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Old Dhaka

“I deeply regret to inform you, sir. The museum is closed.” The young man who met me outside the Liberation War Museum in Puran (Old) Dhaka seemed genuinely concerned about his surprise visitor.

“But the museum website says it is open from 10 to 5,” I protested.  I had arrived shortly before 11.

“As you see, the museum is closed.” The man gestured towards the locked gates, and a guard slumbering in a chair under a tree in the courtyard, his rifle resting on a small table. He pointed to a sign on the gate. “The museum is closed on Sunday.”

“But today is Friday,” I said. Clearly, there was a communication gap. It turned out that the museum staff had taken a mobile exhibit to the campus of Dhaka University, and the museum would not re-open until Monday, after I’d left Bangladesh.

I was disappointed because I’d been looking forward all week to a visit to what the Bradt Travel Guide described as “Dhaka’s best and most memorable museum,” documenting the 1971 war that ended with East Pakistan separating from West Pakistan and becoming the independent country of Bangladesh.  The museum’s six galleries document the war in photographs, newspaper clippings, artifacts and testimony from rebel fighters and those who suffered.  The conflict was marked by atrocities on both sides. Pakistan’s army ruthlessly targeted the Bangla professional classes, torturing and killing hundreds of university professors, writers, artists and students, calculating that by eliminating the country’s political and intellectual elite, the resistance movement would lose leadership and crumble. Bangla rebels, backed by the Indian army, showed no mercy to captured Pakistani soldiers and collaborators. Millions of Hindus fled across the western border to India, abandoning, homes, farms and businesses. The memory of the events of 1971 is still marked in speeches by politicians and articles by Bangla intellectuals. Those who fought in the war are celebrated as national heroes. Although the most prominent collaborators were tried and imprisoned or executed in the decade following the conflict, the courts are still hearing cases of alleged war crimes. 

I had not endured a hair-raising half-hour trip in a CNG (auto rickshaw), dodging buses, trucks, vans, bicycle rickshaws and other CNGs, to visit a mobile exhibit. It was time for a plan B. I pulled out my Bradt Travel Guide and called Tauran Islam, the director of the Urban Study Group, an NGO that offers walking tours of Old Dhaka.  Was there a tour that I could join?  He said the morning tour had already started, but that he would call one of the volunteers and see if it was possible to join the group. He called back a few minutes later. Fortunately, my daredevil CNG driver was still there; seeing that the museum was closed and that his passenger had no idea where he was in the maze of streets in the old city, he correctly figured he could make a few hundred more taka. I passed the phone and Tauran gave him directions. We set off again on what was perhaps an even more harrowing and bumpy ride through narrow streets, crowded with pedestrians, carts, bicycle rickshaws and porters carrying loads on their heads. 

We met Ana and another volunteer at a large 19th century merchant’s home, built in brick with colonnades and balconies. Like most of the historic structures in Old Dhaka, it is in serious need of restoration. Years of baking heat and monsoon rains have taken their toll. The stucco had peeled off the walls and columns, exposing the brick, and the wooden balconies sagged. But at least it was still standing and, with funding, could be restored to some of its former splendor.

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Old Dhaka, the area between the central part of the city and the River Buriganga, began its life as a small river port with bazaars. From the 17th century, under the reign of the Mughal emperors, it became a major commercial center, based largely on the production of muslin, a high quality woven cotton exported to Europe.  Several Mughal-era buildings—the Lalbagh Fort and Choto Katra, a large merchant’s house—survive. Dhaka attracted foreign traders, most notably Armenians, some of whom stayed, built large houses and became rich landlords; in 1771, they built an Armenian church and gave their name to the Armanitola neighborhood of the city. It also attracted Hindu artisans, who established workshops and small shops. The names of the two main bazaars, Tanti (weaver) and Shakhari (craftsman), mark their importance in the commercial life of city; today, many Hindus still live in Old Dhaka, and the side streets have small Hindu temples.

In 2004, an old building in Shakhari Bazaar collapsed. The government, supported by developers who saw an opportunity to grab prime real estate, proposed that many of the historic buildings in Old Dhaka be demolished for safety reasons. Historians and conservationists opposed the proposal, arguing it would destroy the city’s cultural heritage. The controversy was the impetus for the founding of the Urban Study Group by Tauran Islam. It campaigned to have several streets and buildings designated as historically significant, and thus protected from demolition. Some building owners opposed the designation, saying they did not have the money to maintain or restore their properties. The debate over preserving Old Dhaka echoes conflicts in other countries, with government agencies, developers, property owners and preservationists taking their disputes to the courts and the media. The Urban Study Group may have met its original goal to have the buildings saved from demolition, but it will be a long struggle. The British colonial-era buildings we visited were all in need of serious and costly restoration. And they are being used as homes by hundreds of families. Only the most enlightened of landlords will throw out the tenants, losing the rental income, and invest in restoration. In Western countries, a government agency might buy the buildings and restore them, but Bangladesh is a developing country and the government has other budget priorities. It’s difficult to argue for the allocation of public funds when schools and health clinics are under-staffed, and roads need to be repaired to keep the economy growing.

One example is the so-called Water Palace on the bank of the river. “These are residences for families of the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Ana. We were standing in the stone central courtyard, looking up at washing draped over the balconies as children (who probably should have been at an under-staffed school) ran around. Many government agencies provide free or low-cost housing for their staff, partly to compensate for low salaries. I doubt the Bangladesh army will support preservation efforts. Part of the palace has been taken over by Old Dhaka’s spice bazaar. Outside, trucks were unloading sacks of garlic. We wandered through the bazaar—a feast of colors and aromas—and emerged at the waterfront.  


The river was busy—large passenger boats embarking for destinations in southern Bangladesh, small cargo ships, and motor-powered boats loaded with vegetables for the city’s markets. The nearest was piled high with cauliflowers. “They have come from Barisal,” said Sunny, another Urban Study volunteer who had joined us, naming a city in the delta area. Porters piled the cauliflowers into broad baskets and formed a human chain, carrying the baskets on their heads and passing on to the next link. On the dirt bank, pumpkins, gourds and other vegetables were stacked high. Below us, a group of boatmen waited for passengers to ferry to the other side of the river.


This was where I met the rest of the group—seven German students, who were on one-month internships in the textile and garment industry. “We don’t have many clothing factories left in Germany,” said one. “So there is a lot to learn. Some of us are in fashion, I’m in textile technology.” They had taken a trip on the river in two boats. As they disembarked, somewhat precariously, Sunny asked me if I wanted to do a boat trip.  I looked at the wobbling craft and the dirty water and decided that walking was safer.


Our next stop was Dhaka’s main Shi’a mosque, Hossaini Dalan. Most Bangladeshi are Sunni Moslems, but a small Shi’a community exists in the old city. The women had only two headscarves between them so it took 15 minutes or so for the whole group to visit the mosque. From there, we walked to the merchant houses of the French Quarter. The group kept getting larger as more volunteers—all of them students—joined us; at one time, I counted at least a dozen volunteers. Although their English skills varied, all were enthusiastic about their work and proud to show us the city’s heritage. “We learned from the preservation movements in the West,” Sunny told me. “They inspired us.” We arrived at a large, colonial-era house, with emblems for Bangladesh’s professional cricket clubs painted on the walls, now used as a student dorm where some of the volunteers lived. Each room housed four male students in basic conditions—hard-wood beds, a couple of chairs and a small balcony. We shared samosa and bananas in one of the rooms and did the requisite group picture outside. The students who lived there said they were fortunate to have the cheapest accommodation in Dhaka—3,000 taka (about $35) for the year.


Our final visit was to the Shakhari bazaar, where most of the shopkeepers are Hindus. There was a short diversion to a bangle shop, and then we were halted by two men who wanted to show us their Hindu temple. We turned down a side street, and walked through a dirt courtyard to a patch of open ground—an oasis of peace.  The temple president explained that developers were trying to take the land to build a high-rise and buying off politicians to make the deal go through. The temple was not particularly old—and so would not meet the criteria to be designated as a historic structure—but it was where he and his neighbors had worshipped all their lives. We took another group picture, and hoped that the image of the temple president and a group of concerned bideshi (foreigners) would end up on social media and perhaps help in the campaign.