|Home | Issues | The Daily Star Home | Volume 6, Issue 11, Tuesday, March 15, 2011|
An ancient tradition calling out for help
The Banik house, at the edge of the Dhamrai bazaar, is 100 years old; though that is not the reason why it is in the spotlight today; rather the timeless treasures it houses inside its ruins are what grab your attention.
As you enter the courtyard through the narrow lane you find yourself standing among the tall coconut trees and a lush tulsi bush surrounding it. The air impregnated with the citrus aroma from the lemon leaves nearby, the place has a nostalgic feel to it.
Behind the boithak khana with its once lavish office rooms and foyer, the quite mundane looking courtyard doesn't give any hint of the real life treasure hunt you are about to embark on once you step inside the dark rooms, which are badly in need of repairs and fresh coats of paint.
The dilapidated house with its many stairways, long French windows and endless verandahs transports you to a time when surely the young belle of the Banik's ran through the long corridors with bells on her toes and her red sari anchals floating in the air; while the lords of the house carried on their trade of making priceless artefacts of bronze and brass.
Such wistfulness is bound to set in and as you roam through the backyard or run up the dark narrow stairway leading up to the long forgotten attic. These were once part of a buzzing workshop of times gone by, but sadly now only a handful of workers are at their work of metal casting and craft making.
The melancholy ambience of the Dhamrai Metal Crafts, now run by Sukanta Banik, tells you the story of the sad vanishing tradition of metal crafts in Bangladesh. Like every other rich heritage of our land these gorgeous bronze statues in the form of religious deities or folk designs, made with brass and bell metal hardly find a proper place in this society with the ever-growing urge to urbanise everything around us.
See centre fold
As the speed boat went forward slicing the gutsy wind, the blue waves of the tranquil sea splashed against the wooden dock, the foam instantly disappearing within the sea. It was hard to say when the murky waters of the Naf River had turned into the greenish-blue hue of the Bay of Bengal.
After almost 45 minutes of cruising, the speed boat reached our destination -- St Martin's Island. Yet the landscape of the coral island was visible miles away, the coconut trees standing with leaves held high. The local people are apt in calling it “Narikel Jinjira” (the Coconut Island).
The boatman docked at the main jetty, only to realise that our destination lay further south, almost at the end of the island. He excused himself and we continued with our journey further south.
The expanding sea, for many, works as an inspiration. A humbling experience where one bows to the majesty of nature. While the roaring sound of the boat broke the tranquillity of the sea, landing on the shore brought in a moment of silence, shattered only by the mighty roar of the sea.
The Coral Blue Resort is built on a patch of 24 acre land near the beach and comes closer to fulfilling that mental image we all seem to have of discovering a remote, perfect, untouched island escape, where the sand is pure, the water translucent, the sunsets inspiring and the crowds far away.
Upon entering the resort one can discover an establishment set far away from our city lives. Sleeping arrangements being made in tents and thatched houses, and no electricity throughout the day, one just needs to switch off the cell phone to isolate from the world and feel like Robinson Crusoe.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the resort is devoid of modern amenities. The lavatories, as per government guidelines, are made from concrete and there is a flowing supply of fresh water. But apart from that, every effort has been made to keep modern living to a minimum, bringing visitors closer to nature.
The food served at the resort is prepared from the fresh bounty of the sea, cooked by seasoned chefs according to your requirement. The Lighthouse Restaurant is kept simple, as is the rest of the resort.
In the evening one can venture into the main bazaar of St Martin's, the hub of the remote island. This serves as a stark contrast to the serenity of the setting, but brings a spark to the St Martin's experience.
The small shops scattered on either side of the walkway from the main
jetty mainly offer Burmese products -- sandals, shoes and pickles. And there are stalls selling dried fish (shutki).
At the bazaar you will meet Bengali rodeos adorned in Mexican Sombreros, frying fish for you. Here you will hear valiant sagas of how the island came into existence. How men enchanted Genies, and how the unseen creatures were subdued into making the patch of land far away from mainland.
Returning to the Coral Blue Resort in the evening is an experience in itself. The whole place is lit with kerosene lamps creating an ambiance right out of a novel on buccaneers. Sitting on the lavish chairs on the sandy courtyard, with local musicians playing romantic folk tunes, one can relax, sip on coconut water and enjoy the pleasant southern wind.
The night ends early in the resort, dining provisions being over by 10. This way you have the rest of the night to yourself, maybe your companion and the untamed sea.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
St Martin's Island: A wake-up call
In the recent past there has been a stir of controversy regarding the government's plan to put a restriction on overnight stay at the St Martin's Island. According to plans to save and protect the environment, visitors will have to leave the island aboard the ship that leaves at 3 pm everyday.
However, the plan did not see the light of day; possibly amidst protest from stakeholders of the vibrant local tourism of the place.
The fragile eco system of the island is already at risk with a population of near 6000 inhabitants. Add to that a few thousand day tourists and a near thousand people who halt overnight to experience the scenic beauty of the place after nightfall.
Environmentalists believe that the coral structure of the island is unsuitable for establishing permanent structures and thus building concrete buildings on the island is prohibited.
Yet over the years multi-storied dwellings have sprung up, some of which have been out of necessity, while others were constructed solely to cater to the needs of the tourists staying overnight.
“St Martin's Island is overpopulated as it is,” A B M Aminul Haque says. “We are simply putting a burden on the fragile eco system of this island by solely catering to the needs of the tourists, paying no heed to the environmental factors governing the commerce of this area.”
Haque, the Horticulture Extension Officer and Focal Person (Teknaf-St Martin's Island) goes on to say that for the survival of the island and for sustaining tourism in the long run, the soil and water of the remote land cannot be tampered with.
“The government has chalked out elaborate plans to rescue the eco system by creating three separate zones within the island. While some of these will be open to the public, others will be core protected, serving as a sanctuary for the wildlife that inhabit the land.”
However, the viability of the government's efforts is under scrutiny by the local leaders and countless resort owners who have been in operation in St Martin's for many years.
While presenting their 18 point demand to the District Commissioner, Cox's Bazaar recently, the St Martin Eco Tourism Development Society expressed their view that segregation of the island into three zones is no longer possible as the local population, over the years, have spread out across the eight kilometre stretch of land.
A B M Reazuddin Mosharaf, an entrepreneur at St Martin's, believes that without involving the stakeholders, which comprises of the local population along with the individuals involved in the tourism industry of the island, no government decision will yield positive results.
“There are legal issues which have prevented the flourishing of the tourism industry at St Martin's.”
'Flourishing', though, does not mean 'rampant', as Hossain goes further to state. “Tourism is the only source of income for the population of this island. In the tourist season, inhabitants make brisk business but for the rest of the year, business is dull. Fishing has been the main industry of the island for years but is being over shadowed by the influx of visitors in this island on a daily basis.”
Resort owners claim, and with plausible logic, that they have made significant improvement to the economy of the island and can therefore claim their part as rightful stakeholders in any decisions made towards improvement of the tourist industry at the island.
Gias Uddin Ahmed, District Commissioner, Cox's Bazar highlighted on some of the finer aspects of the problem. “This is a subject of population growth versus environment. The government is about to draft the guidelines that will govern the fate of the tourism industry in St Martin's and also reiterated that all stakeholders will be involved.”
However, it was made pretty clear that no concrete structures will be tolerated on the island. Resorts will have the scope of building concrete lavatories while the rest of the housing facilities will have to be made as tents or thatched houses.
With lack of any firm guidelines on the matter of tourism and building of resorts, establishments already flourishing in the island are now tangled in a legal web.
To ensure a visitor friendly environment for the tourists at St Martin's Island, the resorts must survive and above all the ecology must survive. As the island makes a wake up call, we must all rise from slumber and respond.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif, back from St. Martin's Island
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