Dhaka’s Heritage – the capital of Bangladesh, is a city filled with a rich past. However, its storied history is in danger, especially in Puran Dhaka, the city’s oldest area. This area is like nothing else, bustling with life and soaking in tradition. But, as Taimur Islam – an architect and the leader of the Urban Study Group – points out, many of its centuries-old buildings are coming down, making way for modern structures.
What’s the Urban Study Group? It’s a team of architects formed in 2004 with a special mission – to protect and save Dhaka’s cultural heritage. They’ve been keeping a close watch on around 3,000 historic buildings in Puran Dhaka, many of which are in poor shape or at risk of being knocked down. Puran Dhaka is a densely packed area, home to about 700,000 people, and it’s got a character all its own.
Despite being chaotic and overcrowded, Puran Dhaka is a charming place filled with lively rickshaws, lots of tea shops, and kids managing to find space to play cricket. Mosques in the city send out calls for prayers, and food shops are always inviting people in with the promise of something delicious, especially to overseas visitors.
To help people better understand Dhaka’s rich cultural heritage and why it needs to be preserved, Islam arranges two walking tours every week. These tours, which are popular with foreigners and the occasional tourist, take participants through a maze of alleys and show them everything from ancient forts to old cemeteries and colonial-era mansions. These tours are a fun way to dive into Dhaka’s past.
Dhaka has a rich history. In the early 17th Century, the city was the Mughal capital of Bengal and was a bustling trade center. Those times have left behind remnants like old palaces and bazaars, all of which you can explore on these walking tours. But Dhaka’s prosperity was short-lived. When the British took over Bengal in the mid-18th Century, Dhaka lost prominence to the new colonial capital, Calcutta. By 1824, a visitor even referred to Dhaka as a city of ‘magnificent ruins’.
After Bangladesh split from India in 1947, most of the remaining businessmen in the city left, leaving behind their homes. This led to Dhaka’s further decline. During his walking tours, Islam guides people through the bustling markets and takes them to places like Barakatra, once Dhaka’s tallest building and a grand rest stop for travelling traders. Today, only parts of this Mughal era building remain.
Interestingly, the tours also provide an opportunity to meet families who now live there in the crumbling old merchant homes. The tour offers peaceful breaks at an old Armenian Church and a Christian cemetery dating back to around 1600, both providing some quiet in the hubbub of Puran Dhaka. All tours end at the Buriganga River, which Islam refers to as the “beating heart of Dhaka.”
Unfortunately, it won’t be easy to restore Dhaka’s heritage buildings and boost tourism. The city’s population has grown rapidly, from about 6.5 million in 1990 to about 15 million in 2010, putting intense pressure on the city’s infrastructure. New, often poorly built, modern buildings are cropping up fast, and there’s not much political will to save the city’s cultural heritage.
The Urban Study Group has had some successes, like saving the 400-year-old Shakhari Bazaar from destruction. Despite these victories, Islam is worried about the future of Puran Dhaka. He believes that if things continue this way, the historic buildings might all be gone in a few years.