Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Among the Garjan Giants

Shilkhali's age-old garjan trees are unique in Cox's Bazar's coastal belt.

Transport through the forest.
In Shilkhali the setting Bay of Bengal sun sends golden light from beyond the beach and through the first fields to meet the towering trunks of the garjan trees. Hundreds are lit as candles by the orange glow. It’s quite a show.

The air is cooler, the day is done and locals haven’t passed up the chance to stroll among the leafy giants that tower over the scattering of nearby tin and thatch homes. Unique in the coastal belt for having stood the test of time, this age-old forest in Cox’s Bazar beneath Teknaf’s range holds a beauty that cannot be denied.

Fishermen with fry in the back of a jeep.
Trees rise before and after the Marine Drive; and what’s more interesting right in the middle of the road, as though the forest barely tolerates the line of pitch passing through its enchanted territory. In the several places where roadway is divided into narrow lanes squeezing either side of a resolute garjan trunk the shared CNGs and small trucks must weave courteous s-curves to get through. It’s as though the traffic tips its hat in honour of the trees.

Nearby a few tea shops are coming to life. Customers are ready to reacquaint themselves with neighbours after a day of labour. Nearby, on a shady field a football match is underway.

A CNG three-wheeler weaves, where the trees own the road.

Football under the garjan trees.

Such activities could characterise the life of many a village but in Shilkhali the forest grants an added degree of calmness to proceedings. In the tea shops it seems impossible to retain tension. Over the football ground the garjan canopy presides as silent, ever present referee.

Fading eastward into the shadow before the mountains, the garjan forest is a site that any passing tourist will want to see.

Tea shops come to life in the late afternoon.

To the north in Shilkhali Bazar proper there’s talk of a wild elephant group that sometimes arrives by 8 p.m., wandering down from the hills to trample paddy in search of food. The villagers are yet brave and ready to chase them off.

And besides, if the group doesn’t arrive there’s a lone individual, a regular elephant who can be relied upon to grace the hillside farmlands from 9 pm until dawn.

Shilkhali: looking inland from the beach.

A fishing trawler on wheels: a kind of hovercraft?

Local Abdul Karim, 18, who studies in class 9, leads the way with his friends along a country lane, a short walk to the east, to show a trampled fence and a large, recently broken jackfruit tree.

“Elephants eat coconut, banana and jackfruit,” he says, adding that the betel and areca palm gardens are spared. “You should see how an elephant headbutts a coconut palm to make the coconuts fall; how they open green coconuts with their feet.”

It's as though the garjan forest isn't quite comfortable to let the road go through.

Crab patterns on the beach.

Crab art.

Asked if the elephants worry him he shakes his head. “I wasn’t scared of them when I was little. Why would I be scared now?”

A short walk to the west meanwhile brings us to the beach with a minor lagoon to wade through before reaching the empty, stunning sand stretch. The red crabs by their hundreds scurrying into burrows were clearly not expecting visitors.

Trawlers by the shore.

Alone on the foreshore further down, fisherman Hasan is hoping for shrimp, busy with nets.

The Teknaf Range.

The jeep on the way there.

To the Bay of Bengal.

To the south of the forest meanwhile new plots are well-marked between road and beach, with signboard names of hotel this and hotel that. Accommodation has made a long term booking it would seem to stay in the area along Teknaf’s northern coast; and what will the garjan forest make of it should sun seeking crowds arrive in coming years?

Yet for the moment, the area is quiet.

The garjan forest: see it before the tourists get there.


The crabs aren't expecting visitors.

This article is published in The Daily Star, here: Among Shilkhali's Garjan Giants

Me with Abdul Karim and his friends.

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