Bangladesh has been a place of religious harmony for centuries. The vast displays of cultural and religious properties on show here have been shaped over the last 5,000 years, following numerous political and social movements including those of the Pals (Buddhist), Sens (Hindu), Mughals (Muslim), and British (Christian), and have grown to become symbols of the country’s tangible and intangible heritage. Because of the presence of these varied political religious reigns, Bangladesh became home to famous tirthas or pilgrimage sites for different faith groups. Many notable monks, rishis (Hindu saints), bhikkhus (Buddhist saints), pirs, and darbeshes (Muslim preachers), and Christian priests were either born or passed away here.
The centuries-long, peaceful coexistence of different religious groups and sects has led Bangladesh to be labeled a more secular nation than others. The lives of the local people are thus intertwined with various tangible and intangible cultural spaces, where many activities are also held. All these sacred spaces are also socially produced and contested and are seen as a kind of religious arena, where pilgrims pour their hopes, prayers, dreams, woes, and aspirations with respect to their memories and experienced miracles. Different religious and cultural groups have different interpretations of these sacred spaces, and so different stories, rites, customs, beliefs, and rituals are also seen to be associated with each sacred site. Many of these sacred cultural spaces have also grown to become sites where people from all religions come together to seek happiness and comfort. A short description of two of these sacred cultural spaces and related heritage elements is given below.
The Holy Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja of the Hindu Community
Durga Puja or Sharodioutsob is an important annual religious festival of the Hindu community and is held during the autumn. This puja (or festival) has become more of a sacred cultural space in the country not only for Hindus but also for other religious groups. Throughout the country, people set up puja mandaps, covered structures with pillars that function as temporary places for veneration to Durga, the Mother Goddess in Hinduism. People of different faiths visit these veneration centers and take part in the festivities. The veneration centers have become a fluid cultural space for people from all walks of life. Families visit with their children to see the idols, eat proshads (the food), and buy handicrafts.
Saraswati Puja or Shree Panchami is an annual veneration festival that takes place in January or February to honor Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, Music, and Art. The University of Dhaka and other educational institutions were pioneers in setting up the great centralized veneration ritual festival for Saraswati worship in Bangladesh. The puja has now grown to become a nationwide celebration. People regardless of their religion and ethnicity take part in the festivities and enjoy the kirton (the religious performance) and offer pushpanjali (special offering of flowers) to Saraswati.
The Shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah
People visit the Shrine of Fakir Lalon Shah in the Kushtia District of Khulna twice a year, once in February or March and once in October for Lalon Smaran Utshab to honor Lalon Shah.
Lalon Shah (ca. 1774–1890) is one of the most famous mystic personalities in Bangladesh’s history and is thought of as one of the greatest poets, musicians, and lyricists the country has ever seen. As a great humanist, Lalon rejected all distinctions of caste, class, and creed and took stand against religious conflict and racism. He denied all worldly affairs in search of the soul and embodied the socially transformative role of sub-continental Bhakti and Sufism. He took all the Tantric traditions of different religions as the basis of his philosophy. Lalon composed more than 2,000 songs based on this philosophy of syncretism, and these songs are sung not only by his followers, who are known as baul, but also by others.
Lalon’s tomb is at the center of the shrine. Behind the tomb complex, there is a covered area called akhra (meeting place), where devotees play, sing and dance. Thousands of pilgrims, itinerant vendors, and marijuana-smoking holy men travel from all across the subcontinent to pay tributes to their spiritual leader.
Bangladesh has a rich heritage composed of religious harmony, diversity, and cultural exchange. The above sacred sites are dubbed ‘sacred spaces’ because they are rooted complex manifestations of culture through diverse practices and beliefs. All these shared forms of intangible heritage also occupy an ambiguous but an increasingly important position in contemporary religious and cultural thought.