Chawkbazar Jail: Ruins offer trip deep into Old Dhaka history | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 11, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:59 PM, April 11, 2021

Chawkbazar Jail: Ruins offer trip deep into Old Dhaka history

Researchers call for further study while report of government-initiated excavation unpublished

The ruins of a Sultanate-era building have been found inside the old central jail compound in the Chawkbazar area of Dhaka.

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The authorities have taken necessary measures to preserve the archaeological evidence, including a wall thought to be part of a fort, but study and excavation of the historic site remain halted, sources said.

A government technical committee formed in 2016 appointed an archaeologist to excavate the site but no report of the work has been published so far.

Historians and archaeologists think more archaeological evidence from the Mughal, Sultanate and Sen eras or before these can be found at the old central jail.

Chawkbazar itself is archaeologically significant among other places in Old Dhaka, researchers say.

For example, an ancient Basudev statue was recovered during an excavation on the Churihatta Mosque premises in the area in 1906.

An inscription about the renovation of Urdu Road Mosque was found in the late 19th century. According to the inscription, this mosque in Chawkbazar was built in 1459.

In 2011, a Nateshwar statue was recovered at Sarangodhor monastery in the area, opening up a new horizon of research. The Daily Star ran a report on this last year.

According to different books, Chawkbazar was the political and commercial hub during the Sultanate, Mughal, and Nawab periods.

The Chawkbazar Fort was constructed during the rule of the Bengal Sultanate between the 14th and 16th centuries. Besides, palaces, treasury, courts and administrative offices were constructed in this region from the Sultanate-Nawab period.

The area's political and commercial importance started to decline with the beginning of East India Company rule. The office of the then nayeb-e-nazim, who was the administrative chief of Dhaka, was relocated to Nimtoli Palace from Chawkbazar Fort.

The fort eventually became a mental asylum and prison.  The mental asylum was shut after a certain time but the prison was in operation till 45 years after Bangladesh's independence.

This jailhouse has a significant place in history -- it bears memories from events of the anti-British movement, Language Movement, and the Liberation War.

Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many key important figures in the country's politics served time here as political prisoners.  The assassination of four national leaders took place here in 1975.

After July 2016, inmates were shifted to the newly built jail in Keraniganj and the government then took initiatives to preserve this historic site.

The government formed a technical committee comprising representatives from the home ministry, the prison authorities and Department of Archadeology of Bangladesh, architects, planners, and historians in 2016. It is now overseeing the work of converting the old prison into an urban oasis. 

The committee organised an open competition to draft a design for preserving the history structure, landscape design, and overall development and three architects ranked top in this competition.

The old prison stands on around 38 acres of land. The urban oasis has been designed to be built on 25 acres of the southern part.

The whole place will be divided into three zones -- A, B, and C. Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, memorial museum for national four leaders, a prison museum, and a library will be set up in Zone C.

Some 35 old structures, which have much historical significance, will be preserved and 95 other old and semi pucca structures, which have comparatively less historical significance, will be demolished.

The technical committee has approved a proposal to preserve the Sultanate-era structure. Its members, including eminent historian Muntasir Mamun and architect Prof Abu Sayeed M Ahmed, visited the spot in 2017 to chalk out a conservation plan.

"We proposed to preserve the wall and an adjacent building," said architect Prof Abu Sayeed.

"Normally, the age of an object containing organic material can be determined through a scientific process called radiocarbon dating. But the process is not applicable in case of bricks. Rather, the age of bricks and brick-built walls can be determined by examining its design and bonding patterns. After examining bricks of the wall, it can surely be said that the wall was constructed in the Sultanate era," he added.

Prof Muntasir Mamun said, "We have come to know about the existence of a fort in Chawkbazar during the Pathan [Sultanate] era. Many wrote about the fort in books. The wall might be part of that fort."

Prof Abu Sayeed opined that more ancient archaeological evidence could be found in the area if the excavation could be done properly.

"Any kind of new construction is not allowed in the proposed design of the central jail area, as the foundation of new construction work might affect and destroy the archaeological evidence."

The technical committee proposed the name of Sufi Mostafizur Rahman, a professor of the archaeology department at Jahangirnagar University, as the supervisor of the excavation and it was approved.

Contacted, Prof Sufi said he conducted the excavation for around three months at four spots in the prison between 2017 and 2018.

"I have got some significant ancient archaeological evidence there. But the technical committee asked me not to publish my findings. Even, they are now barring me from working there."

However, Prof Muntasir Mamun, a member of the technical committee, denied the allegation, and said Prof Sufi personally published a brochure containing information on the excavation.

Prof Sufi wanted to hold a press conference to disclose the findings without taking the consent of the technical committee, he added.

"We repeatedly asked him [Sufi] to submit a report with the findings before the technical committee. But it is a matter of great regret that he did not do it."

Prof Muntasir added, "The old prison area is historically significant. That is why, I emphasised on the importance of excavation. The technical committee approved my proposal and subsequently the excavation began.

"But it is a matter of great regret that the task is half-done. The next step may be taken after getting a report of the excavation."

But Prof Sufi said a complete report cannot be published without further excavation. It needs more funds to conduct further excavation and research. The funds are yet to be allocated.

Talking to The Daily Star, Prof Sufi admitted that he published a brochure that was submitted to a government department.

He, however, did not make any comment over his alleged attempt to hold a press conference.

Asked about this issue, Inspector General of Prions Brig Gen Md Mominur Rahman Mamun called the issue an "unsolved problem" and said they were trying to solve it.

He declined to make any further comment.

[Tarun Sarkar is a freelance researcher and journalist who writes for The Daily Star]



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