Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sitara Mosque & A Very Curious Imam in Dhaka Tales

I was fidgeting while partaking lunch at Hotel Al Razique Restaurant until I realized that this particular meal was, in itself, a unique experience. The place didn’t look all that different from a Chinese restaurant, until I noticed that everyone around me were males. To my left, at the corner of the room is a cloister – a separate, more intimate stall with partitions. “That’s where women eat,” Mafuz my guide told me. Women were conveniently segregated from men. The mores and traditions of Islamic Bangladesh are too far removed from my cosmopolitan Manila, to think that some idiots from the rest of “civilized West” still envision the Philippines as an island life where people still live on trees. For one, our maids spell better than the superior beings who hire them! Mafuz nudged me out of my reverie. Right, next stop is Star Mosque.


I paid 380 taka for our meal, comprising of lentil soap, mutton, chicken, and some vegetable dish I couldn’t remember the name of. I asked that I be taken to a money changing shop first. I was taken to a heavily congested area right across the National Mosque (Baitul Mukarram). They were coaxing me to exchange more than what I required, but until the dollars in my wallet becomes theirs, I am the boss. We hailed a rickshaw and after a few haggling, we got our ride. Mafuz conveniently saved me from a lot of wasted effort and time. We ventured into the smoke-filled streets that characterize ugly urbanization, passing through Dhaka’s Zero Point, a special landmark from which map distances are calculated. Unfortunately, this landmark was littered with garish posters! I saw a Post Office servicing mails in the Motijheel area.


I jumped off my rickshaw the minute we got to Sitara Mosque (Star Mosque). The neighborhood was familiar - Armanitola. In fact, this was the same street as the Armenian Church, just 350 meters from where we were. The mosque is a petite unimposing building that didn’t look particularly intimidating unlike Baitul Mukarram. There’s a sprawling yard with square patches of grass-covered ground and a dry, star-shaped fountain made of marble, and a stack of blue tiles delineating the pond’s water-level. I gazed at the main atrium and was entranced by the beautiful domes – five of them - rising proudly above its roof. In Islamic architecture, domes are placed directly above prayer halls.


I was reminded to take my shoes off, leaving them outside the gate. I had doubts about it. This was a chaotic street, anyone could easily pick them and run. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the people. It was me! I’m just not comfortable walking barely – and years of visiting temples and mosques haven’t acclimate my feet. But since I didn’t have any choice on the matter, I took them off.

The mosque itself has an inlaid star pattern; the walls are a mosaic of broken pieces of china in arabesque design (an elaborate application of geometrically repeating patterns), set over white tiles. Flower and star patterns are also in abundance, as well as a limited arabic calligraphy which is otherwise common in other mosques. It was built in the early 18th century, employing the usual mughal architecture, but it has been extensively renovated some 50 years ago, with finances coming from a Japanese. This resulted into portraits of Mount Fuji on a set of tile design. Where is this? It’s actually easy to find these, if you’re observant.
From the front yard, you directly face the mosque. The entrance is an open lobby where the faithful can already bow and pray. The wall that divides the lobby and the prayer hall inside has 5 arched doorways. This wall is littered with tiles of Mount Fuji (with a lake and a tree at its foreground), probably numbering 18, if my estimates are correct. I’m aware that images and photographs are not allowed in mosques, thus calligraphy and geometric patterns decorate mosques. This would make those Fuji images special. It’s obviously a unique exception to the rule on Mosque architecture and Islamic art, isn’t it? The dried-up would-be fountain outside is part of the “garden” design of mosques – for ablutions (purification rituals).


I timidly made my way inside, unsure if I was going to be shooed away like I usually am in mosques elsewhere. To my surprise, an exceedingly curious imam (prayer leader), with a beehive of goatee hanging below his chin, came up to me and started asking me like I was a job applicant: was I a student, was I married, which country do I come from, what is my educational attainment (they always ask about education and work), do I like Bangladesh. After having passed his amused interrogation, he rolled the carpet for me – so to speak. I was invited inside. Whenever I’d stop to stare at the mihrab (the prayer niche that indicates the direction to Mecca), he would wave his hand to suggest I was free to take as much photos as my heart desired. I was floored by such hospitality. The imam would stand at the other end of the hall, then point to a corner of the small prayer hall. I’d look “enlightened” and terribly interested, just out of gratitude for this privilege.


Under most interpretation of Islamic laws, non-Muslims may be allowed into mosques as long as they don’t sleep or eat inside. But Islamic Asia, unfortunately follows the dissenting opinion presented by the Maliki School of Islamic Jurisprudence that prohibits visitors like me. In Bangladesh, however, the attitude towards tourists are very welcoming. Even women are allowed inside – and that is a liberal move! Visiting a country with not a lot of intrusive tourists has its advantages, after all.

It didn’t take me 30 minutes to soak in on the atmosphere of this holy landmark. I made my way out and said my “thank-you” to the gentle imam. Tourists always find it heartening when local strangers extend a piece of kindness. It also makes this world a wee bit brighter.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Mahfuz checks up on me.

A very curious imam.

Mount Fuji, a tree and a lake.

The main prayer hall.

The mihrab or prayer niche

Gorgeous entrance arch leading to the prayer hall.

In arabesque design full of flowers and stars.

Praying at the lobby, just before going inside the main prayer hall. Christians genuflect; Muslims bow and touch the floor.

Point Zero in Old Dhaka from which maps are calculated. It's also a busy rotund where vehicles take their turn.

Location of Point Zero

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection - An Oasis of Calm in Dhaka Tales

While doing my readings about the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection in Dhaka, I realized I didn't know where Armenia is. I needed references to appreciate the church’s origins and history. Armenia, as it turns out, is a landlocked, mountainous and democratized country at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. In fact, it is surrounded by the following: Turkey, Georgia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Azerbaijan and Iran. How much more interesting can you get? Heck, I have never even heard of Nagorno or Karabakh! On more familiar grounds, my religion (Catholicism) would mention Mount Ararat for easier reference. Mount Ararat, in the book of Genesis, is where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Great Floods.

With a distinct Biblical past, the predominant religion of Armenia is Christianity and the roots of its church go way back from the 1st century, founded by 2 of Jesus’ disciples: Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who spread the religion in Armenia between 40-60 A.D. The Armenian Church is described as “very conservative, very ritualistic”. I wasn’t even aware that one of my favorite directors, Atom Egoyan (“Chloe”, “Exotica”, “The Sweet Hereafter”, etc.) is Armenian. In Dhaka, Armenians settled in the early part of the 18th century. They were merchants trading jutes, silks and textile. Their presence grew into a neighborhood, Armanitola, where the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection now stands.


The area is right in the heart of Old Dhaka, a narrow street congested with vendors and rickshaws. I got off my ride looking at the gated church. Right across the church was a dilapidated building with several vendors selling potatoes and other vegetables. The gate in front of the church was padlocked, but it didn’t take long until someone from the dizzying crowd went out to fetch the church’s caretaker, a quiet gentleman who would be mentioned several times in Lonely Planet and Wikipedia – Mr. Martin, aka Michael Joseph Martin (Mikel Housep Martirossian). He is touted to be the last Armenian in Dhaka.

He unshackled the chain and started running around, fixing the grounds. What greeted me was a cemetery with rectangular mounds spread across a gray lot. To my left was the church, with light yellow arches welcoming you inside the white walled structure. Mr. Martin didn’t say much, but he did tell me that the Archbishop visits once yearly from Australia. Mr. Martin started taking care of the church in the mid-80’s and is known to give private tours without the pressure placed on you to hand him payment. As I have mentioned before, Bangladeshis never harass their visitors with money. In this country, you don’t feel like you have to pay for every move you make. Sadly, this isn’t so in countries all over the Indian subcontinent.


The church was constructed in 1781, listing over 200 deaths between 1833 -1918, over 250 baptisms and over 50 marriages. With a lot of history before me, it was easy to feel humbled by the precious calm inside the church. Mr. Martin turned the lights inside as I offered a silent prayer for my family and my travel. I like these moments. They give me a feeling of calm and a sense of belonging, despite my not being Armenian.

On the Sunday of November 16, 2008, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, paid a one-day visit to the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection, during his pontifical visit to India where bigger Armenian communities reside in Kolkata and Madras.

No mass is being celebrated here these days, unless Armenian priests and bishops come for a visit. There aren't even reminders that sometime during the liberation of the country in the 70’s, the place was heavily pilfered; graves were desecrated; silver ornaments and the organ were stolen. The church has become an oasis in Dhaka’s mind-numbing chaos. The locals still call it “Armani Church”, which is amusing. The street name: Armenian Street. Quite easy, if you’ve chipped off a slice of your cerebellum.

I stood after my prayers and handed Mr. Martin a donation. He wouldn’t have minded if I gave him just a smile, but I was grateful to him for accommodating my presence. I would have regretted missing a visit, like my regrets with Lalbagh.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

This grave stone inscription reads: "A fond wife's tribute to her deeply mourned and best of husbands. Catchick Avietick Thones. September 1877. Age: 56 years."

At once calm and eerie.

Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's Mak and his students Arafat and Hossein.

Up next: Star Mosque


If you wanna see Yerevan, Armenia's capital, in pictures, here's my friend's travel blog on Armenia, looking majestic - like those old glorious places. I particularly loved the surreal sculptures scattered all over the place: click here.

Armenian Street in Armanitola, a few blocks from the Armenian Church.

Dhaka's Chowk Bazaar, circa 1908, the commercial center. This photo only courtesy of Ershad Ahman's

Khor Virap Monastery against the imposing beauty of Mount Ararat. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's Andrew Behesnilian.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ahsan Manzil - The Pink Palace's Rich History in Dhaka Tales

Ahsan Manzil's picturesque beauty and grace.

In the years before Bangladesh attained its sovereignty, back in the days of zamindars (landowners) and nawabs (muslim prince), the most significant events in Dhaka were held and celebrated at the Ahsan Manzil – or the Pink Palace, among foreigners. In fact, even Lord Curzon, the most influential British viceroy to India (responsible for the restoration of the Taj Mahal from its state of disrepair), stayed at the palace during his visits in East Bengal. With its tantalizing Neo-mughal architecture and its idyllic location beside the Buriganga, Ahsan Manzil is a delightful place to be. I wanted to immerse in its rich historical past. And it didn’t fail me.
After rowing down Buriganga River, my guide Mahfuz took me back to Sadarghat. We waded through a sea of rickshaw as the roads turned narrower than I thought possible. We walked through a bazaar selling pots and kettles, slippers, bike tires, second hand electric fans, packets of cha (tea), slabs that looked like miniature tombstones, and even kites. This couldn’t be the famed Shankharia Bazaar (aka Hindu Street), and it wasn’t. We walked along Ahsanmullah Road, a part of a cloister called Kumartoli, until we reached an imposing building whose walls were pink, with vestiges of posters carelessly stripped off what were once majestic walls. Vandalism, without a doubt, is a rhymeless defacement of beauty; the scourge of a civilized society.
There was a hole on the wall, gaping over an arch of crisscrossing bars. It was the ticket booth selling 2 taka entrance tickets. Two taka? How much is that worth? Heck, it isn’t even $0.015 cents. Not even a fourth of a jawbreaker or a gummy candy. PhP1.25 won’t even buy me a piece of Mentos. Whatever apprehensions I surmised from its vandalized walls and dirt-cheap entrance immediately transformed into a sense of excitement the minute I stepped inside the palace grounds. The palace has an entrance with a drive way at the south side, facing the river. I was welcomed into a sprawling garden embellishing one of the most alluring sights I was to witness in Dhaka – a grandiose pink building that inspires visions of old Europe, seemingly misplaced in a city like Dhaka.
I was led to this magnificent smaller building at the immediate corner of the entrance to deposit my backpack. All this marvel is just a cloakroom? I sighed and left my belongings inside. I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to document the interiors of the palace, now a museum. But photos outside Ahsan Manzil were allowed, so that provided a bit of relief.

The ticket booth at the south side before your entrance to the palace. This is Ahsanullah Road, a narrow alley facing shanties and shops just beside Buriganga River.

Ahsan Manzil boasts of a colorful history. During the era of the mughals, a Barisal zamindar, Sheik Enayetullah started construction of a palace for recreation and called it Rang Mahal who passed it on to his son. A French trader purchased the grounds and transformed it into a trading outpost. In 1830, a muslim prince Nawab Khwaja Alimullah bought it from the French and converted it into a residence. The nawabs hail from an ancestry of Kashmiri traders of gold dust and skins.
But it wasn’t until 29 years later when the succeeding Nawab Abdul Ghani started an ambitious construction. He commissioned a European firm (Martin and Company) for this. In 1859, with the nawab’s wealth multiplying exponentially (they amassed wealth that allowed them to own more than half of Dhaka’s public lands), construction began and took 13 years. He named this after his son, Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah – thus Rang Mahal became Ahsan Manzil! The structure to its side retained its name, Andar Mahal.
The palace wasn’t spared from the natural calamities that frequently face Bangladesh – a tornado in 1888, and an earthquake in 1897, both causing severe damage. But the nawabs were devoted to their abode. They overhauled and repaired, and added the marvelous octagonal dome similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Ahsanullah bore a son, Salimullah Bahadur. When Ahsanullah suddenly died in 1901, he didn’t leave a will. This resulted, as per Islamic law, in the division of the whole Nawab estate into 9 parts, for which Salimullah inherited a paltry single share, thus resulting into the gradual decline of the palace. It became financially impossible to maintain the estate. Rooms were rented out for revenues without much consideration for its upkeep, until it fell into despondency and disrepair.
It wasn’t until the mid-80’s when the Bangladeshi government recognized the historical importance of Ahsan Manzil – a reminder of Dhaka’s last royalty. They acquired the palace and began massive repair, commissioning Shah Alam Zahiruddin’s architectural firm, and completed in 1992. They placed it under the care of the National Museum, now governing its maintenance and operation.

Reference to nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is an interesting anecdotal piece. Tagore has the distinct honor of being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the onset of war in the 40’s, an English instructor named Alex Aronson, who’s a German Jew, was placed in a concentration camp by the British authorities in sympathy of Germany’s racial cleaning. Tagore wrote the influential nawab – twice! – imploring for the release of Mr. Aronson. He wrote: “His need here (in a school Tagore founded) is very great as he is especially in charge of the examinees.” The nawabs are patrons of education that Salimuddin even founded Dhaka Medical School. Aronson was eventually released. But this made me wince at the thought that the British authorities became accomplice to the lunacy of Hitler. Even in the far reaches of the Orient, thousands of miles away from the Reich, the Jews were not spared from such historical atrocity. The thought made me shiver.

Ahsan Manzil recovered its old glory. From the eyes of a thrilled spectator, I couldn’t be more impressed with its grandiose columns of Ionic and Corinthian capitals, but moreso of its colorful past. The palace is a 2-story abode, 125.4 meters (411 feet) by 28.75 meters (94.3 feet), with a spacious stairway that comes down from the southern portico, extending onto the bank of the river through the front garden. Marbles cover the veranda as well as all its 23 rooms - drawing room, library, card room, 14 square rooms, the spacious Jalsaghar (a music room, perhaps), Hindustani room, dining rooms, darbar hall, famous square room (used to store the nawab’s valuables). The dome has a height of 27.13 meters (about 89 ft) from the ground. The design is referred to as Indo-Saracenic Revival, also called Indo-Gothic or Mughal-Gothic, an architectural style movement by British architects in the late 19th century in British India.
Opening hours differ on the season of visit, but it is close on Thursdays. April to September: open from Saturday to Wednesday from 10:30 to 5:30. October to March: open from Saturday to Wednesday from 9:30 to 4.30, closed on Thursdays, Fridays follow half-day schedules from 4-7PM. The supposed limited hours is due to shortage of manpower, which wouldn’t be a problem if they make Ahsan Manzil income-generating. I never thought I’d say this, but a 2 taka entrance fee is too ridiculously generous, even for scrimping tourists.

The majestic-looking guardhouse located beside the south entrance, facing the Buriganga River. This is where you must deposit your backpacks, etc. much like a cloakroom. Notice the white ornaments at the side porches, made of shells, as well as the round emblem at the arch.

The nawabs of Dhaka - Bangladesh's last royalty.

The nawab and his large family pose for posterity during the glory days of Ahsan Manzil.

I didn’t want to leave the Pink Palace abruptly, but I realized I had places to go. The palace is clearly one of Dhaka’s priceless gems, though most of the capital’s local population seem oblivious to its charm. It bears stories that inspire sprawling motion pictures epics and fairy tales. That night, I laid down my bed and dreamt of a Technicolor past; of psychedelic carpets that do not fly; of riding Bengal Tigers. It was a pool of incoherent images that didn’t quite fit together. I wore a moustache that curled at the tips, and grew a bush on my chest. I must have traded spices in another life. When, for some reason, Kolkatan warriors started chasing after me, I fell into a bottomless pit and woke up breathless. Dang! I hate border crossings. Something I had to endure soon thereafter.
This is the Eye in the Sky.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore met Albert Einstein during the former's European tour, where he also met Mussolini. What a pair!

Check out our previous posts on Bangladesh:

Official website of the Dhaka Nawab Family -