55. Journeys (12): Discovering Rajshahi division and a visit to Kushtia

Last week, I took my twelfth and final trip out of Dhaka. Knowing that this was my last journey in Bangladesh was poignant: the trip was tinged throughout with nostalgia.  Just as with my first major journey out of Dhaka (see post 18), this one too was self-organised. The purpose of the trip was first and foremost work-related: I wanted to investigate the research model in use at the Rural Development Academy (RDA) so that I could finish my report. (See post 48.) On a personal level, I was interested in visiting the RDA because of my background in rural development. I also wanted to learn more about the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP): its main office is located on the RDA campus. Finally, and as always, the prospect of travel for its own sake, to places I hadn’t been before, would have been justification enough. What a journey this last one has been!

Rajshahi division

My destination was the Rajshahi division in the north-west of Bangladesh. (I would also be making a brief foray across the Padma/Ganges River into the Khulna division towards the end of my trip.) The Rajshahi division is bounded by Bangladesh’s two great rivers, the Jamuna/Brahmaputra running north-south on the eastern border, and the aforementioned Padma/Ganges running north-west/south-east on the southern border. I had been in this division before when I visited Sirajganj district (see post 32). Rajshahi division is predominantly agricultural and is famous in Bangladesh for its silks and its mangoes, and for its architectural and historical sites.

You will see from the poverty maps discussed in post 30 that the Rajshahi division experiences relatively high levels of poverty. Historically, there have been problems of access for this region, though the building of the Jamuna Bridge (see post 32) has partly solved this problem. Many of the poorest areas are also amongst the most flood-prone areas in Bangladesh. (See maps at end of paragraph.) In northern parts of Bangladesh, there are some years when there can be a critical shortage of food in October and November. At this time of year the demand for agricultural labour declines. The first major rice crop of the year (aman) is not ready to be harvested and the next rice crop (boro) is not yet ready for sowing. As a result, many poorer households suffer from monga, a word used to refer to the hunger and hardship associated with this time. In recent years, people have been experimenting with growing potatoes between rice crops in an effort to ameliorate the effects of monga. The problem with potatoes is that they are much more difficult to store than rice.

The Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP)

Julian Francis, from the CLP, very kindly offered me a lift to Bogra from Dhaka. During the journey, Julian, who is from the UK, but has worked in Asia (India and Bangladesh) for almost 40 years, regaled me with some interesting stories. He told me about his time working with Oxfam in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where he was providing relief to Bangladeshi refugees before and during the Liberation War. He had met Bangabandhu. (See post 14.) There were stories from his associations with the ethnic minority rights movement in the hill tracts, where, for example, he knows Santu Larma (see post 43). He had also worked with weaving families in the Tangail district in the 1980s, through the UBINIG weaving project, and had some very insightful stories in that regard. Prabartana in Dhaka (see post 10) is a sister organisation of UBINIG and a retail outlet for some of the projects’ products. He told me a little about the CLP and his current work in the chars (see below).

The CLP (Chars Livelihoods Programme), is funded by DFID, sponsored by the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives in Bangladesh, and implemented through Maxwell Stamp PLC. The second phase of the project, due to start next month (April), has attracted additional funding from AusAID.

The programme works to reduce extreme poverty on the riverine islands (chars) of the Jamuna/Brahmaputra river system. I discovered more about their work later when I met Mahbub at the CLP office. Over coffee, outdoors in a lovely, shaded, bamboo pavilion, he explained the work of the CLP and provided me with literature ahead of my planned visit to the chars the following day (see below). You can read more about the work of the CLP on their website.

The Rural Development Academy (RDA)

I am staying at the guesthouse on the RDA (Rural Development Authority) campus (where the CLP office is also located). The campus is beautifully situated on 48 hectares, 10 miles (16 km) south of the town of Bogra. The RDA, established in 1974, is an autonomous body, though affiliated with the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives. It is a sister organisation of BARD (Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development) which I visited last December – see post 46. With a staff of 304, 61 of whom are faculty, the Academy specialises in research, training and action research in the field of rural development.

On my first day, after my meeting in the CLP office, I called to meet Zakaria in the RDA, with whom I had been communicating prior to this trip. However, he was out of the office (in the chars). Instead, I had a very interesting meeting with Abdul Kaleque, a director in the Social Sciences division. He stressed the multi-disciplinary nature of research in the Academy which is reflected in the varied academic backgrounds of staff. He gave me a very clear overview of research processes in the RDA. Later, I had another interesting meeting with Nazrul Islam Khan from the Centre for Irrigation and Water Management (CIWM). He told me about the genesis of the centre and its achievements to date. (You can read more on the CIWM section of the RDA website.) Incidentally, Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan was credited in the presentation as influencing work in the CIWM: he was the first man in Bangladesh to introduce mechanised methods of extracting sub-surface water, when surface water was not available. Both the RDA and BARD built on his work in this regard. (For more on Dr. Khan see post 46.)

During my subsequent meetings with Zakaria, an agronomist and a director at RDA, he provided me with information on research and training in general in the academy, and also outlined the genesis and current status of a number of specific, successful and innovative action research projects under his stewardship. These included, for example, a project that succeeded in improving seed health by using affordable technology; the development of a model for a seed business run by women; the successful growing of water-saving rice varieties; the improvement of on-farm water management through training and ‘magic pipe’ technology; and the training of ‘plant doctors’. He gave me a DVD containing presentations on some of these very interesting projects.

I met briefly with the Director General, who kindly offered to provide me with transport to visit Paharpur (see below). I also met an ex-Director General of RDA, Md. Abdul Haque, now working as the government representative with the CLP, at dinner one evening in the guesthouse. I had met him briefly on my journey from Dhaka: he was at the restaurant where Julian and I had stopped for breakfast. On the particular night in question, he was attending dinner to welcome a group of ‘important’ diners from the National Defence Corps.

I had some lovely walks around the RDA campus. As in BARD, many of the staff live on campus and there are schools and playgrounds, a shop, a mosque and two restaurants. There is a lovely pond near a canteen where I sat one evening at sunset and met participants from a training course on ‘tissue culture’. Much of the land on campus is used for research purposes in horticulture, floriculture, farming, animal husbandry, etc. and a walk in any direction leads to something interesting. On another evening, I walked to the demonstration farm and met a group of cheerful, friendly children on a picturesque path between rice paddies.

Bogra: the Nawabs of Bengal and delicious mishti doi

I liked the town of Bogra. There wasn’t much vehicular traffic but there were a lot of rickshaws, flat-bed carts and CNGs. Bogra is famous for its particularly good mishti doi (sweet curd) and it comes in lovely little earthenware brown pots. On my return journey from Paharpur, I tried many mishti doi shops until finally I found one that had some: it was sold out everywhere else. It was worth the search: it was delicious and definitely the best doi I’ve had in Bangladesh. In Bogra, I visited the Nawab Syed Abdus Sobhan Chowdhury Memorial Museum and Amusement Park. It is also known locally as the Bogra Nawab bari (the house of the Bogra Nawabs). Although the house is undeniably beautiful (and grand), as a museum experience it is poor. Interpretation is non-existent and I am not sure how faithful the furnished house is to the Nawab period, or the significance of the various ad-hoc collections of coins, books, photographs, etc. I found it interesting though in that it prompted me to find out more about the Nawabs of Bengal and the history of that period in Bangladesh.

There is a large mosaic picture in front of the museum of Mohammad Ali Bogra (1909 – 1963), a descendant of the Nawabs of Bogra and the third Prime Minister of Pakistan. From what I can make out, he was the grandson of Nawab Ali Chowdhury (1863-1929), a zamindar, social worker, politician and one of the founding members of Dhaka University. His grandmother, Altafunnessa (Nawab Ali’s wife), was the daughter of Nawab Syed Abdus Sobhan Chowdhury (d. 1915), the Nawab of Bogra, to whom this museum is a memorial. In other words the museum is dedicated to Mohammad Ali Bogra’s maternal great-grandfather. (Incidentally, when I was researching and trying to figure out these relationships I came across an interesting judgment (1921) from a case taken (and lost) by an illegitimate son (Habib) of the Nawab of Bogra, against a legitimate grandson Altaf Ali Chowdhury (Altafunnessa’s son and Mohammad Ali Bogra’s father). You can read the judgement here. ) As far as I can decipher, Mohammad Ali Bogra’s second son, Syed Hamde Ali Chowdhury, having studied and worked overseas, returned to Bangladesh in the late 90s and lives in the Bogra Nawab bari today.

The Jamuna-Brahmaputra River: Kunderpara char, Gaibandha district

On my second day in Bogra, I visited Kunderpara char on the Jamuna-Brahmaputra River. I had wanted to make this journey to the chars for a long time: my perseverance more than paid off. Arun Ganguly, from the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP), was my gracious host: his passion for the project and his willingness to share his knowledge enriched my experience immensely. We set off at 6.30a.m. and journeyed north through the Bogra and Gaibandha districts. We stopped at a CLP district office in Gaibandha and then at the GUK (Gana Unnayan Kendra) office, also in Gaibandha, for a delicious breakfast. GUK is a one of the local NGOs contracted by the CLP to deliver services to the chars. It also undertakes a broad range of other activities to alleviate poverty in the northwest. Mukul, who is a project manager on the CLP-GUK Gaibandha project, accompanied us for the rest of the day. After breakfast we continued to Balashi ghat, a very picturesque little place on the river. From here, we boarded our long, narrow, wooden boat, replete with bamboo hood for shelter.

We spent the next hour, or so, on the mighty Jamuna-Brahmaputra River. It was a memorable journey, weaving between chars and witnessing life on this great, braided, river system in Bangladesh. Chars are sandbank islands that have broken away from the mainland or been formed by river deposits. There are hundreds of these islands. The overall number is constantly changing, as is the position of islands relative to the river, determined and shaped by the ongoing processes of erosion and accretion.

It is difficult to find reliable data relating to the numbers of people living on chars at any one time in Bangladesh. In a report published by Unnayan Onneshan, it is estimated that 5% of the Bangladeshi population live on chars, which would put the figure at around 8 million. The report also estimates that around 5% of the land of Bangladesh (2,780 sq. ml, or 7,200 sq. km.) is char land. The people who live in this unstable environment are amongst the most vulnerable in the country. They eke out a meagre living from agriculture and fishing, and augment it through seasonal labour in towns on the mainland. When their makeshift villages flood, or eventually disappear, they pack up and move to another sandbank. It is estimated that char dwellers relocate between five and seven times each generation. Because of the large population and the shortage of cultivable land, many people in rural Bangladesh are landless and have no choice but to live on these unreliable islands, in the full knowledge that they are but a temporary solution.

During my journey I could see the landscape evolving before my eyes: large chunks of sand were breaking away from some of the islands and dissolving in the waters of the river. In other areas I could see the beginnings of the silting process. Despite the vast expanse of the river we were never alone: there were wooden service boats, heavily laden with passengers, on their way back and forth between the islands and the mainland; there were people working near the shore, waving when they caught sight of me; there were cheerful children diving from high points and swimming and splashing in the river; there were small boats from which men were fishing with nets and makeshift rods; and there were more elaborate-looking fishing traps at various points in the river too.

Our destination was the Kunderpara char and we arrived on a spectacular, white-sand beach where we were met by the GUK development worker, who lives on the island. We plodded across the sand for some time before we reached the village. During the next few hours I met a number of families who had benefited from the CLP programme. The homesteads I visited had been raised on earthen plinths, above the highest known flood levels. The experience of the CLP is that raised plinths are helping to reduce char dwellers’ vulnerability to flooding and are thereby protecting lives, assets and livelihoods. The families affiliated with the programme had access to clean water through nearby tube-wells, and to sanitary latrines that were enclosed in bamboo huts. The farmers – those I met today were exclusively women – had received training in animal husbandry. It is estimated that half of all farmers in the developing world are women. (Research has shown that when women farmers have access to the same resources as men, they can produce 30% more food.) The first woman I met had 3 cows (she had been given one originally). She washed grass before feeding it to the cows and also ensured that they had some protection from mosquitoes. Another household had a chicken hatchery. I saw maize spread thinly on the ground to dry and red chillies drying on hot tin roofs. Families were growing fruit and vegetables in home gardens and harvesting seeds for future cultivation. Every household had a compost heap.

Shilpi, one of the farmers, showed me around her homestead and I saw the impressive gourds that she had grown. She told me, through Arun, how her life was different now, thanks to the CLP project. As well as increased income and food security, she has hope too that her only child, a daughter, will receive a good education. She said that she has more peace of mind because her relationship with her husband has improved. He doesn’t have to leave the island in search of work anymore and therefore she doesn’t have to worry that he will take another wife on the mainland.

I attended a very interesting meeting of the women’s social development group. Sitting amongst the circle of women on mats in a bamboo pavilion, I listened to their hopes for the future of their members. As well as training activities (in health-related matters, for example), they also operate a village cooperative savings and loans scheme, the set-up of which was facilitated by the CLP. They explained how they decide who should get a loan and how they guard against misappropriation of funds. In the latter regard, they showed me a money-box that had three locks and three keys. One key is held by the Chairwoman, one by the Records Keeper and one by the Money Keeper.

On my way to the bazar I passed the school: it was break-time and I was immediately surrounded by a group of exuberant children. In the bazar, I visited a livestock services shop and met the para vet (village vet). He, as provider of livestock services, had received basic training. This man’s service to local farmers has been greatly enhanced since he purchased a solar-powered refrigerator from the CLP for storing vaccinations, which he proudly showed me. As well as selling farm supplies from his shop, he also travels out on calls to homesteads when necessary.

There is a GUK office on the island and they had prepared a late lunch for our arrival which was very welcome. It also gave us time for discussion and reflection. On the journey back to Balashi ghat by boat, I had a lot to think about. At the same time, I didn’t want to miss a moment of river life. I am extremely grateful to the CLP (particularly Julian and Arun), and to the GUK (through Mukul), for enabling me to glimpse some of the admirable and interesting work they are doing in this fragile and beautiful part of Bangladesh.

Mahastangahr: an ancient city, a medieval Islamic saint and local mishti

On our way back from the chars we stopped at Mahastangahr. Here, by the Karatuya River (sacred to Hindus), there are the archaeological remains of the oldest known city in Bangladesh, dating back to the 3rd century B.C. Unfortunately, the museum was closed by the time we arrived. The main site, the Citadel, consists mostly of bits of foundations, spread out over hilly terrain covering almost a square mile (more than 2 km2). There are other lesser monuments scattered over a protected area within a 5-mile (8 km) radius. Evidence has been found at the site for successive Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim occupation. The protected area has been put on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Nearby, we visited the mazar (tomb) of Shah Sultan Balkhi, a 14th century Islamic saint. According to Wikipedia, the tomb is built on the site of a Hindu temple. There were a lot of worshipful pilgrims at this site and the atmosphere was festive.

Close to the mazar there were shops doing a brisk trade in the local mishti (sweet) speciality, called kotkutee (I think). Arun bought some to bring home to his family: they come in  brown, crunchy squares and are the first hard sweets I have tasted in Bangladesh. The long queues and the huge piles of sweets in the shops attested to their popularity.

Paharpur: ruins of an impressive Buddhist monastery complex

In a small village 3 miles (5km) west of Jamalganj in the Naogaon district, northwest of Bogra, there are the ruins of the most important and largest known Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas. I travelled there by car through the stunningly beautiful rural landscapes of Bogra and Joypurhat districts. We drove along eucalyptus-lined roads through the greenest boro paddies I have ever seen. At times it felt as though we were driving through tunnels of trees.

The Paharpur vihara (monastery), also known as Somapura Mahavira, or Great Monastery, was built by the Pala Emperor Dharmapala (AD 770-810) and was a renowned intellectual centre until the 12th century. The temple complex covered an area of approximately eleven hectares and consisted primarily of a large central stupa, surrounded by monks’ cells around the perimeter wall. You can see a model of what the central stupa might have looked like on Wikipedia. There are scant ruins of other smaller buildings, temples and monasteries on the site, which was successively occupied in later periods by Jains and Hindus.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, there is also a small museum where many of the archaeological finds are displayed, though some have been taken to a museum in Rajshahi and yet more of the artefacts are away on tour. Like in Mainimati (see post 46) there is a profusion of carved detail at this site: the terracotta plaques at the base of the buildings are impressive. (See picture above at introduction to this post.) I could have spent a whole day at this site: it’s incredible to think of the influence it had on Buddhist architecture in Asia, in places as far away, for example, as Cambodia. In the evening sun, the red brick took on a deep, burnt-copper colour and radiated magnificently, imprinting a final and lasting memory as I reluctantly took my departure.

Natore and Puthia: palaces, temples and rajbari

After leaving the RDA and the CLP, I journeyed south to Rajshahi, stopping en route to visit Natore and Puthia. I loved these two towns: they were full of atmosphere and charm and ethereal echoes of times past. I could easily have spent a full day in each. Apart from the towns themselves, which are full of interesting and evidently once ornate buildings, there is an abundance of well-known historical palaces, temples and rajbari (raj=king; bari=house, so literally ‘king’s house’, or ‘palace’). However, it’s very difficult to get clear, reliable information relating to the history of the towns, the rajbari and the temples, at least in guidebooks and websites. More often than not, the information that I have found has been contradictory and indeed often obfuscatory.

In Natore, around 45 miles south of Bogra, I stopped at the impressive Dighapatia rajbari, once the seat of the Dighapatia Raj, but now one of the official residences of the President of Bangladesh. The current building was completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1897. It’s not possible to visit without special permission, which must be arranged from Dhaka beforehand. So I had to view it from the gates and the perimeter walls, but I still got a feel for its grandeur. My next stop was the Natore rajbari complex, where there is a cluster of evidently once magnificent houses in varying stages of dilapidation. This was the seat of the Rajshahi Raj family of zamindars. These buildings are amongst the oldest rajbari in Bangladesh, dating to the mid-1700s. They are approached via an atmospheric, tree-lined avenue. The first set of buildings is the baro taraf (big palace) and behind this is the smaller complex, the choto taraf (small palace), the latter consisting of two fine-looking houses overlooking a picturesque pond. There is evidence of intricate stone carving, pillars and columns, beautiful doorways and painted tile work. Apart from the reasonably intact houses, there are also a lot of ruins on the site. Similar to other historical ruins that I have seen in Bangladesh, there are a number of families living in and around the vestiges of this rajbari complex. It was strange to see washing hanging haphazardly to dry on a line strung between ornate, marble pillars.

In the town of Puthia I visited four very different temples and a rajbari, all of which you can see in the photograph selection below. Puthia has the largest number of historically important Hindu structures in Bangladesh, though, unfortunately, many more temples have disappeared completely. At the entrance to the town there is the Hindu Shiva temple (mandir), dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and picturesquely located at the top of a flight of steps, overlooking a tranquil pond. This imposing square structure was built in 1823 and has some wonderful carved stone features. It is said to be an example of the ‘five-spire’ Hindu style, common in northern India (though they look more like mini-domes, than spires). It houses an impressive black basalt Shiva linga.

Not far from this temple there is another: the white, four-tiered Dol temple (or Dol mandir), with a small dome on top. I have been unable to find out much about the history of this pyramid-shaped temple. As its name suggests it is associated with the Hindu Holi spring festival, or festival of colours, known as Dol Utshab here in Bangladesh.

Beside the Puthia rajbari, or palace (across a field from the Dol mandir) there is the spectacular Govinda mandir (temple), dedicated to the Hindu god Govinda (one of the many names associated with the god Krishna). This is a square, five-domed temple, embellished with intricately decorated terracotta tiles. It was built between 1823 and 1895. While I was there a prayer ceremony was getting underway in front of a shrine inside. A woman arrived with a beautiful, delicate conch shell which she blew into at certain points to accompany chanting, ceremonial bells, cymbals, drums and a stringed instrument. The entire ritual was spellbinding. Interestingly, later, while examining the decorated terracotta tiles, I came across a figure depicted blowing into a conch shell, or shankh, which I have since discovered is part of Hindu iconography.

Nearby, there is another restored 16th century temple called the Jagannath temple. As with Govinda, Jagannath is yet another name associated with Krishna. This temple has the traditional, hut-shaped roof, part of what is known as the bangla architectural style. Again, it too is beautifully adorned with terracotta panels.

Set amidst all these temples is the ramshackle ruin of Puthia rajbari, or palace. Apparently there is a bilingual inscription above a door which states that the palace was constructed in 1895 by Rani Hemanta Kumari Devi, in honour of her illustrious mother-in-law, the late Maharani Sarat Sundori Devi. (I failed to find this inscription.) These crumbling ruins are occupied today: I think there is a college here. There was a large image on textile of Che Guevara hanging on the door of one of the rooms. I was curious to know what lay behind it: however, my Bangla wasn’t good enough to understand the explanation from the man who was sitting at a bare desk in the bare room behind the door.

All too soon it was time to continue my journey to Rajshahi. I enjoyed my visits to these stunningly beautiful rajbari and temples in Natore and Puthia. It was interesting too to experience something of Hindu Bangladesh. It is sad to see so much of Bangladesh’s impressive built heritage so neglected. If I were to come back in a few years I wonder if all the buildings I saw today would still be standing.

Rajshahi: silks before sunset and a most valued compliment

I didn’t have enough time at all in the town of Rajshahi. There was so much I wanted to do but missed e.g. visit Rajshahi University, the Varendra museum, the Baro Kuthi, and more. I had been talking to Shaharia over coffee in the RDA, who is from Rajshahi, and he had given me some good tips too. I wasted valuable time checking out the circuit house which I thought I might be able to stay in because of my government connections. Circuit houses are guesthouses for government officials. This one was beautifully situated and had a lot of charm. I sat in a spacious, high-ceilinged, shuttered bedroom overlooking a garden, while I awaited a decision from the manager. Unfortunately, a stay has to be booked in advance and authorised from Dhaka. I stayed in the Parjatan motel instead.

I had a memorable visit to the Sopura silk factory and showrooms. On my way there by rickshaw through Rajshahi, I saw lots of interesting-looking old buildings. The silk factory was on a road where there were many other silk factories and showrooms and I chose this one randomly. A friendly female security guard at the gate invited me to tour the factory. This seemed like a good place to work: there was a lot of banter and camaraderie between employees and the atmosphere was sociable.

I didn’t know much about sericulture before this visit and though not intentional, it proved very interesting to learn about the whole process from moth to finished product. First, I went to a shaded room and saw the mating moths that had just emerged from cocoons. The male dies immediately after mating and the female goes on to lay 200/300 eggs before she dies too. Neither can fly. Within 3 weeks the eggs have become worms and are transferred to bamboo trays lined with mulberry leaves, which they eat voraciously and grow to around 2 inches (5cm). At this stage they are ready to begin the cocooning process and are transferred to a specially designed, woven, bamboo frame. After 36 hours they are completely enclosed in cocoons of yellow silk filament. (Other moths produce white filament.) The whole process – from egg to silk cocoon – has taken just 25 days.

Now the silk filaments must be unravelled from the cocoons. They are dropped into vats of boiling water to remove the gluey exterior. Then the filaments are picked out carefully from the cocoons and fed into a reeling machine. Many filaments from different cocoons are combined into one thread. The machine takes up the silk and it is fed onto a reel. I saw a man winding the thread from these reels into reams: it was extraordinarily glossy and shiny (see photographs below).

I visited a noisy factory floor where there were large machines with clanking arms, steel wheels, whirring cogs and purring spools. The machines were operated by men in vests, some wearing protective eye-wear and all welcoming me with warm smiles. Some were following patterns from punched cards that hung overhead the machines. Amidst the flurry of activity on the floor, there were women behind long tables filling bobbins with the silk thread I had seen earlier.

Upstairs, I met women who were painting designs on white silk fabric with gold paint and I was invited to participate. There’s a piece of silk somewhere today bearing my gold swirl! In other rooms there were people embroidering detailed and intricate designs on to the silk by hand. I also saw men at sewing machines creating pieces of clothing. Finally, I visited the vast showrooms containing the finished fabrics and garments. This visit was a wonderful experience: the staff that I met at each stage of the process were exceptionally helpful and welcoming. The beautiful silks that I saw in the showrooms later were a fitting testament to these tremendously talented people.

After the visit I took a rickshaw to the banks of the Padma River to watch the sunset. There is a promenade along the river, south of the Parjatan motel. This was yet another fascinating place where I could have spent much longer. By now though I needed a cup of tea, so I found a tea stall with seats offering shade under a lovely sprawling old tree. From here I was able to watch life go by and chat with locals. I had a pleasantly discursive conversation with a lovely old man who spoke English very well.  He wore a long white robe that matched his beard. At the end of our conversation he told me that he had never before met a foreigner with such ‘fine feeling and understanding for Bangladeshi life’. He couldn’t know just how much his compliment meant to me, on this, my final journey, in a country I have grown to love. I very much wanted to give him a hug as I left, but by now I know that such a gesture would have been entirely inappropriate.

Fortified by cha and pitha (tea and cake) I walked north-west along the river bank for a while in the company of strolling, friendly goats. (I failed to find a plausible explanation for their presence.) At the moment, there is hardly any water in the river at this location and the dry riverbed was a hive of activity. It looked as though it might be possible to get to India on foot, once you traversed the large char in the middle distance. The promenade on which I was walking is actually the top of one of the many embankments built to protect the town of Rajshahi from flooding. The town is spread out along the northern bank of the ever-shifting Padma. I met more and more people as I walked. Some, like me, were taking a stroll at sunset: others lived in crowded housing at the edge of the path I was walking on. All were genuinely friendly and eager to chat.

Unfortunately, within a short time it was completely dark. I thought I might try to walk back to the Parjatan motel. I am not sure where I went wrong but I soon found myself in the middle of farmland on a rough earthen path in pitch darkness with a fly in my eye. I met two little boys, one of whom had a torch (how come I never have mine when I need it?). They were so lovely: one even looked into my eye, using his torch to see if he could find the fly. They showed me their catapults from which they were shooting tiny missiles that had coloured lights. They looked magical against the black sky. By following the lights they were able to recapture their arrows. They guided me along a path where we bumped into others walking in the dark. After climbing down a steep earthen embankment we arrived on an unlit roadway, from where I eventually got a rickshaw.

Culture in Kushtia: Tagore’s house and Lalon’s tomb

Next morning, I arrived at Rajshahi railway station at 7 a.m. and boarded a train bound for Kushtia. I shared a carriage with two couples: Muktadir and Shapla and Tayobur and Lubna. They very kindly invited me to share breakfast, which they had brought with them. It turned out that we all intended visiting the same sites so we decided to travel together. They were truly lovely travelling companions and I enjoyed their company.

The train journey, as always, was pleasant: we crossed the Padma River on the 1.8km steel Hardinge Bridge built in 1915. Alongside this railway bridge is a road bridge, the Lalon Shah Bridge, dating to 2004. Once across the river, we were in the Khulna division. (See post 34.)

There are two Tagore houses in Kushtia. The Tagore Lodge in the town was used to carry out official zamindari business: the other, Kuthibari, is in Shilaidaha in Kumarkhali upazila (sub-district) about 10 miles (I think) from Kushtia. It was to the latter we were bound. To get there we had to travel north-east, along the Kuthibari Road north of the Gorai River, a tributary of the Padma River. The house is close to the banks of the Padma – perhaps too close. Rickshaws brought us across the Gorai to a CNG stand. The CNG we took was electrically-operated and went at a snail’s pace. It was different to the CNGs in Dhaka: it looked a bit like a golf cart. It was a tight squeeze with the five of us and my rucksack. The unhurried pace was perfect though for enjoying the tranquil, rural countryside that we were slowly drifting through.

There were a lot of people at the Tagore house: today is not only Friday, but also Independence Day in Bangladesh and so there was a festive atmosphere everywhere we went. The house is very beautiful. So too are the well-kept gardens that run down to a picturesque pond. In 1890 Rabindranath Tagore (see post 29) took charge of the family estates here for a ten year period. The family had a houseboat on the river and he spent some of his time there living on the Padma. He was inspired by the natural beauty of the landscape, the rhythm of the river, the simplicity of everyday rural life and the folk culture of rural Bengal, all of which are represented in his work. He would return to Shilaidaha later in 1912 for several years. I have read that, as a landlord, Tagore broke the mould: he insisted on eliminating the traditional distance between landlord and tenant farmer. Instead, he took a deep interest in the lives and work of his tenants, assisting where he could and encouraging innovation. In the house, there were lots of interesting photographs, including pictures of Tagore’s family, and meetings with other well-known figures such as Einstein and Gandhi, amongst others. (See photographs at end of post 29).

In the lovely grounds of the house there were stalls selling books and other tourist bric-a-brac. It was a very hot day and we had some malai kulfi – a kind of ice-cream, cut into squares and served on a leaf. It was deliciously cold but not for long. There was a group of singers sitting under the shade of a large old tree sharing renditions of Tagore songs.

It was here in Kushtia that Tagore first came into contact with the Bauls. The Bauls are mystic minstrels living in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. They reject established, institutional religion: theirs is a syncretic religion with elements of Sufism and Vaishnava Hinduism. They seek the indwelling ‘man of the heart’, the elusive presence of the divine that dwells within the physical human body. Bauls are admired for their freedom from convention, as well as for their music and poetry. They believe that all men and women are equal. The Bauls’ iconoclastic ‘religion of man’ (manusher dharma) had a lasting influence on Tagore’s spiritual ideals. Called by some the ‘greatest of the Bauls’, Tagore was a key figure in popularising Baul music and spirituality, which is now recognised as an icon of Bengali folk culture. In 2008, Baul songs were inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  You can see a related video clip on Baul songs and culture below.

Incidentally, during my time in Bangladesh the great Baul Samrat (King of the Bauls), Shah Abdul Karim, died at the age of 93. When I was in the Apollo Hospital (see post 15), I turned on my television one night when I couldn’t sleep and was mesmerised by a documentary on the life of Karim. Although it was in Bangla, I could follow bits and pieces: the scenery in the Sunamganj district was breathtaking. I would have needed the language in order to comprehend the songs, but I enjoyed some of the melodies. I was so glad that I had stumbled upon that programme by accident. He died in September last. (See also latter part of post 37.)

The Bauls believe that nobody is born a Baul, but that one needs a Baul guru to become a Baul. The Baul saint Lalon Shah (c.1774–1890) was perhaps the greatest such Baul guru. Lalon was born in the eighteenth century and made a major impact through his songs about equality and the meaning of human life. He was also a social reformer and secular thinker. Because he rejected all hierarchies, and distinctions between and within religions, he was both praised and criticised in his lifetime and thereafter. Accurate details of his life are not fully known. Neither are all of his songs and poems, through which he expressed his humanitarian and secular philosophy. Because they weren’t written down, many have been lost through time. However, countless (thousands) have survived through the oral tradition and most Bangladeshi singers today have Lalon songs in their repertoires. Farida Parveen, for example, is a well-known singer of Lalon songs.

In 1963, a research centre was founded at his shrine in Cheouria, where he died and is buried. It is known locally as the Lalon Akhrah. We visited this complex today. Near his tomb, there was a group of Baul musicians sitting round and I sat and listened to them play and sing for a while. Every year there are two annual melas (festivals) in Kushtia in memory of Lalon’s legacy. I had hoped (but failed) to get to one of these festivals. I heard one such Kushtia festival described as a ‘Bangladeshi Woodstock’. In any event, I enjoyed my visit to Cheouria today: in a way it was like a ‘mini-mela’ because of the crowds and the music.

Incidentally, Kushtia is also the birthplace of the nineteenth-century novelist, essayist and playwright, Mir Mosharraf Hossain, born in 1847 in Lahiripara. He wrote about Islam and history and used satire to criticise what he saw as the ills of society. He is best known for his poetic novel Bishad Shindu (Ocean of Sorrows), the subject of which is the prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hasan.

Back to Dhaka

At the end of a lovely day, I said goodbye to my travelling companions and took a bus bound for Dhaka. I was surprised by the route that we took: we went north (across the Padma) and then crossed the Jamuna on the Bangabandhu bridge (see post 32). It seemed like a very roundabout journey. However, I didn’t mind: the journey through rural Bangladesh was enjoyable, as always. I was conscious that this might be my last time seeing rice paddies, mango gardens, banana farms and stands of bamboo and jute. I found myself trying to fix these scenes of rural village life in my memory. On this final journey I had a very interesting conversation too with Shupna, a doctor from Jhenaidah, who happened to be sitting beside me. She now lives in Uttara in Dhaka with her husband, who is also a physician. We talked about travel, about Bangladesh, about the many unfortunate misunderstandings between East and West, about literature and about development. It was a wonderfully reflective conversation and one that I will remember.

Final thoughts

This has been an incredible journey through time and place and a fitting finale to my Bangladesh experience. I’ve been immersed in history and archaeology, towns and traditions, research and development, landscapes and culture, music and literature. Above all, I have met wonderful people along the way. I’ve heard interesting stories and had fascinating conversations. As I write these final lines I am feeling a little sad too, not knowing when, if ever, I will travel again in rural Bangladesh.

I’ve put a few photographs together 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 (242 photographs in all). Enjoy!

InPost Slideshow Pic

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4 responses to “55. Journeys (12): Discovering Rajshahi division and a visit to Kushtia

  1. I am happy to read this article about our country’s heritage and history which you have feel and observe yourself. Very nice article. Thanks for the write up.

  2. I am Mamun – expeditions guide since 2001. I read many articles and stories but this feels like an online travel book, a very knowledgeable story of travel experience.

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