Baitul Mukarram is Dhaka’s largest Mosque. It’s in Gulistan, the crossroads of old and new Dhaka. One of the most intense and chaotic parts of the city. The Mosque covers a very large square block and below it is an electronics and clothing bazaar. This photo was made twenty minutes before the rush to the late afternoon prayer. Shortly after the entire space was covered with men. It’s an unusual view with so few people present, a reflective moment.
This time last year I didn’t have a clue what to expect. The names of cities and towns on the map meant nothing to me. And of course the most important thing, the people. I’ve been in Bangladesh for nine months and am grateful to all of the people who reached out with their friendship and assistance. There are so many fond memories and much to process. To see my dedicated website of Bangladesh photographs take a look at the Bangladesh Project.
The world’s second largest Muslim pilgrimage took place in Dhaka last weekend. A congregation of three million – including over ten thousand foreign devotees from 105 Muslim countries- showed up in the northern part of the city about five miles from where I live. They came by boat, rickshaw, train and bus but mostly by foot. I’m used to crowded cities but nothing prepared me for this. The mood was very social and most of the men welcomed me with “Asalam Walekum” translated as peace be on you. Besides everyone all coming together to pray, I had the distinct feeling that this was just as much a social gathering. Giant tents were set up to provide shelter for sleeping at night and protection from the sun during the day. Men stood around gigantic vats of food and bathroom facilities had to be in place. Some people were even camping out in empty concrete slabs of building still under construction.
On the final day of this weekend long gathering I went to shoot some video and fortunately brought two of my students along. The moment the prayer ended at 1:30 the floodgates opened and everyone made a beeline back to the center of town. It was a mad rush and luckily we were towards the front of the crowd. Try and imagine a sea of a three million people for miles on end. We hitched a ride in a police truck (sincere thanks!!!) that was accompanying some VIP’s. By foot it would have taken five or six hours to reach home. Several trains passed us with what looked like thousands of people piled on the roof. Later in the day over 200 men were injured on one of those trains when passengers saw sparks on the tracks and jumped off as it was moving. Most were taken to a nearby hospital.
Fattening the family cow in preparation for Eid-Ul-Azha
In a couple of days Bangladeshi’s will celebrate Eid-Ul-Azha. I noticed that quite a few cattle markets have sprung up around town in preparation for the holiday. Muslims who can afford to will sacrifice their best domestic animals (usually sheep, but also camels, cows, and goats) as a symbol of Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) sacrifice. According to the Koran, the meat is divided into three shares, one for the poor, one for the relatives and neighbors, and the last to keep for oneself. The remainder is cooked for the family celebration meal in which relatives and friends are invited to share. The regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid-Ul-Azha by the concerted effort to see that no impoverished person is left without sacrificial food for the holiday. Eid-Ul-Azha is an affirmation of what the Muslim community ethic means in practice. People are also expected to visit their relatives, starting with their parents, then their families and friends.
A few weeks ago I met Harold Rashid and was invited to accompany him to visit his families estate in Sylhet. Harold is a renaissance man: an artist, educator, musician and recently performed in two films. In 1990 Harold founded “Anandaniketan” (Happy School) so his boys would have a place to learn without going abroad to England as he did. His sister Fahmeena currently serves as the administrative director and there are now over 700 hundred students from pre-school to the 12th grade attending. It was a heart warming experience to visit the school and see such a high level of quality and care. That same evening there was a three hour poetry recital contest in English and Bangla.
Shah Jalal Mazaar
I spent a good part of my time near Harold’s home at the Shrine of Shah Jalal, a pilgrimage site for the 14th century Sufi saint and a contemporary of Rumi. I just happened to be there on the day of his anniversary and their were thousands of his followers from all over Bangladesh. The atmosphere and music reminded me of the Lalon festival in Kustia.
Sylhet is known for being the most prosperous region of the country and contains the largest number of Bangladeshi immigrants living in England. It was calming to be outside of Dhaka…. to breath some fresh air and gaze at some of the tea estates in the area.
Acts of survival and heroism are seen everywhere here. The displaced rickshaw driver from the countryside or the mother just trying to feed her child. Bangladeshi’s bring new meaning to the word resilient. They get knocked down by cyclones, floods and other disasters and bounce back for more. With social services and healthcare almost non-existent, people like the Korean Sisters and Brothers from Kottongne are only able to serve the “lucky” few with love and laughter.
One of the Lalon’s amazing songs. Listen for the one string Ektara 45 sec. into the music.
Twice a year Bauls (similar to Sufis) from Bangladesh and India visit Kustia to honor and celebrate the living legacy of the Lalon Shah (c.1774–1890). Lalon wrote hundreds of songs and texts that can’t really be translated from Bengal because of their subtle language and hidden meaning. His music is absolutely estatic. This yearly gathering (Mela) was like a Bangladeshi version of Woodstock. In addition to the Shadu’s (holly men) there were plenty of intellectual and artistic types from Dhaka to join in the festivities. Lalon Shah also had an influence on the poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose home is only five miles from Lalon’s shrine in Kustia. I’m very excited to see and edit the hi-defintion video from this gathering of saints.
Listen to the tension of this audio clip from last nights Puja
Durga Puja (worship of Durga) is one of the important religious festivals for Bengali Hindus. It celebrates the return of the Goddess to her family. In other parts of India, Durga is also worshiped, but under different names. Durga does not belong to the Vedic pantheon, but is a later Goddess. She came to be known as Durga after killing a demon named Durgo. She is also called Durga because she brings an end to all forms of misery.
Durga Puja is a time when woman in Bangladesh return to their families home. On the last day of the festival, the statue of Durga is carried and released into the river, symbolizing the return to her husbands home. It is a day of immense sadness. Last night at three in the morning I was shaken by thunder and lightening so loud and strong that it felt like an earthquake. They say it always rains on this day to symbolize the tears that the people feel.
One of the very sad repercussions of extreme poverty in Bangladesh is the amount of orphaned children. Many of them are abandoned when very young and end up on the streets. The lucky ones are taken in by orphanages like the one above. There are over 1200 boys and girls at this Madrassa- a religious school that is funded by private donations. School instruction ranges from grades one to an advanced college degree. These girls are resilient on the outside but one can’t help but wonder the psychological scars that they have had to bear.