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Chitmorong Pilgrimmage

Chitmorong was the Buddhist hamlet where I had wanted to attempt to find a bed when our bus had stranded us on the side of a river. Before Yann and I had agreed on it, we were picked up by a bus and swept away to Rangamati (as had been the plan before being abandoned by the bus driver). Now we wanted to attempt to visit the village before returning leaving the area and heading back to Dhaka.

We had abandoned the idea of getting there by boat, but we knew we could catch a bus heading to main city of Chittagong and get off along the highway from where we would be able to get to Chitmorong. So this is what we decided to do. We would never have known to get off had we not been in the company of a Bangladeshi Navy officer who spoke some English AND had visited a Canadian ship in Hong Kong. We added his address and cell phone number to our ever growing list, if we ever got into trouble we now had at least half a dozen people to bail us out.

From the side of the highway, we found the stair case leading to a small dock where we paid a few takas to be rowed across the river. Once in the small village we quickly identified the beautiful wooden temple and stood around its outer courtyard with our huge packs, dripping in sweat, not really knowing what to do next. A few teenage monks passed us and giggled, saying hello once they were at a safe distance from us then bursting into further laughter. We still had a long day of travel ahead of us so we felt tempted to just poke around and head back to the bus stop across the river. The village was so quiet, beautiful and tiny, but somehow we were disoriented. Maybe it was the contrast with most of the rest of Bangladesh that threw us off. Before giving up returning to the river a young monk finally approached us and offered to show us around. He turned out to be a visitor himself, as were many of the people we subsequently met at the larger temple. As Chitmorong is home to one of the largest temples in the area, monks and Buddhist pilgrims from surrounding areas and smaller monasteries come to worship and meet the senior monks. Visiting women were beautifully dressed and made-up, and all had their own baskets in which to carry offerings to the temple and monks. We were led to the large new "modern" temple a little bit further into the village. Although not an architectural gem, it benefited from thick concrete walls to keep the heat out, and it seemed that most of the village made us of the main hall in the hot afternoons. Yann and I were terribly embarrassed when we were ushered past all the actual pilgrims to the front of the hall to meet the head monk. As locals offered up relatively large sums of money and other offerings, we were offered cakes, fresh fruit and soda (other people's previous offerings perhaps?). We sat and ate under the nose of the entire village and the old monk looking down on us carefully perched on his seat. We were anxious to leave, but we didn't know how long we should kneel. We watched other pilgrims around us placed money at the monks feet during their bow, and tried to emulate them. We tried to look pious and serious but neither of us knew what we were doing "you do it", "no you do it", "Is this enough?"... Of course, no one around us seemed to be as bothered by our presence there as we were.

After a few minutes we exited the temple with our young guide and joined the small crowd of villagers and pilgrims gathered outside in the shade. We were introduced to his family, a large group of men and women, who we understood later to simply be other inhabitants of his small village, making the size of the group slightly less impressive. After a few family photos, our guide, along with his fellow villagers rushed back down to the river to catch their boats home. We were left in a small riverside tea stall where we sat for a drink and to plan our return back to the big city.

Next to us was a young man who had been next to us at the temple, kneeling silently while we ate offerings. Judging by his facial features, he was Bengali, so his presence at a Buddhist temple was a little bit of a curiosity to us (less than 1% of Bengalis are Buddhist or Christian). I can't recall who initiated conversation, but we ended up sitting together, sharing tea and discussing onward travel. Suman spoke English quite well and when we left insisted on paying for our tea. Suman explained that he was from a village near Chittagong, where there was no Buddhist Temple where he could worship. We didn't push too hard, it appeared as though his family might be the only Buddhists in his village.

Suman stood out from people that we had met on our travels, he spoke with such honesty and frankness. It is difficult to explain why he marked us so much. Among thousands of meetings with locals from dozens of different countries, it often seems difficult to get passed the typical curiosities that we have for each other. Suman seemed to know exactly where we were coming from, and was more interested in our reflections on life than the weather in Canada or whether we approved of sex before marriage.

On Suman's suggestion, the three of us hired a boat all the way to Kaptai, which was only a few kilometers down river. The sun was excruciating out on the river but could only slightly detract from the surrounding scenery. Along the banks of the river we passed groups of bathers, clothes washers and even a few brave fishermen anchored in the few shady spots along the water. Within half an hour we were wandering the streets of Kaptai, heading to the bus stand. Within sight of the buses we were intercepted by an English speaking gentlemen who introduced himself as a government official, a self-proclaimed mayor of sorts. He was adamant that we take a tour of beautiful Kaptai before even considering stepping on a bus to Chittagong! We had a train to catch, and Suman clearly wanted to get home (to make matters worse was now carrying my heavy backpack), but it was impossible to turn down such enthusiasm. After all, Kaptai was the home of Bangladesh's only hydro electric project.

The contrast between Chitmorong and Kaptai was striking. The rows of shacks that led from the docking area to the main street were squalid, and the main street was not much better. The town was a seedy military base and there really was nothing for us to see. We were prevented from taking photos of the only somewhat decent view due to the presence of the Kaptai Dam in the photo. We did at least attract the attention of a sweet journalist who popped out of his office to be photographed with us and to exchange e-mail addresses as we passed by (the photos were in our inbox by the time we next had access to internet). Our guide was however becoming increasingly annoying, asking us for gifts, and parading us around town like trophies while Suman exhaustedly lugged my bag around (his pride was no match for the heat though, and he eventually let me take my bag back).

We had now drawn enough attention to ourselves to be summoned into the nearby military office, where luckily, the bored soldiers simply wanted to get in on the excitement. Our small tour of Kaptai had now been dragged out much longer than we had wanted, and we finally managed to say escape from with "the mayor", the journalist and the soldiers. Suman got us onto a direct bus to Chittagong and waved goodbye, once again we were parting ways with a stranger who had gone out of his way to help us, this time it felt like we were leaving an old friend.

Note: After a little bit of research back home, we discovered that Suman is a member of the Barua Buddhist community. For a short article on the Barua you can click here .

1 comment:

Jean said...

Very nice.The Sumans in our travels are what we should hope to be to others in theirs.