Tuesday, November 4, 1997 Published at 15:02 GMT
The mystic vagabonds of Bengal
Reporting from Dhaka
If you're in search of unconventional spiritual enlightenment and happen to be in eastern Bangladesh at this time of year, then the annual festival of the Bauls is the place to be. The Bauls are mystic vagabonds who travel through Bengal begging a living with their songs. It's a lonely life but every year they gather at the shrine of their founder to celebrate the anniversary of his death. This time they had the BBC to contend with - and according to the Bauls, our Dhaka correspondent Frances Harrison is blessed with spiritual power...
Hundreds of the most zany looking people in Asia assemble once a year in the small provincial town of Kushtia near the Bangladeshi border with India. Some are dressed like Hindu Sadhus or Holy men - in red turbans and robes with sceptres and giant silver pendants. Others are more austere - shaven heads, coarse white cloth with only some shells and beads for decoration - or ragged shirts hardly visible under vast beards and rastafarian hair coils. The only thing that seems to be standard issue is a miniature wooden chopping board for cutting marijuana and a pipe for smoking it.
It is full moon and we are here to celebrate the 107th anniversary of the death of the Emperor of the Bauls - Lalon. Nobody even knows whether Lalon was a Hindu or a Muslim but he gave birth to a cult of tolerance followed by Bengalis of all religions. Amid the clouds of marijuana smoke and the bodies stretched on the ground in stupor, I search for a definition of what a Baul is. Their songs refer to numbers - six and nine - which are supposed to represent parts of the body but nobody is in the mood to explain things. All I get is advice about how I should live my life - no children until twelve years after marriage is recommended practice. It's all right to go to prostitutes - though when I asked the man who told me this whether his wife wouldn't get upset, he was a bit evasive. Actually Bauls don't believe in the institution of marriage but this couple were married before they renounced the material world to go on their mystic journey.
Interviewing Bauls is tricky - many belong to another world in which my questions are puzzling. I ask whether they suffer harassment from Islamic fundamentalists who must consider their way of life abhorrent. Enigmatic pronouncements follow - such as we all follow God along different paths - but no real answer. Meanwhile a mad man is following me - periodically touching my muddy shoes as a sign of respect. In a valiant attempt to communicate with a limited English vocabulary he repeats a few words in almost every permutation - saying God is mother - mother is all - all in all is God. At first I think I know what he's getting at then I wonder if he knows.
I buy one of the musical instruments - the ektara of the Bauls - made out of the dried shell of a gourd with a bamboo frame, it has one string that reverberates with an eccentric twang. Plucking the string is addictive and soon I have a vast following behind me - like the Pied Piper I lead them backwards and forwards and round in circles. I cannot shake my vast tail of spectators; police officers try to help but they end up following me too, sucked into the chain. It seems the lure of a foreign woman with a camera exceeds even the most exotic-looking guru. I am wondering what is so strange about me - in my checked shirt and jeans - all around are faces wrinkled with age and eyes moist with marijuana smoke - men with patchwork coats and dark glasses jingling trident sticks with bells on them.
Then people come up to me asking for my autograph - and the familiar question - Madam what country, what village? Never has London been so often reduced to the status of a village. Normally I attract curious glances but in this setting it is a bit disturbing to be the centre of attraction - upstaging even wild Bohemian mystics. Rather charmingly the Bauls deduce I must have a spiritual power to pull such a crowd. Eventually the truth emerges: a series of rumours are circulating as to my identity. The best is that I am Princess Diana's sister and have come on a humanitarian mission to Bangladesh. Why Princess Diana's sister would want to go to the Baul festival is a question no-one thought to ask. Nor did they wonder why I came without any security personnel or the razzmatazz that accompanies a dignatory's visit. Most of all, I assure you I do not look anything like the late Princess.
Oblivious to my new found status of minor royal celebrity I continue to try to get some sense out of the Bauls. One man tells me there is no difference between a conventional life and the life of a Baul - we are all mad, he says - you are mad - I am mad - mad to be sitting on the earth under this tree. He points to the crowd of royal watchers and we agree they are definitely very mad to have nothing better to do. But there is a sting in the tail - apparently I am the maddest of them all because I have come all the way from what he calls BBC London to see the Bauls. I had to concede he had a point.