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Old Dhaka: A veritable museum of heritage

Munima Sultana | November 25, 2018 00:00:00

Bahadur Shah Park water tank in old Dhaka — Wiki photo

Dhaka city is expanding on its all sides. With its expansion, who knows today’s central Dhaka will not soon be called an old part of the capital city? It may then be marked as an added part of Old Dhaka. But we all know what we really mean by saying ‘Old Dhaka’. It is the entire part of the area mostly along the river Buriganga. This part is popularly known as ‘Puran Dhaka’ in Bengali. It is not certain that after all kinds of work for expansion of Dhaka city, the tradition of Puran Dhaka still will live on, though that is where the city’s tourism potential lies. The area is still a great contributor to the economy for its involvement in trade and business on a large scale.

The entire area that is today called Old Dhaka boasts of its multifaceted features including exclusive foods, inhabitance and culture of over 400 years. Many of these features have already been lost. Many are about to be diminished. If we do not make immediate efforts to protect the heritage, beauty and culture of Old Dhaka, nothing of it would be left for our next generation.

A unique place for trade and business: Old Dhaka is still maintaining the age-old feature as a business hub. Almost no trade in the city is possible avoiding Old Dhaka. Despite the entire area losing its open spaces and suffering severe traffic jams, it is still an attractive place for all kinds of business. It is claimed that equipment and machinery of any kind of industries including power plant are available in Old Dhaka. People can get all desirable items, if they once enter this particular area.

In this area Sadarghat is a place having its appeal to all strata of people. It is not only a historical riverine entry-exit point of the Dhaka city but also a centre for transportation of goods to and from coastal districts. Massive road infrastructure development could not lessen the necessity of this river port. The historic monument Ahsan Manjil which is located on the bank of the Buriganga near Sadarghat tells us of the hectic activities that used to take place through the port.

Old Dhaka is now a hub of zone-based trading which has flourished over the years. Once past the Gulistan point of the city, people can get their desirable products and items from different areas of Old Dhaka. For example, Nawabpur is a centre of all kinds of industrial machinery, Islampur is a hub of textile and clothing items, Sutrapur known for sanitary ware, Alubazar for pipes and fittings for building construction, Babubazar for glass items, Mitford area for medicines, Chalkbazar for stationery items, Moulvibazar for wholesale kitchen items, Rahmatganj for rice godown and Banglabazar for old books and publication-related items.

Not only that, the entire Gulistan area is known for availability of all kinds of electrical items and Tatibazar for gold jewelry items. Forashganj, Loharpul, Lalbagh, Bangshal, Courtpara, etc. are all known for trading in specific items. Local businessmen claim that all kinds of accessories, ranging from setting up of power plants and textile industries to fire-safety equipment are available in Old Dhaka within a walking distance. But due to not taking proper measures, noncompliant small and cottage industries, including chemical factories, are still functioning in lanes and by-lanes. Chawkbazar area is often identified as a location producing fake items including all kinds of international brand cosmetics and perfume. It is found that almost all leaders in the country’s chambers of commerce have links with the businesses in Old Dhaka. Leaders of the Moulvibazar Wholesale Market Association dominate chambers of industries in Dhaka.

Historically Dhakaiyas used to own businesses in Old Dhaka. Confectionery, restaurant, textiles and clothes and such other business flourished at the beginning. Their business expansion in many cases could not be sustained after two or three generations. Poor educational background and wrong lifestyles were mostly blamed for the business failures. Many Dhakaiyas, particularly more educated or affluent ones, have moved to the posh newer parts of the city. Despite moving out, they still keep in touch with their communities back at home.

Unique characteristics of Dhakaiyas in terms of culture: Dhakaiyas are distinct in heritage, culture and behavior. Their lifestyle, socioeconomic condition, cultural norms and values including dialect have made them unique from others living in the area. The area is also unique and rich in different cuisines which include Bakorkhani, Biriani, Kacchi, Tehari. The tastes of these foods still fascinate people from home and abroad.

A homogeneous lifestyle in old Dhaka is still maintained by many Dhakaiyas. They love to marry within their community. People still remember the great hospitality of the elderly generation of Dhakaiyas. They have a unique way of doing business and maintaining etiquette which made them different from others. Aged Dhakaiya people hardly maintained bank accounts and could bring out hundreds of thousands of taka anytime from the fold of a lungi, a typical dress of the elderly generation. Names of many roads in Old Dhaka begin with the word Haji (A Haji is one who has performed Hajj) as most Dhakaiyas get the title and consider it as a symbol of dignity and prestige. Soon after a Dhakaiya earns enough, he performs Hajj.

The Old Dhaka community has developed a unique culture that attracts people from both home and abroad. Hindus, non-Bengali people, Urdu-speaking people and family members of Nawab live in different parts of Old Dhaka. During the last few decades, inhabitants from other districts, for example, Chandpur, Noakhali, Lakkhipur and different other districts settled here and they started dominating different business sectors. Rapid depletion of the number of Dhakaiyas and their businesses reminds us of the necessity of taking immediate steps for retaining and maintaining the area’s dignity for the sake of upholding the centuries-old heritage. Because, centring on them, many religious and cultural festivals including Durga Puja and Ashura are celebrated turning it into a unique and attractive place for tourism. Boat race in the river Buriganga was also an attractive festival. The horse carts still plying the roads in Old Dhaka remind us of the past glory.

More attractive unique features: Ahsan Manjil, Lalbagh Fort and Hussaini Dalan are still attractive historical places for people to spend their idle time. Hossaini Dalan carries the ambience of serenity of the Shiite community with a historical architectural structure there.

Though Panchayat system (Arbitration) has been withdrawn from different parts of the country, Old Dhaka is still holding onto the tradition in 19 areas. Local people also support them due to their non-involvement with local political leaders. The leaders have the acceptability in their locality and they settle many petty issues.

Despite significant importance of Old Dhaka, hardly any focus was put on its development. It is the most densely-populated area of the capital. Its open spaces are almost scarce. The entire area has been gripped by various problems. Traffic congestions are a regular phenomenon that costs valuable working hours. The Gulistan area is the most knotty place. Around 1500 city buses use the area. The age-old Sadarghat terminal is still being run haphazardly. The lively and vibrant characteristics of the terminal cannot be enjoyed due to chaotic berthing of vessels. Private launch operators keep occupying the terminal.

The parks and playgrounds are needed to be recovered. Proper planning for the area protecting the heritage sites and upholding the culture is also needed. Political intervention from the upper level can help save the area from ruination.

Munima Sultana is a Special Correspondent at FE.


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