Our morning flight from Mumbai took us to Agartala, from where a pleasant 70-km ride, through a smooth state highway that snaked around green undulating hills, took us to the border town of Sonamura.
While generally friendly, most Indo-Bangladesh border crossings are very crowded and tout-ruled affair. Fortunately, the virtually deserted one at Bibir Bazaar was just the opposite. There were just two officials and two border guards on each side (if I exclude a hyperactive pet monkey outside the Bangladesh immigration office), who ensured clearances within minutes. Another twenty minutes drive brought us to the center of the Comilla town, at three in the afternoon.
Before the independence, prosperous Comilla was known as the “town of banks and tanks”. The town still has a number of very large man-made water tanks. But most local banks, originally owned by the Hindus, closed their doors due to varied reasons. However, the crossing, with the century old buildings of Pubali Bank on one side and the Town Hall on the other, is still the busy focal point of the city, where pedal-rickshaws often overwhelms pedestrians and cars.
The Town Hall continues to be busy, holding social and cultural events. My friend had invited me to Comilla Club, located within the Town Hall complex. Its lawn tennis courts, opulent teak-paneled card rooms and large international tournament standard billiard rooms spelt a certain class. Though sports activity was somewhat on the decline, this club remains an exclusive bastion for the city elites.
The main street of the town, lined up with big shops – jewelry, medicine, sweetmeat, clothing etc, gave an impression of a mixed-religion character of the city. Most of these shops were originally owned by the Hindus but with time and tide many changed hands. But, interestingly, brand names of some such institution were so strong, that the new Muslim owners have kept the original Hindu family names in their signboards. Some iconic, Hindu establishments still continue to do roaring business. Some, of them like Matri Bhander, which produces distinctive and heavenly tasteful Rasomalai, are so ‘world-famous’ that they inspired many copycats in and around Comilla.
The town houses a number of Mosques, but none is considered a tourist spot. On the other hand, alongside others, its famous Hindu temples are often visited by a number of curious local Muslims tourists as well. In the centre of the town, the Rajeswari Kali temple is quite active even to this day. The ancient Jagannath temple is a grand ancient edifice which makes its presence felt in an isolated stretch just outside the town.
Built by the King of Tripura in eighteenth-century, it was virtually abandoned and fell into disrepair during the Pakistani regime, until Ramesh Roy Choudhuri, a respected social leader and later ISCON adopted this temple. Quite in contrast to the serene majesty of the Jagannath temple is the simple but exuberant double Do-chala (dual roof) architecture of the Chandimura temple. This temple of Goddess Durga is magnificently situated on a hill top at the outskirt of the city and draws many pilgrims and tourists.
An isolated eleven-mile long spur of dimpled low hill range known as the Mainamati- Lalmai range runs through the middle of Comilla district from north to south. Most visited site here is Mainamati complex, located just beyond the Cantonment area. It is the home of one of the most important Buddhist archaeological sites in the sub-continent, dating approximately from 7th to 12th centurie. Centre-piece of the sprawling complex is the Shalban Vihara, an ancient Buddhist religious educational centre. It consists of 115 cell-like residential areas for Buddhist religious students, built around a spacious courtyard with a temple in the centre, facing its only gateway complex to the north.
In Kutila Mura, situated on a flattened hillock, about 5 km north of Salban Vihara, three stupas are found side by side representing the Buddhist “Trinity” or three jewels, i.e. the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. About 2.5 km. north-west of Kotila Mura stupas is Charpatra Mura, where a number of shrines can be found, after approaching through a gateway which leads to a spacious hall. The Mainamati Museum houses a good collection of stone and bronze sculptures as well as numerous other artifacts discovered here.
Later, we embarked on a day-trip to Chandpur town, about 60 Km away. While I wanted to explore local attractions on the way like famous Hazipur Mosque, my parents were more interested in visiting their long lost ancestral homesteads. During the partition of India, families of both my parents were forced to leave their homes and farmlands, located in nearby villages. It was an emotional scene when they actually reached the spot and saw their sprawling homes, encompassing many tinned roofed houses, ponds and gardens. The descendents of the original occupiers were very cordial in one case, and quite diffident in the other.
However, the sadness from the bitter memories, slowly evaporated when, tracking the Dakatya (Gomoti) river, we reached the Chandpur Mohana, a truly amazing natural sight. Here, the Gomoti river joins the huge streams of the Padma (Ganges river) and the Jamuna (Brahmaputra river), forming a huge expanse of torrid water, before flowing further down as Megna River. It was an immensely beautiful vista, but slightly foreboding at the same time. From Thota, a jutting extension of the bank, we watched the teeming life on the river – myriad steamers and passenger boats and fishing trawlers out to catch world’s tastiest Hilsa fish.
Back in Comilla, I accompanied my parents in their nostalgic exploration of many pre-independence-era institutions like Faizunnesa Girls School, Ishwar Pathshala, Victoria College, Abhai Ashram and Ram Ghat. While most of them had lost their shine during repressive Pakistani regime, good thing is they still stand, thanks to the milder post-1971 establishments. We also came to know that Comilla has better inter-religion relations than most other places in Bangladesh. During our visit, warm hearted Bangladeshis, from all walks of life, were very welcoming and hospitable to us.
-— By FPJ Bureau