“Nice Cup of Tea Sir?”
Bangladesh has a nascent tourist industry truly in its infancy where foreign visitors are quite a rare sight. This has the effect of presenting the visitor with a truly raw experience, free from the vagaries of crowded sites and the banal tourist tat sales pressures of more sophisticated visitor orientated destinations. In contrast to its large neighbour India, where world class architectural monuments are abundant, in comparison the vast majority of Bangladesh’s impressive architectural heritage has sadly failed to withstand the ravages of time. Bangladesh has far less in terms of cultural experiences and tourist infrastructure and is in some ways the antitheses of its more glamorous neighbour. What Bangladesh does offer in common with India is a fantastic cuisine, amazingly friendly people and a true third world seductive experience.
A Brief History
For much of its short history, the modern day country we know today as Bangladesh has been a part of greater India and was known prior to independence as Bengal.
The seminal signs of organised settlement in the region date back to the period around 2000 – 1000 BC. The earliest recorded mention of the region is in the 9th century BC Hindu literary epic Mahabharata, which records the conquest by Prince Bhima of eastern India, encompassing the geographic area that is modern day Bangladesh.
The great Indian Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) established Buddhism as the dominant religion of Bengal, Buddhism flourished until the arrival of the Muslims in the 12th century AD. Under Muslim rule Bengal broached a new era: cities expanded rapidly, palaces, forts and mosques were constructed. The advancement of infrastructure and trade brought an increased prosperity to the region.
Following the defeat of the Bengali sultan Daud Karrani by the Mughal army under the command of Akbar in 1575, Bengal became a province of the expansive Mughal Empire. The next 150 years were a golden age in the sub- continent under the Mughals, buildings of the most majestic beauty were constructed across the region including the Taj Mahal in Agra. It was during this era that a small provincial town named Dhaka emerged to become the Mughal capital of Bengal.
The 18th century saw the arrival of the British who gradually gained control of Bengal, eventually extending their influence and control across all of India. The British East India Company generated trade and wealth beyond imagination making the sub-continent the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire. The British brought with them infrastructure, law and government, the legacy of which still pervades everyday life today.
At the conclusion of the Second World War Nationalism was high on the agenda, and it was apparent that European colonial rule was in its death throws. In 1947 Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of British India, presided over the partition of the subcontinent and the creation of two new states; West Pakistan in what was previously the Punjab and East Pakistan from what was formerly Bengal. In 1971 a truculent war broke out between East and West Pakistan, by the November of that year the whole of East Pakistan was under the yoke of an occupying army. By mid- December with the intervention of the Indian army West Pakistan was defeated, and into the chaotic void that remained the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh was born.
Since independence the country has endured political twists and turns, lurching through bouts of democracy and military intervention. Economically the world’s eighth most populous nation struggles to erase the twin blights of poverty and rampant corruption. Dogged with overpopulation and a propensity for natural disasters, it is no surprise that Bangladesh struggles to make headway in the modern world.
This adventure commences as we arrive at Dhaka airport, immediately you are plunged into third world chaos as all the senses are totally assaulted by the maelstrom of human activity. Dhaka’s roads are no less chaotic, the 6km drive from the airport to the hotel takes an hour and a half as our bus battles with seemingly thousands of bicycle rickshaws, tuc tucs, animals and other vehicles all fighting for their inch of road space.
Our city tour of Dhaka commences at the National Parliament Building, completed in 1982 the building frequently features in publications on modern architecture. This unusual structure, constructed entirely from concrete, is a melange of cylindrical and rectangular box configurations, punctuated with bold circular and triangular aperture window openings.
The highly colourful Dhakeswari Temple is the most important Hindu place of worship in Bangladesh. The original building dates to the 12th century, but the current structure relates to a much later date having undergone numerous repairs and reconstruction over time. Offerings of flowers and incense brought by devotees attenuate the spiritual atmosphere of the temple.
Lalbagh Fort is Dhaka’s showpiece attraction, completed in the late 17th century this is a magnificent example of Mughal architecture. Built to impress this is a supreme example of the architecture of power. Rectangular in plan, contained within its fortified perimeter are a number of splendid monuments surrounded by carefully manicured gardens. Lalbagh Fort is a wonderful escape from the frantic hustle and bustle of Dhaka’s chaotic streets; it also offers endless scope to indulge the pleasures of people watching and presents numerable advantageous photographic opportunities. Here is where local families come for a day out, to immerse themselves in their country’s history and to avidly photograph themselves against the magnificent architectural backdrop.
Flowing sedately through the centre of Old Dhaka, the Buriganga River is the artery of not only the city, but the nation itself. A boat trip on the river offers a tranquil escape from Dhaka’s congested and chaotic thoroughfares. Partaking of tea and biscuits on board as the boat gently drifts past the sites of Dhaka is the most pleasant way to spend a few hours; a chance to recharge the batteries.
A visit to the Liberation War Museum is an extremely moving and emotional experience. The displays include a collection of graphic photographs and video presentations depicting the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistan army during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. This short lived conflict resulted in the deaths of around 3 million people. Although a visit here cannot be exactly top of your list of happy holiday experiences, it is somewhere that demands your attention if you are to fully appreciate the background history of this country.
Bangladesh has over 5,000 garment factories and is the second biggest exporter of garments after China, much of their clothing production can be found in our high street stores here in Britain. Alongside the micro-finance of small businesses and the export of manpower – Bangladeshis working abroad in countries such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia – these comprise the three biggest sectors of the Bangladesh economy.
Srimangal is the tea growing capital of Bangladesh, the town and its surroundings are home to numerous large tea estates. Threading through the estates and local villages are a network of lanes that are ideal for exploration by cycle. Having said that, given the condition of the roads, the manic traffic and the state of the cycles, death by cycling was a close companion throughout this adventure. Taking a break for some obligatory tea tasting in one of the estates along the way is a welcome respite from the heat and the physical exertion.
Stopping at a local market is always an interesting distraction during a long day travelling on the road. Breaking our trip at a banana market was just that and much more. Alighting from our bus we brought the entire market to a standstill as the locals came to see – what is quite obviously a pretty unusual event in Bangladesh – a bus load of foreign tourists. Photo opportunities here were endless.
Travelling on the bumpy pot holed roads in Bangladesh – apparently some of the pot holes actually have sections of road between them - is a real white knuckle ride with an endless queue of lorries to overtake. The number of near misses - seemingly avoiding hitting oncoming vehicles by the width of a cigarette paper - is frightening, the best solution is to close your eyes and take a nap. Making an offering to one of the millions of Hindu gods prior to setting out on the journey might also be quite a good idea.
Situated on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, Mymensingh is a typically frenetic and overcrowded market town. Our stay in Mymensingh was instantly forgettable except for one event. Our hotel was situated in the middle of the old town and opposite a mosque. From 10pm and all through the night until 5am loud speakers boomed out as the local Imam preached – what we later found out was vitriolic radicalism – thus keeping everyone awake all night. Bleary eyed this morning we travel to the village of Haluaghat in the north of the country close to the border with India. This village is home to the minority Garo people. The highlight of our visit was when we were invited to attend a wedding ceremony. The bride and groom were attired immaculately in traditional dress. The ceremony involved music, singing and speeches made by the couple’s relatives. It was a real privilege to be given access to this special event.
Due to the annual monsoon rains Bangladesh is an extremely fertile country, producing three harvests of rice crop per year. The landscape alternates between vast expanses of crop cultivation and large areas inundated with flood water. Bangladesh is awash with rivers, 700 of them flow through this small country. The bulk of the agricultural land in Bangladesh is owned by the government, who then rent it out in small holdings for people to farm. Most of the agriculture is undertaken by hand with no mechanised machinery in sight, a scenario that would have been identical hundreds of years ago.
The delightful village of Puthia is bursting at the seams with wonderful temples, which were they situated in India instead of here in Bangladesh would be overrun with camera toting tourists. As this is not the case it’s just our small group and some local Bangladeshis with this wonderful site all to ourselves. The most impressive monument is the Govinda Temple built between 1823 and 1895. Consisting of a large square floor plan, the temple is embellished with intricately carved terracotta panels depicting scenes from the Hindu epics. The towering Shiva Temple, built in the early 19th century, is a classic paradigm of the five spire Hindu style of architecture commonly found in northern India. Inside the temple is a large black stone phallic representation of the god Shiva where devotees come to make offerings. Close by is a complex of three beautifully renovated structures - the Govinda, Gopala and Anika temples – which are wonderfully decorated with egg shell domed roofs and exquisite carved reliefs. A short distance from this temple complex is the handsomely proportioned Bagha Mosque. Built in 1523 it is a magnificent example of Muslim architecture. Rather unusual in style, it consists of a rectangular floor plan with ten small inverted cup-shaped domes on the roof. Delicate florid carvings depicting fruits, flowers and foliage adorn the ornamental exterior brick walls.
Although there is quite obviously a great deal of poverty in Bangladesh, there is very little evidence of street begging, unlike in India. This may be due to numerous factors; possibly the lack of wealthy foreign visitors, or the minimal wealth divide between the rich and poor that exists here, unlike the vast such gap that permeates Indian society.
The archaeological site of Mahasthangarh is the oldest such site in Bangladesh dating back to the 3rd century BC. Originally a fortified city, today this monument has a paucity of ancient structures remaining, just the outline foundations of long disappeared buildings hint at its rich historical past. The main part of the site is the citadel which contains meagre traces of the ancient city. The site is enclosed by a perimeter wall extending around the site for 1.5Km on each side of this rectangular complex. The on- site museum is a repository of objects excavated from the surrounding area, the highlights of which are a collection of statues of Hindu gods and some terracotta panels depicting scenes from the everyday lives of this ancient city’s former inhabitants.
The last few days of this trip were blighted by national strikes, which brought the country to a standstill. Shops closed, all transport stopped, people took to the streets mounting barricades, burning cars and stoning any vehicle that attempted to bypass their road blocks. Meanwhile the police and the heavily armed army attempted to maintain order. The upshot of this was that we were confined to our hotel in the interests of safety and our intended itinerary was severely curtailed. We were informed by our guide that during the strike 4 tourists who ventured outside in a taxi against local advice, were attacked, injured and then hospitalized. In a country like Bangladesh sometimes things happen out of the blue that then define what becomes a realistic possibility or not. At the end of the day the overriding concern for personal safety and common sense has to be the prevailing factor.
As a holiday experience Bangladesh is not likely to trouble the top 10, or for that matter the top 20 of my best ever holiday list. Having said that, this country is bursting with humanity that just bulldozes the senses and engulfs the visitor in the way that only a third world country can. The heady mixture of friendly people and the wonderful food somewhat balance out the scales against the lack of world class cultural experiences and stand-out archaeological treasures. In reality Bangladesh has a long way to go before it seriously impresses the seasoned traveller.