Linking cities' past with present: Case for Dhaka  

Shihab Sarkar     | Published: March 29, 2018 22:24:06 | Updated: March 30, 2018 21:25:15

The mindless destruction of heritage structures continues in Bangladesh. It has been occurring over the last few years. The country can now claim a place in an unusual architectural index. Its proponents may identify the cities which continue to destroy their historic edifices during peacetime. Let's focus on Bangladesh to have a look at its performance in architectural preservation. We are presented with a depressing view. It shows the country perversely deserves a top place in the act of tearing down its privately owned old buildings. This image of the country as one averse to its rich past keeps intensifying.

The four-hundred-year-old Dhaka began witnessing its first phase of the construction of buildings in the Sultanate era. It was soon followed by the building of structures by the city's Mughal rulers. The Sultanate period did not see much spectacular structure besides a few mosques. A few of them still survive in the city. The Mughal period witnessed a relatively faster rise in the construction spree. The structures, following the now-famous Mughal style, included the Lalbagh Fort with its ramparts, dozens of mosques, walled Eid prayer grounds and palatial buildings. Quite a number of the public structures survive today. Residential buildings began coming up in considerable numbers during the British colonial period. They belonged to both the government and private ownerships. Besides the British colonial city administrators and local individuals, a handful of native nouveaux riches and tradesmen came forward to construct buildings. Those included, notably, offices and residences in the style of European architectural style. The rich people preferred mixing the European style with the Mughal style.

These building are disappearing fast in Dhaka. The start of demolishing a British-era palatial mansion on Dhaka's Hrishikesh Das Road recently is the latest instance of the city's frenzied bid to sever its ties with the past. The office of the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha  (RAJUK) compiled in 2009 a list of 93 heritage buildings, which they earmarked for protection. Upon a revision of the list in 2017, four important buildings have been found missing from it. Moreover, the list doesn't include a lot of private buildings with archaeological importance. Deliberately done or not, the dropping of the names of buildings from the list has apparently facilitated their tearing down.

The start of demolition of one of the three heritage buildings on Hrishikesh Das Road has sparked an outcry. The present owner of the building is unfazed; tearing down of the structure continues like before.

The incident of the demolition created a lot of discomfort among the groups committed to saving Dhaka's architectural heritage sites. It also makes many worried about the future of the many heritage buildings still standing majestically in the city. The threat to the invaluable structures stems mainly from a crass materialistic urge. To most of the owners and the private authorities in charge of the buildings, these old structures carry little value. In this period of blatant consumerism, heritage has few reasons to appeal them. Dhaka has long joined the frantic race of replacing the two or three-storey spacious mansions and bungalows with multi-storey structures. The latter assures an owner of a quick buck. Demolition of the old-style small buildings on sprawling premises appears a normal and pragmatic practice to the average people. Rather, their being dwarfed by smartly built high-rise structures on all sides emerges as a weird spectacle. Few building owners want to remain humbled by their contemporaries with riches. Quite apparently, large sections of the latter miss the slimmest chance to own money-minting high-rise complexes, be they finally a condominium or an upscale shopping mall.

Against the backdrop of least archaeological passion of most of the present owners for the centuries-old buildings, longer survival of them seems uncertain. Dozens of the 400-year-old city's historical edifices have had to give way to time-befitting structures or ventures driven by commercial interest. The Hrishikesh Das Road demolition of heritage buildings may be viewed as just the beginning of a troubling urban phase of Dhaka. It may take the shape of a chapter set to blot out all the remaining vestiges of the city's past. Dhaka has indeed fallen into real bad times in terms of heritage conservation. Only stringent laws can halt the trend.

In spite of Dhaka's distinctive status as an age-old capital, it lacks many prerequisites for an ideal one. Even by South Asian standards Dhaka lags behind the region's other capitals. Unlike Agra, Delhi, Kolkata and even the short-lived capital of the Mughal-era Bengal in Murshidabad, Dhaka has been found trifling with its heritage structures. Due to its being the capital of three modern eras in the sub-continent's history --- the Sultanate, the Mughal and the British, Delhi saw continued architectural transformations. However, the style that had left a long-staying mark on the ancient city's structures and installations was one patronised by the Mughals. Those included palaces, forts, arches and roads. Their inclusion in a long heritage list prepared by the successive city administrations has continued as a sine qua non for Delhi's architectural upkeep. Besides the structures under government jurisdiction, the private ones have also not been deprived of the respective owners' special care. In today's Delhi, structures raised on highly modern and avant-garde architectural plans give the city a distinctive look: the spectacle is one of marvellous combination of the classical and non-traditional trends.

There is a notable aspect to the total cityscape of Delhi. Notwithstanding the predominance of buildings built in Mughal style, the historic city has not failed to accommodate the mindboggling ones. These structures, shockingly modern as well as post-modern, have lately begun changing the city's skyline. But what amazes the outsiders is the city residents' love for the past. There are few Delhians who do not take pride in being a resident of this centuries-old city. Perhaps this prompts those owning traditionally designed buildings in the city to think twice before bringing changes to their shapes. Thanks to Delhi's long royal and urban past, its lists of official and private structures are longer than Dhaka's. In this consideration, Dhaka also appears pale when compared to Kolkata. The British-India's capital for 139 years from 1772 to 1911, the mega city has witnessed the construction of scores of Gothic and Victorian buildings since its early days. It did not stop when the city remained capital of all Bengal from 1912 to 1947.Today, hundreds of magnificently built and imposing private residences dot Kolkata. Most of them belong to the descendants of the 18th-19th century zemindars and traders. Except those crumbling down due to aging, many of these structures are still in place. Troubling signs have, however, started appearing in the fast-changing city. Despite being placed on lists of heritage structures, owners of a lot of such buildings have lately given in to the temptations offered by developers --- much like in Dhaka. Due to its being located in a backwater, Murshidabad has largely been free of the senseless transformations.

A city cannot be expected to see its historic structures in place for an indefinite period. Time continues to tick away as a universal rule. With its passing, the process of dilapidation eats into the structures. At the same time, a pragmatist owning an old private building cannot be forced to desist from tearing down his or her dysfunctional structure, and building a new one. But then the nationally important issue of heritage protection weighs in. This is a modern-day dilemma getting more acute by the day.



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