Crossing the Island ‘Mahajho (Maheshkhali)’
‘If I wish to write the tale of fishermen in Maheshkhali, I cannot write that sitting in my drawing room.’
--Hassan Azizul Haque in an interview with Shahaduzzaman in Katha Parampara.
How blue is the island Maheshkhali and the Bay of Bengal surrounding it? I for one had no idea until I stepped on to the island for the first time in November 2009! My Rakhine guide Mey Mey Shen had called me twice in the morning to say that there would be low tide before noon and tidal flow at mid-noon. So, it would be better for us if we started from Cox's Bazar by 1:00 PM and reached Maheshkhali by 3:00 PM. Otherwise, we would have to walk a long way through the mud during ebb. Accordingly, our all-girl team (Mey's friend Ma-Hla also joined us this time) started for Maheshkhali by 1:00 PM. We got on the speed boat from Cox's Bazar jetty ghat at the mouth of the river Bankkhali. A number of fishermen or petty businessmen and dealers of sea fish and dry fish (shutki maach) also boarded the speed boat. It takes Tk 160 per head for a Cox's Bazar-Maheshkhali-Cox's Bazar voyage. Soon our speed boat crossed the mouth of the Bankkhali river and we entered the sea. Fishermen sitting around us or those anchoring in their small, wooden shampans (a form of country boat mostly prevailing in the Chittagong region) on this vast sea appeared like the huge human figures in sculptures of Michelangelo or paintings of S M Sultan. They seemed to me as heroic as the characters depicted by Earnest Hemingway in his sublime novel The Old Man and the Sea. How often did I ponder that last line in my adolescence: man can be destroyed, but never be defeated! God, is not the destruction equivalent to defeat? The child in me used to think or the child in each of us still thinks that way except the great visionary authors like Hemingway.
Well, enough of poetic thoughts and let us land on the island. I come back to reality as our speed boat touches the jetty. There is a long bridge that enters the island. There are a huge number of rickshaws and they begin calling us guessing that we have come from 'town' and can offer them a higher fare. A rickshaw takes us to Choto (Small) Maheshkhali Rakhine Para. There is another Rakhine village named Bara (Large) Maheshkhali Rakhine Para. But, the two young Rakhine maidens with me have relatives in the Choto Maheshkhali so, we decide to go there. On the way to Choto Maheshkhali, we notice a lot of men and women drying sea fish -- this is one of their main livelihood. Hindus and Muslims, Bengalis and Rakhines...all live by fishing, drying fish and selling those at the markets.
At the entry-point of the Choto Maheshkhali Rakhine village, we first visited the Buddhist temple of the locality. Rakhines are tremendously pious. Be they extremely poor or stinking rich, they possess a beautiful pagoda in their localities with a number of Buddha idols and often those idols are made of brass metal, silver, precious wood, sandal wood, copper or even gold. “We love to invest all our earnings and devotion behind our pagodas,” says Ma-Hla.
“In 1971, we offered protection to the Hindus of this island within our pagoda. The Pakistani Army assumed it and hence they set fire to our pagoda. Five Rakhines died in this incident. Later the invaders also looted 62 silver idols of Lord Buddha and broke the necks of several marble stone idols,” says an old Rakhine man in the village.
“But, after Independence we have been quite okay here. Since the wide range of death and destruction in the 1991 tidal surge in Maheshkhali, the government is providing us ample opportunities and amenities including electricity, a number of roads, schools, banking facilities and health clinics. We use computer at our home and use internet with help of modem. The only problem lies in the fact our cremation ground is very close to the sea. So we cannot burn any dead body during the tide and wait till the ebb comes. If government provides us more financial allocation to fill the earth of the cremation ground, that can solve the crisis,” says the uncle of Ma-Hla who has a double storied building in this remote island.
“In our Rakhine language, the name of the island is Mahajho. According to the Rakhine history, the Kings of Arakan first settled on this island during the 16th century. During British rule, there were more than 2000 Rakhine families in 23 villages of Maheshkhali. But, today only 500 families in five Rakhine villages exist in Maheshkhali,” he add.
After visiting the Rakhine village, we go to visit the most celebrated tourist spot of this island. It is the 700-years' old Adinath Temple in honour of the Hindu god Lord Shiva. Interestingly enough, the temple was constructed by Nur Mohammad, a Muslim elite of the island. According to the legends of the area, once Nur Mohammad was resting after hunting deer on his way home. Suddenly he heard a strange sound and when he searched for the origin of the sound, he saw his lost cow milking over a piece of stone. He went back home with the cow and the stone. That night, Nur Mohammad dreamt that the stone was basically the ‘idol of a god' who is Lord Shiva and of a hundreds of names of Shiva, two are ‘Mahesh' and 'Adinath.' Nur Mohammad, the richest person of the island, named the island `Maheshkhali' and built the temple as ‘Adinath' temple. True or mythical, this legend also refers to the synergy and symbioses of different faiths in our soil which leads a lot of Hindus to offer prayers in the Sufi shrines and other pertaining assimilations. (Maung Ba Aung, Bangladesh e Rakhine Samproday: Itihas, Otijhjha o Jibondhara.)
On our way to the temple, we found a number of mosques and pious Musullis. Again we noticed a number of Hindu Jaladas (fishermen) women processing the rice in their home yards. Apart from fishing, cultivating rice and betel leaf is the second major profession of the islanders. The temple is located on a hill top but the cement stairs are not too steep rather a bit flat and easy to ascend. “At end of the Magh (January) and commencement of Falgun (February), we, the temple authority, arrange the Shiv Chaturdashi mela (fair) and people from all walks of life join the celebration,” Ranadhir Chakrabarty, the priest of the temple told us. There are five priests in the temple in total.
The sun is about to set now and we must return to Cox's Bazar. Meantime, the ebb began and we had to cross at least fifteen wooden boats lying over the sea shore to get a speed boat. It's not the high tide and the speed boats cannot come up to jetty ghat. The sea begins cooling at dusk of mid-November and we feel spellbound at sight of the reddish sun beams over the waves. Soon it would be dark reminding us of the gloomy lines of Jivananda Dash, `Again I woke up from the solitary darkness/ And found the pale moon squeeze half of its shadow towards the river Kirtinasha/ Knowing I would never rise again/ Never I would (Orob Ondhokar er tol theke, Jege Uthlam abar/ Takiye dekhlam pandur chand tar ordhek chaya gutiye niyeche Kirtinashar dik e/ Konodin ar Jagbo na jene).'
(R) thedailystar.net 2010