Dhaka | Saving Old Dhaka’s Landmarks

Preservationists worry that in the rush to modernise Bangladesh’s capital, the city’s architectural legacy is being destroyed

August 1962: aerial view of streamers at Sadarghat port in Dacca, former East Pakistan. ROGER WOOD / CORBIS
01 October, 2010

AS THE SUN SETS over the Buriganga River, the water shimmers like a puddle of spilt mercury, silhouetting the dozens of river craft that dot its surface. Moored along the north bank, bleeding rust, sits Bangladesh’s fleet of ‘rockets’—colonial-era paddle steamers fitted with belching diesel engines, bearing loads of passengers along the country’s network of rivers and waterways. The Buriganga bisects Dhaka’s old city; Bangladesh’s talisman, its central terminus, the final destination for rural migrants—and one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

Shamir Shaha occupies what would have once been the best real estate in the old city. Along with his wife Joysree Dey and two young children, he occupies the top floor of a building that locals refer to as Borobari—a rococo mansion constructed by three Hindu brothers in 1917. The house sits on a street in Farashganj (French Market), cheek-by-jowl with the hulking remains of structures built during the city’s 19th-century commercial boom. Their elaborate steel brackets and stately carved exteriors recall an era of unbounded prosperity.

But for many, these old structures are now less valuable than the land on which they sit. Shamir Shaha says that recently, the building’s owners started demolishing the structure’s back end, pressuring the ten families that live in Borobari to vacate the premises. Seven complied, despite the fact that the plans violated local building laws. The remaining three, including Shaha, have refused to leave. “If they could get this space vacant it would be very easy for them to destroy the building,” says Shaha, a life-long Borobari resident. “This is our heritage, this is our history. This building is a special corner of our lives.” Around a third of the structure—now a rubble-filled void—was levelled before the Capital Development Authority called for the building’s preservation.

It’s a common complaint in Old Dhaka. Founded in the 17th century as the first Mughal capital of Bengal, Dhaka  (then Dacca) passed into the hands of the British East India Company in 1793, growing into a regional economic centre. Plugged into Britain’s imperial trade networks, commerce flourished and fortunes were made. From the early 18th century, Armenian merchants, lured by opportunity, populated the bazaars with warehouses, mansions and palaces, the most lavish commanding panoramic views over the Buriganga.

The city fell into a slow economic decline following Partition, when most of the city’s Hindu population fled to India, and wealthy East Bengalis abandoned the old city’s bazaars for less crowded areas with better amenities. But despite years of neglect, much of Dhaka’s eclectic architectural heritage remains. In Arminatola—once home to the city’s Armenian community—grand old houses sit behind high brick walls, families camping inside their empty shells, setting bright saris to dry on rusted balcony railings.

A small 18th-century Armenian church, its courtyard filled with the graves of Christian notables, is the most well-preserved vestige of the Armenian presence in Dhaka, which also dropped away sharply after Partition. Today, just one Armenian still lives in Old Dhaka, to unlock the church for visitors, light the candles and incense, and then lock it up once more when they leave.

My guide, Taimur Islam, an energetic man with a full head of silvery-grey hair, says this new breakneck pace of development in Old Dhaka spells an uncertain fate for its architectural heritage. Taimur is team leader at the Urban Study Group (USG), a Dhaka-based organisation that is campaigning to have the old city designated as a protected area. The campaign was launched after a building collapse in 2004 killed 19 people, leading the government to propose levelling a strip of historic buildings in the city’s iconic Shankaria Bazaar. Since then, the USG has created an inventory of around 3,000 historical structures in Old Dhaka that it claims are under threat. “There are no reasons why we can’t make these buildings safe for continuous use,” he says. “There should be an integrated approach.”

Taimur Islam traces Old Dhaka’s history as if reading the rings of a tree. In one building close to the Buriganga riverfront, Taimur leads me through crumbling Mughal-era arches and up, via creaky wooden stairs, into a second, more ornate floor added in the colonial era. Here, in decrepit high-ceilinged rooms, migrant workers assemble umbrellas and piece together cheap plastic toys. Taimur points out the ornate scrollwork carvings on the wall, preserved despite the makeshift sweatshop that fills the room, which also doubles as a home and kitchen for the labourers. In another cavernous room lit by a single, bare lightbulb, young men work a giant guillotine, slashing at stacks of papers. Confetti litters the ground.

As the old city has been adapted to the city’s modern needs, old buildings everywhere are being demolished. At one site, labourers casually smash at stucco walls with sledgehammers, carving out a rubble-filled lot from which a stark apartment block will inevitably rise. Due to loopholes in Bangladeshi tax law, which mandates that tax only be paid on buildings once they are completed, Taimur says it will likely remain unfinished before being sold, joining the old city’s new generation of ghost buildings, all unfinished concrete and black, yawning windows.

Despite the odd success, preserving Old Dhaka will be challenging. For one thing, it will be difficult to establish a uniform authority to oversee the wide variety of forms of ownership that exist in Puran Dhaka. Many buildings are privately owned; Hindu properties vacated after Partition are under de facto government ownership; and a few other buildings are designated waqf, or Islamic endowments.

Then there is the perennial Bangladeshi complaint: corruption. Taimur says the writ of the law runs thin in Old Dhaka, where a “very active nexus” of businessmen, property owners and local politicians has spearheaded a boom in property developments and the demolition of old buildings. In the process, existing building laws are often simply ignored. “Every day, around eight to ten buildings are being pulled down—mostly old buildings,” he says. “In another two or three years, we will be left with nothing. It’s more than urgent. Something must be done immediately.”

Taimur says the rewards of action would be great, potentially prompting a rejuvenation of rest of the city. “If it’s possible to restore all those important monuments under certain guidelines…the rest of the areas could be revitalised too,” he says. “That would create a different identity and image for Dhaka as a whole.”