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Tearing down history: Khamarbari lab to make way for high-rise

  • Published at 01:03 am October 29th, 2017
  • Last updated at 01:10 am October 29th, 2017
Tearing down history: Khamarbari lab to make way for high-rise
It is not often that you see engineers, architects and environmentalists under one banner. Saturday morning saw a human chain in front of Dhaka North City Corporation’s only archaeological heritage site in Khamarbari. The colonial bungalow hybridising European architecture with Subcontinental features formerly housed Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute (Bari). It was the oldest research laboratory in the country, an early and integral part of the area known as Khamarbari. The century-old building, which has been monumental in allowing for research that furthered agriculture, a crucial sector of the country, has been surprisingly approved for demolishing. To make matters worse, the demolishing has already begun. A Dhaka-based coalition of concerned citizens called Urban Study Group (USG) organised the protest, demanding the demolishing activities be stopped, and measures taken to protect the heritage site in the heartland of Dhaka. USG was supported by Poribesh Bachao Andolon (Poba), who decried the “big development” set to replace the oldest research laboratory in Dhaka.

118 years of service becomes rubble

The now mutilated, skewered building which is now draped beneath brown construction curtains used to be a proud heritage site as of last week. In 1909, it was constructed to serve the government agriculture research laboratory. In the mid 19th century, Oxford and Cambridge universities began offering advanced courses on agriculture. What with Bengal being an agriculture-oriented region, it was tapped as a prime candidate for research techniques and studies. Following several famine across the Indian Subcontinent in the 19th century, the British government formed a commission in 1880 which advised, among others, forming separate departments to study agriculture. After the 1905 Partition, Dhaka became the provincial capital and warranted an agriculture research facility. The Agriculture Research Laboratory was set up in 1908 in the building now being demolished. The government also acquired 600 acres of land nearby to set up Dhaka Farms, which would later be known as Khamarbari with its numerous agricultural facilities.

Protesters inspect the vast damage done unto the ruined laboratory on October 28, 2017  Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

The laboratory building stood out among others as a hallmark to visionary genius and unparallel aesthetic. It endured for over 100 years, survived the 1945 Partition, saw the British and Pakistani regimes pass, and continued well into the 21st Century history of Bangladesh, but a warped sense of development signed its death sentence. The laboratory was established to facilitate scientific research to improve production of crops and protect them from natural hazards. It marked the beginning of a new era when with increased scientific research and development of new technology, the dependence of the farmers on nature was gradually minimised, which culminated in the thriving agriculture sector today. It finally served as the headquarters of the Diploma Agricultural Institute and the Cotton Development Board, while owned by the Public Works Department of Bangladesh.

Architecture value

The building is a marvel of the late colonial style, identified by the multiple bays and superimposed arcades covering deep verandas stretching over the full length of the building. Segmental arches, ornately decorated cornice and parapets mark the laboratory.  Another striking feature is the use of sloped sunshades for protection against rain and sun. In the past it has used central panels topped by pediments. Tall windows with decorative sunshades manifested on every floor.

From dust to dust

Today, the first thing one can see one enters the perilous building with rubble strewn about is an epitaph. It is dedicated to Kenneth McLean, a senior British official who served as the director of agricultural research in Bengal region from 1914 to 1937. The demolishing was first noted on October 24, Tuesday, when the porch and parapet was destroyed. Architect Mustapha Khalid Palash said, “If the building is demolished, we are going to lose an important part of our history and heritage. “The authority can implement their new plan if they have some, but the building should be kept intact,” he added. Dhaka city is over 400 years old and has seen many masters. but preserving history is an important method of reclaiming everything they left as our own. Speakers at the human chain urged people to come forward to protect the building.

The research laboratory building before it was condemned for demolishing Urban Study Group

Taimur Islam, chief executive of USG, alleged that many archaeological sites, like this building, have been destroyed due to lack of coordination among Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), Department of Archaeology and the city corporations. “The court gave direction to stop demolition of the building, but it has been demolished despite the direction,” he said. He said: “The stay order needs to ensure that the demolishing work stops. Otherwise, from my previous experience, the stay order is an order only in paper, not action.” He further demanded punishment of the people who are behind demolishing heritage sites in the city. A Facebook-based movement is looking to start soon to gain further momentum. In addition, there will be several art camps in front of the Khamarbari laboratory building, and several student organisations have pledged to sit-in for an hour on Sunday. On October 31 Tuesday, a mass protest is set to take place in front of the building at 3pm. Taimur lamented the current situation, saying: “It seems like the day is not that far when people will point towards a new modern building and say the first research laboratory in the region used to be here.” The protesters on Saturday were able to stop the workers temporarily from their heinous work. The protesters entered the ruined laboratory and inspected the vast damage done unto it. While colonisation is looked upon as a curse, it cannot be denied that without its much multifaceted and widespread contribution to the region, things would be very different. More importantly, demolishing the last remaining vestiges of colonial presence erases a part of the history that has played a key role in the development of a crucial sector of our country.