The Golden Temple – Bandarban

Bandarban is home to a fascinating mix of different people. Unlike the majority in Bangladesh many living here are Buddhist, who have built an amazing temple high up in these beautiful hills. The largest in Bangladesh, the Golden Temple is a truly remarkable place.

When I visited in December the weather was perfect, with stunning views reaching for many miles out across the valley below.

Being located in such a remote part of the country this gorgeous temple was all but empty with just a few monks in attendance, leaving the peaceful atmosphere intact.

No matter how many times I walked aound the circular walls I seemed to find fresh, new, ornate and fascinating things before my eyes.


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.

While traveling to Bandarban

I visited the Chittagong Hill Tracts last week, Bandarban to be precise. It’s a ten hour bus journey from Dhaka city across an amazing part of the world. To distract myself from the terrifying driving and near collisions on the busy highway I stuck my camera out of the window and managed to capture some images of what was out there.  

Road to Bandarban (2) 
Many people use the highway to walk between villages to find work, and the countryside they travel through is truly beautiful. The highway itself is teeming with traffic, everyone hooting horns in a bid to overtake the next vehicle. As is typical in Bangladesh roads are occupied by just about every type of vehicle you can imagine.  

Road to Bandarban (4)
We passed through many busy villages along the way, dropping off a few passengers, but always picking up many more in exchange. The noise and activity was intense, but for one market trader the midday sun proved just too much.

Road to Bandarban (5)

As the afternoon wore on the burning sun abated a little and people seemed to congregate around whatever water they could find. I spotted one dedicated driver who even found time to wash the dust of a busy day off his rickshaw.

Road to Bandarban (6)

Night Sky over Dhaka City

Darkness falls fast in this part of the world, from one moment to the next it feels as though some enormous light switch has just been thrown, but not tonight.

Gradually a wonderful, spectacular display unfolded and we all gathered out on the balcony of our flat to admire it. Need I say more?

A beautiful Bangladesh night sky

Slow Monsoon

Bangladesh, straddling the Tropic of Cancer, has one of the wettest climates in the world, and about 80% of it’s rain falls during the monsoon season, characterized by high temperatures, high humidity, and of course…heavy rainfall. But this year the monsoon failed to arrive on time, typically expected in early June, delaying its initial downpour until the final few days of the month. 

The monsoon continues in Bangladesh until the end of September, but it is in the month of June, with an average rainfall of  nearly 460 millimeters that it normally delivers its heaviest showers. This year the Meteorological Society have recorded less than half of that average, and this will directly impact the rice yield, Bangladesh’s staple crop.    

There are typically two main varieties of rice planted here, Aman and Boro.  Aman accounts for nearly a third of Bangladesh’s annual output, and needs to be planted in mid-July. It is the Boro which relies so heavily on irrigation to bring the crop through, and has this year frequently required the diversion of electricity away from the power-hungry cities, contributing to their frequent blackouts.

During the annual monsoon period, the rivers of Bangladesh flow at around 140,000 cubic meters per second, as compared to a diminished 7,000 cubic meters per second during the dry season, and with agriculture depending so heavily on natural irrigation due to the fierce competition for electrical power, more than 60 % of the net arable land, some 91,000 km², is cultivated during the rainy season despite the possibility of severe flooding. 

The monsoon is created from the contrast between low and high air pressure areas, resulting from the differential heating of land and water. During the high temperate months of April and May hot air rises over the Indian subcontinent, creating low-pressure areas into which cooler, moisture-bearing winds from the Indian Ocean then rush, called the southwest monsoon. 

Dividing against the Indian landmass, the monsoon flows in two branches, one of which strikes western India. The other travels up the Bay of Bengal and over eastern India and Bangladesh, crossing the plain to the north and northeast before being turned to the west and northwest by the foothills of the Himalayas.

But as relieved as everyone appears to welcome the final arrival of this slow monsoon, there is a potential darker side. Annual flooding can result in the loss of human life, damage to property and communication systems, and a shortage of drinking water, which in turn can lead to the spread of disease. So, as I have often found here in Bangladesh, things can turn on a bitter sweet balance. Finally we have our vital rainfall, but what course this complex weather system will take over the coming months remains to be seen.

Out on the Buriganga River

The Buriganga, or “Old Gangies”  is the main river flowing through Dhaka city. In the distant past a course of the Gangies used to reach the Bay of Bengal through the Dhaleshwari river, but over time this gradually shifted, ultimately losing its link with the main chanel of the Gangies, until eventually it was renamed the Buriganga. Busy Sadarhad Port is economically very important to Dhaka, where launches and larger boats convey both passenegers and trade, connecting the capital city to other parts of Bangaldesh.   

The busy Buriganga River

The busy Buriganga River

The Buriganga is threatend by pollution, and due to siltation large steamers can no longer gain passage through the river chanel in the dry season. Water flow in the river is low, except during the monsoon season. Then it is ‘flushed’ of most of its pollution, and at this time, when not at its worse, river dolphins can still occasionally been seen.

Small boats ply on the Buriganga at Sadarghat

Small boats ply on the Buriganga at Sadarghat

We hired one of the  ‘Dingi Nouka’ simply meaning ‘small boat’, that ferry passenegers to and from the larger vessles up and down the river. Navigated by one long paddle, the boatman skillfully and safely negotiated our way through a jumble of bobbing, vying little vessels, until we rounded the final ferry, out into the deeper water of the Buriganga itself. Now the oar could really came into its own, amazingly not only powered by both of the boatman’s arms, but with the addition of one fairly dexterous foot and leg as well.

Rowing down the Buriganga river

Rowing down the Buriganga

I don’t think it usual for a European to travel this way, as so many small boats came over to check out the strange cargo. Most were openly amused and very friendly, smiling, calling over and waving at us. It was a great opportunity to view Dhaka from a different perspective, and I came away with the impression that the Buriganga river is only marginally less crowded and hectic than the busy city streets themselves! 

A curious boatman

A curious boatman

NGO Exposure Visit to Calcutta

My NGO received a small grant from the Elton John Aids Foundation via VSOB last year to set up and run an HIV/AIDS Helpline, currently the only one in operation in Bangladesh. An exposure visit to West Bengal formed part of the obligation to accepting that grant.  It should have taken place last year but fell through, due to the Mumbai terror attack, which triggered the closure of the Indian border on the eve of departure. So it fell to me to reorganise this visit to ensure we fulfilled the conditions of the grant. The key objective was to meet with similar Indian HIV/AIDS NGO’s based in Calcutta, also running a Helpline, with the purpose of learning ways of consolidating and expanding, but also efficient operation and service delivery.

The first thing that struck me was how responsive the Indian organisations were, how keen to meet with us.  They confirmed, filling up our four day timetable in no time.  In fact we could have easily stayed a further four days as there were many more who we simply couldn’t accommodate and incorporate into our schedule. So with our visit planned and our objectives set, it only remained for us to travel to Zia International airport to catch our flight to Calcutta,

Such heavy precautions in place to manage the swine flu epidemic surprised me on arrival at Chandra Bose Airport.  Not simply form filling, asking all the obvious questions, ticking all the usual boxes, but men in white coats and face masks taking the passenger’s pulse. Scary! We muddled our way through the white tape and hired one of the bright yellow taxi cabs, gaining our first glimpse of India as we drove through the city streets in search of our hotel in the heart of Calcutta.

We launched our programme early the following morning, spending an entire day with the Calcutta Samaritans, at their Aurnoday Midway Home, which operates a Pavement Club, a Primary Health Care unit, an HIV/AIDS programme, a Home for children at risk and support for the city’s Rickshaw Pullers. With such a well established NGO we planned to spend the morning meeting with their HIV/AIDS Programme Manager and Helpline Counsellors, the afternoon visiting their Home for orphan slum children and their HIV/AIDS Drop in Centre, and the evening on a field trip to spend time with some of the city’s sex worker population.   

Learning from our friends at the Drop In Centre

Learning from our friends at the Drop In Centre

After a full day in consultation with an assortment of fascinating and highly capable individuals, we made our way as darkness fell, to the park opposite the Victoria Memorial, a beautiful, white monumental building.  Victoria Park itself covers a vast wide open space, where groups of young people, families, food hawkers all mingle…and collide with the sex industry, who’s workers operate spread out all over this busy area.  The Samaritans have allocated a central focal point where one appointed sex worker spends a minimum of two hours a day on behalf of the programme.  Handing out free condoms, both male and female, she offers advice to all who enquire, related to sexual health in general and HIV/AIDS in particular.    

We sat with her, cross legged on the grass, and within moments I could see them starting to trail over, converging on us from every direction, curious to see who had come to visit their ‘patch’. They greeted us on arrival, sitting or squatting until we had formed a large circle.  Some were shy, but others came up to greet me personally.  One, with startlingly good English, held me in fascinating conversation for many minutes, talking of her difficult and unhappy home life, dominated by her mother-in-law.  Unusually tall, she stood erect and proud, her hair loose and flowing, and despite several missing teeth and advancing age, she still struck me as a fairly magnificent woman. 

From time to time one of them would simply drift away, returning to sit back with us again ten minutes or so later.  I never could work out how they knew their clients were waiting, but somehow they did. Overall I found the exchange fascinating, and came away really appreciating how flying, or mobile sex-workers operate, their key areas of risk, and the many challenges present in their daily lives.  

Support vehicles

UN International Drugs Support Vehicle

The following afternoon our second field trip was scheduled, an appointment to visit a short term shelter home in North Calcutta to meet ‘The Dancing Boys’, adolescent and young gender variant males, with a feminine demeanor.  A high risk underground group, this vulnerable population, some identified as young as 12 years, can be hard to reach, and regularly fall into prostitution from an early age.

As a marginalised group they are typically victims of social stigma and gross human rights violations, and as a result face serious barriers to joining mainstream occupations.  As an alternative they join the troop as a ‘Luanda Dancer’, and migrate to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to dance in the marriage rituals.  Their livelihood as Hijra or folk entertainers put them at grave risk of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and trafficking, which on occasions has resulted in death.  

The lauder naach is an integral part of the marriage ceremony, and an age-old popular tradition in northern India, where a wedding is an elaborate affair comprising of music, food, drink and dancing, but here effeminate boys dance in the marriage procession and ceremonies dressed in women’s clothing. This custom evolved from poor families, who could not afford the more expensive women dancers, but gradually the practice  became not only popular but an intrinsic part of the ceremony itself.

Usually from lower middle class poor families, the dancers, typically between 15 to 25 years old, travel from West Bengal, Nepal, and Bangladesh for the peak marriage season, April to June in the summer and December to February in the winter. The groom’s family normally hires the dancers, who, along with the baraat (groom’s entourage) journey to the bride’s family home, where the laggan (marriage) ceremony takes place, usually commencing late in the evening. Once the dancing begins, it continues, in most cases non-stop through to dawn and as the celebration progresses, their vulnerability to both physical and sexual assault increases.

The attraction of Launda dancing is mainly the income, a performer could earn Rs.6000/ to Rs.12OOO on a three month contract, usually with the addition of free food and lodging, but the dancers can also be paid in cash at the end of each session.  However they often get less than their contractual agreement, and sometimes nothing at all.  But it is the freedom to express their womanly instincts away from the jibes of relatives and neighbors that provides the main source of satisfaction.  So in spite of the risks involved, very few actually want to quit this seasonal profession, and they have a serious lack of alternative options.

This relatively small network impressed me greatly.  They were so active, protecting their rights and attempting to gain control over their lives. I admired their photographs and short mobile-phone video clips that they openly shared with me.  As I watched the dancing ceremony, peering closely at them on the tiny screens, it was clear they were immensely proud.

Throughout this exposure visit we met with and learnt from enthusiastic, dedicated and informed NGO staff, doing amazing work under, in most cases incredibly difficult circumstances. They are true professionals with many great achievements, which have changed the lives of an immense number of marginalised and stigmatised groups within Indian society for the better. Without them an awfully large number of people would be in a much more precarious position. I thank them one and all…long may they and their valuable work continue.

Corporate Social Responsibility

A percentage of my time in Bangladesh will be spent working with the VSO Programme Office, and a couple of weeks ago the Country Director invited me to become involved formulating a project to engage with the corporate sector, as this was the background of my former career. 

After establishing contact with HSBC Bank, both the Country Director and myself, accompanied by the Programme Manager in charge of  Livelihoods, one of the three strategic programme areas operating withing VSO Bangladesh, visited to fact find and ascertain what relevant links we could establish. We left the meeting with the plan of producing a concept paper to submit at their July Board Meeting with the proposal of partnering with them. It was the production of the paper itself that first offered me a glimpse into the specific challenges of life in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a region in south-eastern Bangladesh close to the Burmese border. 

In 1984 the CHT was divided into three separate districts:  Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban, which constitutes 10% of the total land area of Bangladesh.  The population is roughly 2 million, of which approximately half are tribal and the remainder from different communities.  The indigenous peoples are mainly followers of Theravada Buddhism, and collectively known as the Jumma, which include the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tenchungya, Chak, Mru, Murung, Bawm, Lushai, Khyang and Khumi. Following years of unrest, an agreement was formed between the Government of Bangladesh and the tribal leaders which granted a limited level of autonomy to the elected council of the three hill districts, but there remains a heavy military presence to this day.

The modern conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts began when the political representatives of the native peoples protested against the government policy of recognising only the Bengali culture and language and designating all citizens of Bangladesh as Bengalis. In talks with a Hill Tracts delegation led by the Chakma politician Manabendra Narayan Larma, the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujubur Rahmnan insisted that the ethnic groups of the Hill Tracts adopt the Bengali identity, and is reported to have threatened to settle Bengalis in the Hill Tracts to reduce the native peoples into a minority.

In the CHT, the indigenous peoples are commonly known as Jummas for their common practice of swidden cultivation (crop rotation agriculture) locally known as jhum. An environmental study has recommended changing this practice, and as controversial as that sounds the pressure is on.  Support is urgently required to skill some community leaders with the basic financial know how to enable funding to be managed to support and facilitate some complimentary agricultural practice and transitioning livelihoods. This we intend to facilitate through sharing the skills of the talented employees of HSBC through carefully selected short term volunteering interventions.   

I have my fingers crossed that this proposal will be considered a worthy one when all applicants are reviewed at the HSBC Board meeting. From our side we don’t require money, simply the release of some of their human resource.  So much talent is already contained within Bangladesh.  Sharing skills and changing lives is the VSO strapline, but that doesn’t always have to constitute International exchange.

The Chittigong Hills

The Chittagong Hills

Oh! Calcutta!

Calcutta…what an amazing city!  I boarded the plane at Zia International and the moment I stepped off onto the Indian tarmac, only thirty minutes later, Calcutta really grabbed hold of me. The heat knocked me sideways for a start, and humidity was crippling, but still nothing could jade my enthusiasm.

The love affair started just before I left Bangladesh I suppose, while changing my taka into rupee and dollar. Pretty smitten you might think, if I even found Indian currency fascinating, but I thought it beautiful, with Gandhi himself smiling right out at me from every single denomination.

At Calcutta airport I climbed into one of the stylish yellow Ambassador  taxi cabs that seem to be knee deep everywhere you look and we made our way into the heart of the city to find my hotel. Every mile we drove Calcutta opened up, right before my eyes, so many busy people, dense traffic, cattle everywhere, all strung out along the road side, becoming more vibrant if that were possible, as I adjusted my senses, taking it all in.

Stylish yellow Calcutta cabs

Stylish yellow Calcutta cabs

The streets themselves moved at lightening speed. A well planned and coordinated road system, along with numerous smartly uniformed well organised Traffic Police saw to that. Layers thick, from hand pulled carts to a modern tram system, millions of Indians move about this city efficiently despite the impression of random chaos. Traffic jams were few and far between and even with such a huge volume of traffic we kept moving, rarely stopping due to weight of numbers or impatient driving.  We moved slower in the narrower streets, where everyone seemed to be busy either buying or selling, anything from mango to envelopes.

Busy streets of Calcutta

Busy streets of Calcutta

With so many rickshaw and cart pullers operating on the streets, water troughs, which seemed to be in constant use, provided an opportunity for cold showers right there on the pavement. While physically demanding work in very high temperatures require facilities to cool off, people also brought bicycles for cleaning, and several dogs splashed away happily in the puddles created by those washing at the roadside.      

Street shower

Street shower

Out in the suburbs, street markets were commonplace with strange and exotic fruit and vegetables for sale.  It’s currently jack fruit, pineapple and mango season, so they were bountiful and cheap, but the more familiar in the form of the humble potato and onion was also abundant. Occasionally I spotted a few varieties of fish, but never live chicken or goat as seen frequently in Bangladesh. 

Jack Fruit for sale in the street market

Jack Fruit for sale in the street market

In a busy Calcutta street I spotted a pavement game involving around half a dozen men.  In full flow they kept one lazy eye on their street stall, but most of their serious attention was focused on the game itself.  This time, unlike the strange and unfamiliar battle I witnessed on the Dhaka street, I immediately recognised what drew all this serious concentration…Ludo! 

Pavement game

Pavement game

Meanwhile…back at the Indian High Commission…

…things were moving on…very slowly.  I knew the routine by now, and even a few of the faces, this being my third visit.  My first was to ensure I was fully aware of all the required paperwork necessary to submit my visa application,  which was closely followed by the second, when I was told I did not in fact have all the required paperwork to submit my visa application, dispite being informed some 24 hours previously what was necessary. So, third time lucky. 

It sounded as if I might need some luck as I sat listening to the raised voices of the Indian consular staff in the adjoining room, processing foreign visa applications. Overall the whole experience felt pretty surreal, the passionate shouting, the bright blue plastic chairs, the lime green walls, and in amongst it the most beautifully carved wooden door I had set eyes on for ages.  Somehow it began to resemble pupils waiting to be called into the Head Master’s study for some minor playground misdemeanor. Tension was tangible on the faces of those waiting, eyes widening as voices raised another decibel or two. 

Personally I couldn’t help but find it amusing. Not that this was going to help me in any way when my number was called.  Thirteen?  Yes, that unfortunately was me. I couldn’t believe it when, as required, I had scribbled my name and passport number on the security guard’s list on arrival. In I ventured, the smile almost wiped off my lips, but perhaps lingering slightly as I witnessed the fraught but comical interrogation of a poor man attempting to travel to Madras for medical purposes.  They were having none of it.  He was sent packing to produce yet another letter he knew nothing about from his surgeon, before they would even consider looking at his application papers.

They went easy on me. I had, after all produced everything previously demanded. My passport and three thousand taka, the equivalent of approximately thirty pounds, were handed over, and I am destined to return in four days time to collect the permission required to fly to Calcutta.  

Myself and three of my colleagues are traveling there on an exposure visit. Our HIV Helpline has been in operation for a year now and we have arranged to meet with a number of similar Indian NGOs, to learn how we can better integrate this service and further develop its capacity, cranking up our efficiency to our end user, as well as improving donor value for money. With such an eclectic mix of cooperating organisations, I believe I’ll also appreciate much more about the lives and challenges of those people living with, and at high risk from HIV/AIDS in the Indian sub-continent today.

FOUR DAYS LATER:-  Yippee…have my visa in my hand, in and out this time in under 20 minutes!  Calcutta here I come…watch this space!

Paying the price for a smooth ride home

A road-repair crew appeared outside our flat today.  I caught my first sight of them as I stepped out onto our balcony to hang some washing on the clothes line we have strung across.  Although I have seen these gangs in operation before, this time it really shocked me.  Perhaps it was the sudden exposure.  Laid out before me in full operation, I had an unprepared birds eye view from our fourth floor flat. But what bothered me most was the weather conditions. With searing mid-day heat and the oppressive claustrophobic weight of such high humidity, particular to the Bay of Bengal, manual work of any kind becomes even more grueling than usual.  This hardly seems possible when you observe how much effort is demanded by so many on a daily basis,  just to keep the wheels of Bangladesh turning. I had broken out into a sweat simply rinsing out my washing in the relative cool produced by the ceiling fan in the flat.  Outside in the street, even shade was non-existent.

The crew comprised of a mixture of men of varying ages, from young boys to grandfathers, and women, appearing to be between twenty and forty year olds.  They worked strung out, along almost the entire length of the road, which in itself is fairly impressive considering how long it is.  I looked on as a man and a young boy of around fourteen, working together, swung primitive wooden handled hoes above their heads and down, hard into the ground, breaking up the densely packed earth road surface. The women, barefoot mostly, heads covered with their colourful cotton sari had organised into two groups, those with tools used to scrape together the loose earth for loading into large round wicker head-baskets, and those carrying it away to a designated dump someway off from the main work site.  

Our road has been in a right old state for some time now, but the deterioration has speeded up considerably over the past couple of weeks due to rain damage.  Brown, sludgy, stagnant puddles have established even further ruts in an already seemingly battle scared street, and traveling back down the ‘home straight’ from work by rickshaw had become almost fascicle.  I repeatedly bang my head against the rickshaw hood, crick my neck and jar my back as we lumber ludicrously along. So for us residents this repair-work had come not a moment too soon…but what a high price they were paying for our smooth ride home. 

The stinking acrid smoke drifted up to burn my eyes and the back of my throat, so with nothing to lose I decided to take the opportunity to venture downstairs, and get in amongst the thick of activity.  Street level offered a new perspective.  I could see some of the more mature men and women working with small hand brushes, meticulously and carefully sweeping dust from an area in preparation for boiling tar to be poured, forming the new road surface.  This was being ‘cooked’ up in the centre of the road on long metal plates, suspended over naked flames, surrounded by empty oil drums.  The additional heat thrown out added considerably to the already near impossible conditions. 

It struck me how efficiently and productively this team operated.  I suppose it must have been in all their interests to get the job done, but it was impressive never-the-less.  Nobody seemed in-charge, yet everyone worked hard, fast and with purpose, at least until I was spotted squatting next to one of the women workers who had stopped for a well earned rest by the side of the road.

Rest for a moment

Rest for a moment

I was alarmed at how quickly I’d caused such disruption.  Workers laid down their tools and came over, all smiles to ask ‘kaemon achen?’, how are you?  I looked around anxiously, expecting the wheel to drop of this efficient production line, but luckily, enough stayed at their posts to keep the operation in full swing. I realised I was concerned on their behalf also, scanning around for some stern foreman to appear as if by magic, with heavy penalties to be extracted from these ‘malingerers’.  Not only did he not manifest, but nobody else seemed the slightest bit twitchy, and I realised, with real pleasure and growing awe that they actually were a self-managed and hugely tolerant team.     

A professional and efficient team

A professional and efficient team

Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban – National Parliament House

Parliament House is a most unusual modern structure, designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn who was a pioneer of combining old and new to create bold shapes and views.  It consists mostly of concrete and marble, featuring geometrical shapes, with its famous circular windows and doors.  The Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, known to the local people as “Sangshod Vaban” is situated at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. 

Parliament House at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar

Parliament House at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar

Old Sonargoan

Leave Dhaka city and travel about 29km on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway and you’ll find Sonargoan, one of the oldest one time capitals of Bengal.  It was the seat of the Diva Dynasty until the 13th century.  From then, until the advent of the Mughals, Sonargoan was the subsidiary capital of the Sultanate of Bengal.  The Folklore Museum, that I was here to visit, houses artifacts from every cultural trait of the country, and its grounds are truly beautiful.

An impressive entrance to the Museum

An impressive entrance to the Museum

Once inside, the architecture is grandiose and magnificent, although sadly the worse from the ravages of fire, which has obliterated the roof and most of the upper floor. I drifted around, from chamber to chamber to the  gentle sound of haunting tradtional music, piped through discrete speakers to every part of this large and impressive building.

Impressive, but sadly badly damaged by fire
Magnificent, but sadly fire damaged

Many wonderful artifacts held my attention, and the wood carving in particular I found of high standard with amazing attention to detail.  The huge old weathered doors into the museum and some dark wood wall plaques caught my eye as they were absolutely delightful.

Beautifully handcarved door

Beautifully handcarved door

Ganesha, the Hinu God of Success from the Elephant-Diety was considered the destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the God of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.  In fact, Ganesha is one of the five prime Hindu deities, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Durga being the other four.

Ganesha, Hindu God of Success

Ganesha, Hindu God of Success

The grounds were equally inviting, offering many shady walks and pleasant lakes to sit beside to eat a picnic lunch. Although not in anyway commercial, I found an area housing several small stalls selling Jamdani sari, an historic fabric particular to Bengal, of a very fine texture with elaborate and ornate workmanship.  

The beautiful grounds

The beautiful grounds

Gitanjali – Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941

Born in 1861 to an influential Bengali family, Rabindranath Tagore achieved fame as a novelist, playwright, poet, painter, lecturer, politician, and composer. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, the first non-European to achieve such an honor. 

The Gitanjali, or song offering, is his collection of prose poems which have been translated from Bengali and when Bishwajit introduced me to this enormous body of work I stayed up into the early hours of the morning reading it, transfixed, verse after marvelous verse.  Tagore is held in very high regard by the people of Bangladesh.  Quite rightly so in my view. 

On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying,
 and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.
Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my
dream and felt a sweet trace of a strange fragrance in the south wind. 
That vague sweetness made my heart ache with longing and it seemed to me
 that it was the eager breath of the summer seeking for its completion. 
I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and that this
perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart.

Pavement games . com

In our western world of high demand for popular electronic games it was a joy to happen across the exact opposite, when I ran into an intense and absorbing battle taking place on the pavement, with not a single piece of technology anywhere in sight. 

A street game

An intense pavement battle

I have yet to identify the game itself, but it was played without dice, and closely resembled draughts.  People were passing by and nobody seemed particularly interested in any way until I stopped to watch.  Within moments the poor unfortunate opponents had a vast audience, all thrusting dubious advice on them, trying to prove their superior strategic ability to one another, but also I stongly suspect to me!

Low tech but high entertainment

Low tech but high entertainment

Oh, and for all you competitive people out there…the man on the left was the eventual winner, but only by a whisker.

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