Indifferent attitude towards Old Dhaka’s heritage buildings is continually turning our fascinating past rather obscure. So much so, even if you walk past an old structure soaked in history, you may not even notice it at all, let alone appreciate it.
One such grand mansion would be that of “Sakti Oushadhalaya” on 44 Sarat Gupta Road, Narinda. Parts of this colonial era building can still be spotted from the main road, if you purposefully look for it. And when you enter the alley and stand in front of the compound, interesting architectural elements will subtly induce a sense of awe for the bygone era -- and for the inspiring vision of the entrepreneur who founded Sakti Oushadhalaya, one of this region’s most renowned Ayurvedic institutions (founded, according to Banglapedia, in 1901).
Before he started the business, Mathuramohan Chakraborty used to be a school teacher. Then, according to Dhaka Kosh (published by Asiatic Society of Bangladesh), he started making medicines, which he himself sold at Bangla Bazar.
The business took off and Mathuramohan expanded the range of medicines. Sakti Oushadhalaya thrived; branches were opened at numerous places in Bengal and other parts of undivided India (Patna and Benares). A print advertisement (accessed from the electronic archive of Bangladesh on Record) -- published in Mohammadi (a now defunct journal) in 1940 -- is testament to those heydays.
The vintage ad included endorsements from highly distinguished people, such as politician and lawyer Deshbandhu CR Das and Governor of Bengal Lord Lytton.
To illustrate, Lord Lytton wrote: “… remarkable factory which owes its success to the energy and enthusiasm of its proprietor Babu Mathura Mohan Chakravarty B.A. The preparation of indigenous drugs on so large a scale is a very great achievement.”
Perhaps a fitting reflection of the success is the mansion being discussed. It was closely associated with Mathuramohan and his business.
The gatehouse -- and outhouse attached to it -- is an elegant structure in its own right, with ornamentations like elaborate lantern-like finials on the roof.
Walk through the gatehouse into the courtyard, and the majestic building comes in full display. Imposing pillars rise from the ground -- finished off with an ornate pediment. The series of arches on the ground floor and the long terrace on the upper floor add to the grandiosity.
On one side of the courtyard is a temple. Walking around the main building, you will soon reach another courtyard, which brings in sight more beauty that the building holds.
Beautiful windows, surrounded by lavish arches and pillars, provide a sense of elegance. Lime plasters on the walls have come off here and there, exposing the bricks inside, creating a pleasing sight of white and red.
Take the stairway to the upper floor, and you will find a curious feature of the building: a free-standing colonnade (a number of pillars that do not support any structure above them).
“It is highly unusual to come across a free-standing colonnade in Dhaka,” said Taimur Islam, CEO of Urban Study Group, an organisation which campaigns for conservation of the city’s architectural heritage.
“We’re not sure about the purpose of this exceptional feature. Was it originally meant to be like that? Or does it remain incomplete, and the plan was to build a structure above it? Or perhaps, was there a structure which collapsed or got destroyed? We don’t know,” he said.
This curiosity and awe are probably not shared by those who decided to build an apartment right next to this historic mansion.
Casting shadow on the heritage structure, the building largely ruins the ambience.
“In Old Dhaka, unscrupulous, unplanned and careless development in and around heritage buildings is a common activity because of which they lose much of their value,” Taimur said.
The Sakti Oushadhalaya building is in dire need of restoration.
The current state does not reflect the true grandeur of the mansion -- a property that is not only architecturally important but historically significant too, carrying the legacy of a business born in this city that thrived beyond Bengal.
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