46. Journeys (9): A study visit to Comilla

At the end of December I spent three days in the town of Comilla, in the Comilla district of the Chittagong division (see post 8 pt. 13). Comilla is 100km southeast of Dhaka, along the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, and just a few miles from the Indian state of Tripura. My purpose in visiting was primarily work-related: I wanted to investigate the research model in use at the Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development (BARD). (See post 48.) On a personal level, I was interested in visiting BARD because of my background in rural development. I arranged the trip with the help of the Director General in the NILG (my workplace), who phoned his counterpart in BARD. I then communicated by e-mail with relevant directors there. VSO very kindly offered to provide transport for the trip, which greatly simplified logistics.

A perfect patchwork: mustard fields and rice paddies

The journey to Comilla was a very enjoyable one. On our way south-east we passed the turnoff for Old Sonargaon (see post 24) and shortly afterwards crossed the mighty Meghna River. The road was very busy, not surprisingly: I had read about a lot of accidents on this particular highway. My driver Masud was competent, though impatient and a little erratic at times, resulting in a couple of hairy moments. The countryside looked exquisite. Mustard plants are in full bloom at this time of year and add an extra dimension to the landscape. In places, they were interspersed with rice fields, forming shimmering patchworks of green and gold. We drove along lovely ‘country’, tree-lined roads, not at all what you would expect of a ‘highway’. To get to the Comilla district, we had to cross a second branch of the Meghna River. On the other side of the bridge we reached the haphazard, atmospheric little town of Daudkandi Bazar. Later, we passed Chandina, the centre of the Comilla district Khadi (or Khaddar) industry. Khadi is a coarse cotton made from handspun yarn. It has deep cultural significance in this part of the world because of its association with the self-reliance movement, instigated by Gandhi in the 1920s. This article from the Daily Star Newspaper provides some background on the heritage of Khadi in Bangladesh.

Upon arrival, I immediately liked the town of Comilla. It centres around Kandirpar Circle. Amongst other things, the town is known for its particularly good ras malai, a delicious, milk-based dessert and one of my favourites in Bangladesh. It consists of cooked paneer cheese balls, soaked in clotted cream that has been flavoured with cardamom. Here is a recipe, though I haven’t tried it yet.

Kotbari and BARD (Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development)

After circling the town for a while, we finally found Kotbari, the area where BARD is located. I instantly liked this locale: it was bustling and full of life.  BARD is set in lovely, leafy, peaceful surroundings. After initial confusion, and following a phone conversation with the Director General (DG), who told me that he was ‘detained’ in Dhaka, I was finally allocated a room in the hostel. (Despite all my arrangements, nobody expected me. So much for my planning!) The DG phoned the Director of Research who agreed to meet me that afternoon. In the meantime, I had lunch in one of two friendly, on-site canteens and explored my surroundings. I walked around a 2km circular road, lined with trees. The campus comprises 156 acres and is almost self-contained. Staff live on-site with their families and there are recreation facilities, a mosque, ponds, nurseries, gardens and schools as well as the faculty buildings. The staff quarters are located on gently sloping hills surrounding the campus.

BARD was founded in 1959 by the highly regarded and inspirational Akhtar Hameed Khan (1914-1999), whose name is synonymous with participatory rural development. Based on the principle of empowering poor people – grass roots development – the BARD project is considered one of the most innovative and influential programmes in rural development in the developing world. Khan’s particular contribution was the establishment of the comprehensive Comilla Model for rural development. It was based on a two-tier, cooperative system that later informed the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), through which the government’s rural development initiatives were implemented throughout Bangladesh. (In 1982 the IRDP became an organisation, the Bangladesh Rural Development Board (BRDB), with a remit to develop the cooperative system and implement various rural development programmes.  See post 49.) Though the outcomes of the Comilla Model ultimately frustrated Khan’s ambitions, it had important implications for rural community development, particularly in relation to microcredit and microfinance. Both Mohammad Yunnus and Fazle Abed (see post 8were inspired by the pioneering work of Khan, and later developed his ideas through the organisations Grameen and BRAC respectively. [Incidentally, US President Barrack Obama’s mother, Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham, who had a career in rural development and later promoted microcredit in Indonesia, held the work of Dr. Khan in high esteem, implementing some of his ideas through her work.]

I had a number of interesting meetings in BARD with Sharif, the Director of Research, and Kashem, the Director of Training. Both men were very helpful and friendly. Not only did I gain insights for my work-related research, but I also learnt a great deal about rural and village life in Bangladesh; rural development; the Comilla Model (referred to above); and BARD. This is all the more interesting when you consider that 80% of people in Bangladesh live in rural villages. Therefore the notion of ‘development’ in Bangladesh is very much about ‘rural development’. I also learnt that BARD is behind the PRDP (Participatory Rural Development Project) Link model of rural development, being implemented by BRDB, with the assistance of JICA. I had been reading about this model before I came. (Akira from JICA, who is featured in the YouTube clip referred to above, had first told me about this model when he called one day to the NILG, my workplace.)

I spent some interesting time in the company of Ranjan, a friend of my colleague Nuruzzaman, in Dhaka, who explained his work on the Local Level Poverty Mapping System (LPMS). He and his colleagues are using GIS software to map a number of variables, related to poverty at the household level. In Bangladesh, there is an information gap at the micro level.  Such information, gathered with the participation of the community, could be invaluable in formulating development plans and targeting vulnerable groups in emergencies. He took me through some of the methodologies used to collect data.  As well as the computerised maps, there is an accompanying Ward Information Book (WIB) in every union parishad. I remember being shown one of these books, by Saima in Tarash in Sirajganj, during a demonstration of their disaster emergency response plan (see post 32). It was very interesting therefore, having seen how the information is used in a village situation, to learn about the methodologies and technologies used to compile the data.

Over the course of my few days in BARD I got to know Ayeed (Ayeeduttaman). He works in the canteen and looked after me very well, especially after my trauma of biting into a fiery chilli (by mistake) on our first meeting!  One day after lunch, when I had a couple of hours free before my next meeting, Ayeed invited me to visit his family. He told me that he had been working in BARD since he was 15. His father, now deceased, was a member of BARD staff too, but had to retire early due to ill-health and hence had to leave campus accommodation. We walked through Kotbari, past the Cadet College, and turned down a lane somewhere near the museum. Suddenly, we were in a rural landscape. (I am getting used to this in Bangladesh.) We walked along a path, between rice paddies and trees, to reach a small cluster of corrugated tin and mud housing, where Ayeed lives with his extended family. It was a sort of family compound. As I arrived, a distinguished looking visitor in a sports jacket, who wore his hair in a pony tail, was leaving. He was in Comilla for the day with his son, who hoped to get into a local reputable boarding school. I met Ayeed’s wife Rena and his gorgeous little baby son Alvi. He introduced me to his brothers too and to their children. One of his little nieces was called Nonie (a name we have in Ireland too). I chatted to Ayeed and his brothers for a while: they were intelligent, welcoming and interesting to talk to. They showed me a lovely family picture taken when their father was alive. I enjoyed the time I spent with Ayeed and his family.

Deedar Comprehensive Village Cooperative Society

Kashem and Sharif arranged for me to visit the Deeder Cooperative Society.  BARD works with the society under their Comprehensive Village Development Programme. A faculty member from BARD, Junaeed, accompanied me. (When I told him I was Irish he told me that he had read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, as part of his university course.)

We drove to the outskirts of Comilla. The cooperative encompasses the villages of Kashninathpur and Balarumpur. I was met by the Chairman, the Manager, the Accountant and the Assistant Manager. The chairman ushered me upstairs to the meeting room, where tea was ordered. He began to tell me the story of the cooperative through Junaeed, who translated.  It was a very interesting story and all the more so because of the wonderfully animated way in which it was told.

The story revolves around a visionary tea stall proprietor, Mohammad Yeasin, who, in the late 1950s, was deeply troubled by the extreme poverty, food scarcity, illiteracy and unemployment he saw around him. Akhtar Hameed Khan (see above) was teaching nearby at this time and was equally distressed by the situation, which he witnessed every day on his way to and from work. One day, these problems were being discussed in Yeasin’s tea shop and Khan, who was sitting drinking tea, was asked if he could find a way to help. He replied that he couldn’t offer money but that he could offer advice. His advice that day was that they should set up a society and start saving. They protested, saying that they had nothing to save. However, Khan told them that they could begin in a small way. So, for example, instead of having five cups of tea a day in the tea stall, they could have just three cups and save the money from the remaining two cups. In 1959, Yeasin started the society with 8 rickshaw-pullers and the princely sum of nine annas – one from each person. Thus began the Deeder Cooperative Society. At this stage in the story, the Chairman pointed me in the direction of a framed picture containing photographs of the original nine. (See photograph on left above.) I have a vivid picture in my head of that day in 1959 in the tea stall.

To cut a long story short, as the savings grew, the cooperative went on to achieve very positive social and economic impacts in the two villages. Mohammad Yeasin was awarded the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. You can read more about his life and the cooperative on the award page. (In BARD, a director told me that the Ramon Magsaysay Awards are like the Oscars of the east, although for me a better analogy might be the Nobel of the east.)

After being brought up to date on the work of the cooperative, I went on a walk-about to see some of the society’s work. I saw their vehicle yard, the hall, the cooperative market and the brick-making field. I walked along peaceful, rural paths through bucolic country scenes while pumps chugged away in the background, irrigating the surrounding rice paddies. (I also asked, much to their surprise, to have a look at a ‘deep tube-well’: I had heard and read so much about these that I wanted to see exactly how one worked.)

There is ongoing talk of extending the cooperative movement throughout Bangladesh.

Mainamati War Cemetery

On my first evening in Comilla, I was at a loose end because I had arrived ‘unexpectedly’. (It has been my experience that you are never truly ‘expected’ in Bangladesh until you arrive.) I took the opportunity to visit Mainamati World War II Cemetery on the Sylhet Road. It is beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The allied forces were based in this region, while defending India against a Japanese invasion through British Burma. The 45,000 commonwealth citizens who died in this endeavour (of whom 27,000 were from the Indian forces) are commemorated on headstones, or cremation memorials, in the nine war cemeteries in Burma, Assam and Bangladesh, or where there is no known grave, on memorials in Rangoon (soldiers) and in Singapore (airmen).

Comilla was the site of a large hospital and reinforcement centre and was also an important air base. The 736 war burials here are mainly from the hospitals, but include some moved in from isolated sites after the war.  Those buried here had served in the forces of the UK (357), Canada (12), Australia (12), New Zealand (4), South Africa (1), Unpartitioned India (178), Rhodesia (3), East Africa (56), West Africa (86), Burma (1), Belgium (1), Poland (1) and Japan (24).

The Cross of Sacrifice dominates a hill in the middle of the cemetery. However, not all of those buried here were Christians, as was evidenced on grave stones without crosses. It was a very moving experience to walk between the individual grave stones. Some of the inscriptions were heartbreaking and made the loss feel very real e.g.

Tho’ you’re gone my darling, rest in peace, for always in our hearts you’ll be
Corporate A.V. Bowen, Royal Marines, died 1945, age 26.

 A smiling face, a heart of gold, the dearest husband this world could hold
Private T.E. Partridge from the West Yorkshire regiment, died 1945, age 31.

And then there was the starkness of the inscriptions on the graves of unknown soldiers:

A Soldier of the 1939-45 War, Known unto God

A cultural evening at BARD

Kashem told me that a course on administration for 40 physicians was just finishing up in the academy. As part of the finale, a cultural evening was planned, to be followed by dinner, hosted by BARD. Kashem invited me to the event. So, on my final night, I went along to the auditorium at 7 p.m. as advised. It was after 9 p.m. by the time the concert started but it was worth the wait: I really enjoyed it. There was a lot of talent amongst the 40 doctors and Kashem sang too. As well as singing, there was dancing, recitation and a couple of short sketches. Though the language barrier prevented me from fully engaging, I enjoyed the music and the variety.

After the concert we all streamed into the canteen. It had been given a makeover– fairy lights and table cloths – and looked festive, warm and inviting. I finally met the Director General of BARD, Mohammad Ataur Rahman, and sat at a table with him and Kashem. The buffet-style food display was mouth-watering. The lids of the large silver serving dishes were lifted ceremoniously to reveal platters of fragrant rice, delicately spiced soup, fried chicken, succulent beef, potato chips, and vegetables. I had two portions of dessert – the local speciality – the aforementioned delicious ras malai (see above). I think this was the nicest meal I have had in Bangladesh.

Afterwards, I was invited along to a bonfire: there was music and singing and yet more food and soft drinks.  It was nice to be in a social setting, though a little strange too that there was no alcohol, all present being good Muslims. I chatted to a few of the doctors. Despite the bonfire, it felt quite cold and I left at around 2 a.m.

It was a lovely evening and I felt privileged to have been invited to participate, thanks to Kashem’s thoughtfulness.

Mainamati Ruins

Before returning to Dhaka, on my final day in Comilla, I visited the Mainamati museum and the nearby ruins of Salban Vihara. On my way there, I ran into Jahangir from BARD, who was on his way to nearby Comilla University: I hopped in a rickshaw with him for a quick visit.

Kotbari, the area of Comilla where BARD is located, is part of a 20km stretch of low-lying hills known as the Mainamati-Lalmai ridge.  Between the 6th and 13th centuries this area was an important centre of Buddhist culture, with a large Buddhist temple complex. There are three sets of ruins in this area: I visited one site. The others are in the nearby cantonment (military compound area), but require special permission (which must be arranged beforehand from Dhaka) to enter.

The museum was well worth the visit.  Inside the door, there was a model of Kotila Mura (one of the sites in the cantonment) as it would have looked at the height of its powers. My favourite item was a life-sized, bronze carving of Vajrasattva (a seated Buddha), excavated in 1944 dating to 9/10th century AD. There were collections of 7th century earthen votive stupas and marvellously illustrated terracotta plaques from Salban Vihara (7th-8th centuries). There were beautiful black stone statues of Hindu gods too. A large imposing bronze bell from one of the Buddhist temples had been unearthed, dating to 11th/12th century. There were 4th century gold and silver coins, jewellery and kitchen utensils. I loved the museum: it gave a great idea of the richness of the Buddhist culture that flourished in this area. It was also a good precursor for my visit to Salban Vihara next door.

I wandered through the ruins of the complex. Around the perimeter of the site there are the remains of 115 monks’ cells that faced the temple in the centre. I saw scattered remnants – steps, walls and pillars – from six different buildings. Excavation is ongoing and it was amazing to see structure emerging from mounds of earth. I can’t help wonder though if some of the methods of excavation might be a little destructive e.g. pounding with sledge hammers. For me, one of the most spectacular aspects of the ruins was the embellishment along the base of the walls of some of the buildings. As well as ornamental bricks, there were terracotta plaques illustrated with scenes that included people and animals. I could have spent a day looking at these alone.

Before the journey back to Dhaka I went for tea across the road from the site. It was a really friendly tea stall. I was trying to explain that I would like a slice of what I know as Madeira cake, the local equivalent of which is very popular in Bangladesh, but I couldn’t see it on the counter.  I didn’t know the word for ‘plain’, to describe the cake, but eventually the affable proprietor produced one from behind the stall. Everybody had a great laugh about what they now referred to as the ‘planey cake’. A local man, Mustafa, insisted on paying for my order. I sat at a bench under a tree on the street in front of the stall and soon Mustafa and I were joined by two students, Shaharia and Shojan, who had seen me that morning in Comilla University. In the middle of our conversation they abruptly stood bolt upright: one of their lecturers was passing by in a rickshaw. At this unexpected and sudden show of respect I dropped a piece of my planey cake!

Final thoughts

Even though this trip took a long time to organise and was difficult to arrange, I am very glad I made the effort. It was both informative and enjoyable. It was of course a luxury to have a personal car and driver.

I got a number of invaluable insights for my work project. I also gained a deeper understanding of rural development issues in Bangladesh and met some inspirational people with inspirational stories. The trips that I make to rural Bangladesh, and the visits to local development projects, are bringing back memories of my PhD research, and reawakening my interest in rural development issues.

I really enjoyed the time I spent in Comilla and in BARD. Although BARD is bigger than the NILG (my workplace), it has a more intimate atmosphere. The people that I met were warm and welcoming and I was sorry to say goodbye.

I will finish this post with a song. On the return journey from Comilla, Masud was playing one of Syed Abdul Hadi’s albums. I recognised one of the songs ‘Din Jai Kotha Thake’: it had been sung at the concert the night before. The song is from a 1979 film of the same name and was composed by Khan Ataur Rahman. I found this lovely version on YouTube, performed by some of Bangladesh’s finest musical artists, from left to right, Bappa Majumder, Partho Barua, Hyder Husyn and Shubir Nondi. Some great guitar playing too! Enjoy!

Below are a few photographs from my trip. (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 (58 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1 Mustard seed in full bloom

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5 responses to “46. Journeys (9): A study visit to Comilla

  1. Hello Ann, I came across your blog just 10 mins back. And how delighted I am to know you created a beautiful blog to chronicle your time in Bangladesh. I must say, you write so beautifully and so simply, that the words really portray a nice horizon for the reader. I originally come from Dhaka, Bangladesh (parents from Comilla) but have not lived there for over 25 years (I am a traveller!). Reading this post I am nostalgic, homesick and also feeling an intense urge to visit the many places in Comilla that you have been to that I have never been…I would very much love to share/exchange some further thoughts about your volunteering experience if that would be ok with you. I always love to meet people who visited my country and so much want to hear what they see/feel/hear/smell/experience! Kind regards, Linda

    • Dear Linda

      Sincere apologies for the delay in acknowledging your comment. I wanted to take some time to reply properly but then got caught up with work and the blog fell by the wayside! It was great to log in today at last and see your comment. As time moves on my year in Bangladesh seems more like a dream, but then I get a comment like yours and the memories come flooding back. So thank you for that! Twenty five years is a long time to be away Linda: do you have any plans to return? Apologies again for taking so long to reply and yes, please feel free to ask any further questions you might like.

      Regards, Ann

      • Hi Ann, not a problem about delayed reply. All good! I just sent you an invite to connect on Linkedin so we can perhaps chat a bit more about Bangladesh and your experience there! Lots of regards, Linda

  2. Hi Ann!

    Looks like I’m going to spend this weekend reading your blog. I was googling something about Bandarban, then your post about Bandarban came up and I was doomed. Two hours of work time have gone since then, but really worth it.

    It feels amazing to read about my country from your perspective. I’m really enjoying it.

    Oh btw, I’m from Comilla, living in Dhaka. 🙂

    • Hi Fahim

      Thank you for your lovely comment: very much appreciated! It’s always interesting to hear the views of ‘locals’. If you notice any errors, please let me know. You brought back good memories of Dhaka, Comilla and Bandarban. 🙂 Now, don’t forget your work!

      Ann

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