Spotlight on Bangladesh: Exploring Old Dhaka

Even with a guidebook, I was not ready to tackle Old Dhaka single-handedly, with its winding, unnamed streets and back alleys.

Taimur Islam, director of the Urban Study Group (USG), a nonprofit that offers walking tours in the area, said the morning tour had already left, but he would see if I could join up with the group. He called back a few minutes later and, after I passed the phone to my auto-rickshaw driver, Taimur gave him directions. We set off on a harrowing, bumpy ride through the ancient city's narrow streets.

old Dhaka
Getty

I met Ana, the USG volunteer guide, at a 19th century merchant's home. It was built in brick in the British colonial style, with colonnades and balconies. Like most of the older structures in Old Dhaka, it was in serious need of restoration—years of broiling heat and monsoon rains had taken their toll. The stucco had peeled off the walls and columns to expose the brick, and its wooden balconies sagged. Small trees sprouted out of cracks and gutters.

Wedged between the commercial center of Bangladesh's densely populated capital and the Buriganga River, Old Dhaka began its life as a port city with numerous bazaars. Starting in the 17th century, under India's Mughal emperors, it became the most important commercial center in East Bengal, producing and exporting muslin, a high-quality woven cotton.

Dhaka thrived until the 19th century, when British merchants taking advantage of favorable tariffs flooded the market with imported cotton goods and sent the local industry into decline. It was cheaper to buy shirts from the mills of Manchester than to produce them at home.

Shankhari Bazaar
Shankhari Bazaar is one of the oldest areas in Old Dhaka, with small Hindu temples dotting narrow streets. David H. Mould

The city attracted Bengali Hindu artisans who lived peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbors. The name of one of Old Dhaka's main bazaars, Tanti ("weaver"), signifies its role in the commercial life of the city.

On March 26, 1971, Pakistan launched an offensive to put down the independence movement in what was then East Pakistan. (Politicians and clerics declared they were fighting a "holy war" to defend Islam.) The army targeted Shankhari Bazaar, one of the oldest areas in the city, and hundreds were killed. Some Hindus fled to India, but many stayed behind. Their storefronts spill onto the bazaar's narrow central street; down side alleys, in workshops squeezed between small Hindu temples, artisans fashion bangles and jewelry from conch shells and metal.

After an old building in the bazaar collapsed in 2004, the government proposed demolishing many historic buildings, some dating from the colonial era, for safety reasons. The effort was supported by local developers, who saw an opportunity to grab prime real estate. But historians and conservationists were outraged, arguing the city's cultural heritage would be destroyed.

The controversy was the impetus for the founding of the USG by Taimur, a trained architect. The group campaigned to have streets and buildings designated historically significant, and thereby protected from demolition. Some building owners opposed the campaign, claiming they did not have the money to maintain or restore their properties.

French mansion in Old Dhaka
A colonial French mansion in Old Dhaka. David H. Mould

The USG may have met its original goal of saving the buildings from demolition but restoring them will be a longer struggle: Landlords are unwilling to throw out tenants, lose rental income and invest in restoration.

In the West, a government agency might buy the buildings and restore them, but in Bangladesh the government has other priorities. It's difficult to argue for public funds for historic restoration when schools and health clinics are understaffed, roads are left unrepaired, and flood levees need to be built.

Water Palace 1
The Water Palace in Old Dhaka David H. Mould

On the bank of the Buriganga, a former merchant's mansion known as the Water Palace is in a dilapidated state. It houses families of the Army Corps of Engineers, one of the government agencies that provides free or low-cost housing to staff, partly to compensate for their low salaries.

Water Palace 2
The central court of the Water Palace, which now houses members of the Army Corps of Engineers and their families. David H Mould

We stood in the central courtyard, looking up at washing draped over the balconies as children played hide-and-seek among the pillars and narrow passageways.

One part of the palace has been taken over by Old Dhaka's spice bazaar. In the mid-18th century, the French and British East India companies competed for the export trade in turmeric, ginger, garlic, chili and other spices.

Spice bazaar 2
Old Dhaka's spice bazaar. David H. Mould

The French were kicked out in 1757 after their ally, the Nawab of Bengal, was defeated by Major-General Robert Clive, Commander-in-Chief of British India, at the Battle of Plassey. The victory allowed the British East India Company to take over most of Bengal, and then expand its control across the sub-continent. In Old Dhaka's Farashganj neighborhood (Bengali for "French market"), the merchants left behind stylish mansions with balconies and wrought-iron balustrades.

Chowk bazaar 2
Chowk Bazaar is one of Dhaka's oldest markets, dating to the 1700s. During Ramadan, it's a popular destination for mughlai paratha and other Iftar treats. David H. Mould

From the rambling Chowk Bazaar, which for four centuries has been the city's main wholesale market for fruit and vegetables, we emerged at the busy Buriganga waterfront. Bangladesh is dissected by more than 700 rivers: Although its highway system has been improved, much of its commerce—and many of its people—still moves by water.

Boatmen on Buriganga waiting for passengers
Boatmen on the Buriganga wait for passengers David H. Mould

Triple-decker ferries (called launches) were lined up, waiting to take on passengers and cargo for destinations in the southern delta, where three major river systems—the Jamuna (Brahmaputra), Padma (Ganges) and Meghna—empty into the Bay of Bengal.

Small cargo freighters loaded with building materials sat at anchor, ready to unload. On the south side of the river, freighters were hauled up on the bank for repairs; workers clambered over the hulls and decks, the sparks from their acetylene torches flashing.

Motorized wooden nouka, traditional Bengali rivercrafts with flat bottoms and high prows, were pulled up on the bank near the bazaar, loaded high with pumpkins, gourds, cauliflowers and coconuts, sacks of onions, garlic, potatoes, chilis and mangoes.

Gourds on river bank
Gourds on the banks of the Buriganga waiting to be taken to market. David H. Mould

Porters piled the produce into broad baskets and formed a human chain, carrying them on their heads and passing on to the next link.

Porter in Old Dhaka
A porter in Old Dhaka carrying goods on his head. David. H Mould

There is no bridge over the Buriganga—the only way to cross is in a narrow nouka, poled by a boatman. One USG volunteer asked if I would like to take a trip. I looked at the wobbling craft and the dirty water and replied, "I think I'll just stick with the walking tour."

David Mould is the author of Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys (Ohio University Press, 2019). As a teacher, researcher and writer, he has traveled widely in Asia and Africa and describes himself as an "itinerant academic worker."

Spotlight on Bangladesh: Exploring Old Dhaka | Culture