A Kaleidoscope of traditions

, Cover Story

Steeped in Mughal history, every nook and cranny of Old Dhaka has a story to tell

Each locality of each city of each country of the world has a history. The more historic a location, the richer its traditions and the more exciting its people. After all, what are traditions and culture, if not an evolution of historic practices? One such locality, at the heart of Dhaka city, is the Old Town. Steeped in Mughal history, every nook and cranny of Old Dhaka has a story to tell. From finger-licking food to festivals and fireworks to monuments, Old Dhaka has something in it for everybody.

On Diversity

Old Dhaka is known for the amicable way people of all religions live in this area. There are mosques built in the 16th century, and there is the Dhakeshwari temple in the same area. There are also Buddhist establishments and an Armenian church. Chand raat (the night before the month of fasting and the night before the festival of Eid) are observed with respect and celebrated with food and fireworks. The Hindu festival of colour – Holi – is also celebrated with much aplomb and people of all religions come together removing all social barriers. Cultural festivals like Shakrain or the kite festival marking the beginning of the Poush month of the Bengali calendar is celebrated with people of all ages going to their rooftops and flying kites.

Architecture & attractions

The architecture here is a mix of all the ruling periods the city went through. Where there are mosques built in the 1400s, and royal mansions from the Mughal period, which still pull in large crowds, there are also newer buildings built during the time the French settled here. The mansions built by the French have a distinct Western look to them. There are several places to visit in Old Dhaka, if spirituality, beauty and history are what you are looking for.

Lalbagh Fort

A 17th century Mughal fort, facing the Buriganga river, was started by Subahdar Muhammad Azam Shah, the son of Aurangzeb. His successor, Shaista Khan, however, abandoned the structure in an incomplete state, deeming it unlucky, when his daughter Pari Bibi passed away in it; it remains unfinished to this date. There are other myths surrounding the fort as well. There are passages below the fort leading to Fort Zinzira, another structure, not too far from this one. It was mentioned that soldiers that tried to escape the British army through this route never returned, and neither did the search parties sent after them. The passages are now sealed. The fort is worth a tour and many guided tours are available at the venue.

Ahsan Manzil

The residential palace and the official seat of the Nawab, Ahzan Manzil stands tall and proud in Old Dhaka even today. Built in the Mughal era and lent to the French to do business, the Ahsan Manzil has seen a lot of trade being conducted inside its walls. After changing hands several times, the building was finally in possession of Landlord Khwaja Alimullah and later his grandson son, Ahsan Ullah, giving the structure its final name. The Dhaka National Museum acquired the building in 1985 and led a restoration programme that restored the dilapidated structure back to its full glory.

Husseini Dalan and Dhakeshwari Temple

Stating a strong case for pluralism, Old Dhaka has structures like the national Hindu temple and the Shia Imambara in one area. Big structures, both religious congregational buildings show vibrance in their times of prayer and festivals. The green and blue tiled Imambara brims with worshippers during the holy month of Muharram and the Dhakeshwari temple pulls in crowds, from both Hindu and other religions, during Kali and Durga Pujas in the months of October and November.

Rose Garden Palace

Built in the 19th century, the Rose Garden Palace was the birthplace of the Awami League political party. Housing a fountain within its perimeters, the stark white mansion against a green courtyard is now a hotspot for hosting weddings and photoshoots. Other attractions include the Star Mosque, the Armenian Church and the Buriganga dockyard.

On Food

Belonging to the Mughal empire from the 16th century, Old Dhaka has a lot of food inspired by the same dynasty. Kacchi biryani, a mix of spiced rice, meat and potatoes is a famous dish that has a special corner in the heart of every Bengali and a gift from the Mughal era. Bakarkhani is a flaky and airy biscuit made in kilns with flour. Eaten with tea, honey or cheese, these biscuits are found in a lot of places in Dhaka – but none as authentically made as in the bustling alleys of Old Dhaka. Kebabs, definitely a Mughal delicacy, are barbecued or fried meat cakes and a variety of these are found in Old Dhaka. Spicy, tangy and dry, kebabs complement biryani and are also eaten with naan or on their own. Wash it all down with a tall glass of cold lassi. This is a drink made of sweet yoghurt and milk and there is no lassi as famous as that found in Nazirabad.

All in all, a day trip to Old Dhaka will give you a holistic experience of tastes, smells and sights to behold. It’s an excursion that gives one a taste of the true flavours of Bengal and its origins and leaves you feeling oddly royal and proud.

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