Unfinished Paradise in an Unscheduled Venice
Functionality and Aesthetics in the Expansion of Mughal Dhaka
The old city sprawls irregularly for miles on the northern bank of its old companion,
which flows on, as it has for centuries, with immutable silence, guarding the secret of its historic past. – Nazimuddin Ahmed
The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity. – Michel Foucault
The story goes… in 1666, the same year Nawab Shaista Khan freed Chittagong from Portuguese and Arakan pirates, inadvertently opening up opportunities for the Dutch and English, the French traveller and gem collector Jean-Baptiste Tavernier found the Mughal subehdar living in a wooden palace surrounded by a brick wall in the capital, Jahingir Nagar. The use of this temporary tent-palace where Lalbagh fort stands today reflects the functionality of the Mughal subehdars' residences, that is, the impermanent nature of their transferable jobs as well as the practical use of wood for cooling in then Dhaka's climate.
The tent-palace's destiny is well known: its construction into a fortress-palace began with Prince Muhammad Azam in 1678 but stopped when the Prince was recalled by Aurangzeb before the monument could actualize its typically Mughal dimensions, and was ultimately left unfinished by Shaista Khan due to his daughter Pari Bibi's death there. The Dhaka Central Jail in Old Dhaka today – a hellish, profane 'other world' that has not seen renovation or 'nurturing' since the colonial period – was once the Old Fort/Badshahi Fort where Dhaka's founder Islam Chishti Khan and his officers first stopped: Its story, like that of Lalbagh, is a tale of intersecting functionality and aesthetics, a tale of a city that did not lend itself to merely being shaped by dreams of beauty or conquest, but gave a fluid, erratic shape to those dreams. On his way to the new capital from the old, Rajmahal, Islam Khan Chishti is said to have sent a party of officers from Shahzadpur (Pabna) in advance, ordering them to construct the fort of Dhaka and make it suitable for the seat of the subehdars: the fort may well have been an open place surrounded by mud-walls. In fact, more than a few of these official Mughal monuments, including the famous Baro and Chhoto Katra, were transformed into a caravanserai (roadside inn) at later points in history. Mughal architecture – by definition, encompassing horticulture and the art of irrigation – flourished in the Indian subcontinent. Yet in Dhaka, frequent conversions of monuments and the functional use of space make much of Mughal space in the historic city akin to temporary 'outhouses' of comfort or strategic vantage points. To what extent the Mughals made Dhaka their home is a question closely related to the attempt to recall the 'other place' that they normally emplanted (to use Foucault's concept of emplantment, emplanting 'sacred' spaces) in fragrant horticulture and exacting architecture in the cities of India. And home or not, their transformation of this temporary or permanent pleasure garden, Jahangir Nagar, is a story of shifting meanings imposed spatially, onto a fluid, tender land-mass which both received and eluded the aesthetic and functional values of expansion, dominion and adaptation.
From its origin as a small city of the Buddhist Kamarupa kingdom in the low-lying river-girt bhati regions of Bangla, or Bengal, to the new capital of Mughal Bengal called Jahangir Nagar, named after the Mughal emperor of the time, Dhaka has been the site of two distinct 'golden ages' – the Buddhist and the Mughal. Dhaka's obscurity after the Buddhist decline has left us with little more than accounts of foreigners describing a thriving civilization as early as the 5th century AD (with stupas, monasteries and fortified palaces 'obstructing the very course of the sun with golden kalas' according to Chinese voyagers), traces of which can be found mostly outside the capital (Ahmed, 1984). Its second transformation, from a suburban outpost of the Delhi Sultanate ruled by Afghan and Turk rulers, to an outpost-cum-provincial capital of commercial, military and cultural significance of the Mughal empire in India in 1608, is often narrated as a tale of expansion both of city and culture, attributed in particular to the rule of Shaista Khan, after whom Shaista Khani architecture is named. Dhaka's first Mughal subehdar Islam Khan Chishti's transfer from Rajmahal to Dhaka (a strategic move for the subehdar to reside with their officers in the site of the rebels of the empire) was the prologue to a Dhaka, not concealed and obscured by perishable antiquities leaving few traces as with the first golden age, but fortified and beautified, its increasingly diverse population (with the influx of foreign settlers from Central Asia) controlled by the inclusive and exclusive spaces within its dense urban fabric and 'released' in the vibrant chawks and open spaces around urban residences and beyond the city's fringe. Mughal Dhaka could also be called an urban waterfront city, in that most of its urban settlements and expansion occurred along the Buriganga, west of the old fort, and up to Shadarghat in the east, with Chadnighat hosting navy and imperial war boats.
At present though, much of what we deduce from the 'golden age' of Mughal expansion is a trace of a trace. Thus, archaeologist Nizamuddin Ahmed writes, 'The splendours of Mughal Dhaka are embodied today, in a few derelict monuments whose weathered domes and turrets, towers and rampart walls are reflected in deep shadow on the tranquil waters of the Old Ganges (Buriganga).' Ahmed attributes this loss partly to human actions, and greatly, to the effects of climate. There are many instances of palaces and other monumental structures, such as Prince Azimuddin's palace at Poshta (Posht-qila), being washed away by the river.
Ahsan Manzil, originally the garden house of Sheikh Enayet Ullah and called Rang Mahal, lost half of its interior to damage from tornadoes and earthquakes, as well as human neglect, such that the pink palace we see today is a 're-imagined' shadow of the original. The garden house's unique architecture, where Sheik Enayet Ullah is said to have entertained beautiful women (and ultimately one fatal one), was lavished with care during the period of the Muslim Nawabs, but gradually lost its original character as the family was obliged to sell the property to French traders, who eventually were also forced to leave; its next proprietor rented it out to tenants who, it is said, 'turned it into a slum', until the government took over and reconstructed the garden-house after their imagination into a museum. Settlers, historians and archaeologists have uncovered the traces of the Mughal period for more than a hundred years; yet even by the time the British solidified control over the city, 60 years after the fall of Mughal Dhaka, the city was already giving way to encroaching jungles. With the onset of British rule, Dhaka shrank considerably, and it was only in 1917 that the British outlined a formal plan for Dhaka, dreaming a city of canals. During their rule they reshaped open areas, taking the city's principal settlements out of Old Dhaka, but still using the forts of the Mughals as strategic centres, from where they controlled the most crucial site: the market-place or bazaar. That plan of extensive canals, however, like the unfinished monuments of the Mughals, was never completed.
Nevertheless, during the historic 'golden' Mughal period, Dhaka was transformed, from a small trading town with a small pre-Mughal indigenous core, into a city of chawks, forts, mosques, pavilions and beautifully laid-out gardens. The city grew beyond Dholai Canal and extended from Buriganga to Tongi. It is said that by the time the British arrived it extended four leagues in length, or 14 miles..
This expansion encompassed the Mughal creation of both organized and spontaneous open spaces. Kishwar Habib notes that, apart from the deliberate creation of open spaces by the Mughals, 'the notion of urban open spaces (like uthan-mahalla-gali) is attributed to rural spatial layout (composed with baris-mahallas-bazaars.' In Gardens, Parks and Open Spaces in Capital Dhaka: Mughal Period, Dr Farida Nilufar likens the unique character of Mughal Dhaka to 'medieval' European cities in that most open spaces were at the rear, because of their dense layout. She writes: 'The built city itself was limited within two and half miles from the Buriganga. Beyond this limit, the Mughal city had vast garden-like areas (including open public spaces such as Idgahs, etc).'These 'baghs', the Persian word for garden with their suggestion of Irani-Islamic architecture and special canals, were not only a part of residential enclosures such as the Kuttra (Kuttra, in Persian, from which Katra is derived, meaning impressive palatial buildings) surrounded by forts, courts and palaces.
Garden of Living Waters and the Paradise-Garden
The Mughals, inheritors of Persian culture, left behind a trail of what one of the first authors of books on Mughal gardens, Constance-Mary Villiers-Stuart, called 'gardens of living waters from Kabul to New Delhi, Lahore to Fateh Sikri.' Babar, on entering India, single-mindedly tried to create such gardens, attempting the Persian microcosm of a sacred world/paradise in geometric precision, with water as reflection, pulse and fountain. Villiers-Stuart wrote: 'The water … became more and more the central motive, and many new flowering shrubs, fruits, and vegetables were introduced.' In the typical style, 'enclosed baghs or orchards and other horticultural plots were irrigated by narrow runnels flowing from one to the other, with water brought in with great difficulty and extraordinary engineering skill, from the mountains to the dry plain, by underground and surface canals.' Since this was not possible in India and Dhaka the Mughals used channels with shallow falls, in these flat plains. (Shaheer, 2000 cited in Nilufar, 2010).
Foucault placed the Persian garden within his typology of heterotopias, using it as an example of the third principle of heterotopias:
'The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves
incompatible.' According to him, the traditional Persian garden was 'a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm.' These garden-heterotopias contain symbolic numerical –spiritual features were built on the concept of the charbagh, a quadrilateral Persian garden, which was divided by walkways or flowing water into four smaller parts. A famous example is that of the charbagh in the Taj Mahal, where each part has sixteen flowers. Here, however, Mughals may well have discovered that their maps of paradise became redundant. The strict dimensions of paradise met water and a climate that appears to have obeyed necessity. The Mughals are said to have spent a great deal of time finding solutions to immediate problems, including defence and trading complexities. Dr Nilufar writes of the specialized irrigation canals in Dhaka's garden-houses: 'They were formed on raised walkways with the space on either side used for fruit and vegetables, watered by flood irrigation. Raised walks protected visitors from snakes and vermin. These walkways were spread with carpets and protected from the sun by canopies.'
In the words of architect Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, Dhaka is 'an unscheduled Venice.' And she must have been so in those days: a city where the edge between land and water is shifting and has always shifted, wherein water determines not only settlement, but the impermanence of boundaries and emplacements. Moreover, Indian horticulture and spirituality were perhaps not as 'exact' in mirroring the dimensions of paradise/perfection as the Persian prototype. Indian garden-craft preceding the Mughal syncretism had similarities to the Persian, but was also distinct. Villiers-Stuart finds that Indian garden-craft did not adhere to exact representation, as in the geometric precision in the imitation of paradise in Persian architecture and horticulture: the former might invoke the spiritual value of a certain number but only approximate it in reality, adapting according to context.
In East Bengal, according to Muntassir Mamoon (Bangladesh: Bangali psyche, state formation and modernity, 2009), spirituality was deeply embedded in the social fabric, a spirituality accommodating magico-religious notions, including numerical and other symbolism. Yet it was an encompassing spirituality, such as we find in certain mazars or Sufi shrines, where both Hindus and Muslims are sometimes seen wishing or praying, where amorphous symbolism merges with a transformed space. How do the Mughals' paradise-gardens get adapted to such a cultural-geographic space? Does mere sacredness really conceptualize the 'living gardens' that the Mughals intended? If we look at the spiritual inspiration for the Persian garden, we find both the ineffable and the living, connected by the fragrance of other worlds transported in water. Villiers-Stuarts traced the phrase the 'garden of living waters' to the following stanza from The Song of Songs, of Solomon:
'A garden enclosed a garden of living waters,
And flowing streams from Lebanon:
Awake, O North Wind; and come thou South,
Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may
This garden of living waters is also called a 'fountain of gardens,' such as a continual spring, indicating a source that can water many gardens. In fact, the Persian chahar bagh may be a reference to the biblical Eden, according to Patrick Hunt, 'especially after Adam and Eve were driven out and it was guarded by cherubim (Gen 3:23-4)' within a walled space. Earlier legends such as the epic of Gilgamesh also describe such enclosed gardens. According to Hunt, 'which came first or influenced the other … is a matter of debate … The allusion to the four parts may be in its four rivers (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates) that flow therefrom, just like the Persian chahar bagh divided by four water channels.'
Interestingly, the walled Garden of Eden's purpose was to keep humanity and the desert out, while also protecting the plants and providing necessary humidity. This functional purpose of separating those outside the garden and those inside can be found in the Mughal palaces in Dhaka, where the great Audience Halls allowed controlled movement between those from the outside and those from the inner sanctum.
In fact, the geometry of the pardesu, meaning 'enclosed garden' in sixth century BC Akkadia, is associated with Cyrus' 'vision of power.' According to Hunt (2011), 'The Palace of Cyrus the Great (known as the Good Gardener) at Pasargadae was noted for its aqueduct-fed park with gardens and orchards in chahar-bagh parterre design…quoting Stronach: 'He [Cyrus] would want to have an avenue down the length of his garden, what is often called by garden architects as “the vision of power”. Since we had…two large rectangles, if we divided it with the “vision of power” we would get a four-fold garden or Chahar Bagh. In some ways, this is one of those very important Iranian discoveries in design which the world has taken as a model.' Hunt describes the Persian influence as spreading well beyond the Persian empire (7th to 9th centuries AD), to the Mediterranean, through North Africa, Sicily, and Spain: 'Moorish landscape planning incorporated the Persian garden into what would eventually become a European garden design in the medieval epoch as assimilated from contexts in Sicily and elsewhere… In Granada of the Moorish Al-Andaluz, the Alhambra of the Nasrid Dynasty and the Generalife Garden (Jannat al-'Arif, the “Architect's Garden”) also continued the Persian model with four-part harmony of gardens, fountains and reflecting pool.'
What makes such a garden alive? This 'awakening of north and south wind,' this 'blowing such that the spices may flow out'…beyond the geometric symbolism, there is an aspect of fragrance being transported – one can smell water, feel the very breeze where 'spices flow out.' From what reality and imaginary Nazrul wrote, 'Aj lokhho bagher ful hashe,' can only be imagined, yet we do know that Dhaka is full of areas that were once 'baghs.' Apart from the enclosed gardens of Lalbagh Fort and Old Fort, dozens of neighborhoods of Dhaka have 'baghs' in them, ie Shahbagh. The Lalbagh garden, like other gardens in Dhaka, however, did not follow the typical example of the Charbagh. In Dhaka, we find examples of baghs within courtyards and palatial buildings containing geometric designs and fountains, as well as large pleasure-gardens. The most famous is Bagh-e-Badshahi, outside the city. Dr Nilufar writes that these gardens were divided into parts by raised walkways with fountains, and, 'at the intersection of these walkways are octagonal or rectangular pools. The roof of the utility buildings, on the southern edge, accommodated a beautiful roof-garden with arrangements for fountains and a water reservoir.' Thus, we might say that Dhaka had many 'living gardens' that served the purposes of comfort, pleasure and empire; but these were not the perfect 'carpet-garden' microcosms that we find in other parts of India, and in Persia. Nonetheless, they can be considered gardens of 'living waters' in this other light. The 'living garden' cannot be reduced to its symbolic significance, thereby reducing spatial-spirituality codes to its allegorical value; rather, its invocative, allusive qualities may constitute the real parameters of the 'other world' the bagh conjures in space.
Apart from this spiritual-aesthetic dimension, these gardens served the needs of the ruling classes, and changed accordingly.
Dr Nilufar writes of the conversion of several of the baghs of Dhaka into public burial grounds, as well as the conversion of open squares or courtyards into public buildings such as katras or mosques.
Katras were residential enclosures of 'open gardens with wooden and thatched bungalows surrounded by high walls and massive gate-ways…(around which) were cloisters and hutments for staff'(Taifur, 1956, cited in Nilfur). The Boro and Chhoto Katra's history is typical of the transformation of Mughal enclosures in Dhaka. Built on the bank of the Buriganga, these were exclusive areas accessed through gates/gate-houses, but surrounded by open spaces with vegetation, with an introverted arrangement, and structures at four sides. After the Company's acquisition of the diwani in 1765, the quila or fort of Islam Khan Chishti was occupied by English officers and the naib-nazim moved to the Boro Katra palace. The Chhoto Katra was eventually used as caravanserai. Like other courtyards of private palaces which were turned into a square of a public building, these courtyards eventually became public open spaces over time.
There were, of course, several garden-houses of both Mughal rulers and the foreign traders, ie those of Dutch, French, Portuguese and English traders (the latter located away from the 'living city', starting at Mir Jumla gate and beyond the stream of Begunbari canal) (Dani, 1956, in Nilufar, 2010). These garden-houses had most of the components of a Persian garden, including canals, fruits and pavilions. And with time, the actual complexity of these structures has become evident. Until recently, it was believed that Lalbagh was comprised of three principal buildings, but recently 26 structures have been excavated inside the fort area, revealing 'elaborate arrangements for water supply, sewerage, roof gardens, and fountains' (Nilufar). These pleasure-gardens were created for their aesthetic value, but there was also a spatial segregation rationale: the Mughals' high civil officers and landlords created vast garden houses to live at a distance from the indigenous urban core.'
Yet, none of the traces of grandeur and expansion in the then- Jahangirnagar– point to a city where the Mughals attempted the perfection embodied in stone and water that we find in Kabul, New Delhi or Kashmir. Rather, the city is described by Bradley-Birt as 'a vast labyrinth of streets and villages, the camps of armies and all that followed in their terrain' (1975, cited in Nilufar, 2010). Many of the palatial structures adhered to comfort: to the use of wood for cooling, open spaces for public, religious or administrative occasions, and of course, the forts and other structures (ie bridges, roads) for defensive purposes. The creation of encampment gardens within forts followed the logic that it was pleasant to have good army camp sites on the route. The encampment garden of the Old Fort (near present day Chawk Bazaar) was unplanned, unlike similar gardens in north India, and shows an irregular layout of circulation ways with a few ponds inside the enclosure: the space itself contrasted with the rest of the city, with its expanse of open green (formerly surrounded by a marsh that was later filled up). One could argue Dhaka provides the very bed of the garden of living waters, even more so than the other Mughal cities of North India: its canals and rivers could well have captured the imagination. Why did the Mughals not decide to create a Venice of the East here?
Acknowledging this intersection of functionality and Mughal aesthetics, one may well wonder if the Mughal rulers were, rather than guided by the desire to 'emplant' paradise and perfected microcosms of the world, directed by the desire to create a harmonious city, a real city, a city that did not imitate, but breathed. In its golden age as a Mughal city, Dhaka was transformed by culture and its embodiment in architecture and horticulture, in spite of the Mughals' lesser interest in building a 'great' city of gardens. Unfortunately, we have also lost many of the pieces of the puzzle. At present, we can only imagine the full beauty of the 'living city' of Mughal Dhaka, from the distance of eroded brick, stone and time. Mir Jumla's gate, now known as Ramna gate, points to a city whose extensions and connections through open space and greenery are perhaps not fathomable today. Mir Jumla built two roads connecting Dhaka with a network of forts, Tongi-Jamalpur fort on the Turag river and two forts in Fatullah (Old Dhaka)—where the unique Pagla Bridge was also built– and Khirzapur, for defensive reasons (i.e. raids from the infamous Moghs). The Mughals also built wells and 'sarajs', apart from bridges and mosques for strategic and commercial purposes, connecting the city through canals, roads and rivers.
The old Fort eventually became the site of the Mughal rebellions against the British; in a twist of history, Dhaka which once harboured the Bengali rebels of the Mughal empire, having succumbed to the syncretism of a Mughal-Bengali culture, gave way to the British reign. But the British administration never attempted a transformation of Dhaka into a Venice of the East: its plan to link canals was essentially functional and its construction of parks and open expanses, although apparently reminiscent of the British commons, was, according to sources, more a demonstration of cultural superiority through exclusive areas for settlers. The life that formed on the banks of the Buriganga changed course with the British, and one could say, followed a different path. In the 18th century, though Dhaka lost the glory of being the capital of the province, it extended further, particularly to the north, because the European Companies built their factories in that area, ie around Tejgaon. Eventually, of course, solidified British rule helped suffocate the city by changing the capital. Kishwar Habib writes: 'In 1925, the abandoned Bagh-e-Badshahi was rapidly appropriated as a “racecourse” introduced by British colonials as a means to spread (Victorian) elite values, to establish a culturally familiar landscape and also a way of situating in-between indigenous and colonial areas.' The location of the extensive cantonment areas, with barracks, officers' quarters, cricket grounds and parade grounds, changed over time and from unhealthy green areas, became picturesque, and one might say, paradoxically 'open enclosures.'
The one continuity between the Mughal and British period was the importance of the chawk or the bazaar: the Bazaar was the 'epicenter of colonial rule,' linked to the dense urban core, and the focus of trade and civic life. Apart from this, the British left Dhaka with several unique monuments, including the hybrid architecture of British and Mughal styles that we still see today. However, they moved away from the waterfront settlements. The Dhaka Central Jail became an infamous 'heterotopia' of the 'invisible' other place that, along with the court, were the gatekeepers of this other world that were, perhaps, the very microcosm of the prison of colonialism.
A ten-minute ride outside Dhaka shows the aquatic reality of the land-flood plains, wetlands, agricultural fields and canals completely girdle the city. Dhaka experiences nearly eighty inches of rainfall per year; sometimes over five inches of rain will fall in a single day, turning the city into an unscheduled Venice.
– Kazi Khaleed Ashraf
Since the colonial period, Dhaka grew as an organic city, or a city that grows spontaneously according to the aspirations of the inhabitants (Protibesh, 2010). However, today's Dhaka is largely overridden by the aspirations of developers, real estate and as Ebadur Rahman puts in Samdani Book-1, 'a vast and intricate topography of tears and makeshift dreams, and along those fragmentary mental maps of an urban aspirations came the structures in the form of supermarkets, office buildings and private universities, which now jostle for space with residential apartments built excluding the amenities and spatial extensions that usually are a part of them.' Expansion is 'growth' and growth, in modern Dhaka, as architect Ashraf wrote in The Daily Star (A New Dhaka is possible, 2010), is 'pillaging in the name of developing.'
From within the city, it is hard to identify it is a once-waterfront city where people used to travel or move from one place to another through its waterways. Yet, in spite of the scars of colonization and in part due to the building experiments of the Mughals and the British, Dhaka, according to Ashraf, was a liveable city for most of its history: 'Even until the 1950s, with its spacious green spaces, majestic trees, crisscrossing canals, civilized riverbanks, and boats plying in the city, Dhaka promised to be both a garden city and a place by the water.' Today, of the 54 recorded canals, not more than three can be really called 'alive'. Recent canal rehabilitation projects have been stopped, due to regime change. Any new plan to revitalize Dhaka, according to Ashraf, must treat Dhaka as a tropical city and a deltaic place. His vision for a new waterfront city is breathtaking, a dream that seems almost impossible. Here the architect's ecological realism is valuable: 'The most crucial point of start is to realize where Dhaka is. Too few planners, far less city fathers, and even the people of the city recognize that Dhaka is a tender land-mass – virtually an island – framed by three rivers and a fluid landscape… Dhaka cannot forget its genealogy, for that forgetfulness will be reciprocated by calamities and various dreadful environmental effects.' The history of Dhaka suggests its rulers faced both flexibility and limitations in shaping and aligning the city with their wishes, 'emplanting' heterotopias and fashioning spaces of pleasure, comfort, control and release. The only note of warning from Dhaka's history as Mughal experiment and abode of temporary dreamers: Dhaka never succumbed completely, erratically eroding chunks of its past, evading a less than certain future. Nonetheless, even the shadow of such an embodied dream is a dazzling sanctuary from the contracted present.
- Nizamuddin Ahmed, Discover the monuments of Bangladesh: A guide to their history, location and development, UNESCO, 1984.
- Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, A new Dhaka is possible. Forum, Daily Star, 2010.
- Michel Foucault, Of other spaces, heterotopias, 1967.
- Kishwar Habib, Post-colonial public spaces and its cultural diversity: The case of national- cultural representative public places in Dhaka.
- Patrik Hunt, 'Persian paradise gardens: Eden and beyond as Chahar Bagh.' Electrum magazine: Why the past matters. 2011/07.
- Muntassir Mamoon, Bangladesh:Bangali psyche, state formation and modernity, 2009.
- Farida Nilufar, Gardens, parks and open spaces in capital Dhaka: Mughal Period, 2010.
- Constance-Mary Villiers-Stuart, Gardens of the great Mughals. 1913.