• Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Spiritual essence in urban Dhaka

Zakia Rahman
Illustration: fahim anzoom
Illustration: fahim anzoom

Urban lives and living pattern in Dhaka is shaped by the way this city is built. A city can have a spiritual aspect. Good practices of building and landscape design provide settings for the conduct of human life in harmony with the physical as well as metaphysical forces that reflect the spiritual dimension. Spiritual essence in a city is based on its sacred landscape which provides places and spaces where the natural world compels us to think about great myths and mysteries and open ourselves to experiencing the transcendent over the mundane.
Spirituality in cities can be expressed through architecture and the built environment. These include: (i) Places which symbolize religious beliefs and facilitate communal rituals, (ii) Places built for separation from the ordinary (iii) Places which have special cultural meaning, (iv) Places revealed as sacred, (v) Places where earthly energies are believed to converge etc. Thus, spirituality of a city is not only about connecting religion but also about enabling the positive or good energies to flow through spaces and its users. Cities can have two sides; one being beautiful with the promise of hope and success and the other, ugly with the threat of misery and disaster.
Dhaka appeared as a Mughal city. Today's Dhaka city can be broadly divided into three areas: First, the formal or planned areas, second, the informal or un-planned areas and finally areas which are a mixture of these two. The informal areas basically include areas with slums and squatters which are hostile, unhealthy and sick due to lack of adequate housing, services and amenities. Here, design illiterate structures and degrading environ enforce people to lose touch with humanity and thus spirituality. Even in the planned areas, there are buildings that fail to recognize the true meaning of life and its manifestations within built forms. As a result there is a lack of friendly, healthy, healing, life-enhancing built environment that would nourish the spirit and enhance the total well being of the community. However, despite all the drawbacks and negative energies that we see in Dhaka's urban sprawl, certain urban premises, structures and people do symbolize the presence of spirituality to an extent.
Dhaka city, has all types of religious structures starting from Buddhist and Hindu temples, Churches and Mosques. Dhaka has been known as the 'City of Mosques.' Innumerable mosques, several temples and few churches not only add architectural grandeur but also testify to the deep religious and spiritual fervor of its inhabitants. These religious structures relate to spiritual symbolism not only through their physical structures but through the religious practice that occur in them. Not only that, people in Dhaka gather together in streets and squares to observe religious rituals and festivals. The Friday Prayer Gathering on streets, the Puja festivals in community temples and premises, the ceremonial procession of the Shia Muslims during Muharram all take place in various spaces and places of the city to contemplate spiritualism.
Cities become spiritual where human life is considered sacred.  Thus, in a spiritual city, relationships form between people to people, people to nature, between past, present, future and timeless domain. A spiritual city would unite human beings with family, neighbors, community people and natural environment and formulate experiences that lie beyond our mundane ones. Enhancement of the human spirit even beyond religious circles can be attained with the values and ideals of civic life.
In earlier Dhaka, large gardens, parks and water bodies were laid out in various parts creating special connection with nature and its spiritual essence. In contemporary Dhaka, though most water bodies have been filled up with land there still lie some lakes, parks and gardens. People here connect with each other psychologically and spiritually through different designed and non-designed city premises. The open Plazas, like in Sangsad Bhaban, Rabindra Sarabar in Dhanmondi, Shahbagh Chattar, the Charukala Institute and TSC Premises, the Suhrawardy Uddyan, Shahid Minar and National Memorial in Savar, the parks and lakes in front of Dhanmondi, Gulshan, Baridhara etc. the streets and road fronts of different areas not only gather people of various kinds but also provides opportunity to assemble cultural manifestations, enjoy the transcendent, to share human spirit and enhance the spiritual dimension. Neighborhood people assemble together in parks for group exercise and meditation, elders discuss on spiritual concepts. Such spiritual practice may help overcome resistances of the vices of urban life, positive life-directing choices may be addressed and commitment for a better city life may be enhanced.

The author is an architect based in Dhaka

Published: 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2014

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