by Rassiq Aziz Kabir
“Are you aware of the fact that there is a Telugu community in Bangladesh?” – few people might nod positively to this question. As a largely monoethnic country, we are hardly aware of the ethnolinguistic diversity that persists in the country. As many of these minorities are invisible to the mainstream of society, it is quite hard for them to climb the ladder of social mobility.
The Telugus are native to the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and also have a notable presence in the other two Dravidian states of India, along with a large diaspora community abroad.
During the second half of the 19th century, when the British Empire in Bengal wanted a lot of labourers for the newly built railways, tea gardens, and municipal corporations of Dhaka, they could not find native Bengali labourers who were skilled in those arenas.
And South India, during that time, was going through a widespread economic crisis, so many Telugus who were willing to change their fortunes and adept in those crafts came to a completely foreign land with different cultures and customs.
Although they have spent more than 150 years in the country, they have not integrated into the Bangladeshi mainstream, and neither their socio-economic condition nor their culture has changed.
The writer, speaking to Mikha Piregu, a former student at Jahangirnagar University who also happens to belong to the community and is the convener of the Bangladesh Telugu Council, tried to learn more about the apparently invisible community.
“Telugu speakers are the third largest linguistic group in India, as only Hindi and Bangla have more native speakers than Telugu. Telugu also has a rich literature, a trend which can be seen in all the languages of South India.”
“But Bangladeshi Telugus are gradually losing their language as there are not many speakers, to begin with, along with the fact that the language has no recognition on a national level. No Bangladeshi Telugu can nowadays speak proper Telugu,”
Mikha added, as more and more Telugu people are speaking a creolised form of the language.
The Bangladeshi Telugus have been living in the suburbs of Dhalpur, Tikatuli, Gopibagh, and Kallyanpur of Dhaka, as well as a sporadic presence in the tea gardens of Sylhet as well as the railway colony of Ishwardi, Pabna.
The Telugu community is landless and is mainly involved in jobs that are widely regarded as belonging to the lower echelons of society, such as cleaning and sweeping for the City Corporation in Dhaka, railway cleaning jobs in Ishwardi, and tea garden work in Sylhet.
The Dhaka Municipal Corporation, the predecessor of the two city corporations in the capital, was created in 1864. Telugu people have been involved with these jobs ever since. But in all these years, there has been no acknowledgement whatsoever from a national level.
While talking to the writer, Mikha Piregu expressed his frustration and anger saying,
“No government has looked at the community and, as a result, the community has lagged massively behind from a socio-economic perspective.”
According to Mikha, most Telugu children drop out of education early in their lives, which can largely be blamed on large linguistic differences. They cannot muster formal Bangla, and this lack of education makes it quite hard for them to raise awareness about all these issues.
The Telugu people are also not included in the ‘Minority Ethnic Groups’ gazette of Bangladesh. As a result, they cannot get an education in their mother tongue as well as they are deprived of quotas in jobs, which many other ethnic groups have.
The Telugus in Bangladesh are mostly Hindus with a few Christians and Muslims and have retained much of their folk and ethnic culture.
They worship Nookalamma, a local deity of Andhra, along with many traditional deities of South Indian Hinduism, although they also participate in the festivals of Bengali Hindus.
The Telugus have retained their folk clothing as well, with their sarees worn differently than the Bengalis. They have also retained their week-long ritualistic wedding and their traditional sport, which is played with sticks.
Folk songs have also made their way into Bangladesh. One of the days of festivity for the Bangladeshi Telugus is Ugadi, the Telugu New Year, where many traditional dishes are prepared, and the Telugus sacrifice animals. This custom is pretty much in vogue in South India.
At different festivals, the Telugu women of Bangladesh decorate their homestead with various designs, which is traditionally known as ‘Munju.’
Among the traditional Telugu dishes, Pulusu is a pulse-based dish made with sour fruits and is served almost every day in Telugu homes across the country. Sour fruits are consumed a lot in the community. Also, many sweet rice cakes, namely Ponganalu, Kanta, Ariselu, Burelu, Ondulu, etc., are made at different festivals.
Although Telugus in India are by and large educated and have gotten rid of the caste system, Bangladeshi Telugus have largely retained their archaic caste structure along with a lot of superstitions that have largely vanished from Andhra and Telangana. The Telugus also maintain the custom of panchayats.
The Telugu community in Bangladesh is a marginalised community which is still stuck at the time when they were brought to Bangladesh. Their holistic development, starting from the grassroots, is essential to make the community a part of the Bangladeshi mainstream, which would add to our country’s diversity.
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