Dhaka’s size and density make visiting the city a hyper-real urban experience, in which the whirlwind of metropolitan life is magnified to an extreme degree. It is also a city marked by the complex cultural, religious and social history of Bangladesh, and exploring the streets of this thriving megacity offers a fascinating insight into the rich panorama of Bangladeshi culture and history.
Designed by American architect Louis Kahn, the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban or National Parliament House is one of the most impressive seats of political power in the world, and is a worthy monument to the thriving city in which it is located. It is one of the largest legislative complexes in the world and houses all of Bangladesh’s parliamentary activities. The building was planned in the early 1960s, as the seat of the federal legislature of both West Pakistan and East Pakistan but wasn’t built for another two decades as the War of Independence took its deadly toll. Kahn’s monumental design is visually stunning, both in scale and in location, as it rises from the mist of the surrounding lake, which was incorporated to evoke the place of the river in Bangladeshi and society history.
An incomplete 17th century Mughal fort complex which was originally built in 1678 AD by Subahdar Muhammad Shah, the Lalbagh Fort remains a potent reminder of the extent of Mughal rule in Bangladesh. It lies on the Buriganga River in the south-western part of the old city of Dhaka, and its extensive grounds and gardens remain an oasis of peace amidst the tumult of the city streets. The magnificent construction is reminiscent of the Mughal temples and forts of Western India, and includes the typical minarets and domes of Mughal architecture. It is possible to visit the former Hammam within the fort, as well as the tomb of Para Bibi, the daughter of the former Mughal ruler of Bengal. In the 20th century, the Fort was the site of several attempted uprisings against the British during the final days of the Raj.
Located in Segunbagicha, the Liberation War Museum commemorates the Bangladeshi Liberation War, which led to the formation of Bangladesh. It includes an array of artefacts, educational information and images of the conflict, as well as the ensuing refugee crisis, which saw an exodus of 10 million refugees. Whilst by no means comprehensive, the Museum’s exhibits offer a fascinating insight into what was a deeply troubled period in the subcontinent, and there are several graphic displays which are not for the faint of heart, including a large collection of mementos of those who lost their lives in the conflict. A profoundly moving experience, the Liberation War Museum is an essential memorial to the tragic loss of life which accompanied the birth of the Bangladeshi state.
The 300 year old centre of Dhaka’s Hindi community, this colourful and vibrant area is a slice of the commercial life of Old Dhaka, and reveals the artisanal traditions of the Hindu community in Bangladesh. The area is crisscrossed with alley ways packed with tiny workshops where artisans and craftsmen practice their age old traditional crafts; making everything from kites to jewellery. Many are descendants of the original Hindu residents of the area, and their handicraft traditions have been handed down from generation to generation. The area’s constant hum of business and craftsmanship is infectious, and visitors will not fail to be entranced by the ageless atmosphere of the bazaar.
Located in Shahbag, the Bangladesh National Museum is a monument to the history and culture of Bangladesh and the wider Bengal region. It features a mammoth array of artefacts, mementos, exhibits, photos and art works. These are organised into thematic sections which reveal the best of art and culture in Bangladesh, from pieces of classical art, to exhibits exploring the natural beauty of Bangladesh, and the variety of wildlife and sea creatures which thrive in the country. The Buddhist and Muslim periods of Bangladesh are explored and there are various handicrafts from every period of Bangladeshi history. For an introduction to the culture and history of this ancient land, the National Museum is unmissable.
Dhaka is often referred to as the ‘City of Mosques’ (as well as the ‘City of Rickshaws’) and the Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque reveals why. This historic archaeological site has been reasonably well restored, unlike many other sites in the city, and reveals the religious practices and architectural style of late 17th and early 18th century Dhaka. It was constructed by Khan Muhammad Mridha in the years 1704–05 AD and is unique in that the tahkhana rooms are raised on a platform, and must be reached by a series of steps. In a city full of Mosques the Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque is a particular highlight, and one of the more unique historical remnants of Bangladesh’s past.
Surprising in both its history and its unique architecture, the Armenian Church of Dhaka is a testament to the existence of a once thriving Armenian community in the city. Built in 1781 the church is now all that remains of this community, which found refuge in Bengal to escape Persian persecution in their homeland. They arrived in the 17th century and began trading with Bengali merchants whilst settling in an area which would come to be known as Armanitola. Whilst the Armenian community has long been dispersed, the church remains as a memento of the thriving social life which once existed in the neighbourhood, and the graveyard is a particularly poignant remnant of an all but forgotten part of Dhaka’s multicultural society.
For a glimpse of aristocratic life in Bangladesh, and the chance to escape the throbbing crowds of the city streets, a visit to Ahsan Manzil is a must. This resplendent pink palace was once the home of the Dhaka Nawab Family, the rulers of Dhaka for much of the 19th and early 20th century, who were given sovereignty over the city under the British Raj. It was built in 1869 and is an example of the Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture which is evident throughout the subcontinent as one of the Raj’s enduring remnants. The palace has now been turned into a museum as a means of preserving it and commemorating its importance as a cultural and political centre of the city.
Sadarghat is the river port for Dhaka, and a boat ride from here is a vital introduction to the importance of the Buriganga for the social, economic and cultural life of the city. The crowds of workers, fishermen and tourists make a visit to the port a chaotic and at times challenging experience, but one which is worthwhile for the unique insight it offers into city life. Competition for tourists amongst the ferrymen is fierce but once on one of the traditional small vessels the calm of the river offers instant relief. Whilst the river is deeply polluted, and the slums either side of it are a depressing sight, this still offers a fascinating glimpse of life on one of the busiest waterways in the world.
Built by Lord Curzon in 1904, Curzon Hall is the highlight of any visit to Dhaka University. The grand Raj era building has been the centre of political intrigue and protest over the course of its century long history, and is still in use today. The building combines European and Mughal architectural touches in the typical Indo-Saracenic style and is match in its elegance and grandeur by the surrounding buildings, such as the Old High Court, The Mausoleum of Three Leaders, the Shaheedullah Hall and the Dhaka Gate. The hall and the campus are unique mementos of the Raj’s influence in Bengal, but are also monuments to the educational institutions of this country and its capacity for continual reinvention.