The sun is just rising on the horizon at a plain meadow. A low humming chant becomes louder and clearer gradually: Humhumna humhumna.
A group of men, carrying a box-shaped object covered in veils, was making these rhythmic sounds. This description is enough to hint at any Bangla-speaking individual about the legacy of rural Bengal and its inseparable component - the palanquin, or "palki" in Bangla.
Gone are the days of the palanquin being the sole vehicle, sprawled across India and Bangladesh. Over time, it has been reduced to an occasional means of transport to celebrate marriages in rural Bangladesh and now it has essentially become just a symbol of traditionality and heritage.
However, Tajul Islam, who has been in the palanquin business for over a decade, sees no future for palanquins, even as a token of tradition. He owns a decorator shop that rents out palanquins for weddings.
"We can't make up the expenses just by renting only palanquins anymore," he said.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Tajul and his fellow decorators, who solely depend on renting out palanquins and other traditional wedding accessories, saw hardship during ordering and repairing palanquins.
"In the pre-pandemic market, I used to get 10 to 12 orders a month for rent. This has declined to absolute zero since April, 2020," said Tajul.
It is not just the suppliers and decorators, even the modern-day palanquin carpenters are dropping out of the profession or preferring other career choices.
Rony, who works as an apprentice carpenter in Jinjira, told The Business Standard that they rarely get orders to make palanquins now. "We tend to depend on making other wooden products," he added.
He also noted that not only the costs of raw material have gone up, it has become harder for them to make profits as the palanquins being ordered now require more precision and craftsmanship for decorative purposes.
At present, decorator service providers like Tajul rent out palanquins after having them made by the carpenters at around Tk28,000 to Tk30,000. However, he claimed that not even the production expenses can be covered with this amount, let alone generating profit from the palanquins.
"You see, a palanquin, be it custom made in Jinjira or by local carpenters, lasts around five years at best. The return on investment from renting out the palanquins barely covers the expenses," Rony told The Business Standard, adding, "And we have to bear the expenses of repairing them from time to time."
This is because Tajul, the proprietor of "New Palki Ghar", can charge up to Tk4,000 for an event by renting out a palanquin.
"Not every occasion demands a palanquin. It often comes in a package where we rent out dhol, traditional fans, hoods among other items to, for instance, the groom, to keep the traditional look intact," he said.
So, as the golden days of palanquins are of the past even as a token of rural Bengal, its existence is endangered.
The Covid-19 pandemic, in the meantime, has made an enormous dent in the already niche market.
Anwar, another local decorator who used to rent out Palanquins, said, "We have been almost out of work for 10 to 11 months since 2020 due to Covid-19. I had to stop ordering new palanquins and could not repair the ones I own," he said.
Tajul confirmed that most of the palanquin makers and suppliers operate through event management companies. "They prefer open-top palanquins with modern decorations," he told the correspondent.
Tajul and Anwar recalled the days when palanquin was a popular wedding accessory.
"There was a time when people used to come even from the outskirts of Dhaka to book palanquins in Lalbagh and Hazaribag. Those days are long gone. Now, we barely get six to seven contracts a month," Tajul said.
Anwar lamented that although the event management companies help them get more customers, their cut is substantially less compared to the costs.
"If we are called to events directly by the customers like we used to during early 2010, we could earn more by cutting off the middlemen," he said.
Not being able to survive solely on palanquins, Tajul, like Anwar, considered to stop making them altogether.
"Let's see what the future may bring," he said.
History of palanquin
With the introduction of steamers and trains as a means of transportation in the mid-nineteenth century, the usage of palanquins began to decline.
The word "palanquin" is derived from the Sanskrit word "palyank" or "paryank". The name of this vehicle in the Pali language is "Palanko". In Hindi and Bangla, it is known as "Palki".
Before the advent of modern vehicles, elite people used to travel in palanquins. In Bangladesh, too, the usage of palanquins for the bride and groom at weddings had been long in practice in remote areas.
Palanquins come in different shapes and designs. The smallest and most common palanquin - "duli" - can be carried by two people. The largest palanquins need four to eight "behara" or "kahar" - the carriers or bearers of palanquins.
People of Hadi, Mal, Dule, Bagdi and Baudi casts used to carry palanquins in British India. They used to sing special rhymes while carrying the palanquin. The frequency of their humming changed with the pace of their movement. This is where the "humhumna" sound originated.
With the gradual improvement of the road system and the introduction of animal-powered vehicles, the usage of palanquins as a means of transportation almost ceased to exist. Due to the continuous expansion of communication systems and the introduction of faster vehicles on roads and rivers, the usage of palanquins stopped altogether in the 20th century.
However, palanquins have remained an important instrument in Bangla dramas, novels and folk poems, especially those set in the early 20th century.
This transition has created a permanent position for the vehicle in folklore over time. Although the days of palanquins in existence are nearing its end, its presence in literature and the Bengali culture is everlasting.