While growing up in a capital city, one memory I managed to carry with me is of being envious of one of my playmates. Ishrat lived in the ground floor apartment of an old building, with dark moss patches and cracks on its facades.
But in that dark apartment, a beautiful iron grille and railing, with patches of rust, adorned the balcony where we used to play with our handmade dolls.
I was envious of her because of that grille. Made of sturdy cast iron, that iron guard featured a beautiful vine, thick with flowers and foliage, and that design is still etched clear in my memory.
I wished I had that grille on my balcony back then instead of the geometric patterned one with circles, triangles, and squares of all shapes and sizes.
Today, window grilles and railings are common home décor elements, especially in urban areas. Their history can be traced back to the Buddhist period, Mediaeval Scotland, ancient Egypt, and China.
From aesthetics to security, these grilles have evolved over the years and continue to be an eclectic part of our homes today.
But a far cry from the prison-like vertical or horizontal bars we see around us today, 17th-century Baroque period window guards and even Renaissance and Baroque period-inspired 20th century cast-iron railings and grilles actually enhanced the look of the Zamindar palaces in the Bengal region, making the inhabitants feel secure but unconfined.
Not just palaces, cast iron railings have been used on spiral staircases, boundary railings on roofs, and as window guards in fancy homes, even in the late 20th century in our country's history.
In urban areas, these metal guards were used on windows and balconies more for security rather than ornamental purposes. They kept intruders out while letting air and light in. The wrought-iron bars were often embellished with decorative cast flowers, tassels, or medallions.
These days the design has adapted to the idea of functionality rather than visual embellishments and the price also plays a crucial factor.
"You can design a grille with 800 grams of iron per square feet, which will cost you from Tk 160 to Tk170," said Md Malek Mia, proprietor of Malek Metal Works.
However, a designer iron guard with floral and intricate patterns will require two to three kilograms of iron and the price may rise up to Tk400 per square feet.
According to Malek, price is the reason people have now gravitated towards simple square bars for window grilles and balcony guards.
From stone posts to iron bars
We reached out to Architect Abu Sayeed M Chowdhury, a historical conservationist, to learn about the evolution of grilles and railings in the Indian subcontinent.
He explained that during the Buddhist period (from 6th to 3rd century BC), the Stupa or Bihars had stone railings around it, which were called Sochi and Thaba.
"Beautifully carved stones were inserted in another stone, and that is how the entire railing was made. From the Buddhist period, this technique was continued through the Mughal dynasty period," he said.
On the British Library website, there is a photograph of the ancient railing around the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, and the pillars of the great Buddhist stupa at Amaravati.
Made of limestone, these pillars feature carved panels and medallions with animals and lotus designs, as well as yakshis (folk goddess), amorous couples, winged horses, and centaurs.
The railing pillars of Amaravati are carved in limestone with lotus medallions and narrative reliefs. The outer face is lost, but the inner face depicts one half-lotus and a narrative in the central lotus roundel; probably the infant Siddhartha (represented symbolically) nursed by the old man Asita. The lower fluted area depicts the visit of Asita and his nephew Naradatta.
Stone was a favoured material even during the Islamic period. There were balustrades or vertical posts made from stones. Initially, stones and later terracotta bricks were used for creating boundary railing, which can be seen on the Qutub Minar.
Architect Abu Sayeed talked about another technique, called the doweling technique, where the stones are curved in a way so they fit into each other without any kind of adhesive. This technique has been used in our country for hundreds of years.
For example, we can look into the Kusumba Mosque at Naogaon, which was built in 1558. Two of the doors of this mosque are closed with geometric patterned stone guards.
During the colonial period, the material, technique and patterning changed. From bricks and stones, we adapted to metal or cast iron.
"From the early 1700s, cast iron grilles became popular. They are sturdy, mendable, and reusable. These are what made them a popular choice," Abu Sayeed said.
In her article published in The Hindu, Sebanti Sarkar beautifully wrote about how colonial Kolkata first started cast-iron ornamentation.
She wrote, "Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Kolkata saw a surge in building activity. The British began replicating the famous buildings they knew, experimenting at times across styles, for an 'exotic Asia' feel."
"The Calcutta High Court, built in 1862, is a replica of the Stadt-Hausin Ypres, and the Government House (now the Raj Bhavan) built in 1803, was modelled after the Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire," she further mentioned.
Inspired by the Gothic, Baroque and Rococo periods' elaborate ornamentation, the British colonials included metal ornamentation in their architecture, and under that influence, the Zamindars of colonial India adorned their verandahs, palaces, and residences with metal.
The homes of the aristocratic families were filled with geometric Greek motifs, European fleur-de-lis, Tudor roses, daisies, anthemions and palmettes, which can still be found in the Zamindari relics in different corners of Bangladesh. They still remain - because cast iron is tough and weather-proof.
How did we fall for the minimalistic iron bars?
Architect Abu Sayeed informed us after independence in 1947, modern architects were against floral patterns, as creating a replica of a human or any other creature is prohibited in Islam. That is why ornamentation during the Islamic period got more abstract and geometric.
Classical floral patterns were disregarded by modern or postmodern architects, and that is when the simple and straightforward designs arrived.
The Government Art College (presently the Fine Art Institute) is considered the first modern architectural structure of Bangladesh and that is where Architect Muzharul Islam introduced this style - horizontal bars and screens, vertical lines, and almost no classical floral ornamentation. The plain and simple railings had thus arrived.
Still, antiquarians love cast iron structures
Although the intricately patterned grills are expensive to make, a few devoted architects and owners are using ornamented grills which exude a sense of opulence to the building and help it stand out amongst other monotonous structures.
Traveller and environmentalist Tareq Onu has installed a beautiful cast iron spiral staircase on their terrace in Rajshahi city.
"Spiral stairs have always fascinated me and for years, I had searched for these in the old Zamindar kuthis and colonial residences. But I could not find anything that fascinated me," he said.
But three years ago, Onu found a cast-iron spiral that his heart fell for, at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh in India. He took photos of it and coming back to Bangladesh he decided to build similar stairs for their home.
"I went to local artisans and ironsmiths, but no one was ready to build such a staircase. All of them said that it was expensive and time-consuming," he said, recalling the difficulties.
One day his architect friend introduced him to Priyati Golder, an architect based in Dhaka, who finally agreed to design a spiral staircase for Tareq.
"Inspired by the original Khajuraho design, she designed something beautiful and the most amazing fact is, she included little swallows in the frames as she found out that I was a bird enthusiast," Tareq said with exuberance.
Malek Mia said sometimes they get orders of classical floral patterned or intricately designed cast-iron railings for spiral staircases, balconies, and terrace boundaries.
"These are mainly for a luxury residence or a fancy home. But modern architects still prefer simple and transparent designs with minimalist iron bars and glass."