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Cover Story

Uchohla Vanté
A Torchbearer among Indigenous People

Saymon Zakaria
Translated by Mustafa Zaman

Uchohla Vanté is a name loved and revered by the indigenous people of Bangladesh. He has become a symbol among these people. In Bandarban, his birthplace, 11 groups of indigenous people now see him as a conveyer of peace and harmony. Vanté was a man ready to start a career in the administration, but a dramatic turn of events led his course to the path of Buddhism. His educational background, religious training and wisdom paved the way for him to position himself at the centre of all the 'adibashis' living in his native land. However, it is his recent activities that have made him a precursor of peace and fraternity among all indigenous people.

At one time, Vanté was a student in the Department of Law, Dhaka University, then he went on to complete his degree and was later appointed as a judge and magistrate by the public service commission of the Government of Bangladesh. There was also a creative side to him; he wrote and composed songs in his own language -- Marma. But all this is now behind him. Giving up his profession he has gone on to devote his life to better the lives of his own people. In his effort to provide education to the indigenous people, and to compensate for the backwardness that blights them, he has established boarding schools for orphans. His school is open to all indigenous people. Chakma, Marma, Khumi, Bwam, Tanchonga, Chak, Pankho, Mrwa and many other indigenous children are being given education up to class ten. Uchohla Vanté now dreams of turning his school into a college.

Vanté believes that learning also includes knowing about one's own culture. Which is why apart from establishing the school, he has helped to introduce a course in Buddhist culture for girls.

But his most endearing project is the 'dhatu-jadee' -- a prayer house for the Buddhist -- that has not only become a hub for the Buddhists, but also a centre of attraction in the entire Bandarban district. Vanté is a silent worker -- doing things of his own accord while remaining in relative obscurity, harbouring no ambition to get exposure. Although he has so far been acclaimed for his work among the communities of Bandarban and those who came to know about his achievements in foreign countries, he is unknown to most Bangladeshis.

Born in the Bomang royal family, Vanté grew up loving the songs and tunes of the people of Bandarban. His mother, Ong Mra Ching and father Wu Hola Thoai Prue were ecstatic when their son was born on December 22nd, 1955. More ecstatic was Vanté's grandfather -- Bomang king Wu Kwa Ja San Chowdhury. The celebration that followed the birth of the child has become part of the folklore among his people. Vanté himself heard about the revelry of his grand father celebrating his birth from the local people.

Vanté was a restive and mischievous child, but he was also very shy. Music used to be his driving force and source of inspiration most of his life. Even today, he quickly befriends anyone with musical abilities or a deep liking towards music. Being a Buddhist monk and a teacher he is trying to get over the strong affinity he once felt with music. But in the religious ceremonies organised by Vanté, he always makes sure that songs are featured. Many of these songs are those that he composed earlier in his life.

Why did Vanté have to change his course of life and go back to serve his own people leaving a promising career in government service? It was his realisation that one of the consequences of globalisation was the further marginalisation of indigenous people. The 300 million indigenous people living in the world today are at a crossroads. Not that their rich culture, language and religious belief is eroding swiftly, but it certainly is in the path to alteration. In the face of modernisation in education, industry and agriculture in the twentieth century and its impact on life, language and agriculture of many indigenous groups of people, as well as their own tradition have been deteriorating.

It was in view of the decimation of cultural diversity, religious beliefs, traditional lifestyles and agricultural norms that spurred the United Nations (UN) to step in. It was in 1994 that the UN declared 'August 9' to be observed as "World Indigenous People's Day". The day is observed not only to protect the lifestyle of the indigenous people but also to raise awareness across the globe about the rights of these people. The issue of environmental protection is also bound-up with the issue of treasuring indigenous lifestyles.

It was in 1994 that in a general assembly of the UN 185 nations in a joint declaration earmarked the next ten years as "World Indigenous People Decade." The slogan that they came up with made an effort to integrate them with the rest of the world, it read "Indigenous people: partnership in action."

In Bangladesh, most indigenous groups are concentrated in the coastal areas of the south-western region. The hilly district -- Chattagong Hill Tracts -- is home to most number of communities.

In the north-western and north-eastern region too, there are groups of indigenous people struggling to continue with their own lifestyle. There are more than thirty indigenous groups of people living in Bangladesh. However, considering their number, they are the minorities even among the minorities of this land.

With these struggling small communities, material pursuit takes a backseat. For them, life is synonymous with living in harmony with nature. In Bandarban, Uchohla Vanté is making an all-out effort to provide an impetus to the pristine form of living.

The Early Years
Vanté started school at age six and found kindergarten to be quite a chore ending up being the 17th on the merit list. He says, "After that terrible start, I never stood anything other than first." However, his life at school was not as smooth as it was suppose to be. If he had never received flogging for not having to do his homework, he had to endure it for his restlessness. But the same child displayed diffidence while in a crowd. It was when he was in class nine and ten that his coyness started to give away. At that age, he began playing the guitar. The tunes he picked up and used to give his voice to were the popular songs of his time.

"Rail lainer oyi bastite," (in that slum near the railway lines), "Orey Saleka, Orey Maleka," these are the sort of tunes he tried to master. "Alongside playing the guitar, I had a knack for playing the mandolin," stresses Vanté. As an heir to the royal family, he not only had the chance to immerse himself in music, he also had the opportunity to opt for higher studies.

Vanté was all set to go to college after he had successfully graduated from school; at that stage he was ready to embrace all the general characteristics of a conscious citizen of his country. But his path was destined to lead him to a different destination. After all, he was born among a people and into a family that gave him a distinct sense of identity based on traditional culture and values. The oral history that he grew up hearing shaped his consciousness.

Life at College, enlivened by Music
After passing SSC in 1978 in science from Bandarban, he was planning to go to study at a college in Chittagong proper. By then a college was established in Bandarban, and that resulted in a change of plans. "I thought 'being a native of Bandarban, if I did not enrol into that new college, who will'?"

One interesting feature of that new-found college was that all classes took place in the evening. "There was no fixed teaching staff who would work only for the college", says Vanté. "Many of the teachers were officers working for government offices, and most were bankers. And they used to spend the evening teaching at the college."

All classes were conducted in the faint light of kerosene lamps. For this the college earned an epithet -- "Lampo College. As classes got postponed in the absence of teachers, Vanté had his opportunity to strum his guitar and sing. He fondly remembers his days spent in a daze, playing music. He mastered his guitar craft during the lulls when classes got postponed. He used to write songs alongside stories and poems. However, it was during his college life that he began to roam around to collect the local tunes.

He hopped from one hill to the other, visiting the local villages to pick up the traditional tunes of the people. The words that he wrote used to accompany the tunes he picked up from the locality. His songs were a hit with his own community and continue to be popular even today. One of his songs titled "Shangraima," became popular in 1975, and it still remains the most-sung title of the festival that is also called "Shangraima", that marks the end of the year.

Venturing into the World of Law
Vanté has a theory about his predilection for studying law. He says, "I decided to study law as all the influential leaders from Gandhi to Qaed-e-Azam were men with a grounding in law." Although Vanté grew up showing promise in the cultural sphere, he was accepted as a leader among his people.

However, for two consecutive years in his native Bandarban, Vanté studied science and "to study law you need to have a background in arts." By the time he decided on switching the subject two years had already elapsed. "As classes in science section were irregular I decided to opt for arts. But, I had only three months left before sitting for exam. I left for Chittagong and made the best use of the short time before the HSC exam," Vanté recalls.

Once he entered Dhaka University, he was, as usual, embroiled in cultural activities. From there he even went on to audition for the national TV and radio, where he became a regular. His recorded songs are still aired, though he has long since ceased to record any new ones.

But culture for him not only revolved around songs, soirees and recordings. Vanté was active, during his study, in making the indigenous people aware of their rights and their identity. It was in his university years that he established the Royal Cultural Group, Welfare Organisation of Marma Students, tribal Aboriginal Welfare Organisation, Bangladesh Marma Buddist Association.

1982 was a seminal year for Vanté, for he was faced with a predicament of an philosophical nature which changed his life forever. He was simply forced to recast his ideas about life. As his loving sister Yee Yee Prue died in 1982 at the age of nine, the whole community blamed it on a bad omen. He made a resolve to emancipate his people from ignorance and superstition. By that time, he had completed his Masters in Law and was appointed a judge and magistrate after successfully passing the BCS exam.

"During my student years, I didn't miss one function in the campus. Lucky Akhand was the cultural Secretary and Shakila Zafar, Shubhro Dev were the ones who were with us in our musical pursuits.

But the same Vanté, during his first appointment as a judge, was forced to carve out a different life. "I could not mingle with people. My job was made difficult by people badgering me for favours, some even offered bribes so it was better not to mix with a lot of people," Vanté recalls.

The domain of the court and law seemed like a different hemisphere to Vanté. A man who was used to sharing a joke with the next person had to assume the role of a serious, important person. The job seemed unsuitable to him. It was after his sister's death that he realised he was wasting time operating on a limited turf, serving a limited group of men. He strongly felt the need to make himself useful to a vast community. He decided to seek assistance from Buddhism, as for all the indigenous people, faith is neatly bound up with everyday life. An uncle of Vanté who first suggested that he travel to Burma "where there still exists this schooling based on teaching by the Masters to the disciple." Vanté decided to leave for Myanmar.

Finding His Mentor
Once in Burma, Vanté was to meet a Mahathero -- a monk of the highest order. The Mahathero recognised the sparks of enthusiasm in Vanté, and asked, "There are things that are prohibited, will you be able to sustain..." Vanté simply wanted to know these don'ts, and once the rules were laid down, Vanté was a man who took them to heart. But the rest was a test of his patience. The Mahathero he met only referred him to a Master whose description Mahathero provided, but Vanté still had to find him.

The next few days were spent frantically searching for the aforesaid Master. Finally, Vanté tracked him down at a place on the outskirts of Rangoon. But, once he encountered the man who he thought would be his future teacher, Vanté was told, "How can I teach you, I am engaged in poultry farming, which is the cultivation of life. So, I am not at all sanctified now. You would not learn anything from a man like me. There is a friend who visits me, you can receive knowledge from him."

As a third man approached them, the chicken farmer pointed at Vanté and said to him, "Here is a man from Bangladesh, who has come here to receive your teaching." Uchola Vanté had found his Master -- and since then his life has taken an altogether different course.

The Orphanage for Boys
"Kang" is the place where orphans and boys from poor hovels receive education. Classes start from seven-thirty in the morning. Vanté established the kang in 2001. He runs it with the help of eight other teachers, although Vanté admits that he cannot afford to pay them very well. His kang is open to all indigenous people. "There are Chakmas, Marmas, Khumis, Khians and Tanchongos and more, I teach them all here. And alongside teaching they receive everything from clothes, medical treatments, stationery that they need in school and even toothpaste and soaps," says Vanté.

Students come from far off hills -- so far off that once the parents drop them off, it is difficult for them to visit the children frequently. "Most of the parents live hand to mouth. They simply cannot afford to skip their work and come to see their children. If they do, they would have to go on an empty stomach that day," Vanté says shedding light on the harsh reality the hill people face on a daily basis.

Besides, parents put their trust on Vanté. They know that at kang their children would be in taken proper care of alongside receiving education.

"I could've turned Kang into a college by now if I had financial support. But I still dream of that future when it will be a college. It's just that I don't want to take any help from the NGOs, as then you must act according to their prescription, each favour comes with a package of conditions. I receive personal donations for my kang and that's enough for this institution to survive," Vanté voices his confidence.

The present enrolment at kang stands at 130. And to provide them with three meals a day, 80 to 90 kg rice is cooked on a daily basis. "Where will we get the money to spend on rice? My disciples' contribution stand at 500 sacks (of rice), and it is enough to feed us all for one whole year," says Vanté. The local disciples contribute from as small an amount as Taka 10 to Taka 100, and as Vanté puts it, "They are enough to keep us going.”

For young women, there is the "Buddhist Meshali Cultural Training Course." Vanté himself teaches the course. From 25 to 50 girls receive this training in each term, and few are even given the opportunity to go abroad for further study. At present, three girls are in Myanmar receiving further training.

While teaching Vanté has also become interested in the "Quantum Method" that teaches how to control emotion. His inquiry led him to such lengths that he even wrote a book on this subject, which is titled "Bidarshan Darpon."

As his disciples keep him away from the corporeal tasks, for they are zealously religious, Vanté is carving out a new path to enlightenment. New in a sense that amidst all the theological activities, he brings in the respite of music. His is a practise that not only places the religious with the musical, but also tries a modernist approach in reaching the spiritual goals. Still today, he cannot resist the temptation to get his hands on the harmonium. There were occasions when he was criticised for his passion or sitting with the harmonium trying to sing the sermons of Buddha. Vanté doesn't consider it an aberration, as he believes that music is also a way for humans to attain emancipation.

Vanté on the Question of Language
Uchola Vanté has successfully united the adibashis of Bandarban. It is his belief that the local languages -- Marma, Chakma, Boruna, Tochonga, Chak and Mrwa be learnt with equal care. "We are learning to speak Bangla, we don't have much trouble even learning English, but it is our own language that is on the verge of disappearance," laments Vanté.

"In the past, during the British rule, we could travel to Burma (now Myanmar) to get our hands on books on the languages we speak," Vanté says. He quickly adds, "As we are unable to bring back books published in Myanmar, our languages are dying." And to press home his point he continues," Our children cannot even speak the Marma language properly. They speak a Marma that has 20 to 25 per cent Bangla in it. Even the addresses at public meetings are not Marma, it is a weird mixture of Marma, Bangla and English."

Vanté's contention is that a Marma child should be allowed to learn Marma at the primary level in school. "My plea is to the government. The last time my attempt almost became successful. When the government was ready to ok the plan for introducing Marma text books for Marmas, a government change pigeonholed the project. Bad luck for us, we were even through with printing of the books," recalls Vanté. He cites the UN declaration that made February 21 the International Mother Language day, and argues, "If Marmas are allowed to study in their own language only then would the February 21 be meaningful in Bangladesh as Mother Language Day."

The Golden Temple or Jadee
The word "jadee" derives from Sanskrit “chetee", it means "the subjects of adulation alternative to Buddha."
In the jadee that Vanté built lies the ashes of Buddha. With its magnificant build and the gilded golden facade, the jatee is a landmark in Bandarban.

"For the poor people it is beyond their means to travel far and go to see a jadee. It is this thought that drove me in my endeavour to build one," Vonté exclaims.

It was in 1994 that he sent a letter of request to the Myanmar government asking for 'ashes' of Buddha. His request was granted and when in 2000 the temple was complete, it was a dream come true for Vanté, as he himself designed the structure. "There are several different designs the Myanmar temples adhere to, it was after appraising all that I came up with one of my own," says Vanté. After forming his design he showed it to an engineer, who worked with it to orient it according to proper structural measurement. "The original structure is mine, I mean, stolen from a lot of other temples," he says with a smile.

Now, the temple is the epicentre of all the religious rites of the Buddhists. The local Bhuddhists throng to the temple on the Buddha Purnima, Kathin Chibor Daan, Dharmachakra Day, Abhidharma Dibosh and the Tainchhang Dhaja Day. It is not only the religious rites that are observed, the last day of the year -- the Shangraima is one huge festival that the temple plays host to. It is during festivals that Vonté's songs still find a sympathetic audience among the indigenous people.

How does a singer, song-writer and a judge take an oath of living a life of a monk? This is a question that Vanté is often faced with. "People are curious about this. One day a Hindu gentleman asked me, 'What is the matter Vanté?,' I said look up in your own shastro or scripture, it says: If you are given a million lives, try and become a shadhu (saint) in one," Vanté explains.

He has faith in the supreme designs of life and he goes on to explain the saying in the Hindu scripture, "In millions of lives that you are awarded with, your effort would be to build up on the virtuous acts ion by ion. Therefore, I say, that my transformation was sudden.”

After embracing teachings of Buddhism Vanté has come closer to his people and now has the chance to contribute to their wellbeing. In their spiritual crisis as well as in worldly struggles, they have one man beside them, one man they can rely on -- Uchohla Vanté.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004