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     Volume 5 Issue 104 | July 21, 2006|

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View from the Bottom

Bengal's Legendary Bamboo Stick

Shahnoor Wahid

Once upon a time Bengal was famous for its high quality bamboo and 'lathi khela' (game with bamboo sticks). Best of the bamboos used to be cut and cleaned and their surface smoothened with mustard or some other kind of oil. Groups of people used to do the smoothening chore with festive fervour. In the afternoon they practised to perfect a special type of game named lathi khela with those bamboo sticks. The game was a display of acquired skill, split-second reflex, and animal-like agility. To a newcomer on the scene, the whirling of the bamboo sticks in the hands of the experts would look like an amazing feat. At one point of time the bamboo stick would appear like a thin thread. Then, at the time of some yearly festivals like Charak Puja, Baishakh halkhata etc., young men used to play those games to amuse the spectators. Often contests used to be held between the teams of the local sardars or zaminders.

Bamboo poles were used as a defensive and assault weapon by the rural people where swords or spears were hard to come by. These bamboo poles were larger than sticks used for playing lathi khela. Some of them could be six to seven feet long. They were as strong as iron rods. Many a battle were fought in the depths of rural Bengal between farmers and robbers with such bamboo poles. Villagers fought battles with tigers using such bamboo poles. A strong man could crack open an animal's skull with one mighty blow of the bamboo pole. It is said that a man could stop bullets by spinning a bamboo pole with his two hands.

The historical account of Titumir's <>Basher Kella<> (The bamboo fort of Titumir) has taken the form of a legendary tale. This fearless anti-British Bengali teacher refused to obey the orders of the British rulers. As his place was surrounded by deep forest in an inaccessible area in rural Bengal, all expedition to arrest him failed. Soon the patience of the British ran out. They amassed a huge army in the nearest garrison and sent a message to Titumir to surrender. In reply, Titumir ordered his commanders to build a fortress with bamboo around his house. His men chopped down the best of the bamboos in the nearby forest and built a two-storied bamboo fortress of immense beauty and strength. There was no crack between two bamboos through which a thin blade could pass. Titumir's men stocked food and water and waited with bows and arrows. Stories about the fortress travelled fast to the camp of the British. They realised that bullets would not do much damage to the strong structure. Therefore, only canons could level the bamboo fortress to the ground. Though the trail was full of impediments, British troops finally reached near the bamboo fortress and set up camps. Then one fateful morning, the battle began. Bullets hit the bamboo fortress by the thousands. Titumir's men fell fighting bravely. Their arrows also found their targets through the haze of gunpowder. Then cannons began to roar. The bamboo fortress shook violently with each volley. Some parts of the bamboo fortress crumbled. More cannons hit the fortress. This time a part was set on fire. Soon the fire raged through the entire bamboo fortress, and it was not long that the arrows stopped showering on the British troops. Titumir and his men died the deaths of heroes, and found their place in the history of Bengal.

Those legendary bamboo sticks have not gone away. They are very much here and in use. One can see their astounding tricks even in the modern era. The show is free. One has to stand at a safe distance on a hartal day and watch the sticks move and swirl, spin and dance in the air before coming down heavily on the citizens of the country. Watch those sticks go downward and hit the legs and back of the citizens. Watch those bamboo sticks break the bones in the hands of the citizens. Watch them crack open the skull of the citizens. The legendary bamboo continues to do legendary works.

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