Getting alarmed at the sound of my footsteps, the pigeons resting in the joist flew away. I entered the hallway; it was dark and gloomy. The shadow behind the pillars and the fading rays of sunlight which found its way through the broken windows created a fusion, a penumbra. I slowly walked towards the centre of the grand hall room. Once it was the ‘Andarmahal’ (inner house) of the mighty Zamindar (landlord) of Hemnagar, now just an eerie ruin.
I carefully started to go up through a semi-circular stairway located at the corner of the hall-room. It was covered with moss, slippery with rainwater and it ended up at the roof- surrounded by a seven-feet wall. The ‘ladies of the house’, kept out of the reach of commoners, used to come here. The walls only had some peep-holes through which they looked outside.
I peeped through one of the holes and spotted a beautiful pond on the South. I climbed down the stairs and found my way to it through the puzzling hallway. It was drizzling and the harmonic raindrops gave the serene water of the pond an ethereal look. I stretched my hands, looked at the skies. It was unreal!
Suddenly a guy’s voice broke my trance. “This place is not good”, he said, “In monsoon, snakes come out”, he paused a little, “And if someone comes here alone, he faces other problems”.
I looked at the guy who in his forties, had a vanishing hairline and beetle-leaf stained teeth. He introduced himself as one of the employee of the Hemnagar Degree College, located at the front palace of the ‘Hemnagar Zamindar Bari’ complex. “Once, one of the concubines of Zamindar Sriramchandra named Joita Devi committed suicide in this pond; since then a lot of people have seen her ghost here as the dejected soul never left the place”, he said.
I smiled; that was not for the first time I have heard such a story. Everywhere in Bangladesh you would locate such ruins and hear lots of strange stories attached to it. ‘Superstitious’? ‘Anachronistic’? Maybe, but this is what rural Bangladesh is with it’s ingenuous people – living in unruffled nature, naively bearing a rich history and inherently protecting the unique customs…. You would love to see that!
Welcome to the world of true-tourism!
I didn’t think of that coinage (true-tourism) until I met Tim Steel. I bet you could hardly find an English guy in his mid-seventies who after a successful career in Occident came to a small country of third-world, fell in love with it and planned to promote its beauty to the world. Ok, this is Tim for you.
I first saw him while I was attending a seminar on eco-tourism. There he was passionately talking about the tourism prospect of Bangladesh. “In 1997, I came here to visit Bangladesh, from then on I have been in and out of this nation for the past 14 years”, Tim said, “I absolutely fell in love with this country”. But his love didn’t confine only to his words; he wanted to do something which had barely been tried out in this country. Tim planned to promote the ‘riverine tourism’ of Bangladesh, especially to the outside world.
“At present I am working as the chief operational officer (COO) of a tourism company named ‘Tiger Tours’ and our company is constructing a boat which we named ‘MV Tanguar Haor’. This boat is with international four star facilities and it can ferry 26 passengers. Bangladesh has some of the most beautiful rivers in the world and we planned to float the boat along the rivers with tourists and anchored it at various points to show them the archeologically rich sites of rural Bengal including palaces, mosques, temples and tombs. We named the tour as –‘Palaces of Princesses’”, Tim told me about his plans.
“Right now we are traveling along the rural Bangladesh for selecting archeologically rich sites, locating possible points along the shore for the boat’s anchorage, and checking out the feasibility of promoting tourism based small and medium enterprises (SME) in those places”, Tim said, “This is what we called our research phase”, he added.
Tim invited me to join one of his ‘research phase’ tours to observe how they had been planning to run the tour. I gladly accepted the offer. On June 29, we started our journey. Rene, Shehab and Maruf from the ‘Tiger Tours’; Samira and Ridwan from ‘Katalyst’ and journalist Sujon from the ‘Banglavision’ channel joined the ‘entourage’.
Firstly, I didn’t understand the purpose of ‘Katalyst’ (an international business consultant which finance development programs) but Samira and Ridwan explained to me that they were collaborating with ‘Tiger Tours’ to work out the procedure of involving the local community and enterprises with the ‘Tiger Tours’ riverine tourism plan. Rene came from USA and she currently worked as a consultant for the ‘Tiger Tours’. She also took and documented the photographs of various sites. Shehab, a student of Archeology and the research assistant to Tim acted as the tour’s navigator.
It was an outlandish tour mixed with certainties and possibilities. Prior to journey, the one certain thing we knew about the itinerary was that our night halt would be at the ‘Jamuna Resort’ in Bhuapur of Tangail. The rest was what I termed as an –‘unplanned plan’. We had some names of the places with rich historic and archeological values but we barely knew about their exact locations. The plan was following ‘maps’ and asking ‘locals’ to get direction.
“In almost every corner of Bangladesh you would find something, rich in historical values. Apart from the known ones, you could always come across a new such thing if you just roam around and ask the locals”, Tim said, “That’s our plan, roaming around, visiting the known sites and discovering the new ones”.
We asked the locals for directions while in our SUV, and were misguided on several occasions and ended up taking a lot of wrong turns. We stopped everytime we spotted an old structure. We talked with locals and indulged in different kinds of local delicacies. It was indeed a great fun!
We first went to Manikganj. I have to make a confession. Prior to that tour, I never knew that there were so many things to see there. At Harirampur union, we came across a Mughal –era three-domed mosque besides which the tomb of Shah Rustom (RA) was located. People used to go there from different places for centuries and make wishes. We then went to Dashchira Zamindarbari of Shibalaya union but the degradation of the site has left almost nothing available to see. In Shibalaya we also found an amazing Kali Temple. It was really a huge structure and through times a Banyan tree had grown along the temple’s outer walls, just like a python gyrating around its prey.
We made a sudden detour along a village road and walked for sometime to visit a beautifully built large ancient wooden house. Then we traveled for hours to reach the Teota Palace. “This one structure really fascinates me. The skillfully crafted works along the palace walls and the magnificent peak of the temples are just remarkable, particularly when you consider that the workers did all those works manually, without the help of any modern engineering methods”, Tim said, “The sad thing is people barely know about its existence let alone its history. The other day, I googled its name and the only thing that appeared was the blog piece that I had written on it”.
After that we went to the last place on our itinerary for that day. It was a staggering palace complex in Nagarpur union of Tangail. We were literally stunned for a moment when we entered the palace premises. Several buildings from Mughal and British reign standing there as witnesses of history. It took us almost an hour to visit the whole complex. Tim said that he had been to many parts across the globe and visited many palace complexes but he barely came across such a large one like that of Nagarpur.
We rested at the Jamuna resort at that night. Next day, we started early in the morning. The sky was gloomy and intermittent rain almost spoilt our plan. We actually enjoyed the weather. Those who have never been to rural Bengal during monsoon will never understand the beauty of it. Amid the day-long shower, we had traveled a lot to reach the Hemnagar palace complex (described earlier) in Jamalpur. I was fazed, dazed and amazed by its sheer size, beauty and locations. For half an hour, I was swaggering around the back palace; alone, just to get the feeling of what it was like to be a ‘Zaminder’. Lucky me! The experience was out of the world!
That day, before heading towards Dhaka at late afternoon, we had made several stoppages along the Padma and the Jamuna River to identify the suitable locations for the boat’s anchorage. We also went to a pottery village at Sharishabari union to check out the scope of promoting SME there. I got surprised when some of the villagers told me that their life was better during the tenure of Zamindars as they used to get allowances from them during the monsoon – a time when they are usually out of pottery work due to heavy rain and lack of constant sunlight. Strange! I always envisaged the ruthless ruling of Zamindar was tyrannical for its poor estate people.
Interestingly, wherever we went, we stumbled on some strange stories told by the locals. “These are something that we want to promote; want to sell to the outside worlds – the places, the people and the stories”. Tim explained, “Tourism is not about getting into some places, taking some snaps, living in artificially decorated hotels and leaving behind the garbage. Rather it’s the knowing of people and history, living alike in the ambience to get the taste of their lifestyle and helping the community to protect its own identity and heritage; that is the real sustainable tourism”, he said while we were having a conversation at a small road-side tea shop near the river Padma.
Tim’s word opened a new window of my mind. I had an epiphany. What is really the point of visiting a new place if we don’t want and try to know it better or to indulge in its people’s lifestyle? If we just build hotels around a tourist attraction and want people coming to stay there for doing some quick business, then we just deprive them from getting the real pleasures and real purpose of tourism.
“Especially foreigners do not and will not visit Bangladesh to stay in some hotels; rather they want an experience, the true-one, the raw-one. That’s the reason the whole tourism industry across the world has shifted towards the sustainable eco-tourism which means tourism by preserving local environments and involving local communities”, Tim said.
“The real Bangladesh is – thousands of mosques and temples, hundreds of old palaces, dozens of forts hidden abruptly in its countryside along with magnificent hospitable people”, he said, “And experiencing it would be walking along the muddy village roads; coming across its people’s superstitions, folklores, bona fide generosity and artless enthusiasm; getting the glee of spotting beautiful historical ruins in the middle of nowhere; listening to what the Boyati (village singer) sings under a banyan tree or even having a cup of tea at a road-side tea shop amid the monsoon rain”, Tim said.
This article is quoted from The Independent. Follow the link to read the original article written by FAISAL MAHMUD AND published 15. July 2011.
This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.