Remnants of its checkered history abound in the form of Dhaka’s architectural heritage. The old city is a veritable labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, difficult to find your way around without a guide. That said, there is something interesting in every corner. Once, it was a stronghold of the Hindu business community and many vacant rundown buildings and temples are testimony to that era. The Dhakeswari Temple or the Temple of the Hidden Goddess was built in the 11th century and, today, is a major tourist attraction.
A little further, Lalbagh Fort stands to this day as the most striking piece of Mughal architecture in all of Bangladesh. At the centre of the garden is the Mausoleum of Pari Bibi (daughter Shayestha Khan, the original builder of the fort), who died during its construction. To the west is the Mosque of Khan Mohammed Mirdhai, and to the east a former audience hall that has been renovated into a museum of Mughal arts,arms and textiles.
We also visited Chotta Katra, the last of the great caravanserai. Istara Mosque with its unusual stellar motifs is the most interesting of the Muslim places of worship in the Old Town, while old Armenian Church is one of the few remnants of the large community of Armenian and Greed traders who settled in Dhaka in the late 18th century. As we got to the end of the street we saw the Pink Palace or the Ahsan Manzil, the palace of the last Nawab of Dhaka. It stands just behind the waterfront and incorporates a museum.
Running along the water-front is the Bund, a bustling street that overflows with the ornately painted cycle rickshaws and vendors, porters and eager commuters rushing down to the ferry piers. Sadarghat, the busy ferry harbour on Buriganga river, is always crowded with myriad boats and huge steamers.
The Ramana area, on the other hand, is dominated by British colonial buildings with Greek columns and white-washed facades. This district is the artistic and intellectual heart of the nation, where you find universities, libraries, art galleries and the National Museum.
Curzon Hall at Dhaka University is among the notable mixed-colonial buildings in the big campus. In the same area is Shahid Minar dedicated to the Language Martyrs, who were the forerunners of Bangladesh’s eventual independence in 1971. The great plaza is an everlasting symbol of Bangladeshi nationalism.
We were lucky to be present during the Bangladesh National Language Day (which has also become UN’s International Mother’s Language Day) held on 21 February each year. Bhasha Divas is the most important national event in Bangladesh. Colourful processions merges into a high energy mass gathering and culminates with everyone, from the President to the ordinary citizen, offering floral tributes at the foot of Shahid Minar.
The procession actually started exactly at midnight on 20 February and continued throughout the following morning. It was heartening to note that locals respectfully remember the national martyrs irrespective of their religion. Watching the sincere participation of people from all walks of life, I was confident that Bangladeshis would keep their mother language alive and kicking for a long time to come.
Two comparatively new edifices attract every visitor’s attention — one is a place of religion and the other a symbol of democratic values. Baitul Mukarrm mosque dominates the shopping district of the same name that surrounds it. Modelled on the Holy K’aba in Makkah, this four-storey edifice dates from 1964. A host of 50,000 people can pray together within its walls and the long, narrow pond is hemmed in with exquisite flower beds.
The Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (Parliament) is extraordinary, a colossal floating palace that seems to have equal heft and weightlessness. The building is a powerful statement of democracy and national pride. The nine -storied complex reaches to a height of 155 feet but it is the combination of reflections in the moat around the stonework, together with the constantly shifting blades of shadow across its face that really highlight famous architect Lous I Kahn’s achievement.
A 25-km drive on the Dhaka-Chattagram highway, brought us to Sonargaon, the ancient capital and now a showcase of the nation’s cultural heritage. It thrived as a cultural, religious and trading centre until British times, and then lapsed into decline and eventual ruin. Many of the mansions of the once powerful and wealthy remain.
One of these, belonging to the Mughal Subedar of that time, has been superbly renovated — although purposely left in a slight state of ruin — into a museum of antiquity. The artifacts represent both Hindu and Muslim periods.
About five minute’s drive from there is Painam area where an entire city street has been preserved intact, dozens of two-story mansions, originally built by Hindu merchants, in various states of degradation. Despite being under the protection of the archeological department, many buildings have been occupied by poor Muslims. But no one seems to mind as you wander in and out of these semi-ruined mansions. As Sonargaon is lived in, we get more of a sense of what the city must have been like in its heyday.
Sonargaon, more than anywhere else, convinced me that my journey to Bangladesh had not been in vain. There is something special, something that makes this nation stand apart, on the strength of its indomitable human spirit.