Dhaka Blues

From the moment I stepped onto the airport tarmac, Bangladesh was totally unlike anything I had experienced in my entire life. Everything is so much more intense, that a trip out to buy bread becomes a high-octane action movie. I’m not going to lie, my visit really challenged all the usual assumptions of a Westerner for whom comfort is habit and made me see life differently. In a way, I really think that I found myself out there.

Some of the impressions it has left with me: The heat. December is their cool season but the humidity really drained me. My sweat made my clothes stick to me like a second layer of skin and I had to continually remain on the lookout for kiosks with bottled water. The noise. Muezzin moans, a constant symphony of aggressive car horns, bicycle bells, chatter and shouting in every direction. There are very few places where one can get away from it but when you do, you really notice.

The rickshaws. Think of all the near-death experiences you’ve had with the bicycles of Amsterdam and Ferrara, and times that by a thousand. The streets are often a long snake of rickshaw queues, all with their back seats decorated in loud, colourful fabric depicting all kinds of patterns, deities and images. En masse they are a rainbow-coloured tornado ripping through the city.

Aware that I only had a few hours in a megalopolis of 18 million, I decided to restrict myself to the district of Old Dhaka. My Lonely Planet: Bangladesh suggested I start on the earthy banks of the Buriganga, at the Sadarghat and Badamtoli boat terminals, so I did. “The panorama of river life is fascinating. In the middle of the river, which is roughly 500m wide, you’ll see an unbelievable array of boats in which people are bathing, cooking, or just resting and observing, while hordes of people cross in small canoes and ships ply up and down”.

I’d never seen a river like it; everywhere you looked, activity. It resembled one of those Canaletto views of Ascension Day where everyone piled into boats and the Doge got married to the sea. The little canoes with their bamboo floors are even a functional, go-kart version of the gondola, avoiding one another like dodgems as their bearded ferrymen criss-cross the river. Things like bananas were being unloaded and the banks were carpeted in pieces of fruit, litter and other debris. Some people are queuing for the crowded ferries, naked children play and swim in the river, men with trays round their necks sell what look like spring onions. This is what it’s like to really use your river, which we haven’t for a very long time.

Eventually I turn my back on the river and ponder the handsome Ahsan Manjil, or the “Pink Palace”. Built for an influential landowner, for much of the C20th this was, incredibly, a slum, but is now a government-owned museum. It’s a gaudy colonial palace, on two floors with a wide staircase leading to the upper tier entrance, and a bulbous dome on top.

That a relatively conventional, recognisable piece of architecture should be the same lurid colour as the Pink Panther intensifies the impression that this is all a psychedelic hallucination. So far from home, it’s funny to see something whose columns and round arches are obviously Victorian English in design, even if they have had fun giving the design a splash of Taj Mahal.

Behind the palace, I walk down Islampur Rd and look for the turning onto ‘Hindu St’ and the Shankaria Bazar, “without doubt the most fascinating street in Dhaka”. This narrow street is a blaze of colour; bright oranges, pinks, Fortnums turquoise, posters of blueskinned deities, as congested as Oxford St on a Saturday.

The tottering, high-rise shacks are packed in high density, with tiny shop units on the ground floor, like the bassi of Naples but much more so. An increasingly endangered species, the Shankari are Hindu artisans selling saris, drums, kites, conch-shell bangles, all sorts. People squat on the floor selling fish or vegetables, and the tinkling bell of the next rickshaw is an ever-present.

The buildings look jerry-built (and I’m certain their extensions are) but under all the posters, merchandise and detritus of life you can see the odd column and pieces of wrought ironwork. I popped my head into one residential courtyard and although the original design was there, with a banister running around the first floor and a decorated arch above each doorway, it was as if the earth had reclaimed everything. Peeling remnants of coloured paint mixed with rust, bare brick and dried mud.

Returning to Islamapur Rd, I turn off again at Babubazar Bridge Rd and am met with the unlikely sight of an C18th Armenian church. I think there is an Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem too- they got around. This church is a favourite of Western visitors as it offers “an oasis of tranquility in the crowded city”. There’s a small graveyard garden by the church, which is painted white with mustard piping. The steeple is an octagonal shape which curves up to a point and looks like a patriarch’s hat.

The interior has some lovely painted patterns around the altar with a few paintings, tapestries and icons, but none of the golden mosaic or swinging incense holders that one expects from an Orthodox church; the original fittings were looted during Bangladesh’s protracted war of independence from Pakistan. My guidebook advises that “the Armenian Archbishop in Australia comes twice a year to hold ceremonies, which is by far the best time to visit”.

Further up the Armanitola Rd is the Star Mosque, so called because in front of the verandah sits what looks like a swimming pool or disused fountain, in blue tiles with a large stone star-shape at its centre. The mosque isn’t very big but it is striking, less colonial and more Brighton Pavilion in its design. A small turret sits on each corner and the roof is dominated by five domes in formation. The domes are decorated in the chintikri style, popular in the 1930s, where pieces of broken china form a mosaic. It’s tiny blue stars on a white background, a sort of inverse Giotto.

Inside, Friday prayers are just kicking off so I have to be very discreet. The depiction of people or animals is of course frowned upon in Islam, so the clay tiles within the veranda instead show decorative patterns and flowers.

Heading back down south, Islamapur becomes Waterworks Rd as it continues west, and running off it are the remnants of two important Moghul buildings from the mid-C17th. Choto Khatra and Bara Khatra were caravanserais, square-shaped buildings with central courtyards that accommodated travellers or -in the latter case- served as royal palaces.

There’s not a huge amount of the buildings left, what there is has been heavily built-around and it’s as much of a glimpse at a vanished civilisation as the remaining scraps of Classical Rome, but Rome when poor folks were still pitching up living amongst the ruins, taking shelter underneath the triumphal arches. It’s definitely not cordoned-off or run by the National Trust.

The Mughals were followed by the Brits- who made Calcutta the Bengali capital, which is why much of this stuff managed to fall into obscurity and extreme neglect. The best remaining bit is the vast archway at the entrance to Bara Khatra, surrounded by windows and with a vast criss-cross diagonal pattern; you could be looking at a huge gate within medieval city walls.

Easier to comprehend are the grid-planned gardens, walls and elegant buildings of the Mughal Lalbagh Fort complex, on the western edges of Old Dhaka. The fort was never completed, following the death of the general in charge’s beautiful and celebrated daughter (taken as a bad omen), although her tomb is the crown jewel at its heart.

Apart from the walls and gardens, there are three main buildings left, all in pale pink, with rectangular blue-tiled pools between them which served as water tanks. The Fort mosque is topped by a cluster of three domes like flat mushrooms. The two-storey governor’s residence goes sparse on embellishments and has the gentlest curve in its almost-flat roof, which makes it feel art deco avant la lettre.

At the centre is the daughter’s tomb, a micro Taj Mahal with a tiny dome on each corner turret and a modest central dome that looks oddly like black basalt. Under the arches and inside, all is gleaming white marble.

Continuing past the fort on Lalbagh Rd takes us to the Khan Mohammed Mridah Mosque, another good Mughal structure from 1705. It sits on a high platform, a flat roof of the street-level rooms and niches, looking down onto the street.

Again in pink, but under layers of soot like St Paul’s used to be, the design is similar to the Fort mosque, with three squat domes crowded together between corner minarets. It’s the elevation that makes the space; a steep flight of steps take you up from the street, a square of vacant, exposed space for prayer lies in front of the mosque and makes it all feel as theatrical as the finest Piazza del Duomo.

Heading back east into the centre, at the end of Dhakeshwari St is the main place of worship for the Hindu minority, the Dhakeshwari Temple. This dates to the C12th although nothing of what see today is that old; the temple buildings around a small court are colourful, with pale pink augmented by a bright red trim and tiny prancing white horses. To these uninitiated eyes, which would probably fail to tell Hindu from Buddhist, they look like some great big berry-laced dessert.

Next to the central temple is a set of four smaller ones with cone/pyramid shaped roofs which come across as a row of trulli that have gone Sgt Pepper’s. My Lonely Planet counsels that the temple “is nothing special, but you are likely to find some long-haired holy men hanging around smoking ganja”.

Finally, time for some shopping. Lonely Planet also suggests, not without reason, that some rickshaw merchandise will make a fitting souvenir of Dhaka and that the only place to go is Bangsal Rd, or “Bicycle Street”, back in the heart of Old Dhaka. Like Hindu St it’s another riot of colour, activity, and levels upon levels. Thousands of what might be black and white election posters hang on washing-lines above your head like a never-ending blizzard of tickertape.

There are street-level shop units again, all selling bikes and the bright material covering the rear of the vehicles; this is where the rickshaws get made or mended. “Even if you don’t want to buy anything, it’s still interesting to watch workers sawing and hammering away at made-to-order rickshaw accessories.”

The idea for this post came after a few people, no doubt flatteringly, described my lengthier Nairn walks as “drifts” or “dérives”, as practised by the Situationists. I did a bit of reading on the dérive and my comprehension was at best partial, but I remember hearing a (perhaps apocryphal) story that one of their practices was to go out into the streets of Paris with maps and guidebooks for Vienna or Rome, and the idea always tickled me. Likewise I seem to recall Osaka’s favourite Scotsman, the singer Momus, once offering an “Unreliable Tour” of downtown Tokyo to anyone who met him on London’s South Bank. So here, with apologies, is my quixotic contribution.

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