Before the Moghuls Dhaka was a small town with “fifty two bazaars and fifty three lanes”, and also a few market centres. During the Afghan period, which ended with the Moghul conquest, though Dhaka was not their capital a fort was built, which subsequently became the place of the Moghul administration, and currently the site of the Dhaka Central Jail.
Before Dhaka became a capital city its trading position seems to have benefited from the nearby capital city of the independent sultanates, Sonargao. Although Bengal was ruled by Turks and Afghan Muslims for a very long time, the Dhaka City Hindu community had a continuous and strong presence amongst within the manufacturing and trade classes. This can be seen from the names of some localities within Old Dhaka which has Hindu origins. Laksmibazar, Sutrapur (carpenters area), Jaluanagar (fisherman), Banianagar (gold and silver trading area), Goalnagar (milkman), Tantibazar (weavers market), Shankharibazar (shell workers locality), Kamarnagar (blacksmith), Patuatuli (painters of textiles), Kumartuli (potters area) relate top rofessions undertaken by the local Hindus.
Moghul Phase (1608-1717)
The Afghan era which began with the march of Sher Khan in 1538 into Gaud, situated in north of today’s West Bengal, started to end with the defeat of Daud Karrani, the last Afghan sultan, at the hands of the Moghuls in 1575 in Midnapore. The defeat of the Afghan rulers did not mean that power was transferred smoothly to the Moghuls. Within Bengal, especially on the eastern side great amount of insecurity developed and the dispersed Afghans opposed to the new Moghul rule started to organize and resist them. During the same time eastern Bengal was also at the mercy of Arakanese and Portuguese pirates and free booters, and their raids into Bengal created chaos and panic. In order to bring security to the eastern front of the Moghul possession, Emperor Jahangir appointed Alauddin Islam Khan Chisti as the Subahdar (viceroy) of Bengal and instructed him to crush all resistance.
It was also during this time that a strategic decision was taken to establis Dhaka as the capital city of the Subah Bangla. Dhaka was a strategic place and had well placed waterways around to make it a very suitable place to mount water based campaigns and provide better protection for the Moghul province. Islam Khan Chisti marched towards Dhaka stopping, very briefly in Rajmahal in eastern Bihar in India, and reached Dhaka on 1610. Dhaka’s position as the capital of Bengal lasted for more than one hundred years before the capital was shifted by Murshid Quli in 1717 to Murshidabad, with a short interval during 1639 and 1659, when it was briefly shifted to Rajmahal again by Prince Shuja.
The Golden Era
The Moghul rule was the golden era for Dhaka, during which the city and its population expanded dramatically. The scale of this can be seen by considering that the population of Dhaka stood at 30,000 in 1610 and within just one hundred years it rose to 900,000 by 1700. The city also extended in all directions. Under the Moghuls Bengal’s economic prosperity became so great that it had attracted many nations to establish their trading houses and factories in Dhaka. Tejgao was a place where many Europeans preferred to establish factories. Many fine buildings were erected, some of which have now become extinct. From the paintings by Charles Doyle (above), in 1806, it can be clearly seen that many parts of Dhaka City were in a state of degeneration and with decaying buildings and ruins, including bridges, which demonstrate the City’s glorious past. His paintings include the ruins of Tongi Bridge and numerous buildings. According to D Oyly, when Dhaka
was the seat of government and in its greatest splendour, its limit including the suburbs, appear to have extended from the Booriganga South, to Tungi Bridge north, a distance of fifteen miles or whereabouts; and from Jafferabad west, to postagola east, as distance of about ten miles.”
A Portuguese visitor, Sebastian Manrique, in 1640, reported that
“This is the chief city of Bengala, and the seat of the principle Nababoo or Viceroy, appointed by the Emperor, who bestowed this viceroyalty, on several occasions, on one of his sons. For, this city is today, as I said, the chief city, and as such, the metropolis of those in Bengal. It stands in a wide and beautiful plan on the banks of the famous and fructifying Ganges (Buriganga) river, beside which the city stretches for over a league and a half. The well-known suburbs of Manazor (Maneswar) at one end of Narindin (Narinda) and Fulgari (Phulbaria) at the other serve to round of the city uitably. These suburbs are Christian settlements, in which my Sacred Order possesses a picturesque though small Monastery with a good church. Here the celebration of Divine worship of in the midst of this vast paganism lso teaches it the real road to salvation.”
Lalbagh Fort (above) constructed during the end of the 17th Century Lalbagh Fort Mosque (above)
The mausoleum, called Bibi Pari Mazar, was constructed by Shaista Khan, the Moghul Subahdar of Bengal in memory of his daugher, Pari Bibi, who died suddenly in 1684 at the age of thirteen The interior of the dome of Pari Bibi Mazar (mausoleum) (below). The domed roof of the mausoleum is based on a unique synthesis of Hindu interior and Muslim exterior designs Lalbagh Fort Museum (fourth from the top)
A Portuguese visitor, Sebastian Manrique, in 1640,reported that
“So extensive is the trade that over one hundred vessels are yearly loaded up in the ports of Bengla with only rice, sugar, fats, oils, wax and other similar articles. Most of the rich cloth is made of cotton and manufactured with a delicacy and propriety not met with elsewhere. The finest and the richest muslins are produced in this country from fifty to sixty yards long and seven to eight hand-breadths wide, with broaders of gold and silver or coloured silks. So fine, indeed are these muslins that merchants place them in hollow bambus, about two spans long, and thus secured, carry them throughout Corazane (Khorasan), Persian, Turkey and many other countries.”
The Battle of Plessey and the British Conquest of Bengal:
The First Phase (1757-1858)
In 1706, the Subahder, Prince Azimush-Shan left Dhaka and operated from Murshidabad, and the capital was officially transferred in 1717. This action caused a certain degree of decline to the city but the total decline waited the takeover of Bengal by the British in 1757.
There were a number of reasons for the decline. First, Kolkata (Calcutta) was established as the capital of British India, which means that naturally more attention went there and many people who had previously settled in Dhaka moved to the new capital. Second, a lack of government attention to the city meant that fewer resources were invested and the declining purchasing power of the residents led to further decline in goods and services being provided. Third, the British East India Company monopolized trade which led to a loss of the wider trading links that existed previously. Fourth, the British began to remodel the system to suit their own interest and purposes, which disrupted the old system and eventually caused its collapse.
The figures (below) illustrate the devastating impact on the Dhaka Muslin trade as a result of the British conquest of Bengal.
Buyers 1747 (value in Arcot Rs) 1797 (value in Arcot Rs)
The Emperor of Delhi 10,000,000 –
The Nawab of Murshidabad 30,000,000 –
Jagath Seth at Murshidabad 15,000,000 –
Turani Merchants for sale
in North West India 10,000,000 –
Pathan Merchants 10,000,000 –
Armenians for Basra, Mocha
and Jidda Markets 50,000,000 –
Mughal merchants for external
and internal markets 40,000,000 –
Hindu merchants for home market 20,000,000 63,702,500
English Company for Europe 35,000,000 50,738,800 Individual (English)
merchants for exports 20,000,000 25,713,600
French company for Europe 25,000,000 –
French individuals 50,0000 –
Dutch company 10,000,000 –
Total 285,000,000 140,154,500
The decline of Dhaka City continued for about one century before the British authorities started to take an interest on the future of the place again. During the 1840s a number of small steps were taken to improve the conditions of the City but it was not until after the Mutiny in 1857 and the take over of the rule of India by the British Crown from East India Company that a more sustained and systematic process was initiated. In 1864 the first municipal for Dhaka City was created although not an elected body before 1884.
The First Bengal Partition (1905-1911)
The major transformation of Dhaka City, however, began with the first partition of Bengal in 1905 when it was made into a capital city again after nearly two hundred years. A number of new buildings designed to accommodate the government of the new province of East Bengal and Assam were planned and constructed.
The most famous build of the period is the Curzon Hall (above), originally designed to be the Town Hall, but now part of the science department of Dhaka University. The decision to make Dhaka City a capital again and the steps taken by the authorities to that effect generated a great deal of confidence among the Muslim majority population of East Bengal who considered that their fortunes would now change positively after many years of neglect. However, in contrast, the majority of the Hindu community of Dhaka City and throughout Bengal thought that the partition was not a good idea and felt they would become a disadvantaged minority community. As such they waged a violent struggle against the partition, which covered most of Bengal. This lead to a change in the British government’s decision, and the partition was officially annulled six years later in 1911.
Although the Hindus were happy at the annulment of the Bengal partition the Muslims felt betrayed. In order to respond to the potentially damaging and alienating impact of the annulment decision the British decided to award East Bengal with an university, which they thought would be considered positively by the Muslim community. The opening of an university in East Bengal would allow a better chance for the neglected community to gain higher education and thereby improve their chances of a better life.
The creation of Dhaka University in 1921 was a milestone for the development of Dhaka City. The other milestones were the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when Dhaka became a provincial capital again after losing that position in 1911; and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, when Dhaka City became, for the first time, the capital of a sovereign and independent country.
A decaying early 20th Century residential building in old Dhaka (above), situated near Buriganga river frontage. There are many such and even older buildings scattered around old Dhaka
Curzon Hall (below), originally designed to be the Town Hall, but now part of the science department of Dhaka University.
Memorial to victims of Sepoy Revolt, 1857, situated in Bahadur Shah Park, known as Victoria Park, in the old part of Dhaka City. The place was chosen for the memorial as, during the Sepoy revolt of 1857, the British authorities hanged a number of mutineers including a woman
Northbrook Hall or Lalkuthi (above), is situated on the bank of the buriganga river, originally built as a Town Hall and named after Lord Northbrook, Viceroy of India (1872-1876). Later, it was converted into a public library to which a clubhouse was added and called Johnson Hall.
Ahsan Manzil (above) is situated on the northern bank of river Buriganga, originally built in 1872 by Nawab Abdul Ghani. Currently, it is a museum and attracts a large number of visitors. Visiting the museum is a must for those who are interested in finding out about how the Dhaka Nawabs lived and conducted their affairs.
Mitford Hospital (below) was established in 1858, and named after Sir Robert Mitford. He was both a collector of Dhaka and also served as a judge for a long time at the Provincial Court of Appeal. While serving in Dhaka City he witnessed a cholera epidemic that caused, at its height, the death of 150 to 200 persons daily. As he was clearly distressed at the inadequacy of medical facilities to deal with he epidemic he bequeathed, before he died in 1936, the bulk of his property (about Rs 800,000) to the government of Bengal for benevolent works in Dhaka including building of a hospital. This was the first institution where education on western medicine was imparted in Eastern Bengal.