Boisterous, exuberant and vibrant – these are the words that spring to mind at the mere mention of Old Dhaka along with jam-packed streets. While the new part of Dhaka has expanded near Tongi, allure of the old city lingers because the alleys, structures and eateries are steeped in history. Despite the thriving life, there are places in Old Dhaka untouched by frenetic activity. One such spot is the Haturia House, dating from 1920, in Saatraoja, better known among the locals as the Tiger House.
This and four other houses are featured in a fascinating project called Hidden Heritage, funded by the EU in Bangladesh, European Union National Institute for Culture, EUNIC, along with other partners: Bengal Institute, Alliance Francaise British Council, Embassy of Spain and the Goethe Institut.
On Saturday, 17 September, the project was unveiled at Haturia House at the presence of distinguished guests, including the EU ambassador to Bangladesh Charles Whitely, British High Commissioner, Robert Chatterton Dickson, acting French ambassador Guillaume Audren.
Haturia House, at the heart of Old Dhaka, in Saatraoja, is a red brick one storey structure in distinctive Mughal design. Built in 1920, the owner and builder of the house was a member of the then Indian Civil Service, and a prominent member of the old Dhaka elite. The property was designated as a waqf estate with the grandson of the original owner as “muttawali” or caretaker.
Locals of Saatraoja like to call it the Tiger House because once this had a small zoo with tiger cubs.
During the launching, former Bangladesh ambassador to China Iftikhar ul Karim, recounted: “As a child, I spent many unforgettable days here and the aviary within the Haturia House compound held a variety of birds, including spoonbills."
The house is also well known for religious gatherings, including traditional zikir, or Islamic meditation.
For the last sixty six years, the house has had zikirs every Thursday, said Iftikhar ul Karim, adding: “The qawali singing sessions, or Sufi devotional music soirees remain one of the attractions of the house.”
Marvelling the historical richness of Old Dhaka, EU ambassador to Bangladesh Charles Whiteley, said: “Old Dhaka has been and still is a thriving part of Dhaka, zealously maintaining its uniqueness through a rich gastronomic legacy passed on from the Mughal and the Nawabi period. Haturia and other houses featured in Hidden Heritage are aesthetically appealing, giving us a glimpse of Dhaka life between 1920s and 1960s.”
Acknowledging the support from other partners, he underlined the need to preserve and cherish history.
“You will be delighted to know that with EUNIC’s support, we are embarking on another project called River Heritage – a continuation of Hidden Heritage.”
Renowned TV and stage actor Sara Zaker recounted her days in tranquil Dhaka of the sixties, sharing memories of living in a large spacious home.
These are small pockets of history within a sprawling concrete city, providing respite to people seeking to have a taste of Dhaka’s glorious past, remarked Zahirul Islam Mamoon, graphic designer for a daily newspaper.
“Preservation of such homes is crucial because there is an unfortunate trend to demolish old structures to make way for high rises; my heartfelt gratitude to EU and the partners for conceiving and giving material form to the Hidden Heritage project.”
The interesting fact about Haturia House is that since it’s not an open museum, people outside Saatraoja are often not aware of it.
“With the launching of the Hidden Heritage project, this marvellous time capsule will not be hidden anymore," hoped Mamoon.
Agreeing to what Mamoon had said, Pavel, a resident of Chankharpool, also present at the unveiling, observed: “Old Dhaka is littered with historic structures; some are well maintained whereas others are in a state of dereliction.
"With support from development partners, the government can launch an Old Dhaka heritage preservation drive, turning several homes into museums, featuring everyday items that were once integral to life.”
Such museums with son et lumiere plus restaurants offering culinary delights of Old Dhaka will add piquant dimension to the existing charm of the old city, he remarked.
After the launching of the project, invited guests were treated to Sufi devotional songs, better known as qawali at Haturia House’s spacious drawing room.
Present among others were director of Alliance Francaise, Dhaka, Francois Grosjean, director of Goethe Institute, Dr. Kirsten Hackenbroch, head of the press, political and trade section of the EU Delegation in Bangladesh, Bernd Spanier, digital governance programme manager at EU Delegation, Fani Farmaki.
Towheed Feroze is media adviser at the EU Delegation in Bangladesh