Dhaka

পানির ওপর নাম জীবন

Samples of jamdani muslin
Samples of jamdani muslin

…or, in English, “life is another word for water” is a beautiful phrase that is quickly understood after a few days in Bangladesh, a nation of water. Bangladesh is known today for its massive textile industry, in fact, it is highly likely that a Made in Bangladesh tag is hanging somewhere in your closet. However the threads that make up this wonderful nation are not of wool or cotton, they are the ever flowing threads of water that weave through a unique wilderness, thus brining to life a stunning tapestry of emerald fields, endless rivers, welcoming smiles, succulent dishes and a history of resilience against struggle; a masterpiece called Bangladesh.

Today the role of tourism in Bangladesh is marginal and mostly local, however this is not due to a lack of things to see or do, but simply because thus far they have all remained well kept secrets. To discover the hidden jewels of this flourishing nation let us start by exploring its capital city, Dhaka, the city of Mosques.

View of the Buriganga from Gabtoli Rd
View of the Buriganga from Gabtoli Rd

Hundreds of years ago the Buriganga selflessly shared the life that flowed through its waters to give the local people the energy to set the first stones in what would eventually become Dhaka City. Sadly, contemporary industry has forgotten this and today Dhaka’s biggest artery is slowly killed. Notwithstanding, it is still at the riverside that we find some of Dhaka’s treasures.

On the southern part of the city, running parallel to the Buriganga we find Gabtoli Road, busy from dawn to dusk as thousands of people traverse it each day. As one walks along this road there is a constant buzz of merchants offering their products, mostly fruits to make your mouth water with desire as they flaunter firm bodies of juicy pulp wrapped in a carnival like display of colour. Of course, despite the seducing exhibit lining the street, it is important to stay alert for there is a constant flow moving things along the road: people, rickshaws, dogs, trucks, CNGs and any other mode of transport imaginable.

From this road Ahsan Manzil, also known as the Pink Palace, is easily accessible. This is striking pink building now houses a museum inside its neon pink walls, however it was once the official residence of the Newab of Dhaka, during which time it had the privilege of hosting many of the countries most significant happenings.

Blacksmith in Dholaikhal
Blacksmith in Dholaikhal

Not far from there we find Dholaikhal, one of the busiest trade and commerce centres to be found. As a tourist there is not much one would buy, however it is well worth the visit for it is a wonderful opportunity to see what many people’s reality is like in Bangladesh: a reality in which there is not much waste, here everything is reused until its last breath; a reality in which there is no time to comply with the safety measures many “first world” countries would deem indispensable; a reality in which your eyes must adjust to the dim lights of hallways; a reality in which eyes follow you because a tourist is as much of a novelty to the locals as they are to you; a reality in which amongst the greyness of the merchandise a radiant smile is bound to greet you, happy to show you around the maze of more than 5,000 shops selling car parts, computer accessories and the like.

After exploring the dim allies of Dholaikhal you can choose to take a rickshaw or CNG along Islampur Road towards the Armenian Church. This pastel coloured building comes as a welcome sanctuary of quiet and tranquillity after the turmoil of the market. The church dates back to the XVII century, when there was a strong Armenian presence, one that has now declined to insignificance. The church is surrounded by tombs, silent witnesses of the passing of time and keeping in their engravings an accurate chronicle of the passing of the Armenian community in the area.

Bibit Pari's tomb at Lalbagh Fort
Bibi Pari’s tomb at Lalbagh Fort

Further up the river we can find Lalbagh Fort, a beautiful sample of XVII century architecture in Bangladesh. The complex’s central building is Bibi Pari’s tomb, which is surrounded by fountains, which make for wonderful photographs; even more so when they are turned on, I suppose. On the western side of the complex is Diwani-i-Aam, a two-storied residence to be visited to get a full grasp of its architecture as well as appreciating the modest collection of historical artefacts found inside. Overall, a magnificent blend of lively green gardens and salmon coloured structures, an ideal site to peek at Dhaka’s past for a couple of hours.

Further north we exist Old Dhaka and enter the heart of the modern-day capital city of Bangladesh. Here, we find many of the countries main organs busily at work day after day, amongst these we find the High Court of Bangladesh and Dhaka University, both housed in strikingly beautiful buildings, which are well worth going to see, even if it’s just from the outside. If on foot, take some time to browse through the street market adjacent to High Court where delicate samples of Bangladeshi craftsmanship can be found and great prices.

Shaheed Minar
Shaheed Minar

In the vicinity we can also find Shaheed Minar, one of Bangladesh’s most symbolic monuments (you can see it featured in all paper currency nowadays). This monument commemorates those who died during the 1952 Bengali Language Movement in what was then East Pakistan. Visiting this site is particularly moving during February 21st, the International Mother Language Day, at which time the place is further embellished by a mosaic of vibrantly coloured flowers, pleasantly impregnating the air with their sweet aroma.

Moving further north along the Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue we find our way to the Bangladesh National Museum, which will captivate you through its wonderful exhibitions. Originally a single room passing as the Dhaka Museum, this house of wisdom how now expanded to four floors of wonderful displays illustrating every aspect of Bangladesh: as we meander through the wild jungles that cover Bangladesh we encounter its many feathery inhabitants as tease their feline neighbours with their shimmering colours; we hear the voices of old healers as we read the explanations of the medicinal uses that many of these plants offer us; our hearts sway as we encounter rooms full of boats ready to navigate the endless miles of rivers running through Bangladesh; the many voices of different tribes ring loud and clear through the unique designs of clothing, housing and artefacts that they each have on display; the fractured faces of ancient deities smile at us as we browse through corridors bursting with delicately sculptured stone, leaving us in awe as we try to imagine what it is that their creators inscribed in them all those many years ago. Despite the modesty of the building itself, a visit to this sanctuary of knowledge is without doubt well worth the visit.

New Market at sundown
New Market at sundown

Not far from there, heading towards the west this time we find in New Market a different kind of museum, one that is living and breathing in the reality of Bangladesh today. Here we are allowed to browse alongside the locals for anything from clothes to home decorations, and you can be sure to find a bite to eat if shopping makes you as hungry as it makes me.

Just north of the market we enter Dhanmondi, well known for its lake, which is a popular destination of the youth or couples on a day out. The lake is surrounded by pleasant gardens where one can sit to contemplate the tranquil waters of the lake, try out one’s aim by shooting some balloons with a rifle, enjoy some tasty milk tea, or simply go for a stroll around the lake.

Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban and its moat
Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban and its moat

Once in Dhanmondi, the Parliament is not far off and, for those with a taste for architecture, it is certainly a must see. Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban is one of Louis Kahn’s unique creations, which earned the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1989. Many of the locals still recall the times when the general public was permitted to roam through the vast gardens and marvel at the moat surrounding Kahn’s monumental masterpiece. Sadly, entrance into the premises is now restricted and visitors are limited to admiring from beyond the gates, unable to appreciate exquisite play of light and visual impact Kahn achieved in the interior. However, visitors can still enjoy a pleasant walk through Chandrima Udyan across the road, famous for being the resting place of Ziaur Rahman.

As the sun starts to sink into the horizon once again, one can wonder through the traffic of Banani and Gulshan further to the north, both areas housing a variety of shops and restaurants to end a wonderful day of adventure with. If in the streets you find a boy selling Bhapa Pitha, make sure to try it out and I promise you will not regret it.

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