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Publication Date : 20-09-2013
This once-stunning structure in Dhaka was equipped with most of the significant features of Mughal style architecture
While roaming around in the lanes of Chawk Bazar, Old Dhaka have you ever discovered an ancient, almost broken yet very majestic gateway? If you have, you know what I am talking about- it’s the Mughal Bara Katra.
And if you haven’t, go visit it before it gets lost in the pillage of time.
“The beauty of heaven even fades if it is compared to that of this katra. One can enjoy the complete taste of heaven here!” this is how the inscription on the relic describes its beauty.
According to history, Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shahjahan built this katra with the purpose of using it as his palace during 1644-46. “The katra was built on the northern bank of Buriganga in such a way that the reflection could be seen on the river,” says Nurul Huda, Assistant Professor of JahangirNagar University.
This once-stunning structure was equipped with most of the significant features of Mughal style architecture like the massive gateways (one three-storey and the other two-storey), a quadrangular courtyard, octagonal towers and 22 rooms on all four sides.
Interestingly, after completion of the edifice, Shuja, our whimsical prince decided not to live there even for a day. “Some believe that he anticipated (or got a note in his dream) that those boastful words might bring a bad omen to his upcoming future,” says Md Nasir, a 70-year-old local trader. Experts orate something different. “Actually other Mughal palaces were mostly built with expensive elements like limestone, sandstone and marble whereas Bara Katra was a brick-built structure. So he thought this palace did not qualify to accommodate a Mughal prince and decided to abandon it,” says Huda.
Shuja donated the palace to its chief architect Dewan Mir Mohammad Abul Kashem and asked him to use it as a sarai or inn upon some conditions. The executive body was asked not to collect rent from the poor travellers. The 22 shops were also endowed in the name of God and the officials were supposed to look after the place with the earnings coming from the shops. Whatever was left from the fund was supposed to spend for the welfare of the poor.
Having read this 400-year-old tale, you might now have a hard time to relate it back to the Mughal era. Instead of the original 22 shops, a myriad of stores and warehouses have taken their place, turning Bara Katra into a dingy bazaar. The southern gateway is still there standing though dilapidated; the northern gateway has disappeared due to lack of maintenance and negligence. The upper floors and terrace are used as a madrasah called Jamia Husainiya Ashraful Ulu Madrasah. Md. Shahjahan, a madrasah teacher confirms that the madrasah was there since 1931 and Hafej Hussain Ahamad was the owner. Then Pir Abdul Wahab donated the property to the Madrasah authority. At present it accommodates 700-800 students. A madrasah-cum-market place- this is the image you could have of the Bara Katra now.
Two hundred yards east to Bara Katra and you will see two more gateways – gigantic, but not as much as the Bara Katra. Both the katras share the same architecture, but built in two different sizes. Established in 1663 by Subehdar Shayesta Khan, Chhoto Katra was built to serve as a roadside inn for the officials and travellers. This too consists of two gateways in the North and South. The three-storey Southern gateway served as the main entrance. In between these two gates, is the tomb of Champa Bibi. Historians have tried to find out more about her but her identity remains a mystery.
“All my life I have heard about Champa Bibi’s Mazar, but neither my father nor I can exactly say who she was. I heard she was Shayesta Khan’s mistress while some say she was his wife,” says Jahangir, an Old Dhaka resident.
In history as well it has not been confirmed whether she was indeed Shayesta Khan’s wife, daughter or mistress. But whoever she was, her tomb signifies that she was very dear to him. The lane Champatali has been named after this Champabibi. A group of local people chatting in the adjacent store to the mazar confirms that these days, the mazar remains locked most of the time of the week and every Thursday it is opened for the devotees.
The condition of Chhoto Katra is not any better. Starting from plastic supplies’ storehouses, tailor shops and homeopathy stores to eateries what is not there! A 15-year-old worker who makes plastic toys on the upper floor of Katra says, “We use this place to run our small scale business and for living too.”
Both the North and South gateways are still standing boastfully in the middle of the busy, narrow, congested lanes. But little remains of its past grandeur due to complete neglect and encroachment by the influential. The delicate ornamentations of these colossal gateways are long gone; instead, they are now adorned with political campaigns or some posters advocating which plastic rope you should use or which shemai is the best (there are quite a few shemai factories in the area)! Modern day Thai aluminum windows on the body of a Mughal monument will surely jar the sensibilities of heritage lovers, but that is how the people, who now occupy these heritage sites, have altered them.
So what now? What are the master plans of our authorities regarding these historically significant structures?
Dr Atauar Rahman, regional director of the Department of Archaeology says, “It was never easy on our part to take the requisition and have them officially documented as an archeological site in government records as local people have taken over them since the British period.”
According to the Department of Archeology, over the course of time the local community has altered and extended the katras according to their needs resulting in the present derelict condition. A committee working on this project till 2012 set a value of 410 million taka (US$5.23 million) for this asset. Since the recovery of the site involves a large amount of money allocation for the project was halted. “Very recently we have reopened the renovation project with a set of new committee members and we are planning to revisit the site and propose a monetary estimation to protect this heritage as soon as we can”, says Dr Rahman.
One of the most intriguing questions is why the government should readily spend this large amount on this sector. Prof. Kabir gives three reasons: “Firstly, it is an excellent example of delicate Mughal craftsmanship and Mughal brick-built monument. Secondly, Mughal religious architectural structures like mosques and tombs are quite evident but these katras are the pioneer examples of secular architecture found in this area. And thirdly, our neighbouring country is booming in their tourism sector by preserving the splendour of Mughal heritage. Then why can’t we? The money spent on this project can be proved as an efficient investment for Bangladeshi tourism too,” he opines optimistically.
Also we should not forget how these monuments give us a glimpse of Dhaka life in that time frame. It depicts the caravanserai culture and shows us how the Mughal court used to help traders by providing accommodation fit for royalty but offered at subsidised rates.
The Bara and Chhoto Katras are treasures of the past that demand care and preservation. They are priceless remnants of a heritage that we must safeguard and honour for ourselves and our future generations.