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Bawali


Bawali woodcutters of the sundarbans. They are called bawalis as they invoke the help of bauls for protection against wild animals and other hazards. It is commonly believed that bauls know mantras to control tigers and that they can confine tigers within a circle or shut their jaws by reciting these magic spells. The people of Swarupkathi, pirojpur, mathbaria and patharghata of greater barisal and the southern region of khulna have traditionally been engaged in woodcutting. Woodcutters of Barsakathi, Sohagdal, Baldia, Suthiakathi, Balihari and Jagannathkathi in Swarupkathi upazila are reputed to be especially skillful. The bawalis of Barsakathi are believed to be descended from the ancient bawalis of the Sundarbans.

Bawalis collect sundari, gewa, garan, keora and other trees from a wide area of the Sundarbans. Contractors engage them to collect timber from auctioned areas ranging from 20 to 100 acres. Preparations for felling trees are made during the rainy season. The foresters identify the trees to be felled by the Bengali month of Asadh. Then the bawalis, in groups of 6, 8 or 10-12 under a sardar (leader), start felling the trees. The felling season lasts from September to February. The logs are transported to the Hardboard Mill, Newsprint Mill, Dada Match Works and Bangladesh Match Company. The sawmills of the region also use these logs.

During the felling season, the bawalis live in tongs, built about 6 feet above the ground, for protection against tigers. A part of the tong is used as the kitchen. Saline river water is used for washing but sweet water has to be collected for cooking and drinking. For a period of 3 months, from November to January, the bawalis collect nipa palm (golpata), which is used for making roofs and mats. During this period they live in groups on large boats as precaution against pirates.

The bawalis live an isolated life in the Sundarbans, away from the mainstream. After a heavy day's work they spend the evening reciting stories of tigers and snakes from gazi kalu champavati, banabibir zahurnama, manasamangal and raymangal. In the puthi of Gazi Kalu Champavati, the tiger forces of Gazi fight with great valour against the crocodile forces of Kaluray. The heroes of this story, Daksin Ray and Gazi-Kalu, inspire the bawalis with courage. [Mahmood Nasir Jahangiri]