ALTERNATE NAMES: Changma; Sawngma
LOCATION: Bangladesh; India; Myanmar (Burma)
LANGUAGE: Bengali dialect (Bangla)
RELIGION: Theravada (Southern) Buddhism
Chakma is the name of the largest tribe found in the hilly area of eastern Bangladesh known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their name was first used by British census-takers to describe certain hill people.
When the British were driven from India in 1947, the land was divided into two countries, Pakistan and India. The people who lived in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region expected to become part of India. Instead, the region was given to Pakistan. This caused resentment because the people, mostly Chakma, are primarily Buddhist. They saw themselves more culturally similar to the Hindu peoples of India than the Muslims of Pakistan.
Pakistan's two regions were known as East Pakistan (where the Chakma lived) and West Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan fought successfully to win independence from West Pakistan. East Pakistan then became the nation of Bangladesh. The Chakma felt just as alienated from the Bangladesh government as they had from Pakistan. In 1973, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force) began to stage violent attacks against the government to try to win independence for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Guerrillas attacked government forces and the Bangladeshi Army responded with attacks on civilian tribal peoples. As of the late 1990s, this conflict continued.
The Chakma population is estimated to be around 550,000. It is spread over three different countries. The majority (approximately 300,000 people) are located in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. There are also about 80,000 Chakmas in Mizoram State in India, and 20,000 in Burma (Myanmar).
The Chakmas are a Mongoloid people related to people of southwestern Burma. The Chittagong Hills form part of the western fringe of the mountain regions of Burma and eastern India. The region has warm temperatures, monsoon rains, and high humidity.
The Chakmas speak a dialect of Bengali (Bangla) and use the standard Bengali alphabet. See the article on Bangladeshis in this chapter.
The myth that describes the origin of the Chakma traces the tribe to the ancient kingdom of Champaknagar. One of the king's sons marched east with a large army in the hope of conquering new lands. He crossed the "sea" of the Meghna River and captured the kingdom of Arakan in Burma, where he settled. His people intermarried with the Burmese and gradually adopted the Buddhist religion.
The last king of this dynasty was a ruler named Sher Daulat. He was credited with supernatural powers and was supposed to purify himself from sin by bringing out his intestines to wash in the river. His wife, out of curiosity, hid herself and watched him do this one day. Sher Daulat found her spying on him and, in a fit of rage, killed her and all his family. His eccentricities and tyranny grew so great that finally his people killed him. Fearing the consequences of this, the people left the Arakan kingdom, moving north into the area of the Chittagong Hills they occupy today.
The Chakmas are Buddhists. Chakmas officially follow the Southern, or Theravada, form of the Buddhism. But, their form of Buddhism has aspects of Hinduism and traditional religions as well.
Almost every Chakma village has a Buddhist temple (kaang). Buddhist priests or monks are called Bhikhus. They preside at religious festivals and ceremonies. The villagers support their monks with food, gifts, and offerings to Buddha.
The Chakmas also worship Hindu deities. Lakshmi, for example, is worshipped as the Goddess of the Harvest. Chakmas offer the sacrifice of goats, chickens, or ducks to calm the spirits that are believed to bring fevers and disease. Even though animal sacrifice is totally against Buddhist beliefs, the Chakma Buddhist priests ignore the practice.
Chakmas celebrate various Buddhist festivals. The most important is Buddha Purnima. This is the anniversary of three important events in Buddha's life—his birth, his attainment of enlightenment, and his death. It is observed on the full moon day of the month of Vaisakh (usually in May).
On this and other festival days, Chakmas put on their best clothes and visit the temple. There, they offer flowers to the image of Buddha, light candles, and listen to sermons from the priests. Alms (offerings) are given to the poor, and feasts are held for the priests.
The three-day festival known as Bishu , which coincides with the Bengali New Year's Day, is celebrated with much enthusiasm. Houses are decorated with flowers, young children pay special attention to the elderly to win their blessings, and festive dishes are prepared for guests.
After the birth of a child, the father places some earth near the birth bed and lights a fire on it. This is kept burning for five days. Afterward, the earth is thrown away and the mother and child are bathed. A woman is considered unclean for a month after childbirth and is not allowed to cook food during this period. Children are breastfed for several years by their mothers.
Chakmas cremate their dead. The body is bathed, dressed, and laid out on a bamboo platform. Relatives and villagers visit the body. A drum used only at this time is beaten at intervals. Cremation usually occurs in the afternoon. The ritual is presided over by a priest.
Buddists believe in reincarnation. This means that they believe that the dead person's spirit will return to earth in another living form. The morning after the cremation, relatives visit the cremation ground to search for footprints. They believe that the departed will have left some mark of his or her new incarnation (living form). Some remains of bones are collected, put in an earthen pot, and placed in a nearby river.
The mourning period for the family lasts for seven days. No fish or animal flesh is eaten during this time. On the seventh day, the final ritual (Satdinya) is held. At this time the family offers food to their ancestors, Buddhist monks deliver religious discourses, offerings are made to the monks, and the entire village participates in a communal feast.
Chakma hospitality is overflowing. Guests are given home-brewed liquor and the hukka (hooka) pipe. The hukka is a pipe used for smoking tobacco. It has a long flexible tube attached to a water bottle. The smoke is cooled by passing over the water before being inhaled by the smoker.
Chakmas greet each other with the traditional cry, Hoya! This exuberant shout is also used to express pleasure at victory in sports such as tug-of-war that accompany the numerous hill festivals held throughout the year. After living for so many years near Muslims, some Chakmas use the Muslim greeting, Salaam.
Chakmas build their houses on slopes near the banks of a river or a stream. A few related families may build on the same plot of land, creating a homestead (bari). Baris cluster together to form hamlets (para) and a number of hamlets make up a village (gram).
The traditional Chakma house is made of bamboo. It is constructed on a bamboo or wooden platform about two meters (six feet) above the ground. The house is built on the rear of the platform. Mat walls divide the house into separate compartments. A porch in the front of the house is divided in two by a mat partition. One area is used by men and boys and the other by women and girls. Small compartments may be built for storage of grain and other possessions. Household objects ranging from baskets to pipes for smoking tobacco are made out of bamboo.
Chakmas are divided into clans (gojas), which are further subdivided into subclans (guttis). Members of the same subclan are forbidden to marry each other. Parents arrange marriages, although the wishes of sons and daughters are taken into account. A bride price (goods given by groom's family to bride's family) is fixed when the two families negotiate the marriage.
The marriage ceremony is known as Chumulong and is performed by Buddhist priests. If young people elope, the marriage can be formalized on payment of fines. Polygyny (marriage to more than one wife) is acceptable but rare. Divorce is allowed, as is remarriage after the death of a spouse.
Chakma men have given up their traditional clothes for Western-style shirts and trousers. It is the women who maintain the traditional Chakma style of dress, which consists of two pieces of cloth. One is worn as a skirt, wrapped around the lower part of the body and extending from waist to ankle. Its traditional color is black or blue, with a red border at top and bottom.
The second piece of cloth is a breast-band, woven with colored designs, that is tightly wrapped around the upper body. This is worn with a variety of necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings, and other ornaments. Chakma women are skilled weavers and make their own cloth.
The staple food of the Chakmas is rice, supplemented by millet, corn (maize), vegetables, and mustard. Vegetables include yams, pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers. Vegetables and fruit gathered from the forest may be added to the diet. Fish, poultry, and meat (even pork) are eaten, despite the Buddhist taboo on consuming animal flesh.
Traditional diets have slowly been abandoned, as the Chakmas have been forced to flee their homeland. Some typical Chakma dishes include fish, vegetables, and spices stuffed into a length of bamboo and cooked in a low fire; foods wrapped in banana leaves and placed beside a fire; and eggs that are aged until they are rotten.
Chakmas do not like milk. They drink alcoholic beverages freely, and every household makes its own rice liquor. Alcohol is consumed at all festivals and social occasions.
Chakmas live in isolated areas of Bangladesh. They are not part of the majority population and are quite poor by Western standards. They do not have access to Western-style education. Literacy (ability to read and write) among men of the hill tribes is about 15 percent. This figure drops to 7 percent for women.
Buddhists books, translated into Chakma and written on palm leaves, are known as Aghartara. The Tallik is a detailed account of medicinal plants, methods of their preparation, and their use in the treatment of disease.
Folk music is a major aspect of Chakma tribal culture. It includes romantic love songs known as Ubageet. The Genkhuli ballads relate incidents from the past. There are also epic poems like Radhamon and Dhanapati.
Traditional musical instruments include a bugle made from buffalo horn, a circular piece of iron with a string stretched across it that vibrates to produce sound, and a drum. The bamboo flute is played by almost all Chakma youth. Unlike other tribal groups of the eastern hills, dancing is not an important part of Chakma life.
The Chakmas are farmers. There is no ownership of land, but Chakma custom holds that no one should interfere with fields that look like someone else is farming there. Land is cleared of trees and bushes, and any remaining vegetation is burned during the dry season in April. Crops are planted after the first heavy rains. Harvesting usually takes place in October and November.
Some Chakmas have given up their farming lifestyle and have entered the labor market. Those fortunate enough to have the necessary education have gone on to clerical and other white collar jobs. Many, however, work as laborers in the factories and industrial projects that have grown up along the valley of the Karnafuli River.
Ha-do-do is a game played throughout the region. Two teams stand on either side of a central line. They take turns sending a player into opposing territory to touch as many people as he or she can during the space of one breath, while at the same time saying "Ha-do-do." If the player runs out of breath or is caught by his or her opponents, he or she is out.
On the other hand, if the player successfully returns to his or her own territory, the players he or she has tagged must leave the game. Other pastimes include Gila Khela, a game similar to marbles except that small wooden disks are used instead of marbles; Nadeng Khela, played with a spinning top; and various wrestling games. Girls do not have dolls or play at being "mother" as they do in Western cultures.
Traditional forms of recreation include popular folk songs and music, and jatra, the village opera. Wrestling and other sports held at fairs are popular. In the past, hunting and fishing were favorite pastimes.
The Chakma are skilled at making a variety of household goods from bamboo, often using nothing more than a simple knife. Women are expert weavers and dyers and make their own cloth called Alam. They are skilled in the art of making baskets from bamboo.
The Chakma people face difficult situations today. Their population is larger than that of over sixty independent nations. Yet the tribe is fragmented and scattered over three countries. In each country, Chakmas form a minority and many are refugees from their homeland, living in conditions of squalor.
The most serious problem faced by the Chakmas is in Bangladesh, where they are fighting for an independent homeland. Some Chakmas and other tribal peoples have resorted to armed warfare against the government. This, in turn, has led to reprisals by the police and Bangladeshi Army. Both Amnesty International (the human rights organization) and the United States have reported human rights violations against Chakma civilians.
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McClure, Vimala Schneider. Bangladesh: Rivers in a Crowded Land. Minneapolis, Minn.: Dillon Press, 1989.
Talukdar, S. P. Chakmas: An Embattled Tribe. New Delhi: Uppal Publishing House, 1994.