Friday, March 18, 2011

Breaking ground

After living in Dhaka for six weeks, I finally made it to Old Dhaka, or Puran Dhaka as it’s called here. Thankfully, given that it was Friday, the traffic from Gulshan to the old sector was virtually non-existent. As we drove through the streets at 7:30 AM, Dhaka life seemed to be moving at a slower pace – clusters of people were gathered at tea stalls sipping milky tea and chatting, rickshaws were still parked in rows in the side streets, and men and women stood in their doorways and gates peering out at the calm. The boundaries of Puran Dhaka, though not marked by a sign or barrier, could be felt. There was a slight, easily-overlooked, difference in the architecture and proximity of the buildings, and the traffic went from mild to moderate.

The tour’s meeting point was at the Old Dhaka Christian Cemetery. We entered the gate and emerged in the midst of an important archeological discovery – at least that’s what it looked like. The headstones could be glimpsed through the tall grass and amongst the trees, and up ahead the relic of a tomb stood with tress growing in and on it. It was a jungle. A cemetery that looked as though it hadn’t been tended to in the past 100 years.

Taimur, from the Urban Study Group (USG) tours, met me shortly after 8 AM. (Taimur and another architect founded USG. Its mission is to protect and preserve the old buildings in Puran Dhaka) He took me through the cemetery and explained its history as we waited for the rest of the group to show up. Though oral history puts the age of the cemetery at 400 years, the oldest grave dates back to “only” March 26, 1724. It is the Reverend Mr. Joseph Pagat who rests in this grave. Dead at the age of about 26, he was in Dhaka as a missionary and, like many others, probably succumbed to cholera, malaria or another similar disease.

Just behind his grave, looms the Angkor Wat-like tomb, which contained the names of several deceased. It has yet to be concluded whether the bodies lie in a crypt below the structure, or whether they were buried elsewhere but commemorated with a plaque here. The latter is the more probable explanation. Nature is slowly trying to take back the land on which the temple-like tomb rests. Roots from the large banyan tree that sprouts from the top of the structure, dangle through the windows in the roof and hang through the doorways. Thick ropes of root wrap themselves tightly around the building and along its walls. It’s a breathtaking sight.

The modern area of the cemetery resembled more of what I’m used to seeing. Still, compared to cemeteries back home, there was something unruly and exciting about it. I remember a fiat lux class I took at UCLA, in which we discussed cemeteries, their similarities and differences. The conclusion we came to in class was that most are designed to resemble people’s perception of heaven – rolling green hills, beautiful trees, and serenity. I think I’d prefer this jungle.

After about half an hour, we established that no one else was coming and so I was to receive a private tour. Perfect! We left through the gate and entered the Puran Dhaka streets. We were headed to the Baldha Gardens. The gardens were constructed by Narendra Narayan Roy in 1904. This landowner and lover of plants traveled all over to collect specimens and seeds to grow the plants we find there today. At one point he even sent for a Brazilian lily to add to his collection. Today, the gardens are the only public open space in all of Old Dhaka. And though they do provide a comparatively tranquil atmosphere, many Western visitors may find that it resembles a dusty nursery more than a thriving botanical garden.

Next, we headed to the Rose Gardens. The gentleman who built this estate felt as though he was not adequately represented at the Baldah Gardens. Thus he set out to build a beautiful house, surrounded by ponds and sprawling lawns. Unfortunately, the owner went bankrupt in his efforts to outdo the other garden and had to sell the property. The Rose Garden is interesting because it actually doesn’t have any roses. Perhaps it did when it was completed years ago, but today, cows graze leisurely in the front yard and the building is used as a filming location. Leaving the “Rose” Gardens, we hopped on a rickshaw and entered the narrow alleyways.

To the untrained eye the old buildings in Puran Dhaka might be invisible, but with Taimur’s expert guidance I was taken from one site to another. With a bit of imagination, it was possible to see just how glorious these houses once were. The intricate detail of the columns and archways is visible even though the buildings they belong to are crumbling, partially torn down, and rebuilt. Taimur and his group have had an impossibly difficult time trying to convince the government and building owners of the importance of preservation and restoration. The owners, motivated by money, are quick to tear down these undeclared landmarks, and put seven story apartment blocks in their place. One quickly picks up on Taimur’s emotional connection to these buildings and the spirit with which he tries to save them.

When the buildings aren’t torn down, their inhabitants often alter them, sometimes beyond recognition. This was the case at one of the sites we visited. In a beautiful 108 year old building, we found a family of 26. The archway through which we entered was being used for bucket baths. The 5 year-old who was presently getting a washing, was visibly upset by it. The parent who was administering the bath, took a break from dousing the child with water to let us pass. We ambled along the narrow path that lead to the house. The family gathered as Taimur explained the history of the building to me. I noticed and inquired about a stack of bricks on the balcony – I was wondering whether they were trying to do repair work. Not the case, explained Taimur. They’re trying to use every bit of available space. By enclosing the balcony, they can create space that they’ll use as another bedroom, a kitchen, or perhaps even a toilet.

I wrestle with two thoughts. On the one hand, I understand the importance of the buildings and how necessary it is to save them. On the other hand, I can see the poverty, the lack of space, and the need to survive. If only a solution could be found that would allow all those needs to be satisfied.

While I am interested in the architecture, I am more drawn to the people. I once again rely on my limited Bangla vocabulary to interact. The family’s English skills seem to be about as good as my Bangla skills. But everyone, including myself, is in good spirits and excited about the interaction, no matter how limited. One lady even looks at me and, with a big smile, blurts out, “I like you!” The kids especially a giddy about my arrival. They come up and introduce themselves, extending their hand. I feel a bit like royalty – it’s a bit strange. To their delight, I take out my camera, which only furthers the level of excitement.

With the kids following, Taimur takes me upstairs. From the second floor, through a series of buildings that partially obstruct our view, we can glimpse the street below. Looking up from what used to be the balcony surrounding the inner courtyard, we can see parts of the original white building with blue shutters decorating its windows. The colors are very Greek. But the courtyard has been halved. The balcony only exists on two sides the others have either been closed in, or completely destroyed to build the house next door.

Back downstairs, they take me to the back of the property to show me their well. I stand as far away as possible and lean forward to peer down. The walls of the well are lined with green algae and the water at the bottom doesn’t look like it should be consumed by anyone. Taimur pops up from around the corner and warns, “be careful! Don’t fall in. You may end up on the other side of the world.” A shortcut home perhaps?

We say goodbye and exit. Some of the kids follow. Calling “hello” and “hi” as we walk away. I reply and their great big smiles beam back at me.

It’s snack time. We arrive at an alley lined with 15-20 restaurants. Taimur settles on a shop that sells Misti, sweets. He orders for us. A sweet paste made of sugar, water, and flour is brought to the table along with two pieces of piping hot Parata, a flatbread. Moments ago this bread was a lump of dough at the front of the shop. It’s greasy, hot and delicious.

Leaving the restaurant, Taimur takes me through progressively narrower alleys. With each step I feel as though I’m getting a more intimate look into life in Puran Dhaka. Taimur stops in the market place to ask a fish vendor directions. He is splashed by water as a runaway fish launches itself from the shallow bowl and onto the ground. Taimur jumps back in surprise as the catfish wiggles and lurches in a feeble attempt at freedom.

Further down the road, a ten year old boy hacks apart a feathered chicken as its companions watch. A pile of feet and other parts lie at his side. The brilliantly color fruit stalls offer a stark contrast to the morbid scene.

We round the corner to find a group of kids playing a game of cricket. Cricket fever has definitely gripped the nation (and tonight Bangladesh must beat South Africa in order to progress to the semi-finals. I imagine the entire population will be glued to TV screens this afternoon.) Just past that road, we peak into a metal workshop, where two men work in cramped conditions. And at the next house we enter, the residence are preparing for a Hindu festival. Throughout Old Dhaka, the walls of the buildings are adorned with paintings of Brazilian and Argentinean flags – remnants of enthusiastic FIFA World Cup supporters. Lacking their own team, they rallied behind proven winners – too bad the support of millions of Bangladeshis couldn’t help them win.

We return to the cemetery. I climb into the car exhausted, a thin layer of dust covering every inch of me. I’m so glad I finally got a chance to visit this part of town, and I’m already looking forward to seeing more, especially the old harbor.

No comments:

Post a Comment