Venerating the Sacred Bo Tree

Monks from the Thervanda Order have left offerings at this shrine, dedicated to Ficus Religiosa. Incorporated into the fabric of Buddhist practice, the ‘Bo’ tree represents an integral part of Buddhist tradition. Buddha chose to sit beneath a Bodhi tree while searching for shade to stop and meditate. It is therefore intrinsically linked with his moment of enlightenment, as he resolved not to rise until he had attained the ‘ultimate knowledge’.

Touching the earth, thereby calling it to witness the countless lifetimes of virtue that had led him to this place of enlightenment, he entered into a state of deep meditation. Three days and nights passed until his intention was realized. Henceforward, for Buddhists, the Bodhi tree became a venerated object. Some became pilgrimage sites, as this one in my little village. Ironically this powerful and vast specimen now finds its modern self standing in the middle of a busy woodsaw mill.


Be kind whenever possible…it is always possible – Dalai Lama

Some days little things can really mean a lot. Today, for the first time in a long time I was given flowers. It almost made me cry.

You often don’t realise exactly what you miss until an unexpected gesture or action springs it up before you into sudden relief, and there it is, staring at you, right in the face.

Today wasn’t a particularly easy day, so when a friend turned up at the office to say ‘hello’ and presented me with a single stem of a beautiful jasmine scented flower, he had no idea of the impact his simple act of kindness had. Thank you.

Buddhism in Bangladesh

At a glance, Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. It teaches that all life is interconnected, so compassion is natural and important.

Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent – change is always possible, and the quest for the path to Enlightenment can be found through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.

Buddhism arose in around the 6th Century BC. It is not centred on the relationship between humanity and God as there is no belief in a personal God. The two main sects are Theravanda and Mahayana. There are currently 376 million followers of Buddhism worldwide.

Buddhism is the third largest religion in Bangladesh. Most of those practitioners live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and follow Theravanda, a relatively conservative form of early Buddhism, which literally means ‘Teaching of the Elders, or ‘Ancient Teaching’.

Theravanda is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, with over 100 million followers worldwide. In the hill tracts these predominantly consist of Chakma, Chak, Marma, Tenchungya and Khyang people.

There are several monasteries in the Chittagong Hills, and a beautiful Golden Temple right here in Bandarban, which houses one of the largest statues of Buddha in the entire country. To be precise it is actually a pagoda, as the building itself consists of many tiered towers. Local Buddhist shrines also form an important centre for village life, with major festivals commemorating the important events in the life of the Buddah.

Most Buddhist villages have a boarding school known as the ‘kyong,’ where boys learn to read Burmese and a little Pali, an ancient Buddhist scriptural language. It’s fairly common for men who have finished their education to return at regular intervals for periods of residence at their school.

Although the European term ‘monk’ is also often applied to Buddhism, the Theravanda term is ‘bhikkhu’, whose disciplinary code is known as the ‘patimokkha’, consisting of no less than 227 rules when fully ordained. There is often a trial period prior to ordination, to see if a candidate still wishes to become a Buddhist monk.

If he does, he will remain living in the monastery, otherwise, he is free to leave. If he stays he will lead a life of mendicancy, with a daily morning alms walk around his village, where he will receive food from the locals, although he is not permitted to positively ask for anything.

Young boys can be ordained as ‘samaneras’, literally meaning small, in essence as a novice or apprentice monk. Both bhikkhus and samaneras eat only in the morning, and are not allowed to lead a luxurious life. Their rules forbid the use of money, although this is not always followed by every modern day monk. The bhikkhus are also only allowed to own four items other than their robes: a razor, a needle, an alms bowl and a water strainer.

I was honored with an invitation to attend the recent inauguration ceremony for a newly ordained monk at my local Buddhist temple in Bandarban town.

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection”
– Buddha

Baidyas or Traditional Healers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Locally grown medicinal plants and traditional healing practices play a significant role in the general welfare of the the Indigenous communities living in the Hill Tracts, as well as representing a rich seam of local heritage.

The knowledge and wisdom which underpin the practice of Baidya, as traditional healers are called, has predominantly been passed down, spanning generations. Having been extensively and effectively used for hundreds of years, many people living here today are still almost totally dependent on these methods, for both the treatment and upkeep of their health.

Broadly speaking, Baidyas provide two categories of service. The first is plant-based, covering preventative, curative and healing treatment, known as ‘kabiraji’. The second is the practice of spiritual and sacred ceremonies and is called ‘tontra-montro’, a popular practice with the Baidyas from the Tanchangya community.

In recent years, concern has been raised that this local wisdom is under threat and eroding fast. This has been attributed to many factors, but the two main contributors are deforestation, and the rapidly shrinking land resource, which together are responsible for the drastically reduced availability of the plants and herbs required for practice.

Medicinal plants can often be found along the hedgerows and boundary lines, with the shrubby species usually cultivated as undergrowth in homestead plantations and also on fallow land. It’s typically women who play a major role in maintaining these local medicinal plantations.

Baidyas themselves also grow and maintain their own personal stock of the main plants and herbs used for their practice. Some however rely on purchases from their local bazaars, but generally this quality is poor, with limited available varieties, as the most widely used species become increasingly rare and more difficult to find.

Collecting and harvesting at the correct time is a vital factor in ensuring the quality and effectiveness of the finally produced medicine. Unfortunately this time-factor can often be ignored, due to the acute shortage and high demand for these plants.

With no formal arrangement or recognised institution to train and nurture existing local knowledge, coupled with the difficulty in obtaining raw materials, the practice of Baidya does in fact appear to be one under threat. Moving forward, conservation measures are urgently needed to be put in place, to protect remaining stocks along with this priceless inherited knowledge.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) have been working in the Bolipara district over the last couple of years to do just that, and I was delighted to also come across evidence that this valuable work is now taking place in other areas of the Bandarban hills too.

Bain Weaving in the Chittagong Hills

Alongside Jhum farming, some of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Chittagong Hills can earn additional income through their weaving skills. This knowledge, method and the traditional designs have been handed down through many generations, spanning centuries.

Weaving has been a common practice across all eleven Indigenous and ethnic groups living within the three hill districts that make up the Chittagong Hill Tracts: Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari. Due to it being such labour-intensive and time-consuming work however it is sadly in real danger of falling into decline. Should this happen, a major part of the cultural heritage of this region could unfortunately be lost to the future.

Today the process often begins with the unravelling of second-hand woolen clothing to obtain yarn, which is then recycled and carefully woven to create beautiful hand made textiles. Throughout the various villages I’ve visited to date I have seen the backstrap loom most commonly in use. This traditional technique is also known as ‘Bain Weaving’.

It can take several working days to produce one blanket, which would typically find its way to the local market and sell for between 350 and 400 taka (£3.25 – £3.70). Since I relocated to Bandarban during the winter season, I have bought myself several colourful scarves, two beautiful blankets and many shawls, all of which are soft, warm and very durable.

Jhum Cultivation in the Hill Tracts

Jhum cultivation is an age-old, rain-fed cultivation method, practiced by the Indigenous people on the hills and slopes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, because of the lack of flat land suitable for farming. This system involves cutting back and clearing large areas of the hillside through fire, which also acts as a fertiliser, to obtain clean, fresh soil to farm, and why it is sometimes referred to as a ‘slash-and-burn’ method. This agricultural system is practised by the individual or family, however on occasion may involve an entire village.

Seeds of different crops are mixed together and sewn in this ‘field’ after the first rain shower has fallen, usually during the months of April to May. Plants on the slopes survive the rainy season floods. Typically, upland rice and vegetables are harvested within a few months after sowing, whereas cotton, turmeric and arum are harvested after 8 or 9 months, during December.

This is followed by several years of wood harvesting or crop growing until the soil loses its fertility. Once the land becomes inadequate for crop production it is then left to be reclaimed by natural jungle vegetation once again, while the same activity continues elsewhere, with this cycle continually repeating itself.

In the past, land was left fallow for between 15 to 20 years, which allowed the soil time to regenerate its fertility. These days however population pressure, coupled with acute land scarcity has forced that time frame to be reduced to a rotation cycle of between 3 to 5 years. This is widely recognised as not being sufficient for soil to regain its productivity.

Historically Jhum farming represented a subsistence shifting cultivation. These days it is gradually evolving and becoming more market oriented, which is also adding pressure for shorter land rotation. Ironically it seems possible fertilizer will become more and more necessary, and come to play an important role in this process, in stark contrast to the purely organic practice of the past.

I met this woman while out walking in the jungle. She was on her way back to her village home, carrying some of her harvest in a traditional head basket, which are used extensively here.

The many faces in and around Bandarban town

The obvious and historic face of Bandarban is of course an Indigenous one, for me there is no argument over this. In reality however a much more varied and wider reaching population can currently be found represented here. Over the remaining months that I spend living in this busy little town, where I too form part of that rich variation, I will attempt to capture and record some of those faces in the form of establishing a photographic portrait gallery, adding to this post as time passes.

“A small group of Muslim school boys I met one morning in Bandarban town, who found both me and my camera a little more interesting than arriving at their class in the local Mosque on time!”

“It’s pretty typical for a field trip to take place during the working day. At this time the people you are most likely to meet comprises of the very young, along with the older residents, who are not out Jhum cultivating in the jungle, which provides income for the vast majority of village inhabitants. At this Marma village I ‘chatted’ with this old lady who was almost deaf and losing her sight. At 88 years old however I was stunned at how mobile she still was, as I watched her climb the dozen or so steps of the wooden ladder up to her home.”

“While on a recent field trip to a village just outside Bandarban town itself, I met, as is usual, some of the young children living there. While always shy at first, soon a combination of curiosity and the universal mischief of all young boys kicks in. First they start giggling and then daring each other to speak to me. When I offered to take their photograph however they suddenly took it all very seriously!”

“This photograph represents three generations. Unusually the older woman pictured here is not wearing the traditional Marma tribal dress, as can be seen worn by her daughter, who is standing in the doorway behind her.”

“This woman belongs to the Mru or Mro tribe and is the wife of the Headman of the village I have visited on a couple of occasions. She has become a friend who stays close to my side the entire time I spend here. When we first met she was fascinated with my camera and was so once more when we met again recently. After taking this photograph, she was very curious and satisfied to see her own image ‘inside’ it at last.”

“This little girl and her younger brother also belong to the Mro tribe but live in a different newly built village, not far from Bandarban town. ”

“As can often be seen on the streets of Dhaka city, here in Bandarban women also work alongside the men on building sites, often continuing right through the heat of the mid-day sun.”

“This mother, wearing traditional dress, and her baby boy belong to the Chakma people, who are the largest ethnic group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, making up more than half the tribal population. The Chakma historically ruled the Chittagong Hill Tracts under the control of a King, whose lineage is still recognised today.”

“This man, hammer in hand, stopped breifly from his work, breaking down bricks into small chips, which are required as building material. His entire family labour here beside him, right down to his five year old daughter”.

“I met these two Tripura women as they stepped of a small wooden boat on the banks of the Sangu river. Each removed one of their many bead necklaces and offered them to me. I wasn’t only taken aback, but found it quite emotional. I couldn’t let them leave without taking their photograph to remember them by.”

“I met this amazing man fishing with a small hand net in the large pond close to my flat. To my delight he was remarkably successful. He looked very serious in my first few photographs, and when I encouraged him to relax and smile he proved remarkably successful doing that also!”

“This lovely little Mro village girl I met recently, dressed so smartly in her school uniform, needed no encouragement to smile. In fact I found it so infectious I couldn’t stop smiling myself!”

“I met this gentleman down on the banks of the Sangu river as it runs through Bandarban town. I love to go there on my day off to take in the sights and he came over for a brief ‘chat’, which we did through my terrible Anglo-Bengali lingo!”

“Lunchtime today, just outside my office, I realised watermelon is back in season!”

The Sangu River

The contrast between my two homes in Bangladesh is apparent when comparing the main river running through both, the Buriganga through Dhaka and the Sangu through Bandarban, the only river born within Bangladesh territory. After spending the day trekking in the jungle a small boat was hired to ferry us back to town.

The remoteness of my new surroundings was never more pronounced than when watching the wonderful countryside quietly drift by. The source of the Sangu is in the North Arakan Hills, flowing through Bandarban district east to west, finally ending its 270 km journey when entering the bay of Bengal, just south of the mouth of the Karnafuli.

Approaching Bandarban town from the river opened up an interesting new vista, and clearly demonstrated how the local community here relies heavily on the river water for the daily activities of their everyday lives.

Bandarban town tumbles down to the very edge of these waters, with so many people living only a few feet away from the river banks themselves. The Sangu transports goods down to Chittagong city and is an important source of fresh fish with its water being used for irrigating crops, as well as the many households and local business who also rely on it.

Six Months in the Chittagong Hills?

Early November presented me with an amazing opportunity: to leave busy Dhaka city behind for a little while and relocate to live and work in the small remote town of Bandarban, nestling high in the jungle of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. By chance I’d visited this very region only a month previously and had fallen in love with the place the moment I arrived. So, once offered I grabbed the chance with both hands and shipped myself out to start a new adventure and my surrounding environment couldn’t have been more different to anything I had encountered in Bangladesh so far.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, or CHT as it’s commonly known in Bangladesh is divided into three regions, Khagrachhari in the north, Rangamati, the central region and Bandarban in the southeast, which borders the Myanmar (Burma) provinces of Chin and Arakan. Bandarban (meaning the dam of monkeys) is both the remotest district in Bangladesh and the least populated. The three highest peaks in the country are located here along with the highest lake. The Sangu, also known as Sangpo or Shankha is born in these hills, and as such is the only river to originate inside Bangladesh territory.

There are thirteen tribes living in the Hill Tracts, who’s religions range across Buddhist, Hindu, Animist and Christian. The Chakmas, Marmas and Tripuras however total approximately 90% with an accumulative population of 600,000, equating to 66% of the overall CHT population. The Chakmas are the largest single tribe of approximately 400,000, accounting for over half of the tribal population. These indigenous people are typically Mongoloid and Sino-Tibetan in origin. Historically the Hill Tracts more isolated geography has played a huge part in preserving a very distinctive culture which nevertheless is sadly under threat and stressed from many modern day challenges, internal Bangladeshi politics being not the least amongst them.

Bandarban is home to the Marma tribe, and in stark contrast to Dhaka city, English is hardly spoken here. Over the coming months I must brush up and consolidate what little Bengali I have within my grasp and learn a great deal more if I’m to get the best out of this opportunity. My colleagues also speak the Marma dialect, a language notoriously difficult to pick up. Benefactors of my new NGO are spread far and wide, some almost on my doorstep, while the furthest take many hours to reach, traveling by road, small river boat and finally on foot.

My luck was in as a couple of representatives from one of our International donors were scheduled to arrive for a field visit on only my second week. By inviting me along my NGO gave me the rare opportunity to travel even deeper into the hills to a tiny place named Bolipara. Here they have a project office and operate a free clinic, the only one accessible to the local community for many kilometers. To undertake any travel, all foreigners must apply at the District Commissioner’s office requesting permission for each and every occasion, both around the Hill tracts themselves and when leaving and re-entering. This can typically take several days to move through a laborious administrative process. This paper document must then be presented at each army road block enabling them to keep track on my whereabouts as the security situation in the Hill Tracts is controversial to say the least, but more of that later.

Our jeep headed south out of Bandarban town. Ahead lay a fascinating journey of approximately three hours until we reached our final destination. Here some of my new colleagues were scheduled to meet our donor to deliver feedback and measure the effectiveness of their sponsored activity in the area. We travelled through breathtaking jungle, up into some of the highest hills in the country. Narrow winding roads twisted upwards into the mist and cloud which, when parted offered an occasional glimpse across a far reaching horizon as beautiful as any I have yet seen. The air, fresh, cool and clean, was an enormous contrast to the horrendous pollution I have been surrounded by every single day of the last nine months of life in Dhaka city. What a fantastic start to my six months living in the beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts.