Bangladesh has not earned any Olympic laurels ever. In the current sports arena, cricket and football dominate television and social media news waves. Beside the much-vaulted champions of the pitch, a hero once made strides in the swimming pool bringing Bangladesh to the attention of the wider sporting world.
The man was Brojen Das, widely known as the first Asian to swim across the English Channel as well as setting the world record for swimming the channel a record level of 6 times. Born in 1927 in Bikrampur, in what is now part of Munshiganj district, Das grew up in what is known as the Ganges belt. As luck would have it, his first experience with water was rather an ironic start for a star swimmer: he almost drowned at the age of four in a pool. Quite, a fine stepping stone.
Calming his nerves against the torrent of the Ganges as the years passed by, he quickly climbed up the ranks getting his swimming abilities noticed paving way for multiple victories in local competitions. In a sweep of astonishing feats in numerous freestyles of swimming, Das had won the East Pakistan swimming competition. Consequently, in becoming the national swimming champion of Pakistan in the 100m and 400m freestyles, he had become a top favorite for making it to the 1956 Australia Olympics as part of Pakistan’s swimming team. Unfortunately, bad luck struck as an injured arm sidelined his entry.
Disappointed but never not full of hope, he decided to try out his luck in the annual English Channel Swimming Competition in 1958 which he saw as an opportunity of a lifetime and a lifeline to secure his swimming credentials in the history books. Brojen successfully completed the Mediterranean swimming competition from Capri to Naples prior to this. A man of stout physique and being the only South Asian privy to racial slurs, he was widely seen as an underdog by his competitors.
Brojen wanted to set records in swimming and it was his raw determination that got him to persevere over the cold European waters. For someone coming from hot and humid climates, the weather was his biggest barrier. Training at night with oil and grease sprayed on him to deter the chances of getting a cold, he was a spectacle for those who came to see the Channel at night. Conquering the Channel on a yearly basis from 1958-1960, Brojen’s final adieu ended with him swimming the English Channel for the last and sixth time in 1961. Edging on his strokes inch by inch, the Bengali swimmer from Pakistan had swam the Channel in a record-breaking time of 10 hours and 35 minutes, cutting time by being 15 minutes early, creating a new world record thus earning himself the moniker – “King of the Channel”. A record of hitting the shore and crossing the Channel six times had gotten his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Beguiled by his records and victories, the Queen and Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India called upon him to be their guest. A Hall of Famer in the world of swimming, he was the coach of swimmers in Bangladesh. Dying of cancer in 1998, he was a hero to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis alike, being awarded their top national honors – Pride of Performance and Independence Day Award – respectively. The King had finally departed but not without making his admirers and countrymen happy and honored to have had him.
Remember Sindbad? The sword-wielding, brave, adventure loving Sindbad the sailor who sailed his ship through Africa and Asia, fighting monsters and mythical creatures? Or do you fancy about Pirates instead? The daring pirates in the sea, sailing on their ships, looting and hiding their treasures in deep jungles, destroying merchant ships in deep sea waters. What if we told you that Sindbad had probably moored his ship in Bengal or that an infamous pirate had, at some point in history, hidden his treasures in our deep enchanting jungles?
The finest port of the Eastern world
In the 7th century, Chinese explorer Xuanzang described Chittagong as “A sleeping beauty rising from mist and water”. A 2000-year-old city, a mythical realm of hundred tribes and an exotic land where the mountains meet the ocean. As for its rich history, Chittagong area has been a recorded seaport since the 4th century BCE. In the 2nd century, the harbour appeared on Ptolemy’s map. The map mentions the harbour as one of the finest in the Eastern world.
Chittagong seaport has always been the trade hub between the East and the West. Records indicate frequent trade between private merchants of Europe and the merchants of the East during medieval times. According to the works of Fa-hien, Hieu-en tsng, lbn Battuta, the port of Chittagong mingled with the ancient civilization of the world.
Arab traders frequented Chittagong since the 9th century. The port appears in the travelogues of Chinese explorers Xuanzang and Ma Huan. The Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta and the Venetian traveller Niccolo De Conti visited the port in the 14th century. The historical port had ship trade with Africa, Europe, China and Southeast Asia.
In 1552 De Barros described Chittagong as the “most famous and wealthy city in Bengal” due to the port of Chittagong which was responsible for all trade in the region.
The Portuguese settlement in Chittagong centred on the port in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Portuguese engaged in piracy, slavery and forced conversion in the region. After the Portuguese were expelled, Chittagong came under the rule of the Mughal Empire and was named Islamabad. It became an important shipbuilding centre, catering to the Mughal and Ottoman navies. After the rise of British dominance in Bengal following the Battle of Plassey, the Nawab of Bengal ceded the port to the British East India Company in 1760.
During WWII, Chittagong port was used by the allied forces in the Burma campaign.
If you’re planning a trip to Chittagong, do not forget to visit the seaport at least once. It might not look the same as before, but the touch of history is still alive. Standing on the same grounds where pirates and sailors of the seven seas once stood, you wouldn’t want to miss it for the world, would you?
Dhaka has a long way to go before it becomes a conventional tourist destination. Nonetheless, tourism is common in the 400-year-old city. There is a fixed rounded up list of places that people always go to whenever they visit Dhaka. But Dhaka has more to offer than Lalbagh fort, Jatiya Sangsad and the National Museum. There are a ton of places to visit and things to do outside of what the brochure or your tour guides tell you about.
Whether you are visiting Dhaka for the first time, or you’re a local who wants to experience this city like never before, here are the 5 things you must do to complete your Dhaka experience.
1. Embark on a spiritual journey in Hussaini Dalan
The Hussaini Dalan serves as the main Hussainiya in Dhaka. The shrine is a major gathering place for Shia Muslims, followers of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. It was originally built during the latter half of the Mughal rule (17th Century) and patronized by prince Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shah Jahan. The structure has an elegant Mughal and British architectural style. Followers of the Shia community come here to say their prayers; the atmosphere is amazingly calm and serene. You can feed the ducks in the adjacent ponds, listen to the sermon and exchange deep philosophical talks with the clerics.
Pro tip: Visit during the Muharram festivals. You can see and even take the part in the vibrant Muharram parades.
2. Visit the historic Ruplal House
The Ruplal house in Farashganj of old Dhaka is a mansion built in the late 19th century by Armenian Landlord Aratun. Ruplal brothers bought it in 1835 and hired Martin and Company of Calcutta for renovations. Ruplal House and Ahsan Manzil, which is nearby, used to be the ornament of Dhaka back in the day. The area was the residential area for the rich merchant class and top-posted British officers. Ruplal house hosted a lot of cultural activity of the time. Gurus of Indian classical music like Ustad Alauddin Khan, Ustad Wali Ullah Khan and Lakshmi Devi regularly hosted shows. Ruplal house was also politically important during the Renaissance period.
Ruplal house was expensive to build on site. The structure features an Indo-Greek architectural style, massive blocs, porticos, tinted glasses, ballrooms and feast halls. There used to be a clock tower on the top which was damaged by an earthquake. The fall of Ruplal House began after the Ruplal family left during the partition in 1947. Now the Ruplal House is jointly owned by several private and commercial owners.
Beauty boarding is a famous hotel, or as its commonly known, a boarding house. It also has a restaurant that serves Bengali food in a traditional homely atmosphere. The building was originally a zamindar house. A local rented the house in 1951 and then turned into a boarding house and restaurant. Located near Banglabazar book market, the spot became popular with the local book traders, literature aficionados, poets, and artists.
In terms of its intellectual importance, Beauty boarding can be compared to the Coffee House in Kolkata.
The boarding was a regular spot for poet Shahid Qadri and Nirmalendu Goon who stayed for five years in the boarding. Poets like Shamsul Haque, Rafiq Azad and Shamsur Rahman used to gather for their evening tea.
Pro tip: Beauty boarding doubles as a great background for your photos if you want to keep some mementos of your visit to the land of Bengal.
4. Go book hopping in Nilkhet
Nilkhet is the second largest book market in the country and a heaven for book lovers. 2500 shops are crammed together. The shops sell local prints and second-hand copies of original books. Bookworms of Dhaka, especially the students, go to Nilkhet for the best deals on books.
Pro tip: Looking for a rare book? Chances are you’ll find an original first edition copy of it, tucked somewhere in the piles of books that are on display. Make sure you bargain hard to get the best deals.
5. Take a boat ride in Buriganga
Buriganga is the major river on which the city of Dhaka stands. On it, is Sadarghat, the largest river port in the country. Hire a boat for an hour from Sadarghat, for only 200 takas per hour. The boatman will take you on a river ride to the other side of Dhaka. On a clear sunny afternoon, see the Dhaka skyline. Ahsan Manzil, the palace of the nawabs of Dhaka, will be visible from the river. Stay to enjoy the sunset. You’ll see hundreds of people commuting and crossing the river on wooden boats.
Riding a boat in Burganga is a chance to spend time in the calm waters, away from the bustling city while getting intimate with the lifestyle of the locals.
The best part of Dhaka is its people. What the city may lack in traditional grandeur and glamour, is made up for by the kind-hearted, lovely and forever curious people of this magical city. Open up to Dhaka, and it will open up to you with its four hundred years’ worth of culture, history, and tradition.
When the French Revolution in the 1790s overthrew the French monarchy and gave power to the people, it changed the course of world history forever. One might have heard of the historic names associated with this revolution like Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But not many of us know that the French Revolution also had a leader of Bengali origins.
Here’s the forgotten tale of Zamor, a young boy from Chittagong who participated in a revolution of people that changed the world forever.
The boy from Chittagong
From whatever little records can be found, Zamor was born in 1762, in Chittagong of Bengal. It is likely that he had little or some African lineage in him. Zamor was probably a member of the Siddi or Habshi community.
We make these assumptions based on Countess Du Barry’s mention of him as an “African boy” and his one portrait where his skin color gives off an impression that he’s African.
Kidnap by slave traders and ending up in France
Chittagong at that time was the finest port in the East. It was frequented by traders and businessmen from all over the world and slave trade was not an uncommon sight.
Zamor was the victim of these slave traders. He was kidnapped by British Slave traders when he was 11 and was sold to King Louis XV of France as a palace slave. The king, however, gifted him to his mistress, Countess Du Barry, who named him Louis-Benoit Zamor. She also believed he was African which she writes about in her journal.
“The second object of my regard was Zamor, a young African boy, full of intelligence and mischief; simple and independent in his nature, yet wild as his country. Zamor fancied himself the equal of all he met, scarcely deigning to acknowledge the king himself as his superior.”
The countess wrote in her journal.
Becoming a leader in the French revolution
Zamor had a keen interest in philosophy and was inspired by the works of Rousseau. In 1789, by the time Zamor turned 27, the French revolution broke out.
A young man inspired by Russeau, Zamor took the side of the revolutionaries and the Jacobins. He began to detest the Countess and her lavish lifestyle.
As an informant to the Committee of Public Safety, he got the Countess arrested by the police for protecting the Aristocrats in 1792. After that, Zamor eventually got more vocal and actively involved in the revolution. He rose to become a secretary in the revolutionary government.
His charges against his countess eventually led to her execution by guillotine. At the trial, Zamor publicly announced his birthplace as Chittagong of Bengal Subah, breaking the long misconception that he was African.
The Aftermath of the revolution
The tale of the heroic rise, of a young boy from Chittagong to a leader of the French revolution has a bitter ending.
Zamor was arrested by the Girondins soon after the execution of Du Barry. He was tried and imprisoned but was able to secure his release.
Zamor fled from France only to return in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon.
He bought a house near the Latin quarters of Paris and spent the rest of his life in extreme poverty as a school teacher. Zamor died in 1820 and was buried in Paris in an unnamed grave.
Somewhere in the city of art and revolution, lies the remains of a boy from Bengal who lost his home when he was eleven years old. A boy who was sold as a slave to the other side of the world. A slave who became a hero in a revolution that changed the world. Somewhere in Paris, sleeps a son of Bengal who never returned home.
It’s that time of the year again. Pohela Boishakh is tomorrow. As usual the country will welcome the Bengali new year 1426 with music, parades and day-long celebrations.
Even though every year we engage in the celebration of a day that is unique to our own heritage, we seem to have forgotten where it all started. In fact, we owe our very own holiday to the Mughal emperor Akbar.
Here’s how emperor Akbar invented the modern Bengali calendar.
A new religion?
During his tenure, Mughal emperor Akbar had set up one of the most powerful empires in the world. The seed of aspiration that emperor Babur had sowed when he first came to Hindustan had bloomed into a strong rooted tree by Akbar’s time.
With his empire and his hold over Hindustan secure, Akbar shifted his priorities to a more intellectual side of things.
But a different group of historians, perhaps more authentic accounts, suggest that Akbar had a higher motive than religion; taxes. Since the mughal empire followed the Islamic lunar calendar, it often posed a conflict with the common subjects as the lunar calendar was not in sync with the on and off seasons for cultivation in India. For the ease of his taxmen, Akbar ordered his astrologists to take the Islamic lunar calendar and prevalent solar calendar in India, combine them, and come up with a new lunisolar calendar.
This new calendar, known as Tarikh-e-Ilahi, was introduced all over India. But just like Akbar’s newly introduced religion, Din-e-Ilahi, this too didn’t last after his reign. Except for Bengal. In Bengal, this new calendar became an integral and useful part of daily Agriculture and the local Hindu religion.
The calendar that was invented by Akbar and introduced all over India has now become the sole identity of the Bengali nation and culture. This Pohela Boishakh, let’s take some time to remember the emperor who gifted us an integral part of our national identity. Literally. Shubho Noboborsho.
When the French Revolution in the 1790s overthrew the French monarchy and gave power to the people, it changed the history of the world. You might have heard of the historic names associated with this revolution like Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But did you know that the French Revolution also had a leader of Bangladeshi origins? We take a look at the forgotten tale of Zamor, a young boy from Chittagong who participated in a revolution of people that changed the world forever.
The second documentary of the Finding Bangladesh series, Bangladesher Harano Golpo was premiered last Friday, 26th October in KIB. Directed by Adnan M.S. Fakir, the second documentary comes out after ten long years since the first one. And it certainly lived up to the hype.
As the documentary runs on the screen, it slowly introduces to us, the lost tales and myths of Bangladesh. Makara, the mythological creature, Gazi and his army of tigers and Bonbibi, the guardian of Sundarbans, all come to life in the captivating narrative of the documentary. The journey takes us on a thrilling ride through our own mythology and history. Often in the tone of complaint and occasional comic relief.
In terms of its content, Bangladesher Harano Golpo deserves nothing less than a solid five-star rating.
In 76 minutes of its runtime, we learn more about Bangladesh and its rich tales than any history books have ever taught us. The Finding Bangladesh team has spared no expense in researching and crafting the stories beautifully. Animations and skilled cinematography bought the legends to life as the team take us through 17 historical locations across Southern Bangladesh.
But one might criticise it for its incoherent style of narrative. The sudden English narratives in the middle of continuous Bangla seemed to have served no apparent purpose. And Safdar Doctor’s comic relieves were enjoyable but it continued to break the immersion.
Nevertheless, Bangladesher Harano Golpo has been an enthralling journey through our history and legends. It serves its overall purpose with a fine touch of expertise, that is, to aware and educate us of our own heritage. The effort of Adnan M.S. Fakir and his team in digging out our roots and the tremendous amount of research that went into making it is commendable, to say the least. We eagerly look forward to what the misfits on the loo on wheels bring us next.
One of the oldest and the busiest cities in the world, Kolkata nicknamed the city of joy, is also the proud holder of a very befitting title, the cultural capital of India. The city of Kolkata is full of people, colours, scents and noises of all kinds and a rich cultural heritage to boast about.
Kolkata is a coveted destination for all the history buffs, cultural explorers and spiritual travelers. This is the city that saw the rise of modern India and is the birthplace of the Bengali renaissance. For someone from Bangladesh, there is no better destination to travel to if you want to embark on a journey of discovering your roots and heritage.
Anyone who is looking for the experience of a lifetime on a tight budget, the city of Rabindranath and Satyajit Roy welcomes you.
Traveling to Kolkata from Bangladesh is as easy as it gets. There are trains, which take roughly 8 hours, daily buses from Dhaka with a journey time of 12 hours (+ horrible Dhaka traffic) and of course aeroplanes that will land you in Dumdum airport in just about 2 hours or so. Indigo airlines would be the cheapest option if you’re planning to catch a flight.
Trains and buses will cost you the same, which would be a lot cheaper than an aeroplane. Trains operate between Dhaka to Kolkata four days a week from Kamalapur, tickets are sold as early as one month prior to your travelling dates. Check with the railway website for more information on timings and other details.
A number of buses operate daily on the Dhaka-Kolkata-Dhaka route. The best option would be to get a ticket for the BRTC-Shyamoli service. The staff is efficient and helpful and will get you a “VIP privilege” during land immigration, which can be a lot confusing than regular airport immigration. A round trip should cost you around 4000 or less, including taxes and other charges.
A place to stay
If you’re traveling by bus, they’ll drop you off right in the heart of the city, Marquis street. Just adjacent to Marquis street, is Sudder street, the central backpacker’s district. You’ll find a number of cheap to mid-range hotels on Marquis and Sudder street. Just walk into any if you haven’t pre-booked one.
If you’re looking for a cheap stay with quality rooms, check out Ashreen guest house on Cowai Lane. Right in between Sudder street and Hogg’s market, the Ashreen guest house has 3 star rated rooms, in terms of quality, for a jaw-dropping cheap rate. Just don’t expect a proper 3-star hotel facility. You get what you pay for.
Many of these hotels are in heritage buildings that are hundreds of years old and are meant to keep it that way. Whether you’re looking for a heritage stay or a quality upgrade for a little value for money, finding a stay in Kolkata is an absolute no-brainer.
Explore, explore and explore
Kolkata is a crowded and crammed city. It has its own fair share of dirt and filth. But every street in Kolkata has some sort of history and culture associated with it.
The streets of Kolkata are a bold mixture of the old and the new. When Job Charnock of the East India Company first arrived in the banks of Hooghly in 1686, he realized the potential of the region for English settlement. For the next 150 years, English colonists would clear the jungle of Hooghly and establish roads, erect buildings in British architectural style and turn Kolkata into the first capital of the British Raj in India. Kolkata still bears the sign of its glorious past. Old British colonial buildings still adorn the streets of Esplanade and Park Street. The Park street cemetery houses the graves of 200 years old British families who were the first to arrive in India.
College street houses the largest street book market in Asia alongside the Calcutta University, the first institution for westernised higher education in India and Asia. Calcutta University and the subsequent educational institutions in Kolkata would, later on, produce some of the brightest minds in Bengal and create an educated and politically conscious middle class who were the pioneer in the movement for Indian independence. The college street is also home to the infamous Indian Coffee House. The intellectuals of Bengal would come here often to discuss literature, politics and everything in between over a cup of coffee.
This is the same coffee house Manna Dey wrote his famous song about. And it is believed that Roma Roys and D’Souzas really did exist.
There’s Victoria Memorial, a magnificent structure built by the British in memory of Queen Victoria. Built with a mixture of Victorian and Mughal architecture in style, Victoria Memorial was quite literally erected because the British happened to be jealous of the Taj Mahal in Agra wanted something as magnificent as Taj Mahal for the Empress too. Whether it served its purpose or not is of course, for you to decide.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is near to the memorial. It’s an 18th-century church built in English-Gothic architectural style, for the increasing number of English populaces in the city. The church is open to all and visitors are expected to maintain civic and silence when visiting the church. The church also houses a number of Graves inside its walls. Some of these graves belong to prominent British bishops, reformists and Lords who died in Kolkata.
Birla Planetarium, the second largest planetarium in the world is close by and Birla Mandir, a magnificent temple with intricate marble stone carvings on its walls, is about 20 minutes taxi ride from the planetarium.
The famous Howrah bridge stands proudly on the Ganges river. Go to the Mullickghat flower market very early in the morning to witness one of the largest flower markets in Asia alongside the morning view of the Hooghly bridge.
Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral home of Rabindranath Thakur is a must visit. The house is now turned into a museum and you can get inside the rooms Rabindranath and his family used to stay. The house also served as a center for intellectual practices during the renaissance period and now doubles as the Rabindra Bharati University. Satyajit Ray’s ancestral home is also nearby.
Visit the Indian Museum, the largest in India to witness the vast and rich collection of our ancient civilisation and heritage. Top it off with a quick visit to Sir Stuart Hogg Market, commonly known as the New Market. The market built mainly for the British back in the 1800s now houses hundreds of shops that sell everything from antiques to traditional clothes. Shopping in the Hogg’s Market is an unforgettable experience.
Visit the Kalighat temple. The largest temple devoted to Goddess Kali or Durga. It is one of the 51 Shakti Pithas in Hindu mythology. According to some historians, the etymology of Kolkata is directly related to Kalighat. Mother Teressa’s house, Nirmal Hridoy, is right adjacent to the temple.
Above everything, the most important aspect of traveling that I’m an advocate of is that, take random aimless walks down the streets and alleys of a city. Breathe in the smell of the city as every city has a smell of its own. Experience lives of the locals like the locals do. If nothing else, it enriches the soul.
The magnificent culinary journey
It is needless to say that food in Kolkata are practically crafted to our taste buds. The street foods are to die for. In Madge lane, right opposite to the New Market, you’ll find stalls selling hot Pav Bhaji, Chicken Paneer Kebabs, Chow mein etc. Don’t forget to try the Kulfi Falooda.
In New Market, you’ll find Nizam’s which have been around for 100 years selling delicious Kosha Manghso, Chicken Roll, Chicken Kabirazi etc. Head over to Baba Rolls in Park street to try the mouth-watering hot kathi rolls. The momo chain “Wow Momos!” sells some of the best pan-fried momos in the continent.
In college street, you’ll find Hindustan Dhaba. They sell the best Punjabi thali in the city. A hearty lunch at the dhaba is not only easy on the wallet but also one of the most delicious meals you’ll ever get to try. The juicy butter chicken and tandoor roti alone is enough to make one come back to Kolkata just to try it one more time.
You’ll, of course, go to the coffee house when on College street. One heads up is that the coffee at the coffee house is nothing special to be absolutely honest. But it’s the conversation that people come here for, not the food.
You’ll find some of the best South Indian idly and dosa in Friend’s Eating House behind the new market and their masala chai is a must try. There’s a small stall in Hartford Lane, near Ashreen guest house, that sells snacks like sandwich, omelettes, toast, chai and many more. They open early for breakfast and close late at night. Head over there for a cheese omelette if you’re not feeling too adventurous. The boy who runs the stall is a talkative young chap who can recommend you a thing or two.
And the best for the last, Roshogollas. Kolkata would not be Kolkata if there were no roshogollas. Try Bheem Nag and KC Das to taste these delicious sweets and maybe get a box or two home.
Getting around in Kolkata
At times it feels like Kolkata never moved on from the colonial times at all. 1958 models of Hindustan Ambassador yellow taxis and Royal Enfield motorcycles ply the streets along with trams, a forgotten mode of transport in most parts of the world.
Kolkata has the oldest running tram system in the world right now and getting a tram ride is a part of the Kolkata experience. Human run rickshaws are still found in the streets.
There are of course buses and conventional Uber rides. Kolkata also has a metro line which happens to be the first and the oldest underground metro in India. Travelling in the metro is cheap and fast for covering long distances. However, get one of the trademark yellow taxis to cover short distances and places where the metro will not go. Make sure you bargain well. They’re not very costly anyway.
As night falls over this 300-year-old city, you should take a long look at the city from somewhere high enough that overlooks the old colonial buildings and crowded streets. The scent of incense would swirl into the sound of Azaan and the church bells would remind you that time is almost up.
You’ll get your return bus tickets from the same counter where you were dropped off. Or you could always take the train or the aeroplane, the choice is up to you.
As your bus/train will keep taking you further away from the city, you wouldn’t know what it is that’d keep calling you back. Is it the coffee house? Esplanade? The yellow taxis? Or is it the hundred years old night over Hogg’s market that stands witness to numerous events of history and culture? You will only know if you get back again. Kolkata, as always, welcomes you.