Much like Chattogram’s Mezban (a traditional beef-fiesta) or shrines, Sampan is considered an iconic symbol. It is said that you will not really experience the true vibe of Chattogram unless you had a Sampan ride
Have you ever focused on the logo of the University of Chittagong? If you have, then you probably noticed the symbolic shape of the Sampan on it. If unfortunately, you have not, then you might have noticed the Sampan in the fountain area of the Radisson Blu Chattogram Bay View hotel, displayed as a heritage of the city.
Dwellers and aficionados of Chattogram have either seen or heard about Sampan many times. Much like Chattogram's Mezban (a traditional beef-fiesta) or shrines, Sampan is considered an iconic symbol. It is said that you will not really experience the true vibe of Chattogram unless you had a Sampan ride.
"Made in China"
According to Singapore Infopedia, the name Sampan derives from the Cantonese term Sanpan (san means "three" and pan means "board"). It also mentioned that the first version of this three-plank boat was invented in China. During the medieval times, Sampans were generally used for transportation in Chinese coastal areas or rivers.
Despite, being an antique boat, it is still seen in various Chinese waterways. For instance, at the famous East Lake in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, even now Sampan boats are seen serving the tourists. Sampans were reportedly developed in the Han Dynasty of 206 BCE-220 AD.
Are Sampans only found in Chattogram?
There is a misconception about Sampans. Many people around the world believe that Sampan is found only in Chattogram. Unfortunately, this is totally wrong.
China being the preeminent maritime power in the region influenced the shipbuilding knowledge of Southeast Asia. Hence, Sampan is also seen in the waterways of South Asia, in Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Until September 1983, a large number of Sampans were the important means of economic activity of Singapore River. These are now found in the coastal areas of Singapore used for fishing and pleasure rides.
The design of all these South Asian Sampans vary slightly to fit with the reality of the waterways and usage; however, they are all the daughters of the same mother.
From China through South East Asia to Chittagong
Being the main port in the northern Bay of Bengal, Chittagong attracted Chinese travelers from the middle age. Yet the port remains ignored in academic or research studies of marine shipbuilding and navigation. Therefore, it is hard to find exactly how and when Sampan made its way to Chittagong. In that quest of getting a closer timeline of Sampans, we can focus on the trade and economic relations of Chittagong with the Far East.
According to the Australian National Maritime Museum, July 11, 1405, is a significant date in Chinese maritime history. On that day, a grand fleet of the Ming Dynasty with over 300 ships and 28,000 crews departed China for Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. This voyage is considered one of the first of several expeditions to establish Chinese trade and influence over the region.
According to another study about Boat technology and culture in Chittagong, Arakanese (Now Rakhine of Myanmar) shipbuilding knowledge spread along the coastline of Bangladesh as Chittagong was under Arakan's influence for a long time. The author Samuel Berthet said in the publication "Chittagong being a case in point with its syncretic Bengali-Arakanese culture seen in the adoption and modification of the sampan—the symbol of the region—from China."
These historical facts, which trickled down from China through South Asia to Chittagong make a reliable sense to speculate the early timeline of Sampan. In that sense, the last two centuries of medieval age (1400 to 1500 AD) are widely considered to be the orientation period of Sampans in the Chittagong region.
Endurance and uniqueness
Sampan is possibly the best known unique boat of Bangladesh. They can be instantly identified by their unorthodox structure and sailing style. The model developed by Chinese shipbuilders has all the peculiarities of design and construction that belong to the Chinese maritime system.
Karnaphuli River Sampan Maji Welfare Association Federation President, S M Peyar Ali emphasized the uniqueness of the boat. "The design of Chittagong Sampan is conceptualized from Chinese Sampan and is modified for the strong waves of this area. It is said that Sampan can dance with the sea waves."
The design of Chittagong Sampan is conceptualized from Chinese Sampan and is modified for the strong waves of this area. It is said that Sampan can dance with the sea waves
"Over the centuries, the boat was a perfect means of hinterland trade, where, in the absence of lighterage vessel, it served the big sailing ships for loading and unloading cargoes."
Karnaphuli Sampans have a shallow and keel-less rounded bottom with a broad beam at the further end. Both sides of its gunwale rail continue towards the stern with an upwardly curved projection. The backside of the sampan looks almost like the English alphabet 'U' or horns of Buffalo. The hull pay tribute to its Chinese origin with three sides endowed with slightly bent spikes. Usually, the boats of Bangladesh have two bows or heads while in the case of Sampan, there are three.
The older or original version of the boat is rowed in standing position facing the front, with the aid of two long-handled oars (locally called as Halish). Near the stern, two small pillars hold the oars with strong shackles. While rotating, the oars collide with pillars and produce a creaking "Ke-Kurut" sound, which adds a unique acoustic feature to the boat. During early times, people could recognize Sampan from far away because of this croaky echo.
Present-day Sampans of Karnaphuli
The Sampans of Chattogram were motorized during the early 90s and that changed the style of sculling. The archetypal "Ke-Kurut" sound of Sampan is long gone and the oars became less active than before.
"Still, there is no substitute to the historic Sampan in many riverine communities and lives here. Despite changes in the cruising style, we have created awareness among boatmen and put effort to keeping the default shape of Sampans. Hence, not much change is made to these traditional boats here," said an environmental activist and Chattagram Ancholik Sangskriti Academy Director Aliur Rahman.
A large Sampan, sized between 10 to 12 meters in length and more than 3 meters in width, are mainly used for carrying goods and trading. Only 47 of them are left now and in the process of extinction
Shah Alam, Karnaphuli River Sampan Maji Welfare Association Federation secretary told the Business Standard, "There are usually two types of Karanaphuli Sampans found in small and large shapes. Almost 3,000 medium shaped Sampans now rule the river, which are used for short-distance ferrying. These range between 6 to 6.7 meters in length and at least 1.52 meter in width. Usually, 10 to 12 people could sit in these Sampans."
"The large Sampan is sized between 10 to 12 meters in length and more than 3 meter in width. These are mainly used for carrying goods and trading. Only 47 of them are left now and in the process of extinction," Shah Alam added.
The neglected heritage
Despite its physical presence, Sampans have failed to attract the attention of the academic and cultural arena of Chattogram. Moreover, the main character related to Sampans Sampanwalas, still have to struggle to keep the legacy going.
Hundred-year-old veteran Sampan boatmen, Alim Uddin, possibly the oldest Sampanwala alive, sailed the boat for almost half a century.
"We have struggled to save the legacy in our blood through generations. Even during 1971, I myself assisted the freedom fighters to ferry arms, despite the risks. The contributions we made for this country have given us little in return," Alim said.
The fame of Sampan have also been spread among people through the melodious folk songs it has generated over the years.
Veteran journalist Mustafa Nayeem said, "Many rich folk-songs like 'Banskhali-Moiskhali', 'Ore Sampanwala', connect us with the glorious past of Sampan and the lives around Karnaphuli, Shankha or Halda. Some songs about Sampan became widely known during the period of Shefali-Syamsundar (popular singing pairs of Chattogram's folk song) with the availability of radio-television, however over the years many of them have disappeared."
Faisal Karim, a journalist and Ph.D. researcher