The vibrant city of Dhaka that we know today was not always like this. It bears little resemblance to its former self. In the midst of today's skyscrapers and bustling streets, it's hard to imagine that much of this urban landscape was once untouched and untamed.
Azim Bakhsh, a resident who has witnessed the city's evolution, recalls the days when he and his family would journey from Farashganj to Gulshan for idyllic picnics in the 1960s.
Back then, Gulshan was known as Bholagram—a simple village adorned with rows of palm trees and open fields. The tranquil village was sparsely populated, and the howling of foxes echoed through its lush surroundings. In those days, Gulshan offered a serene escape for Dhaka's elite families, like the Bakhshs, seeking respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. Many families preferred Gulshan for hunting expeditions or leisurely picnics along its rivers and greenery.
But Gulshan was not the only such retreat in Dhaka during that era. Surprisingly, several other areas served as picturesque picnic spots, offering a stark contrast to the Dhaka of today.
Motijheel: from garden oasis to commercial hub
Motijheel, a name now synonymous with Dhaka's central business district, was once a haven of greenery. Fruit and timber trees covered the place, and a peaceful reservoir nestled in its eastern-southern corner. Beyond Motijheel lay Kamalapur village and Khilgaon, with Dilkusha a bit further south. Dilkusha was crisscrossed by a three-hundred-year-old canal or small river that eventually merged with the Buriganga River. Motijheel derived its name from this river.
In those days, people would spend their afternoons by the expansive gardens and flowing rivers, revelling in the banquet of nature. However, as the area transitioned into an office hub, it attracted people from surrounding villages, gradually transforming Motijheel from a garden paradise into a bustling commercial centre.
Tejgaon farm: a study tour destination
Tejgaon was once home to an agricultural farm that served as a popular destination for students from various schools in Dhaka. The lush greenery and serene ambiance made it an ideal location for picnics and study tours. Roughly 35 to 40 years ago, horse-drawn carts were a common mode of transport for visitors to Tejgaon.
Baigunbari of Mirpur: a nawabs' retreat
Baigunbari, nestled in Mirpur, was a protected forest area owned by the nawabs of Dhaka. It was a picturesque place for picnics, often accessed by boat or barge along the Buriganga and Turag rivers. The Nawabs would embark on their outings by launches or barges, often accompanied by Qawali performances that continued throughout the night. Later, as transportation evolved, the affluent began using cars, while common folks hired buses with attached pandals, carrying chairs to Baigunbari for their feasts. Beyond its picnic appeal, Baigunbari was also renowned for hunting.
Shahzada Miar Garden of Azimpur: a nawab's legacy
During the British colonial era, the eastern side of Azimpur Colony was owned by Shahzada Mia, a member of the nawab family of Dhaka. His walled area was known as Shahzada Mia's Garden, attracting picnickers from Dhaka. Subsequently, picnicking spots spread to the Joydevpur and Gazipur regions, where numerous picnic destinations have developed now.
Zoos and hunting expeditions
In the bygone days, Dhaka's residents were pioneers of various forms of entertainment, including hunting. Elites embarked on tiger-hunting excursions in Dhaka's forests, where fear of snakes and the occasional plunge into an elephant's hole were constant companions. Dhaka also hosted hunting expeditions for visitors, with leopards roaming the jungles of Tongi, and hunting families setting out for Meghna Char and Bhawal in Gazipur. The meadows of Meghna were favoured for bird hunting.
Sports and festivals in open fields
Dhaka once had numerous open fields, including Paltan, Armanitola, Race Course, Gandaria, Agasadek Maidan, and Dhupkhola Maidan. These areas witnessed various sports activities, such as wrestling and kite-flying festivals. In winters, kite-flying competitions from roof to roof were a common sight, with the grandest festivities taking place at Ramna Race Course Maidan.
Ramna was renowned for horse racing during the British era, and the journey from Ramna to Moghbazar was a memorable experience. As darkness descended, people would start their journey at dawn, completing it before dusk to avoid venturing through the Ramna forest after dark.
Over time, Ramna underwent transformations, becoming Civil Station, which featured government buildings like Curzon Hall, the Secretariat, and Minto Road. Red-coloured buildings beside Neelkhet, were constructed to complement the natural greenery. This marked the birth of Ramna Park, divided into three parts: Ramna Station, Ramna Park, and Race Course.
Dholaikhal: a picturesque canal
Dholaikhal, once a picturesque canal bordered by lush greenery, meandered through Farashganj, Gandaria, Nawabpur, Narinda, and eventually merged into the Buriganga below Loharpul. In days gone by, boat races were held in Dholaikhal, and various festivals and fairs took place along its banks, reminiscent of riverside villages.
Regrettably, the name Dhaka was closely tied to Dholaikhal until the 1960s when this canal began disappearing due to encroachments and land grabs.
Dhanmondi: from agricultural market to elite residential area
Dhanmondi, now an elite residential area, had humble beginnings as an agricultural produce market during the Mughal period. It was once a bustling market for grains, particularly rice ('Dhan' in Bangla), giving rise to its name, "Dhanmondi." However, by the 19th century, the canal had dried up, and Dhanmondi's significance as a market had waned. The area gradually succumbed to overgrowth and became a jungle.
In the waning days of Pakistan, Dhanmondi underwent a transformation into a residential haven for the elite.
From ghostly nights to urban expansion
Anis Ahmed, a Dhaka researcher, fondly recalls the wild nights of Dhaka's forested areas. In those days, areas like Dhanmondi, Lalmatia, and Mohammadpur were covered in forests. Nighttime was punctuated by the sounds of snakes, geckos, mongoose, civets. The haunting howls of foxes filled the air, and monkeys were still a common sight.
Human settlements were concentrated towards Rayerbazar, Kalabagan, and Kanthal Bagan, with numerous water bodies dotting these regions. Tejgaon Canals once crisscrossed the city, and the canals were used for washing muslin thread. Moreover, Gulshan-Banani was rumoured to have many hidden waterways.
Dhaka's lost lush greenery and agriculture
Dhaka's historical landscape was characterised by lush greenery and thriving agriculture. The Nawabs maintained garden houses throughout the city, with baghs (gardens) like Paribagh, Shahbagh, Malibagh, and Lalbagh receiving royal patronage.
Hazaribagh's orchards supplied the city with seasonal flowers and fruits, while Moghbazar was renowned for its eggplants until 1947. Cauliflower, cabbage, and pineapple cultivated in the Tejgaon area were Dhaka's specialties.
Shahbagh, in particular, was a luxurious retreat for the Nawabs, featuring Eshrat Manzil, a beautifully maintained garden.
Azim Bakhsh recalls the Dhaka of yesteryears when he says, "Shahbag to the airport, along the cantonment road—what I see now was nonexistent. From Banglamotor, people would traverse to the airport through the Tejgaon industrial area. This road was constructed during Queen Elizabeth's visit to Dhaka. At that time, water bodies were so deep that a person couldn't stand if they fell in."
In those days, the city would descend into darkness after nightfall. The population was sparse, and as the Maghrib azan (evening call to prayer) echoed, people would hurry home, not only to escape potential robbers but also to evade the 'ghosts' that were said to roam the city.
From the days when people hid indoors after nightfall out of fear of ghosts to the bustling 21st-century metropolis that it is today, Dhaka's transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. What were once desolate and abandoned areas are now teeming with life, vehicles, and towering buildings.
This article was organically written in Bangla and was translated by Miraz Hossain.