Friday, April 05, 1996

^ The Pagoda ^

When Alex Haley's ROOTS shook the world some years back, there began a worldwide movement among conscious people of different cultural backgrounds to track their own roots and while I was not an active convert to this new phenomenon, a similar thought did disturb me constantly. I however made no efforts to find out if there was at all a Kunta Kinte like legend in my family.

To begin with, my life has been an interesting mix in diverse cultural cocktails! I was born in 1957 in Narayanganj in what was East Pakistan those days - my parents, native Assamese first cousins, married in 1952 and migrated to this part of the world. Came 1971, and we naturally sided with the aspirations of the Bengalees and witnessed the baptism in fire first hand: the bloody birth of Bangladesh. I am indeed proud that this historical development happened when I was an impressionable fourteen-year-old.

My parents ofcourse had the rare distinction of being citizens of four countries in their lifetime - British India, The Republic of India, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan and lastly The People's Republic of Bangladesh, were equally proud Bangladeshis till their death in 1987 and 1992 respectively. We ofcourse remained in touch with our families in Assam, and these contacts increased manifold, when I too married my first cousin in Assam in 1984!

One Ekushey Boi Mela- possibly in 1974, I purchased a statue of the Buddha on sale from where pottery is sold near what is now 'Doyel Chatter' in the Dhaka University. My mother, Noorjehan Haque (Sona), an extremely pious and virtuous women of the Islamic faith - strangely put up no objection for my bringing in the statue. I had expected her to brand the statue an 'idol', and worse perhaps me an 'Infidel'! All she wanted was it to be preserved with a proper coat of black paint to remove the idea that it was a terra cotta. My father Ziaul Haque, who was more of a 'whiskey drinking' liberal, thought of the Buddha statue as a great piece of art! There was never any argument in our house over Buddha.

The statue sat on top of our TV in the sitting room, for about a year, till I took personal control and moved it to my bedroom. I therefore did not make much about wearing a Buddha trinket around my neck, which I had purchased, at a street corner shop in Bombay in 1994. I do however admit that the trinket made me slightly more 'peaceful' - but it could well have been that I expected to behave more peaceably with such a serene object around my neck.

Borholla, the sleepy village in Assam on the foothills of Nagaland, has been home of my maternal grandparents. It is too small a place to appear in a map. The nearest big city is Jorhat that has a modest airport and is roughly 45 kilometers from Borholla.

Our current 'bungalow' - Gorajan House, is exactly fifty years old and was built by my grandfather. There exists a family tree, which suggested that only one family existed in our village - our family - and therefore all Muslims in our village were one way on the other related. I have thirty-six first cousins for instance - and therefore anybody I met in our village was either a distant or a close cousin, aunt or uncle. That calls for lots of 'hi's' and 'hello's' and village politics! Quite strangely a section of the villagers are till this day referred to as the 'Noe Ghoria' - meaning in Assamese 'new settlers. This confirmed my long held suspicion that my ancestors were probably the original inhabitants of that area for centuries.

Now, who were my ancestors? The question haunted me, but the sheer distance between Dhaka and Borholla, blunted any enthusiasm that I may have had. I felt it would be an exercise in futility, also since a family tree existed for reference I could afford to be complacent, or so I thought? I have had only a cursory glance at the tree in 1975, however I did remember one area in the family tree that continued to puzzle me. The earliest names were Barua's- somehow, somewhere, which ofcourse remains unexplained in the family tree, Muslim names start appearing, right down to my maternal grandfather.

My discovery happened by sheer accident. Since I was visiting Assam with two Bangladeshi friends (and the first time I actually drove my personal car all the way from Dhaka to Borholla and back), one of whom was also a lensmen, my uncle, Lutfur Rahman Hydoree arranged for a 'village tour' stretching some 20 kilometers radius around Borholla. We were to cover Rojabahar where historically the Ahom Kings in ancient Assam had their encampment, a visit to the Naga Chief Khochama's residence and the village of Chiamme.

Assamese history suggests that Maan the King of Burma invaded the country sometimes in its glorious past. This invasion saw Maan putting Assam to the sword and a systematic genocide scattered the Ahoms, the aboriginal Assamese tribe. Chiamme is perhaps the only village in Assam that has remnants of families of those Burmese invaders, who decided to stay back centuries ago, retaining all aspects of Burmese culture and lifestyle in its original form. It is a mystery how this village of the original invaders managed to survive.

Chiamme (reminds one of Thailand's old name, Siam), as we entered was as if we had entered Burma - yet this is Assam where time has inexplicably stood still. Women had sandalwood paste or 'tanaka' smeared on their face, wore sarongs and blouses which were vastly dissimilar to the 'mekhola sador' worn by Assamese women in the adjacent villages. There were 'chhang bungalows' or houses on stilt sprinkled everywhere, and everybody spoke Burmese and Assamese. While fully absorbed in the beauty of the surrounding - I had a distraction. It was small gap in a vast bamboo clearing, that showed the way to a lone Buddhist pagoda, hidden from view in the forest, and then a vast expanse of paddy field lay beyond.

Not a soul was in sight as I stepped in - not even the 'bhikkhu' or the monk who I learnt later had gone to beg for food in Borholla. A medium sized Buddha sat facing me. There were also two dozen smaller Buddha statues, bust's etc, in various postures of the great man. Each was a piece of art, and I do not know why, but tears welled up in my eyes, and as I sat down to pray for about fifteen minutes, our lensmen captured me frame by frame.

Assam traditionally has an agnostic way of life in its population, due in part to the preaching of the reformist saint Sankerdev. It does not have a tradition of idol making or worship, and therefore the Buddha statues that I was looking at, could well be from as far away as Burma or even Sri Lanka. I was tempted to take one and make a run for it - but God had other plans for me, perhaps the spirit of Gautama Siddhartha - the Buddha!

I returned the next morning and met the monk. My request for a Buddha statue, I was told, had to be referred to the 'council of village elders' which I found ludicrous - as non-of the statue had any antique value. I took pain to explain that I have come all the way from Bangladesh, my family is from a village nearby, that I have great regards and respect for the Buddha, and pointing to the trinket around my neck - that I have worn the Buddha for the last two years.

My long soliloquy assisted by my cousin Sabri, had its desired effect on the monk who summoned the village chief, a wiry yet active man of about ninety years of age. The elder started by saying: 'son, there are ways that you treat a Buddha statue, specially ones that you get from Pagoda's even as small as ours - and I do hope you are educated and responsible enough to carry them out, for otherwise this becomes only an idol, and idol worship is not permitted in Buddhism'.

I explained that I was a Muslim by birth, believe in the Buddha and am now a practitioner of 'ontor dhorma' - a school of agnosticism that believes religion as something that remains in the 'ontor' or within the soul, and is too personal to be discussed. Not convinced, the elder asked for a reference from my village. I had this to say:'I am from Borholla and am the nephew of the deceased Hongkhwar, otherwise known all over Assam as the Late Shafiur Rahman'. I had absolutely no idea that this introduction would mean stepping into a gold mine of information

The elder was an authority of the oral history of Chiamme (almost like the 'griots; of Africa) - and could immediately tell me about my roots. My ancestors six to eight generations or more, went with the title of 'Kuhumphulia Barua', they were Buddhist and belonged to this congregation or parish. They were patrons of this pagoda!

Sure I could have the Buddha statue, surely they had no fear that it would find its place of due honor in my house in Dhaka. As a price, I was ofcourse asked to help in the ongoing restoration and painting of the pagoda, and participate physically in the process if possible. Realizing that I was hard pressed for time, my contribution of Rupees fifty for the statue was humbly received and placed inside the donation box by the monk. Back home in the village an hour later, the family tree confirmed that we were after all the 'Kuhumphulia Barua's'!! I was going to find out more.

Interestingly this is only a title members of my family were identified with, and not necessarily a name. In the ancient days of yore, during the reign of the King of Ahom, long before cement was discovered, a mortar would be mixed into fine paste for civil constructions. The mix had clay, lime, sand and various other materials. To bind all of that firmly together and make it fit for application, 'kuhum' or 'kushum' in Bengalee, meaning the yolk of eggs would be added. A special fermentation process probably went along, as the yolk would start 'swelling' or getting larger in size and density. This is 'phulia' - which in Bengalee also means swollen. The officers entrusted to oversee this particularly delicate part of the production process were called 'Barua's' or officer's - hence 'Kuhumphulia Barua'.

I found my roots on the 22nd February 1996 -a great day of blessings and a great discovery. I have yet to find the first 'Kuhumphulia Barua', the Kunta Kinte in my ancestor. My search may continue?

April 1996


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