The essay is excerpted from a book that accompanied the exhibition “Pundranagar to Sherebanglanagar: The Architecture of Bangladesh,” organized by Chetana Sthapatya Unnoyon Society at the National Museum in Dhaka in 1997. The exhibition was curated and the book edited by Raziul Ahsan, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf and Saif Ul Haque.
The challenge for the twenty-first century is manifold. While the new, exploding urban dimension must be faced, and while the pressures of modernity, modernization, and the market must be met, it is well to remember that there is always the power of place and the features of locality. The architecture of the last two thousand years or so records a continuous contest between universal and local traditions, but it is the character of the Bengal delta that has persisted and re-emerged in the form and force of the undeniable delta with its wind, water, and clay.
Uncontrolled growth of cities and massive pressures to build in a global consumerist culture should not delude one into thinking that a building is only a commodity, a product of space necessity and economic urgency. The old conception about building is as valid as ever: it establishes our place on earth, becoming a visual manifestation of a much deeper relationship between human life and nature.
It is a curious thing that while the issue of identity has been foremost in Bengali cultural consciousness, architecture, which is the most profound site of identity-making, has been poorly addressed in cultural discourse. Yet, only an investigation of architecture can adequately reveal the depth of our culture and the concealed layers of our heritage. Architecture is a crucial source for understanding where we are and who we are.
The Bengal Delta
The architecture of Bangladesh constitutes a very distinctive character, much as Bengal defines a distinguishable cultural entity. Such distinctiveness rests primarily on two things: the deltaic condition of the region, and its critical location in a wider geographical and cultural context.
Comprising of Bangladesh and part of West Bengal, the delta is located between two geo-cultural matrices. On the one hand, it has always been considered part of a western domain formed mostly by the larger Indian culture, but also extending towards Persia, Arabia, and ultimately Europe. This aspect is seen in most explicit levels of culture: language, liturgies, institutions and laws. On the other hand, at a more primary or foundational level, an unnoticed layer links it with an eastern matrix formed mostly by the cultures of South-East Asia.
As a world of moistness, fecundity and lushness, this eastern matrix is predominantly a water-based civilization where life-enhancing ideals are generated from riverine dynamics and agricultural rituals. It is also a matrix of “rice-culture,” where rice is not something merely consumed but is the basis of a collective ideology, and the articulation of self-identity.
The most prevalent architectural model in the delta is the “pavilion” structure. And the most elemental pavilion is the rustic Bengali hut, which is essentially a roof, a canopy or chhad, meant to thwart the intense sun and the torrential rain, and secondarily, the walls, permeable to the movement of the air and placed well within the perimeter of the roof. Expressed primarily by the parasol roof and porous walls, the hut is a free-standing form whose pavilion-like quality is emphasized by verandahs, terraces, and semi-enclosures. The hut is also the basic living unit of the universe of the Bengali peasant, and the household the unit of production. Both are tied intimately to the spatial context formed by the hut, the uthan (a court) and the wider paddy fields.
An integral relationship between the pavilion and the deltaic geography may be observed in complex organization, from simple clustering to large settlement, and to a city. The relationship implies the arrangement of isolated buildings in a fabric of paddyfields, gardens, orchards, lakes, and ponds. In such arrangements, building clusters are formed by grouping pavilion units in a series or around a loosely interiorized space (the uthan). An understanding of a deltaic city lies, not in the dense labyrinthine fabric of cities like Jaipur and Lahore, but in city-forms east of the Bengal delta, in the so-called “rice-culture” matrix, where the distinction between urban and rural morphology has not been so oppositional.
Stupas, Temples, and Monasteries
The earliest evidence of historical monumental architecture in Bengal comes primarily from the Buddhist tradition and includes stupas, temples, and monasteries, the remains of some of which extend from Paharpur in the north to Mainamati in the south-east. Adopting a more metaphorical and symbolic construction, early monumental architecture represents a conscious deliberation of architectural creation. This deliberateness was the result of a more consolidated political and social structure, that is, the long and fairly stable reign of the Palas (750-1160 AD) and their architectural and artistic maturity, and to the strong cultural links between Bengal, Bihar and Northern India.
Important cities and settlements characterized the “janapadas” in the eastern region at that time. Pundranagar in Paundrabhukti was one of the most important cities in the region, now identified with the current site of Mahasthan. It was a vibrant administrative, religious, and cultural center from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century. Archaeological remains and literary descriptions speak of a planned and magnificent city.
The 8th century monastic complex at Paharpur was the largest in the Pala domain, and presumably the largest in the sub-continent. The complex is a unique combination of the vihara (monastery) and temple, consisting of a vast courtyard, nearly a thousand feet wide, with votive stupas, minor chapels, water tank and other structures. Enclosed by a quadrangular ring of one hundred and seventy-five cells, the center of the complex is described by the impressive cruciform temple-structure that even in its ruinous state stands seventy feet above the ground. It has been suggested that the unique plan of Paharpur – a cruciform multi-leveled central volume with a low-lying monastic perimeter, that is, the combination of vihara and temple-stupa in a single configuration − is the forerunner of well-known temple complexes in South-East Asia, including Borobudur and Angkor Wat.
Remains of temple architecture, particularly Brahmanical, are scanty. Motifs and representations in the sculptural art of the Palas and Senas and certain 11th century manuscript illustrations give indirect evidence of the form and shape of religious structures. Extant temples in Pagan in Burma built in the 10th and the 11th centuries are another important clue to the building tradition of Bengal. According to roof shapes two distinct temple types have been identified: the sikhara (tower) type and the bhadra (tiered) and combinations of the two. Here, a certain tension between the North Indian category, the sikhara type, and the delta-based bhadra type may be noticed, pointing to a difference between the verticality of the sky-soaring sikhara and horizontality of the low-massed structure.
Islam in the Delta
The arrival of the Turks in the 13th century marked a major event in Bengal’s political and social life: the introduction of a Turko-Persian culture, but most importantly, the beginning of the compelling influence of Islam. The new religion was introduced primarily through the mediatory practices of Sufi shaikhs and pirs during the Sultani period, transforming the delta environment in two hundred years into an ambience of mosques and shrines. While later Islam or its orthodox aspect developed a resilience towards local cultures, it is not often acknowledged that the dynamic relationship between Sultani and sthaniya (local) experiences created the efflorescence of a Bengali culture distinct from and often opposed to the North India-centered Sanskritism.
Sultani architecture is generally characterized by the introduction of new building types − mosque, mazar, and madrasa − and of renewed building techniques − the arch and the dome. The most important architectural phenomenon of this period is the introduction of the mosque as a new building type; what is more significant is the development of a “Bengali” mosque type. The “Bengali” mosques elaborate the pavilion idea − the singular, free-standing volume, the walls with real or suggested perforations, and the roof as a canopy similar to the village hut. The expressive quality of brick, and the prolific use of terra-cotta further strengthen a local quality. Art historian Perween Hasan has written about the uniqueness of the Bengali mosque and how little it relates to the characteristic mosques of the Middle-East and North India, with their cloister, the liwan, the elaborate ablution fountain, the minaret and the ceremonial gate. The courtyard of the hot-dry climate was generally rejected in the Bengali mosque, although courtyards were created by putting boundary walls that were never enclosed or too high but were open visually to the surrounding landscape. The walls of the mosque were opened out on all sides; on the qibla side, niches on the wall mirrored the openings on the opposite walls.
The Rise of Laukik Culture
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the upsurge of a truly laukik (vernacular/folk) Bengali culture. Broadly speaking, two streams characterized the culture of the region: the Sanskritic stream, the domain of the pundits and acharyas whose authority came primarily from the Vedic sastras, and the vernacular stream, the world of the river and village dwellers, whose practices relied mostly on localized beliefs and rituals. Even Pala culture, splendorous as it was, was largely articulated through the Sanskritic culture of Magadha and Central India. The distinct architecture of Paharpur was tied in an evolutionary chain to earlier Buddhist architecture at Ellora, Taxila and Nalanda. Until the 15th century, Brahmanical temples were either in the North Indian Nagara mode or the Southern Dravida.
A remarkable thing about this period was the way in which Islam deeply affected the cultural matrix of Bengal, and yet at the same time sparked off the efflorescence of a Bengali laukik culture. While historians argue about the possible cause of the rise of Bengali vernacular literature and culture − a laukik tradition opposed to the classical Sanskritic culture − it is clear that the political and social change brought about by the Pathans and Turks, particularly the disruption of the hegemony of the Brahmins, had a broad and deep effect. Sufi sages were also able to make deep inroads in the villages and into the heartland of Bengal. At the same time, Chaitanya and his devotional Vaisnavism ushered a resurgence of popular traditions as a counterpoint to Brahmanic ritualism. The net result was the flourishing of Bengali language and literature, and certainly architecture: the monumentalized “bangla” roof is a clear sign of that efflorescence.
Sultani architecture is best understood by a triangular relationship of the hut, temple, and mosque, in which the hut was the basis of the development of a Bengali mosque type. While the hut, or the free-standing pavilion, might have been the conceptual idea for building Sultani mosques, it also appeared more literally through various adaptations of the chala form. At the Shait Gumbad mosque in Bagerhat, the Darash Bari mosque and the Choto Sona mosque, both in Rajshahi, the central aisle of each mosque was covered by chau-chala vaults while the rest of the mosque was spanned by domes. If the dome is the icon par excellence of Turko-Persian architecture, or for that matter, the symbol of Muslim architecture, then its replacement by chala shapes, particularly over the main aisle of a mosque, is truly an extraordinary intervention.
By 1596 Mughal rule was consolidated all over Bengal. The formation of the Subah-e-Bangla, the province of Bengal, marked a renewed tension between a Delhi-centered empire and the provincial status of the region. The continuity of a laukik character that had developed and been promoted during the Sultani period was interrupted to a great degree.
Mughal power was interested in the provinces primarily for economic reasons, and to some extent for their exoticism. Abul Faz’l, in the Ain-i-Akbari, mentions the popularity in Agra of the architecture of two provinces, Gujarat and Bengal. An example of it is the privilege given to the uniquely curved “bangla” roof, seen in Delhi in the marble canopy on the emperor’s throne, and in Agra and Lahore on the roof of the emperor’s audience pavilion (the naulakha), and in the emperor’s private mosque, the Moti Masjid.
On the other hand, Mughal architecture in Bengal itself was quite perfunctory. The brick and terra-cotta tradition was ignored for a plain plastered look that was a feeble shadow of the opulent marble buildings in Delhi and Agra. The result was the waning of laukik iconography evolved from local considerations for more Delhi-centered imageries.
Concentrating more on establishing an efficient imperial administrative system, the Mughals focused more on the construction of forts, roads and serais than building memorable and awe-inspiring buildings. Although there was a reasonable number of modest-scaled mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and other buildings, especially in and around Rajmahal, Burdwan, Murshidabad and Dhaka, and while fragments of some palatial complexes survive from Rajmahal and Murshidabad, most Mughal buildings were rather unremarkable.
Principles of large-scale planning in Mughal architecture were exhibited, although feebly, in Shah Shuja’s Palace in Rajmahal (1740s), the Khwaja-i-Shahid Complex in Burdwan (late 17th century), and the incomplete Lalbagh Fort in Dhaka (1680s). Formal gardens and pools, gateways and enclosures, and various buildings like mosques, tombs and madrasas, and sometimes a pavilion in the water, were organized in the characteristic Mughal axial relationship. An important aspect of the late Mughal period is a flurry of temple-building that continued even more prolifically during the British rule. Many temples continued the tradition of earlier centuries, with elaborate brick and terra-cotta work, and glorified bangla roof, but many began to adopt elements from Turko-Persian and later British colonial architecture.
Bengal and Europe
The late eighteenth century, coinciding with the decline of Mughal power, marked another profound turning point: the arrival of the Europeans. Bengal became the gateway of European ascendancy in India; what initially began as trading lead to the usurpation of political power and the complete subjugation of Bengal to English political and cultural dominance.
British colonialism resulted in an overwhelming contact with European culture that eventually coincided with global modernization. A complete overhaul of the social, cultural and urban system resulted through the themes of science, rationalism and technology. New “civic” institutions were introduced, along with the structure of a segregated dual city: the European city and the so-called “native” city. The former came to represent ideas of progress and development, while the latter a congested and chaotic condition. The new economic and administrative structure led naturally to an unprecedented level of building activities with a completely new range of building types: office buildings, railway structures, bungalows, warehouses, hospitals, colleges, etc.
Architectural strategies of the colonial system, as shadows of larger cultural policies, ranged from the haughty neoclassical presence as the Viceroy’s Residence (later the High Court) in Dhaka, to the more climatically and iconographically suitable Curzon Hall. While most buildings followed European models in some way or another, an original architectural event was the production of the “bungalow.” The bungalow epitomized the idea of dwelling in an independent structure in the landscape under the assured shelter of a big roof from where one could look out into the distant horizon. Various forms and techniques were employed for the bungalow but always derived from lessons learnt from climate and local idioms. However, within the colonial ideology of racial segregation, the bungalow also came to encourage spatial distancing and separation. It was soon transplanted as an architectural idea all across the subcontinent and later in many parts of the world.
Within Bengali society, a fresh breed of elite was created by the mid-nineteenth century with a completely new set of ideologies and viewpoints, setting off an elaborate dynamics with colonial culture. It was in essence a complex relationship of resistance and acceptance: a resistance to the traumatising aspects of colonialism and to repressive “traditions,” and an acceptance of trans-cultural ideas and techniques promising new avenues of cultural explorations. Architecture soon reflected this panoply of contradictory and compromising values, tastes and aspirations. This was most evident in the mansions of the zamindars – the zamindarbaris and rajbaris – strewn all across the delta.
The zamindarbaris are an intricate condition of “publicity” and “domesticity.” While the public embracing and practice of European form, mannerism and language were more predominant among the Hindu elite, the Muslim gentry vacillated between European manner and Persian adab. The public “front,” the entry facade of the main building was in an Europeanized architecture, very much in keeping with the public life of the zamindar, while the “drawing room,” a new space type in Bengali domestic world became the site of confrontation between “publicity” and “domesticity,” between the display of public life and the restrictions of the domestic world. In the inner domain of the house, where women prevailed, the practice in both communities was more “Bengali”: in the language spoken, in many of the rituals practiced, in the way space was inhabited, and generally in the way tradition was carried on.
The modern period included both the political movement for independence of the subcontinental nations, and the increasing influence of the international modernist ideology. Bengal’s relation with the “modern project” − the social vision of recreating the world anew − is quite intensive. It had been triggered earlier in the 19th century by colonial dynamics leading towards what came to be known as the “Bengal Renaissance” movement. The radical social and cultural programs of “Bengal Renaissance” generated unprecedented experimentations in literature and art, and in social and cultural institutions (with the only exception of architecture). All these pointed to Bengal’s new eagerness for a civilizational exchange, or in other words, a deep commitment to both world civilization and sthaniya culture.
Two architectural phenomena stand out as strong examples of the modern period: the pioneering work of Muzharul Islam, and the powerful creation of the American architect Louis I. Kahn. Muzharul Islam single-handedly established a modern architectural culture in the country. While architecture was a missing component in the “Bengal Renaissance” experimentations, Muzharul Islam’s work can be seen as its late architectural blooming. A modernist language was practiced purposefully to announce a new promising vision, away from both stigmatized colonial forms and hybrid concoctions. At the Art College and Public Library, both built in 1953, the lessons of European modernism were mediated and manipulated by the rationale of place and climate. His early work of a skeletal nature – sweeping parasols supported by thin columns as witnessed in the NIPA Building of Dhaka University − certainly characterized the deltaic pavilion. His later work, like Jahangirnagar University and National Archives, gave way to a more ponderous expression: earth-hugging volumes geometrically arranged in exposed brick from which openings seen to have been carved out.
Louis Kahn’s Capital Complex project has been considered as one of the most astounding group of buildings of the twentieth century. The architecture of the Assembly − the crown of the group − evokes many traditions, harkening, it may seem, to some classic paradigm. The possibility of a relationship between the form-diagram of the Paharpur monastery-temple complex and Kahn’s Assembly group has been suggested in Chetana’s manifesto of 1981. The rationale lay in the nature of the centralized configuration − low, subservient volumes arranged geometrically and volumetrically to accentuate the central form, the most honorific space at the center.
Kahn’s architecture effectively suggested that sthaniyata and modernism are not incompatible. While programmatically and symbolically, the Assembly houses the highest institution of the country, architecturally it is a thoughtful essay on building in the delta. While Kahn’s modernist architecture offered a new architectural language in Bangladesh, his work in response to the landscape also showed how buildings, gardens and, lakes could form an indivisible unity, how brick could again form a renewed idiom, and how the age-old but straightforward deltaic practice of “dig-and-mound” could generate a modern expression.
But what have received lesser attention are Kahn’s overall master plan and his deep reflection on “how the buildings are to take their place on the land,” that is, in what ways can the buildings be grouped together so that they reveal the qualities of the place. This is suggestively answered in Kahn’s composition of the buildings in an environment of parks, gardens, orchards and lakes. Kahn understood and wanted to heighten the idea that buildings also come together in a particular way in the delta. This issue of grouping buildings can finally be stretched to the overall form of the city. Cities in the delta, or in what has earlier been termed the “rice-culture” matrix, stretching from Bengal to Burma and further to Vietnam, dipping on the other side towards South India and Sri Lanka, have unique urban morphologies, distinct from the interiorized tightly clustered cities of hot-dry cultures. Kahn’s plan − the siting of independent pavilion-like buildings amidst gardens, orchards, lakes − reflects such a deltaic milieu.