When I mention the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the first thing your mind might turn to are the steep hills, thick jungle and wide rivers that characterise this south eastern corner of Bangladesh. The second is probably the region's rich ethnic diversity. CHT is home to eleven different indigenous/tribal groups, in addition to the Bengali community. Each group maintains a unique language, culture, dress and even farming method, differing markedly from the rest of Bangladesh's population.
Within the Hill Tracts many communities follow alternate faiths to Islam, with many indigenous/tribal groups identifying as Buddhist, Hindu and Christian. Further the CHT traditional governance system, based on customary laws and lead by three Rajas, operates side-by-side to local government structures. Indeed, the CHT region is a mosaic of diversity and as a proud Chakma woman I view this as a strength to be celebrated.
One joyous display of this diversity is the recently concluded Boi-Sa-Bi festival - the largest and most significant indigenous/tribal cultural event on the CHT calendar. For three days, the region becomes an explosion of colour and celebration, commencing on the 12 April and culminating on Pahela Baishakh. It is an opportunity to mark the year past, and to welcome a new one - filled with peace, prosperity and high agricultural yield.
Boi-Sa-Bi, which is the collective name given to the celebrations, is based on the combination of the first letters given to the event by the three main indigenous/tribal groups in the region - 'Boi' from the Tripura Boisu, 'Sa' from the Marma Sangrai and 'Bi' from the Chakma's Bizu celebrations.
Different communities bring their own unique flavour to the festivities. As part of the event the members of the Tripura community perform a popular dance known as Goraiadance that reflects day-to-day life and the steps of jhum cultivation, while the Marma form a procession to carry statues of Buddha down to the river for bathing, before reinstalling them in their shrines. Mro communities eat bitter food to prevent evil spirits from consuming their bodies, and the Khumi - the region's smallest indigenous/tribal group - place specific crops aside especially for domestic animals.
As a young child I have fond memories of joining other youths from Chakma and Tanchangya communities to take part in the well-known Phul Bizu. On the first day of the Bizu I would rise with the sun and, filled with excitement, earnestly collect flowers from nearby gardens, before floating them in the river on a banana leaf as an offering to Lord Buddha. Today, I take enjoyment in other aspects of the festival such as meeting with neighbours, partaking in dance and song, and eating plenty of food!
During the Boi-Sa-Bi festival, the colour and ethnic diversity of CHT is on full display. It is an opportunity for indigenous/tribal people to engage in their culture and heritage, and an occasion for the region's Bengali community to enjoy the atmosphere and learn more about their neighbours. In this sense, the importance of Boi-Sa-Bi as a platform for bringing diverse communities together in celebration and unity cannot be understated - particularly in post-conflict Hill Tracts.
As part of its intervention the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility (CHTDF) has been promoting and supporting the endurance and richness of diverse cultures in the region. This has included partnering with local community organisations to preserve indigenous/tribal practices through small grant schemes, supporting the traditional Circle Offices to hold the annual Raj Punnah event, and assisting the Ministry of CHT Affairs and Hill District Councils in organizing Boi-Sa-Bi festivities.
As someone who grew up in and has a strong connection to CHT I feel comfortable in saying that there are few places like it. Multiple faiths, traditional institutions and twelve different ethnic groups have combined into a cultural melting pot as alive as it is varied - something I see as a positive and important part of my identity as a Hills person.
So on the commencement of this New Year I encourage you to pause and reflect on all of the diversity, ethnic and other, that exists in this country and the contribution that it has had in weaving the colourful and vibrant tapestry that is Bangladesh.
The writer is a Communications and Outreach Officer at the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility
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