These days walking along the Azimpur road, which goes from Azimpur to New Market, feels like a luxury. Unlike two years ago, when the graveyard road seemed scary and gloomy, the graveyard that is visible from the Azimpur road is now a one-and-a-half-kilometre stretch of luscious greenery.
In 2020, the renovated graveyard along with the Mayor Hanif Mosque was open for all to enter. Designed by architect Rafiq Azam, the project was completed by team Shatotto Architecture for green living.
The graveyard was established in 1807 on 34 acres of land. It has more than 3,900 permanent graves and many temporary ones, which are reused every two years. The previous infrastructure was based on soil, stonework and a moss-covered brick wall that was broken in some places, and as a result the interior seemed dark, swampy and shaded.
In 2015, DSCC took the initiative to rebuild the Mayor Hanif mosque adjacent to the graveyard.
"In 2015, I was called by the newly elected Mayor Sayeed Khokon to his office for a discussion on the role of architecture in Old Dhaka. After a long discussion, we arrived at the idea of a new mosque design at the 'Azimpur graveyard', one of the city's oldest graveyards," the architect said.
He mentioned the fact that keeping a vast graveyard as an abandoned space is pretty expensive for an overpopulated city like Dhaka. So it is necessary to have a proper plan for the cityscape.
"We wanted to design this land as a garden, a green space, that would serve both the deceased and the living beings. Not just a storeroom for dead bodies, rather as a sacred space, where people will visit to meet their deceased loved ones," he said.
The landscaping of the yard
Designing a landscape includes both natural and man-made components. For example, a park should have plants, trees, green lawns and waterbodies, while also containing seating arrangements and other public facilities for the visitors.
The use of man-made components relative to natural components varies according to the designer, the purpose of the particular site, and the prevailing culture and fashion.
As a part of designing the landscape of the graveyard, the architect designed a walkway along the graveyard's one-and-a-half kilometre length, which was broken before. They mended it and incorporated a metal overhead ramp over this walkway so that people could cross the graveyard from Azimpur to New Market and while walking, see the beautiful garden as well. This also created a shade over the walkway, which provides visitors with refuge from rain or sunlight.
The previous concrete wall boundary around the yard has been replaced with see-through glass walls. Multiple entry points have been incorporated for the convenience of visiting pedestrians.
"For plants, we saw there were a lot of Mahagoni trees, which didn't make sense to me. We wanted the yard to have different flowering plants that would bloom all year round in different seasons, and trees that would give fruits. Birds could come to eat the fruits and sing. I think an ecosystem is necessary to design a landscape if you want to coexist with nature," the architect said.
In the 34-acre land, the yard has more than 26,000 graves, and most of them are extremely scattered. For the architect to follow their initial plans, they would have had to accommodate 12,000 to 15,000 more graves.
"But people are very sensitive regarding this. So moving the graves a little to form a straight row or column - we couldn't do it. In fact, we were not allowed to work on the permanent graves area," he said. So they had to work around the existing graves.
Currently, the size of a grave is 8ft by 4ft. But there are many, who didn't bother to follow this rule. "In most cases, political leaders' or their parents' graves took up to 15 ft of land and their family members or supporters were reluctant to leave the lands," he said with despair in his voice.
"Architecture is not just about creating, rather it's about receiving from the environment and then reflecting that. Think about a 'uthan' or a courtyard. It doesn't create anything, it receives whatever is being offered - the wind, the sunlight or the games around it. Sometimes women sit and comb their hair, sometimes cows thresh rice - it depends on us how we perceive its use and how we decide to incorporate it into our lives," he said.
That is what landscape design is all about - giving purpose to a meaningless land. We can grow a jungle in it, or a playground, or a park or even skyscrapers. According to the purpose, the ingredients and plans will also change.