The Mystical Heart of Dhaka City: Puran Dhaka

14 Min Read

C H R O N I C L E S – C I T Y

Adrita Zaima

If you happen to be as well acquainted with this dirty, dingy part of Dhaka as I am, then a sly little smile must have already spread across your face for you are fully aware of what the title entails. Growing up in a metropolitan that has as much solvent development as Dhaka does, the names that lodge into one’s mind are those of Gulshan, Banani, and of other such opulent areas and people often forget to acknowledge the rustic thrive that is Puran Dhaka.

However, the winding streets of this quarter of the capital seem as familiar to me as if they were mapped on the very backs of my hands. The squalid alleys of Puran Dhaka served as playgrounds for my childhood self and it was a truly gratifying and humbling experience. Those of you who still have no idea about the beauties and horrors of this mystical town, through this article I am inviting you on a journey through the grim lanes and bustling squares of Puran Dhaka and to be entrapped by its unique charm in the process.

For the unassuming visitor, a journey through these streets will prove to be much harder and way more adventurous than expected, because hiding behind the city’s many bends and sinnews are immeasurable atrocities and artistries alike. The allure of this place reveals itself one sleazy eye at a time and a person needs to have a bit of patience to be able to enjoy the wild experience that is Puran Dhaka.

Entering Puran Dhaka, the first thing that will hit you is the acrid smell. Lying on all street corners are makeshift dumpsters. The stench drafting from these mix with the smell of faeces and urine that have been excreted on lamp posts and corners of buildings and create such a grotesque combination that you will quite definitely feel nauseated. Or perhaps it will be your hearing that is assaulted first, as it has proved utterly impossible for me to be able to travel through these roads without my ears being subject to some heinous comment that is being shouted across the street by a local or from one rickshawala to another.

In the past, Puran Dhaka served as the prestigious capital to many kings of both ancient and medieval Bengal. It was a station for nawabs and sultans while the rest of the city was still covered with lakes and ponds. However, the anarchistic landscape that will at first greet your eyes will cause you to be skeptical about the authenticity of this statement. The place is crowded with rundown brick buildings with their plasters falling off at various spots, the colour on the shutters of their windows peeling away and their unconventional royal railings, that are characteristic of all houses here, becoming rusted and worn. They will give you the idea of a parochial nexus. But then you will be shocked by an eccentric, modern, glass-and-steel edifice that will jut out from the sea of low-rises and you will also get a sense of progress.  

Despite the initial shock due to the stark contrast between the buildings here, you will slowly find yourself adjusting and accepting the bizarreness of the skyline and you will tentatively lean back in your seat. However, the damnable sight of the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple, sitting in the middle of two pseudo-modern buildings, looking completely out of place and yet paradoxically matching the peculiar inherence of the architecture, will dissolve your feeling of ease and prove to you once again that the surprises of this arcane city know no bounds. Not only temples but ruins of palaces and luxurious houses of the early rulers are also scattered in a similar manner throughout the town and so are evidence of the colonial rule such as stucco Armenian churches and buildings. Due to this bizarre mixture of new and old, Puran Dhaka has always seemed to me to be in transition, a city that it lives in its past just as much as it lets its past decay. 

After experiencing all this, if you are not yet chased away, then congratulations because you will have passed the most difficult stage of this journey. You will now be free to fully enjoy the wonders that Puran Dhaka has to offer. 

Puran Dhaka is a place where every nook and cranny is filled with archival treasures. The veins of this city are overflowing with arcane heritage and wades of tradition. The customs that the locals celebrate have a certain vibrance and they reflect the true vivacious nature of Bangali culture. If you are lucky enough to visit during Shakrain — the kite flying festival, you will be met with a sky bustling with a variety of different hues. If you come on the day of Muharram, you will be able to witness the spirituality of Shia men as they roam the streets with shackles and castrate themselves in order to prove their love for the divine prophet and his family. And the sight of lighted Tarabati on every street on Shab-E-Barat is truly mesmerising. Numerous other festivals celebrated throughout the year show the exuberant nature of this place. However, no matter how great the tradition and heritage of this place is, it is the lifestyle of Puran Dhakaias, the local residents, that has proven to me to be, by far, the most endearing marvel of all. 

Puran Dhaka is a place that is largely made up of tiny alleys and the real life of this city lies in them. Each alleyway is caged on either side by low-rise houses, with the basement of each being allocated to a tiny shop. Looking up from these lanes, you will be able to see only slivers of the sky because the countless internet and telephone wires zigzagging from one electric pole to another mostly blot it out. They allow passage to sunlight only in snippets so that the streets below are thrown into a plethora of dark shadows. These alleys are barely wide enough to allow two rickshaws to pass at the same time and yet they are always jam packed with vehicles and people. In these side lanes, you will see children playing cricket or sitting around and chatting with their friends, their laughter and cries resonating off the walls of the closely packed buildings. Men on their way to work or to the prayer house stopping to greet all the familiar shopkeepers and passers-by and women chattering away with fellow housewives while buying vegetables from the local vendor will show you the amiability among the residents here. And if you ever get lost or need suggestions as to which shop to go to or which restaurant to try out, the people will be more than happy to direct you towards your desired destination with as much affability as though you were one of their own. The sense of affiliation, unity, and hospitality amongst the residents here, not easily experienced in many other parts of Dhaka, will leave you with an endearing appreciation and fondness for them.

As you make your way through the maze of these alleys, a divine smell will waft to your nostrils, and upon arrival at the main street corner, you will discover the source of this to be a tiny confectionary shop. These shops sell nearly all the delicacies that Puran Dhaka has to offer — gigantic parathas, the meringues that have over the years acquired the name ‘Ghorar Dim’, the fruit cakes, dal rutis and, of course, the ultimate comfort food of Puran Dhakaias, Bakarkhani. A store like this is present at most street corners and huddled beside its entrance you will always find a small crowd of half-naked children waiting to get the day’s leftovers that the baker has promised to hand out. And if you are unable to control your pangs of hunger and falling under the spell of the exquisite fragrance you decide to buy a bag of Bakarkhanis, you will be invariably accosted by a barefooted child and unable to deny the desire that is reflected in his wide open eyes, you will be forced to hand over a piece to him, that he will then, doubtless, share it with his friends.

Travelling through Puran Dhaka, you will find yourself looking at, and at times scrutinising, the faces all around you. You will be able to vaguely make out the story behind each person. And, despite their mask of compassion, you will discover a similar emotion reflected in nearly every face — one of strain and exertion. Puran Dhaka is one of the poorest parts of Dhaka. The majority of the people who live here are, at most times, struggling to keep body and soul together. Due to the extreme percentage of unskilled workers, men roam around the streets looking for informal work. And those that do have a job barely get enough pay to make it through a whole month. The women find themselves having to work as housemaids for the relatively well-off due to the incapability of their husbands to carry the financial burden alone. Most children from these families are subject to child labour. They have no choice but to work as household help or in small factories to help support their families. There are people who, despite having nearly every mortal wealth imaginable still end up feeling dejected with their lives.

And then, you will see these people, the locals, who are constantly struggling to bring food to their tables and yet they go about the day without batting an eye over their own misery. Their determination to make their loved ones happy and to achieve a better standard of living for themselves drives them through their day, denying them the opportunity to ponder over their troubles. This is a tale that is characteristic of all the workers of Puran Dhaka, be it the cycle traders of Bakshi Bazaar or the industrial labourers at Syam Bazaar. The humility and fortification that you will see in their faces is sure to make you sympathise as well as admire these people. You will realise that part of the beauty of this place lies in the simplicity and poverty of those who live here.

By and by, as you move through these streets and spend more time trying to truly understand and accept the unusual beauty of this place, you will be able to look past the sordidness and grimness of Puran Dhaka and see it for what it really is — a city of mystics and reverie. And maybe, just maybe, you will be able to fall in love with its spirit as I did.


Zaima is an anaerobically-respiring, bibliophilic bacterium who spends her free time weeping over bad author decisions in YA. Tell her shitty plots are okay at [email protected]

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