Munira Ahmed Fidai
Imagine a world without history. It would be a world without customs or traditions as customs and traditions are a direct product of history. Sounds colourless and mechanical, right? Now imagine a world where time seems to have stopped — the age-old smells are still heavy in the air, buildings with the same stature and glory as when they were built, and the same alleys filled with more trilling cycles and rickshaws than they can hold. This is the sight of Old Dhaka on any particular day. Built in the time of the Mughals, Old Dhaka still tells the story of its old rulers through its food, architecture, language, and customs as honestly as it did back in the 14th century.
Old Dhaka is inclusive. Anyone who lives there, goes there, or even generally knows about it can tell you that true diversity lives in its alleys. From prominent mosques to equally famous Hindu temples, from Buddhist establishments to churches — Old Dhaka has it all. Ta’zieh processions during the mourning of Muharram are as openly commemorated as the Durga Puja or the Sakrain festival. The Muslim Eid is observed with the same respect as Holi, where people of all religions come together to play with colours regardless of race, language, or religious barrier.
They say the cuisine of a place says a lot about its character, and Old Dhaka cuisine is delicious, to say the least. From the famous kacchi biryani to the succulent and flavourful kebabs, the crunchy bakarkhani and sweet buttermilk or lassi, Old Dhaka rules over all. When we say that this part of town is famous for its cuisine, we make an understatement. The reality however, has to be experienced to be believed.
Shankhari Bazar is one of the oldest areas of Old Dhaka, known for its Hindu population and culture. The name of the area is derived from the Shankhari community living there. Shankhari is an artisan community that makes bangles out of conch shells, signifying a married woman according to Hindu belief. Although there aren’t too many artisans remaining, the culture at Shankhari Bazar lives on, and is especially alive during Durga and Ganesha Pujas as well as during Holi. The area is so popular that it even draws crowds from other communities and religions.
The architecture in Old Dhaka is a kaleidoscope of all the ruling periods of the city. The brick and mortar establishments of Old Dhaka pull in large crowds due to their diverse architectural styles like the French and Mughal styles, which are in direct contrast with the more contemporary building styles in the city. Old Dhaka offers several places to visit to appease the inner architect in you. Let us look at just a few of them.
The palace called the Ahsan Manzil is the residential mansion and the official seat of the Nawab that still gets a lot of tourists every year, both local and international. The structure itself gives away that it was built in the Mughal era and changed possessions with the French a few times before finally being acquired by the Dhaka National Museum in 1985, and restored to its full glory for tourism and conservation purposes.
The Lalbagh Fort is a 17th century unfinished relic facing the Buriganga river. It was abandoned by Shaista Khan when his daughter Pari Bibi passed away there. There are passages (now sealed) below the fort leading to another structure, Fort Zinzira, meant to serve as escape routes for soldiers trying to flee from the British army, albeit with many disappearances. Guided tours are available at the venue and are worth taking for some more insight about the famed monument.
Other attractions include the Star Mosque, the Armenian Church, Husseini Dalan, the Dhakeshwari Temple, the Rose Garden Palace, and the Buriganga dockyard.
A day in Old Dhaka will fill you with vibrance — the tastes, smells, and sights will envelop you in their richness and for an odd moment or two, may even take you back to the Mughal era. Good luck coming back to modern times from there.