North of Teknaf town, afternoon has reached sleepy Hnila’s Old Bazar, a few hundred metres west of the Naf River. There’s not much activity: most people are probably taking a rest after completing lunch.
We’re sitting in a perennial building site that’s half-flooded. It has planks of wood to balance across to venture inside. It’s here the local Hindu community worship and a good number of them are gathered in the front of the building just beyond the gate. They’ve arranged plastic stools from somewhere to sit on. A fruit platter is being passed around.
“This is the southernmost Kali temple in Bangladesh,” says community leader Bipul Pal. “It’s the only Kali temple south of Cox’s Bazar.”
The Naf River is narrower in Hnila. On its far bank the periodic watchtowers of Myanmar are clearly visible, about the only evidence of habitation along an otherwise wild bank. The common view of Myanmar to be heard in Teknaf’s tea shops seems to ring true here: “Myanmar has lots of land,” people say, “but little development.”
The river wasn’t always the border it is today. In the British period then Burma was like Bengal under British administration; and the Teknaf Peninsula was primarily inhabited by Buddhist Rakhines. Bengalis by all accounts were rare. Hindus were rarer.
“We are fifteen families,” concludes Pal after a moment’s mental count. “Hindu families in Hnila run simple businesses like dairies and tailoring shops.” At least one fulfils an administrative role with an NGO. “None of us is rich.”
The financial condition of the small community means that completing the refurbishment of the temple, in brick and on a grander scale than the original structure founded in 1833, will take time. Progress is slow.
Proud of their town, before evening there will be a tour of a handful of other temples, tin shed and dilapidated village constructions dedicated to other incarnations of God. At the Krishna temple there lives a solitary monk who teaches meditation and yoga. The temple keeps a cow and he offers fresh milk to visitors.
“What is important is what is in the heart,” he says, “Islam says ‘don’t steal,’ Buddhism says ‘don’t steal’ and Hinduism says the same. If there is love for mankind in the heart it doesn’t matter if you go to a temple, a church or a mosque. Some say paani, some say jol… There are many words for water.”
As can be anticipated Hnila’s Hindus revere all of the local temples but the historic Kali Temple is the community’s focal point. “We don’t know when we’ll be able to finish its reconstruction,” says Pal.