photos by Internet
MONSOON heralds the awakening of the parched earth with deafening thunders and soothing rain. As the droplets descend upon the ground, the serpentine waterways overﬂow with life after the harsh and dry affair with the unforgiving summer sun. There through the riverine land, glides vessels that connect the people and the places of this country. Tales of sailors, wanderers and ordinary people on their voyage pervade the music and literature of Bangladesh signifying their treasured importance in the culture.
The means of water transportation have contributed to the rise of civilizations since time immemorial. They evolved through the ages both in terms of function and aesthetics. The design and purpose of these vessels speak not only of the lifestyle of the people who build them but also symbolize their taste and skills. Even the endearing names of the boats express the intimate relationship the people have with these vessels and their watercraft. The names of various types of Bangladeshi boats are sampan, goyna, moyurponkhi, bojra, balar, podi, dingi, panshi, ubori, kosha, kathami etc. The native designs of these boats are mainly categorized into three groups: ﬁshing, cargo and passenger. Traditionally, these boats are made of wood by carpenters who have little to no formal education yet make accurate and exquisite measurements and design using skills learned through apprenticeship. Commonly used timbers are from local trees like jarul, sal, sundari, and Burma teak. Just as with most native crafts, traditional boat building is also facing a scarcity of demand and progress due to the use of faster but less appealing modern motorized boats.
Sampan is the gracefully crescent shaped boat from the Chittagong area that is made to tackle the giant waves of the sea. This particular boat has been greatly depicted in Bengali music and literature. One such beloved classic song is, ‘Ore sampanwala/ Tui amare korli diwanaa’. Bojra was the choice for recreational activities for the rich merchants and landlords of Bengal. With a house like structure built on the deck, this type of boats was large and had comfortable feasts and lodging facilities. These boats are highly romanticized and often featured in folklore and literature. Moyurponkhi was another regal boat made for aristocrats. Beautiful with the bow shaped like a peacock, these boats usually had two sails and four oarsmen to navigate.
Panshi, also known as naiori boats, are passenger boats with chhoi or covered resting space. Popular in the old days for visiting mama bari or uncle’s place, this boat is classically associated to the hopeful yet dolorous image of carrying brides to the long awaited visit to their parent’s house lovingly called naiori. Dingi boats are perhaps the most commonly sighted boats in Bangladesh. Small and often with a single sail, these boats are used on a daily basis for crossing rivers for various purposes. Podi boats, usually seen in the Khulna region, are large merchant boats with huge sails that are used for carrying large amount of goods and products. Balar is identical in structure to Podi with two sails and are used for the same purpose in the Kushtia region.
No account of river boats in Bangladesh is complete without the mention of racing boats used for the beloved game of nouka baich. Organized with great pride and festivities in the old days by royals and aristocrats, the game of nouka baich is still celebrated in the rivers of Kishoreganj and Buriganga area, albeit with lacklustre settings and enthusiasm. Narrow with length as long as 150 feet, and guided by over 70 people, these boats are made for speed and agility with daring and attractive names like ponkhiraj, jhorer pakhi, dipraj, sonar tori etc.
Despite their obvious relevance throughout the year, monsoon is the season when these vessels unfurl their sails and unhook the oars to become the lifeblood of the land. The verdant greenery and the azure depth of the rivers and lakes in this season tug at the heartstrings of sailors and visitors as they make their journey across the water. In the yesteryears, the quiet wait to reach the destination was accompanied by the boatman’s enchanting tune of bhatiali, murshidi or marfoti songs. Strongly rooted to their lyrical colloquialism, these songs spread through the horizon playing along the splashing waves as a reminder of the true Bengali heritage.
These ballads are a testament to how much nature plays a part in the emotionality of music as they are sung with slow, heartfelt sentimentality of heartbreak and separation beneath the melancholy of the morose monsoon sky. Similarly, the spirited boat races of nouka baich tear across the water with sharigaan that thrums with the beats of joy and the will to conquer, roaring like the thunderous passion of the season. However, today the cruel and obnoxious sound of motorized boats has silenced the soulful tune of the boatmen. Yet, the melodies of the heart are inseparable from the life in these beautiful and functional water vessels of Bangladesh. Likewise, the many varieties of these boats articulate the fanciful, experimental and entrepreneurial core of the people of this land so ingrained in the culture are their story.
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