A resident of Dhaka may believe his city to be chaotic, dirty and overpopulated with rampant pollution and unbearable traffic. Not so to a visitor from outside, who is able to spot hidden gems in a city that an inhabitant would not normally notice. Although the city lacks good infrastructure and tourist attractions, is not geographically located in a convenient place to visit, nor has many airlines flying in, the underdog image is actually helpful. And Dhaka never fails to delight the outsider!
Everybody's favourite reason for visiting Bangladesh is its people. Almost everyone in Dhaka comes across as super friendly and goes out of the way to help a tourist. You are stopped on the street dozens of times every day, with many asking if you need help with anything. Traffic police step into the teeming traffic to help foreigners navigate busy thoroughfares. It seems as if the Bangladeshi people are as keen to get to know you as you are keen to get to know them. Because tourists in the city are fewer in number; the visitor has the city to himself and can explore bazaars, museums, river life, mansions and forts unimpeded by the foreign hoi polloi.
Another remarkable aspect about Dhaka is the complete contrast you get to see between the two neighbourhoods so close to each other. On one hand are the Gulshan and Banani areas, affluent residential neighbourhoods in Dhaka, now home to a number of the city's restaurants, shopping centres, schools and members' clubs. Often described as posh, the neighbourhoods host a majority of embassies and high commissions in Dhaka. Squeaky clean, with well-regulated traffic, gawking at the high-rise buildings as you saunter around on the well-laid-out pavements, you could very well be in Singapore or Bangkok. Now traverse the roads near Lalbagh Kella, a 17th-century Mughal fort on the Buriganga River, you see narrow lanes, lined with richly decorated brick buildings, built during the late Mughal and colonial periods. Very little public transport infrastructure exists here making the ubiquitous cycle rickshaw the best option for getting around the rather chaotic and claustrophobic streets even though distances are fairly short; the striking heat makes walking a challenge. It is this complete contrast in the very same city that is unique and fascinating to the visitor.
The Ahsan Manzil is another of Dhaka's treasures. The official residential palace and seat of the Nawab of Dhaka, this building fascinates a visitor because of the garden house of Sheikh Enayet Ullah, the landlord of Jamalpur pargana, whose grave lies in the north-east corner of the palace yard. The charming Sheikh built his Rang Mahal and housed pretty girls from around the world and got them dressed in gorgeous dresses bejewelled with ornaments. The Mughal faujdar of Dhaka, having fallen for one of the beauties, invited the Sheikh to a party only to kill him while he returned home! His son subsequently sold the property to French traders and after going through various permutations and combinations, the Ahsan Manzil of today is one of the most significant architectural monuments of Bangladesh and a survivor of this sordid but fascinating saga.
Equally fascinating is Suhrawardy Udyan, where the national commemoration to the war of liberation is situated. This was where the instrument of surrender between the two armies was signed in December 1971 and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. To mark the spot, a 50-metre high tower of light, called the Swadhinata Stambha, composed of stacked glass panels, has been erected. This is surrounded by a water body which reflects the pillar. In the northern end of the park is the Sikha Chirantan (the Eternal Flame) which symbolises freedom, and burns beneath the national flag of Bangladesh with the tower of light as a backdrop. A long terracotta mural runs along the entire length of the complex, depicting Bangladesh's struggle for independence. A plaque celebrates the historic speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in which he had declared that “the struggle this time is the struggle for independence.” Recent Bangladeshi history is etched in the memorabilia and thoughtfully laid out for the discerning visitor to fully understand contemporary Bangladesh.
Located in Dhanmondi in Dhaka is the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, the personal residence of the Founding Father and the first president of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This was where some disgruntled army officers assassinated the Father of the Nation and his immediate family. Even decades later, the brutality of the violence is etched into the people's collective memory. The house stands quietly, shrouded with the memories of that gruesome and shocking night in August 1975. The family handed over the house to a trust that now runs the museum. Every visitor to this place is outraged at the brutality that happened here and desires to express solidarity with the people of Bangladesh.
While there are several scenic sights and tourist spots strewn across Dhaka, true wealth subsists in the unique contrasts dotting the city, reflecting the events that endorse vastly divergent periods ranging from Mughal to contemporary history and the serene memorial to Bangabandhu.
It is these gems that make a visit to Dhaka truly worthwhile. Even though present-day Dhaka barely ever escapes unflattering descriptions owing to its chaos and poverty, every visitor is delighted at his discovery of the hidden treasures of the city that he savours even while being treated as a distinguished guest.
Priyan R Naik is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist whose articles often appear in the Deccan Herald, an Indian newspaper. He was in Dhaka recently on a short visit. His Twitter handle is @priyannaik.