Probarona Purnima in Cox's Bazaar
Soi N. & Faria Shifat
Around 1.4 million indigenous people live in Bangladesh. There are almost 45 indigenous communities using 26 different languages. These communities, Garo, Mogh, Mande, Koch, Marma, Khasia, Rakhain, to name a few, live mostly in the rural areas of Chittagong Hill Tracks, Cox's Bazaar and in the regions of Mymensingh, Sylhet and Rajshahi. Indigenous communities have their own culture and lifestyle.
United Nations Human Rights Bodies, ILO, the World Bank and International Law apply three criterions to distinguish indigenous people, the first being, indigenous people who usually live within (or maintain attachments to) geographically distinct ancestral territories. They tend to maintain distinct social, economic, and political institutions within their territories. They typically aspire to remain distinct culturally, geographically and institutionally, rather than assimilate fully into a national society.
The term "indigenous" is applied to elucidate certain social communities that share comparable uniqueness a cultural and communal subsistence that is distinct from the leading or primary communities in a society. Each indigenous community regardless to its extent carries out a typical, distinctive culture and heritage on its own.
On October 22, as part of our internship assignment for Star Campus, we had the privilege to explore and experience the exclusive Rakhain Community in Cox's Bazaar - the Rakhain Polli. We attended the Rakhain Probarona Festival at the IBP field Kiang (Buddhist monastery) and the Fanush Festival at the Burmese Market local Kiang. The Probarona Purnima is the second largest festival for the Buddhists where they perform religious rituals on the days of full moon because it is stated that the most memorable events of Buddha's life took place on the days of full moon. Followers from all over the world have been observing the rituals and religious traditions on the same day for eons. On this very night of Purnima, Buddha showed the miracles of spiritual power to his followers, which is why it bears representation as a sacred festival for the Buddhists. On the morning of 22 October we went in to the kiang, where people of all ages from the entire area were present. They came to meet the current Vante (head bhikkhu of kiang) and other Vante's from other kiangs in and out of the country with the offerings of various food items. They start their day with Buddhist chants and then all pay respect to the Vante's and the Gautam Buddha figurine. After that all the Vante's sit together and eat the food, which followers have brought. Afterwards the Vante's from other monasteries start off their journey to new destination, within or beyond the border to visit other kiangs. Through a conversation with the current Vante with the help of a translator called Sha-mo, we asked him about his becoming a Vante. He told us that he was just a 12 year old boy when he had the thought of becoming a Bhikkhu and left his parents in Burma to come to this kiang.
It was his choice to leave the life of a regular person, leave behind attachments, desires and devoting himself to the convention of Buddhism. A Buddhist bhikkhu is allowed to go anywhere but return before night to a monastery unless he is on a journey. He is allowed to stay out of Kiang for maximum seven days in case of severe ill-ness related to his parents and his teacher only. As the mind mends no boundaries, Bhikkhu's can and do go anywhere from Tibet to Timbuktu in search of peace and to practice Buddhism in true sprit. Hindering from sensuous lust, aversion and ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, skeptical doubt; To concentrate, be mindful and energetic, investigate, rapture and apply equanimity is the right persuasion of Buddhism. Though he mentioned that human-mind is wobbly and might change due to time. As for himself, he always wants to lead the spiritual life and continue doing what he enjoys most spreading out Buddha's principle among the people. It took him 30 years to reach such a position which now makes him 42 years old which was quite hard for us to believe by looking at him. His divine habits and apt living has kept him young as a fresh soldier. During the discussion he also told us about the significance of Fanus (light balloon) Festival. Buddhist people believe that Buddha resides up there in the sky on the full moon night and a Fanus is taken as the symbol of wishes and hopes. Through lighting these up and sending them out in the air is more like reaching out to Buddha . As speaking of the differences of past and present day celebrations, Vante shared that in the past the younger ones were more into the religion and rituals. Now when the existence of the culture is at stake its natural they are more into changing religions or becoming less concerned about their ancestral practices. The reasons behind it came upfront when we spoke to Sha-mo's sister Ukhin, who had come with her little boy to visit Vante. Showing discontent in her voice she urged that Bengali customs and tribal customs are very different. But there is no safeguarding or fortification of tribal cultures and customs. They are bound to learn in Bengali, leaving off their own tribal languages. Hence, the younger generation lacks the strong bondage with their religion and ethnicity. Talking to a 13-year old teenager outside the temple building, as she explained that she has been coming to the temple with her parents from a very early age and she enjoys the celebrations more than the regular prayers as it allows her to dress up and meet kids her age under one roof and dance and sing aimlessly.
Due to weather calamities, we had to wait for sometime to observe the Fanus festival the next evening. By 5pm the sky was crowded by glittering light balloons. The Rakhain Polli kiang was surrounded by several booths made of paneled layers holding up Buddha figurines. All men came dressed in their best and women wearing heavy ornaments made out of gold and silver. The teenagers were busy in setting out fireworks. The older Rakhain people were fueling up the Fanus and the kids gathered around to watch. The balloons had the shape of ducks, birds, horses or huge square typographies. As each Fanus went up in the air, the people cried out loud in excitement and joy.
By 8 in the evening we were preparing to get on the 10:30 bus back to Dhaka.The happiness of knowing different culture, perceiving new dimensions of lifestyles was priceless for us. On the other hand we were faced with the mere truth of their insecurities- threat towards their own subsistence regarding their unique being. For years the aboriginal population is fighting for their survival in culture, language, education, land, shelter, recognition for equal rights and freedom to speech in the same homeland. How many of us really get a chance to speak with them and join them to say "yes, we are equal"? The number is doubtlessly small.
Bangladesh is a developing country but our fellow Bangladeshi's- the indigenous people are below the line to accessing development. Assuring a fixed quota in national university admission hasn't ensured their development till date. Neither marking them as "Adibashi" and being nice to them makes things fair . Their language, clothing, food and festivals may are differ from us but they show the same amount
of fidelity a Hindu does during Durga Puja or a Muslim does during the Eid.They state their nationality as "Bangladeshi" as we do. It should be their existence we should remember not their quantity when we assess their individuality. It should be us who should be accepting them as one of us.