Eid in Bangladesh essentially shuts the country down for 4-5 days; and I mean shut down. The roads are virtually vacant and most shops and restaurants are closed as hundreds of people go back to their hometowns or just relax during the few government holidays available. While it offers a much welcomed break from work, it can also be hard to find ways to fill in the free time when there’s hardly anything open. This Monday was the last official vacation day for half of the BLC (housing) group that stayed in Dhaka for Eid and, being disappointed by a closed bakery the day before, I was hopeful but weary that today would be more fruitful. So we ventured into Old Dhaka to explore its narrow alleyways as that part of the city is kind of in ruins itself. Honestly, I thought I saw whatever there was to see the first time some of the girls and I took a small tour of the area and wasn’t sure of what to expect. Happy to say that I was proved wrong.
Ahsan Manzil (aka the “Pink Palace”) was used as the point of reference for the CNGs, but to our surprise, the site was actually open (we failed once before and it was expected that Eid closures were still in effect). The structure was built in the late 19th century and was home to the Nawabs, or rulers, of Dhaka, at one point the center of trade and political power in East Bengal and Assam province. It’s hard to say just how pink the palace used to be, but more recent renovations have rendered the building a subtly striking pinkish coral color that really stands out from the old beige of the surrounding streets, more so against the gray sky that threatened rain all day. Inside is a museum providing the history of the home and reconstructed rooms where one can imagine local royalty from the colonial area dining around the elaborately set long table, or entertaining guests with tea and chatting on plush cushions in the formal living room. Luckily, the rain decided to pour while we were inside, and we could watch it fall looking out of the wrought iron windows. It all emphasized how closed the active chapter of the palace’s history was.
The view from the front of the building includes the Buriganga river so we made our way closer to it. Once there, we saw row boats willing to take visitors around the water and agreed on taking a ride. I couldn’t contain my excitement; this was something I’ve been wanting to do since I got to Bangladesh and after one of the guys did so already. For almost half an hour, we sat peacefully on a shallow wooden nouka (“boat”) as a gentleman gently rowed us past the palace we explored moments ago. You can imagine what life must have been like in the Manzil’s hey-day: strolling around the palace grounds, watching the fishermen and tradesmen row across the river, maybe taking a ride yourself.
Then, an improvised adventure letting random alleyways take us where they will. And somehow, they took us to church. An Armenian church, or rather, the Armenian Church featured in almost every tourism guidebook. It is a medium-sized gold-embroidered white building with what reminded me of Spanish-influenced missionary architecture. After the initial shock of what we stumbled upon, we walked to the entrance where a man welcomed us inside even though we were technically past normal visiting hours. Right as you enter, there is an open courtyard riddled with tombstones–many with uniform white crosses, others with personalized marble plaques honoring the deceased. Beyond that lies a garden and the house where the caretaker and his family live. According to Mr. Ghosh, the incredibly warm and talkative caretaker, this church, built in 1781, has been under his family’s care for almost 80 years, even though they themselves are Hindu. From what Savannah and I gathered, the family has had a very close relationship to the Armenians who settled here years ago (garment factory owners?), but most of the Armenians have since moved away.
He opened up the inside of the church and turned on the lights to reveal an aisle of pews leading up to an altar of lamps and paintings of Jesus, all below a high-vaulted ceiling from which small fans and lamps hung down. Mr. Ghosh continued chatting with Savannah and showed the baptism room to the left while Stephen leafed through one of the Bibles. I joined Carly and Dorothy sitting in the pews and tried to absorb the feeling of the church: it was beautiful in its well-crafted simplicity, decorated but not gaudy, a sense of open space yet smallness that asked for quiet observation. Apparently service is only held on special occasions as there isn’t a large enough Christian population around for regular use.
We stayed at the church for some time, and as it grew darker outside, Mr. Ghosh offered to walk us to a mosque nearby. Maghrib time was minutes away when we arrived so we decided not to disturb the prayer and looked on from afar. Finally, it was time to head home. The ride back was pretty quiet from what seemed like exhaustion given the jam-packed day we had. I am content.
Alouise said, and I readily agree, that you don’t need to go outside (Old) Dhaka to enjoy a vacation. It deserves a second, third, fourth visit, with historical sites I was unaware were so close to home. While I desperately hoped to get out of here for the few days we got off, I am grateful to explore a side of the the city that I had not appreciated before.