French sailor Yves Marre first viewed Bangladesh’s myriad waterways from a plane and the adventurer decided the intriguing country below would be the location for his next exploration.
Yves perhaps would not have guessed that his adventure would consume him or that 25 years later he would be still living in Dhaka, married to a Bangladeshi Runa Khan and desperately struggling against time and lack of resources to document the country’s dying wooden boat building tradition.
What in 1994 then began as a development project involving transporting a 38-meter river barge from France to Bangladesh for use as a hospital boat in the remote northern chars, gave birth to Friendship, an excellent social enterprise I wrote about in my previous blog post. What I didn’t talk about was Friendship’s commitment to Bangladesh’s fascinating boat culture.
Last month, Friendship opened an exhibition of Bangladesh’s remarkable wooden boats at Dhaka’s National Museum as part of its cultural preservation programme. It is extraordinary that in a country so dependent on waterways, considered the world’s most susceptible to climate change, where boats are integral to trade and transport, that the art of boat building is dying quickly and with little fanfare.
Bangladesh has one of the oldest traditions in terms of naval carpentry, and it also has the largest fleets in the world. Here you will find the largest variety of boats
anywhere in the world, Marre says. It is all this that is being lost without adequate documentation or preservation of the country’s naval history, he says.
For many centuries, wooden boats with large earth-colored sails have plied Bangladesh’s hundreds of rivers and tributaries and they have become interwoven with the country’s culture. Yet over the past few decades, these beautiful vessels, many unique to particular regions of Bangladesh, have slowly been replaced by diesel-powered steel vessels, which are less expensive and more practical in terms of maintenance and navigation.
Yves and Runa have taken it upon themselves to draw attention to the disappearance and at the same time document and preserve the techniques and knowledge.
At his boatyard in Dhaka, Yves has built the more than 50 models on display at the museum in Dhaka of traditional Bangladeshi vessels. Building these, have been master craftsmen using only traditional techniques that are often unique to the country.
Here, Yves also has built or restored several full-size wooden boats, among them a beautiful 30-meter Malar vessel, one of the country’s largest hulls and now used to carry tourists along Bangladesh’s waterways. Some profits from the Friendship tourism company, Contic, built around the wooden boats, goes to support the social enterprise’s work.
Looking forward, Runa and Yves hope to establish a living museum that would preserve all types of traditional Bangladeshi boats in Dhaka and allow people to experience the craftsmanship involved. To achieve this, they are searching for funding. Any suggestions of similar efforts elsewhere or possible sources of funding?