Happy 400th anniversary, Dhaka!

Shaheed Minar, Dhaka.
Photo: SK. Enamul haq

Dr. Nizamuddin Ahmed

Think of Paris the 'City of Lights', and the height of Eiffel Tower overwhelms your imagination, the grandeur of the Elysian Fields (Champs-Élysées to the French) fills your spirit, the piety of Notre Dame captures your soul.

Loiter your mind in London and the bells of Big Ben resound in your core, the expanse of John Nash's Trafalgar Square surrounds your mind, the Thames but flows past your thoughts.

The Empire State Building symbolises New York City, as does the Times Square in midtown Manhattan home to Broadway theatre; soon Architect Daniel Libeskind's prize-winning Memory Foundations at the site of the destroyed WTC twin towers shall overcome you with wistfulness.

Shah Jahan's Delhi showcases the Rashtrapati Bhaban (originally English Architect Edwin Lutyens' Viceroy's House), the nearby Connaught Place, the red-sandstone and marble edifice of Qut'b Minar that glorifies the beginning of Muslim rule in India, the Red Fort that housed the Imperial Moguls and the distinguishable Jama Masjid nearby.

If they be some of the great cities in the world, the City of a thousand Masjids and more Dhaka, in its own right, stands tall among that enviable array, not only for its maturity but because of a stockpile of physical icons and the vivacity in its continuing growth.

Bursting at its seams it is, about that there is no denying. There is unison that squalid is the city in length, breadth and height, obvious one would have thought when running 396. Yet, Dhaka is heartened by perhaps the world's most replicated monument the (Central) Shaheed Minar commemorating the martyrs of the Language Movement 1952, is host to American Architect Louis I. Kahn's Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban 1965-1982, and is proud of Syed Mainul Hossain's Jatiya Smriti Soudha (National Martyrs Memorial) in its outskirts.

Parisians crowd the thoroughfare of Champs-Élysées stretching from the Place de la Concorde to the Place Charles de Gaulle-Étoile, on any day of national glory notably the Bastille Day; the 1998 football world cup triumph was a fitting raison d'être.

Londoners stream to the Trafalgar Square as a solemn mark of camaraderie and communal harmony, as they did after the Tube bombings on ….. In times of joyous celebrations, under the tolerant gaze of the guardian lions they simply paint the square red; all they need is an excuse to party.

New Yorkers add tens of decibels to the shimmering Times Square, when each year they want to show the rest of the world how to usher in the New Year. They will do it in mid-year if they can lift a universal sporting championship. For once theatre may have to play second fiddle.

Delhites may find the circular Connaught Place just the plaza to exult in their hour of gala, gaiety and glory. In times of solemnity they can assemble at the Raj Ghat to be solaced and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. The grounds of Red Fort may very well catapult a stroller three centuries and a half, whether audience is sought by khas or am.

Dhakaites congregate at the Central Shaheed Minar to epitomize solidarity for any movement that seeks the emancipation of the populace, or a group aggrieved. The National Martyrs Memorial remains buoyant on a sea of gratitude on Victory Day each year as millions pay homage to their heroes. Pahela Baisakh brings out the root in the Bangalee as a new dawn unfolds to the

Times Square, New York.

accompaniment of poignant melody floating from Ramna Batomul. In times of our occasional sporting conquests the square overlooking the Dhaka University Teacher-Student Centre is thronged by the city's rejoicing youths.

Any city in the world is measured by such iconic buildings and spaces by which its citizens can integrate into a unique whole, within which they find their identity. These are the locations they regard as forums where they can exult and weep, in joy and in sorrow, in shrill and in silence. They are the logos that bind together a people. Take away the symbols of a society and you are left with a body devoid of the soul the city is then dead.

The Lalbagh Fort completed by Mughal governor Shaista Khan 1678, the eclectic Ahsan Manzil 1872, the Anglo-Mughal Curzon Hall 1904, Salimullah Muslim Hall 1929, the modernist Art College crafted by Architect Muzharul Islam 1955, BUET halls of residence by Robert Bouighie 1963-67 these and many other surviving constructions of mainly brick and only recently concrete are the valued pages of this remarkable city's almost 400-year old book.

Dhaka is also proud of the national masjid, Baitul Mukarram, where traditionally the first congregation is held the morning of every Eid. There is the striking Kamlapur Railway Station 1961-63, which miraculously still retains much of Bouighie's original design. Zia International Airport, in spite of the necessary massive extensions, maintains its initial main façade, albeit dwarfed. Wisdom played its part when authorities decided to retrofit the globally famous Bangabandhu National Stadium; and one of the oldest Test cricket venues in the world is good for another half a century or more.

Alas, the Binat Bibi Masjid 1457 Dhaka's oldest standing Muslim structure, the Katras (travel inn), the Sat Gombuz Masjid, the Dhanmandi Eid Gah, and the Malik Ambar Masjid at Karwan Bazaar of mid and late 17th C Mogul style, Maharaj Ballal's Dhakeswari Mandir, Mitford (Salimullah Medical) Hospital 1854, Lalkuthi (auditorium) in Old Dhaka 1872-1886, the Old High Court building (Governor House) 1905, the list is long… remain as mere edificial witnesses of the gross violation let loose upon them over the centuries, hastened in recent decades. They remain as grieving testimony of the despicable low esteem of our city's progenitors that we have so far conveyed.

Thoughtless extensions have robbed Binat Bibi Masjid of its underlying beauty. The Bara Katra 1644 and the Choto Katra 1663 are left with little breathing space with repugnant and unbridled construction breathing down their neck. The Eid Gah at Dhanmandi is being severely defaced by encroachment on the west. The Mogul masjid at Karwan Bazaar has been scarred callously by recent multi-storied extension on its south with unashamed disregard to its rich heritage.

Mitford Hospital has long been sick and has been violated time and again; the pretty facades of the yesteryears are being veiled by ugly additions. Open space around Lalkuthi has made room for ugly, incongruous structures. The Old High Court is being very slowly but surely overtaken by a growing number of encroachers in the guise of potters and planters; the open area between the century-old building and the road is in their control and use.

The perpetrators fail to understand that today remains only a few breaths away, or less, from becoming a past. Oh! How they shall lament in a few decades from now that theirs was a better time, as do those before them of theirs.

Not many cities in the world have been bestowed with capital-ship

Eiffel Tower, Paris.

on five separate occasions spread over four centuries. Subahdar Islam Khan Chisti made Dhaka the capital of Bengal about July 1610 and named it Jahangir Nagar, three years after Emperor Jahangir, the fourth Mogul emperor of India, acceded to the throne; and so it remained for the next thirty-one years. It reigned as a capital for the second time as the Mogul provincial capital 1660-1704.

When Bengal was bifurcated to suit British whims in 1905, it was once more made a capital, this time of the eastern part and Assam. It was the obvious choice as capital of East Pakistan 1947-71. From 1971 it is the capital of independent Bangladesh. This singular record attainment should have been enough to inspire Dhakaites to maintain its buildings as monuments, for after centuries of sentineling over this vibrant city many of the edifices have earned that status, but few have been conferred with such.

Every city in the world makes sacrifices and strategies, involves finances and citizens, to conserve and, if not, at least preserve its landmarks, for they are the pulmonary highpoints of a cityscape that gave it its name, its fame.

Every city institutes meaningful and practicable legislation to keep its important images in their original form, unaltered by lesser man's inherent greed. In Dhaka implementation of existing rules, minimal though they are, remain the dividing line between anarchy and civilisation.

Let the age-old buildings and spaces of this magnificent city remain protected from any further abuse. Let us enact pro-people law to procure land around the city's pride possessions to free them from suffocation. Let us give our history a new life by restoring its motifs to as much of its past glory as possible. Let us save these edifices for posterity so that four hundred years from now, and beyond, it be said that Subahdar Islam Khan Chisti did not shift his capital from Rajmahal in vain.

Over the centuries Dhaka has braved through war with aplomb and endured storms with humility. It has outlived a few despots and several crackpots, and unsurprisingly survived monotonous pessimism from within its own ranks. Liberated more than once, Dhaka prides itself as an illustration of noteworthy social harmony, inter-cultural fertility, diverse religious ceremonies, and matchless gastronomic delights.

Over the centuries the city capital has befriended wholesale all those who have knocked on its door, but never tolerated those who barged in uninvited. A city as magnanimous and righteous as Dhaka deserves a fitting tribute, and there is none more wanting than an all-out effort to protect and preserve its legacy.

In less than fifteen hundred days, Dhaka as a capital city shall be four hundred years old. Indeed as a habitat it is much older. Let the festivities begin now with an unwavering vow to care for its past. Four years is not a long time to celebrate four centuries of head held high.

The author is Professor, Dept of Architecture, BUET and Consultant to the Editor on Urban Issues, The Daily Star.

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