The Power of Cultural Festivals and The Future of the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ Indigenous People
London, March 18, 2014 (Alochonaa):What kind of future will the non-Bengalis of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have, some of whom are indigenous to the land? I have been agonising over this question for a long time, and am frustrated and worried for their future. I am increasingly feeling that they do not have any real future, in terms of being the predominant inhabitants with their own strong identities, economic development, political strength and cultural progress.
The Bengali population in CHT has steadily increased over the last forty years, primarily through the planned settlement from other parts of Bangladesh and higher birth rates. This likely means that the indigenous, and other non-Bengalis in the area are doomed. However, nothing in this world is totally inevitable. All groups, no matter how small, have their own strength and potential, which, if developed, may help change the current, seemingly inevitable course.
I wanted to understand what potential resources and strengths these people have, which, if nurtured and developed, may help them to stand up for themselves and prevent their own marginalisation. Many minorities and indigenous people’s around the world who face similar threats, have used their cultural resources to develop their confidence levels and expand their capacities.
Public celebratory festivals are often perhaps the most effective, and only means for the marginalised to use their own cultural traditions, history and artistic creativity to showcase their collective achievements and develop internal unity and pride. With a view to developing an understanding of the cultural potentials and powers of the non-Bengalis in the CHT, I visited Bandarban and Rangamati in April 2011 to witness and document the BOISABI festivals. During my visit I also talked to some members of the community participating in the events to gain an insight into the meanings, roles and importance of the festivals to the region’s diverse population.
During mid April each year, two or three days preceding and culminating in the Bengali New Year, the three districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh – Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachari – become a place of colourful festivity. Boisabi is a collective name given to the festivals that take place in the Hill Tracts, based on the combination of the first few letters of the festivals of three of the main groups who live in the region, namely Boi from Boisu (Tripura), Sa from Sangrai (Marma) and Bi from Bijhu (Chakma).
The incredibly beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts is home to more than ten different ethnic and indigenous groups with their own unique cultural traditions, rich history, costumes, music, dance, food, etc. They are Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Khumi, Mro, Lushai, Khiang, Bawm, Pankhu, Bangoj and Chak, who are often collectively described as Jumma people, based on their particular method of slash and burn crop cultivation. This makes Chittagong Hill Tracts the most culturally diverse, and rich region within Bangladesh. Most people in the hills enjoy and participate in the various festivities that take place in mid April, including Bengali settlers who also observe the Bengali New Year, and join in the indigenous festivals. The festivals also provide an opportunity for the peoples of the region to collectively show case the best of their cultures and traditions. Bengalis from rest of Bangladesh, especially Dhaka, flock to the hill districts in great numbers to experience these distinct cultural practices and expressions. A few tourists and visitors from outside Bangladesh are also seen enjoying the very welcoming festivities.
Although some aspects of the cultures of the people of Chittagong Hill Tracts have shared elements with Bengali and Indian traditions, their cultures have different roots, forms and expressions. From the point of view of dress, food, music, dance and religious/communal rituals the hill people have their own unique and very different ways of life. Bengalis who flock there in great numbers during the festive season do so to witness, and experience something very different and considered to be uniquely beautiful.
My First Visit – June 1995
I first visited the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1995. At that time I was quite nervous about going there, but I thought I had to go and see the legendary and most beautiful place in Bangladesh. I heard from family members, friends and others that Chittagong Hill Tracts are incredibly beautiful with high mountains, valleys and beautiful lakes. Some friends from London who visited Rangamati in the 1980s and had returned to London with photos, talked highly about their positive experiences. Postcards and images of Chakma girls wearing traditional dress were also responsible for attracting many visitors to the Hill Tracts.
I went with a friend from Dhaka to Chittagong by an air conditioned coach and stayed in the city for one night. He is British Indian and came to attend the wedding of a mutual friend of a British Bangladeshi who was getting married in Bangladesh. On the morning of the next day we boarded a Rangamati town bound bus and the journey took about 2 hours from the city of Chittagong. During the journey, after perhaps about 30 minutes from the start, the landscape began to change completely and dramatically – from low land plain fields to high hills. As the bus moved closer to Rangamati town I remember seeing some of the tallest mountains in Bangladesh and observed women sitting on sides of small hills working on their crops. When we arrived at the town we started to look for a hotel, but as we could not find any vacant accommodation, quite quickly and also out of nervousness we decided to return to Chittagong on the same day. We bought our return tickets and went about spending four hours in Rangamati town. We spent some time in the Parjatan Hotel, took a boat ride on the Kaptai Lake, walked on the famous bridge, had some food and went back to the city of Chittagong later that day.
One reason we did not try hard to find available hotels or guest houses was because of our nervousness to the political unrest, and the indigenous insurgency taking place in the region since the late 1970s. We did not want to find ourselves without any accommodation after dark. However, the short four hour stay in Rangamati town and the sightseeing during the journey, including some photographs that I took, brought to my notice how special the hill districts of Chittagong are for Bangladesh. First, I came to know the incredible beauty of the area and began to realise its economic and tourism potentials. Second, I thought that the diverse beautiful cultures of the hill people could become, potentially, a highly enriching experience and valuable asset for Bangladesh. Therefore, I desperately hoped for the conflict in the hills to come to an end so we could develop better connections and relationship with its people. At the time I did not have a good understanding of the background to the conflict and lacked adequate knowledge of the history of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
My Second Visit – April 2011
My second visit to the Hill Tracts was in April 2011. This was a planned visit and this time I did not have the anxiety that I had during my first visit in 1995. The indigenous insurgency officially ended with the signing of a peace accord between the Bangladesh Government, and the representatives of the hill people in 1997. Although not fully implemented, the accord has brought more security and stability to the region and there is more free-flow of people between the Hill Tracts and the rest of Bangladesh. Further, in the capital city, Dhaka, more people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts are seen in educational establishments, shopping centres, restaurants, etc. My purpose for visiting this time was to capture video and still footage of the Boisabi festivals in order to understand the cultural strengths of the non-Bengali population of CHT, which is an element of my planned exhibition on festivals of indigenous and minority peoples around the world. I arrived in Bandarban town a few days before the start of the Shangrai festival of the Marma community and spent a total of six days in the hill districts, which included a 2 day detour to Rangamati town. During that time I experienced aspects of the Bijhu festival in Rangamati and more fully the Shangrai festival in Bandarban.
The Boisabi festivals are very significant events for the ethnic and indigenous peoples of Chittagong Hill Tracts, where they bid farewell to the old year and welcome the incoming. They celebrate the end of the current year and the beginning of the new year with a series of colourful and lively festivals called, Sangrai by the Marma people, Boisuk by the Tripura people and Biju by the Chakmas. While similar in many ways, each group has a few unique aspects to their celebrations, which take place in mid April every year, depending on the new moon.
With the Marma people, three days of their four-day festival are spent on bidding farewell to the outgoing year, with the fourth focusing on greeting the incoming year. The first, second and third days are called respectively Sangrai Akya, Sangrai Bak and Sangrai Appyai. On the first day of the festival both male and female members of the Marmas form a procession to take their images of Buddha down to the river front. There the images are washed on a raft with either a mixture of sandalwood and water, or milk and water in preparation for re-installing them at the temple, or in their shrines at their homes. The following two days, being the last two days of the old year, are spent in light-hearted celebration called Ri Kejek Taing, where participants splash each other with water, symbolically washing away all the sorrows and ills of the past year. A similar ceremony is carried out by the Rakhaine (in Cox’s Bazar area), where participants splash each other with coloured water.
The Chakma people enjoy a three-day festival, two of which fall into the outgoing year. The first day is dedicated to celebrations for Phul Bijhu (flowr Biju), the second for Mul Bijhu and New Year’s day for Gojyai Pojya. During Phul Bijhu there is general merrymaking in preparation for the main festival of Mul Bijhu, celebrated on the last day of the outgoing year, which is 30 Choitra of Bengali calender. During the Phul Bijhi the Chakmas decorate their houses with various colourful flowers, take flowers to worship in the nearby rivers and visit one another’s homes to socialize and eat together. Young girls, distinguished by their blue and red lungis that have been woven on hand-held looms, gather in groups to enjoy each other’s company and wander from house to house at leisure and playing games in the afternoon. On the Mul Bijhu various kinds of food are made in every Chakma house and are served to guests, particularly the delicious panchan, a mixed dish made of five vegetables and many cakes. The third day is Gojya-pojya din, meaning taking rest and the day is also celebrated with the traditional cultural activities like folk song (Gengkhuli Geet), dance and drama (Chakma Tatak).
The Tripura community, in addition to spending time visiting each other’s homes and enjoying traditional foods such as panchan, also embrace Goraia dance, with between 10 and 100 artists participating in the dance, which depicts their daily lives and the processes of Jhum cultivation on the hillsides of Chittagong. Throughout the Chittagong Hills Tracts, the first day of the New Year is greeted with merriment and the hope for a prosperous and trouble-free year ahead.
The Current Context
Although the Boisabi festivals are a very joyous and festive time for most people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, there is a deep sense of unease among the ethnic and indigenous populations of the hill districts regarding the rapid demographic changes taking place. The recent population changes of the various groups residing in Chittagong Hill Tracts are provided in the table below:
Currently, the Bengali population within the Chittagong Hill Tracts have become the ethnic majority. The shift of Bengalis from a very small minority in the early 1960s to nearly half the total number by 1991was clearly a massive shift, and marks an unprecedented change for those communities who have lived there for generations. Most of the population changes took place since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
The beautiful and inspirational birth of Bangladesh soon became a nightmare for the peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A refusal by the Bangladesh Government to recognise the hill people’s separate identities, including attempts made to encourage and pressure the ethnic and indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts to become (bizarrely) ethnic Bengalis triggered a process of alienation, insurgency, militarisation, violence, planned settlement of Bengalis into the Hill Tracts to engineer a population change to, partly, ensure that local people never ever dream of separation and independence from Bangladesh.
During my 2011 visit to Bandarban, I talked to a number of people and saw in the faces of many local Chakmas, Marmas and others a deep sense of sadness and fear at the continued loss of their traditional lands, and the inability to dream of a better future (my interpretation from my observations). Political problems and violence between Bengali settlers and the local ethnic and indigenous peoples have continued, albeit at a lower level since the signing of the Peace Accord in 1997, except periodic eruptions of major disturbances. What would happen to their traditions and identities as distinct proud peoples with the continuous shrinking in proportion of their population? Anxieties and unease run very deep in the beautiful hills of Chittagong.
I wanted to further develop my understanding of the meanings and purpose behind the activities of the Boisabi festivals before completing the write-up for my exhibition. Rumana Hashem, a brave inspirational lady who carried out some work on the Chittagong Hill Tracts, introduced me to Jewell Samong Prue, a Marma young man who lives in London. I first met him at the ground floor food court of Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford in early 2012, London, and explained to him about my initiative and the exhibition and that I needed some information and explanations with regard to some pictures of the Boisabi festivals that I brought back from my visit in April 2011. He was very happy to help and explained many things to me there and then and agreed to provide further information at a later date. In fact he ended up providing more than what I originally expected and, in this regard, he must have worked very hard. I am very grateful for this help.
When I asked him about the nature of the impacts of these festivals on the people, he said that the ‘Boi- Sa- Bi celebration has a ‘great impact on the social life of the indigenous peoples in Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is the time of forgetting all sorrows and failures of the past year and wishing the grace and happiness for the upcoming new year’. Jewel shared his memory of his childhood where he grew up, seeing the colourful celebrations held every year. However, he went on to point out that in recent years although the festivities are as enjoyable as before the political conflict between the Bangladesh government and the indigenous communities, during the last few decades, causes the festive happiness to fade away very quickly. As a member of the Marma indigenous community he finds the water festival to be the most attractive event during the celebration. ‘Many races and colours of the various communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts gather together and enjoy their most popular festival’.
The Sangrai Festival in Bandarban
The Sangrai festival in Bandarban consists of a major parade (rally) by various indigenous and ethnic communities of Chittagong Hill Tracts. During the festive period I witnessed Pita Uthshab (cake festival); wrestling competition; various traditional games/sports played by children and adults; children’s poetry recitation and a painting competition; the Pobitra Buddha Snan, where they symbolically bathe statutes of the Buddha; children throwing water at each other; the famous organised water fights between young men and women dressed to look good and children spending a whole night making cakes and sweets for Buddhist priests, which they present to them the following morning. I was informed that the children participating in cake making are kept awake by offering regular cups of strong tea throughout the night.
During my short stay in April 2012 the beauty of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the diverse cultures of the various groups of the region kept growing on me. I felt quite sad at leaving the area just after six days as more time would have given me an opportunity to develop a better understanding of local issues, feelings, meanings, etc.
On reflection it is clear to me that the rich cultures of the hill districts are probably, and potentially the main resource that the people have to imagine and construct a better future for themselves. The festivals provide an opportunity for the people to concentrate resources, imagination and efforts in improving and making their cultural expressions more refined, and beautiful to build self-confidence. More outside appreciation, including from foreign tourism, would probably contribute to an improved sense of confidence and economic benefits for the local communities. This in turn would provide the stimulus for further refinement and creativity.
As things stand the powers of festivals in the Chittagong Hill Tracts at the moment exist only as potential, and are not yet adequately developed. However, if carefully nurtured and developed they could be fundamental to improving the chances of the indigenous and ethnic communities of the area to survive, and thrive as distinct proud peoples. I am of the opinion that outside support can foster the learning of cultural and festive events relative to distinct communities. However, in order to truly stimulate efforts of creativity, the true cultural potentials of the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ people can only be realised if it is an organic development originating from the people, and based on their own traditions and practices.
*M Ahmedullah holds a PhD on the Epistemology and Political Theory from University of Kent, UK. He worked for many years in inner city regeneration programmes in the UK. Between May 2005 and June 2010 he has delivered a unique exhibition on Dhaka City in and around London. He is the secretary of Brick Lane Circle, an organisation based in London that runs academic events to help transform the intellectual landscape of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. His personal website is http://www.culturalparadise.org
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