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Travels through Bangladesh

Travels through Bangladesh
By Amitabha Bagchi

I. Dhaka: Color, Crowd and Sculpture

It took barely 30 minutes for the puddle-jumper I was in to hop from Kolkata to Dhaka. The winter fog that shrouded the Bengal countryside during the flight mercifully lifted by the time we landed at Dhaka airport — ushering in a sunlit afternoon. Along with the fog, many of my misconceptions about Bangladesh began to lift too as soon as I stepped out of the airport and into the city.

The first thing to strike this visitor to Bangladesh was the profusion of colors. This was especially true of the cycle-rickshaws, pedaled by thin men in lungi, which displayed brilliantly colored hoods – from deep azure to screaming magenta – set off by pleasing designs in gold or black or some other color. The motorized auto-rickshaws — known as CNGs, because they are powered by compressed natural gas (which is plentiful and cheap in Bangladesh) — almost always seemed to have a deep green shade. The displays might strike some as garish, but they provided welcome relief to what might otherwise have been a drab landscape.

There were colors elsewhere as well: on storefronts and sidewalks; on freshly scrubbed murals; on newly painted walls and buildings. Some of it was admittedly a government-inspired effort to prettify the city ahead of the horde of foreigners who would soon descend on it for the opening ceremony of the much-anticipated World Cup of Cricket. But much of it was longer-term and reflected popular taste and sensibility. Dhaka, for example, was awash in bright yellow on the first day of spring (Pohela Falgun or February 13) per the Bengali calendar, especially with young women clad in yellow-orange (“basanti”) saris. And there were other instances of it in everyday items like shopping bags and sundry small artifacts.

Nowhere was the pleasing aesthetics of the land more obvious than in the many attractive sculptures than adorned the centers of most traffic circles in Dhaka. Perhaps in a nod to the Islamic prohibition on making images of living things, the sculptures were generally geometric shapes or abstract designs: an open sphere made up of circular hoops; hollow cylinders sliced on top to show a slanted cross-section; rocket ships; complex and imaginative forms created with metal wires and plates; and so on. There were exceptions, of course – like the flying cranes (“balaka”) near Dhaka University, a posse of freedom fighters next to Shahid Minar (Martyrs’ Monument), or the gilded carriage and coachman in Dhaka’s Ramna neighborhood. Later on my travels through the land, I would see urban sculptures in Chittagong and other towns as well.
The one major downside of Dhaka, however, was its horrendous traffic. Most automobiles in Bangladesh use CNG as fuel. Since it is cheaper than gasoline and less polluting too, this has led to a remarkable boom in auto traffic. But the surface roads are inadequate and insufficient to handle the traffic growth. The result is frequent traffic jams and hours wasted on the road. Some flyovers are being built to relieve road congestion, but it may take the construction of underground railways to fully tackle the problem. Another shortcoming is the relative scarcity of local buses and taxi cabs, although long-distance luxury buses seemed plentiful on the road. Clearly, the Bangladesh government and Dhaka municipality need to pay greater attention to mitigating traffic snarls in the nation’s capital.

A street scene in Dhaka

II. Sylhet: Religions and Tolerance

The sound of ajaan – or Muslim call to prayer – blasted by loudspeakers from a neighborhood mosque woke me very early on the first morning in Dhaka. The morning ajaan became a fixture throughout my stay in Bangladesh, acting as an alarm clock of sorts, and although the sound had startled me that first morning, I grew used to it even if I did not quite appreciate its musicality the same way as a young Barack Obama did in Indonesia.

If the several ajaans during the day for prayers (namaz) were a reminder that Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, the Saraswati Puja celebration that same evening at Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University was a reminder that Bangladesh is functioning well as a multi-religious country too. (Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts; Jagannath Hall is the dormitory complex that houses Hindu students at Dhaka University.) The Saraswati Puja festivity was a grand affair, with two large images of the goddess — on a pool of water and in a central hall — and over fifty smaller images for each department in a circle ringing an enormous playing field. The whole atmosphere was fair-like – with vendors selling trinkets and snacks –and the enthusiasts strolling around and observing the images of the deity were not just Hindus but included a sizable number of open-minded Muslims.

According to the census figures of 2001, the Bangladeshi population is (or was) 89.7% Muslim, 9.2% Hindus, 0.7% Buddhists, 0.3% Christians and 0.1% others. At the time of the partition of British India in 1947, Hindus constituted nearly one-third of the population of Bangladesh. Over the past 60-odd years, the country has been convulsed periodically by riots, ethnic atrocities and religious persecution of the minorities that led to the steep decline of the Hindu population. Politically the country has lurched between embracing secularism (under its founding leader, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman) and espousing Islamism (under Presidents Zia-ur-Rahman and Ershad) as its core identity. At present, Bangladesh is ruled by a minority-friendly government led by Sheikh Hasina (Mujib’s daughter) and religious comity seems to prevail. Things could change, however, if the opposition comes to power, because its coalition includes the Islamic fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami.

I took a luxury coach the next morning to travel from Dhaka to Sylhet in the north-east. (See the map below for the location of the places visited and described here.) The bus terminus was clean and warm, with decent sofas to relax on before departure time. The Volvo bus run by the Green Line Company was nice if a little cramped. Small wonder buses have become the favored mode of transportation in much of Bangladesh.

We crossed the Meghna – my first river crossing, with many more to come – and stopped at Hotel Rajmoni for lunch. The place was bright, inviting and remarkably clean. Subsequently during my trip, I saw several such attractive eateries that cater to long-distance travelers and tourists. They also sell (with evident pride) specialty sweets from their respective regions.
We arrived at Sylhet town in the afternoon. Nestled on the bank of the Surma river, it appeared to have a building boom supported largely by remittances from abroad. People from Sylhet have been very successful in the restaurant business, especially in London, and in turn have made their home town prosperous. Sylhet boasted of a surprisingly large number of high-rises for a relatively small town.

The town has some nice tourist spots. The walk on the renovated and decorated strand along the Surma is pleasant. One can look at the new bridge that has replaced the old one built during World War II to supply the front-lines in the north-east for the Japanese Theater of War. The town and especially the outskirts going toward Meghalaya in India have small hills and sloping inclines that have tea gardens, tourist lodges, lookout points and an amusement park. A hillock that now houses the weather observation office is the spot where India airdropped paratroopers during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

But two other places in or near Sylhet are noteworthy for their religious significance. One is Shah Jalal’s Majaar or holy resting place. Shah Jalal is credited to be one of a handful of itinerant Muslim preachers (known as Aulias) who came from northern India and converted Bangladeshis to Islam. His majaar is a place of pilgrimage that has a nice mausoleum with ever burning votive candles, large and stylized pitchers for donation by the faithful, and a pond in the courtyard on the back surrounded by a walk. The other is Dhaka Dakkhin – a few miles away from the main town – where Shri Chaitanya, the outstanding Hindu preacher of Vaishnavism — was conceived before his parents took off for Nadia and established their new home there. The Chaitanya temple in Dhaka Dakkhin was renovated by Muslim Bangladeshis, in a remarkable display of tolerance and awareness of history.

III. Kushtia and Shelaidaha: Rivers and Bridges

Rivers are a defining feature of Bangladesh. Two of the three major rivers of the Indian subcontinent, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, flow through it before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. They take on new names upon entering Bangladesh: Ganga becomes Padma, while Brahmaputra is renamed Jamuna. The two rivers have a confluence near Dhaka, and then flow together as Padma before merging with the Meghna and, rather oddly, taking on the name of the tributary. A driver on my travel confidently told me that Bangladesh had 251 rivers. (Who did the count anyway, I wonder!)

I set off for Kushtia, in west-central Bangladesh, by car from Dhaka (see map). In a couple of hours, we were at Aricha Ghat, near the confluence of Padma and Jamuna, for a ferry crossing (car and all) to Goalando. The river was an impressive sight: with water stretching to the horizon, as far as eyes could see, and the opposite bank not in view, the scene was more evocative of an ocean bay or a great lake.

Kushtia is a small town that looked prosperous in an agrarian sort of way. The neighboring fields were lush green with cultivation; instead of the erstwhile mud huts with thatched roofs, the surrounding villages had huts with sturdier walls of bamboo or tin plates and corrugated iron roofs. Most homes had clean courtyards, adjacent ponds, a few fruit trees and a handful of animals – goats and chickens mostly, and an occasional cow or water buffalo. It was a bucolic setting that seemed at least on the surface idyllic.

A major tourist attraction of Kushtia is the majaar of Lalon Fakir (or Lalon Shah). Lalon belonged to the casteless baul sect of wandering minstrels — a sect that emphasizes (through songs) a spiritual concept fusing many of the ideas of Vaishnavite Hindusim and Sufi Islam. The other main attractions are the homes (known as “kuthibari”) that belonged to the Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore and his family. The principal residence or kuthibari is in Shelaidaha, a few miles from Kushtia, where the Tagore family owned a large estate. Here, on the banks of the Padma or in a riverboat plying it, Rabindranath composed some of his best early poems. The homes in both Kushtia and Shelaidaha have been renovated through a joint effort of the Bangladeshi and Indian governments to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

On my way to Kushtia and Shelaidaha, I could see the famous Harding Bridge on the Padma. It was built during the British Raj to facilitate railway connection between Calcutta and north-eastern Bengal. The river has since shifted course and much of the old river-bed is dry. There are new bridges now, mainly for vehicular traffic. The main course of the Padma is still impressively wide near Shelaidaha. On my way back, we took a longer route, through Pabna and Natore, and crossed the Jamuna on the new Bangobandhu Bridge into Tangail. I was told that the bridge was the longest in Asia – spanning a river bed that was only partially full of water, but which would be filled to the brim (or more) during the rainy season.

Bangladesh is a low-lying country where floods are an annual occurrence and shifting river-beds an ever-present menace. Yet the people want to see their rivers full (but not overflowing the banks) and complain bitterly about India diverting the water upstream – for agriculture as well as navigation – and speak darkly of “desertification” and silted and dried-out river-beds. While floods cause immense hardship, the receding water deposits rich, alluvial soil that makes the land fertile and agriculturally productive. During much of my travel by road, the countryside looked sodden and wet if not outright water-logged. And this was in winter – several months after the monsoon rains. Bangladesh did not seem in imminent danger of becoming an arid desert. On the contrary, I reflected on the fact that Bengali probably has more words for standing pools of water – from Hayor in Sylhet (for large lakes) to Bils in the Pabna and Natore region (for marshlands that are cultivable in winter but remain under water during the monsoon season) – than most other languages of the world.

Village in Bangladesh

IV. Brahmanbaria: Language and Politics

Another defining feature of Bangladesh is the Bengali language. One could argue that it is the raison d’être of the state itself.

British India was partitioned in 1947 into the independent nations of India and Pakistan on the basis of religion. At that time, the majority of people in what is now Bangladesh chose to emphasize their religious identity and opted to join the eastern part of a fragmented (Jinnah had said “moth-eaten”) Pakistan. Their language-based identity, briefly sidelined, raised its head in February 1948 when Dhirendranath Datta, speaking at the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in Karachi, called for Bengali to be made an official language of the State alongside Urdu. While his motion was defeated, the Language Movement for Bengali began to grow in strength and reached its tragic climax on 21 February 1952 when a number of students demonstrating for the Bengali language were gunned down by the police on the campus of Dhaka University.
The sacrifices made on that day are solemnly remembered in Bangladesh as Bhasa Dibas (Language Day). It was the spark that ultimately led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. And UNESCO has since proclaimed February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

I happened to be in Dhaka on Bhasa Dibas. On midnight that day, under tight security, the nation’s President, Prime Minister, and leaders of all political parties recalled the dead and laid wreaths at Shaheed Minar (Martyrs’ Monument) adjacent to Dhaka University. Afterwards I went to Brahmanbaria (see map) – a sleepy town on the banks of the river Titas – for the dedication of a park in the memory of Dhirendranath Datta. (Mr, Datta was born in the district bearing the town’s name.) But the whole thing was far from mere tokenism. Bangladeshis have embraced their mother tongue with extraordinary fondness and reverence. They speak it with a fluency and a minimal of imported foreign words that cannot be matched by their linguistic counterparts in West Bengal. They have enriched the language with many newly coined words to describe activities or concepts brought from abroad. They have even gone admittedly overboard by having all license plates — of cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws – use Bengali numerals, even though that would clearly inconvenience the foreign travelers. No compromise, it seems, is to be tolerated with respect to their beloved mother tongue!

V. Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar: Rebellion and Relaxation

My travels through Bangladesh finally took me to the city of Chittagong and then the beach resort of Cox’s Bazar in the extreme south-east of the country (see map).

Chittagong is Bangladesh’s second largest city and its premier sea port. It used to be the headquarters of the Bangladesh Navy before the military brass moved it to Dhaka for political reasons. The city is pleasantly set on low hills that roll down to the Bay of Bengal. Getting to the city from Dhaka, one drives past the port area amid industries dealing with scrap metal from the carcasses of ships. There are other industries in the neighborhood as well, making it look like the industrial heartland of Bangladesh (except for textile factories and Natural Gas).

Several aspects of Chittagong are unusual and intriguing. One is its history of rebelliousness from central authority. A famous example from the time of the British Raj is the Chittagong Armory Raid of April 1930. Pro-independence Indian revolutionaries or terrorists (take your pick) overran two armories in the town and briefly held sway. In a follow-up action two years later, a female revolutionary gunned down a British officer at the European Club and then committed suicide. The event is now commemorated with plaques and a small park. (The erstwhile European Club is presently a government office.) And some forty years later, in 1971, it was from Chittagong that Major Ziaur Rahman made a declaration of independence from Pakistan. A monument has been erected at the site to memorialize the event.

A second interesting aspect is the religious mix of the place and the overall religious tolerance. Islam is by far the majority religion, of course, and the shrine or majaar of the Aulia, Hazrat Garibullah Shah, who brought the religion to the area is a revered landmark. But there is also the Chatteshwari temple on a small hill — dedicated to the patron deity of the local Hindus. And the Chattagram Bouddha Bihar, established in 1889, ministers to the Buddhist faithful from the Chakma tribe and others.

There is mix in population too: Bengalis from the deltaic plains of the Padma and Brahmaputra live side-by-side with tribal people from the Rangamati hill region as well as from India’s north-east (Tripura, Manipur). Over the centuries, the region also saw predation from seafaring pirates – mostly Portuguese and the Arakanaese (from Myanmar). This is reflected most noticeably in the local dialect, which is often incomprehensible to the denizen of other parts of Bengal.
My journey took me finally to near the southern tip of Bangladesh and the resort town of Cox’s Bazar. The emphasis here was entirely on relaxation. The wide, white-sand beach was truly spectacular. There seemed to be a building boom of multi-story hotels, and I saw more signs saying “American Express Accepted Here” than anywhere else on my travel. Clearly the area caters to the affluent (and occasionally foreign) tourists. A major attraction is seafood, prepared succulently at many beachside eateries. We rented beach umbrellas for about 50 cents each and lay on foam recliners to look at a gorgeous sunset. Afterwards we went for dinner at a restaurant situated on a wooden platform that jutted out to sea. It was high tide on a full-moon night; the breakers crashed noisily on wood posts below us, throwing up sprays to wet the diners and their food. The experience was surreal and unforgettable.

Sunset from the beach at Cox’s Bazar

VI. Epilogue: Revising Ideas, Removing Misconceptions

Let me come back in the end to the clearing of my misconceptions as I traveled through Bangladesh. They were really in two areas.

The first was a carry-over from an infelicitous remark by Henry Kissinger around 1971 that an independent Bangladesh “is and always will be a basket case.” While the remark has stuck, I found little factual support for it. True Bangladesh is a poor country, but it looked cleaner and brighter than I had expected. The streets were not overrun with beggars, markets were reasonably (but not extensively) stocked, and even the young kids selling boiled eggs on the beach at Cox’s Bazar looked healthy. In some important ways, the place has done a good job of recycling waste and using it for inexpensive fuel.

The other was an expectation that, after periodic religious riots that has plagued the country, members of the minority religious communities would be invisible. That was emphatically untrue at Chittagong and elsewhere, where I could see banners advertising gatherings or religious observances by Hindus and Buddhists. In Dhaka, I met a Christian tribal woman from Garo Hills (in the Mymensingh district) who was planning a Christian wedding with her fiancé. I was told that in peaceful times, enlightened members of different religious groups do intermingle on important religious occasions: Id for the Muslims, Durga Puja for the Hindus, Christmas for the Christians, Buddha Purnima for the Buddhists, and so on. I also noticed some Muslim women wear ornaments like the conch-shell bangles that have been traditionally associated with Hindu marriages.  All this may be partly the result of the most recent political climate of tolerance. While in Bangladesh, I found thoughtful Bangladeshis struggling to ensure “secular democracy” within an Islamic framework. Opponents of the Islamist political party (Jamaat-e-Islami) are beginning to accept the insertion from the holy Qur’ran of Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim at the preamble of the latest “secular” constitution. That is the kind of give-and-take that will hopefully ensure that the religious calm of Bangladesh will continue to prevail.

Amitabha Bagchi
July 2011

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