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Erasing vestiges of the past - mindless cruelty to heritage

Shihab Sarkar | Published: November 09, 2017 21:26:35 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:43


The irrational speed at which the capital's century-old Khamarbari, meaning a farmhouse, housing an agri-research centre, was demolished in just one and half weeks has sparked incredulity of many. Instead of the red 2-storey edifice, the site is now a large pile of rubble. People used to witnessing such demolitions normally smell a rat.

The Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) had been protesting the decision to tear down the building since the word spread about it. A campaign, based on a broad platform of conservationists, was about to be launched in Dhaka. As has been seen in many cases like it in the past, the higher authorities apparently did not want to take any chance. Before people could realise what in reality was going to happen to the landmark building, the first strikes of hammer and shovel echoed the air. The eventful past of the building crumbled down in a mound of debris and dust.

To the people over 70 years old, the disappearance of the building marks a severance of Dhaka's link to the past that witnessed the city's early phase of growth in the 1950s. Today's younger generations are mostly unaware of the fact that the Khamarbari was once part of a 600-acre area comprising agricultural, poultry and dairy farms and 18 architecturally spectacular office buildings. The large area used to bustle with hundreds of visitors. The whole premises were under the Department of Agricultural Extension. The compound's main gate facing Karwan Bazar and the adjacent area later came to be known as Farmgate. It is now one of the busiest zones in Dhaka.

The mindless demolition of the Khamarbari is being considered by many as the destroying of an invaluable relic from of the region's past. The reason cited for demolishing the century-old structure was the plan to construct a high-rise at the site to accommodate more office space. According to architects and conservationists, a tall building could well have been constructed in the vicinity.

As they view it, the tearing down of the magnificently built Khamarbari amounts to belittling its time-tested place in history.  The centre defined a glorious chapter in the phase of start of scientifically pursued agriculture in Bengal. After the 1905 partition, Bengal boasted the first ever research centre and laboratory on agriculture set up in Dhaka in 1909. By then the British-Indian government had opened a separate central department of agriculture. Due to its role in the transformation of agriculture, great importance was attached to the agricultural centre, to be known later as the Khamarbari. As time wore on, the research centre-cum-laboratory kept assuming greater significance in the context of increasing focus on agriculture under the successive governments in British-India, Pakistan and the present Bangladesh.

Given the critical role played by it in the Bengal region's agricultural activities, Khamarbari's historical importance needs no elaboration. The 600-acre area could have accommodated a multi-storey, well-furnished and highly equipped agri-centre. The historic Khamarbari could have also housed an agricultural museum displaying the objects and processes of the evolution of farming in Bengal. What baffles people is a number of buildings constructed in the same period as Khamarbari still stand in Dhaka. The edifices include Curzon Hall, the Old High Court Building, the Dhaka Medical College Hospital and the residence of the Dhaka University Vice Chancellor. Besides them, a handful of privately-owned and public buildings in the capital still remain in place, despite the signs of the ravages of time on them. Owing to aging, a few of such concrete structures at one stage of time become dilapidated. But the fast advancement of the discipline of archaeology is helping them undergo renovations. These coats of artificial freshness do not detract from a certain structure's original beauty. It is mainly the highly innovative and radical breakthroughs in archaeology which have enabled many a ruins from the ancient times to survive through centuries.

To the great woes of the architects, the reason Khamarbari was demolished was its not being on the archaeological department's list of old buildings earmarked for preservation. On what criterion the Khamarbari missed its place on this vital list is an enigma.   

There are scores of archaeological and historic sites scattered in the countries across the sub-continent. They range from Mohenjodaro and Harappa in Pakistan, the Tajmahal, the Red Fort and the Victoria Memorial in India to Mahasthangarh, Paharpur, the ancient temples and pre-Mughal era mosques to British era landmark buildings in Bangladesh. When it comes to the preservation of important archaeological sites, Bangladesh is found at a pitiably low level. Although there is a fully operational Directorate of Archaeology, a lot of many such sites remain out of its regular monitoring. A 2012 court directive asked the government department to make a complete list of all archaeological sites in the country. With the aim of preserving and renovating the vulnerable historical structures, the department is learnt to have included in its list 452 sites as of June, 2016.     

That the overall attitude of the authorities concerned towards archaeological sites' preservation is lackadaisical has been proven on many occasions. Thanks to negligence and the failure to act timely to save a site from disappearance, many historic structures in the country have passed into oblivion. In the cases of demolishing heritage sites and historic buildings, the department can intervene and save the structures. Tearing down the Khamarbari building post-haste prompts the necessity of arming the archaeological department with the power to   such demolitions.

shihabskr@ymail.com

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