Monday, September 10, 2012

A Walk on Hindu Street, Shankharia Bazar

Not long after we touched down in Dhaka, about two weeks after we got here, we went on a tour organized by the wonderful CLO office at the Embassy (Community Liaison Office).  They are the people who can tell you everything you need to know about anything you want to know, and they also organize awesome trips and events.
On the bus waiting to explore Dhaka.  Sage is an ostrich.
Instead of hitting the whole tour in one sitting, I think I'll start with the first stop we made: Shankharia Bazaar, more commonly referred to by foreigners as Hindu Street.  We knew it was gonna be fun when we saw the festive pink tent entrance.  It looks like an entrance leading to a market or something, and the name Bazar would make you think that, but it's not.  It's just a street with a lot of Hindu artisans, or shankaris, stores, homes, food stalls, etc.  But it's all Hindu with even a shrine or two thrown in.

Entrance to Shankharia Bazar, or Hindu Street.  
Bangladesh is primarily a Muslim country with around 90% of the population practicing Islam.  However, both Buddhism and Hinduism played an integral role in the the country's past, and maintain an underlying presence.  According to Lonely Planet, Buddhism was the number one religion in Bengal from at least 304 BC to the 12th century AD, when Hindu armies squashed the Buddhists and came into reign.  The Buddhists retreated to the Chittagong Hills, where there are still a number of distinct ethnic groups practicing the religion.  In fact, if you are up on your current events, you'll know that the current violence in Myanmar (Burma) is, in a nutshell, Buddhists killing Muslims.  That violence has spilled into the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, where the two countries share a border.  Unfortunately for us, that means we are not allowed to travel there (sniff, sniff).  It's supposed to be an anthropologist's dream with all the groups and religions and cultural practices, etc.  Perhaps we'll get there before four years are out.
Drop-in anytime Hindu shrine on Hindu Street
So that brings me back to Hinduism and the Shankharia Bazar.  The little neighborhood is located in Old Dhaka, where (as you may have guessed) the old part of town is.  Hinduism only had a glory in Bengal (of which Bangladesh used to be a part) for about a century, but it is the country's second largest religion, with around 9% of the population practicing it.  The other 1% or so are mostly Christians and Buddhists.  If you are wondering, I got these "verified" statistics off Wikipedia :).  Interestingly, as a total rambling aside, when you are looking for household help, you'll be sort of surprised to find that a large number of people working in expat households are actually Christians.  They are from the Garo ethnic group.  When Jeff and I visited the National Museum, we learned that the Garo used to have their own religion, but got missionized by Christians (Catholic, I think) and now practice their own form of Christianity.  Apparently, it may be preferable to have a Christian housekeeper, cook, gardener, or driver because they "work harder."  Really?  Wonder how that stereotype got started.  Sounds an awful lot like other stereotypes I've heard in the past.
The micro bus with all of us packed in like sardines.
JUST KIDDING!  This is a taxi (no, we are not allowed to take one). Notice how many times it has been beaten and repainted and bondo-ed :):):).

THIS is the micro bus.  Embassy-approved for travel, unlike the ramshackle taxi.
So that brings me back to Shankharia Bazar AGAIN.  We were two micro-buses of Americans (U.S., that is, not Canadians or South Americans or Central Americans - making sure I acknowledge that the U.S. are not the only Americans), complete with rainbow colored children of all ages.  It probably goes without saying that we were a spectacle as the buses honked and pushed their way through the hordes to deposit us in a choice beginning spot.  Most of us were fresh of the plane, too, and this was our first real experience of just getting out and about.  Although we did venture to the market our first weekend with our friends, Mark and Kathrin and their three tow-headed little girls.  Post on that later.

The guide books bill Shankharia as one of the most photogenic streets in Dhaka.  My pictures do not really do it justice.  A new camera is at the top of our list of near-future purchases.  The streets are super narrow with tall buildings packed with apartments on the top floors, and shops on the bottom level.

Sage walking down Hindu Street.  Hard to snap a photo of him because he's always hiding from the camera.  The other picture is decoration strung between the buildings, cloth with strings of marigolds hanging down. To the right is another picture of Sage, walking away.  
View of apartments from the street. Below is inside view.
When you go into the houses, it's extremely humbling to realize how many people are living in one building.  Most of them have a long, dark, narrow hallway that you walk into from the street.  Off of that hallway as you walk toward the central courtyard, there may be one or two rooms, each inhabited by an entire family.  Inside, you see about 3-4 levels, each with several rooms and several families.  The tour company arranged for us to see the inside of one.

Small doorway off street, leading down narrow
hallway to courtyard of a house.  Above is the interior of
one room with a little girl

The courtyard is where the well is for bathing water, and the communal bathing area.  For drinking water, the women or older children have to take their metal jugs to the pump in the street.  Made us wonder about cholera.....

On the left is the communal bathing room in the house of apartments.  On the right, the woman is filling her jug from the well.  She was bathing by pouring the water over while she is fully-clothed.

This woman posed for the cameras.  The tour
company probably had a deal worked
out with her, but it made for a nice photo op.

As she walks away from her bathing, you can see
the red streak in the part of her hair.
That denotes a married Hindu woman.

This is the communal water faucet where you come for drinking water.  They were located about one every block or two.

Paper crowns
There are lots of things you can buy on Hindu Street, including paper crowns for celebrations, handmade musical instruments like harmoniums and drums, perota (flat bread), lunch, and even red dots for your forehead!  One thing I did not get a picture of, but you can see on the wrists of the women in the pictures, is the white bracelet.  These are only worn by the Hindus.  They are one of the crafts sold by the shankari artisans and are made from shell.  The whole scene in Shankharia Bazar is very chaotic, festive, and delicious, and dirty.  We will definitely be going back on our own to explore a little further.

These are actually eggs to go with the perota; we didn't go there.
Beautiful drums of different shapes and sizes - a bit dusty.

It's like buying hair barrettes,
but it's red dots for the forehead!
Making delicious perota (like naan).

Still not sure why, but there were strings of
marigolds and other flowers for sale all over.

Lunch.  We really didn't eat here, but I liked their presentation.  Notice all of the sweets to the left.

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