The skyline is a melange of the old and new in Puran Dhaka. Jostling for space by the narrow streets and alleys are multi-storied apartment buildings and old, “dilapidated” remnants from the past.
Like the rest of the city, Puran Dhaka is in a state of flux. In this month when we as Bangladeshis are called upon to look on the past, we must also ask ourselves if it’s the new we want at the cost of history.
To commemorate the fight for our identity, Star Lifestyle takes a look at the continuing erosion of our heritage in Puran Dhaka that threatens to erode our identity as Bangladeshis.
It all started with the collapse of a building in Shakhari Bazaar in 2004, because of which nineteen residents lost their lives. That incident engendered panic at the state of the buildings in Shakhari Bazaar and other areas in the old town.
Out of this atmosphere of apathy towards our heritage rose a group called Urban Study Group (USG), formed by architects Taimur Islam and his wife Homaira Zaman.
“We started the group in 2004, specifically with a view to try and stop the government’s plan to demolish the buildings in Shakhari Bazaar and replace them with new apartment buildings,” Islam revealed. “Since the area was one of Dhaka’s oldest and boasted buildings that were 200 to 300 years old, we took the initiative knowing that while human safety could not be compromised, the preservation of buildings that form part of our heritage was possible.”
Upon closer inspection by eminent structural designers, it emerged that demolition was not the only option; that structural strengthening of the buildings against lateral forces such as earthquakes was a viable and indeed desirable alternative. In fact, the reasons given for the collapse of the Shakhari Bazaar building, structural vulnerability, may not be entirely true.
“An aspect of the incident that did not get reported in any paper as far as I know, was the real reason for the collapse,” Islam went on. “The building collapsed not because it was structurally weak, but because there was construction going on in the plot next to it, thus weakening the soil on which the older building stood.”
The USG, in the months and years following the collapse of the building at Shakhari Bazaar and the subsequent plan to demolish old buildings, have been campaigning for the survival of our built heritage, the scope of which has expanded from the banner of “Save Shakhari Bazaar” to “Save Puran Dhaka”.
The campaigning comprises of, among other activities, showing landowners how their houses might look once they are restored, as well as getting policies implemented to stop the erosion of heritage. Their efforts led to the forming of a Heritage Committee and a Heritage List in 2009, and their biggest success till date was arresting the demolition of Boro Bari in Farashganj.
This was done by applying to the Urban Development Committee, who took swift action in stopping the ongoing demolition.
Out of this campaign has emerged an attempt to raise awareness of the richness of Puran Dhaka in the form of “Puran Dhaka Walk”. The walk takes in nine areas of Puran Dhaka including Shakhari Bazaar, Farashganj, Banagram, Armanitola, Lalbagh and Bangshal. Each walk is either according to a theme such as Mughal monuments, or devoted to a particular area.
“The main objective of the walk is to raise awareness on all sides,” Islam explained. “Among the international community, the policymakers, the people of Dhaka and crucially, the residents of Puran Dhaka.”
The latter party are very important because they hold the key to the future of the buildings they inhabit. There are many obstacles to achieving the desired result. The Vested Property Act or the “black law”, remains a constant source of dispute about land ownership, therefore making it impossible to reach a decision regarding the disputed property. Another obstacle is the temptation of landowners to “develop” their property by destroying their buildings and building modern apartment buildings in their place.
There is a possible solution to the second problem, although yet to be adopted. “There is a concept called the Transfer of Development Rights, whereby owners of properties deemed as heritage sites can transfer their right to develop their property through a certificate,” Islam said.
“After the property is granted heritage status, the owner can go to RAJUK, obtain a certificate through which an equal amount of land elsewhere will be developed. The owner is basically selling his right to develop his land, while still able to live on his land, and at the same time a heritage site is being protected and preserved. Unfortunately, we filed a petition for the implementation of this policy with the Heritage Committee, who assured us that it would be done, but there hasn’t been a meeting of the body over the last one and a half years.”
Part of the problem is that for many Dhakaites, this state of affairs does not represent a problem. That is where the Puran Dhaka Walk comes in. A group of people, usually expatriates living in Dhaka and tourists visiting the city, get in touch with Islam and Zaman through email, who in turn organize the walk. The group then embark on a walk that takes up the best part of a day through a given area, visiting old treasure troves divulging the secrets of a glittering past.
“It is nice to have expatriates along for the walks, as they sort of raise the profile of what we are doing, particularly to the residents of the houses,” said Homaira Zaman. “They become volunteers by default as their presence often helps us get access to some of the buildings. Of course, there are many owners who have come to know us and are familiar with what we do. And regardless of whether they (the owners) want us there or not, these visits drive home the importance of the buildings they are living in.”
The Puran Dhaka Walk has also attempted to include locals, with schoolchildren from Sir John Wilson School taking part in the past. The overwhelming interest however, comes from foreigners. This is another reason to preserve the historical buildings: the possibility of marketing them as tourist attractions.
On the walk that Star Lifestyle took part in, the group were taken through Banagram, and into many old houses built in colonial styles. The owners were invariably friendly and welcomed the visitors, hinting at a communal and inclusive lifestyle that is completely missing from the more urbanised and newer parts of town.
The owner of a house flanked by two plots that were being developed into high-rises, ruefully said, “We would love it if we could get some sort of protection from the government for our house. This is our ancestral home, and I would be loath to hand it over to developers.”
Another owner expressed similar sentiments. “This is the lifestyle I have been used to,” he said pointing to his living room, a huge chamber. “I live here like a king in my castle; there is no way that I am going to give this up to developers.”
In all the houses visited, structural concerns were limited to plaster falling from the ceilings and weak beams, thereby reinforcing Taimur Islam’s assertion that the need of the hour is restoration and not demolition.
The walk ended with a visit to the riverside, where looms the sad spectre of Ruplal House, a mansion in its heyday where in 1888, Lord Dufferin, Viceroy of India stayed during his visit to Dhaka. The ground floor of the expansive mansion is now a vegetable market; an apt comment on what heritage means to us Bangladeshis.
Heritage is intricately tied to identity, something that makes us unique as a nation. Replacing authentic, culturally significant Bangladeshi architecture with new, modernised buildings might not seem the same as being robbed of our language. In fact it is not the same. But where the commonality lies is that both phenomena will have had the end result of stripping us of our national character.
The USG is in it for the long haul, even as important historical and cultural buildings are destroyed while developers blatantly break the law. If Puran Dhaka is to be saved, they need our support and our voice. That does not seem like too much to give to preserve one’s heritage.
Taimur Islam and Homaira Zaman can be contacted for the Puran Dhaka Walk at USG (Urban study Group) firstname.lastname@example.org
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