Cultural Paradise

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Boisabi Festivals (April 2011)

Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh

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 the 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, dances, 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 each year, including Bengali settlers who observe the Bengali new year and joins 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 the distinct cultural practices and expressions of the hill people. 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 on the main 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, perhaps more common with people in South East Asia. Bengalis who flock there in great numbers during the festive season do so to witness and experience something very different their cultures and festivals, which is considered to be, in the Bangladesh context, uniquely beautiful.

I first visited the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1995. At that time although I was quite nervous going there I thought I had to go and see the legendary most beautiful place in Bangladesh. I heard from family members, friends and others that Chittagong Hill Tracts were incredibly beautiful with high mountains, valleys and beautiful lakes. Some friends from London who visited Rangamati in the 1980s and brought back photographs to London talked highly about their positive experiences. Images of Chakma girls appearing on postcards and magazines, wearing traditional dresses were also a source of attraction for 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. 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 very 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 got to 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 go back 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, took many photographs, had some food and went back to Chittagong City later that day.

One reason we did not try hard to find available hotels or guest houses was because of our nervousness of 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 were 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 that 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 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 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 some video and still footage of the Boisabi festivals as part 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 new. They celebrate the end of the current year and the beginning of the new year with a series of colourful and lively festivals called, as stated above, 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 aspect to their celebration, which takes place in mid April every year, the date depends 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 Marma community 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 people (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 (flower 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 have traditional foods such as panchan, they enjoy 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.

Although the Boisabi festivals are a very joyous 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 about 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:

Year          Hill people            Bengali

1872             61,957                1,097

1901           113,074                8,762

1959           260,517              27,171

1981           441,796            304,873

1991           500,190            474,255

Currently, the Bengali population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have become the 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 an unprecedented change for people who have lived there for generations. Most of the population changes took place since the birth of Bangladesh. 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 which seems partly to ensure that indigenous people 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, based on my interpretation, 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. 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 develop a better understanding of the meanings and purpose behind the activities of the Boisabi festivals before completing the write-up for this exhibition. Rumana Hashem, a brave inspirational lady who did 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, London, and explained to him about my exhibition and that I needed 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 there and then and agreed to provide more information at a later date. In fact he ended up providing more information than I originally expected and must have worked very hard in this regard. I am very grateful for his help.

When I asked him about the nature of the impacts of the festivals on the people, he said that the 'Boi- Sa- Bi celebration has a 'great impact on the social life of indigenous peoples in Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is the time to forgetting all sorrows and failure of past the year and wishing the grace and happiness for the upcoming new year'. He informed me that from his childhood 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 has meant that the festive happiness fades 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 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 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 this are kept awake by regular cups of strong tea throughout the night.

During my short stay in April 2011 the beauty of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the diverse cultures of the various groups of the region kept on 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 resources 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 and build self confidence.

More outside appreciation, including from foreign tourism, would most likely contribute to an improved sense of confidence and economic benefits for the local indigenous 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 a potential, and not yet fully developed. However, if carefully nurtured and developed they could become actuals very quickly and help the indigenous and ethnic communities of the area to survive and thrive as distinct proud peoples.