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FEATURE ARTICLE: Borodin – Christmas in Bangladesh June 6, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : Bangladesh, Features, Guest authors , trackback

Joyce Das

It was around 9 am on Christmas morning. I was on my way to Savar, about 24 kilometres to the northwest of Dhaka city, the place that is mostly famous for Jatiyo Smriti Soudho, the National Monument for the Martyrs of the Liberation War of Bangladesh. But in April 2013, it hit the headlines with the collapse of a large garment factory, causing many deaths and injuries. Both my father and I were going to the Savar Baptist Church to attend the Christmas service. We were travelling by a car, sitting on the back seat scanning the street scene with curious eyes. The driver suddenly broke the silence; “Finally today people have come out with their vehicles after so long”, he said. And he was right. During a month of blockade, violence, and political instability leading to the national elections, people could hardly come out of their homes in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

Christmas in Savar (Photo: J. Das)

Christmas in Savar (Photo: J. Das)

Since 25 November, the entire country was embroiled in political violence. Between the night of 25 November and 21 December, the death toll had reached 127, out of which 46 were ‘common’ people, that is, innocent bye-standers without any political affiliation. In this context of turmoil, most of the Christians could not go back to their homes in villages – something that they normally do every festive season – to celebrate Christmas. In retaliation, on 23 December, the Christian Association organised a human-chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, to protest the countrywide blockade so that the ordinary Christians can celebrate. The lack of response to this protest has frustrated many Christians; one of them posted on her Facebook: “Blockade across Bangladesh….!!!! Because we are the minority…No one cares about our festival…!!! We do not have the right to go home and celebrate our festival with our family and friends…do we?!?” Others kept their frustration within themselves and tried to talk about the situation casually, as though it is normal to expect that the political parties would never consider Christmas as a festival significant in Bangladesh.Indeed, the proportion of the Christian population in Bangladesh is small, only about 0.03%. This small size makes them politically unimportant and voiceless within the Bangladeshi social milieu. We will come to that in a minute.

In spite of all the political turbulence around, Christmas was celebrated last year in Bangladesh, as it had been always. This story is about this tiny community, who are part of the diverse ‘minority groups’ in Bangladesh, created by history and now caught in complex political-social problems within South Asian nations. I want to tell the readers of this blog how Christmas is celebrated in Bangladesh: no snow ever fell in Bangladesh, a country that is located right on the Tropic of Cancer. The Christians here look exactly the same as any other Bangladeshi, eat rice and fish-curry like the rest of them and celebrate 21 February as their Mother Language Day and Pohela Baishakh as Bengali New Year’s Day with the rest of the people. Still, Christmas in Bangladesh is special because of its special history and its quaint form shaped by the Bengali culture, its norms, and rituals.

Let me describe the special church service that was held for the Christmas. Before going to the church, I rang up my friend Namrota Chism, a Garo Christian woman. Now, the Garo community is an ethnic or a tribal group from the far-eastern parts of Bangladesh. Namrata is in her early thirties, working in a Dhaka-based non-governmental development organisation. Her husband, Peter Sarker, is a Bengali Christian man in his mid-thirties, working in an international humanitarian organisation. Both of them are now visiting Savar for Christmas in her in-laws’ place. It is part of Bangladeshi Christian tradition that people go back to their churches at least for the Christmas celebration. I asked her if we could stop over in her place to leave the Christmas cake, which was our Christmas present to them. Christmas cakes were not common until about thirty years ago, but have now become part of the Christmas tradition.

When we got to the church, it was, as expected, fully packed with people. We met many people on our way in, who are members there, but now living and working in Dhaka, and who returned to celebrate Christmas. There were other people we met, who could not go to their own churches in other districts of Bangladesh due to the nationwide blockade so joined there. The semi-pacca tin-roofed church was fully decorated for Christmas, not with Christmas trees or red and green balls, but in a traditional fashion with strings to which hundreds of small pink triangular thin paper-pieces were attached with glue. In Bangla, they are called Nishan, which means small flags. This way of decorating the church compound is very common in rural areas: not just for Christian festivities, but for other religious festivities, wedding ceremonies and even for the annual programmes of schools. Whenever you see all these small pink flags hanging in an area, you surely know that some kind of ceremony is happening there. Savar Baptist Church was no exception. However, some form of modern Christmassy decorations in green and red inside the church and a big digital banner, where ‘Shuvo Borodin’ (Merry Christmas) is written in a contemporary digital Bangla font, at the church gate showed us the blend of modernity and tradition in celebrating Christmas.

Indeed in both West and East Bengal (East now forms Bangladesh), the Christians have created a particular identity as Bengali Christians. However, such identity of Bengali Christians varies across denominations and other intersectionality such as location (rural/urban), class and so on. Christian identity in South Asia is not monolithic, rather it is extremely diverse. However, even within such diversity of identity politics, Bengali Christians are characterised by a set of unique customs, behaviours and practices that make them different from other Christian identities across the region. Christmas is one time that creates a vivid picture of their Bengali Christian identity.

In Bengali language, the word Christmas does not have a direct translation. It is called Borodin. In literal meaning, boro means big and din means day, therefore, a direct translation of the term Borodin will give us ‘big day’. This interpretation or rather to say integration within the Bengali vocabulary surely portrays Bengali Christian identity in a more profound way. It is often said that at first a Bengali scholar Bholanath Shwarma suggested the term ‘Khrishtashtomi’ as a translation of Christmas. The term resembles ‘Janmashtomi’, the birthday of Lord Krishna. However, most people did not accept this term. Later, a renowned poet, Ishwar Chandra Gupta gave a new Bangla name to Christmas, Borodin, which means ‘the big day’, and which was widely accepted by the entire Bangla-speaking population. Such an integration of Christmas in the form of Borodin successfully created a new form of Christian identity, the Bengali way of being Christian.

The Christmas service was about to begin at the Savar Baptist Church. As we entered the church we saw that the congregation was sitting down on mats, women sitting on the right hand and men on the left. Both Namrota and I sat with other women on the floor and my father went to sit on a chair at the back row, which was kept mostly for elderly people, who have difficulties sitting down on the floor. The church choir standing in front, comprising a group of young men and women, started to sing ‘Aaj Shuvo Borodin bhai, aaj Shuvo Borodin…’, the song that I heard in every Christmas services here in Bangladesh, which means: Today is Happy Borodin, friend/brother, today is Happy Borodin… The book called ‘Khrishto Sangeet’ (Christ Songs) contains the most widely sung Bangla songs in the church services in Bangladesh, including this song. While many songs were translated from western Christian songs, most of them are with Bengali folk or Indian semi-classical tunes. Late Priyonath Boiragi was one of these songwriters, whose local Bengali church-songs are the most popular, especially amongst the Baptist community.

The church-choir also performed a kirtan and we all enjoyed participating in it. Kirtan is another form of Bengali folk song, call-and-response chanting performed as part of India’s bhakti devotional traditions, which has also been integrated in the worship of Christ, specifically at Christmas time. However, kirtan has taken a different form in the Bengali Christian culture. Here, kirtan is performed with a singer who leads the song and all others follow him/her. The songs start with a slower tempo and slowly increase to a faster tempo. All participants make a circle and initially walk through the circle singing and clapping with the beats and later start dancing through the circle when the tempo of the song reaches its climax. The leader is usually located at the centre of the circle and a few other men and women, of all ages, also accompany the leader and they become the dancing initiators while singing. Traditionally, both in rural and urban areas, in the month of Christmas, a group of men and women, specially, from the younger generation, goes from village to village and home to home to perform the kirtan. Upon their visits, the hosts serve them special Christmas food items, such as pitha, special kinds of sweetened rice cakes made of rice flour, milk, coconut sweetened with molasses, and so on; payesh, rice pudding made of rice and milk; bibikka pitha, special kind of pitha, made in Bhaoal area of rural Dhaka, similar to cake made of rice flour and molasses, and so on. After the kirtan is performed, the hosts give the group some donation, mostly in cash, which is usually spent for charity or philanthropic work within the village. Kirtan and pitha have been considered as two of the essentials of Christmas celebration in Bangladesh. However, these days, as mentioned before, Christmas cakes have also been included besides pitha. But still to most Bangladeshi Christians, it does not feel like Borodin without pitha and payesh.

Our Borodin was no exception. Right after the church service, we went to one of our family-friend’s place, only about a five-minute walk from the church. With no surprise, we were treated with many kinds of pithas, such as bhapa, puli, patishapta, and chitoi, payesh, and Christmas cake. Our hosts were repeatedly requesting us to have some more pithas. They were saying, these pithas are specially made for Borodin, without having them Borodin celebration would not be complete.

It was already 1pm, lunchtime. We were wondering after all those pitha and payesh, how we would be able to have lunch. But it is another ritual where we all need to participate. It has become a tradition to have a communal lunch at the church premises on Borodin, often called Preeti-bhoj or Prem-bhoj. The Bangla word preeti or prem means love and bhoj means feast. Preeti-bhoj is a communal feast on Christmas afternoon to show the love, solidarity, and brotherhood to each other and to the community. Usually the lunch is prepared from the contributions, usually in cash, that the church members make for the purpose. The lunch is offered not only to the church members, but also to all who participated at the church service, with a voluntary contribution in cash. Since childhood I remember how important it was to attend the Preeti-bhoj in the church premises in Borodin. So even though we were not hungry enough to have a lunch, we went to join the Preeti-bhoj. The lunch menu comprised a number of traditional curries like chicken curry and vegetable curry, and polau, buttered rice, and followed by locally made sweet yogurt.

Even though the celebration of Borodin is a typical Bengali festival, some elements of the mainstream Christmas from the Western countries have also been integrated. Decorating the Christmas tree is one of them. Recently, most of the urban Christian families and many urban churches decorate Christmas trees with colourful light bulbs and other ornaments. Exchange of Christmas cards to family and friends has become part of Borodin celebration as well. Christmas cake is another example of including Western Christmas practices within the local customs and practices, as mentioned before. Santa Claus has also been popular among the urban Christians. However, till today, the majority of Christians, who are from rural Bangladesh, celebrate Borodin in a more traditional and Bengali way.

What makes the Bengali way of Christmas celebration different from the Western way of celebrating Christmas? It is the communal feelings and practices around the church that makes Bengali Borodin different than Western Christmas. It is the celebration of Borodin, transformed into one of the festivals of Bengal, which is celebrated by Bengalis in a Bengali way. Most of the activities, starting from church decoration, kirtan, to Preeti-bhoj during the Christmas season revolve around the church and indeed the church becomes the centre of the celebrations. This is unlike the Western world, where the family generally becomes the centre of celebrations. Still, in celebrating Borodin, family reunion remains important, but the concept of family is extended to the church and the whole church celebrates Borodin as one big family. People who usually never go to church during the rest of the year make a point to visit the church on Borodin, much like the rest of Bangladesh’s populations – the Muslims and the Hindus – must go to the mosque and the temple on a significant religious day. This going back to the church symbolises a return to old ‘family values and attachments’ to renew the social and spiritual relationships with the kin.

Joyce Das is a doctoral student in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Christmas food (Photo: J. Das)

Christmas food (Photo: J. Das)

Comments

1. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt - June 9, 2014

Yummy food, Joyce, and great story from the field! It reminded me of Robyn Andrews’ beautiful book, ‘Christmas in Calcutta’. Keep it up, Joyce, well done!