A Torchbearer among Indigenous People
Translated by Mustafa Zaman
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'?"
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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.
parents put their trust on Vanté. They know that at
kang their children would be in taken proper care
of alongside receiving education.
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
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.”
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004