The river is central to village life near the Panigram site. Its waters flood rice paddies, provide fish to eat, and assist in the important jute harvest. This year, however, the river reached it lowest point in decades. Normally 90 feet wide, the longer than usual hot season reduced the river to a meager 15 feet across. Now, the monsoon started, but the extra six weeks of dry season caused a floating aquatic plant locally known as port to flourish. Port is always part of the river ecosystem, but this year port stretches the width of the river preventing nearly all boat traffic. This floating plant strains the local economy and could ruin Jon’s hard work as Panigram’s tour program intern.
This summer, Jon explored the area around the site, researched the origins of local ruins, and compiled a database of the local plants and their uses. For our upcoming investor meeting, Jon has planned an hour-long boat and rickshaw tour through the local area. The tour will start at the pavilion where boatmen will take our guests two kilometers up the river to a nearby village; there our guests will take rickshaws along a scenic route back to the pavilion. The tour will end with a striking view of the pavilion at the bridge overlooking the proposed Panigram site.
The only thing floating between our wonderfully planned tour and us are thousands of port, the ubiquitous aquatic plant. All along the river, these small plants float on the top of the water, hundreds bunched together like tiny islands. Our task: navigate through the seemingly impenetrable mass with an uncooperative boatman.
At first, Jon and I paddled down river to see if moving the port out of the way was possible. We bunched up our lungis (traditional Bangladeshi male skirt) in the local fashion and tried to push the plants out of the way. Both of us were ecstatic at how easily the two of us could push hundreds of these plants out of the way. Within minutes, however, the plants floated back to their original position, rendering our pushing strategy useless.
Although our attempt at moving the port out of the way failed, we did notice the neighboring villager take bundles of jute and bind them into a raft. After he launched the raft in the river, our farmer then piled the harvested water plants on top of the jute raft. At the time we didn’t know why the farmers were piling port on top of their jute, but we did notice that as the farmer removed the plants, he created a channel wide enough for us to maneuver our boat through.
Later on, we learned that Bangladeshi jute farmers in the area submerge their jute in the slowly flowing river to soften the fibers. The process, called redding, softens the jute enough for the women and children of the village to remove the fibers to make cloth, rope, and other jute-based products. The farmer stacks the port on top of his jute bundles to keep the intense tropical sun from drying out the top layers of jute.
Encouraged by the farmers removing the jute, Jon and I ventured upstream to see if the river portion of the tour was possible. After we passed the bridge, our boatman refused to paddle any further, claiming that too much port blocked the river. Jon and I, however, armed with our knowledge of the jute harvest persuaded him to let us continue while he sat in the back of the boat, grudgingly steering the boat.
Keeping close the to jute fields, Jon and I managed to navigate through the dense port. At first progress was really slow, we traveled two or three boat lengths every minute, but eventually, we cleared the first patch and skimmed along open water. Thrilled by our progress, Jon and I continued to force our way through the port alongside the jute rafts as our village neighbors greeted us from either side of the river.
As we navigated through more port, we passed the local tamarind tree. Local villagers claim that a spirit haunts the tree. During the day, the spirit resides inside the trunk. At night the spirit torments those who dare trespass under the tamarind tree’s branches. The leaves of the tamarind tree close at night; villagers say it is a sign that the spirit is haunting the area underneath the tree.
Upstream from the tamarind tree, Jonathon and I paddled past an ancient Hindu mondir (temple). Although stripped of its original terra cotta ornaments, the mondir is an excellent example of the unique Bengali-Hindu architecture of the Jessore region. Jonathon informed me that he didn’t know much about that particular temple, other than it still serves as a place of worship for many of the Hindus living in the area.
Unfortunately, Jonathon and I couldn’t continue past the mondir. The port was too dense and the farmers hadn’t started to harvest the jute. Jonathon and I are hopeful that by the end of this week, the farmers will have harvested enough jute for us to continue on to the village were Jonathon intends for our guests to transfer from the boat portion of the tour to the rickshaw portion.