Dhaka: through the ages
by Farida Nilufar
The city of Dhaka has arisen more or less spontaneously over four hundred years. In history, the evolution of Dhaka as a town goes back to the 16th century. With the passage of time the entire city grew in a natural way, although it has some parts which have been deliberately created in the recent past by the designers, albeit in a fragmented way. Its different phases have developed and structured at different historical stages based, on the vigour of that particular period of development. Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, has grown from a small Hindu trading centre to a metropolis. Its antiquity can be traced back to 7th century A.D.; however, Dhaka rose to prominence only after it became the capital of Bengal1 during the Mughal rule under the Muslims in 1610 A.D. For a long period of its growth Dhaka was confined within the medieval Mughal core. An early impetus in the growth of a 'new town' outside the historic city, however, started in around 1764.
In spite of that, only after 1906, on the declaration of Dhaka as the capital of the province of East Bengal and Assam, a spectacular development of the city has been manifested in the Ramna green belt outside the historic core in the newer part of Dhaka. Historian Bradely-Birt noted that "a modern city has begun to rise". [Bradely-Birt, 1975: 261] This drift of development was impeded several times due to different political and economic reasons. However, after the independence of Bangladesh new Dhaka has experienced a phenomenal growth.
Above the levels of technology and economic condition of the population, the patterns of areal expansion and the urban form of Dhaka have been dominated largely by the physical configuration of the landscape in and around the city, particularly the river system and the height of land in relation to flood level. [Islam, 1996: 191] The shifting pattern of land use distribution, mainly that of commercial activities, in Dhaka seems not to follow the categories commonly used by the literature of city planning and urbanization for western cities and even specifically for south-east Asian cities. [Mollah, 1976: 39] Although it is claimed that the generalized functional growth pattern of Dhaka is concentric around the business districts [Chowdhury, 1981: 15], the character of – 'Concentric Zones' seems not to be applicable here because the phenomena they describe assume consistency and continuity of a feature, whereas Dhaka is characterized by discontinuities of factors and multiplicity of sectors and circuits. Indeed, historians assert that the fundamental source of the life of Dhaka had been determined by political considerations as these have unfolded over time. [Ahsan, 1991: 397] In fact, Dhaka faced six major phases of socio-economic and political changes during it's evolution. The following part of discussion seeks to understand the morphological changes of the urban core of spatial structure of Dhaka since historical time.
The brief historical overview has been highlighted. The fact is that as Dhaka has grown in size, scale and extent, and the distribution of urban functions has evolved and changed according to the dictates of political and commercial considerations. However, it is not clear whether these changes were arbitrary, or whether there was any logic to the pattern of relocation.
Pre-Mughal Hindu Core of Dhaka [before 1608]:
Dhaka was a small Hindu trading centre in Pre-Mughal time. As revealed from cartographic evidences the area lying to the east, north-east and south-east of Babur Bazaar going up to the Dholai River on the northern bank of the Buriganga seems to face the old town. It is now thought that Dhaka was confined between the Dholai Canal [on the north east boundary of the city] and the Buriganga River from its inception until 1608, which ushered in the Mughal period. The oldest city consisted of a few market centres like Lakshmi Bazaar, Bangla Bazaar, Shankhari Bazaar, Tanti Bazaar etc, along with a few localities of craftsman and businessmen like Patua-toli, Kumartoli etc. [Dani, 1956: 7] The centre is thought to have been near the Bangla Bazaar. According to Dani, the main business area was in Sadar Ghat and Victoria Park, which had extended upto Nawabpur Road in later part of 15th century [Ahsan, 1991:397- 398].
Mughal Dhaka [1608- 1764]:
Dhaka rose to prominence only after it became the capital of Bengal during the Mughal rule in 1610 AD. [Bhattacharya, 1935: 36-63] The then ‘New Dhaka’ was inaugurated by Islam Khan with the establishment of Lalbagh Fort in 1679, Chandnighat and the Chawk [the market place beside the old fort, at present Central Jail]; and it continued to grow under the subsequent Mughal Subaders until 1717. [Dani, 1956: 31] According to Manrique, a visitor to the city, in 1640 the city stretched for 4.5 miles along the Buriganga river with a population of about 200 thousand [excluding the Europeans and the visitors] [Taifoor, 1956: 15] which rose to 9,00,000 in 1700.
During this period, the needs of administration and defence coupled with flourishing commercial activities led to Dhaka’s growth, and from a suburban town Dhaka became a metropolis. [Khan & Atiquallah, 1965: 2-6] Bradley-Birt described as "away beyond for fourteen miles, the city stretched as far as Tongi, a vast labyrinth of streets and villages, the camps of armies and all that followed in their terrain" [Bradley-Birt, 1975: 159]. However, the Mughal ruins identified the extension of the Mughal city mainly to the west of the Fort and following the river bank. The expansion occurred with the 'Old Fort' in the centre. In this growth of Mughal Dhaka the general characteristics of a Mughal city are noticeable. The Fort served as the nerve centre of the city, and the adjacent market places and the surrounding mohallas growing out of the residential needs follow the well established pattern with winding roads. The areas to the south and southwest of the Fort up to the river bank grew mainly as commercial areas and the areas to the north and north- east grew as residential areas. [Chowdhury & Faruqui, 1991: 48] The Chawk with the mosque was the main market place of Mughal Dhaka and the river front was transformed into the main commercial area.
Dhaka in the Pre-Colonial Period- Rule of the East India Company [1764-1857]:
With the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1707 Dhaka faced a serious decline in economy, population and administrative importance which caused the subsequent contraction of the urban area. An English trading company attained political domination and took over the control of Dhaka city in 1764. Most of the commercial activities which survived were carried out in the enclosure of Chawk [Ahsan, 1991: 401]; the old fort and its surroundings remained the heart of the city where all the central and provincial offices were also located. [Ahmed, 1986: 130-143] In 1800 the population of Dhaka declined to 200 thousands, like that of 160 years back. According to Rennell the city was four miles long and two and half miles wide in 1793 which reduced to three miles in length and one and half mile in width in 1814. [Mamun, 1990: 49] In 1859, Rennell prepared a map of Dhaka city as extending from Narayanganj to Iron Bridge and from the Buriganga river to Nimtali Kothi [present Asiatic Society]. In this map the jungles indicate a decline in population and a subsequent contraction of urban area. In fact the decline in economy, population and administrative importance brought about shrinkage in the area of Dhaka city.
British Colonization of Dhaka [1858-1947]:
The old Mughal town did not expand with British rule, but it underwent a vast physical renewal following no definite plan. This transformed the medieval Dhaka into a modern city with metalled roads, open spaces, street lights and piped water supply. [Ahmed, 1986:130-143] The State Railway was opened in 1885-86 and the rail line was laid through the city to connect it with areas outside Dhaka. The British crown shifted the administrative centre from the old fort area, and new buildings were constructed on a new site near Victoria Park, on the present site of the Court House. [Ahmed, 1986: 141] From Mughal time the Chawk Bazaar had been the main centre of the city's trade and commerce in Dhaka, and it remained so after 1859. The business areas during this period extended towards the north by way of the Nawabpur Road into Ramna to serve the British bureaucrats who lived in the new town. [Ahsan, 1991: 402] In 1905, in the middle stage of the British era, Bengal was divided and Dhaka was chosen as the capital of the eastern part. [Islam, 1991: 197] Another significant incidence to the city of Dhaka was the foundation of Dhaka University in the vicinity of Ramna in 1921. Early records of the East India Company  describe the city boundary as: Buriganga in south, Tongi in the north, Mirpur in the west and Postogola in the east. [Karim, 1964: 37] Although it was the overall limit of the city by the end of the 18th century, the area lying to the north of Mir Jumla's gate [near Ramna] was very sparsely populated. According to Rennell, the population decline which started from 1764 reached its lowest ebb in 1867 when the population reduced to 51,636. After 1872 the population recorded a continuous growth.
Dhaka as the Capital of Pakistan [1947-1971]:
In 1947, the British Colony achieved its independence after two hundred years of colonization and Dhaka attained the status of the provincial capital of the East Pakistan. Unlike many colonial cities in India, the colonial influence on Dhaka could not be claimed as substantial. The overall expansion of the city began from 1947. [Huq, 1991: 428] Administrative, commercial and residential needs caused an influx of people and it resulted in a massive growth of the city. The city expanded mainly towards the north. Dhanmondi area, as previously adorned with paddy fields, lying towards the north-west fringe of Dhaka turned into a residential area after 1955. The Mirpur Road formed an axis and high lands on either side were occupied up to Mohammadpur and Mirpur. The high land available in north-east and north-west of Ramna within different pockets between the previously developed areas like Purana Paltan to Naya Paltan, Eskaton to Mogbazaar, Siddheswari and Kakrail to Kamlapur through Razarbagh and Santinager, Segun Bagicha - all came to be occupied mostly by residential use. All these happened without any formal planning. Then the government founded Dacca Improvement Trust [DIT] in 1956 and started planning in a piecemeal manner: industrial district in Tejgaon, New Market in Azimpur, staff housing in Motijheel, high class residential area in Dhanmondi. However, at this stage there was no plan for the future growth. In the meantime Dhaka was becoming more and more unmanageable. So a Master Plan was eventually prepared by consultants in 1959 on behalf of DIT.10 The DIT developed Gulshan model town in 1961, Banani in 1964, Uttara in 1965 and Baridhara in 1972 [though first conceived in 1962]. In the mid 60's the Railway line was shifted, the track was turned eastward as necessitated by the developmental thrusts. The railway track was transformed into a wide road connecting the new extension and the Mughal Dhaka. The Secretariat of the province, East Pakistan, was set up in the old Eden Girl's College at the end of the Abdul Ghani Road. [Ahsan, 1991: 412] In the 1960's, the administrative centre was well developed on the eastern side of Ramna area and around Gulistan. The modern core of the central business district [CBD] was located in the Motijheel-Gulistan area. However, the Chawk, Patuatoli, and Shadar Ghat remained the traditional business centre. [Ahsan, 1991: 404] [Fig. 5]
Dhaka as the Capital of Bangladesh [1971-2010]:
The country was made independent in 1971, and Dhaka became the capital of an independent Bangladesh. 'The growth of Dhaka city in the 50’s could very well be termed as slow and gradual, in the 60’s the pace picked up and in the period after the emergence of Bangladesh it could be said to be phenomenal.’ [Chowdhury & Faruqui, 1991:60] The growth of Dhaka from 1949 to 1989 followed the limits determined by the Mughals [i.e. towards north up to Tongi, up to Mirpur in north-west, up to Postagola in south- east]. However the growth caused many low lands to be filled up and all the low lying areas on the eastern and western side came under occupation. With the rise of population pressure the high lands spreading towards the north came to be occupied. No serious effort has been undertaken to create a planned city. Although a detailed study on urban aspects was undertaken in 1981, it was not materialized. Dhaka has been growing by its own demand. However, a Structure Plan has been formulated in 1995 for the capital city. The Detailed Area Plan of that Structure Plan is under process at present .
By 1973, the growth indicated by the previous stage comes to fruition. But the tendency to consolidate the urban grid was much more striking at the periphery than in the centre. By the year 1987 the city was densely built up to half of its extent along its north- south axis. At the northern extreme, there are two planned developments, Mirpur and Uttara, which appears as segregated parts of the city. In 1995, the total structure the city seems well balanced with integrated parts at the physical centre and segregated parts towards the periphery; thus, there is a distinct edge effect leaving all the peripheral areas segregated. But the segregation is not an abrupt one, rather a gradual. The global integration core consists of two reverse wedges which coincide with three major thoroughfares [Mirpur Road, Mymensingh Road and Green Road] which are the functional core in reality.
The map of 2007 shows that the city has physically extended and it also has experienced extensive internal densification as well as linking corridors. There are infill developments in the low lying areas which has already been started in both Western and Eastern fringes. Due to newer link roads from south to north, the integration core has a northward pull. There is an indication of two types of areas in Dhaka – one is the integrated centre [from Sher-E-Bangla Nagar to Shahbagh in north-south direction; and Outer Circular Road to Dhanmondi in east- west direction] and the other is segregated periphery [including old Dhaka, Mohammadpur, Mirpur, Goran and Uttara in south, west, east and south direction respectively]. The physical extension of integration core corresponds to the development of polycentric functional centres of Dhaka. Moreover, the planned areas, as developed in piecemeal manner, have greater impact and form the organic city grid as it engulfs the planned areas in course of time. [Khan and Nilufar, 2009]
With all it’s idiosyncrasies from the established planning theories, the harmonious development of Dhaka’s land use with its morphological transformations is significant. It is revealed in this analytic paper that the global core of the total spatial system of Dhaka at different stages identified the functional core, both commercial and administrative, of the city in each corresponding period. [Nilufar, 1999] With time this core shifted, showing a consistent shift in the relative importance of the historic core relative to the global spatial system of the growing city. Historically, the global integration core was limited within the old city, but with the florescence of new Dhaka, the global integration core has shifted towards the north and now covers a large part of the city located centrally. The major finding of the study is that the old part of the city is becoming increasingly segregated from the life of the new core day by day, and although the global core has been more or less static for the last two decades, the growth of vast developments in all the peripheral areas except the south may lead to its beginning to move once again in the not too distant future.
The 400 years’ history of Dhaka shows that the city has grown and enlarged to a significant scale. It is evident that basic idea comes from the indigenous structure of the medieval city, but the spatial enlargement gives a vision of the new world. In spite of a small amount of planning, the organic morphology dominates the global structure of the city. Indeed, the organic spatial structure of Dhaka seems to be resulting from a set of rules which are very different to those of the planned or designed areas, while at the same time presenting some common properties with respect to the grid structure. Morphologically the spatial structure of the organic city has no great changes from the old to the new. Even so, large scale changes take place at the global disposition. In conclusion, it may be stated that cities like Dhaka grow and change in response to major political, economic and social forces, and function follows the evolving form at least as reliably as ‘form follows function’. In this way, the syntactic analysis of organic morphology of Dhaka helps to define the inner logic of the organic city grid and pre-figures the future functional concentration of the city.
The writer is a Professor of Architecture at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, (BUET) Dhaka, Bangladesh. The above article is complied with extracts from a research study by the writer called ‘Urban Morphology of Dhaka City: Spatial Dynamics of Growing City and the Urban Core’, February 2010.