Lalbagh Fort

Evolution of a city

Muntasir Mamun

During the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, his emissary Islam Khan laid the foundation of Dhaka in the year 1610 as the capital of Mughal Bengal. It is perhaps not one hundred per cent correct to say that Dhaka sprouted overnight with the laying of that foundation. In fact Dhaka existed even before 1610. However, since that time Dhaka has been gradually elevated to the position of a capital. Henceforth, Dhaka enjoyed the distinction of being a capital city in 1906 during the time of the British rule, then in 1947 after the creation of Pakistan and finally in 1971 as the capital city of Bangladesh. Maybe no other city has such a record to boast of. One notable feature of Dhaka is that whenever this city has been given the status of a capital city, it has prospered in many ways. Many cities are known to have lost their character once the capital status has been taken away, but it has never happened in the case of Dhaka. This city has continued to live on as the hub of activities both when it was capital of East Bengal and later as the capital of Bangladesh.

The layout of Dhaka has never remained the same over the years, rather it has changed as per the desire and outlook of the rulers who came here from time to time.

Professor Abdul Karim has given three reasons for the gradual progression of Mughal Dhaka. These are, to meet the needs of the Mughal rule and its administration, to meet the housing needs of the Bengali professionals, and to meet the needs of the visiting foreign nationals. According to him, original Dhaka was limited to the area between today's Babu Bazar and Sadarghat. With the advent of the Mughals and afterwards when Islam Khan laid the foundation of the capital, the town of Dhaka began to expand. Gradually Bengali professionals started to come to the town and settle down in various localities. For the Mughal administration, the town expanded in the west beyond Banglabazar, and in the east for the professionals. Europeans began to settle in Tejgaon area and this way the town expanded on all sides. Under the sway of various Subadars, some new residential areas also came up, and business activities also increased. It can be said that Dhaka thus developed into a prosperous town. According to one researcher, Dhaka was one of the best towns at that time. The reason behind Dhaka's growth and prosperity was not because it was the centre of administration, but because it was the hub of production.

Human resource is essential for the growth of a town. The Mughals or other foreigners were not enough to meet the need of human resources. To meet these needs the rulers took steps to bring people of various professions from other places to the town.

The Mughals used to give the people property to encourage settlement and get involved in production. This property used to be called 'lakheraj' property and no tax was imposed on this property. In fact, the entire city of Dhaka has grown on the basis of this system of lakheraj property. This system was abandoned in the later years.

The town developed on the basis of individual income and social status. The upper class and the lower class lived in separate localities. The environment and planning of these areas were also conspicuously different. However, the Mughals were in favour of overall development of the town and conservation of environment. Things changed significantly during the time of the East India Company. Before 1905 they considered Dhaka as a town of many ills. Other than extracting tax they never took town planning, healthcare etc into consideration. During this time the Collector of the Company on his own initiative cleared some bushes and hedges. They also set up the racecourse for their entertainment. This town was not the centre of production anymore at that time. As a result, it began to lose fast its infrastructural character. The number of the poor began to increase. Because of floods and famine, more and more people from the villages started to come towards Dhaka. Most of the schools and colleges were built at that time. During the reign of Queen Victoria, the government began to spend some money for the introduction of some civic amenities. For example, in the 19th century the Buckland Dam was constructed with the money of the upper class people, and not with government funds. But this development resulted in the enhancement of the price of the riverside land, which belonged to the same upper class. This can be said that from the early part of the 19th century the town began to fall into ruins and at the same time its bounds also began to contract. Soon Dhaka turned into an unhealthy town full of jungles. In the early part of the 19th centry Lord Bishop Hebar of Calcutta wrote the following:

'Dhaka is but the shadow of its past glory. Its trade and commerce

Curzon Hall

has reduced by 60 per cent, and the beautiful buildings, the Shah Jahangir Fortress, his mosque, the palaces of the Nawabs, factories and churches set up by the Dutch, French and Portuguese all are now being encroached by jungles.' In Hebar's words, “The old Dhaka is as ugly as Chitpur of Calcutta. However, there are some beautiful ruins scattered here and there, but small and dirty huts have come up all around these ruins. I noticed a brick-made fortress that was used as a residential palace once. Its architecture reminded me of Kremlin of Moscow.'

From a letter sent to the Board by Dhaka's Commissioner in 1837 we learned that Dhaka's condition was deteriorating. The Board was informed that even from the property assessment records it becomes obvious that Dhaka is progressing towards ruination. According to the Commissioner, the main reason for this is the displacement of the Muslin weavers. There are two more reasons and these are, poverty of the respectable Muslim population and suspension of the Court of Appeal.

As said earlier, most of the land within the Dhaka town was under the lakheraj agreement. At this time a dispute arose concerning the system of fixation of taxes on the houses. The residents of Dhaka sent an application to Governor General Auckland. Though the application contained exaggerated information, yet it provides some idea about the town and its residents of that time. In the application residents expressed their concern upon learning that they would have to pay taxes on the land and the houses they owned. They also informed that Dhaka was situated on low land compared to other localities. The total area of the town was four square miles. It extended from Dolaikhal to Sultanganj and from the river to the Ambar Bridge in Shahbagh area. They also informed that the residents of the town were very poor. One sixth of the area of the town is still covered with jungle. The government gets revenue from one fourth of the town and in the rest one-sixth part people reside. When they had cleared the jungle in the past they had earned the right to settle down in that area. Now, if they have to pay tax on this property they will be economically ruined. There is hardly any profit from business at the moment; therefore, the burden of tax will turn them into beggars. They further informed that no one owns more than two bighas of land in the town.

James Tailor, Civil Surgeon of Dhaka in the year 1840, left some detailed description of Dhaka of that time. He wrote: “The town was built on the riverside. And the roads, lanes and bazars ran parallel to the river reaching a total length of four miles and width of one mile and a half.” This is how Dhaka looked in the early decades of the 19th century. The town that was prospering during the rule of the Mughals, slid back to a state of degeneration at the time of the Company rule. This was true not only in terms of wealth, but in terms of its boundary as well. The British royalty took control of the subcontinent in 1858. Despite being the main town of East Bengal, Dhaka failed to receive favours from the new government. Dhaka, as a town, was neglected and no noticeable change in its infrastructure took place after handing over of governance by the East India Company to the British Empire. The area of Dhaka expanded once again in 1906, during the division of Bengal. The layout of Dhaka that was seen during the time of the Mughal rule was not to be found during the era of the British colonial rule. But many historians of the west have written that a definitive arrangement of the town was also done during the later period. Anthony King has written that the colonial rulers used to plan the town in such way so that the government elite and the natives remained segregated. He called this 'physical separation'. The environment and surroundings of the houses of the ruling class used to be well maintained, they had large houses with gardens all around and the roads were wider as well. On the other hand, the residential areas of the natives were congested with narrow and twisted lanes. Because of this reason, a cantonment for the soldiers was constructed in a separate area.

Dhaka was the centre of East Bengal but it was not possible to maintain its original town plan or layout. Though the houses of the Europeans had gardens and were spacious but they did not have any separate residential area for them. The riverside was for the upper class. But they were not the only residents of that area. In the 80s, establishing a residential area for the elite class in Wari by the government was considered an exceptional undertaking. According to King, town planning started in 1905 when Dhaka became the capital for the second time and this plan continued for a long time. This status also brought in government funds for development works. On the existing infrastructure of the past era it was not possible to give it a perfect colonial facade. There was not enough money for that too. Another relevant point here is that the Mughal town that we saw in the 18th century had lost much of its glamour by then. Dhaka was fast becoming a dilapidating town. Here the pertinent question that may be asked is, when did resurrection of Dhaka take place? Sharif Uddin Ahmed in his much acclaimed book 'Dhaka' presented that remodelling of Dhaka began since 1840. This is about the time when Tailor's famous book was published. It was written: “Moreover, certain developmental undertakings at about that date put the city on the road to renewed activity; a new era was beginning with 1840 as watershed.”

However, if we want to use the term restoration in the literal sense for Dhaka then we may have to go back to the 60s or mid 70s. The important event of this time was the establishment of the Municipality. Not only Municipality, printing technology was also introduced at this time. Around this time, cultivation of jute helped the middle class to flourish. The town population began to increase and this trend continues even today. The lifestyle of the middle class began to change. The attempt to clean Dhaka of the jungle and unhygienic spots that started in 1800 was reinforced during this time.

After the formation of Dhaka Municipal Committee the town fathers were faced with the problem of getting rid of the jungles and saving the residents of the town from epidemics. Even before them the Company administrators tried to face this problem.

As mentioned earlier, there were changes in the outlook and lifestyle of a section of the residents. Without this change, it would not have been possible to plan an area like Wari.

During the Mughal era, there were many canals in the town that were used for water transportation as well as disposal of filth. These canals also enhanced the beauty of the town. It prompted many to compare Dhaka with Venice. Later, these canals were filled up and as a result, disposal of filth became a major problem.

In 'Dhaka Prokash', published in 1863, four reasons were identified for the unhealthy condition of Dhaka. These are: increasing population, residential quarters of the butchers, increasing jungles and garbage. The horrendous description of Dhaka of that time is found in the report of the then Assistant Civil Surgeon of Dhaka and that of Commissioner Simpson. Dhaka was infamous for its unhealthy environment since the time of the East India Company. According to a tourist, the stench of Dhaka from a distance of two miles on the Burigana would hit one. There was no system of disposal of garbage in Dhaka. For decades the garbage and filth were accumulating on the premises of the residents or on the roads. The water in the wells of the town was extremely contaminated, the river water was contaminated, the town was bifurcated with numerous dark lanes, garbage spilled over in every road and lane, and the air was polluted. Moreover, the problem of incineration or burial of dead bodies was becoming acute, particularly in case of the latter. In 1864 the following was written in Dhaka Prokash: “There is no specific place for the burial of the Muslims of poor and lower income groups. Usually the dead bodies are buried in empty space by the side of the roads or within the compounds of their residential quarters.”

A mosque built in 1706
Dhakeshawari Temple

Proposals for the development of the town were given in the 70s. Among the proposals were, selecting a specific place in the northern side of Dhaka town for dumping of garbage, creating a 'green belt' in the heart of the city, and closing down the graveyards in the centre of the town. In 1869, Graham had written that if Dhaka could be developed and kept clean then the Zaminders from the districts would come here to live. This would result in the increase in the price of the land and it would become the town of the elite. But Dhaka was not to become cleaner. And yet everyone felt attracted to this town. The reason was: “....Dhaka being the capital of East Bengal and as a town of gentlemen had a special place in everyone's heart. Nowhere to be found such a vast number of educated and gentle people in East Bengal.” The unhealthy environment of the town did not improve even while standing on the threshold of the 20th century. In 1899, the Sanitary Engineer of Bengal A.E. Silk wrote the following: “...Since I have been Sanitary Engineer I have seen a good deal of the filth of the big municipalities of Bengal. But never has it been my lot to have to inspect anything so revolting as I have seen in Dacca.” Before the creation of the Municipality, there were no such things as roads in Dhaka. The main modes of transportation were horse and elephant. Even in 1871, elephants were used for transportation. During the time of Buckland, attention was given to construct roads in Dhaka. Among those roads are: 1. From Urdu Road to Chawk and Lalbagh, 2. From Narinda to graveyard, 3. From Aga Sadek Road to Nawabpur and upto Dayaganj in the east, and 4. From Malitola to Bangshal upto Tanti Bazar. But the road from Raishaheb Bazar to Nawabpur was considered the main road. Since then gradually the number of roads increased in Dhaka. At that time the main mode of transportation of the people was horse-carriage. The number of horse-carriages during the period of 1871 was about fifty. In a report in Dhaka Prokash published in 1880, it was said: “The horse-carriages are becoming a source of irritation for the city dwellers. The roads of Dhaka are quite narrow and yet there are too many carriages on them at the moment.” It was at this time that the suggestion for registration of transports was given, and projects for widening of the roads were also taken. This again resulted in the increase in the number of transports.

Towards the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century, projects for supplying pure water and electricity were undertaken. In the early part of the 20th century electricity connection was given mainly in the areas having the resident quarters of the English gentlemen and on the roads around the racecourse. Same was the case with water supply and installation of water hydrants. A comparison between the number of water hydrants installed in Wari, where the elite class lived, and that in the congested areas would make the point quite clear. This scenario was reflected in a government report. The unique character of Dhaka is discernible in its buildings, residential enclaves and overall layout. Before 1890, the residential enclaves were built under private patronisation and according to the affordability of the residents. From the number of such residential quarters the affluence of the owners can be assessed. After 1947, separate residential enclaves for the upper class were built under the government (Specially of the bureaucrats) initiative by destroying numerous villages. This also proved to be a form of investment for the upper class.

The most picturesque area of Dhaka was located on the banks of the Buriganga, which was under the possession of the elite class. The zaminders and elite people built beautiful houses on the riverbank, which had some harmony in design and structure. Most of the beautiful houses of Dhaka were to be found in this area. In 1840 James Tailor wrote: “Dhaka with the beautiful houses on the riverbank reminded one of Venice.” But it was during the decade of the 40s that those buildings began to wear away. When people used to come to see those buildings they only saw some structures on the verge of ruination. Some had their foundation caving in; others were poised to go into the river. Tailor further wrote: “These buildings were architecturally similar to buildings seen in other districts of Bengal. The buildings, facing the road, were very spacious, and ranged between one storied to four storied in height. However, in the report of Walter there is no mention of four storied houses. But it shows that there were some four storied houses in 1840. As said earlier, the beautiful houses on the riverbank of the Europeans and non-Bengali zaminders were spacious and had gardens on the roof. Tailor wrote: “There are some large brick made houses in the Armenian and Greek residential enclaves but most of them were collapsing.” Land in Tanti Bazar and Shakhari Bazar area was most expensive.

The mid 19th century saw the emergence of the Hindu professional/middle class in East Bengal. They began to buy some of the old houses or construct new ones. But, despite that, according to one newspaper report of 1888, there were many thatched houses in areas like Nababganj, Chandni Ghat, Chawk Bazar including the centre of the town. This could not have been a very eye-catching scene. But it proved that while the middle class was spreading in the town the poor were also getting poorer.

Between the 1880s and 90s, like the present day Dhanmondi and Gulshan, some residential areas like Wari, Gandaria, Tikatuli, Swamibagh etc for the middle class elite were created. Those areas used to be parts of the main town. Much later, in the 30s and 40s of last century Purana Paltan also came up as a residential area. The architectural pattern of the houses in the new areas was different from that of the old areas. The look of the houses gave the impression tha t the taste of the middle class had undergone changes. The residential houses of Wari, Tikatuli and Purana Paltan are not overbearing in look, but these are cleaner, homely, walled up, well ventilated, having bigger rooms and lots of fruits and flower plants. They reflected the changed taste of the middle class. Renowned economist Bhabatosh Dutta wrote the following about these areas in 1922: “Wari is not exactly a suburb. Though located within the town, it was to some extent on the fringe. The roads looked clean and the few people to be seen on the roads were well dressed. The residential houses, mostly one-storied, looked beautiful with some open space in the front. Only a few two-storied houses were seen. Hridoynath Majumder wrote about Dhaka in 1906: “The jungles around the Dhakeswari Temple, where many wild beasts roamed once, were being cut and cleaned to make space for buildings. The town was expanding towards the north where government was building the secretariat and university. In the forest area of Ramna, rich people were buying land and constructing houses.” After the partition of Bengal was nullified this trend slowed down. Hridoynath predicted; “But a time will come when Ramna will be the centre of government work with offices and court buildings everywhere. The old areas like Chawk, Nolgola, Babu Bazar, Islampur and Banglabazar will lose their importance. A cantonment will come up in the north.” It is debatable whether Hridoynath himself had any idea that his prediction would come true one day. What is noticeable here is that the new Dhaka was built for the English bureaucrats and the upper class. The people of the lower classes continued to live in the overcrowded areas in old Dhaka.

During the Pakistan period, residential areas like Dhanmondi, DOHS, Banani and Gulshan were planned under government initiative. Gulshan and Banani, however, developed after the birth of Bangladesh. Uttara, Baridhara, DOHS and some parts of Mirpur also developed during this period.

The residents of old Dhaka helped the bureaucrats and professionals to settle down and prosper in Dhaka. After becoming bureaucrats they wanted to have their own house in Dhaka. Accordingly, they started to acquire the land of the local people. The residential enclaves that were set up in areas like Dhanmondi, Green Road, Kalabagan etc were done after displacing the original owners of the land. It is said that many of these owners never got the full price for their property. In Bangladesh this process has been strengthened even further.

Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain

Translated by Manzoor Ahsan.
The author is Professor Department of History, DU.

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