On the PK Sen Road in Sadarghat, Firingi Bazar, Chattogram, stands an imposing structure that was once known as the highest building in Chattogram, the PK Sen Sattala (seven-story tall).
The design of the building is bold; the big balconies and the rooftop is a mesmerising sight. But the true beauty of the structure lies inside. As we entered the ground floor, we were mesmerised by the crisscrossing stairs, the way to the upper floors resembled a magical world.
However, the uniqueness of the building is not in its height or grandeur. Rumour has it that this unique structure was constructed in 1890. It belonged to the Zamindar of then Nowapara of Raujan, Prasanna Kumar Sen – PK Sen as we know him now.
PK Sen had made a fortune selling medicine and decided to use his wealth to create an architectural masterpiece in his name. Nonetheless, city plan records from that time show that the building was built around the 1920s.
To turn this dream into a reality, he brought masons to Chattogram all the way from Kolkata. But why masons and not local workers? It is said that PK Sen Sattala was not only the highest building in Bengal, but it was also the first building to be constructed using reinforced concrete in the region.
As a matter of fact, a structure such as the PK Sen Sattala could not be constructed with building materials from that era: chun (ground limestone), surkhi (ground bricks) and wooden or I-beams as supporting columns.
"Using chun, surkhi and wooden or I-beams, a couple of storeys or a maximum of three storeys can be built. A seven-storey high building by today's standard can only be constructed using reinforced concrete material," said Architect Huda Mohammed Faisal, PhD Fellow, Kyushu University, Japan.
Inside, we could feel the test of time everywhere our eyes went: the labyrinth-like stairs, broken windows, the plaster on the walls and the lofty ceilings all lacked restoration for decades.
Although the height of PK Sen Sattala, including the rooftop temple's dome and mast, is in fact seven-storey high, living-floors max out on the fourth floor. The structure tapers symmetrically inward as it goes up.
"This kind of architectural intricacy and use of materials was seen exclusively in European countries at the time. It was called the tallest and the grandest building in Chattogram because it was second to none. Not another building like that existed in this part of Bengal back then," said architect Huda Faisal, an architect who specialises in restoring old, historic buildings to their former glory.
According to the blueprints of the building, the first three floors were the living areas. On the fourth floor is a chilekotha [rooftop suite]. On top of that are two towering minarets that form a temple. The dome on top of it, accompanied by the mast at the very top, adds an entire floor's height to the building and thus appears to be seven-stories high from the ground level.
The design is a combination of subcontinental Hindu temples, Islamic architecture and also European Gothic style. The century-old railings, domes, spiral stairs, and iron pillars are a part of this fascinating display. A river also used to flow by the building when it was first constructed, giving the place a river view from the rooftop. The design ensured fresh air always reached the occupants.
But the most surprising fact of all is that the structure is still standing.
Who lives there now?
It would appear time has been unkind to the structure as it is no longer safe for occupants. But the Ghosh family, the current owners, are still living in it.
After the 1947 Partition, between 1950 and 1952, PK Sen sold this house to Sadananda Ghosh and left for India. Sadananda, along with two of his younger brothers – Sushil and Chintananda Ghosh – settled in, according to Huda.
Since the Ghosh family's purchase of PK Sen Sattala, the structure has not only stood against the test of time; it has witnessed much of the pivotal histories of this part of the world – the 1971 Liberation War was a major incident among them, and the structure sustained heavy damage from the conflict.
Being a Hindu household, the Pakistani military exploited and destroyed the home extensively. None of the old windows and doors survived their intrusion. Their belongings were looted, and one of the three Ghosh brothers, Chintaharan, was abducted during the war and never returned.
The remaining Ghosh brothers slowly tried to restore their house after the war. But the last few decades have taken its toll. Standing as it may be, it is now unsafe to live there without heavy renovation.
Eventually, Sadananda Ghosh left for India with his family, leaving only Sushil behind. Sadananda and Chintaharan's shares of the property were sold off, pieces at a time. What remains of PK Sen Sattala now is in Sushil's name. Sushil's four sons now live in it.
The dilemma with PK Sen Sattala's present and future
The maintenance of this landmark site comes with irregular challenges.
To rescue the building and to preserve its historical significance, the current owners reportedly contacted local authorities in the early 2000s. Their attempt failed. As time passed, the structure became even more hazardous to live in.
The Ghosh family was even given a notice by the Chattogram City Corporation stating the building was no longer livable, and that the family should move out. Frustrated, they gave it up to AirBell, a developer company from Chattogram, to strip it down and build something new in its place. Joytu Ghosh, one of Sushil's sons, refused to speak on the matter.
Former Deputy Chief town planner Md Shahinul Islam Khan from Chattogram Development Authority (CDA) intervened. He did not approve the demolition of PK Sen Sattala or the construction of any other structure in its place.
According to the CDA's government-approved Chattogram metropolitan master plan report, the PK Sen Sattala is a unique heritage and has cultural value. Despite a government-approved report, the structure still needs concerned approval from the government to restore it to its original state.
"The architecture of PK Sen Sattala is rare not only in Chattogram but in Bangladesh," said urban planner and architect Zarina Hossain. Her involvement with Shahinul Islam's attempt to save PK Sen Sattala from the imminent threat of demolition further helped the cause.
Zarina Hossain said, "The PK Sen Sattala had been listed for conservation under 'Areas and Buildings requiring Preservation and Conservation for Historical, Architectural, Environmental or Ecological point of view in Annex 4 of the Detailed Area Plan for Chattogram Metropolitan Master Plan by CDA'."
Huda Faisal is holding exhibitions in Japan, where he is a PhD fellow, to rally support from the international community to retain the building's historical significance and status.