1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Culture preservation

June 13, 2011

The centuries-old heritage of Bangladesh's one million river gypsies is becoming extinct as they find themselves living in a parallel society in abject poverty.

The Shingo horn is used for healing by the Bede
The Shingo horn is used for healing by the BedeImage: DW

If someone loses a piece of jewelry while bathing in the pond, Muksed Muhammad dives into the water. If he retrieves the item, he earns 10 to 15 Euros. This he learned from his father as a child, when he lived on a boat drifting along Bangladesh’s intricate waterways. For hundreds of years the Bede, or river gypsies as they are known, have charmed snakes, performed magic, trained monkeys, and practised traditional healing. But with broken boats, the Bedes now live in camps on encroached land, their income dwindling steadily.

"If the boats break we cannot repair them. It costs between 50,000-60,000 Taka(nearly 600 Euros)." Muhammad says he used to earn well before, when there were no doctors in the village. But that is changing now, as "people no longer believe in herbal medicines or magic. Before we earned around 500-1000 Taka( nearly 6 to 9 Euros) a day, now less, maybe 50, 100(around 50 Euro cents.)"

This poster shows the old Bede way of life
This poster shows the old Bede way of lifeImage: DW

Healers out of work

The Bedes traditionally travel in groups for 10 months a year, stopping in nearly 90 villages. The two months were for rest, marriage and other social functions. The Bede women are the primary bread-earners who work as healers. They used to visit villages, now they mostly wander around Dhaka, offering services to clean teeth and ears.

"If the women don’t work, men will starve," says Muhammad, adding, "Women have always worked and men stayed home relaxing. My wife is a Shinga healer. She uses a Shinga, a cow’s horn, to suck dead blood from the waist to reduce pain. It always works."

No remedy for broken boats

Muhammad’s daughter travels with her mother to learn the tricks of the trade. He explains the healing techniques. If someone is suffering from jaundice, he would advise the patient to eat biryani made of a yellow-feathered bird. A fish bone is used to remove back pain; seashells are used to negate the "evil eye" (evil spells) and cold. Maryam flowers are used for pregnancy related problems.

Muhammad went to school until grade eight so he was able to work as a teacher in one of the 21 mobile schools on a boat set up by the Dhaka-based non-profit organization, GramBangla Unnayan Commmittee. Even those school boats are now broken and he is depended on his wife’s income to support their five-member family.

A.K.M. Maksud, Executive Director of Gram Bangla Unnayan Committee
A.K.M. Maksud, Executive Director of Gram Bangla Unnayan Committee DW/ Das Juni 2011Image: DW

Lost culture

As the villages of Bangladesh modernize, demand for the Bedes’ healing services has declined and life for the 1-million-community is now defined by poverty and social stigma. According to A.K.M. Maksud, executive director of GramBangla Unnayan Committee, the Bede culture is lost. He says, "An estimated 98 percent people live below the poverty line, 95 percent are illiterate, and they have early marriages, with children being married by the age of 11 or 12. People say the Bedes have disappeared. It is very painful to see the culture being lost but where do you think the community went? They have no education, no alternative livelihood skills but their population is increasing. The average household size in the country is normally 4.2 but for Bedes it is 7.5."

The Bedes were not given voting rights until 2008. These traditional doctors and spiritual healers were once highly regarded in Bangladeshi culture. But according to Maksud their gradual decline began some 60 years ago. He says now they are seen as outcasts, partly because of their dietary habits and, according to Maksud, "Bede women never wear purdah so in traditional Bangladeshi society they are seen as bad women. Also they often touch the bodies of male patients and blood." In addition, says Maksud, "the Bedes eat all birds, even kites and live with snakes; both animals are looked down upon in Islam, resulting in marginalization of the community."

But most Bedes are passionate about their centuries-old skills and healing secrets. They do not want to abandon their traditional lifestyle because they believe they were born to be river nomads.

Author: Bijoyeta Das
Editor: Sarah Berning