What was there before DU in the DU area?

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To answer that, we must go far further back in time than the last century, perhaps even before the formation (of the university).

It’s difficult to see Dhaka University, the vast expanse of territory we’ve always known as Dhaka University, as anything else!

But, with a few clues and prompts, let’s try to expand our imaginations as we travel back in time to the pre-DU days.

Let’s begin by eliminating many of the establishments and structures from our minds, with the exception of a few, which we’ll discuss later. As a result, the majority of the university’s structures have been demolished. Similarly, there is no Shaheed Minar, Aparajeyo Bangla, or other such structures.

Musa Khan’s Mosque, as well as Haji Khwaja Shahbaz Mosque, were still standing — the region was originally known as Bagh-e-Musa Khan. There are two magnificent Mughal-era structures on or near the DU campus that are well worth seeing.

The Sikh temple on Nilkhet Road is also older than Dhaka University. Because of its etymology, we might think of indigo plantations or warehouses when we think about Nilkhet, although this is just a conjecture.

Of course, there’s the little but exquisite Greek memorial, which is currently housed within the TSC’s present premises.

Our beloved Madhur Canteen, on the other hand, should not be overlooked when reminiscing about our pre-university days. It was not yet Madhur Canteen, but a Nawab family Jalshaghar or Durbar Hall, and looking at an old photograph will make you wonder how similar today’s Madhur Canteen and yesterday’s Durbar Hall are.

Perhaps it is an irony that the Madhur Canteen area, and the campus as a whole, which is a political melting pot, was politically significant even before Dhaka University was founded: the location is known in history as the birthplace of the All India Muslim League.

We also don’t need to rule out Curzon Hall. Lord Curzon established the basis for it during his visit to Dhaka in 1904. You could wonder what the neighborhood was like at the time. These simple phrases, penned over a century ago, may conjure up the following image in your mind:

“Where the owl used to hoot

The jackal screams,

Dwarf and tall thickets

Today, it stands in state.

A sentinel-like figure

The magnificent Curzon Hall.”

It’s difficult to envision the bustling DU campus looking like this! If it’s any comfort, Lord Curzon prophesied that the city would soon replace all those jungles, amidst the wildness, with the ‘new’ Curzon Hall in situ (intended to be utilized as a town hall).

He resided at Nawab Salimullah’s Ahsan Manzil, and while we think of Ahsan Manzil as the epitome of the Nawab family, the dynasty actually owned a number of mansions in the area that we now connect with Dhaka University.

Shahbagh (literally, royal garden) was a grandiose affair, with the principal edifice being the magnificent Ishrat Manzil.

In one section of the park, the Nawabs had their own zoo. In 1888, it was visited by renowned historian and physician Hakim Habibur Rahman, who saw a variety of creatures, including tigers and bears.

The Nawab family used to have a festival at Shahbagh to commemorate the Gregorian calendar’s New Year.

Rahman shared an account about a catastrophe he observed as a child at one of the celebrations. At Shahbagh, there was a bridge across a pond that fell during a performance, killing a lot of people.

In retrospect, an interesting historical footnote in his book reveals that the location he was referring to was, in fact, a pond in Charukala!

But what do we know about the larger area that is currently known as Dhaka University? There is no straight explanation to Dhaka’s history, but there are indications that tickle the mind.

To give an example, the name Shahbagh is suggestive of Bagh-e-Badshahi, which means “royal garden.” Historians believe Shahbagh was likely a part of it.

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Ramna is another name that comes to mind when we consider the campus’s past. Don’t confine yourself to Ramna Park right away. ‘Ramna’ was originally a huge area that included Ramna Park, Nilkhet, Minto Road, Curzon Hall, and other areas. Ramna Racecourse and historic residential quarters, Mohallah Chistiah and Mohallah Shujatpur are just a few of the archaic names that confuse the mind even more (as well as the original structure of the iconic Ramna Kalibari which was torn down in 1971 by the Pakistan army).

To make sense of it, we may look at DU’s website, which states, “The University was established on 600 acres of land in a lovely section of the city known as Ramna.”

Haziness also develops while imagining the historical structures that still exist on campus today. Don’t be tricked into thinking that everything looked the same as it does now.

The haziness is part of the allure; the romance of a bygone era. Dhaka University is steeped in history, and as we commemorate the university’s century-long journey thus far, let us also remember the area’s history, which predates the university.

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Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed

References: ‘Dacca: A Record of Its Changing Fortunes,’ published by Ahmad Hasan Dani; ‘Photographic Album of Old Dhaka,’ edited by Iftikhar-ul-Awwal; ‘Dhaka Panchas Baras Pahle,’ by Hakim H abibur Rahman, translated by Mohammad Rezaul Karim; ‘Dacca: History and Romance in Place Names,’ by Azimusshan Haider; Dhak

From The Daily Star.

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