We use names of Dhaka's streets and neighbourhoods every day, but often without giving a second thought on how they came about and what trivia they hold.
For example, you have surely heard of Urdu Road. Obviously, the name refers to the language, right? Wrong! In Turkish, 'urdu' means 'camp'. According to Azimusshan Haider's book, 'Dacca: History and Romance in Place Names' (first printed in 1967), “The place was the camp of Moghal (Mughal) soldiery. The name 'Urdu' here has nothing to do with Urdu as a language.”
Here are a couple of easy ones. Armanitola is named after Armenians, and Farashganj, after the French. The Armenian community in Dhaka included several affluent merchants. Their church, called The Church of the Holy Resurrection (established in 1781), is still standing in the area. On the other hand, in 1740, the French were given permission open a 'ganj' or market, and hence Farashganj came to be.
There are names which today speak of the geographical features of those areas in the past. To illustrate, '-bagh' means 'garden'; we have Shahbagh, Lalbagh, etc. Meanwhile, Nilkhet reminds us about the connection of indigo with the place, and Motijheel refers to a canal/rivulet.
Other than flora and fauna, there are places named after monuments as well (e.g. Dhakeshwari Road).
Many 'mahallas' owe their name to the profession of their residents. The 'shankaries' (conch-shell artisans) are one of the oldest existing communities of our city; their locality is called Shankhari Bazaar. Tanti Bazaar, similarly, indicates that 'taantis' (weavers) had lived in the mahalla.
On the other hand, the process of street renaming sometimes has interesting stories behind them, revealing the sentiments and politics of people. The case of renaming Tanti Bazaar may be a classic one.
Before narrating the attempt of renaming Tanti Bazaar, it is first essential to understand the practice of naming streets in honour of individuals.
There are numerous instances of streets named after persons. Fuller Road, for example, pays tribute to Bampfylde Fuller, the first Lieutenant Governor of the province of East Bengal and Assam.
Even if one was not politically/socially important, he would still be able to have a street named after him - by donating sums for public works. This practice was prevalent between 1910 and 1940. “In most cases the man offering 'donation' (usually just a few hundred rupees) on the precondition that a road to be named after him (or his nominee) had hardly any background of public service,” Haider wrote.
A similar proposal was made by a person for Tanti Bazaar: he proposed to sponsor the electrification of the road if it was renamed after his father. However, the residents protested against the change, as the original name cherished the glory of the weaver class.
Haider in his book quoted the letter which was given to the Municipality in protest. It presented quite an interesting argument: “If this system be possible, rich men of the town and other place (would) ask the Commissioners to change the name (of) Dacca into other name according to their wish by giving handsome donation...”
However, in 1921, the authority carried forward with the change, even though we know the area as Tanti Bazaar till this date.
The names of streets and neighbourhoods tell tales of Dhaka's history, culture, commerce, people, and flora and fauna. So, the next time you hear a street name, find out the origin. Answers will give you a sneak peek to the past!