To Be A Chittagonian

by Dr. Vidagdha Bennett

One of the most remarkable things I have ever witnessed is two Chittagonians meeting each other for the first time. No reunion with a long-lost member of the family could be sweeter or more emotional. Within the span of just a few minutes, two perfect strangers will invariably light upon a distant cousin in common or a shared schoolteacher or some other tenuous but infinitely precious connection. Considering that there are around 14 million Chittagonians, not including expatriates, the number of such coincidences is astounding.

Chittagong is the chief Indian Ocean port city in the south-east of Bangladesh. The name also refers to one of the six divisions in Bangladesh. Even though Bengali, a derivative of Sanskrit, is spoken and taught throughout Bangladesh, the residents of Chittagong Division much prefer to speak their own dialect. The curious thing is that Chittagong dialect has no official status and is not taught at any level in schools. It exists solely as an oral language, with subtle variations from north to south, and from Muslim to Hindu. In the written form, correct Bengali is used exclusively.

Perhaps it is the fact that Chittagong dialect (or Chatgaiyan Buli) is heard rather than seen that makes the Chittagonians so proud of it, and so delighted to employ it—and at dazzling speed!

The history of Chittagong as a renowned trading centre from ancient times may have contributed to this unique linguistic phenomenon. Merchants from Turkey, Portugal, Persia, Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula all left an indelible stamp on the language and culture of the area—an influence that is reflected nowhere else in Bangladesh or West Bengal. There is also a large proportion of English words in Chittagong dialect—a legacy of the British East India Company to which Chittagong was ceded in 1760.

Contemporary spiritual Teacher Sri Chinmoy happens to hail from the small village of East Shakpura in Chittagong District. Although he has resided in New York since 1964, he has never forgotten his roots. He has written more than 13,000 devotional songs in the Bengali language which is currently the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, and the most neglected by foreign learners, according to Bengali expert William Radice at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
Most significantly perhaps, Sri Chinmoy dedicated his 13,000th song (which he composed in 2006) to his beloved land of birth. The English transliteration of the song reads:

Shakpura Shakpura purba Shakpura gram
Amar janma dham dham dham
Chatrala Chatrala Chatrala Chatragram
Prerana eshana nayana abhiram
Amar mata Bangadesh Bangadesh Bangadesh
Sneher banya nai je shesh nai je shesh shesh
Bharat mata paye thami thami thami
Sethai mama antara jyami

In 1986, Sri Chinmoy visited Chittagong town and East Shakpura after an absence of forty-two years. There he came to learn for the first time that attempts were being made to establish a written form of Chittagong dialect. He was so inspired and encouraged by this news that composed a handful of songs in his native tongue. These songs celebrate the natural beauty and harmony of the region, especially the Karnaphuli River and its environs. Here is the English transliteration of two of these songs:

Karnaphuli bhoirabh padma ar meghna
Toara ar dila ajwa swarga prerana

Chatgâ ar chatgâ manat pare tôar katha
Hakkal samat tôar sneha loi jaijon
Duniyar gharat gharat

Other writers share Sri Chinmoy's rapture for Chittagong. The Chinese poet Huen Tsang, who travelled to Chittagong in the 7th century, described it as "a sleeping beauty emerging from mists and water."

Sri Chinmoy has also celebrated his birthplace by writing stories about the life of Surya Sen (Masterda), who was in the vanguard of resistance against British rule; by composing songs saluting Kaji Najrul Islam, who lived near Chittagong; as well as poems dedicated to the nation of Bangladesh.
Sri Chinmoy left Chittagong in 1944, at the age of twelve. Both his parents had passed away within the previous year, and so he went to join his older brothers and sisters at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, South India. But his recollections of his childhood village life are among his sweetest memories. He writes,

"On the one hand, I am a cosmopolitan. I am a spiritual man meant for the whole world. But still, when I hear the names 'Shakpura' or 'Chittagong', immediately my heart gets joy. There are quite a few places in India and Bangladesh whose very name gives me tremendous joy and tremendous inner thrill. But what gives me utmost joy is the name 'Chittagong', and specially 'Shakpura'. In every field, we appreciate, admire and adore vastness, but the qualities of sweetness, fondness and intimacy develop inside littleness. For me, that littleness is symbolised by my childhood village home."

Time and again I have witnessed Sri Chinmoy's joy at discovering a fellow Chittagonian in some remote corner of the world. I recall him speaking delightedly with a Chittagonian restaurant owner in Chiang Mai, Thailand; finding in Burma the sons of someone who went to school with his elder brother; breaking off in mid-conversation with a high-ranking Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations to chat with a shy waiter in a New York Indian restaurant who had newly arrived from Bangladesh.
Chittagonians have much to teach the rest of the world. They think of themselves as a large, closely-knit family and they are intensely proud of their heritage and traditions—their freedom-fighters, their bards, their broad Karnaphuli River upon which ferries ply to and from the villages, the small hills that denote the end of the grand Himalayan mountain chain, the rich green of the paddy fields, the serenity of their ponds, the delicious quality of their mangoes and hilsa fish.

To have the good fortune to meet a Chittagonian is to want to catch the next flight available to see this paradise with your own eyes. As Sri Chinmoy wrote in 2003,

"My Chittagong,
May the world-citizens
To your heart-beauty throng."


* Chittagonian language information at
* Sri Chinmoy, "My Mother's Prayer-Tears" (a collection of 34 songs, including 8 songs to Chittagong plus 5 songs in Chittagong dialect, printed in 1994)

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