Through time and tide

Review by Shayan S Khan
Thursday, December 7th, 2017


‘Boats: A Treasure of Bangladesh’ acts as a paean to the ancient, yet now sadly dying craft of naval carpentry in Bangladesh. Its roots in the region go back far enough for Ibn Battuta, the 14th century traveller from Morocco, to have remarked with a sense of wonderment in his Rihla (Travels), on the “innumerable” boats carrying men and merchandise, and the existence of a gigantic fleet of war-boats. From that we may safely infer the Bengalis’ particular penchant for boatmaking goes back even further. Thus through millenia, the naval carpenters of Bangladesh honed an expertise in designing and creating various makes of wooden boats that gave this small South Asian country what is now the largest fleet in the world, as we learn in Boats.


A labour of love on the part of the authors – Enayetullah Khan and Yves Marre – the book deals with various aspects ranging from the early history of water navigation in this part of the world to the importance of preserving for future generations the rich cultural heritage associated with boats. Its five chapters manage to be comprehensive enough to give the reader an in-depth understanding of the importance of the naval carpenters’ homespun genius, as well as the aesthetic sensibilities associated with their craftsmanship. The intrinsic relationship between the people of the region and this simple yet indispensable form of transport are conveyed through the folkloric aspects related to life in water.  An account of the story of Manosamongol, where the rivalry of Chand Sadagor and Manasa Devi and the eventual victory of Behula takes us back to a time when all important things happened at least in the vicinity of water, is particularly effective in this.


The interviews with some of the last surviving boatmakers allows for some valuable insight into their lives and their craft. These are the people whose lifelong association with our river transport system can be a quintessential element in designing the future of transport and communications in our burgeoning nation. getting a better understanding about boats and their importance. Yet, they are also the ones most often overlooked in writing or talking about the subject. The advent of mechanised vessels in the age of commercialisation renders them a decidedly rare species these days, and we learn that we may now be into the very last generation of master carpenters. The authors are to commended for seeking them out.


It would be totally remiss to not mention the visual splendour contained within the pages of Boats, which adopts the coffee-table format without forgoing the intellectual discipline or rigour one would associate with serious research, or delving into some of the technicalities involved in the matter at hand. The photographs have been meticulously sourced and chosen to reflect the subject in all its colourful glory, and even in dark despondence, they somehow manage to capture a ragged beauty. A literature review is unnecessary, mostly because very little literature existed at all on the subject before Messrs Khan and Marre came along, and they certainly do not hesitate to convey their deep appreciation for others in Bangladesh and abroad, who have been working relentlessly in the same field and making meaningful contributions over the years. Every now and then we come across short but significant pieces written by many of them.


Let us brook no illusions. It is almost certainly too late now to save or preserve the dying of our naval carpenters, or their craftsmanship anyway. But the authors of Boats have presented us with an important and timely repository for the store of knowledge built up through time immemorial that they represent, passed on through generation after generation. And even as we concede the inevitable march of the mechanised vessel, the idea of Bengal as a region remains incomplete without its ubiquitous wooden boat.

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