In the years before Bangladesh attained its sovereignty, back in the days of zamindars (landowners) and nawabs (muslim prince), the most significant events in Dhaka were held and celebrated at the Ahsan Manzil – or the Pink Palace, among foreigners. In fact, even Lord Curzon, the most influential British viceroy to India (responsible for the restoration of the Taj Mahal from its state of disrepair), stayed at the palace during his visits in East Bengal. With its tantalizing Neo-mughal architecture and its idyllic location beside the Buriganga, Ahsan Manzil is a delightful place to be. I wanted to immerse in its rich historical past. And it didn’t fail me.
After rowing down Buriganga River, my guide Mahfuz took me back to Sadarghat. We waded through a sea of rickshaw as the roads turned narrower than I thought possible. We walked through a bazaar selling pots and kettles, slippers, bike tires, second hand electric fans, packets of cha (tea), slabs that looked like miniature tombstones, and even kites. This couldn’t be the famed Shankharia Bazaar (aka Hindu Street), and it wasn’t. We walked along Ahsanmullah Road, a part of a cloister called Kumartoli, until we reached an imposing building whose walls were pink, with vestiges of posters carelessly stripped off what were once majestic walls. Vandalism, without a doubt, is a rhymeless defacement of beauty; the scourge of a civilized society.
There was a hole on the wall, gaping over an arch of crisscrossing bars. It was the ticket booth selling 2 taka entrance tickets. Two taka? How much is that worth? Heck, it isn’t even $0.015 cents. Not even a fourth of a jawbreaker or a gummy candy. PhP1.25 won’t even buy me a piece of Mentos. Whatever apprehensions I surmised from its vandalized walls and dirt-cheap entrance immediately transformed into a sense of excitement the minute I stepped inside the palace grounds. The palace has an entrance with a drive way at the south side, facing the river. I was welcomed into a sprawling garden embellishing one of the most alluring sights I was to witness in Dhaka – a grandiose pink building that inspires visions of old Europe, seemingly misplaced in a city like Dhaka.
I was led to this magnificent smaller building at the immediate corner of the entrance to deposit my backpack. All this marvel is just a cloakroom? I sighed and left my belongings inside. I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to document the interiors of the palace, now a museum. But photos outside Ahsan Manzil were allowed, so that provided a bit of relief.
OF NAWABS, ZAMINDARS AND RANG MAHALS
Ahsan Manzil boasts of a colorful history. During the era of the mughals, a Barisal zamindar, Sheik Enayetullah started construction of a palace for recreation and called it Rang Mahal who passed it on to his son. A French trader purchased the grounds and transformed it into a trading outpost. In 1830, a muslim prince Nawab Khwaja Alimullah bought it from the French and converted it into a residence. The nawabs hail from an ancestry of Kashmiri traders of gold dust and skins.
But it wasn’t until 29 years later when the succeeding Nawab Abdul Ghani started an ambitious construction. He commissioned a European firm (Martin and Company) for this. In 1859, with the nawab’s wealth multiplying exponentially (they amassed wealth that allowed them to own more than half of Dhaka’s public lands), construction began and took 13 years. He named this after his son, Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah – thus Rang Mahal became Ahsan Manzil! The structure to its side retained its name, Andar Mahal.
The palace wasn’t spared from the natural calamities that frequently face Bangladesh – a tornado in 1888, and an earthquake in 1897, both causing severe damage. But the nawabs were devoted to their abode. They overhauled and repaired, and added the marvelous octagonal dome similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Ahsanullah bore a son, Salimullah Bahadur. When Ahsanullah suddenly died in 1901, he didn’t leave a will. This resulted, as per Islamic law, in the division of the whole Nawab estate into 9 parts, for which Salimullah inherited a paltry single share, thus resulting into the gradual decline of the palace. It became financially impossible to maintain the estate. Rooms were rented out for revenues without much consideration for its upkeep, until it fell into despondency and disrepair.
It wasn’t until the mid-80’s when the Bangladeshi government recognized the historical importance of Ahsan Manzil – a reminder of Dhaka’s last royalty. They acquired the palace and began massive repair, commissioning Shah Alam Zahiruddin’s architectural firm, and completed in 1992. They placed it under the care of the National Museum, now governing its maintenance and operation.
AGORE, GERMAN LUNACY & THE BRITISH HAND TO THE HOLOCAUST
Reference to nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is an interesting anecdotal piece. Tagore has the distinct honor of being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the onset of war in the 40’s, an English instructor named Alex Aronson, who’s a German Jew, was placed in a concentration camp by the British authorities in sympathy of Germany’s racial cleaning. Tagore wrote the influential nawab – twice! – imploring for the release of Mr. Aronson. He wrote: “His need here (in a school Tagore founded) is very great as he is especially in charge of the examinees.” The nawabs are patrons of education that Salimuddin even founded Dhaka Medical School. Aronson was eventually released. But this made me wince at the thought that the British authorities became accomplice to the lunacy of Hitler. Even in the far reaches of the Orient, thousands of miles away from the Reich, the Jews were not spared from such historical atrocity. The thought made me shiver.
IMENSIONS OF A PALACE
Ahsan Manzil recovered its old glory. From the eyes of a thrilled spectator, I couldn’t be more impressed with its grandiose columns of Ionic and Corinthian capitals, but moreso of its colorful past. The palace is a 2-story abode, 125.4 meters (411 feet) by 28.75 meters (94.3 feet), with a spacious stairway that comes down from the southern portico, extending onto the bank of the river through the front garden. Marbles cover the veranda as well as all its 23 rooms – drawing room, library, card room, 14 square rooms, the spacious Jalsaghar (a music room, perhaps), Hindustani room, dining rooms, darbar hall, famous square room (used to store the nawab’s valuables). The dome has a height of 27.13 meters (about 89 ft) from the ground. The design is referred to as Indo-Saracenic Revival, also called Indo-Gothic or Mughal-Gothic, an architectural style movement by British architects in the late 19th century in British India.
Opening hours differ on the season of visit, but it is close on Thursdays. April to September: open from Saturday to Wednesday from 10:30 to 5:30. October to March: open from Saturday to Wednesday from 9:30 to 4.30, closed on Thursdays, Fridays follow half-day schedules from 4-7PM. The supposed limited hours is due to shortage of manpower, which wouldn’t be a problem if they make Ahsan Manzil income-generating. I never thought I’d say this, but a 2 taka entrance fee is too ridiculously generous, even for scrimping tourists.
I didn’t want to leave the Pink Palace abruptly, but I realized I had places to go. The palace is clearly one of Dhaka’s priceless gems, though most of the capital’s local population seem oblivious to its charm. It bears stories that inspire sprawling motion pictures epics and fairy tales. That night, I laid down my bed and dreamt of a Technicolor past; of psychedelic carpets that do not fly; of riding Bengal Tigers. It was a pool of incoherent images that didn’t quite fit together. I wore a moustache that curled at the tips, and grew a bush on my chest. I must have traded spices in another life. When, for some reason, Kolkatan warriors started chasing after me, I fell into a bottomless pit and woke up breathless. Dang! I hate border crossings. Something I had to endure soon thereafter.
This is the Eye in the Sky.