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Dwelling and Dealing with History

When the dust finally settles after our historic buildings have been pulled down around the city, all we will have left will be pictures. The glorious past of a 400-year-old city seems destined to be captured and preserved through pictures alone. We are losing our heritage and pulling down our historic buildings even before we can take pictures of them. We are losing our heritage even faster than we can document it, but how does one deal with a problem few people are even aware of in the first place?

That is where architects Taimur and Humaira Islam of the Urban Study Group, come into the picture. They can proudly say that the two of them almost single-handedly brought Shakhari Bazaar back from extinction when they started a movement more than five years ago to save the historic market place. After a building collapsed there in 2004 the city authorities in an unusually proactive measure decided to survey the area and recommended that 91 out of the 157 buildings in Shakhari Bazaar be pulled down. It created an uproar and none were more vocal that Taimur and Humaira. They practically waged a war for the area to be deemed a historic site and argued that arbitrarily demolishing 91 buildings would not be in the best interests of anyone concerned. The market could become a viable tourist hotspot and more importantly there were houses and buildings located there that predated even the Mughals. Shakhari Bazaar and its buildings were part of the history of Dhaka, for that fact alone the buildings should not have been touched. The duo got their wish and managed to save many old and architecturally important buildings, but with one feather in their cap they were not about to rest on the laurels. Since then they have decided to tackle all of Old Dhaka, trying to search out old houses that need to be documented, restored and possibly saved from the clutches of developers.

Their work is lonely business except for the days when they arrange their weekly Heritage Walks which they started six months. They take groups of people out for a walk in the Old Town and along the way show them the great buildings of yester years along with some hidden gems, which they searched out by themselves. Ostensibly the walk is recreational, but it serves a variety of purposes. Firstly there is the odd chance that they may come across a ‘new’ old building, one which may have slipped through their search net. Aside from that it performs a sort of civic duty, informing groups of people about the history of Dhaka as well as showing them first hand that without our old buildings we would lose more than just a part of our history, but a part of our identity as well. Finally it shows the people living in the Old Town that the so called city slickers really do care about the area and it also shows them just a smidgen of what the tourist capacity may be if the houses were looked after and maintained well.

“The Old Town could be the biggest tourist attraction in Dhaka and could potentially being in an untold amount of money, but if the place is not looked after, if its historic buildings are not maintained then that will cease to be a possibility,” says Taimur. He points to Dholai Khal and then to the buildings across the street saying that all the old buildings there used to face the Khal. The open space and waterfront, made it a perfect place for a house and now those houses would face nothing but paved concrete. If the Khal could find its original location then he claims the place could be built up with street cafes and a sort of European openness could define what a wonderful tourist attraction it could be. It seems a good idea in practice but there is an overwhelming feeling that the pace of modern life has overtaken any such fanciful ideas. The khal has been filled up and the area is the better for it, what it needs in fact more than a street café is paved roads and sound drainage. The area that was once the heart of the city is now its dump, with quarter paved roads, horrendous sewerage facilities and a feeling of dirtiness that gets beneath one’s skin. It could be argued that Dhaka City Corporation has not spent a single taka on the area in the past decade, they could argue differently but it simply means that they have not even stepped there of late.

The Heritage Walk takes one through Shutrapur and along the way a myriad of dilapidated houses are pointed out, they are ghosts of what they used to be. Many may call Taimur and Humaira dreamers for wanting to bring back the glory days of the old town, but one walk with them will change their minds. Their conversational chatter is a mixture of information and entertainment as they seemingly know the owners of every house and have more than a few stories to share.
They speak not only of saving individual houses, but also of area conservation, where small blocks of old houses could be saved to add a little more vibrancy to the area. The advantages of area conservation are simple to see, instead of a few scattered houses having regular segments of houses would greatly add to the over all ambience of the area. But generally when it comes to saving old houses some even older problems emerge, and they have to deal with keeping mind body and soul together. Most people would prefer to tear down their old houses and build an apartment complex which would provide 21st century living conditions and a steady income and truly one should not forget that those people have every right to do so. What can’t be forgotten as well is that those very same houses which could be pulled down to make the dreams of a family come true are also a part of the rich heritage and history of Bangladesh. Even if the owners wish to tear them down, the government should step in and offer to purchase them at the market value and then convert them into museums or something along those lines.

But alas the fate of old buildings in Dhaka is one that cannot be avoided, the prime example is that of Rup Lal House. A stately mansion which once dominated the banks of Buriganga is now nothing more than a run down house which houses a spice market and serves as an army camp. To see it now it is to see an apparition, and yet it still dominates and takes one’s breath away, what a sight it must have been in the days of yore.

In the end there is nothing left to be done by the civilian, the government is the party that should take up the cause of architecturally significant buildings around Dhaka, they could turn the old town into the tourist attraction, yet seemingly that will remain a pipe dream. Taimur and Humaira will continue to walk from road to road, trying to detail every last house, but for how long?

The best example of the history of the houses of the old town came when we arbitrarily stepped into a house that seemed to be built in Mughal style. We asked where the owner of the house was, hoping to gather more information on the property itself. He walked into the dimly lit foyer as I wondered if the room should even be called a foyer at all. What does one call a room that is essentially a foyer, but was built more than a hundred years before the word was even coined? Maybe there was a Mughal term for the word which as the years passed faded into obscurity, a footnote to a footnote. As I pondered the limitless knowledge of humans lost to history, I stood face to face with the owner, a professor of geography who could not tell me where he was, and he was standing in his own foyer. He was close to seventy years old and did not know the complete history of the house, when it was built and so on. All he knew was that it was his family house. There he stood in a house so old that he couldn’t even guess its age and he had lived there his entire life as did his forefathers. Treasures like this could be lost forever.

This article is quoted from Daily Star . The article, written by Nader Rahman, was originally published on 2007-06
This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.

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Posted in Bangladesh, Development.

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