Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Quest for Eternal Life and a Large, Black Python

Away from daylight. Kudum cave, Whykeong, Teknaf.

A home in Harikhola village, Whykeong.

There once was a powerful Buddhist seer who lived in Myanmar, when it was called Burma in the time of the British. He was a simple fellow, anyone would say, except that with his eyes he could see the whole world at a time; but he was old, his power would soon be gone from the world. It was a pending reality that concerned him.

Seers have, of course, their own reasons for doing things; it’s not for ordinary folk to question why he decided to embark upon a journey precisely when he did. What we do know, what people say, is that his destination was the expansive estate of the landlord of Whykeong, nowadays in the north of Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf upazila.

Harikhola Buddhist temple founded in 1903.

Pagoda rooftops in Harikhola.

More specifically the seer sought to visit a cave in the hilly terrain of the Teknaf Peninsula where, he had seen, there lived a porimei, a creature not dissimilar to a fairy.

Today that cave is called Kudum Cave and it lies within the Teknaf Game Reserve beyond the historical Chakma village of Harikhola with its 270 families.

Village pagoda.

One imagines Forest Beat Officer Abul Kalam, 43, was pleased for the company when he agreed to go with our small party to find the cave. He’s usually posted to remote Raykong Beat where he stays alone, at night, in the hills. “Twelve nights ago,” he says as a look of grave concern spreads across his face, “nine elephants came close to the bungalow.” I ask if it’s scary to stay alone in an isolated forest location and he says it is.

Drought stricken countryside.

In any case, in the British era the landlord, who was a Rakhine, presided over a great area of forest which is now the game reserve. He had six hundred buffaloes that he let run free.

Relaxing on the serang in Harikhola village.

Every year the landlord would order his cowboys to fetch some buffaloes from the forest, and it so happened that long before the seer arrived from Myanmar, one cowboy stumbled upon that cave and moreover, saw the porimei at its entrance.

Kudum Cave entrance.

“Son of man, come here!” said the porimei, “I have something to discuss.” The porimei then offered the cowboy a mohor, a gold medallion, on the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone he had seen her there. The cowboy accepted the medallion and, returning to the landlord’s house, spoke nothing of the encounter.

It’s unclear how long it must’ve taken the cowboy to reach Harikhola from the main area of Whykeong Bazar but these days it’s a thirty-minute CNG ride through picturesque countryside.

Moni Sowpun Chakma, 37, entering Kudum cave near his village.

Village Buddhas.

It’s an attractive village with several Buddhist temples, called kyangs, including one dating from 1903 which features a large wooden bell and a monk from Myanmar who’s asleep after lunch. According to Moni Sowpun Chakma, 37, a villager who’s been working as a guide for the last decade, 1903 is probably when the first seven families arrived to settle, pursuing traditional slash-and-burn jhum agriculture. Many of their descendants still reside in Harikhola.


Across the road from the kyang is a raised wooden platform called a serang, the perfect spot to rest out of the sun as long as one can climb onto it, up a log with basic ladder-like notches. Further inside the village on the crests of minor hills are several attractive ching ghar, pagodas.

A ching ghar, Harikhola.

Village Buddha image.

After consulting Birandan, 52, current headman of Harikhola, Chakma is ready to lead us on the twenty minute walk to the cave.

Many years back when the seer arrived in the area after crossing the Naf River he made his way to the landlord’s residence where he would stay as a guest. He took the opportunity to ask the landlord about the cave and the porimei he had seen with his powerful eyes; but the landlord said he knew nothing of either. The cowboy stayed silent.

However, on the following morning the cowboy relented, probably feeling it his duty to speak in good faith to his landlord’s guest or out of fear of the seer’s power; thus as the seer was taking his morning bath he confessed that he knew the cave and had seen the porimei as well. The seer asked the cowboy to accompany him to the spot.

Along the track to the cave. Forest bounty collected.

The track to the cave traces muddy overgrown gullies with high clay hills rising on either side. There’s a bit of jumping over streams required to get there and in front of its entry is a small pool that continues inside, to chest height depending on rainfall, into what presents itself as an endless tunnel.

“Nobody knows how deep the cave goes,” says Chakma, and Kudum means ‘long’ in Chakma language. “They say it runs right through the hills to the Bay of Bengal.” Others say the cave, unique for being of clay-mud rather than stone, is 38 metres in length.

He explains that far inside is a high cavern with a platform that can be reached by ladder. He says it’s not advisable to go that far since a large, black python inhabits the platform, descending into the front of the cave to feed on the several fish species in the pool.

When the cowboy and the seer reached the cave, the seer told the cowboy to wait outside the entrance to catch the porimei that he would chase out. “How do I catch a porimei?” asked the cowboy; and the seer gave him two handfuls of sand to throw at her.

The forest path to the cave.

When we reach the cave I would happily wait outside too but Chakma is already taking off his shirt to go inside. Cautiously we wade into the darkness, torches in hand and with a polythene bag over my head on account of the hundreds of bats inside who relieve themselves like rain.

A local shop in the village centre.

With the entrance but a sliver of sunlight behind us Chakma asks if we wish to go further. “The water ends shortly,” he says, “But beyond that, somewhere is the python.” I am more concerned that the python might be beneath us, in the water, looking for fish. So we head back.

We didn’t see the porimei but the cowboy did. As it tried to escape the seer, it flew out of the cave and the cowboy as instructed threw the sand at it. When the sand hit, the porimei transformed into a great tiger and ran off into the forest, the seer in pursuit. “They say the porimei was killed at Colemamarang, some distance from here,” says Chakma, “There’s a rock which looks like a girl fallen over that people say is the porimei turned to stone.” The seer meanwhile took the porimei’s eyes for eating as her eyes could do the one very thing that his couldn’t: grant eternal life.

“Doesn’t the python in the cave scare you?” I ask Chakma as we walk back to the village.

“No, but the wild elephants do. It’s easy to encounter them along this track.”

The return.

Back at the ching ghar.

This article is published in The Daily Star, here: Wading into Mysterious Kudum Cave

Me at the cave.

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