18. Journeys (2): North to beautiful Srimangal, Sylhet and Jaflang

I have had a great weekend away in the beautiful Moulvi Bazar and Sylhet districts, of the Sylhet division, in north-east Bangladesh (see post 8 pt. 13). It felt good to be back on the road and travelling again. It is now seven weeks since my arrival in Dhaka and this was my first attempt at travelling solo: the first of many I hope. I am used to travelling a lot, especially at weekends, and so I was beginning to feel the need to get out of the city. I had heard so much about Bangladesh being green and luxuriant but was beginning to doubt it. The more time I was spending in Dhaka, the more difficult it was getting to imagine a rural landscape. Usually when I travel I take time to pre-plan, but in Bangladesh this is not an easy task: there is no tourist infrastructure. I had tried phoning a few places to book accommodation but with no success. In the end, I decided to hop on a train bound for Srimangal (or Sreemongal) and take it from there. Everything worked out – albeit, most of the time, not quite as I had intended. Eyebrows were raised – though not in a bad way – at the idea of a woman travelling alone, but then I am well-used to this. The trip exceeded all my expectations, and I can now confirm that Bangladesh is indeed a land of many shades of green. While Ireland, as the ‘emerald isle’, is said to have forty shades of green, the Bangladeshi landscape seems to give off more light than green at times. I was overwhelmed by both the beauty of the countryside and the kindness of the people I encountered.

Sylhet Division (one of six in Bangladesh) is situated in the north-east corner of the country, and can best be described as a broad valley through which the Surma and Kushiyara rivers run. To the north are the Khasi and Jaintia hills and to the south the hills of Tripura. The countryside is covered with gently rolling terraced tea estates, fruit plantations and bits of tropical forest. There is a series of broad, shallow, natural depressions scattered throughout the region. These are known as haors (wetlands) and fill with water during the rainy season. The division is home to a number of ‘indigenous’ ‘tribal’ groups, known as Adivasi or Adibasi (amongst other terms) in Bangla. [Note: Terminology is a thorny issue and a contested one and too complicated to go into in detail here. I will use the term ‘ethnic minority’ which I think is clear and should not offend. It should be noted that information with regard to ethnic minority numbers is not reliable  because of problems relating to national data collection. There is also an acknowledged paucity of comprehensive research relating to social and cultural issues. Multiple searches have resulted in contradictory information. See post 43.]

Day 1

Trundling through the countryside from Dhaka to Srimangal by train turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend – as, indeed, train journeys can often be. Bangladesh has a largely British-built rail network linking most major towns and cities. Though slow, hot and crowded, my first train journey in Bangladesh was spectacular from start to finish – the scenery and my travelling companions making it all the more special. I was sitting in a well-worn, rickety four-seat section (two seats opposite two) with three men, one of whom Sakir, a teacher from Srimangal, had especially good English. Our seats were beside a large ‘window’ (without glass). Leaving Dhaka, we passed through the ‘bostis’ that line the tracks. These are overcrowded, makeshift slum dwellings: I have an enduring memory of seeing a cloud of dust engulf a young mother in a bright red sari, babe in arms, huddled by a makeshift fire, trying to boil water over orange flames.

Soon, the city gave way to the open countryside. Here it was at last, the lush, green, flat landscape, dissected by meandering river tributaries and rice paddies, the latter shimmering with reflections of sky and clouds. From time to time I saw houses in groves of palm trees, or hoisted on bamboo poles over rice paddies. There were men, women and children tending rice crops, some waterborne working from narrow wooden skiffs. In the villages, cows and chickens competed for space and children played chase. It all looked so tranquil – the quintessential rural idyll. We passed through stations where the green of the landscape was replaced by splashes of striking colour in saris and shalwar-kameezes. One of the more memorable stations was Bhairab Bazar, notable because of the crowds, but also because of the railway and vehicular bridges that cross the river Meghna flood plain at this point. Prior to the construction of the 1.2km Bhairab Bridge in 2002, the only way for road vehicles to make the crossing was by ferry.

Inside the train, vendors paraded up and down through the carriages selling lychees, bananas, pineapples, tea, sweets, mori (puffed rice), pitha (cake), ice-cream and sodas. There were unusual snacks too. One was made from chopped onions, chopped cucumber and mixed cereal, all shaken together with spices in a little silver pot and poured into a cone of newspaper. A vendor came through chanting ‘chanachurrrrrr’, selling the snack chanachur, similar to ‘Bombay mix’ at home, but sold in paper cones here. Another roving seller came through shouting, ‘jom, jom, jom’, and Sakir treated me to this fruit that looked like a large blackcurrant. It too was shaken vigorously in a small silver pot with salt and the resulting purplish pulp was emptied onto a piece of newspaper. It was salty, sharp and sweet and tasted really good in the heat. Later, Sakir bought me tea – it was presented in a floral china cup with matching saucer and though it was full of sugar and milk, tea never tasted so good. I tried to pay for the tea, but Sakir wouldn’t hear of it. I was conscious of being really happy at that moment, sipping my tea, sitting beside amiable companions – particularly this lovely, charming man Sakir – and absorbing the beauty of the stunning carpet of paddy fields unfolding outside the ‘window’. As the evening wore on, I became entranced by the magic of light on water, as sequined surfaces sparkled and scintillated.

I arrived in Srimangal in the dark and after many phone calls, Sakir worriedly got me a rickshaw and gave instructions to the wallah for the HEED guesthouse – which I had decided on after reading other travellers’ reviews on the Internet. (For more on HEED see post 11.) However, after many trips round the town, and a visit to the HEED microfinance office, where further instructions were received, I was eventually dropped at a bus station. No explanation given: the language barrier saw to that. It turns out that the HEED guesthouse is quite a distance away. I eventually found the right bus and was under intense scrutiny during the entire journey. I had squeezed onto a bench behind the driver and was sitting beneath a strong light, facing my audience. I struck up a conversation with two students sitting beside me, Dip and Arun, who spoke a little English and were able to tell me when to get off. I found myself walking up a long, tree-lined avenue marvelling at how peaceful it felt: no noise apart from the unidentifiable night sounds of nature. Soon, after dropping my bags in a free room, I was drinking coffee in the kitchen with Babul – my cordial host – tired, but happy to be here. It felt a million miles from Dhaka. There were, however, moths and other flying insects the size of bats hovering menacingly around the lights – the joys of country living!

Day 2

The next morning after coffee and some fresh hot chapatis, cooked for me by Babul, I decided to move into town: the guesthouse is too far out for a short stay. Luckily, I got a bus almost immediately. Since I had arrived in the dark the previous night I was astonished by the journey along the lovely, winding, tree-lined, ‘country’ road. I could have been in Ireland, except for the tea gardens covering the gently sloping hills. At the entrance to Finlay’s tea estate we picked up two very dark, barefoot young boys: they may have been tea labourers. Unfortunately, the language barrier was absolute: we could only smile at one another. (They didn’t seem to understand my attempts at Bangla, which suggests that they might speak another language.) I had read a little about the plight of tea plantation workers and the history of tea estates in Bangladesh. Many of the tea pickers are descendants of indentured labourers brought in to the area by the British during the colonial era, from parts of what is now India. In addition to dislocation, many live in poverty, are subject to harsh ‘management’ with few entitlements, and are said to be amongst the most marginalised occupational groups in Bangladesh. If anybody is interested in reading about the history of the tea industry, Roy Moxham’s book (cover pictured) is interesting – though it could change the way you think about your next cup of tea. I skimmed through the bit on Sylhet which is disturbing and thought-provoking.

It had been my intention before arriving to cycle around the area, but morning temperatures had already reached the high 30s and I reluctantly abandoned that idea. I had no sooner checked into the Tea Town Hotel in Srimangal when I found myself negotiating with two local guides – Russell and Rashed – who had come straight into my room and seated themselves on my bed. I hated having to choose: both were equally nice guys, but I decided to go with Rashed because his English was a little easier to understand. I spent the rest of this memorable day (which ran into late evening) with Rashed, and our driver Ismail, in and around the Srimangal area. By the end of the day, both seemed like old friends.

Our first stop was special for me: my first visit to an ethnic minority village in Bangladesh. The Manipuri para (or village) at Ramnagar is a picturesque cluster of mud and bamboo housing on a hill surrounded by trees. With their distinctive culture, of which housing, dress and language were the most immediately apparent, I felt as though I was in a different country to Bangladesh, or what I knew of it so far. The Manipuri originated in the Indian state of Manipur and are of Tibetan/Himalayan ethnicity. There are an estimated 1.3 million Manipuri globally and roughly 30,000 live in Bangladesh, mostly in the Sylhet division (though note that these numbers are not reliable – see paragraph 3 above). They are also known as Meithei, after the language they speak. Most practice Hinduism though a small percentage are Christian. The Manipuri participate in the community as artisans, jewellers and business people. There is an arts academy in Sylhet dedicated to the development of their culture, the best known aspect of which is their classical dance. These dance performances can be enjoyed at any of their melas  (festivals) – which I never got to attend, unfortunately. In this village, the traditional craft of hand-weaving is practiced, and there is a small shop selling the products of their endeavour. Hand-weaving, an important source of income for many rural women throughout Bangladesh, has been experiencing something of a decline. I had learnt about this on one of my many visits to Prabartana in Dhaka, an organisation that, amongst other activities, is helping to develop and promote the work of hand-weavers in Bangladesh. (See post 10.) It was interesting to see the art of hand-weaving for myself. [I should also mention that the Manipuri community, like other ethnic groups in Bangladesh, face many difficulties as exemplified, for example, by stories  in the papers relating to land rights issues. See also post 43.]

From the village, a bumpy rickshaw ride along a narrow, picturesque ‘boithrín’ brought us to the Nilkantha Tea Cabin where I tried their famous ‘five-colour’ tea. It was delicious – 5 layers (oddly enough!) each with a different ‘tea’ – cinnamon, mint, ginger, lemon, etc. It makes for a really interesting taste experience as the different flavoured layers come through in your mouth. Romesh Ram Gour, who invented this layered tea experience, has now expanded his offering to include all kinds of variations on the original theme – including a 21-layer tea. Afterwards, we paid a visit to Rashed’s two sisters, who live, with their extended in-law family, on the grounds of the Tea Research Institute. (I had made an effort to try to stay at the guest house here, which my Lonely Planet guidebook had described as ‘charming’, with a veranda where you could sit in the evenings. After many attempts to make contact, I was eventually told that there were government dignitaries arriving that weekend and that therefore it would not be possible for me to stay.) One of Rashed’s sisters is married to a teacher at the school for employees’ children at the institute, and his father is the principal at the same school. I was introduced to this man who looked very scholarly, sporting a long white beard and sitting at a desk correcting what I presume was homework. He had a little English and referred me to a photograph of another son of his who had received distinctions in science, and was now living and working in Canada.

After nasta (snacks) we set out for Lowacherra Forest Reserve and stopped off en route to watch a group of lychee pickers at work. We bought some too to eat at our picnic – planned for later. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the wildlife (e.g. gibbons, langurs, lorises, deer and all kinds of rare birds) for which the reserve is famed – wrong time of year I think. The reserve is lovely though – 1250 hectares of tropical, semi-evergreen forest. The highlight, for me, was a visit to a Khasi (or Khasia) village, or punjee, in the middle of the forest. Khasi is a generic name for the ethnic minority groups of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya in India. Of an estimated global population of over 1 million, there are said to be 13,000 Khasi in Bangladesh, mostly in Sylhet, with smaller numbers in Dhaka, Rajshahi, the Chittagong Hills and Khulna (though as mentioned earlier, numbers are contested and not reliable). With a Southeast Asian ethnic affinity, they practice Christianity primarily, but there are also those who adhere to Hinduism, and a substantial minority who follow their own tribal religion with animistic elements. The betel leaf is the primary cash crop produced by the Khasi people and I saw the leaves being prepared for market in a number of houses. Many of the young girls were selling jewellery that they had crafted themselves, and Rashed bought me a colourfully beaded bracelet which I love. We finished our visit to Lowachera in a quaint, hilltop, wooden shop, drinking warmish flat cola, and watching a train pass below, on the picturesque stretch of railway track that runs through the forest.

No visit to Srimangal would be complete without a trip to one of its many tranquil tea gardens. We had an almost meditative picnic at the restful Madapore Lake and Tea Garden, though I envied the children splashing about in the cool water of the lake. Later, we spent time at the picturesque and peaceful Zareen Tea Estate where we interacted with estate workers – though the picking season had not yet started. Rashed and Ismail explained the process of tea-making. I have lovely memories of chatting to a group of colourfully-dressed children, on a winding, grass-covered path under one of the many beautiful, orange-blossomed ashok trees in the estate.

The final stop on our ‘official’ tour was the Tripura village at Dolubari. The Tripuri (also called Tipera, Tipra or Tripura) people are considered to be part of the Tibeto-Burmese ethnic group. They are the original inhabitants of the once large Kingdom of Tripura situated in North-East India (which included the state of Tripura) and parts of present day Bangladesh. Today, not altogether reliable estimates (see above) put their numbers at 749,000 with 81,000 in Bangladesh. The largest group live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, with most of the remainder living in the Sylhet division. They have their own language, Kokborok, which has many dialects. Roughly 80% practice Hinduism and 10% are Christian. The remainder adhere to ethnic religions and Islam. In all of their religious practice, there is a degree of animism and shamanism. The Tripuri people have a rich historical, social and cultural heritage which is distinct from Indian or Bengali culture, and this is reflected in their dance, music, festivals, management of community affairs, dress and food. This was another lovely village: the houses were constructed of mud – cream in colour – with corrugated tin roofs, though a few were picturesquely thatched. The Tripuri people are farmers growing crops such as cotton, yams, melons, pumpkins, maize, mangoes, oranges, pineapples, and their staple food, rice. They keep various domestic animals including cattle, water buffaloes, pigs, goats, and sheep. They also earn a livelihood from weaving and I got another chance here to see it being practiced. Like the Manipuri and Khasi ethnic groups referred to earlier, the Tripuri people too must fight for land rights. The biggest threat in this area is the illegal destruction of the forests where they dwell. Wandering through this village, I felt privileged to get an opportunity to see their way of life firsthand. By now it was evening, and all three of us were beginning to wilt: it had been an incredibly hot day. We went to the village pump to cool down and Ismail pumped, while I paddled and splashed water over my head and face. It felt incredibly refreshing.

Back in town we decided to go for dinner together to the Shah restaurant on Railway Station Road where I had chicken biryani. I was the only woman in the restaurant. Afterwards Rashed and Ismail ordered paan. The nuts and lime paste were beautifully presented on leaves like those I had seen earlier that day at the Khasi village. However, the sharp bitterness is something that I haven’t developed a taste for. Far tastier were the papaya slices that Rashed’s mother treated me to later when I visited their home. The evening ended with a slow rickshaw ride through the bustling, dimly-lit streets of Srimangal back to my hotel. It had been an exciting and exhilarating day.

Day 3

Next day I boarded a crowded local train bound for Sylhet where I met up with Caroline, a VSO volunteer from Kenya, who works with the NGO ECDO (Ethnic Community Development Organisation). The executive director, Mr. Lakshmikanta Singh, invited me to have tea with him and told me a little about the organisation and its work with the ethnic minority groups of the Sylhet division. Caroline is leaving Sylhet shortly and so was delighted to join me in sightseeing before her departure. We spent the rest of the day in and around Sylhet. The Shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal, in the north of the city, is the burial-place of the 14th century Sufi saint Shah Jalal, and is therefore a major pilgrimage site for Bangladeshi Muslims. Of course being foreigners and women we could not get in to see the tomb in the mosque, but we walked around the complex and took photos and provided much of curiosity for all present. Afterwards we took a rickshaw south through the city to Kean Bridge, which crosses the Surma River. Kean Bridge is famous for its rickshaw ‘pushers’. Because of its steep incline, the rickshaw ‘pullers’ have to hire ‘pushers’ to get them to the top of the bridge.

At the Parjatan motel, on an elevated site 2km outside the city, we went for a walk and enjoyed lovely views. On our return journey we stopped at two tea gardens: Malnicherra (dating back to 1854) and Laakatoorah. They had very much the same ‘feel’ as the tea estates I had visited in Srimangal the previous day. Back in Sylhet, we went to a restaurant (called Spicy) on the top (10th floor) of the City Centre shopping mall on Zinda Bazar road. We had coffees outside, seated in the lovely roof-garden which has great views. There I met a Bangladeshi with an East End London accent, who recognised my Irish accent. Known locally as the ‘Londonis’, many Sylhetis have made a lot of money from businesses (particularly restaurants) in places like Brick Lane in East London. Sylhetis are considered to be more Assamese than Bengali and have a reputation for being clannish and for looking out for each other. The evidence of their success in England is seen throughout Sylhet where their large lavish houses, replete with balconies and columns, are incongruously crowded together on dusty, earthen roads.

Day 4

On my second day in Sylhet, Caroline and I took a local bus from Sobhanighat to Jaflang via Shahparan, Jaintiapur and Tamabil – where there is a border crossing with India. It was a beautiful bus journey through lush, green, gently-rolling landscape, with the tree-covered hills of India visible in the distance, sparkling with waterfalls. The small, busy town of Jaflang looked a little like a film-set for a Western with its wooden, veranda clad buildings – though with Asian characters. We took a rickshaw out to bustling Bollerghat on the River Pijain. This picturesque stretch of river is a popular day-trip for Bangladeshis. It was a curious mix of tourism and industry. The river was chock-a-block with wooden boats: some carrying tourists, and the remainder involved in manually quarrying stones from the bed of the river. Although Bangladesh has a lot of mud, there is a shortage of stone, and therefore there is money to be made from harvesting these stones as they come down in the rivers from India. From long, stick-thin skiffs men, women and children were busy at work sieving, sorting and sifting through alluvial deposits. Many boats were dangerously weighed down with piles of boulders, sand and gravel. From near the river bank, buckets on ropes were being pitched into the river and dragged out full of stones. Out in deeper waters, young boys were diving for stones.

I have read that there are at least 10,000 people engaged in stone and sand collection for eight months of the year, with extraction stopping only in the rainy season. Every day up to two hundred trucks transport stones, gravel and sand from Bollerghat. For their efforts, these unskilled labourers can expect to earn around €1 per day on average. While these earnings are essential to their survival, the prolific stone quarrying is causing problems for the local ethnic minority villages here. There are estimates indicating that up to 10,000 Khasis, along with their lands and their houses, are being threatened by the expanding Pijain River. Some Khasis maintain that they lose 50-60 feet of their land to the river every year. Furthermore, because ethnic minorities do not have official documentation relating to ownership of their land, members of the Bengali community can occupy or ‘grab’ their lands. (They are referred to as ‘landgrabbers’ in the literature and media here.)

It was to these Khasi villages, on the opposite bank of the river, that Caroline and I were bound. After the hustle and bustle on the river, we trudged through surreal white sand-hills on the far river bank to arrive in a calm, green, lush landscape. We spent the rest of the day travelling by rickshaw in this beautiful area. We wandered through Jaflang tea estate and chatted to roadside honey-sellers before visiting two wonderful Khasi villages – Lama Punjee and Nokshir Punjee. From Lama Punjee, a collection of blue-painted wooden houses on stilts, it looked as though we could easily have walked to India across a dry river bed of white sand. I bought chompopri from a young boy here – deliciously sweet and chewy candy-floss made from vermicelli, I think. We watched a group of children gathered round a table in the shade of a large old tree playing a game called kerambood. In many of the houses women worked at preparing paan leaves.

In the lovely village of Nokshir Punjee we were fortunate to meet Agnes, who had a little English and who understood our attempts at Bangla. She invited us into her home – a traditional wooden hut on stilts. We followed her up a ladder to a room constructed from bamboo, where she pulled out a rattan mat on which we all sat. I felt as though I was in a tree house. On the wall there was a picture of the ‘Sacred Heart’ – the very same as those at home – and it somehow seemed out-of-place here. Agnes is a Catholic and was educated through the local Catholic mission. She now teaches at the village school for Khasi children. Her little nieces, Santana and Lipi, came and sat with us, and others came and went while we were there too. Agnes excused herself for a short while and upon her return served us tea, in china cups on saucers, with biscuits. Her warm hospitality was very much appreciated.  Afterwards she gave us a tour of the village and we dropped in on many of her neighbours. Some of the houses were quite elaborate and constructed from concrete – unlike Agnes’s.  It was lovely to have spent this time with Agnes and I felt sad saying goodbye knowing that I would never touch base with her again. This was another of those brief, but meaningful, encounters that occur during travels, and afterwards translate into lasting, vivid memories. On our way back to the boat dock, we dropped in to see the Catholic Church where we had more tea with the parish priest, Fr. Soroj Costa (OMI), in the parochial house. The heavens opened then, and by the time we got across the river and back to Jaflang we were soaked through, but fortunately we didn’t have to wait long for a bus to take us back to Sylhet. It was a really interesting day, and all the more so because of Caroline’s knowledge of the area. Spending time in her flat in Raynagar, and meeting her friends and neighbours, provided me with an extra insight into life in Sylhet.

Next day on my way back to Dhaka I felt really happy that I had made the effort to take this trip north.  It has been a wonderful few days of travelling: my experiences have far exceeded my expectations. I have got to know some of the landscape and the people of this beautiful country. And this time I’m not a tourist or a traveller passing through: I’m part of this country with a real role in the lives of some of its citizens. As people and places rolled by outside my window, I found myself grappling with conflicting emotions: because while rural Bangladesh is spectacularly poor, the landscape is simply spectacular.

Some photographs from my trip follow. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (80 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1 Kamalpur Station Dhaka

 (P.S. I made an unexpected return visit to Sylhet in January: you can read about that visit and see more photographs at post 49.)

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2 responses to “18. Journeys (2): North to beautiful Srimangal, Sylhet and Jaflang

  1. Hey Annie!

    Where have you been?! I was beginning to think you’d fallen off the edge of the planet. Smashing blog! Sucked me right in. Some sparkling writing. I see you still don’t do things by half! You should really try to publicise this and/or see if you can do something more with it (publish?).

    Looks like you had an incredible experience. If you’d like a very different experience (i.e. cold climate, no people) come visit me. In the meantime e-mail me!

    Grá ó Rory xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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