Under the searing red-hot sun, my Uber driver dropped me on the Buriganga Dam road in KamrangirChar. I was looking for the Lalbagh Soshan Ghat playground, at the capital's 24 no. ward. Turns out, although the playground is known as Lalbagh Soshan Ghat playground; I found out after walking a few blocks that it was actually named Haji Delowar Hossain playground, after the deceased Member of Parliament of the area.
In 2019, the playground was designed and built under the 'Jol-Sobuje Dhaka' project, undertaken to revitalise 31 parks and playgrounds by the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC). Architect Rafiq Azam and his team Shatotto Architecture for Green Living designed the Delowar Hossain playground and also led the Jol-Sobuje Dhaka project.
'Jol-Sobuje Dhaka' started in July 2016, aiming to offer healthy civic amenities to the residents, particularly children, youths, and elderly people.
The playground is home to a broad walkway, seating arrangements, space for cricket and football practice, gym, library, coffee shop, toilets, rainwater collecting trenches under the walking track, water filtration plant, etc, similar to many other 'Jol-Sobuje Dhaka' project parks.
But it was not only the playground that took me to Lalbagh. I was there to find the story of how restoring this playground required the architect to create communal harmony among the local Hindu and Muslim community that reside around the playground.
How two religious communities became relevant to the project
The playground is located within a residential area dense with civic facilities. Some major facilities include the Lalbagh Model School, a Kali Mandir temple, a crematorium, a graveyard for the Hindu community across a small water body, and an under-construction DCC maternity clinic.
There are residential apartments to the West and institutional buildings to the North-West. Unfortunately, the temple and crematorium were not well planned to support the local community, which added to traffic circulation and contributed to congestion.
"As we studied the project area, we found that it was predominantly a Hindu area in the past and they had an open-to-sky crematorium. Now the Muslim community consists of the majority of the local people, and there is a Mazar Sharif at one corner of the playground," the chief architect of the project Rafiq Azam said.
There is also a pond and a graveyard for the Hindus near it. The pond is an essential part, because before and after cremation, the relatives of the deceased need to take a bath to get purified.
Beside the crematorium, there is a graveyard for Hindus as well. According to Hindu religious customs, children and doms (people who cremate the dead bodies) are not cremated, instead, they are buried, because babies, children, and saints are believed to be pure and unattached to their bodies, therefore they are buried instead of cremated.
But when the team of architects arrived there, they found that the pond was already filled with dirt and it appeared the Mazar Sharif had been established taking possession of a portion of the playground.
The park was commonly used during Eid-ul-Adha to sell sacrificial animals, which eventually left it dirty and unhygienic for days due to improper maintenance of the surrounding environment. Each facility in this zone was enclosed by boundary walls, and their exteriors were used as waste dumping areas.
Additionally, the park lacked accessible walkways, spaces for relaxation, and children's play areas. The condition of the park was unsafe for children and the elderly alike, further contributing to its decrepit state.
"After every Eid-ul-Adha, we could not even walk around the park due to the malodor from the animal feces. We didn't let our kids walk past it after dark," one of the local people sitting there shared his experience.
The boundary wall along the crematorium space was used for drug trafficking and other illegal activities after dark.
And they also found out that there was a negative perception about cremation rituals among people in the Mazar Sharif. They don't like the idea of burning dead bodies, smoke spiraling upwards. And the Hindus are almost helpless there, as they have no other place to go. So they remain silent, they don't want to lose this piece of land.
Ruma Barman, sitting near the Kali temple premise said, "As the pond became unusable, we had to go to Buriganga river, far from here, and take a bath in the dirty water of the river".
"So, one thing we decided first was that if we want to restore the playground for the community people without creating any discord or segregation, we need to work on the communities first. From our past experiences, we realised that if a community doesn't own an entity, they don't take responsibility for it either. So no matter how beautiful a playground we build, eventually, it would be damaged again for lack of maintenance and ownership," Rafiq Azam said.
How they redesigned the community space
To reinvigorate the park and improve accessibility and usability of the surrounding civic facilities, the first thing the architectural team did was remove the brick boundary walls around the playground which segregated the community, and replaced them with iron mesh screens and vegetation that created an open breathing space and increased the visibility from both ends.
The open-to-sky traditional crematorium was turned into an electric one with a concrete roof overhead. "The open-air burning is hazardous for the environment and the people. The Hindu community had already seen such a modern crematorium in India, so they didn't resist this change. Instead, they welcomed this initiative", Architect Rafiq shared.
Surrounding the crematorium, the architect decided to bring the graveyard, temple, and crematorium under a single compound by leveling the ground around the structure. He also builts screen around the electric crematorium to protect the facilities and reduce health hazard from the short chimney.
The pond has been thoroughly cleaned and an oval concrete ghat with seating has been built, which is helping local Hindus to perform their religious rites with ease and also keeps the surrounding environment cool.
"Now we didn't want the Mazar Sharif to feel left out since we redesigned the Hindu community spaces. So we incorporated a library and a coffee shop on the two sides of the Mazar Sharif", the architect said.
The playground has a rainwater collection trench underneath the walkway that can be filtered and later used for wudu (cleaning oneself before namaz) and can be used for drinking as well.
"Although the Mazar people refused to use the water saying if they use pre-stored recycled water, their prayer will not be accepted by Allah. We didn't want to push'', the architect said.
The café, gym, and library are under construction currently, which will be completed by the end of this year. "These spaces will promote business and provide more sources of income for the park's upkeep," Rafiq Azam said.
Initially, it was not easy. Architect Rafiq Azam said, "We approached our client - the city corporation, to allow us to work on the community establishments - for example, the pond, the crematorium, the Mazar sharif, and then the playground. Only then will trust be restored between people of both communities and they will share it and take care of it."
The mayor pointed to budget constraints for undertaking such a huge restoration, but eventually, over the years, the funds were managed.
"If there is humanity, the spiritual needs of people are similar, regardless of the religion or the community they belong to. Issues arise when we lose humanity or spirituality leaves us. All we wanted is to provide the environment where co-existence and shared spirituality can grow for both the religions," the architect ended.