The sign on the gate said, “Closed for renovation”. It gave no date for when the works might be completed. We got out of the car and Dev spoke to a bored looking uniformed security guard for a few minutes while I hung about unable to follow the conversation. The guard then disappeared through a small door set within the gate, emerging five minutes later to say he said he’d spoken to his boss and that we could go in.
The building under renovation was one of Dhaka’s most elegant - the Rose Garden Palace. It is said to be the result of an insult at a jalsa, a grand party, held in the Baldha Garden (today’s Botanical Gardens) in the 1830’s. Narendra Narayan Chaudhury, owner of the garden mocked Hrishikesh Das, another rich Hindu zamindar (landowner) because of his low-caste status. Das was a banker who also dealt in brick and tile manufacturing and traded coal, lime and timber. He was so enraged that he vowed to build a bigger, better palace than Chaudhury’s and his Rose Garden became known for special musical performances attended by the city’s most prominent people.
I was unsure in what condition I would find Das’ palace, but once inside the gate I could see that it had been better cared for than many other heritage buildings in Dhaka. The structure is intact and the decorative features on the façade in good condition. Gaining entry to the building was a step too far for the security guard’s boss and so I was unable to view the thirteen apartments spread over two floors. There are (or were) two ballrooms, one at each level. The upper ballroom has what has been described as an “ostentatious dome”. Other internal features include decorative mosaics and coloured skylights, part of a design that combines western and local influences.
"That's not a problem sir. It won't be allowed".
The rose garden that gave the palace its original name disappeared long ago, but the original marble statues have survived and there was evidence that some re-planting had taken place. The pond at the end of the garden had been drained, revealing large amounts of rubbish thrown from the high-rise flats on the other side of the wall. The guard said that there were plans to re-instate the pond. I asked him how they would prevent the neighbours from using it as a rubbish dump. “That’s not a problem sir. It won’t be allowed” he said.
Das’ extravagant lifestyle eventually brought him to bankruptcy and the palace was sold. Despite this he is not lost to history. A street in Old Dhaka still bears his name – Hrishikesh Das Road in the Sutrapur neighbourhood. In 1937 the palace passed to Khan Bahadur Kazi Abdur Rashid. Under Das’ ownership the building had primarily been used for entertaining, but Rashid chose to live there. He renamed his new home Rashid Manzil, and these words still appear on the façade. He was a successful businessman with several interests including ownership of a publishing house. He was also involved in politics, eventually becoming a Member of the Pakistani Parliament following Independence and Partition. Rashid campaigned for the political rights of East Pakistanis (today’s Bangladeshis) and many liberals and social democrats spent time at the house discussing this issue. This culminated in June 1949 in the formation of the Awami League, a political party opposed to the governing Muslim League which many Bengalis believed no longer represented their needs.
In the 1960’s the palace was leased to the Bengal Motion Picture Studio Ltd. Several historical dramas were filmed there, the first of which was Harano Din (Lost Days), a 1961 film starring Shabnam and Ghulam Mustafa in the lead roles. Shabnam played the part of Mala, a snake charmer ‘s daughter who receives the unwanted attention of a rich landlord before finally managing to evade him. In 1989 the building was declared a national heritage monument and in 2018 was purchased by the Government. Plans were announced for the palace to become a museum, but the programme was disrupted by Covid, and it is not clear when the work will be complete.
After half an hour of admiring the exterior of the palace and trying, unsuccessfully to peek through the ground floor windows, the guard started to become uncomfortable. Not wishing to outstay our welcome we left the quiet of the garden to re-enter the noisy Dhaka streets, but not before thanking him in the usual way.