Demolition of a 150-year-old building highlights government neglect of Bangladesh's heritage sites

The dilapidated state of “Jahaj Bari” before being demolished. It was the first commercial house in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, built in 1870. Image by Shakil Ahmed. Used with permission.

In Dhaka, a century-old heritage building was demolished clandestinely on the night of Eid-ul-Fitr on June 5, 2019. The ship-like structure, known locally as “Jahaj Bari”, was built around 1870 and considered to be the first commercial building in Bangladesh's capital. Its demolition has caused many to speak out against the neglect of Dhaka's architectural treasures.

Media reports alleged that supporters of the ruling Awami League (AL) party brought three bulldozers to the location and demolished the building. The supporters claim that their leader, local member of parliament (Dhaka-7) Haji Md. Salim, bought the property to build a multi-story building on the site. The AL supporters also claimed that the building was not included on any heritage list.

On August 13, 2018, the Dhaka High Court issued a directive to the government agency responsible for coordinating urban development in Dhaka to not approve or allow the demolition or modification of 2,200 archaeologically significant buildings around the capital city. Jahaj Bari is also part of a Waqf (mortmain) estate that, as part of a charitable donation, could not be sold. According to the administrator of Bangladesh's Waqf Administration, it is mandatory to have permission in order to hand over, sell or develop any Waqf property. Contrary to the claims of the AL activists, no such permission was requested for the sale or demolition of the building in question.

In March 2019, an attempt was made to demolish the building. Urban Study Group, a volunteer-run nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the historical urban fabric of Old Dhaka, filed a complaint to stop the demolition, citing the above mentioned High Court order.

However, according to newspaper reports, some locals are happy that the building was demolished. They felt that it was in a dilapidated state and feared that it would fall down on them—an indication of the lack of awareness of historical preservation and support for the restoration of heritage buildings in Bangladesh.

Heritage history—just empty words

Many expressed their anger on hearing about the destruction of the building. Shuvra Kar wrote on Facebook:

ঐতিহ্য, ইতিহাস, কৃষ্টি এসব এদেশে গাল ভরা কথা!!

Heritage, history, culture these are just empty words in this country!

Writer Tania Kamrun Nahar explained why this heritage building needed to be saved:

তিনতলা ‘জাহাজ বাড়ি’র দোতলায় ছিলো নকশা করা রেলিং, ছাদওয়ালা টানা বারান্দা। আর পুরো অবয়বজুড়ে নানা রকম কারুকাজ। কোণাকৃতির আর্চের সারি, কারুকাজ করা কার্নিশ। কলামে ব্যবহার করা হয়েছিল আয়নিক ও করিন্থিয়ান ক্যাপিটাল। পশ্চিম প্রান্তে আর্চ ও কলামের সাথেও নানারকম অলঙ্করণের ব্যবহার দেখা যায়। সব মিলিয়ে এই ভবনটিতে যে ধরনের অলঙ্করণের ব্যবহার, তা একে এক অনন্য মাত্রা দিয়েছিল। এ ধরনের অলঙ্করণ পুরান ঢাকায় আর কোনো ভবনে দেখা যায় না। সেদিক থেকে এর নান্দনিক গুরুত্বের জন্যই ভবনটি সংরক্ষণ করা প্রয়োজন।

The three-storied “Jahaj Bari” had beautiful motifs on the railings. The long verandah had designed roofs. The whole building had many beautiful designs — pointed arches, decorated cornices. The columns had ionic and Corinthian capital designs. The building had such remarkable designs which were rare to find in other buildings in the old parts of Dhaka. So the building needed to be saved.

Dhaka was established as the capital of Bengal in 1610, more than four centuries ago. During the years of Mughal rule and British colonial rule, many buildings were built that form part of the history and heritage of the city.

But most of these buildings are long gone. The ones that remain are in a dilapidated state and are destined to be grabbed by occupants claiming ownership of the buildings (often by forging documents). One example is Bara Katra, a historical and architectural monument built between 1644 and 1646 AD by Mir Abul Qasim, the Diwan (chief revenue official) of the Mughal prince Shah Shuja. The building is on the verge of collapsee due to the lack of maintenance, preservation efforts, and damage caused by illegal occupants.

Bara Katra. The structure was built according to the traditional pattern of Central Asian caravanserais and is embellished in the style of Mughal architecture. Image by Ragib Hassan via Wikipedia. CC BY 2.5

Muntasir Mamun has written many books on the history and heritage of Dhaka city. He wrote in a local newspaper Bhorer Kagoj:

গত চার দশক বড়কাটরা ছোটকাটরা সংরক্ষণ করার জন্য কতো আবেদন-নিবেদন করলাম, কেউ শুনল না। আজ সেগুলো ধ্বংস করে ফেলা হয়েছে। প্রতœতত্ত্ব দপ্তর যেখানে লালবাগ কেল্লার দেয়াল ভেঙে ফেলে গাড়ি পার্কিংয়ের জন্য তখন আর কী বলা যায়! মূর্খতার বিরুদ্ধে আর কতো লড়াই করা যায়?

I have pleaded to the authorities in the past four decades to save the heritage buildings like Bara Katra and Choto Katra. But nobody listened. When the philatelic department demolished part of the old walls of the famous Lalbagh Fort to make a car park, what can you say? How can you fight against stupidity?

An online news portal has published an in-depth report about government negligence of these heritage buildings and the influential people trying to demolish existing buildings:

ইতিমধ্যেই শাঁখারী বাজারের হেরিটেজভুক্ত ১৪ নম্বর বাড়িটি ভেঙ্গে ফেলা হয়েছে। সুত্রাপুরের বড় বাড়িটির সিংহভাগই ধ্বংস করা হয়েছে। মোগল আমলের স্মৃতিবাহী বংশাল মুকিম বাজার জামে মসজিদ, সিদ্দিক বাজার জামে মসজিদ সংস্কারের নামে ধ্বংস করা হয়েছে। [..] এসব স্থাপনা রক্ষায় সরকারের সুস্পষ্ট নির্দেশনা থাকলেও রাজউক ও ডিসিসির কর্মকর্তারা রহস্যজনক ভূমিকা পালন করেছে। অনেকক্ষেত্রে এদের নীরবতা ঐতিহ্য ধ্বংস সহায়ক শক্তি হিসাবে কাজ করছে।

The no. 14 house in the heritage list has already been taken down. Most parts of the famous big house in Sutrapur has been destroyed. The relics of the Mughal era in Bangshal Mukim Bazar Jam-e Mosque and Siddique Bazar Jam-e Mosque are gone with a new structure in place in the name of renovation. [..] Although there is a government directive to protect heritage buildings, the officials of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha and Dhaka City Corporation are not doing anything. Their inaction is encouraging greedy parties to grab the old properties and destroy them.

The Urban Study Group has organized rallies and human chains to protest these demolitions. They are also keen to create awareness to protect other endangered heritage buildings.

Here are some more images of Bangladeshi heritage buildings in peril:

An old Zamindar house in Nazira Bazar of Old Dhaka is being demolished. Image by Shakil Ahmed. Used with permission.

Nimtali Palace. It was the residence of the Deputy Governor of Dhaka during the Mughal rule. Only the west gate of the palace still survives. Image by Shakil Ahmed. Used with permission.

ShankhaNidhi House। This is another century-old building in Dhaka. Without preservation, this building is barely surviving. Image by Shakil Ahmed. Used with permission.

Northbrook Hall or Lal Kuthi – photographed in 1904 by Fritz Kapp. This building is barely surviving now. Image via Wikipedia. Public Domain

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