The symphony of rivers and boats of Bangladesh
Bangladesh is the largest delta in the world. The mighty rivers that flowed down from the magnificent Himalayas deposited silt and sediment over countless millennia forming the land, and that is the country we call home today. It goes without saying that the rivers have quite literally shaped the country, and subsequently its history, economy, culture, society, art and craftsmanship.
Today there are over 3,000 rivers, canals and tributaries that crisscross Bangladesh in a vast, intricate web of waterways that are the arteries of the nation, carrying everything from people to goods to the very soil that has made Bangladesh. The rivers are intertwined and woven into the lives of the people.
Given how much of Bangladesh was formed by the rivers, the vast majority of people in East Bengal were forced to move continuously as the landscape shifted. Depending on the course of the river, the water can erode the land, build up sand that cannot be farmed on, or deposit rich, alluvial sediment, thereby dictating the way of life in days past. There was always a new island or bank to find, and to farm on and cultivate while it lasted. The boats that facilitated this lifestyle, evolved to meet every need, having an indelible impact on the art and culture.
Traditionally, Bangladesh has six seasons, which once were dependable and punctual. Climate change has made that unpredictable, with the continuous, overwhelming, unpredictable impact of the movement of water and floods, cyclones and embankment breakages, along with huge demographic rise in the latter part of the last century. Living along the rivers and coastal belt started to become an impossibility; and subsequently the way of life, needs, traditions and material culture changed too.
According to folklore, a general of Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great was dissuaded from conquering the region when he noticed that the waters of the Ganges and Brahmaputra did not mix, which to him was an ominous portent. Indeed, it is a testament to the unique morphology of the landscape in Bengal since times past. Life here was never easy, but the waters provided all that was needed for a rich, fertile, agrarian way of life; till the colonial regime came and took everything away for their own agendas. It is said that Bengal, the so-called “jewel in the crown” was deprived of more than the rest of the subcontinent combined.
The specificity of the soil and movement of water was largely influential in the forms and features of the boats of Bengal. Foreign navigators found it difficult to travel upstream in Bengal, but the extant local craft were already well-honed in their purpose. Everything from the continually varying depth of the rivers, shifting tides and moving islands and diversity of communities living on and along the rivers were determining factors, that boats from elsewhere were unable to cope with. And so, the boats of Bengal met these needs, both unique and varied, to cater to the millions of people who lived on the riverlands. Each type of boat had to be perfect in their function, leading to beauty in form, having evolved from dugouts to elegant works of art and marvels of technology.
They came long before combustion engines or electric motors, but served the same functions as cars, trains and planes do today. To transport cargo, to ferry passengers, as mobile homes, as mass transit, for luxury, leisure, sport, exploration and even war. To carry grain, to carry rocks, to carry cattle, to take one passenger or dozens, prioritising space, speed, or protection. A boat for every need, unique to every region. The malar boats of the Jamuna were the freight trains of their time, just as the Panshi’s were the Jeeps, built for speed in combat, later evolving into civilian passenger carriers. The beautiful bajra’s and mayurpankhi’s were the luxury grand tourer sedans for rich aristocrats, and the pathams of Sylhet were the pickup trucks for light cargo. The baich were the sportscars, each built to its particular need, the availability of materials and the landscape of the areas they originated in, leading to a vast array. Each iteration built by hand with love and care from their craftsmen, attention to detail and a little bit of their own personality melded into each boat.
Yet till today, the only authentic documentation made of the boats, are of the Malar and Patam done by Friendship’s Cultural Preservation. The latter is extremely unique in its construction, with the skeleton essentially placed into the hull instead of the other way around. The keel is laid, along with the prow and stern, and then a shell built to connect the two. Each plank is heated over a fire before being curved into shape, then stapled together with large, steel patams, hence the name. The skeleton is then put inside and pinned to the inside of the hull. The joints are then caulked with jute or cotton, then tarred to seal them and pushed into the water to expand the wood and compress the seams. The hull is caravel-build, with each plank directly on top of the other, giving it a “smooth skin” unlike the staggered, overlapping hulls of clinker-built boats.
These patams were built for their shallow draft, light weight and manoeuvrability, and made to carry rocks for construction in and around Sylhet without running aground. The round bottom aids in being pushed off of soft mud and sediment instead of rocks like most other places in the world. The rudders of these boats are also the remnants of a time long past, magnificent in their peculiarity. Still attached to the side of the vessel, it is a testament to the age of the technology, as these side-mounted rudders are akin to the boats of the Phoenician civilisation, long before they were moved to the aft and centre.
Countless people would spend their whole lives travelling from place to place on their boats like gypsies, which is a culture quite unique to Bangladesh. That perfection was integral to their beauty, and that is now an almost-forgotten, distant memory in the culture of our people. Evolution of technology over millennia turned into mass-produced, generic boats built from steel, identical but for serial numbers in the late 80’s. After the massive flood of 1988, Chinese diesel engines were brought in for agriculture, electricity spread across the countryside, welding became popular and profitable and suddenly people realised, that even boats which were not perfectly designed and shaped would move more efficiently with the diesel engines.
Agricultural pumps were jerry-rigged into engines and generations of expertise came to a grinding halt. Gone were the beautiful sails and peace and quiet of the rivers, the beautiful silhouettes harmonised by needs of the landscape and the mood of the rivers, replaced by battered steel, and the cacophony of sputtering engines belching black smoke. Of course, economically it was a success, and it was needed, but life around the rivers changed dramatically.
There have been attempts to record the construction of the boats of the Ganges and Brahmaputra by earlier European visitors, and you can see examples of technical manuals in the archives of the Musée national de la Marine in Paris. But looking into those descriptions, we felt that many of the descriptions of the shapes and technology were those given by the carpenters of the boats, nor observed directly during construction, but rather through hearsay.
Generations of carpenters, who have passed down their knowledge and expertise through oral histories passed from father to son have been directly involved in our cultural preservation efforts, along with extensive research and practical archaeology. Our model boats, for example, are living blueprints of the construction of these traditional boats—scaled down replicas built in precise detail, using the same methods as their life-sized counterparts. They can therefore technically be reverse engineered to learn how these boats were once built. It is impossible to know how many kinds of boats existed in Bengal, but according to oral tradition it ranges somewhere between 120-140 unique sizes and silhouettes. Thus far, we have uncovered and documented 87.
People are now at the mercy of climatic events, forced to displace, pack up their whole lives and move dozens of times in a lifespan. They are bereft of access to basic rights, healthcare, education, legal protection, economic opportunities, protection from the elements and the preservation of their way of life. Their lives have been undeniably transformed to one much less romantic, and one of harsh conditions. The art, music, poetry, culture are distant priorities when they must fight every day for their own existence, but the existence of a people and their culture and traditions are inherently tied to one another.
It is in the understanding of this, that I have made my efforts to preserve culture along with everything else that I have been doing, not just for the benefit of these people, but for us. Our history, our lore, our traditions, all of which are invaluable, intangible aspects of our collective identity must be passed down to our future generations. We cannot know who we are if we forget where we came from.
Runa Khan is a Rolex Laureate, Ashoka and Schwab Fellow, and the Founder of Friendship SPO.
Bangladesh is the largest delta in the world. The mighty rivers that flowed down from the magnificent Himalayas deposited silt and sediment over countless millennia forming the land, and that is the country we call home today. It goes without saying that the rivers have quite literally shaped the country, and subsequently its history, economy,…