A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka

Dhaka, a 400-years-old behemoth of a city. Imagine for a moment that you are in 17th century Mughal Dhaka. You are standing in the middle of a bazaar in the Grand Area. People are shouting, talking to one other, switching between languages in their usual loud tone. Persian merchants, on their way to the port of Calcutta, are stopping by to trade fine Muslin for the Shah’s gold. Do you smell the fresh spices? Amid the ruckus of crowd and noise, a mellow and soothing sound of sitar is coming from somewhere. You can hear the prayer chants and bells of a temple somewhere far away. Only to be overtaken with the sound of Azaan as the dusk begins to fall.

It was sometime in these buzzing, lazy days of the 17th-18th century when Dhaka saw the arrival of a prominent community of Armenians in this part of the world. Almost 400 years later, only a small locality name, Armanitola and one magnificently breathtaking church built by them, bear the testimony of their existence. This is the story of the forgotten Armenians of Dhaka.

The arrival of the Armenians in Dhaka

Courtesy: The Armenian Church of Bangladesh Website

We cannot find an exact record of exactly when the Armenians had arrived in Dhaka. But it is widely believed that they arrived some time in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Following the invasion of Armenia by the Persian Safavid rulers in the 17th century, a significant number of Armenians came to Bengal to establish a community and engage in trade and commerce. Armenians, who were fluent in Persian and veteran businessmen, had no trouble finding their niche in the Persian speaking Mughal court. They quickly established themselves as prominent traders in Bengal.

The rise to prominence

The Armenians settled largely in an Armenian colony in the preset day Aramanitola. In an extremely short span of time, the Armenians became unmatched in the trade of textile, opium and leather, beating their European counterparts in the game.

Thanks to them, Dhaka started to become even richer as one of the most important trade hubs in the east.

The Armenians, thanks to their specific skill sets of trade and commerce, quickly established themselves as the elite class in the city. Integrating themselves with the locals, many of them became local zamindars and landlords. They built picturesque mansions, houses and bungalows that adorned the city of Dhaka. The now ruined Ruplal House was such an establishment which was originally built by an Armenian landlord, Aratoon. It later went on to become one of the most prominent landmarks of colonial Dhaka alongside Ahsan Manzil. Parts of Shahbagh and the land where Bangabhaba stands also used to belong to Armenian zaminders.

Read more: 6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Contributions to the development of Dhaka

Dhaka City across Buriganga River – a painting by Frederick William Alexander de Fabeck in 1861

The Armenian community played a significant role in the development of Dhaka. Although the use of horse-carriages is mostly associated with Nawabs of Dhaka, it was the Armenians who fist introduced these horse-carriages which became a popular mode of transportation in the city later on. The Armenians were also the first to introduce departmental stores in Dhaka. Nicholas Pogose, a prominent wealthy Armenian of that time, had established the Pogose school. It was one of the first three English schools in Dhaka. He was also the founding member of Dhaka Municipality in 1864.

The Armenian Church

A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka 2

In 1781, the Armenian community built a church adjacent to a community burial ground. This is the Armenian church that we know today. The sole testament to a once thriving and flourishing diaspora in the heart of Dhaka.

Just like their arrival, there are no records of their sudden disappearance either. The community slowly extracted themselves after the partition in 1947. The burial ground inside the Armenian church contains bodies of Armenian settlers and their subsequent generations who are just as much Dhakaites as the rest of us today. They came here, settled here, grew families and businesses here. They flourished this city. Here’s to hoping this city does not forget them.

The story of how Bengalis owe Pohela Boishakh to Mughal emperor Akbar

It’s that time of the year again. Pohela Boishakh is tomorrow. As usual the country will welcome the Bengali new year 1426 with music, parades and day-long celebrations.

Even though every year we engage in the celebration of a day that is unique to our own heritage, we seem to have forgotten where it all started. In fact, we owe our very own holiday to the Mughal emperor Akbar.

Here’s how emperor Akbar invented the modern Bengali calendar.

A new religion?

Source: Creative Commons

During his tenure, Mughal emperor Akbar had set up one of the most powerful empires in the world. The seed of aspiration that emperor Babur had sowed when he first came to Hindustan had bloomed into a strong rooted tree by Akbar’s time.

With his empire and his hold over Hindustan secure, Akbar shifted his priorities to a more intellectual side of things.

His interest in religions and theology eventually prompted him to come up with his own new religion. It had elements of both Islam and Hinduism. Amartya Sen believes that a new lunisolar calendar was a part of his plan to float this new religion.

Taxation: The higher motive

But a different group of historians, perhaps more authentic accounts, suggest that Akbar had a higher motive than religion; taxes. Since the mughal empire followed the Islamic lunar calendar, it often posed a conflict with the common subjects as the lunar calendar was not in sync with the on and off seasons for cultivation in India. For the ease of his taxmen, Akbar ordered his astrologists to take the Islamic lunar calendar and prevalent solar calendar in India, combine them, and come up with a new lunisolar calendar.

Tarikh-e-Ilahi

This new calendar, known as Tarikh-e-Ilahi, was introduced all over India. But just like Akbar’s newly introduced religion, Din-e-Ilahi, this too didn’t last after his reign. Except for Bengal. In Bengal, this new calendar became an integral and useful part of daily Agriculture and the local Hindu religion.

The calendar that was invented by Akbar and introduced all over India has now become the sole identity of the Bengali nation and culture. This Pohela Boishakh, let’s take some time to remember the emperor who gifted us an integral part of our national identity. Literally. Shubho Noboborsho.

6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Dhaka might be the second worst city in the world to live in, but it once had a glorious history. This four hundred-year-old city once boasted beautiful Nawab palaces, lush gardens, Mughal mosques, ancient temples and more. Dhaka, during the Mughal and British eras, was a prime example of urban settlement of the respective periods. Communities and diasporas like the Armenians, English, Portuguese and of course the native Bengalis, all settled here and made their own share of contributions to the growth of a great city.

The modern 21st century Dhaka has lost much of its old charm. But there are still places and landmarks in Dhaka that will take one back to the old glory days. Many of these places are now in near ruin due to mismanagement and a lack of interest in preserving their appearance. But if you’re looking for something off the usual path, these are the places to head to if you want a reminder of what Dhaka used to be and, perhaps, still can be.

Here are six such places for the history aficionados who want to reminisce about the golden days of Dhaka.

Bahadur Shah Park

Bahadur Park dhaka travel bangladesh heritage

Bahadur Shah Park, formerly known as Victoria Park, is located in Old Dhaka near the Sadarghat area. In the late nineteenth century, the park used to be the city centre of Dhaka with several important colonial establishments built around it. It was the main node of the road network of urban Dhaka back then. This is the site where the British performed public execution of the soldiers who took part in the failed Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

It was also the site from where the accession of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India was announced amidst much fanfare in 1858. Hence the name Victoria Park. It remained Victoria Park until 1947, after which it was renamed Bahadur Shah Park as part of the decolonizing that followed the Partition.

The park houses a memorial built by Nawab Khwaja, dedicated to the soldiers executed in 1857. It also has Dhaka’s only obelisk, erected in memory of the Nawab’s late son.

Bara Katra

Bara Katra old dhaka bangladesh travel heritage

Bara Katra is one of the oldest surviving Mughal palatial buildings in Dhaka. Built between 1644 and 1646 CE, it was built to be the official residence of Prince Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shah Jahan. The prince later endowed it to his diwan.

Bara Katra boasted a magnificent Mughal architectural style and used to be one of the finest Mughal buildings during the time of its construction. In the 19th century, James Atkinson described it as a “stupendous pile of grand and beautiful architecture”.

Located near the Chawkbazar area of Old Dhaka and close to the Buriganga river banks, much of its grandeur is now lost due to the negligence of the authorities tasked with its preservation.

Armenian Church

Armenian Church Dhaka Bangladesh Travel Heritage

This magnificent church in Armanitola of Old Dhaka is a significant architectural monument. It bears testimony to the existence of the Armenian diaspora in the Bengal region in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following the invasion of Armenia by the Persians in the 17th century, a significant number of Armenians were sent to Bengal for establishing an Armenian community overseas in the interests of self-preservation. The Armenians played a major role in the political and economic scene of Bengal back in the time. They were mostly traders and businessmen dealing in jute and leather, operating out of the Armenian district, which now bears the name of Armanitola.

In 1781, they built a church adjacent to an Armenian burial ground. After several years, a massive clock-tower was erected in the church. The bells of the clock tower could be heard from four miles away and people used to synchronize their watches according to it. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897.

In 1996, Mother Teresa stayed in the church compound during her visit to Dhaka. The Bangladesh Archeological Board recently recognized it as a heritage site, and personal efforts by an Argentinian of Armenian descent is looking to preserve the history of the Armenian diaspora in Bangladesh.

The Dhaka Gate

Dhaka gate travel heritage

Dhaka Gate, also known as the Mir Jumla gate, is located at what is now the Dhaka University Campus. It can be seen on the two sides of the road that leads to TSC from Doyel Chattor. The Dhaka Gate was originally built by Mir Jumla II during the reign of Aurangzeb, as a gateway to enter Dhaka from the North East side.

The Dhaka Gate marked the official entry to the capital city. Adjacent to it was the Bagh e Badshahi, the royal garden of the Mughals that added to the beautification of Dhaka. The site of the garden is now known as Suhrawardi Uddyan.

The Dhaka Gate was later damaged in an earthquake. Magistrate Charles Dawson re-erected it in 1825 in a mixture of Mughal-European architectural style.

Today, the Dhaka Gate lies in neglect but still bears the signs of its glory days.

Rose Garden Palace

Rose Garden Palace Dhaka Bangladesh Travel Heritage

The Rose Garden Palace is an elegant 19th-century mansion in K.M. Das Lane of Tikatuly, Old Dhaka. Zaminder Hrikesh Das built it as a Jolshaghor in the late 19th Century. Statues and fountains adorn the large garden in front of the main building. The main balcony of the building served as a viewing platform for the performances that were held in the garden.

At that time Jolshas, or lavish parties with music and dancers, were an important aspect of the social life of rich Hindu merchants and landlords. In 1936, Hrikesh Das declared bankruptcy due to his extravagant lifestyle and sold it to a wealthy Muslim businessman.

It was at this palace that the Awami League, the political party closely associated with the Bengali independence movement in 1971, was born when East Bengali liberal and social democrats converged here to form an alternative political force against the Muslim League in Pakistan.

Ruplal House

Ruplal House Dhaka Travel Bangladesh

The Ruplal House in Farashganj of Old Dhaka is a mansion built in the late 19th century by Armenian landlord Aratun. The Ruplal brothers bought it in 1835 and hired Martin and Co. of Calcutta for the renovation work. Ruplal House and Ahsan Manzil, which is nearby, used to be the architectural jewels of Dhaka back in the day. The area served as the residence for the rich merchant class and top-level British officers. Ruplal House hosted a significant portion of the cultural activity of the time. Gurus of Indian classical music like Ustad Alauddin Khan, Ustad Wali Ullah Khan and Lakshmi Devi regularly hosted shows here. Ruplal House was also politically important at times.

The Ruplal House was expensive to build on site. The structure features an Indo-Greek architectural style, massive blocs, porticos, tinted glasses, ballrooms and banquet halls. There used to be a clock tower at the top, which was damaged by an earthquake. The fall of Ruplal House began after the Ruplal family left during the Partition in 1947. Now the Ruplal House is jointly owned by several private and commercial owners and is in a state of disrepair.