Dewanbari is a beautiful historic site located at Aminbazar, Dhaka. Declared as a “heritage site” through a gazette notification on February 2, 2009, the complex is comprised of a palatial residence, a three-domed mosque, a pond and a graveyard. Moreover, the compound is surrounded by an identical low-height boundary wall which is quite a unique feature among the heritage structures. Regrettably, the property’s fractional ownership along with the negligence of the authorities concerned are the main reasons for its current dilapidated state.
However, according to the Heritage Gazette and the Antiquities Act, 1968, no listed heritage property can be demolished, reconstructed, altered, and modified in the name of development without the approval of the government’s Nagar Unnayan Committee (NUC). The NUC is headed by the secretary of the ministry of housing and public works and representatives from different professional groups including architects, city-planners, archaeologists, and historians as well as civil society members.
One of Dewanbari’s present owners, Bashir Ahmed, has expressed his disappointment at the futile attempts to save the compound. According to him, they had several meetings with the authorities concerned including Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK), Department of Archaeology, and Ministry of Cultural Affairs, wrote quite a few letters (including one addressing the prime minister in 2018), but unfortunately, they did not receive any assistance to prevent illegal encroachment and demolition of their valued possession. Furthermore, their appeal for the provision of basic amenities like gas and water has also been denied for many years, whereas their neighbouring villages had those amenities already.
The building was built in 1880 by Alhaj Janab Ali, who was a revenue collector of the British East India Company. The original site had about 106 decimals of land, which was easily accessible from the nearby river. At present, it is about a kilometre from Aminbazar bridge by road to the south and the Karnatali River to the north. Even a few years back, the mosque and the main building could be seen from the Dhaka-Aricha highway. But because of rapid urbanisation and unplanned development, one can now hardly notice them behind the newly constructed shops and markets.
The whole complex was originally comprised of four similar—and one slightly larger—residential buildings around the inner and outer courtyards. The eastern block was used as a kacharighar (outhouse) for guests and thus situated at the front, adjacent to the pond and the outer courtyard. On the western side of the court, there is the mosque, which is a three-domed structure, oblong in shape, and sits on a high pedestal. There was a large pond with an elegant ghat on each side, except in the south.
The main house was actually placed on the central axis of the pond oriented in the north-south direction. It is genuinely difficult to assume from the road how large the compound was! Behind the colonnaded façade of the two-storied main house, there is still a small inner courtyard hidden behind the new expansions. Originally, the courtyard always bustled with people and daily chores. It was a place where children used to play, and women used to gossip and might have spent many idle afternoons by stitching nakshi kantha (hand-embroidered quilt). The east, west and northern blocks are basically the same. Each of them has three compartments and a long connecting corridor facing the court. The corridor, which also acted as a veranda, is decorated with simple semi-circular arched openings. Almost all the attractive cast-iron decorations on the arched way are now gone. Only the main house is currently in a liveable condition; others are in dire straits. Ancillary facilities such as the kitchen and lavatories were in the north-east corners, but at present, they lie in ruins.
The defacing of the compound started when a major portion of the pond was filled up and a road was constructed from the central ghat of the pond, adjacent to the mosque. The ghat was used for the purpose of ablution. A new ablution place was later constructed. The half-demolished boundary wall is still there, but the building located on the east site is almost in ruins. Only a few segments of the main building to the north of the pond are in a liveable condition. The inner courtyard, dotted with numerous trees, has shrunken with encroachment in the form of extended new structures like kitchen, toilet or extra living spaces. The beautiful ornamentations on the colonnaded façade, doors and windows are disappearing day by day.
One can find a detailed description and drawings of Dewanbari in the book Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh, written by Dr Abu Sayed M Ahmed and published by the UNESCO in 2006. Old photographs of these buildings can also be found in the National Archives. Moreover, because of the exquisite beauty of the compound, it was once considered an attractive shooting location. Quite a few movies including Matir Moyna, Ei Desh Tomar Amar and Ke Tumi were shot in this beautiful complex.
It is unfortunate that no effective steps have been taken yet to protect these magnificent structures and the complex. Although Dewanbari is situated at the gateway to the city from the north-west corridor, not a single demarcation line has been drawn to demonstrate the building as a preserved site. If no immediate step is taken, it will face the same tragic fate as many other heritage sites in Dhaka.
Fatiha Polin is an architect and independent researcher. Dhrubo Alam is Technical Consultant (Transport), Dhaka Metro Project Preparatory Technical Assistance Project, Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA).
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