From the quarter of the wealthier residents, in such as Gulshan, Banani or Baridhara, to the ancient stews of Old Dhaka; or from the teeming slums that sprawl across the manifestly unplanned city to the traffic jammed streets where pedestrians take life and limb in their hands, it is perhaps as authentic an experience of history brought to life as can be found anywhere.
Thick, sluggish polluted rivers and stinking pools of stagnant water, street sanitation and the evident risk of being urinated on from above in the myriad of building sites that sprawl across undelineated and frequently nonexistent gutters are all part of the experience as the visitor carefully picks a way over heaps of garbage, rotting waste and human excrement.
It is hard to call Dhaka a beautiful city, though, like any other it does have a few, if ill kept green places, and some buildings of outstanding quality, but before dismissing it as unworthy of interest, reflect upon that comparison to cities, more ancient even than Dhaka’s six centuries of history, that can no longer offer such an authentic experience!
A revival of the ancient art of Pomander making has not yet emerged here to create the fragrant nosegays so popular in those European cities of old, but Dhaka still merits attention for the architectural gems that, all too often are hidden behind newer unplanned developments and much neglected.
From the University, one of Asia’s most ancient and most respected, with the Edwardian magnificence of its Curzon Hall and Governor’s House, to the
Old City there are still treasures to be found. Lalbagh Fort, the pale imitation of Delhi’s Red Fort, or the curiously lifeless restoration of the Pink Palace vie for attention with such hidden gems as the Gandaria Fire Station, parked in a stately 19th Century mansion which are. Somehow, more rewarding to discover.
Mahastanghar was probably a city over 3 millenia ago, and may have been contemporary with the earliest cities known to man, those of the Dravidian culture in the Indus valley. And newly uncovered Bitaghar is believed to date from 6th century CE when, although cities such as Rome and Athenswere passing through ruinous times, London and Paris were largely abandoned towns.
So the urban traditions of Bangladesh are rich, and arguably richer than those of most other nations, certainly in Western culture.
Chittagong has along and chequered history, now largely buried beneath its contemporary urban jungle. Whilst its most ancient history may well predate even that of such ports as London, there is tangible evidence that it was certainly a seaport in 9th century CE, and has changed hands many times since then in a somewhat turbulent history before, finally, in 1971becoming not only the second city of Bangladesh, but also the site of the broadcast declaration of independence.
Sylhet is another ancient urban centre, with a history, once again, of perhaps as long as 3 millenia, although nothing but the fairly ancient nature of its narrow streets and the shrines that bear testament to its thousand years of Islamic history betray much of the city it undoubtedly one was Rajshahi also has some considerable history, mostly now invisible despite the proximity of the 11thcentury capital of Vijay Sen, the founder of one of Bengal’s royal dynasties.
Barisal, in the south, has also been aport town for centuries, whilst its neighbour, Khulna is, perhaps, the most modern of Bangladesh’s cities, its broad avenues revealing its mid 19th century CE origins.
A growing proportion of the population of Bangladesh has now migrated from countryside to city, and the rapid growth of those cities has, perhaps, overwhelmed many such issues as planning and public hygene and safety. But in which country in the world has this never happened?
The cities of Bangladesh are an experience of both ancient urban lifestyles, and of modern urban development.