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Dhaka’s Heritage: The Tale of the Nawabs

  • Published at 05:41 am October 4th, 2015

One rainy Friday morning, our tour team had taken an endeavour to visit the Ahshan Manjil and Boldha Garden. We reached Ahsan Manjil at 9am and the guards asked us to return at 4am as it was open from 4pm to 6pm on a Friday. We were disappointed but planned to go to our next destination, Lalbagh Fort which was open from 10am to 3pm on Fridays.

As we walked in through the side gate, the main structures came into view. There was a mosque, a tomb and a Diwan-I-Aam or the Hall of the public audience, which has been turned into a museum that displays relics of the Mughal era. There was a Hammam or Turkish bath adjoining the museum which looked like it could have been a residence once.

The Hamam consists of a room where one first gets warmed up by hot air being forced in through a tunnel, then proceeds to an even warmer room, to finally go for a cold shower in the bathtub. There was a big underground tank where hot water was preserved. The idea of this Hammam may have been taken from the Victorian Turkish bath. It was built by the third son of Auranjeb, Muhammod Azam in 1678. However, he couldn’t finish the work. There is a huge fortification wall around the three structures and the roof of the southern part has a beautiful garden which can be accessed through the staircase along the fortification wall.

The gardens all around the structure were well maintained and still bear the sign of lavish lifstyles led by the rulers of Bengal. Shaista Khan, the next Subedar of Bengal took over Lalbagh fort where his daughter Pari Bibi had a sudden death. He considered this a bad omen and abandoned the construction of the fort. Today, Pari Bibi’s tomb lies in one of the structures as witness. Some say she may have not been Shaista Khan’s daughter but an Ahom princess from the neighboring country. Behind the heavy pour of monsoon, the fort stood beautifully, and we walked around with our colourful umbrellas.

Our next destination was Boldha Garden’s Psyche and Cybele, two adjacent parks which have about 672 species of plants and around 18,000 plants and trees. This garden was built in 1909 by Narendra Narayon Roy Choudhury, who was the landlord of The Boldha Estate. This is the oldest botanical garden in the country with an area covering around 3.15 acres. It took three decades to complete the garden. Many rare species of plants can be seen in the garden, especially the giant Amazon Lily. There are a number of Camelia trees which inspired Rabindranath Tagore to compose the poem Camelia. There is also a sun clock in the Psyche portion of the garden.

We then moved to Beauty Boarding: an age old restaurant in Old Dhaka where all the famous poets and writers are known to have had their meals. The reason for this may have its location right at the heart of Bangla Bazar where most of the publishing houses belong.

After waiting for it, we were served food on round steel plates. We had smashed prawn, dal with catfish and chicken. The dal was very hot and as we tried to breathe out the hot air from our mouth, the owner served us sweet mango pickles.

Finally, we returned to our main destination Ahsan Manzil as its opened its gate to us. By now, it was already filled with visitors - some school children, some couples trying to escape the rain walked around the majestic building standing at the bank of the river Buriganga. It had a big spiral wooden staircase, very similar to the royal palaces we watch in movies. The placard at the entrance informed us that this was a recreational place of Sheik Enayetullah, zaminder of Barisal. His son Matiullah sold it to the French who used it as a trade center.

Khwaja Alimullah, Nawab Abdul Ghani’s father bought this mansion from the French in 1880. He renovated the palace to make it his residence, where Dhaka’s famous Nawab Ashsanullah was born. The palace was thus named after him. The renovated Manzil has a beautiful architecture with a huge verandah overlooking the river Buriganga, and stands as a witness to many historical events of Bengal.

In the beginning of 19th century, the Muslim leadership began from this Manzil, and it was the cradle of All Indian Muslim League. All of British viceroys and governors who came to Dhaka spent time in Ahsan Manzil. Lord Curzon stayed here during his visit prior to the division of Bengal in 1905.

The Bangladeshi government in 1985 acquired the palace, and the national museum was given the charge for its maintenance. Today, the palace is more or less well maintained but a lot of dust had accumulated on different objects which could be seen through the screens that separate the visitors from getting inside the rooms. The most attractive room was the dining hall with a magnanimous wooden table with utensils of the bygone era and a metal vault with some 200 chambers that stood as witness of money and wealth that defined the glory of Ahsan Manjil.