got lost in the mist of time. Even the people of celebrity status in the later years have allegedly met the same fate.

When it comes to the survival of his ancestral home in Sunamganj in greater Sylhet, the widely adored Radharaman Dutta (1833-1915) appears to be quite lucky. After his death, Radharaman's house was turned into a holy shrine, with hundreds of his disciples thronging the place to light candles in his memory. The ritual continues even today. In contrast, the complete destruction of Hason Raja's (b.1854) imposing house and other properties during the Great Assam Earthquake spelled temporary doom for the bard, composer and singer. Raja died a premature death at 67 in 1922. The ruins of homes and the memories of these two folk idols have carved a place for them in the rich folk culture of Bangladesh. Compared to them, the trauma-filled and dramatic life of Lalon Shah (1774-1890), the greatest folk song composer and singer in the greater Bengal, stands out with its twists and turns. Although Lalon later settled in Kushtia district's Chheuriya village, which accommodates his shrine, little is known about the bard's place of birth.  Lalon died at the age of 118.

As history has chronicled at different phases of time, the memorabilia of scores of people have, finally, been lost in the abyss of time. Their places of birth and ancestral homes have also not been spared. Many noted people, ranging from royalties, scholars, philosophers and artistes to orators, and belonging to the history's golden eras, have thus vanished from the physical world. What remain are the works kept in the form of expressions carved in rock pieces or in the slowly evolving written forms. The eagerness to see the family bungalow of Lila Nag stand erect as a historic relic or a museum today, during the celebration of Dhaka University's centennial, is a humble wish. Had it materialised, it would have amply added to the innate grandeur of the event. Hundreds of such structures across the country have, woefully, been lodged in the national memory to remain there as part of a great void.


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