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     Volume 2 Issue 98 | December 21 2008|


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An Architect's Dhaka

Part Fifteen

I would know Nayabazaar for an additional reason, which is for buying papers for any kind of printing-press related activities which I got involved with right from my Dhaka days. While being there, which was very often, I would seldom go and spend time in Tantibazaar or the Balaka Press in Tipu Sultan Road which was not that far and contained some very ornate buildings, or play hockey with some friends from the Salimullah Medical College. A group of architecture students from the Asia Pacific University, where I was part-timing before my current job, did a project under me in Tantibazaar that received award from a students' jamboree in Macao in 2004.

But my most favourite spot was the tranquil Armenian Cemetery. Unlike today, the Armenian Church ground, maintained by the only surviving member of the community who lived in Narayanganj, was accessible to curious passer-by then. Built in 1781 on the site of a smaller church and cemetery, it is one of the oldest surviving buildings of the city, and was for the orthodox Christians who observe Christmas on January 7. Armenian traders came to the subcontinent in 12C. After their success in trade, Emperor Akbar permitted them to preach. In Dhaka the small community quickly amassed wealth by trading into commodities like salt, hide, tea, jute, etc. This community contributed a lot, more than the British, in education and civic activities.

Twice a year an Archbishop from Australia comes here to hold ceremonies. Mother Teresa from Kolkata, originally an Albanian, stayed in this compound during her visit to Dhaka. The campanile fell in the earthquake of 1897 though the famous clock which could be heard from far away and became part of the folklore had stopped about 18 years before that. The church now has a square tower with a conical spire over the western entry and an apsidal end on the east. Its cold wide veranda used to attract us the most after long hours in the junkyard or the hockey field. Often we would go around the nearly a hectare site, and look into the statues or read the 350 epitaphs some of which were much fascinating.

But we were never aware of so many historic mainly Mughal and also colonial period buildings in the chunk of quarter between the Tantibazaar and Armenian Church and the river and the Nayabazaar. This chunk formed the very early old Dhaka. Much later I came to know that the Nawab Yusuf Road, which is now connected to Jinjira over the locally constructed second Buriganga Bridge through the Babubazaar area, was indeed developed above the box culvert along the Dholai Khal, and in fact this part of the Khal was more artificial than natural, dug to connect few canals and water bodies either to its east connected all the way to Balu river or to its north connected to the Segunbagicha Khal-Motijheel. At a point where the Khal met the river there were, some of which still survive, many important buildings and religious structures, like Amirudding Daroga's house, mosque and grave, Shaista Khan masjid, Ladli Begum's Tomb and Dutch Factory where Mitford Hospital started, and of course the most ornate of them all a Nawabaatkhana, a sketch of which was printed with the last part of this series. The Armenians in early 19C once had the channel re-excavated using their financial might.

Relocation of the Dhaka University partly to Faidabad to the north of Kurmitola, and the Cantonment to Badda, was suggested in the 1959 Master Plan. None of these materialised despite prompt requisition of land. This barred development in these areas for many years. A major part of the Badda was eventually de-requisitioned in 1991 after nearly 40 years. A new residential university (Jahangirnagar) was built in 1970 some 20 km to the west, designed by pioneer Bengali architect Muzharul Islam who earlier had designed the Chittagong University.

Faidabad later became the Uttara residential area, which however remained barren for more than a decade before any construction began. One of the earliest houses was Kheya of actor Sohel Rana in Sector 4, designed by an architect who lives and teaches in the USA now. Before this in the 1970s we would see a long lone chimney standing in the middle of red plains of Uttara and some villages at distance. The area actually was at the tip of the high Madhupur tracts formed between two great rivers in the Pleistocene era.

Barring a few residential townships that benefited mainly the rich, DIT did not prepare any zonal or local plan or develop the city according to the Plan(s). Different establishments such as the Hotel Sheraton, Diabetes Hospital, Children's Park, Institution of Engineers, Bar Council, Sarak Bhaban, Police Control Room, Independence Memorial and the Supreme Court appropriated a good part of the Ramna Gardens and the Race Course much to the protests and dismay of professionals, media and environmentalists, and by violating the provisions of the Master Plan. These are situated on land mostly owned by the Nawabs from whom the British took it to establish Ramna much of which was later given to the Dhaka University. In fact if you walk from TSC towards the Doyel Chattar on your left you can see many recent small encroachments which I suspect have been done without formal approval from the city authority. Bangla Academy which thought of having a 21-storied Ekushey Bhaban is also planning an extension of some functions into the Udyan. I also hear that the Dhaka University is contemplating claiming back some of its land if it can find proper documents supporting that.

In the early 1960s the rapid growth of Dhaka provoked a debate on the wisdom of retaining the Cantonment, the Bangladesh Rifles at Pilkhana, and the Dhaka University in their present locations. The main Cantonments at Kurmitola and Mirpur, have since expanded taking on more land including much of the old airport after the shifting of the International Airport to Uttara in 1980, and by filling up a huge amount of wetlands in Agun and Diabari. The cantonments and the BDR Headquarters are examples of injudicious use of scare land within the urban core. They limit city growth and adversely affect the city-wide transportation network. The Master Plans and other studies recommended the shifting of these establishments away from the city but to no avail.

Asad Gate in Mohammadpur

The old airport at Tejgaon was unsuitable for a capital city. A new international airport farther north on the site of an abandoned military airport from British period at Kurmitola was developed in 1981. However, years later the Air Force took over and started using the abandoned Tejgaon airport. This imposed new restrictions on building height in the flight path and gave rise to the debate on the fate of already built tall structures within the air funnel. The Dhakaites were happy when the old airport was shifted opening the possibility of having a large chunk of land available within the city for breathing. However, such uses that restrict easy public access to the facilities with army control on most of it dismayed the citizens.

The 1959 Master Plan for Dhaka had no proposal on cultural heritage buildings or sites with a view to their conservation and restoration as monuments of architectural and historical significance. In few of the city plans the future of some of the more well-known historic establishments were addressed and suggestions made only as a part of promoting recreational open spaces and tourism.

Suggestions were made to retain and develop a 40-acre open area/garden around the late-17C Lalbag Fort and Satgambudj Masjid. It also put a moratorium on insensitive developments in the surrounding areas. Without mentioning its historic value and (the need for) its conservation as a national heritage, the Plan proposed to conserve the Fort as an important city open space. Then on the river Turag, the mosque that included a stretch of garden and water bodies was cited as a 'well known landmark and historic monument'. The recommended restrictions for this historic site included prohibition of brick fields in its surroundings, and erection of incompatible and high structures.

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