Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Depleting Destinations in Bangladesh

Subah Shaheen

Bangladesh is a beautiful tropical nation housing several booming tourist attractions. The beaches, hill stations, waterfalls and islands of this small South Asian wonderland offer tourists a memorable experience at an affordable rate. However, after centuries of taking mother earth for granted, nature has finally begun to retaliate. Climate change is here and its effects will be getting more prominent in due time. The areas best known for their natural allure will thus, in a few years, start to display signs of global warming, resource depletion and worst of all contamination. Bangladesh will be no exception to that rule, in fact, according to National Geographic- Bangladesh is most vulnerable to climate change. This is because the country is located at the bottom of three ferocious rivers and watered by fifty seven trans-boundary ones. Already some areas of the country are at risk of losing their enviable pristine beauty in a few years time. The clock is ticking to explore the unique magic of these endangered destinations.
This is the largest island of the country and has been awarded the honorary title ‘‘Queen Island of Bangladesh,’’ due to its immaculate, subtle beauty. The beauty of Bhola lies in its simplicity and the serene calmness it provides to onlookers. The long palm trees swaying gently against the afternoon breeze, and the mighty sun making the water shimmer as a particularly feisty silver fish jumps out to get some fresh sunshine for himself are mesmerizing scenes in the most soothing sense. Bhola is easy on the eyes and allows respite to troubled souls as the calmness of the surroundings balances out the turmoil raging inside one’s mind. Being an island nation, the seafood of the place is exquisite and a particular desert item- the buffalo curd- has enchanted the taste buds of all those who have tried it. Bhola is, therefore, an exquisite destination
for a few quiet days to oneself but alas, due to the low altitude of this gentle island, it is soon to be in grave danger of floods and tsunamis. The government has already started preparing in advance but one can naturally conclude that Bhola might not be the same in a couple of years.

Bangladesh is renowned worldwide as the home of the Sundarbans- the largest mangrove forest in the world- and the treasure trove of wildlife present there. It is a
UNESCO world heritage site and a must see for all adventure lovers. The islands of Sundarban buzz with activity and there is excitement in the very air. One can hear several varieties of birds and monkeys even while on a ship cruising on the waters surrounding it. One always has to be on the lookout as animals are abundant in the forest and some of them aren’t too shy. They will peek from trees and bushes to get a glimpse of their latest guests. Of course, the Sundarbans are home to the Royal Bengal Tigers and these big cats don’t react well to uninvited visitors but if people familiarize themselves with the mindset of the tigers beforehand, there does exist the chance of one simply walking by in front of you. The mighty mammal with its lush orange fur and dramatic black stripes would prove to be the most awe aspiring view in its natural
habitat where it would walk with the delicacy of a cat and the dignity of a lion. Though many have spotted the king of the jungle on their excursions, a more common and welcome sight to many have been deers, alligators, various birds, monkeys and other fauna. The Sundarbans are amazing but sadly they are depleting as well. Rising sea levels, deforestation, urbanization and hotter, drier summers have started to take its toll on this island of exquisite flora and fauna. The Rampal powerplant shall probably catalyse these changes making our Sundarbans- literally meaning, ‘‘Beautiful Forests,’’ an entirely different area 10 years from now.

Sonargaon,Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manjil
Bangladesh has hundreds of years of history as part of the Indian Subcontinent and many archaeological and architectural sites exist today as proof of that glorious heritage. While the country has several constructions to satiate the thirst of every history or fine art enthusiast, some of these places have become extrem
ely popular with tourists and in that group- the sites of Sonargaon, Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manjil are noteworthy. The rich history of these places and the spell binding raw beauty they hold have earned them the right to win admirers from all over the world but unfortunately, beauty cannot freeze time. The latter makes the former wither away until only the legends of its supremacy remain, nothing more. Though these structures have withstood the test of time and stand tall today, the withering has continued. They are not as magnificent as they were 10 years back and their state will continue to depreciate. Various preservation and renovation efforts are routinely performed but these are weak defenses against the test of time which now has air pollution to aid its task and the protection policies of the government fail to fully tackle the situation at hand.

The above featured only a few of the fast depleting destinations of Bangladesh. With the onset of climate change, the whole world is unaware of the full extent of the changes that will befall us and this applies to Bangladesh as well. Being a low lying developing country, Bangladesh is both at risk of facing terrible consequences and having the inability to protect itself fully from the consequences. However, the most must be made of the country’s resources till then and its tourist destinations shall continue to be a promising sector for the country over the next few years- offering wonderful holidays for tourists to come and cherish for a lifetime.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Big Cat of the Mangrove

Faisal Mahmud

On account of International Tiger Day, July 29, 2015, Dhaka Tribune took a look at the current situation concerning habitat, population and overall well-being of our majestic national animal.

For Bangladeshis, the Royal Bengal tiger is not just a mere beast. It’s a little more than that.
Aside from being the national animal of the country, this big cat has been playing an important role in enriching our literature and remains a central character in many folk tales like Gazir GanBonbibir Kotha. The tiger is also a symbol for many of our national agencies.
The emblem of the East Bengal Regiment, which fought for the country's liberation, the logo of the national cricket team and the hologram in our national currency are some of the examples of using the tiger symbol taking pride of place.
Even it’s presence in our political culture is also evident. The great politician AK Fuzlul Huq is called the 'Tiger of Bengal' for his outstanding contribution in favour of humanity.
Things however are not looking bright for our tigers in the Sundarbans. While unsustainable forest use and climate change threaten to reduce the area in which tigers can live, poaching of prey reduces the capacity of the forest to support tigers.
All these make the life of the king of the jungle very difficult indeed.
The shrinking tiger population
The world has been trying to save tigers since the 1970s, when it was discovered that populations had shrunk precipitously, and in some places vanished, throughout Asia, home to all the wild tigers left on earth. But conservation has largely failed.
Drastic loss of habitat, half-hearted efforts by the governments of many of the 13 tiger-range countries, uncoordinated objectives of competing NGOs, and, above all, an unstaunchable and illegal market for tiger parts in China have reduced the number of the world's wild tigers to a meagre 3,200, at a high estimate.
The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest of the world has long been a safe sanctuary for tigers but it’s not anymore. Data analysis of the recent tiger census in the Sundarbans suggested that the number of Bengal Tigers in the forest's Bangladesh part might have come down to half of what it was 10 years ago.
The 2004 Bangladesh-India joint tiger pugmark survey in the Sundarbans put the number at 419. The recently finished census said that the number is less than 200 in the Bangladeshi part of the Sundarbans.
A new report of the Global Tigers Initiatives (GTI) shows Bangladesh is lagging far behind other neighbouring tiger range countries, including India, Nepal and Bhutan in conversation activities.
The report released during the Global Tiger Stocktaking Conference in Dhaka in last year was prepared based on nine activities regarding tiger conservation. Among the 13 tiger range countries, Bangladesh has not been able to fulfil any of the targets.
Reasons behind tiger losses
Both anthropogenic and natural causes are responsible for tiger loss in Bangladesh. The most significant cause of tiger loss is direct poaching to supply the increasing demand for tiger products, experts said.
Moreover, Tiger-Human Conflict (THC) is very high in Bangladesh, which is evident from high rate of human killing, livestock depredation and ultimately the killing in retribution of tigers by affected local communities. In addition, prey poaching, unsustainable forest management and climate change induced natural calamities also affect tiger population.
Several million people directly depend on the Sundarbans for their subsistence. They collect wood, honey, gol-pata and other forest products from the Sundarbans. There is a common perception among policy makers that those forest dependent people are responsible for the Sundarbans' degradation.
Researches however explore that commercial extraction by outside people through corrupted forest officials is mainly responsible for the Sundarban's degradation.
The outsider commercial extractors collect forest resources beyond sustainable limit by violating resource collection rules. Hence, the balance of the forest ecosystem has been dwindling. In contrast, the forest dependent communities are living in the Sundarbans area for centuries by collecting forest resources more or less sustainably using their traditional knowledge.
Thus, the most evident threat to tiger habitat is unsustainable commercial extraction of forest resources that degrades the habitat quality.
Effects of climate change
Experts said that a major reason for frequent straying by tigers may be a growing prey crisis due to greater frequency of cyclones and tidal surges triggered by climate change.
The critically endangered tigers have been seen to leave their jungle habitat most frequently at two forest ranges in Bangladesh – Burhigoalini range in Satkhira and Sharankhola range in Bagerhat.
Renowned environmentalist Dr Ainun Nishat said that large populations of the Sundarbans deer might have perished in recurrent cyclones. “The population cycle of the Sundarbans deer will be adversely affected as their habitats become prone to cyclones and more saline because of climate change.”
“The tigers are coming out of the jungle for food and cyclones may very well have caused the food crisis there,” said Nishat.
“After natural disasters pass, the affected regions are naturally hit by a prey crisis. Deer often die in large numbers, which is likely to affect the tigers though they themselves are not particularly vulnerable to such natural disasters.”
He said tigers were seen leaving forests more frequently than usual after cyclone Sidr in 2007 and Aila in May this year.
Tiger poaching in the Sundarbans
Even though the government has taken various measures to protect Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans, its poaching is on the rise with 49 being killed in last the 14 years (2001-2014), according to forest department data.
Among the 49 tigers, 17 were killed in the Sundarbans east zone of the forest department while 15 were killed in the Sundarbans west zone. According to the data, the forest department recovered 17 tiger skins from different parts of the country between 2001-2014 while being smuggled out of the country.
Although official data shows that some 49 tigers were killed in the last 14 years, the locals of the Sundarbans claim that the actual number of poached tigers is much higher.
They said wildlife poaching continues rampantly in the Sundarbans while poachers frequently hunt tigers, deer and other wildlife using traps and guns. There are a number of wildlife poachers' groups in the nearby villages of the Sundarbans and they are poaching wildlife in both the Sundarbans east and west zones. The groups are linked with international wildlife smugglers, according to local sources.
The local poachers bring their hunted wildlife to the nearby villages and process the hides, bones and other limbs of the animals. Later, they sell those to the international smugglers, they added.
The residents of Banglabazar, Uttar Rajapur, Sonatola, Bagi and Khuriakhali villages near the Sundarbans also said there are a number of active wildlife poachers' groups in their neighbourhoods and the villagers can hardly raise their voice in fear of reprisal.
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of the Sundarbans East Zone Amir Hossain Chowdhury said many plans are being implemented to protect Bengal Tigers while the Forest Department's Wildlife Circle has been strengthened, officials of the department have been trained and coordination among the forest department, Coast Guard, Rab and police has been strengthened to check wildlife poaching.
He said officials of the forest department are conducting drives across the country to arrest poachers and they are often detaining members of wildlife smugglers and also recovering hides of tigers and deer.

Fact Box
New projects on hand
To save tiger population and its prey, a new project titled Bagh Activity, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was launched recently. The five-year project is designed to reduce wildlife trafficking and minimise human-tiger conflicts in the Sundarbans.
WildTeam, a Bangladesh-based organisation of tiger conservation activists, will implement the project with technical assistance from the Smithsonian Institution of the US and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. It will also collaborate with national and international law enforcement agencies in keeping wildlife out of harm's way.
Interview of Dr Monirul H Khan
Dr Monirul H Khan has a PhD from the University of Cambridge on tigers of the Sundarbans. Currently he is working as a professor of Zoology in Jahangirnagar University. He is known as the foremost authority about Royal Bengal Tigers in Sundarban.
Are tigers numbers decreasing in the Sundarbans?
Yes, they are decreasing at an alarming rate. The problem is that large carnivore species like tigers naturally occur at low densities, which make them particularly susceptible to extirpation and extinction. At present, the only stable population of tigers is found in the Sundarbans, and they are isolated from the nearest human populations by about 300km of agricultural and urban land.
How many tigers are left in the Sundarbans?
First of all, we have to understand that tiger ranges vary in accordance with prey densities. There is no long-term work on the range size of the tigers in Bangladesh.
Some studies indicate that tigers are fairly evenly distributed throughout the Sundarbans at a density of about 1 per 10sqkm, but subsequent studies have suggested that there may be a density gradient, with numbers being highest in the south and lowest in the north. Based on camera-trap surveys, together with track counts, and in the light of prey densities, the tiger population is estimated to be lower, at around 220-230 tigers in the Bangladeshi part and another 65-70 in the Indian part.
What can we do to protect the Sundarbans?
Since the breeding peak of tigers is probably in winter, the season should remain uninterrupted. Unfortunately, winter is also the main harvest and tourist season when human disturbance is intense. I also suggest that some zones should be demarcated, and tourists should be allowed in only those areas. Controlled ecotourism should be developed so that both the government and the local people benefit financially.

Shared from Dhaka Tribune

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Kuakata: A Goldmine of Beauty

KM Ahasanul Huque

Patuakhali is a district under Barisal division in the South-western part of Bangladesh. The southern district is bounded by Barisal on the north, Bay of Bengal on the south, Bhola on the east and Barguna on the west.  The main tourist attraction in Patuakhali is the historical Kuakata sea beach. Called “the daughter of the sea”, this beach is the second largest tourist centre of the country and allows both a view of the sun rise and the sunset. The top places worthy of a visit are the Buddhist Temple, and the Mog and Chakma tribal villages.
Spotlight on Kuakata
Kuakata provides tourists with picturesque views and the promise of time well spent. Expect to find an abundance of natural beauty, a white sandy beach, blue skies and huge expanses of bay water. From the seashore, tourists can get a rare panoramic view of the sunrise and sunset. The beach has immense tourist potential as truth be told, the hidden beauty of Kuakata is still left unexplored.
With the majestic view of the Bay of Bengal on one side and the well-set columns of coconut groves and forests on the other, Kuakata is really an earthly paradise for tourists. Think endless lines of coconut trees that lightly dance in the breeze on one side, and scores of fishing trawlers anchored on another. The inexpressible beauty of the place is difficult to put into words.
Virgin beach
Kuakata can truly be called a virgin beach - a sanctuary for migratory winter birds, wild animals, betel nut and coconut trees and dry sandy beaches. Tourists can explore the traditional customs and costumes of "Rakhine" tribal families who are hardworking and active around the area.
Tourists can also visit the Buddhist Temple that is about a hundred years old. The temple tells tales of our ancient inheritance and multi-cultural heritage, which really is an object of both wonder and pleasure. Interestingly, Kuakata is the ultimate spot for religious pilgrimages for both Hindus and the Buddhists. Innumerable devotees arrive from far and near to visit during the traditional festival of Rush Purnima and Maghi Purnima. During these festivals they take holy baths and attend colourful traditional fairs that are held simultaneously to mark the occasions.
Getting to Kuakata
There is a partially smooth road between Dhaka and Patuakhali district headquarters, albeit marked with uneven pot holes. You can go via air or water to Barisal city. Afterwards you can travel to Kuakata or Patuakhali by air or water. If you're travelling from Dhaka you can reach Patuakhali by bus and from there you may take a microbus to Kuakata. It is, however, advisable to travel up to Patuakhali direct by launch, which is a pleasant, overnight journey, given that you take a luxury cabin. Instead of Patuakhali you can also go to Khepupara by launch, which is an overnight journey as well and from there you can go to Kuakata by microbus. A direct BRTC bus service is also available from Dhaka to Kuakata that leaves from Sayedabad bus terminal at night. It takes 12 hours to reach Kuakata if it's a nonstop trip. However, it might be a hectic bus journey as it involves two ferries.
The best season to travel to Kuakata is during winter. It's recommended that tourists meet the Rakhine tribal people to learn about their way of life. Various handicrafts made by them are also sold here for those interested in indulging in a light shopping session. The closest Rakhine villages are Misripara and Keranipara. Travellers may visit the 100 year old Buddhist temple at Keranipara called Seema Mandir, which is made of eight different metals.
Tourists can visit the Buddhist Temple about 4km off from Kuakata, where the statue of Goutom Buddha (the biggest in South Asia) and two 200 year old wells exist. The regional name of the well is "Kua" and "Kata," which is the local way of referring to the act of digging wells. This is how the name "Kuakata" came to be.
If you are adventurous you may also go fishing near the fishermen's village, where the fresh catch includes hilsa and other sea fishes. Nearby, there are a few local restaurants that serve fresh fish one must try on their visit.
From Kuakata there is scope to visit a fragment of the great Sundarban mangrove forest, called the Gangamoti Reserve Forest. It is a one hour speedboat ride away. Kuakata was once part of the Sundarban forest when the Rakhine community settled in that area in 1784, after being thrown out of Arakan in Myanmar by the Mughals. Basically, the Gangamati Reserve Forest is the additional part of the Sundarban forest in Bangladesh, and it also protects the coast of Kuakata against tidal surges. There are many types of trees and plants in this forest such as the keora, gewa, baen, kankra, goran, hetal, golpata and numbers of wild animals such as wild boars, deer, monkeys and different species of birds.
Gangamoti Lake and Fatrar Char are two other enchanting tourist places near Kuakata that must be visited to really enjoy the beauty and bounty of the place.

Striking features
No other place in Bangladesh can boast of such rare panoramic views of the sunset and the sunrise as Kuakata does.
Jhaubon is another very beautiful place at Kuakata and is close to the sea beach. It has been planted by the forest department for beautification as well as to protect against soil erosion. Jhaubon is surrounded by both Jhau and coconut trees. This place is also ideal if you want better views of the Kuakata sunrise. They also have an eco park that is an excellent spot for picnics. There are many types of trees and plants here as it's a safe haven of birds with over 42,000 plants. It also has two watch towers, five picnic sheds, a wooden bridge, culverts and internal walkways.
Shutki polli is another place tourists can visit. It is located 4km west from Kuakata beach. On the way to Lebur bon/Lebur chor one can visit shutki polli to explore the interesting ways in which shutki (dry fish) is made.
Narikel Bagan or the coconut garden, located east of the beach is also another spot tourists may be interested in. According to locals, the garden is on the verge of being destroyed and demands protective measures to help restore the natural state of the place.
The Kakra Beach or lobster beach is very clean and beautiful, with large litters of lobsters found running all over the beach.

There are several high end hotels, rest houses and holiday homes that you can stay at. The place also offers low priced accommodations from Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation. The corporation has constructed luxury holiday homes as well as other housing for tourists.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Monsters of Bangladesh

SteamPug Writers: Nusaira Amreen Hassan

Bangladesh has an assortment of monsters with fascinating back-stories. From the wetlands of Chalan Beel to the beaches of Bay of Bengal, the country is filled with tales of the supernatural.

Begho Bhoots of Sundarbans

Walking among the trees of the largest mangrove forest in the world, one would assume that the scariest entity one could encounter is the Royal Bengal Tiger. However, Sundarbans is not only home to one of the fiercest mammals to ever walk on the earth, it is also inhabited by the wretched souls of the people who were killed by these tigers. These vengeful spirits, known locally as “Begho Bhoots” are said to lead human beings to the same fate they themselves suffered by taking them to their deaths at the paws of the tigers.

According to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, the “Begho Bhoots” lure unsuspecting people, who venture into the forest in search of honey or wood, by mimicking the roar or growls of the tigers, and then ensure that the people end up in the claws of the tiger. One of the most famous Begho Bhoots is rumored to be a Lady in White, who photobombs the pictures of tourists. While the story in itself could be a fabrication due to the advent and easily accessible photo-shop, the mangrove forests hold more than just a diverse collection of species of plants and animals. Given the dwindling number of Royal Bengal Tigers, the roars heard in the mangrove forests by visitors could very well be the Lady in White and her entourage of Begho Bhoots.

The Incomplete Lalbagh Fort

Over three-hundred years old, the rhapsodic building stands as the oldest establishment in an area already filled with ancient buildings. Although the visiting hours for Lalbagh Fort ends at dusk, the heritage site only comes alive at night, when the fidgety and talented spirit of Pari Bibi takes advantage of the dark to take the center stage and sing and dance. However, according to local legend, this female ghost has also made appearances during the day time in recent years. The nocturnal spirit, also known as Iran Dukht, was the daughter of the Subahdar, Shaista Khan.

Originally known as Aurangabad Fort, Lalbagh Fort was being built under the supervision of Subahdar Mohammad Azam Shah, when he was called back to Delhi by the king. His brother and Pari Bibi’s father, Shaista Khan succeeded him but could not manage to complete the building either. And while the building itself is a testament to the grandeur of Mughal architecture, Lalbag Fort was considered to be cursed as Pari Bibi died there, which led to her father abandoning the plans of its completion. And now, 332 years later (Pari Bibi died in 1684), the former Aurangabad Fort, which includes a mosque and the tombs of Pari Bibi and Diwan-i-Aam, is a major tourist attraction. And if the stars align, then Pari Bibi’s spirit may regale a lucky visitor or two with her singing and dancing performance.

The Cursed Boat of Kuakata Beach, Barisal

The sandy beach of Kuakata in Barisal lies between the pristine water of the Bay of Bengal and the dense forest of Gangamati, which holds deep, dark secrets, including a buried boat with hidden treasure. However, it is said that the ghosts of a man and his son jealously guard the boat and its contents.
Legend has it that years ago, the man and his son ventured into the forest in search of wood to be used as fuel. After rigorous toil, they were overcome with thirst and as is the custom, they decided to dig into the sand to look for a source of water. However, instead of being able to quench their thirst, the father-son duo discovered pieces of hard metal, which they deduced to be gold. Seized with the greed of gaining immense fortune, they dug deeper till they found a boat, laden with distorted gold coins. But unfortunately, their dreams of attaining great wealth remained unfulfilled as the corpses of the unfortunate man and his son were found in the next morning by the inhabitants of the surrounding village. Their deaths remain unexplained but it is believed that they were punished for trying to rob the doomed boat of its contents.
The accursed boat is still said to contain gold coins, but no one dares to go near it lest they should face come face to face with the thirsty pair of father and son.

The Djinns of Cholon Beel

Cholon Beel, spread across four different districts of Bangladesh, is not only famous for being the largest wetland in Bangladesh, it is also known for being haunted by entities known as djinns. The djinn is believed to be an entity belonging to a different realm that can easily take the physical form of any object or living thing, including a human being. According to beliefs, any kind of sweet smell or the odor of rotten flesh from an unknown source is the indication of the presence of Djinn.

The Foy’s Lake: The Shadowy Woman In Black

Foy’s lake, the largest man-made lake in the country, is surrounded by the hills of Chittagong. On one of the sides, towards the curve of the old hill, the area remains mostly void of any visitors, who dare not cross the path of the Woman In Black. The shadowy mysterious woman, dressed in all black, is a malevolent spirit who restlessly roams the grounds of Foy’s Lake, looking for people to attack. It is widely rumored that she drowned in the lake and came back from the dead to punish everyone who visits Foy’s Lake.

Monday, May 9, 2016

What Bangladesh can offer tourists

Tanveer Ahmed

If Robert Frost, the man who wrote "Two roads diverged in a wood and I took the one less travelled by," was looking for a modern holiday destination, he may have considered a trip to Bangladesh.
There is a sense of status when travelling in Bangladesh, of a high place in the pecking order of intrepid travellers. In a world of cheap airfares and a plethora of resorts, those who dare to travel around Bangladesh are communicating that they shun the world of mass market packaged tourism. They are the rebels of the tourist trail.

The data analysis group Priceonomics, engaged by the World Bank, has studied statistics about numbers of tourists per head of population and found Bangladesh as the "least touristy" destination in the world. By this term, the group says Bangladesh and other countries in the top ten, such as Moldova, Sierra Leone or Papua New Guinea, are destinations where you are least likely to encounter tourists from other country.

It was this long realised trend that sparked a recent slogan for Bangladesh's tourism industry: "Visit Bangladesh, before the tourists come." The originator of that slogan, Geeteara Chowdhury, an entrepreneur who also owns a tea plantation in Sylhet, told The Guardian that the line came to her as she lazily walked the serene surrounds of Cox's Bazaar, the longest beach in the world, to find that there were very few people there. But she also lamented that, unfortunately, tourists are yet to visit the place.

An obvious market to tap is the Bangladeshi diaspora and it is exactly this group being targeted by Yasmin Chowdhury, a British woman of Bangladeshi origin. Having barely taken an interest in the birthplace of her parents, the death of her father a decade ago aroused a wish to reconnect with her heritage, which she did through her organisation, Love-Desh. It aims to help diaspora Bangladeshis travel to their ancestral home.

Interestingly, one of the biggest barriers she faces is the perception of people; but it's not the perceived notion or natural disaster, poverty or Islamist violence that she's talking about. The perceptions she has to fight are the childhood experiences of travelling in Bangladesh that her target market have, that of endless visits to relatives, being force fed mountains of food and sweets they didn't like and encountering unwanted marriage proposals. This has left an association of stifling boredom that detracts them from viewing the country as a tourist destination.

This is a shame, because the behaviour is at odds with a growing interest among the diaspora in reconnecting with their roots. They are more likely to channel this interest through sponsoring a child through an aid organisation or attending a protest about exploited labour in garment factories. They want to feel good about themselves via doing good.

In a world of hollowed out identities, particularly in the post-religious societies of the Western world, a key place for people to identify a sense of authenticity is their feelings. If there is one thing Bangladesh has, it is authenticity - of a rawness of human emotion and experience. I remember my own wife's evolving reaction when she visited my ancestral village in Jessore from recognising that the stares of locals towards her tall, Caucasian features was not in fact rude, but an expressions of their own curiosity, vulnerability and ultimately, affection.

While many Bangladeshis are embarrassed and tired of images of poverty and despair that is so often associated with the nation, an element of this - if channelled towards the urge of many Westerners to do good as part of them acquiring greater meaning in their lives - has the potential to attract travellers.

Mikey Leung, the author of a travel guide for Bangladesh who did aid work in Dhaka with his Australian wife, says target markets of expatriate foreigners living in Dhaka and latter generations of Bangladeshis living in the West are untapped markets. They may travel to Bangladesh in the same way they might consume other products - with a view to communicate their identity to the outside world.

Those who see themselves as rebels shunning modern materialism or wanting to exhibit their sense of moral stature by helping the downtrodden will naturally be attracted to Bangladesh as part of communicating their self-image.

During a government funded trip for international journalists in 2011, my colleagues and I were taken to the tea gardens in Sylhet, and the Cox's Bazaar beach by public sector officials. The foreign journalists were impressed by the natural beauty of the country, but also frustrated by the poor infrastructure, political turmoil-there was a day of hartal during our four day trip - and a lath of understanding of Western needs and comforts. These barriers are likely to improve only with greater numbers of tourists engaging and changing the operators.

 Tourism has the potential to modify some of Bangladesh's greatest challenges - an economy heavily dependent on remittances and garments, poor international perceptions and a greater people to people engagement with a large, wealthy diaspora. But the challenges remain profound.

The writer is a psychiatrist and author based in Australia, and founder of the website bddiaspora.com.

Content shared from The Daily Star. 

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saka Haphong: Trekking Bangladesh’s highest peak

Faisal Mahmud

Summiting Saka Haphong within three and half days is a daunting venture. But our trekking club, Boarding Para Sobuj Sangha (BPSS), was more than up to the task of trekking Bangladesh’s highest peak, which stands at 3,400ft By Faisal Mahmud.

I’ve seen a trekking boom in the past four years. After Bangladeshi climber Musa Ibrahim summited Mt Everest in 2010, more and more people have been showing up on the trails in Bandarban, Bangladesh’s trekking heaven. 
Trekking in Bangladesh is a more raw experience than in established destinations like Nepal, which have bamboo lodges - rest stops with food and beds - along the way those facilities don’t exist here, yet we make our night haul with local residents, renting the karbari (home of the village head) for a nominal fee of Tk100 per person per night. They might have nothing more to offer than rice, pumpkin and chicken (for Tk300/kg), but this arrangement has its own charm. 
This was my seventh trek with BPSS. Before joining them, I didn’t know the meaning of an “organised trek.” As a professional trekking club, they put together a full tour and route plan, gather supplies, and bring tents and other equipment. Previously, my trips were the epitomy of “disorganised.” My very first trek in 2005 was a nightmare. I foolishly went to Bandarban, a tropical hilly region, during the full-blown monsoon season, when the region is full of leeches. I had brought neither trekking boots, nor gear, nor enough supplies.
Still, I couldn’t wait to go back. The natural beauty of those mountains were etched in my mind.
Day 1
Fifteen of us started the journey by bus on the night of March 13, and reached Bandarban the following morning at 8am. We had arranged over the phone for a Chandergari - four wheeler jeep, which is  locally produced in Bandarban -  and reached Thanchi Bazaar by 1pm. In Thanchi Bazaar, we spent around an hour shopping, and booked a guide during that time. At around 2pm, we started our trekking.
Our first destination was Boarding Para, a small tribal village of the Murong tribe.When we all reached Boarding Para, it was getting dark. The time showed 6:30pm. Though some of us wanted to stay in the village, others suggested that if we didn’t reach Sherkor Para that day, our next day’s trek would be really hard.The weather was very cool and calm, with the full moon due in two days. The slopes up to the next destination, Sherkor Para, is both long and steep, but we still decided to camp there for the night. We started our trekking again at 7pm. 
We finally reached our destination at around 11:30pm. We were really exhausted. Our guide cooked chicken, which we ate with red rice.
Day 2
The next morning, we started our trekking a bit later than planned. That’s the downside of a large trekking group – the job of the coordinator is a nightmare!
Anyway, we started our journey for Shimplampi, our first destination for that day, at around 10am, and reached at 12:30pm. Shimplampi is situated right beside Tajindong, one of the other highest peaks in the country. The water source of the village had dried up, so the villagers needed to bring water from a faraway source. The scarcity of resources seemed to make the villagers rather inhospitable.
From Shimplampi, we made one of the longest descents of the country. It was nearly 1500ft. The whole path was almost vertical. The dead bushes, leaves and thorny bamboos on the path made it even tougher. The middle of March isn’t the time of the year I would recommend to take a trekking trip. The Jhum season begins during this time, and the indigenous farmers burn the hills to ready them for cultivation. We had to battle against the ashes from the burnt hills and loose soil as we climbed through the trail.
There was a point when I was hanging on the branches of a tree. What lay ahead of me was anything but a trail. There was no visible path, only the root of some dead trees that covered the next 20-30ft of trail, surrounded by a vertical ravine almost 100ft deep. I panicked. The loose soil under my feet was moving and I couldn’t move further.
But that’s the upside a large trekking group – my friends were there to rescue me! I survived, and eventually we all reached the bank of Remakrijhiri, a part of the Sangu River that moves like a gyrating snake inside the hilly terrain of Bandarban. We travelled for two hours along the shore of Remakri. At 6pm, we reached Hangrai Para.
Shortly afterwards, we left the main trail and continued on a steep trail uphill to the village of Nefue Para in the dark of the night. On our way to Nefue Para, we had to cross through the Chikon Kala Jungle. We finally reached our destination at around 9:30pm.
The people of Nefue Para are very friendly, and the village head let us stay the night there.From Nefue Para, it is only a couple of hours to the top of Saka Haphong (Mowdok Mual). We were ready to leave at 7am the next morning. Finally, at around 10am, we reached the peak.
The Saka Haphong peak is in fact a border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. From there, we could see the dense Myanmar reserve forest.
Day 3-4
The journey back from the peak to the locality was almost a two days trek through the same trail, but we made it in one day. We were really exhausted after the excruciating trek, but the joy of summiting the highest peak of country made it worthwhile. 
Shared from Dhaka Tribune
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Saturday, April 23, 2016

A place that no one knows

Faisal Mahmud

Faisal Mahmud pays homage to the Bangladeshi braves that made our country a true home for us all 

The small, dilapidated gates, and the unpretentious fading signboard claiming “Muktijoddha Rogmukti Bisramagar” (Sanatorium for Freedom Fighters) at College Gate (right across the Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University), might have evaded your eyes while battling your way through traffic on the busy Mirpur Road. And yet it has been there for the past 42 years,practically since our independence in 1971, as a testament to the brave men and women who fought for their country. Muktijoddha Rogmukti Bisramagar is right there, inviting anyone to come in and witness the scars and the heroism that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
The place and the people
Ironically, the ambience inside the sanatorium almost transports you back to 1971; the furniture, colour of the wallsand the broken windows haven’t changed much in the last 42 years. About 17 permanently injured freedom fighters still live there with their families, in five old buildings, spread over some 5,760sq-ft of land. “More than 100 people are living on this small piece of land. It’s really congested in here. Also there are frequent water and electricity problems,” Motiur Rahman, a septuagenarian war veteran, said.
Motiur fought in sector 8 during the Liberation War. “I can’t move my left hand properly for the last 40 odd years. It was badly injured by a grenade splinter during the war. I have been living here since the independence. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave us – some six or seven freedom fighters – this land to live on after the war had ended. He also granted us an allowance of Tk75 per month. Then, during the Ershad regime, the allowance was increased twice and we received Tk2,000 per month. Now, from November of this year, we are getting Tk16,000 per month,” he said.
“This is a paltry amount to live on, as the prices of essentials have sky-rocketed. But the Liberation War Trust at least honours us with something,” he concluded.
Chaitonno Biswas, another war veteran, has been living here for the last 42 years. “I lost my left leg while I was fighting in sector 4. Right after independence, I started living here,” he said.
“Life is not easy. We fought for independence, but we could never become free of poverty. The subsequent governments have promised us a lot. But the promises were rarely kept,” he lamented. Recalling the heroic days of the wartime, Abdur Rahim Badshah, another war veteran who fought in sector 3, said: “That’s the best gift of our life – liberation – and we fought for it.” Badshah’s right knee was badly injured while he was fighting at Pachdona, Narsingdi, when his group killed and captured 60 “hanadars” (Pakistani army).
Badshah said after Liberation War, Bangabandhu had granted them this place to live in. “I also got a job at a chocolate factory, and later during Ershad regime, at a sugar mill. But the money that I earned by doing those jobs could never alleviate my poverty,” he said.
He said that the government has restricted 30% quota for the freedom fighters families in any government job. “But when my son passed a bank entrance exam, he was asked to give Tk300,000 for the job. We are no beneficiaries of the quota system,” he said.
The life within
Recreation for these injured freedom fighters is in disarray since the place does not have suitable entertainment facilities. The books in a so-called library are over 20 years old. One freedom fighter even complained that they also do not get to know the current situation of the country, as newspapers are not readily available. The sanitation system is also in bad shape – all bathrooms are in a sorry state, as sweepers do not clean them regularly. 
The wife of one freedom fighters said that the problem with electricity is severe. Also, only few years ago, they got a water connection from the civic body. Previously, there used to be a regular feud among the families for water.
The only solace for these brave souls,however,is the stories they have to share about the war. Every evening, the freedom fighters sit and reminisce about the golden days of the liberation war in 1971.
MdTojammelHaque, 71, has been partially paralysed for the last 41 years since being struck by bomb splinters while fighting at Sector 7, in Rajshahi. He spends all his days in a wheelchair. “What keeps us alive is our kinship with the other freedom fighters,” he said, adding, “We can only hope that since we sacrificed so much during the Liberation War, the government will do something for our families.”
New hope?
The Ministry of Liberation Affairs has taken a project to improve the condition of the lifestyle of these brave souls. For the last two and half years, a big project has been going on in the land on the right side of their home. It is known that another 20 families of injured freedom fighters used to live on that 9,000sq-ft of land. Mohammad Mainul Haq, another injured freedom fighter, used to live there. 
“The government started this project in March 2011. We were given an allowance of extra Tk25,000, on top of our usual Tk16,000 from the Liberation War Trust, as house rent to live elsewhere while the construction work has been going on,” he said.
Abu Shahid Billa, another freedom fighter who used to live here, said after the completion of the project, they will be given an apartment and a shop from the trust in this 14-storey building. “We have already received the allotment paper. We are waiting for the handover,” he added.
Moyezuddin Talukder, the project director, said it is a Tk659.3m project under the Ministry of the Liberation War Affairs. “It will tentatively end in the middle of 2014,” he said.
Talukder said the first five floors of the building will be commercial. “Those will have shops. The sixth floor will have a convention centre and the top seven floors will have residential apartments for the injured liberation war veterans,” he clarified.
The ministry official said that the project is an initiative taken by the government. “Eventually the 17 other families living on that 5,760sq-ft of land will also get an apartment and a shop in this building. On that land, another project of this type will be taken,” the official said.
He further expounded that the present government has taken several constructive plans for the freedom fighters. This project is just one such example of that.  
A place of their own
1.  The sanatorium and the adjoining blocks were originally abandoned properties during the Liberation War. In 1972, freedom fighters treated and released from Suhrawardy Hospital sought shelter there
2.  The properties were handed over to the MuktijoddhaKalyan Trust later. In 1973, the sanatorium was turned into a vocational training centre for freedom fighters through the joint efforts of the MuktijoddhaKalyan Trust and the International Rescue Committee
3.  After the completion of the project in 1977, the sanatorium became a place to stay for permanently disabled freedom fighters and their family members from outside of Dhaka
We fought for the liberation of this country. I find it heart-breaking when I see that Razakars get high positions in the government. We don’t want anything from the government. We just want to see that the war criminals get what they deserve
Said Abdur Rahim Badsha, an injured war veteran

Shared from Dhaka Tribune

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Boishabi Uthshab

Nusaira A. Hassan

Celebrating New Year is an intrinsic and distinct part of every culture. As Bangladeshis, we celebrate Pohela Boishakh or the first day of the Bengali month of the New Year. The indigenous people of Bangladesh, specifically the ones in Chittagong Hill Tracts, have their own festivities that coincide with Pohela Boishakh. However, the intriguing part is that there is no single way of celebrating the New Year. In fact, of the thirteen tribal groups located there, each has its own way of welcoming the upcoming year.

Tribal Groups and their Celebrations:
The largest tribal group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Chakmas, along with the Marmas and Tripuras celebrate Boishabhi. As a matter of fact, the name itself, Boishabi, is derived from the names of the three major festivals celebrated by the aforementioned tribal groups: Boishu from the Tripura community, Shangrai from the Marma one and Bi from Bijhu celebrated by the Chakmas. Every year, from the 12th to the 14th of April, Boishabi is celebrated with pomp and grandeur by the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, namely the regions of Bandarban, Khagrachori and Rangamati. However, Boishabi is more than just an act of celebration for the ethnic community. It is a quest for spirituality as the tribal people bid farewell to the miseries of the previous year and usher in the New Year amidst joy and anticipation. Each indigenous group has its own distinct way of enjoying the festivities with a few overlapping rituals or traditions.

Beginning on the last day of the Bengali month of Chaitra, Bijhu is a holy festival of the Chakmas, and is celebrated over the span of three days.
On the first day, young girls clean out their houses, and collect flowers, leaves and roots of different plants from the forest as part of a ritual known as “FulBijhu”.  The second day is known as “MulBijhu”, when the domesticated animals are released from captivity and fed. The Chakmas then gather around a temple and chant the name of Buddha, before entering the holy place (known as Kyangs) to hand over their offerings and light candles. Finally on the third day of the festival, “Goijja-Poijja”, fowls and pigs are slaughtered for a massive feast, where the whole family takes part. Soon afterwards, the Chakmas observe a period of rest, after days of taking part in meticulous celebrations.
Bijhu has its own form of entertainment, where dance and musical performances regale the audience, and instruments like Hengrong and Dhudhuk (varieties of flute) are played.
The festival also has its own special dish, Pazon, which is prepared using thirty different vegetables, and offered to the guests. The significance of this food item is that it is believed to ward off diseases in the upcoming year.

The Tripuras wake up from slumber at the crack of dawn to decorate their houses with floral arrangements. The animals, including livestock like cows and goats, are adorned with flowers as well. Rice grains are scattered all over the ground as food to the birds. On the first day of the New Year, known as “Harboishu”, the Tripuras carry out ceremonies to pay respects to flora and fauna, as well as animals including insects and birds to appease their deity, “Goriaya”.
In the next ceremony, the elderly people are bathed and gifted with clothes. This ritual is believed to bring luck for the next year. The youngsters on the other hand rejoice by holding traditional dance performances and travel from village to village, entrancing people with their perfectly synchronized moves.

The Marmas begin their celebrations with prayers by offering “Jolpuja”, which roughly translates into “worship of water” as water is considered to be a holy symbol synonymous with respect, future prosperity and blessings from the deity. This is followed by the popular water game, “Shangraine”, where young girls and boys splash each other with water. This is performed to wash away the miseries of the past year, and cleanse oneself in anticipation of the New Year. Apart from that, this ceremony is also used as a platform for young boys and girls to express their love interest.
In the culinary aspect, Marmas spare no expenses as they prepare a feast fit for royalty, in a menu ranging from savory to sweet dishes, including cookies.

The different ethnic groups also arrange for wrestling matches, known as Bolikhela, which is a form of martial art traditionally played in Chittagong. “Boli” is a Bengali word that refers to a powerful person and “khela” simply translates to game. Apart from that, other types of games known as “GhilaKhela” are also organized by different communities, where people from all age groups and communities take part.
The tribal groups also look forward to the alcoholic drinks on offer this time of the year, which includes beverages such as “dochoani”, “jogorah” and “kanji” specially made for the Boishabi festival.
Certain communities also bring out processions before the ceremonies begin, where people of all ages and from all walks of life take part.

Though each community has its own distinct rituals, the shared joy is evident everywhere. The Boishabi festival is highly inclusive and encourages people from every creed, race and social standing to join in the celebrations, and take part in the enjoyment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Choitro Shonkranti

Subah Shaheen

Since the Mughal period, us Bengalis have our very own calendar which begins on the first day of Boishakh or Pohela boishakh and ends on the last day of Choitro, popularly referred to as Choitro Shonkranti. Choitro Shonkranti is the last day of the Bengali calendar and a time of great celebration for the Bengali community worldwide. On this day, people bid goodbye to the old year and enthusiastically wait to welcome the new one. Choitro Shonkranti celebrations are popularly referred to as, ‘‘Borsho Boron,’’ celebrations because they are aimed at welcoming the new year with all its associated new beginnings.  

Choitro Shonkranti falls on the 13th of April each year and is an age old festival of rural Bengal. Bangladesh is a multi-religious country and though festivals bring together people from all walks of life, due to the religious significance of the day for certain groups, the way people celebrate the day differs. However, on the whole, Choitro Shonkranti is a day when celebrations are widespread throughout the nation and the energy exhaled is palpable.
Historical Importance
Emperor Akbar made the Bengali calendar to make tax collection easier. Previously, a lunar calendar was followed which did not complement the harvest system causing the farmers to face severe difficulty in paying taxes. The new calendar introduced was a solar one and made life a lot easier for the taxpaying citizens as it corresponded with the agricultural cycle. Akbar ordered all dues to be settled by the last day of Choitro and the businessmen would lock away their ‘’halkhatas’’ or financial records book on that day. Choitro Shonkranti would thus signify an end to the taxpaying year by the people of Bengal and North India; the landlords would distribute sweets to their tenants and an air of festivity would spread throughout. Fairs and events would be organized by the villagers and the hardworking peasants would finally have the freedom to enjoy themselves. The day was also celebrated as a harvest festival in rural areas as rabi crops were ready for reaping. Though the calendar currently followed in Bangladesh has been slightly altered by ex president H M. Ershad, the day continues to be as monumental to the Bengali culture as it had been in the time of the Mughals.

Religious Significance

The sun enters Pisces sign on Choitro Shonkranti and is considered a very auspicious day for Hindus and a significant one for Buddhists. In Bangladesh, Buddhists get an optional holiday on this occasion as it corresponds with their religious calendar while Hindus consider the day favorable for religious activities such as deity worship, fasting, meditation, pilgrimage, holy bath etc. Prayers for wisdom, peace and good luck for the upcoming year are organized with the hope that all misfortune and ill luck will end with the current one. Charity is thought to be most highly rewarded on the day and so is done wholeheartedly by the religious community. Food, apparel and money are donated to the less fortunate who find their lives made brighter due to the special occasion.

Celebration in the cities
On this joyous occasion, men and women adorn themselves in bright traditional outfits and the fairer sex often put on color coordinated jewelry as well. Radio stations play songs based on this theme and several articles and television shows are produced as a tribute to this glorious part of Bengali culture.  The history and heritage of Bangladesh is celebrated with grandeur and excitement on the occasion of Choitro Shonkranti.  ‘’Rabindrasangeet,’’ fills the air of Dhanmondi’s ‘’Rabindra Sarobar,’’ and other cultural centers. Under the guidance of eminent Tagore singer Rezwana Chowdhury Banya, a special cultural program is organized on Choitro Shonkranti as well as Pohela Baishakh almost every year. The occasion of these back to back celebrations allows artisans the opportunity to display their talent as well. Streets, buildings and public places are decorated, especially using the traditional ‘’alpona.’’ Dhaka University’s Charukola becomes a place of interest as the art students create colorful masterpieces every year on this special occasion. Kite flying festivals and other cultural competitions are organized as well to mark the significant day.

Celebration in the villages
With that being said, the true extent of the grandeur of Choitro Shonkranti is actually felt in the rural areas of Bangladesh. In the cities, Pohela Boishakh still towers over Choitro Shonkranti in terms of importance but in the villages, both these aspects of our culture are celebrated with equal vigor. That is perhaps because Choitro Shonkranti is primarily a harvesting festival and the joy of a fresh harvest is most strongly felt in the villages by the people who have toiled day and night for the crops to grow properly. This day symbolizes success and safety to the rural population and everyone goes all out to celebrate. Fairs are arranged where people create special handicrafts to be sold and various forms of entertainment ranging from snake charmers to ‘’jatra,’’ or theater performances fill the day with happiness and excitement. Special food items are made on the occasion such as fish cooked in banana leaf, pumpkin tarts etc, and the whole family feasts together amid cheerful conversations and a relaxing sense of serenity. The excitement of celebration infuses temporarily into the simplicity of rural life and Choitro Shonkranti continues to be a source of great festivity to the villagers, holding true to its centuries-old position.

The conclusion of any matter is a time for personal reflection and philosophical musing. Choitro Shonkranti, being the end of the year, unites us Bengalis by a unanimous feeling and blankets over us the need to reflect on the past and create resolutions for the future. In Bangladesh, a committee has been formed to supervise the activities that take place on this special day. The celebrations and the festivities all symbolize the importance of the occasion of Choitro Shonkranti, when we bid adieu to the previous year and hope that we will have even more experiences to be grateful for by the time this special day returns to us the following year.