• Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Freedom in the air

Special Feature

Bayya jao re, okul doriyar majhe

By M H Haider
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

The boatman unties the rope from the 'ghat'. He takes the oar and pushes onto the ground with it, pushing the boat away from the shore. We are set for sail.

Villages in Bikrampur are connected by an intricate canal. Although roads have been built, monsoon makes the canal a favoured commute. Innumerable country boats sweep by it every day -- transporting people, animals, crops, goods.

Mine is a tiny and old one. And with it I set forth to understand country boats -- from the different types to the carpenters who make them.
“O majhi bayya jao re
Okul doriyar majhe
Amar bhanga nau re majhi
Bayya jao re”

Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

Kosha is ubiquitous. In Bikrampur, the words 'kosha' and 'nouka' are used almost interchangeably. 'Nouka' means boat. 'Kosha', a kind of boat, is simple in its formation: they are flat-bottomed and do not have an elaborate bow or stern.

The non-mechanised boats you see on the lakes in Dhaka and on the Buriganga River are, generally speaking, 'kosha' or 'dingi'.

Terminology and typology are very complicated indeed. There are hundreds of different kinds of country boats in Bangladesh, including 'sampan', 'ghasi', 'kunda' (hollowed palm tree), 'balam', etc. Many are region specific. Many are made considering the roughness or gentleness of the water bodies.  

There are those that have a spoon-shaped hull and those that have a flat bottom. There are those that have elaborate and grand bows (like that of ‘sampan’) and there are simple ones. Sometimes, boats have a simple compartment, best described as 'chhauni' in Bangla. The purpose is to have a private room for the passenger, so that he can take rest or that he does not have to sit directly under the sun.

Many fishermen spend weeks in the boat. The 'chhauni' works as a makeshift home.

On the other hand, 'bojra' is a large, luxurious boat once used by zamindars. The boat can contain a bedroom and a living room, complete with all the necessary furniture.   

Meanwhile, my little boat is sailing through the canal to reach another village, where there are several workshops making boats. Navigating a non-mechanised boat is not an easy job. The oar may be heavy, especially when it is wet. Turning the boat or making it move forward seems to be simple physics -- and it is -- but it is one that uses up a lot of energy.

Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

Boats are designed in ways that attempts to maximise efficiency. The 'pal' (or sail) for example, is a large fabric supported by a mast that is used to capture wind and navigate the boat in its direction.

The boat finally reaches and 'parks' in a ghat. On land, we find several small workshops making 'kosha nouka'. Many of these workshops are located the meadows of the carpenters' homes. Woodwork requires adequate space. Often, a small room is kept just to store wood of different sizes and shapes. Wood is the most commonly used material to make Bangladeshi county boats.

“Timber and Burmese teak are among the many different types of wood that can be used,” informed Rakesh Mondol, a carpenter. “Koroi wood is a common and a cheaper substitute.”

It requires about a day to make a small boat. But with teamwork, which is evident in boat carpentry, the time can be reduced.

Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

The Mondol family, just like many other carpenters, has been in the boat making business for generations. Ratan Mondol, Rakesh's father, said, “I learned the skills of boat making from my father, who has learnt from his father.”
The process of making a boat follows several steps. Planks, measuring tapes, ropes, hammers and nails lie here and there. From picking the right pieces of wood to sizing them to attaching them together with nails to producing a smooth finish, requires a lot of measurement, focus and physical strength.

Topon Kumar, a carpenter from another workshop, explains the financial aspect. “A small boat can require around Tk.2500 to build,” he informed. “Meanwhile, a boat will be priced around Tk.5000. But the prices vary a lot. There are times when this same boat will be priced Tk.2500, hardly making a profit. Sometimes, we can charge as much as Tk.8000.”

Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

Where do Topon and Rakesh sell their boats?“ Tuesday is 'haat bar' for boats in our cluster of villages,” one of them related. “The market settles in a large field. Hundreds of boats fill the field, where we sell them to retailers and final consumers alike.”

For Pradeep and many others like him, building boats is a seasonal business. The focus turns to carpentry of other products, such as making furniture, designing or making doors and windows, etc. during off-seasons.
After visiting the workshops, we again start sailing. This time, the goal is to maze our way out of the canal and venture into the Padma River.

Several trawlers emerge.
“Contrary to what might be expected these are not mechanised ocean-going fishing boats, but rather cargo-carrying country boats fitted with an in-board diesel engine,” wrote Eirik G. Jansen and others in The Country Boats of Bangladesh, a publication of The University Press Limited (UPL). “They were given the name in Bengali because licenses for importing diesel in-board engines were originally issued on the condition that they were fitted to conventional trawlers...”

Indeed, other than fishing trawlers, there are recreational trawlers too. But traditionally, trawlers are meant to be mechanised fishing boats. Trawls are fishing nets that are pulled along the bottom or at a specified depth of a water body.   

Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

The closer you get to the river, the busier the canal gets. Traders and seamen arrive and leave everyday at the junctions -- in search of sea fish and for transporting goods and passengers to far off regions.
Inland waters are gentle. When you are at sea or river, you need a tougher vessel.

My little boat tosses to and fro. A stronger county boat is required. I retreat from my journey.
And there are several country boats that won over seas. With daring boatmen and intelligent and intuitive carpenters, Bangladesh has a rich selection of country boats – an integral part of our heritage.


Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel

Published: 12:00 am Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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