I have thought of the road to Dewanbari ever since I took on the herculean (to me) task of writing about it. I imagined the place when it was being constructed in the marshy lands near present-day Aminbazar. I imagined Alhaj Janab Ali, a revenue collector of the British East India Company, steering his boat on the banks of the Karnatoli River and walking the dirt road to see his house being built, brick by painstaking brick, stone by little stone.
Images, vivid ones, are conjured up in my mind about the imposing structure. Once Alhaj Janab Ali completed building the house, it must have stood tall in its silent, brooding grandiose. Because there was nothing quite like it around the 106 decimals of land that could even challenge the resplendence of Dewanbari.
Just minutes away from one of the busiest gateways out of present-day Dhaka is Aminbazar, and only a kilometer south stands Dewanbari, now a far-away memory of its old self. There was once a time it could be seen from miles away—from the Dhaka-Aricha Highway, to be precise.
The mosque is pretty much what catches anyone’s eye at first. The spectacular Chini-tikri mosque sparkles in the middle, a testament to the glorious past of the nearby merchant Janab Ali’s house.
The mosque lies on the northern side of a big pond and has a sprawling courtyard on the western side of its compound. And right in front is an almost endless flight of stairs (ghat), which was used for ablutions performed before prayer, says Bashir Ahmed, a fourth-generation owner of the compound.
He remembers, fondly, of the times he spent here as a child. The structure, though more than a hundred-years-old now, still bustles with life, even in its currently dilapidated state.
Laundered, yet somehow still grimy, mosquito nets hang on one boundary wall; tall palm trees sway in the summer wind on one side, starchy pink sarees sit stiffly on the washing line, and the crumbling ruins stand guard over it all.
Bashir recalls his childhood, spent among the boundary walls of Dewanbari. The massive pond would fill up with Kochuri pana or water hyacinth during the dry season. During the rains, they would sit inside the courtyard for hours, playing with cousins and relatives inside one of the four similar inner and outer courtyards which were surrounded by residential living quarters.
In these quarters, the women of the house would spend hours stitching Nakshikantha quilts during idle summer afternoons.
The east, west and northern blocks are essentially the same. Each of them has three compartments and a long connecting corridor facing the court. The corridor, which also acted as a veranda, is decorated with simple semi-circular arched openings. Almost all the attractive cast-iron decorations on the archway are now gone. Only the main house is currently in a liveable condition but lacks most modern facilities. The kitchen and lavatories were in the north-east corners, but at present, they lie in ruins.
The entire Dewanbari compound is surrounded by a low boundary wall, which is also considered another unique feature of heritage sites which date back to the colonial period, says Fatiha Polin, an architect and independent researcher.
The three-domed Chini-tikri mosque also boasts unique features that are typical of the colonial period of architectural styles in Bengal.
According to Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh written by Dr Abu Sayed M Ahmed and published by the UNESCO in 2006, “All the outer surfaces are profusely decorated by recessed rectangular panels containing niches and ended in a straight parapet with rows of blind merlons. All the outer surfaces are covered with Chini-tikri (Chinese ceramics), a popular surface treatment material of colonial period. Instead of typical multi-coloured floral Chini–tikri ornamentation, they introduced the finest example of monochrome pattern, such as the recessed surface has darker tone of Chini-tikri tiles than the projected surface of the façade.”
Almost a decade back, the Dewanbari complex comprising a palatial residence, a three-domed mosque, a pond and a graveyard was declared a “heritage site” through a gazette notification on February 2, 2009.
However, according to the current owner (fractional), who is a fourth-generation member of Alhaj Janab Ali’s family, so far not a single step has been taken by the relevant authorities to conserve the heritage site or its surrounding areas.
In fact, in the last decade or so, following the gazette, Bashir Ahmed himself has paid countless visits to the Rajuk office and to the Department of Archaeology, but to no avail.
Upon calling both offices, the authorities kept on insisting it is the other party’s responsibility to protect the heritage site in question.
In the years since the Gazette notification, Bashir Ahmed has tried to put up some resistance against the degradation of his beloved home. But, with so many stakeholders, the conservation of the heritage site has become a matter of personal risk for Bashir.
The defacing of the compound started when a major portion of the pond was filled up and a road was constructed from the central ghat of the pond, adjacent to the mosque.
“The ghat was used for the purpose of ablution. A new ablution place was later constructed. The half-demolished boundary wall is still there, but the building located on the east site is almost in ruins. Only a few segments of the main building to the north of the pond are in a liveable condition. The inner courtyard, dotted with numerous trees, has shrunken with encroachment in the form of extended new structures like kitchen, toilet or extra living spaces. The beautiful ornamentations on the colonnaded façade, doors and windows are disappearing day by day,” says Fatiha Polin.
Bashir Ahmed is willing to leave the premises, if the family were served with a notice, for the sake of Dewanbari’s preservation.
“It hurts me to see this house being destroyed. It holds so much history and so many stories and these should be documented. Many movies have been shot here, like Matir Moyna and the likes, but still authorities seem to be least bothered to take any decisive measures to protect the house,” laments Bashir Ahmed.
The complex houses nearly fifty people now, all fractional owners of Dewanbari complex, and somehow related to Alhaj Janab Ali. But not all of them are on the same page about the preservation of the complex.
Even Bashir’s resolve is waning, as he looks at the destruction around the house and says the government needs to act soon or else this heritage site may be gone forever.
As I end this piece, thinking of why, if at all, we should preserve heritage sites, all I can think of is the beauty that lies in nostalgia, in the vivid memories of an unfairly romanticised past. I think of the days when people came to visit Alhaj Janab Ali, on a colourful Bajra wistfully floating on the Karnatoli river while the Chini-tikri mosque would glisten in the sunlight. It feels like reason enough to protect heritage sites.