Stage 9 – Bangladesh & India: The Hill States [1/2]
On the 25th April 2008, I leave my slice of paradise, the tropical island of St Martins, return to the mainland, and begin the long return journey back across the Indian Subcontinent. As I drive north, the hills which rise to my right represent the beginning of what is geographically, culturally and ethnically Southeast Asia, an area I’ve never had much interest in visiting. However, a tiny sliver of the hills are politically part of Bangladesh and India, and their indigenous tribal inhabitants are known as Adivasis (non-Indo Aryan tribes). In India, there are six entire states which cover this buffer-zone, but here in Bangladesh they occupy a narrow belt of north-south ridges in the east of Chittagong Division, which are known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I was drawn to these hills by the thought of jungle walks to remote tribal villages, and by their reputation as being dangerous, one which deters many foreigners from ever visiting them.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts are inhabited by indigenous Tibeto-Burman tribes, who have moved into these far-western reaches of Southeast Asia over the past centuries. At the time of partition, the area was roundly expected to be ceded to India, along with all other hill states, but the Radcliffe Line left them in Pakistan. This marked the beginning of a long period of tension between the native tribes and Bengali settlers who move up from their traditional lowland environment to farm the slopes of the jungle. Following the King of the Chakma tribe siding with Pakistan during the country’s independence struggle, tensions escalated to an outright insurgency which lasted from 1973, until a peace accord was reached in 1997. The Hill Tracts remain officially, and temptingly ‘dangerous’.
My destination for the night is the small market town of Lama, which sits on a low ridge, around twenty kilometres into the hills. The majority of the town’s inhabitants are previously landless Bengali settlers, who often clear the forest to cultivate tobacco, or engage in illegal commercial logging. There are also plenty of Southeast Asian faces here; principally members of the Marma (or Rakhine), Chakma and Mro tribes. The police, who naturally are Bengali, let me park the truck and sleep in the garden of their thana (police station). I’m not sure if it’s out of kindness or suspicion. They are certainly keen to know what I’m doing, and one of their numbers accompanies me into town in the evening.
I express an interest in seeing some of the town’s tribal people, but we rush through the area of Lama in which they live (the ‘village’, as my Bengali escort calls it), whilst he leers at the beautiful, uncovered Marma women. Soon we are at a Bengali cinema where my police host seems perplexed that I don’t wish to watch the two hours of over-amplified screeching and gratuitous violence that constitute most Bengali films. The evening is rounded-off when he orders himself dinner and cigarettes at a nearby restaurant, where I am to foot the bill.
The next morning starts off far better, as I’m given permission to move freely within the town. I go straight back to ‘the village’ and have a look round. The area is filled with very distinctive wooden houses with thick hardwood frames, elevated on stilts above the ground. The walls are usually bamboo mats, a little like Japanese tatami, but are sometimes made from hardwood planks. In larger houses, there may be a first floor balcony, and all have large sloping roofs to deal with often torrential rain. The area directly under the living quarters is often used to keep livestock in, generally pigs, or they may be used as an open, shady daytime seating area. Women play an obvious role in public here, and dress freely, wearing elegant flowery dresses and showing long, beautiful glossy-black hair. Many of the younger women are extremely attractive, and the older women, who often sit around smoking home-made cheroots or large pipes, are openly chatty.
My presence here causes some interest, though not the vacant, bovine stares which are so common, and so trying of one’s patience, here in the Indian Subcontinent. Instead, I’m introduced to a young Marma man, Maung-Maung, a Cox’s Bazaar University student who is visiting family in the village, and speaks good English. Maung-Maung and a friend of his invite me into one of these elegant houses, for a delicious lunch of fresh, crisp greens, wild potatoes and rice, and tell me a little about their people. The Marma are a branch of the greater Rakhine tribe, who hail from the state in Myanmar of the same name, having first settled in the area in the sixteenth century when the area was part of the Arakan Kingdom. They make up the second-largest tribal group in the Hill Tracts, and are almost all Buddhist.
After lunch, Maung-Maung accompanies me to the nearby town of Ali Kadam, which after initial concerns the police agree to, though I am met by four (Bengali) police officers when I arrive, three of whom are armed with sub-machine guns. It seems faintly ludicrous to walk around the peaceful villages of such warm and gentle people with a group of gunmen, but I don’t wish to push my luck at this stage, and the officers are relaxed and keep their distance. At the far end of the village, at a Buddhist monastery where children are being given a free (secular) education, I am introduced to a middle-aged man named Sawraza. He’s a Burmese ex-freedom fighter, who having seen his mother and father killed in Rakhine State in 1988, fled into Bangladesh. Although things are far from perfect here, it’s preferable to open persecution by the military junta government of Myanmar. He tells me he is a Burmese language correspondent for the BBC, and with the money he earns, he has built this school and temple for local Marma children who would otherwise not receive an education.
Maung-Maung, seeing my interest in his home region, invited me back to his family house in the village of Idgarh, a little further north from Lama towards Chittagong, and a few kilometres off the main road. Maung-Maung’s family welcome me in their large, elevated wooden house, which is made entirely from high-quality hardwood. There are three rooms inside, a long first-floor balcony, and a large shady veranda underneath. His mother cooks some local delicacies; wild pig which had been caught by hunters in the jungle, and is absolutely delicious, tortoise, which is a little like beef, and pigeon, which tastes like gamey chicken, with banana shoots and rice. In the evenings, I drink powerful locally made rice-wine with Maung-Maung’s uncle on the balcony. I can’t believe my luck.
Away from the police, I’m free to wander the village and its surroundings with Maung-Maung, and visit some nearby settlements of both Marma and Chakma tribes; kind, friendly and inquisitive tribal people. Some of the tribes in the region are matriarchal, and for the first time since leaving Russia, I’m in a society where men and women enjoy equal (though different) roles. Many of the women I meet, often smoking huge pipes filled with rough home-grown tobacco, are confident and engaging, and show none of the timidity or terror normally found in South Asian women. Despite my great affection for Asia and great respect of Asian social mores, strict gender segregation is something I have never been able to see as anything other than negative and regressive.
Local Bengalis traditionally look down upon these tribal societies, and admittedly, the Bengalis have a far longer and richer historical legacy. But I soon observe that the tribal villages I’m staying in, despite sometimes being even poorer, are more pleasant than nearby Bengali villages, or indeed any villages I’ve yet seen in the subcontinent. They are cleaner, with very little litter and no festering pools of rubbish and human excrement. There are no beggars, and no feral children rooting through garbage piles and sewers. The villagers don’t stand rigidly and stare blankly at me, and are dignified and industrious. The houses may be spartan, but they are clean and tidy. This doesn’t seem to be related to economics; people here just seem to be able to lead dignified lives within their means; real beacons in the squalid sea of the subcontinent’s tens of millions of poor. Perhaps for being comparatively simple, or not having a long contact with religion, these tribal societies have far less prejudice than their lowland neighbours; there is equality between genders, between rich and poor, educated and ignorant, disabled and able-bodied. Women can wear garments practical for work which show off their femininity, and men can go about their lives bare-chested, and may wear shorts.
Maung-Maung is a great example of this difference in mindset. As a child, he contracted polio, and was left without the use of his left arm. Traditionally, in subcontinental society, this would most likely relegate him to a life of begging. But his father, who was neither a rich nor educated man, saw that Maung-Maung was the brightest of the children and together with extended family, collected enough money to send him to university. After all the squalor and socio-religious prejudice of the last few months, being in this gentle society, communicating with both halves of the human race, eating pork, wearing shorts, I feel it’s the kind of place I could stay for a few months.
I wish, however, to make a journey deeper into the Hill Tracts, far from the main road and Bengali settlers. I don’t know how far I’ll need to go to do this, but I select Thanchi, the last town on the map, less than twenty kilometres from the Myanmar frontier, and Maung-Maung asks to accompany me as a guide. We set off in the morning, climbing steadily, through Mro villages perched on high, exposed hillsides from where they practice their traditional slash-and-burn shifting cultivation. We reach a pass at about 750 metres above sea level; quite an elevation for a country which is otherwise very nearly flat. The view from the crest is magnificent; to the west, the sky meets the Bay of Bengal somewhere in the hazy distance, while to the east is a breathtaking view of endless emerald-green ridges unfolding to a distant mountain range marking the Myanmar border.
We descend into the jungle, negotiate through the army checkpoint at Balipura, soon after which I catch a glimpse of topless Mro women walking in the jungle. A few kilometres further we reach the Sangu River, on the banks of which lies the town of Thanchi. I make my presence known to the local police, who after initial surprise are friendly and accommodating, though they clearly intend to keep a close eye on me. I’ve not felt a hint of tension in the Hill Tracts, let alone anything remotely close to danger, and I’m becoming more suspicious and resentful of the police attention. Nevertheless, I’m allowed to wander in Thanchi during daytime.
This distant jungle outpost is a hub for the surrounding villages, and boats buzz up and down the slow, muddy waters of the Sangu River, which connects the isolated hill communities. Though there is a (currently) small Bengali minority, much of the town is of local tribes, who live in traditional wooden houses. What really interests me however, are all the trails which lead out of town into the hills, to distant and isolated hill villages.
To that end, the following morning, Maung-Maung and I slip out of the thana on the pretences of going for breakfast, then sneak off into the jungle, climbing in the growing heat up the steep, dry hillsides. The traditional slash-and-burn agriculture which the tribes practice leaves patches of the jungle burnt and naked, but never over-exploits a particular area beyond regeneration; a truly sustainable way of life. We climb up and down ridges on well-worn paths for around two hours, until we reach a Mro village. The first reaction of the children, who are playing in the cleared area between the houses, is to flee, screaming. I feel like a real Victorian explorer; for all I know, I might be the first European they’ve ever set eyes upon.
The Mro are perhaps the oldest of the tribes inhabiting these hills, but they are, for want of a better word, often quite primitive. We approach one of the village houses, into which many of the children fled, and meet the woman of the house, Tsiumrho. She is also timid at first, but Maung-Maung soon reassures her that we are just curious visitors. The house is made from bamboo canes around a simple wooden frame, with walls of woven bamboo-leaf. Inside the house is nothing modern, with the exception of a gas lamp and a few bars of soap. On a shelf are two dry, blackened cow heads. The family use hollowed-out gourds to store water, and banana leaves for fans. She complains that there are large numbers of rats this year, which will eat the rice and vegetable crops, particularly when the rainy season begins, during which the crops cannot be harvested. In the house are no instruments of timekeeping; no clocks or calendars. Some Mro tribes, such as this family perhaps, have no concept of time, other than the passing of the seasons.
Although a few Mro have adopted aspects of Buddhism or Christianity, they are overwhelmingly Animist, worshiping three deities; Turai, the creator, Sangtung, the spirit of the hill, and Oreng, the river deity. Their mythology, the Mro say, goes some way to explain why they are culturally quite simple, in a story as follows: God sent the Mro ancestors their scriptures, written on banana leaves, along with clothes for their women to wear. The messenger however, paused to bathe in a river on his journey, only to find on his return to the riverbank that his divine luggage had been consumed by a cow. The sacrifice of a cow, in the annual Kumulong, or ‘cow stabbing festival’ is an act of revenge upon the hapless beast which caused them to be without a formal religion, and their women traditionally half-naked. The cow heads in this family’s house are, I imagine, something akin to a souvenir from past Kumulongs. Interestingly, a new religion seems to be emerging among the Mro, known as Cranna, though with its emphasis on a single god, and weekly prayers on Sundays, many see this as an insidious type of proto-Christianity planted by missionaries who have traditionally had little success with the Mro.
After this interesting break, we trek further into the jungle, looping round towards the river, and encounter a small Marma village of houses made entirely from bamboo canes. A number of male voices can be heard from one of the elevated bamboo dwellings, and after making some enquiries Maung-Maung signals that we’ve been invited in. In the single-roomed, elevated bamboo hut are half a dozen Marma men, who invite us to join their dinner of bamboo shoots, prawns, banana plant, wild potatoes and rice. One of the men is another former freedom fighter from Myanmar, who fled across the border in 1979, leaving behind a family with whom he no longer has contact. They are extremely surprised to see me here, and tell me that it was just three kilometres from here that a Bengali NGO worker was kidnapped (though later released unhurt) last year by ‘hill men’. In response, the Bangladeshi Army arrested the entire male population of a nearby Mro village, four of whom have never been released. I later heard from Joyanta (my host in Dhaka) that the entire incident was staged by the Army. It seems clear that the country’s authorities are keen to maintain the dangerous reputation of the Hill Tracts in order to keep outsiders away. It’s a convenient cloak for the continuing encroachment of lowland settlers and their destructive agricultural practices into these tribal lands, which the government seems to do little to stop. I ask the men their opinion of their neighbours. They tell me that they live with, and respect the Mro, though they admit, with little prejudice, that the Mro are uneducated and backward. On their Bengali neighbours however, they are clear: ‘They are taking our land’.
Returning to Thanchi in the late afternoon, we’re in a spot of trouble with the police, and I’m assigned a guard who watches over me all evening as I strike my tent and prepare to retire for the night, saying hotly ‘You no reporting to thana!’ every time I catch his gaze. A huge, distant cumulonimbus rises above the hills of Myanmar to the east, its towering head illuminated in flashes of pink, silent lightning. I lie back and cherish the day’s experiences; my forbidden view of what may be a fast-vanishing way of life.
In the morning I’m woken by the azan (Muslim call to prayer), normally a beautiful sound echoing at dawn through the great cities of the Islamic world, it sounds out of place in this remote jungle town. Maung-Maung and I leave in the morning, heading towards the district capital of Bandarban. On the way, we stop in a Bawm village to eat a jackfruit, a huge, spiky, green-yellow fruit, the interior of which consists of a delicious, slightly slimy flesh which tastes like something between a mango and a pineapple, one of the best tasting fruits I have ever eaten. Bandarban is a hectic, uninteresting place filled with Bengali settlers, but just beyond the northern outskirts of the town lies a striking piece of Buddhist architecture, the Burmese style Buddha Dhatu Jadi, or Golden Pagoda. I’m welcomed here by an English-speaking Chakma monk, who, after my expressing an interest in his beliefs, tells me a little about Buddhism.
For the first time, I hear someone talking about their religion (if Buddhism may be called such) without any hint of zeal. Buddhism, he tells me, is not theo-centric, but homo-centric. It does not concern itself with speculation as to the nature of any god, but concentrates on the individual. Though many Buddhists worship the Buddha, this is not the main aim of their faith, not a path to enlightenment. The monk shows me a quote, said to come from the Buddha himself, which is perhaps the only piece of religious scripture which has really caught my eye:
‘Do not believe in anything simply because you have read it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything because it is spoken of and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But, after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it’ – The Buddha
I come away from my whole experience; meeting Maung-Maung and staying with his family, trekking out to remote jungle villages, and finally sharing thoughts with this Buddhist monk, deeply spiritually enriched. These gentle jungle communities seem to be the antithesis of all the stresses and prejudices of the subcontinent as a whole. I feel deeply privileged to have met Maung-Maung, and finally bid him farewell on the main road. He will return to his village, while I will begin my trip north, and then west across the Himalaya.