Plundering of heritage | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 24, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 24, 2008

Plundering of heritage

THIS is in response to several recent incidents regarding loss of architectural heritage of a city poised to celebrate the fourth centenary of being a capital city. Some of these have already been reported in the media, including The Daily Star. However, there were some inaccuracies, which this write-up intends to clarify.
Building a madrasah near Satgambudj Masjid did not violate Bidhimala 2008 as the Daily Star report says, as it was built earlier. In fact all the buildings around this historic site have violated other rules, like the 1959 Dacca Master Plan, which asks for preserving 40 acres around the mosque (and around the Lalbag Fort) as a garden, and not allowing any construction within area. Its podium has been raised unusually high, dwarfing the once beautifully proportioned Mughal edifice.
Even before the Flood Embankment was raised, areas around this structure were already being filled up and used for cottage industries. The location of this mosque not only shows that such structures used to be built on the river banks, but also proves that it was actually urban settlements that have been growing along the river and, between Farashganj and Mirpur (Shah Ali Bogdadi's Mazaar), the magnificent Mughal city prospered as one of the most important cities.
Close to this mosque, another one-dome Mughal mosque (Allakuri mosque) was demolished to make way for a multi-storey market few years ago. Last week Prothom Alo reported the demolition of Churihatta mosque, one of the oldest structures of the city with a chequered and interesting history.
The 103 years old Paribag mosque built by Nawab Salimullah had also just been demolished, and I didn't see any report on this. In March last year a citizen's groups successfully halted the demolition of Binat Bibi mosque, which is the oldest surviving building in the city. The group promised an alternate (to a 7-storey building and minaret overshadowing the sanctity of the sacred and historic structure) design solution. That the solution hasn't been given yet keeps the structure under risk, which is not even on the protection list of the Archaeology Department.
Another very old mosque totally annihilated by the extension work without being noticed by the citizens was the Lakshmi bazaar jame masjid. One currently undergoing major refurbishment (roof removed, original structure almost un-identifiable) is the Farrukh Shiar mosque in Lalbag, which had no dome.
The Department of Architecture couldn't care less when it demolished the Mahanagar Pathagar building in Osmany Udyan a few years ago to make way for the Golap Shah mosque, which wasn't needed because Baitul Muqarram, Peer Yemani mosque, Siddique bazaar jame masjid and Ananda bazaar Badshahi mosque (Nimtali) are within walking distances. Their role in recent works around the Chummery House has also raised criticism. However, it is this very Department that undertook several architectural conservation works, including the above two.
The pentastar fountain, as mentioned by Durdana Ghias is popular with these departments. For example, the Education Facilities Department built one in front of the Lalkuthi (Northbrook Hall) in Farashganj, and the one built by the DCC in Bahadur Shah park. Ruplal House and Sutrapur jamindaar bari, two of the most beautiful mansions of the city, are being used by the army staff and the Fire Service Department.
The four Sankhanidhi group buildings on Tipu Sultan Road are also being abused, among others by educational institutes, government departments, and DCC. Rajuk, too, acted irresponsibly to build an ugly structure overlooking the Ambar Shah mosque in Karwan bazaar, which Rajuk conserved in the first place.
Dhaka University, has taken initiatives to conserve some of the buildings in the campus (Salimullah Hall, Curzon Hall, Madhur Canteen, etc.). However, according to Daily Star report, they are not doing the work properly Besides, there are many more buildings in the campus deserving proper conservation, either as historic structures or modern examples.
However, the greatest culprit is the Department of Archaeology, the official custodian of heritage structures. Besides making unethical and unacceptable modifications to the Satgambudj mosque, the Archaeology Department also made incompatible extensions to the 300-years old Kartalab Kha mosque in Begum bazaar. They must be blamed for the collapse of Ahsan Manzil gate as they allowed encroachments on the already dilapidated structure instead of protecting it.
It is an irony that the most magnificent surviving palace of the city, which has been example of a successful conservation project by the government, is not even a listed structure. How many of us know that, when everybody is crying in earnest for the Bara Katra and Chota Katra to be properly conserved, the Archaeology Department is renting out rooms therein for detrimental uses? They also failed to protect the surrounding of Dhanmondi Idgah from encroachers.
Many old historic buildings and good modern buildings that deserve to be on the heritage list are either being demolished or are under immediate risk of being so. These include the Collegiate School, Kakrail Church, Notre Dame College, Brothers Hostel, Dhaka University Library, St. Gregory School, Jagannath University Library, many bungalows in Ramna and Segun Bagicha, ornate buildings in Farashganj, Tanti bazaar and Sankhari bazaar, Adi Basanta Babur Bari and Goalabari etc.
Buildings and monuments that reflect high points in human achievement, symbolising a particular civilisation, a significant development, or an historic event, acquire a greater significance in our cultural and national life and warrant continuance. These possess great emotional value as symbols of our cultural identity in addition to architectural, aesthetic and historic values.
Architecture, an expression in material form of a society's social, economic, technological and cultural achievements, gives a vivid picture of it at a point in history in a particular location. Preservation of architectural works is, therefore, of immense significance as a means of cultural heritage preservation for a society that values its past. The older section of cities, or significant buildings, must be held in trust for future generations; without this a city is like a human being without a soul.
Various organisations and groups are now clamouring to be in the forefront of the celebration of 400 years of the city, without caring for an authentic history or for saving the ancient edifices that are the material evidence of our past. Architecture, as a vehicle of cultural expression and experience, becomes a veritable document in absence of adequate historical sources and writings -- a common denominator linking past to the present and to the future. Let's save our architectural heritage.

Mahbubur Rahman is Professor of Architecture, North South University.

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