Architect Dr Abu Sayeed Mostaque describes how he took on the challenging task of restoring the hundreds-of-years-old Nimtali Deuri
While walking past the Amar Ekushey Hall, the Anwar Pasha building and the Asiatic Society at the Dhaka University area, it took me quite some time to realise that this is where the famous Nimtali palace used to stand.
I was trying to reimagine the paintings of Charles D'Oyly and Frederick William de Fabeck from the 18th century. In one of the paintings, one Eid procession was standing in front of this palace and in another sketch, one of the deuri or gates of the palace stands with boundary walls.
But standing amidst the 21st-century reality, or as we say the 'urban jungle', it was almost uncanny of me to revive something that's almost 300 years old.
Or maybe not. Because in that concrete clan, I came across something - a gothic arched gateway, tangerine-coloured, with immaculate design on it. It was the west gate of Nimtali Kuthi - an 18th century palace - recently restored and now being used as the Asiatic Society Heritage Museum.
Dr Abu Sayeed Mostaque Ahmed was the main architect of this restoration project and it was his first restoration project in Bangladesh.
History of Nimtali Deuri
The word 'deuri' means a gateway or an entrance. The origin of this word could not be found, but it is assumed that the place was once full of neem trees.
In his book Dhaka Sriti Bisritir Nagori, Muntasir Mamun says that Nimtali Palace or Nimtali Kuthi was built towards the end of the Mughal rule as a residence of the Naib-Nazim (Deputy-Governor) of Dhaka Province in 1765-66. The palace was part of the socio-religious life of the Dhakaites. Early 19th century paintings, now at the National Museum, depict that the Eid processions used to originate and terminate at the Nimtali Deuri. Another significant event was the flag music, played from the Deuri gallery.
It is said to be the first colonial building in Dhaka. In 1763, British Army officer Lt. Swinton stormed into Dhaka and occupied the 'Fort' as his residence in 1763. The Naib-Nazim, Nawab Jasarat Khan who resided in one of the Mughal palaces or Forts was not present in Dhaka.
The restoration process of Nimtali Deuri
As an architectural history and conservation enthusiast and a professional historical conservationist, Mostaque Ahmed thinks, "Historical conservation isn't only about restoring a building - it's almost reviving the history itself. And for that, we need to revive the materials and the craftsmanship."
Starting from 2008, it took them four years to complete the restoration and the majority of the time was spent on research.
"To begin with, we had to study pictures, sketches, and many scattered documents and scriptures. It was almost like gathering puzzles and joining them," as Mostaque Ahmed says.
According to the documents found, this somewhat lost palace occupied a considerable area on the northern side of the city between the modern Nimtali Mahalla and the High Court building and consisted of several separate buildings.
Judging from the extant west gateway (Deuri), it may be assumed, the Nimtali Palace was built after the usual Mughal palace designs. The kiosk shaped cupolas on the roof, the balconies, and mouldings in the parapet, and the polygonal shape of the gateway are largely Mughal in design.
According to Banglapedia, Bishop Heber visited the city in 1824. He left a graphic description of the palace, although most of it was then in ruins. He mentions, "A very handsome hall, an octagon, supported by gothic arches, with a verandah round it, and with high gothic windows. The Palace has an open gallery, where the 'Nobut', or evening martial music, is performed."
In addition to what Heber mentioned, there was one chamber with 12 doors known as 'Baraduari.' It is said that the chamber was earmarked for the audience of the 12 Sardars (leaders) of mahallas of the city, who at the time used to enter the hall individually through the 12 doors.
This audience hall which once housed the Dhaka museum from about 1914 to 1983 is now a part of the teachers' residential quarters of the Dhaka University, Anwar Pasha Bhaban.
The palace was an elaborate castle with four entryways or deuri. Mostaque Ahmed and his team restored the west gateway (Deuri) within the buildings of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
At the first stage, archaeologists examined the foundation beneath the building. Through an elaborate excavation, they found the original floor level and did a chemical test of the soil layers. And from there the restoration began.
Manish Chakrabarty, a historical restoration expert from India gave the team some important guidelines.
"The final design came from a lot of feedback from the ministry, Manish and the committee," as Mostaque Ahmed says, "for example, in an 1863 sketch by Frederick William de Fabeck, we found several pinnacles or small domes on the roof of the deuri. But on the actual site, we didn't find any. So we decided to eliminate those from our actual design."
A phase-wise research allowed the team to complete an authentic restoration. And that's why Mostaque feels although it was a small scale restoration project, the impact is quite remarkable.
As he said, "Because after that, I worked on the Baro Sardar Bari in Sonargaon, it was almost 50 times larger than Nimtoli deuri. But it was comparatively easier for me now that I knew where to find the experts and the artisans."
One of the main challenges was to find authentic materials and artisans, Mostaque Ahmed explains, "for example, instead of wall paints, the masons back then used Surki made of brick dust, lime and for good binding, they used natural sticky components like betelnut tannin, catechu, thickened date syrup or even black lentils. From the literature, we learnt about the components but we didn't know the formula. So after several trial-and-error phases, we finally got the perfect ratio of components that we used."
Again, they used soft bricks that are burnt for a lesser time so that the bricks can soak all the bindings and surki. That's what they used, 'number 3 brick,' as Mostaque calls it.
But if we want to revive the traditional ancient craftsmanship, then we must nurture the artists, otherwise why would they continue the craft? That's also one of the main goals of any conservation - to train the workers. Because we faced a huge challenge to find proper craftsmen. Nurturing these area-based small industries is crucial for any conservation.
And Bangladesh has many heritage sites that need to be reconstructed. But there is no academic course or institutionalised studies regarding historical heritage conservation in Bangladesh. That's another thing we need to work on, as Mostaque Ahmed notes.