Dhaka city

Sadarghat, DhakaDhaka is the capital of Bangladesh. It is both a district and a city. Dhaka district is surrounded by Tangail in the north-west, Gazipur in the north-east, Narayanganj in the east, Munshiganj in the south, and the Buriganga river in the south-west, beyond which lies the district of Faridpur. Dhaka city was once called 'the city of mosques' and lies mainly in the south-west of the district, along the banks of the Buriganga River.

Rickshaw artDhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and it is estimated that greater Dhaka has a population of around 16 million. Dhaka was once renowned for producing the world's finest muslin. Today, it is famous for its rickshaws and the art with which their backs are adorned – it is believed that some 400,000 of them run each day. Modern Dhaka was developed mainly by the British in the nineteenth century; it soon became, along with Calcutta, one of the two largest cities of British Bengal.

Bangladesh Parliament, DhakaAfter the first partition - or division - of British Bengal in 1905, Dhaka became the capital of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. However, this partition was annulled in 1911, and Dhaka lost its status as East Bengal's provincial capital. With the partition of India in 1947, Dhaka became the administrative capital of East Pakistan. Later, after the independence of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, it became the capital of Bangladesh. Dhaka's history has known many tumultuous events; martial law, military coups, famine, and natural calamities; it however remains the most important hub of political, cultural and economic exchanges in Bangladesh.

SadarghatIn the last sixty years, Dhaka's population has risen dramatically. This was partly because of the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from India after the partition of 1947 and because of the migrant workers who came from the less developed regions of Bangladesh in search of job opportunities and the city expanded by almost a million between 1941 and 1951 (from 2.3 to 3.3 million). By 1991, the population had almost doubled to 6.1 million. There are more men than women, as is common in the metropolitan cities of South Asia, and more people in certain seasons than in others. Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of Dhaka's population; it is estimated that Hindus make up just over 6% of the population.

The long-standing inhabitants of the old city are known as 'Dhakaiya' and have a distinctive dialect (a cross between Bengali and Urdu) and culture. The rest of Dhaka's population is composed of peoples from nearly every region of Bangladesh; there are also many expatriates working in executive jobs in different industries. Most people speak Bengali as their first language, some speak Urdu or one of the Pahari languages. Many Bengali dialects and regional languages such as Chittagonian and Sylheti are also spoken as is English, especially for business purposes.

Ahmed Ilias: Bihari migrant from Calcutta

I came to Dhaka as a migrant so I know the sufferings of migrants. Here in Dhaka I passed my school certificate exam and was recruited as a survey trainer for the Pakistani government. This allowed me to travel all over Bangladesh – I stayed six months in the Chittagong Hill tracts, then Rajshahi and Rangpur. But because I was an urban boy from an urban society I decided to give up my training as a surveyor and joined the Dhaka Press Club. I was soon appointed secretary and started to live in Dhaka.

Old Town

A lane in old DhakaThe 'Dhakaiyas' or inhabitants of the old town area of Dhaka are a mixed lot who came with Nawab Salimullah (Indian freedom fighter who advocated the partition of Bengal). They share many customs with both Bengalis and Urdu-speakers. When the fighting between Bengalis and Biharis happened, there are stories of how neighbours in the old town helped each other out. One imam quickly wrote sacred texts on pieces of paper and stuck them on doors belonging to Hindu families so that the Pakistanis wouldn't attack and then sat at entrances to keep the Hindus inside safe. Many Hindus hid their Urdu-speaking friends when the Bengalis came for them.

Today the borders appear pretty fluid. This is because so many of the Urdu-speakers have 'family' with Bengalis. Many Bengalis (rickshawalas, porters, fishmongers, shop-keepers) now live in camps and have intermarried with camp members or have established relations through belonging to the same pir-guru ('holy man'). These Bengalis pick up Urdu and many children are totally bilingual. Many Urdu-speakers work in shops in the old town and as the Urdu-speakers there have a better relation with the Bengalis they often help to arrange land-buying in the suburbs between their Bengali friends and Urdu-speaking workers or colleagues.

INawab Salimullahqbal Ahmed Khan: Bihari proud of being an old town inhabitant

Those who live here are 'Dhakaiyas', whatever their origin.

Many came with Nawab Salimullah. Islampur [an area of Dhaka] belonged to the Nawab, the rest belonged to a Hindu zamindar [landlord]. The nawabs were 'showkin' [loved to dress well] and loved to show-off and drove around in horse-drawn carriages and had many wives and concubines. 'Dhakaiyas' love to think they’re of princely blood, the descendants of nawabi blood.

Abu Md Jehangir: aristocrat from the old town

Abul Hasnat, my grandfather’s brother, was twice vice-chairman of Dhaka Municipality Corporation during British times. There is a road in his name, Abul Hasnat Road, it runs from the jail gate to Bangsal Road.

The famous poet Syed Sharafuddin, popularly called Suba Mian, was a famous Urdu poet of Dhaka. His grandfather worked as the jailer of Dhaka jail under the British. He was given a job because aristocratic families did not take bribes and could not be corrupted or biased by anyone. He was of my father's generation. 'Sharafuddin' means 'the aristocracy of religion' and he was a proud bearer of his name.

Cultural Life

Pohela Boishakh, DhakaDhaka has a vibrant cultural life. Celebrations each year for Language Martyrs' Day (21 February), Independence Day (26 March), Pohela Boisakh or Bengali New Year (14 April) and Victory Day (16 December) are widely fêted by the Dhaka-bashis or 'inhabitants of Dhaka'. Large crowds usually gather at the city's main sites such as the Shahid Minar, Shahbag, Ramna Park, Dhaka University, or the Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho (National Martyrs' Memorial) to commemorate these events with public ceremonies and colourful rallies (especially for Pohela Boishakh when the University students take out a procession of beautiful masks and stages are built where folk singers sing).

The food in Dhaka is unique and restaurants such as Hajir Biriani (Haji's biriani), Fakhruddin Biriani, Mama Halim, Star Kebab, Boishakhi, etc are very popular with the young. Dishes of biriyani, halim, tehari, nihari and shrimp and fish bhortas of all kinds are much sought after. Dhakai bakarkhani is a typical snack made in old Dhaka. It is light and tasty and was very much in demand in the royal courts of the Mughal Empire. For much of recent history, Dhaka has been characterised by roadside shops and carts selling fish, vegetables and fruit. In the last few years there has been widespread construction of shopping malls, multiplexes, and restaurants which attract Dhaka's more wealthy residents.

A concert in DhakaDespite the growing popularity of music groups and rock bands, traditional folk music remains popular. The songs of the national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam and of national anthem composer Rabindranath Tagore have a widespread following. The Baily Road area is known as Natak Para or 'theatre area' and is at the centre of Dhaka's thriving theatrical plays. Indian and Western music and films are popular with large segments of Dhaka's population. This area is also credited for the revival of the Jamdani due to the many local sari stores selling and promoting these locally hand-made age-old traditional Bengali saris. Jamdanis are 100% hand woven and are produced by a cottage industry, which is unfortunately slowly dying out. A single medium range Jamdani sari may take as long as three months to complete!

Bihari Camps

Map of BiharThere are nearly 300,000 Urdu-speakers in Bangladesh, half of whom live in 116 camps all over the country. Most of these camps are concentrated in Dhaka. The history of the Bihari refugees of Bangladesh goes back to the partition of India in 1947. They left their homes after communal violence during and after partition (30,000 Muslims were killed in the 'Great Bihar Killing' in October and November 1947). About a million of them, mostly from the eastern Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, migrated to the eastern wing of Pakistan.

When Pakistan was both East and West (1947-1971), the Urdu-speaking Biharis were only partially integrated into the Bengali society of East Pakistan and remained a distinct cultural-linguistic group. They generally associated and identified themselves with the West Pakistani regime as they shared the same language, Urdu. They also acted as go-betweens for the West Pakistani ruling elite and their Bengali subjects. As a result, the Biharis enjoyed government backing and special treatment in various sectors of the East Pakistan economy.

Nearly 40 years after the independence of Bangladesh, 'Urdu-speakers' (the term Biharis prefer) are slowly being integrated; the younger generations speak Bangla as a first language and easily intermarry with Bengalis. Their kebabs are legendary and Geneva Camp is famous for having the best kebabs in town. Biharis are also thought to be the best tailors.

Noor Islam Pappu: young Geneva Camp resident

Initially, relations between Bengalis and Urdu-speakers were very difficult. There is a big open space or 'park' [math] outside Geneva Camp along Humanyun Road. The Camp children used to play there to while away the long summer evenings to beat the heat caused by recurring power failures in their cramped lodgings. But the Bengali inhabitants living around the park started complaining and asked that a wall be erected around the park to keep out the Camp kids. The Municipal Corporation built the wall and put the entrance to the park on the side furthest from the Camp. This created a lot of ill feeling as the Bengalis started controlling access to the park. The Bengalis are considered 'posh' by the Urdu-speakers and are definitely much richer than the Urdu-speakers living in the camps.

However, it seems that with the coming of the new millennium things have radically changed. The Bengali kids who used to kick out the Camp-dwelling kids from the park now come and play with them. They have also started addressing the Urdu-speakers as 'tumi' instead of the derogatory 'tui' [when used for someone not related or well known to them].

Religious festivals and gatherings

'Eid wishes to all' graffitiThe Muslim festivals of Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha and the Hindu festivals of Durga Puja and Sarawati Puja are popular. The Biswa Ijtema – the largest gathering of Muslims after the hajj – takes place in Tongi along the river Turag on the outskirts of Dhaka every year. Moharram is celebrated by the Shias and the Bihari Muslims in Dhaka. Beautifully decorated 'tazias' (replicas of the tomb of imam Hussain) are created and taken out in processions along some Dhaka streets.

Rana: young paiki joining the festivities of Moharram

The mud brought from the graveyard and placed inside the tazia is supposed to represent the tombs of Hasan and Hussain. Nobody should see it and this is why the Khalifa [who is responsible for the processions] covers it up with a red and a green cloth or paper to represent the tombs of Hasan and Moharram, drummingHussain respectively. Hussain died by the sword [red cover] and Hasan was poisoned [green cover]. The tazias are taken out on the night of the tenth day. A small procession is organised amidst a lot of drum-beating and mock fights with swords and sticks and fire – performances showing off physical prowess and daring. This usually happens in the various camps – just outside the entrances on the main streets and between midnight and 2.00am. During the afternoon of the next day, the tazias are paraded amidst much pomp through the streets from one camp to the next. Thousands of people watch or join in these processions during which there is the usual drum-beating, swordplay, fire-eating, etc. We have a lot of fun.

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