Ruplal House: heritage held hostage
If one goes to look for Farashganj Ruplal House in Dhaka, it would be a near impossible task to find it amid hundreds of shops. When they do get there eventually, they will find an old residential building covered with moss.
Thanks to the negligence of the authorities in properly maintaining and refurbishing the historic structure, this moss-covered residential building is what Ruplal House's fate turned out to be.
A wholesale spice market illegally occupies Ruplal House. Besides, around 24 families of members of security forces have been staying on the first floor of this building for over 40 years.
Both sides of the house were drastically altered and extended by the occupants, which caused serious damage to its archaeological value.
Over 50 different shops are scattered around the house. Around 20 of them were built by demolishing a part of the building. According to elderly locals, more than 90 percent of the outer wall of the house was damaged in the process.
Ruplal House (formerly known as Aratoon House) is a 19th-century mansion in Farashganj area in Dhaka. It was built on the northern bank of the Buriganga River, beside the Buckland Bund.
The house was built in 1825 by an Armenian businessman named Stephen Aratoon. It was later bought by two merchants, Ruplal Das and his brother Raghunath Das, in 1840. Later, an architect firm of Calcutta, Martin Company, renovated the building with major extensions. It was renovated in the then popular neo-classical style.
According to Nazir Hossain, the writer of Kingbodontir Dhaka, Ruplal was the first from the Das family who went to school and scored highest numbers in the entrance exam, equivalent to present day SSC. He was also the most successful Bengali businessmen of his time. This period in history witnessed the gradual rise of the merchant class and the demise of the landed class.
Ruplal House and Ahsan Manzil were the ornaments of the city, set along the Buriganga river.
The famous mansion was also the host of many important events in the 19th century in the city, including the legendary reception for the Lord Dufferin, the viceroy to India, in 1888.
The elite of the city competed against each other to earn the privilege to honour the viceroy and the nawabs of Dhaka also wanted to show off their Ahsan Manzil.
But the Ruplal brothers won this competition. Legend has it that to show off their social status they spent Tk 45,000 at the time to decorate the whole building. One reason for selecting Ruplal House may have been the mansion's ballroom that overlooked the beautiful river.
Now, left uncared for, the Ruplal House has lost its beauty. Commercial structures have come up defying the Antiquities Act's condition of a 250-metre buffer zone for an archaeological site. New structures have been built just beside Ruplal House, which is now surrounded by many shops. There are even wholesale shops inside this building.
During a recent visit, this correspondent found a banner hanging in a central area of the building, that read: "Ruplal House Residential Area".
The five major pillars were in critical state, with the plasters falling off due to lack of maintenance. The installation of water pipes caused major damage to the whole structure.
The balcony, weighed down by numerous air conditioner units installed by residents, is also on the verge of collapse. The roof railings are broken, leaving large holes at different points.
This correspondent made an attempt to talk to the older residents living in the house. However, they refused.
Suman Hossain, a betel leaf shopkeeper at the building, said "I've built a shop and been running a business here for 30 years, no one has ever attempted to evict anyone. We did not damage this place in any way."
Mokbul Hossain, an elderly man who has been working as a guard for 35 years at Ruplal House, said the house might collapse at any time.
"The authorities do not do anything to preserve the house and it continues to sustain damage," he said.
In 1989, the Department of Archaeology (DoA) marked Ruplal House as a protected monument. However, this significant structure has lost its previous charms. Around a hundred years back, no other structure -- except Ahsan Manzil -- could compete with Ruplal House in terms of architecture, said an archaeologist who wished not to be named.
Even after 33 years, the DoA has failed to resurrect the structure and identify the illegal occupants.
Ashish Das, a resident of Ruplal Das Lane, said the structure remains hidden behind shops and other big buildings.
"This site became a source of income for many. It is difficult to evict them from this place," he added.
Mohammad Fazle Reza Sumon, president of Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP), said shops and other buildings were built around Ruplal House without following the rules.
"Illegal shops are not being evicted for unknown reasons. They need to be removed as quickly as possible. The government should take a clear stance to protect the heritage house and restore those," he added.
Architect Taimur Islam, chief executive of Urban Study Group, said one of the pillars in the balcony of the house is damaged, while three out of the five pillars have been in the same shape for years.
"The government should take steps to acquire Ruplal House by compensating the businessmen who claim ownership of the place. This problem should be fixed as soon as possible so that the renovation can begin," he said.
Arif Hossain, councillor of ward-43 under Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), said the DoA is working tobring Rupal House under DSCC's jurisdiction.
"We will start renovating the house as soon as it is under DSCC's jurisdiction," he added.
Contacted, Rakhi Roy, regional director of the DoA, said it is a challenge to find an alternative place for those shops.
"We are facing troubles regarding the ownership issues. A case is currently ongoing about the house's ownership," she said.
"We are worried that the house's residents are destroying the structure. But if the ownership issues are not resolved, we cannot begin the renovationprocess," she added.
Rakhi also mentioned that Ruplal House cannot be called as a "residential area".
"We will take steps to take down the billboard," she added.