at 99 still going strong
By the time the readers read this, Chittagong's historic Jabbarer bolikhela (Jabar's wrestling) will be over. Count down will have started for the centenary celebration of the event next year. Began in 1909, this traditional Boishaki mela of Chittagong accompanied by free style wrestling has already managed to attract national and international media attention. The general people of Chittagong, awaits eagerly the entire year for this three day festival, the wrestling bout taking place on 12th. day of Boishak. Jabbarer bolikhela is perhaps the only Boishaki mela in the country which began hundred years back with a political message. The locals are fond of calling it 'Jabboirjar bolikhela.'
In Chittagong wrestling is known as boli khela; boli means wrestlers, khela means sport. It is a traditional popular game of the district, coming down from the days of the Muslim rule. The Muslim nobility used to keep in their pay roll well-known wrestlers who would put up a fight against their enemy in times of danger. These wrestlers would give demonstration of their physical strength and skill on suitable occasions in presence on large number of crowds. These wrestlers would train under different ustads and often they would meet in challenge bouts to the entertainment of the general public. Drums (dhol) would be beaten continuously while the wrestlers sweated out in the make shift sand or mud pits to beat each other. Jabberer bolikhela has somehow managed to cling to the tradition and in 2009 will be celebrating its centenary.
Chowdhury Jamal Khan of Chittagong had several slaves, who were noted for wrestling and arrow shooting. Bakshi Hamid, who had erected a mosque in 1684 in Banshkhali started a bolikhela in Bukshi's Chawri in village Ilsha in Banshkhali. It used to be held on flat hillock on the 1st of Boishak every year and attracted crowds from all over Chittagong. The Jabbararer bolikhela held at the Laldighi maidan is the biggest event in the district and now attracts people from all over the country, especially artisans and craftsmen who sells traditional household items, like earthen wares, cane furniture, earthen toys painted red and grey, hand fans with artistic designs, various household articles made of bamboo reeds, famous shitalpati (fine reed mats) of Satkania, summer fruits, most notable being giant cantaloupes and melons of Patenga (Patengar tormuz, currently a dying breed), traditional food items like chana monar teng, sirmai, batasha, anda mitai etc. Most of these wares and items would not be available during other times of the year.
Jabbarer bolikhela was started by Abdul Jabbar Sowdagar of Boxirhat (Badarpatti) and is held on 12th. Boishak every year. Now his grandsons organize it in memory of their grandfather. Abdul Jabbar Sowdagar's purpose of initiating the boilkhela was to organize and inspire the youths for anti-British movement.
It was done to instill a feeling amongst the young people of Chittagong, the feeling they are not physically weak to take on the colonial rulers when the time came. You just have to prepare yourself and wait for the right moment. The mela had a political message. Few years later in 1930, the youths of Chittagong staged the famous 'jubo bidroho' (youth revolution) under the leadership of Masterda Surya Sen in Chittagong and declared the independence of Chittagong. Chittagong remained independence for a day and a half.
Over the years Jabbarer bolikhela has managed to become a rallying point around which now a big three day Boishaki mela is held. Till the seventies, bamboo galleries would be built around the Laldighi maidan from where the spectators would have a better view of the wrestling for a fee. In the centre the wrestling pit would be situated. Most of wrestlers would come from South Chittagong, particularly from Anowara, Banshkhali, Swandiwip, Ukhiya, Teknaf, Chakaria, Moheshkhali, Kutubdia and Cox's Bazar. Now some bolis even come from other districts. These wrestlers were all amateurs and they would wrestle just to entertain the audience. On the day of the wrestling some wrestlers would take an extra egg or two for breakfast, assuming that it would give them some extra strength. Steroids was something not known to them. Once in a while even foreigners, who came to visit the mela would take off their shirts and jump in the pit. Few years back a German boli, while he was struggling to beat the Quddus Boli of Chittagong, managed to loose his belonging as the person who was holding them for him decided to walk away! One whose back touched the ground lost the bout. It was very simple. Bolis would invariably be dressed in lungi. These days some are wearing shorts. They would tie the lungi very tight and with the beating of the dhols enter the pit, rub some mud around their forehead and bow to the audience. The bout would begin amidst thunderous applause. Every boli would have his own supporters and even there would be informal betting. As the bolikhela was held in summer the schools would normally be on summer vacation. In the fifties when we were growing up my grandfather would come with a horse carriage (the famous open style ghorar gari of Chittagong with excellent leather upholstery) to take us to the bolikhela. Many parents would bring their children from the adjoining areas in reserved dilapidated buses (murir tin) to the bolikhela. Because of the crowd, we could never see the main bolikhela, until much later. My grandfather would make us sit inside the Laldighi park till the sun went down. Then the grand firework would begin and would last for two hours. It was a grand finale that would have everlasting impression amongst anyone who was there. As the night got deeper the sounds of the drum became fainter and people would be leaving for home. My grandfather would take us back to the ghorar gari to be taken back home. There are no bamboo made galleries in Jabbarer bolikhela now. Children do not come in ghorar gari any more. I am not sure how many children of today's generation are at all interested in any bolikhela. They have other options to entertain themselves. They are much more comfortable with computer games, cell phone pushing, game boys or MP3s. They perhaps enjoy more of choreographed wrestling on TV. But for people of my generation, yes we would like to talk about the Jabbarer Bolikhela to all our successive generations, because that is what makes us proud. Next year Jabbarer bolikhela will be celebrating its hundredth year. The civic leaders of the historic port city should make an all out effort to make it a national event and do everything necessary to inspire the young generation as to what life was all about in the yesteryears. Past glory needs to be preserved for posterity.
Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University. Currently he teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He can be contacted at email@example.com.April 26, 2008