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Country boats: Nation's ever-living emblem

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: June 27, 2019 21:19:36 | Updated: July 11, 2019 15:54:07


The season of monsoon has started making its arrival felt in the country. Like in the past, this year is no exception. According to Bangla calendar, the month is Asharh, the first of the two-month rainy season --- when the monsoon features begin to emerge. With the Bangla monsoon beginning to be in place with its age-old distinctiveness, a few spectacles draw the attention of keen observers. Apart from the big and small rivers starting to overflow their banks, low-lying 'haor' areas are getting filled with the onrush of water and becoming massive water bodies. Consequently, a generally dormant visual continues to become evident as the season progresses. The visual comprises country boats of different shapes and sizes.

For the last few decades the land's rivers have been seen filled with mechanised passenger and cargo boats. Those carrying freight for centuries have largely been replaced by engine-driven trawlers. The previously tranquill rivers keep fading out of the memory. In their place what fills the air in and around the rivers is unremitting noise pollution coming from the engine boats. During monsoon, along with the country boats serenely plying their river routes, the rivers become wider and dilute and disperse the sounds of mechanised boats. Although the country boats these days remain mostly out of sight throughout the country, the rainy season brings them out in the open in their various forms. In many areas gone under water, the small and medium boats turn out to be the only means of commuting. However, the scene doesn't invoke the old days' grand spectacle of rivers: Rows of sailboats or passenger-filled rowing boats going past village after village.

With full monsoon yet to make its onslaught on the country, boat makers are found busy day and night making boats. These vessels are meant for both long-term and short-term uses. In relatively higher areas where monsoon flooding lasts for a short duration, people look for cheap, smaller boats. They use it for commuting between villages or going to nearby towns. On the other hand, there are places which remain under water for a longer period. People living there need strongly built quality boats, so that they can use them for 2/3 monsoons. Owing to its being a river-dominant country, boats and boat-making enjoy a long tradition in Bangladesh. Though it belongs to the area of carpentry, boat-making requires a few special skills and specialisation. The expertise is passed down from one generation to another with some 'trade secret' being kept hidden within the craftsmen. Like in many boat-dependent societies, the boat-makers in some areas of the country follow some rituals before starting their work. However it's also true that with the passage of time and the increasing dominance of science, many of the customs have been discarded.  Yet the process of boat-making goes through a few phases not followed in other carpentries. The timber used in boat-making includes the types of Jarul, Shaal, Sundari and Burma Teak. In first step of the process, the wood pieces meant for making boats have to be seasoned flawlessly. In the case of low-price boats, seasoning is done without giving much thought to perfection. But those with passion for boats do not compromise the least. A few of them are found supervising personally the different steps of boat-making until the last stage, when the boats are given the coats of tar. Many people in higher areas frequently travel by country boats during monsoon. Few of them have the idea that finished boats are made to roll out into water from the nearby bank after being mounted on round logs. It is a crude form of the process used in pushing a large ship into water.

Owing to Bangladesh being a floodplain which experiences spells of regular monsoon flooding and 'haors' filled to the brim, the boats it uses are different from those plying in other parts of the world. In a broad definition, they are classed under 'Bengal boats', which do not have much similarity with the boats that operate even in different parts of the sub-continent --- not to speak of the regions of Africa or South America. 'Bengal boats' or the boats used in Bangladesh are flat bottomed. There are nearly 100 types of country boats plying in the country. The land is filled with rivers, but it is small in size. Yet the variety in its boats' shape and overall design is amazing. It becomes evident when one sees the difference between the boats used in different regions of Bangladesh. The medium-size and large boats in the country's north or northeast do not have much similarity with boats in central or coastal Bangladesh. The boats plying the Karnaphuli River in the southeast region of Chittagong are radically different from those in the central Bangladesh.

Surviving a great onslaught from the mechanised or speed boats and trawlers, different types of country boats still move about in Bangladesh. These boats are dominated by 'dingi', the oldest form of Bengal boats. All other forms of boats in the country are derived from 'dingi' in one or another way. The boats Balam, Bajra or Sampan belong to the group of Large Cargo Boats. The group of Bainkata Boats has Ghasi, Gachari, Dorakha, Kathami, Mallar, Patam and Panshi etc under it. The small boat which is found all over Bangladesh is 'kosha'. This particular easily manoeuvrable boat is omnipresent mainly in the monsoon flood-hit areas. Besides, people in the relatively elevated areas also use this boat in the years of severe flooding. Completely separate from all these boats once were the fishermen's sleek, long boats. Difficulty in keeping these boats under control in mid-river led to their replacement with smaller boats requiring smaller teams of fishermen.

Boats and rivers occupy a dominant place in the country's folk culture. Hundreds of songs, lore, operettas etc have been composed in the river-filled Bangladesh since time immemorial. Based on romance between a boatman from a different region and a young lady in another, the long wait for the return of a fiancé on the bank of a river by a lovelorn woman or the impatience of a boatman to meet his bride, all these elements comprise a rich genre of Bangla folk literature.

It seems intriguing that even in the face of an irresistibly increasing dominance of mechanised boats the manually operated country boats have left an indelible impression on the country's national psyche. Like the igloos of the Eskimos or the feathered headgear of the Native Americans, the country boats of Bangladesh are expected to last as an ever-living emblem of the nation. Like its dying rivers, the country boats or sailboats, too, can never be made to disappear altogether. Moreover, the world is now in the midst of campaigns for fighting river pollution caused by the vessels' oil seepage. Bangladesh cannot isolate itself from this global campaign.

shihabskr@ymail.com

 

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