The month of December in Bangladesh is a time of remembrance and reflection. The country's independence in that month in 1971 was followed by a yearning to memorialise the heroism and sacrifice of the freedom fighters. On December 16, 1982, 11 years after Bangladesh became an independent country, the National Martyrs' Monument was inaugurated. Located at Savar, an industrial suburb about 22 miles northwest of Dhaka, the monument now stands as an iconic structure, encapsulating the nation's gratitude toward the men and women who sacrificed their lives for the Bengalis' right to self-rule. In December every year, thus, the National Martyrs' Monument becomes the epicentre of the nation's collective rituals in celebrating nationhood.
The monument rises from a verdant land, somewhat reminiscent of the ruinous mound of the ancient city of Pundranagarain Mahasthan, Bogra. The first phase of the project was initiated in 1972, when the government acquired nearly 110 acres. The main complex required 84 acres of land, while the remaining area was allocated for a land-water greenbelt. Access roads were created during the first phase. Mass graves, helipads, parking spaces, and pavements were constructed during the second phase, between 1974 and 1982. Construction of the main monument, greenbelt, and cafeteria, occurred in the third phase, in 1982.
With a heavyweight jury, including architect Muzharul Islam, a national design competition for the monument took place in 1978. (The previous attempt didn't yield any satisfactory results.) A 26-year-old architect, Syed Mainul Hossain (1952-2014), won the competition from a pool of 57 participants. As legend has it, Hossain's design was the jury's unanimous choice: it captured most poignantly the new nation's aspiration through an elemental composition of converging planes, achieving a sublime gesture of ascension.
However, the pyramidal icon was not conceived as a stand-alone sculptural structure. Rather, the complex was designed as a holistic landscape, a sort of geometric tapestry weaving together green areas, water, walkways, bricks, and concrete, all culminating into a soaring monument.
From the main northern entrance, the visitor is presented with a strong axial visual connection to the monument. Yet, the journey toward it is deliberately jagged and uneven, unlike, for instance, that of the Taj Mahal, where the approach to the Mughal marble tomb continues along the axis. The tortuous path to the National Monument appears to symbolise the nation's difficult path to self-rule, as well as the challenging journey that lies ahead.
This winding passage also allows the visitor to see the monument from multiple perspectives, experiencing its dramatically differing configurations depending on the viewing location. To many, the visual magic of the National Martyrs' Monument lies in its optical illusion, perhaps a Picasso-esque cubist twist to what “nation” means.
Part of this illusion stems from the plan of the monument itself. Seen frontally, it appears to be one structure, while in reality, it is not. The plan of the monument is an arrangement of seven, independent standing concrete plates. Each is an isosceles triangle, but with different dimensions in height and base. The plates are folded in the middle at a 90 degree angle. The highest plate (150 feet) has the shortest base (20 feet), and the shortest plate has the longest base (130 feet). The folded plates are placed one after another at a parallel spacing of 9 feet, 2 inches. The highest plate is at the front, and the shortest is at the back. This configuration creates two powerful parabolic curves that majestically rise toward the sky, when seen from the front. Yet, to a circumnavigating spectator, the National Monument presents a singular frozen architectural expression. From the side, the parabolic drama morphs into seven progressively rising triangles. What remains constant is the feeling of ascension.
Numerology plays a crucial role in the composition of the National Monument, recalling the organising principles of such archetypal structures as the Athenian Parthenon, in which numbers were seen as the philosophical foundation of ideal architectural beauty and proportion. The magic number at the National Monument is 7, which is the number of landmark movements between 1952 and 1971, the period of Banglandesh's nationalist struggle. For instance, among others, the Language Movement in 1952 contains 5+2=7; December 16, the day of independence in 1971, has 1+6=7; and there were 7 birsreshto (war heroes) who sacrificed their lives for the cause of liberation.
Even so, the numerical composition of the National Monument seems less important than the overall experience of its captivating and illusive geometry. And, ultimately, even this geometry seems less important to the evocation of meditative remembrance that it inspires.
In 1988, architect Syed Mainul Hossain received the Ekushey Padak, one of the highest civilian honours of the country, for creating a monument that continues to uplift the spirit of the nation. Yet, the architect's life had been tragic. He spent the last years of his life in complete self-isolation and anonymity, due to some kind of mental illness, perhaps paranoid schizophrenia. The architect's haunting final years remind us of Ernest Hemingway's provocative suggestion that there is a mysterious correlation between genius and melancholia.
As much as it tells the story of Bangladesh's journey to independence, the National Martyrs' Monument narrates a beautifully choreographed architectural story. It should rank among the finest monuments in the world.
The writer is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist, and teaches in Washington, DC, and is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015) and Oculus: A Decade of Insights into Bangladeshi Affairs (2012).
Photo: Nasir Khan Saikat (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: The_National_Martyrs'_Monument_of_Bangladesh.jpg),
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