MANY DHAKAS

READINGS

DHAKA UNCONCEALED

Dhaka is the last major urban stop on the great Gangetic stream as it cascades into the sea. Situated in the deltaic plain of Bengal, amidst a maze of rivers and canals, Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, with a 1999 population of 9.4 million, is one of the densest cities of the world.

The literal meaning of the name Dhaka is "concealed." The enigmatic name might have originated from the dhak trees that are presumed to have been common in the area, or from the name of the 16th-century Dhakeswari Temple. Dhaka has gone through waves of growth and decay, from sporadic settlements datable to 10th-century A.D., to a Mughal provincial capital in the 17th-century, to deteriorated condition in the 18th-century followed by its consolidation as a thriving city in the late 19th-century. Dhaka's commercially strategic location in the riverine network of Bengal made it the prime city in a region once famous for the fabled fabric muslin, later for the world's largest jute production, and now as the political, educational, commercial, and industrial epicenter of Bangladesh.

Located on the northern banks of the river Buriganga, Dhaka is virtually an island framed by rivers and a watery landscape. Dhaka has grown largely towards the north, because it is delimited in other directions by areas that are mostly fertile agricultural land subject to flooding. While most of Dhaka city is still perched on higher elevations, recent dynamic population increases have driven people to build and settle in the precarious, flood-prone, low-lying areas.

Dhaka has played a substantial role in the history of the Indian subcontinent, even if it is not recounted vividly in subcontinent's modern urban imagination. Historically, Dhaka has projected a paradoxical political orientation: it was the base of a Muslim ideology that led to the formation of Pakistan, yet home to a Bengali nationalism that led to the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of independent Bangladesh.

Since the 19th century, Dhaka and Calcutta have played out a sort of tale of two cities in the history and psyche of modern Bengal, the course of which has greatly affected sub-continental events. Since the presence of the English in Bengal, Dhaka came to be seen, and in some ways projected itself, as the bearer of a Muslim culture, while Calcutta established itself with some British encouragement, as a city dominated by a Hindu elite. The short-lived partition of Bengal into two provinces in 1905, which established Dhaka as the capital of East Bengal, triggered a nationalist uprising that largely incubated the broader Indian independence movement. It was in Dhaka that the Muslim League first took root as a political party in 1906. Under the leadership of the Bombay-based legislator Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the party would eventually argue for the creation of a separate subcontinental state for Muslims. That political program was realized in the partitioning of India and the formation of Pakistan following British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Pakistan originally comprised two entities that were neither territorially nor culturally contiguous. Dhaka became the provincial capital of East Pakistan, which was separated from the federal power center of West Pakistan by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. The argument for a Capital Complex in Dhaka came up as a result of this bizarre arrangement when the Pakistani central government decided to shuttle parliamentary business between the federal capital in Islamabad in West Pakistan (designed as a brand new city by the Greek architect-planner Constantin Doxiadis) and Dhaka (where a "Second Capital" would be built according to the design of American architect Louis I. Kahn). In the 1950s and 1960s, increasing political and cultural friction between East and West Pakistan gave birth to a secularist Bengali nationalist movement in the East, and later erupted in the nine-month long Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, which established an independent Bangladesh with Dhaka as its capital.

Street scene in old Dhaka City of rickshaws

Boat race on the Buriganga