The Last Train from…Bishwa Itjema

Like many people around the world, my husband and I are at staying at home, keeping safe social distances when we go out, and altogether trying to remain sane. It helps my state of mind to stay busy and some of you may also need a short distraction, so I am posting a new entry on this blog that is as far removed from our current lives as possible.

This post is about an event called the Bishwa Ijtema, which took place in Bangladesh in January this year, and yet it feels like a lifetime ago.  The experience was just the opposite of social distancing so if you are missing the hustle and bustle of crowds, this is for you!

The Bishwa Ijtema (literally global congregation) is an annual gathering of Muslims that attracts about 5 million pilgrims making it one of the largest Muslim gatherings in the world, surpassing even the Hajj in the number of attendees.   It is a three-day affair held in Tongi, a small town by the banks of the River Turag, on the outskirts of Dhaka.  Muslims from all over the world gather to pray and listen to Islamic scholars.  It is described as non-political with a focus on interpreting the original, or ‘true’ meaning of the Qur’an. The gathering is now so large that for the past few years, it is split into two phases, one week apart. I was there for the second gathering, which I was told is smaller than the first phase.  As you will see, there were still plenty of attendees.

During the first few mornings, hordes of people make their way to Tongi by busses, boats, and trains.  In Tongi, the main site of the congregation looks like an immense camping ground with one big tent where the participants camp for the three days of the event.  Non-Muslims are not allowed in the camp.  All three days, devotees gather 5 times a day for prayers, the rest of the time, they listen to lectures or enjoy themselves cooking, shopping, and hanging out with their friends.  As one might expect at this type of  Muslim event, very few women are in attendance.  The meeting culminates in a “Munajat” (Final Prayer) when the entire population of Dhaka stops whatever they are doing to raise their hands and pray for world peace.  It is an extraordinary thing to witness.

Of course, as Bangladesh is well-known for overcrowded trains even in normal times, the Bishwa Ijtema has become an extreme example of this challenge.  Pilgrims coming in are relatively easy to handle as they do not all arrive simultaneously.  However, most of the devotees leave the camp after the Final Prayer and are anxious to be on their way.   Special trains are added, though nowhere near enough, so people find space wherever they can, with the young enjoying riding on top of the trains.   Needless to say, there is a lot of pushing, pulling, and yelling, but somehow the entire scene of the trains departing is strangely festive.  I am still hoping that they all had a safe journey home.

And may you all be safe in your home.




16 Responses

    1. Thanks Michele. Actually I don’t think you would want to be in those crowds right now. The world is a scary place right now. Stay safe.

    1. Thank you Alison. Yes it was a special moment, one of the largest crowds I have seen, for sure. Hope you are well and staying safe. France

      1. We are thanks. Got out of Malaysia and back to Canada by the skin of our teeth, and still in our 14 day mandatory quarantine – 6 days to go. Stay safe. Stay well.

  1. Remarkable photos and blog, France. Looks as if you were between the tracks and in the middle of the crowds! You are so brave! Stay well!

    1. Thank you Sally. The tracks were fine, the crowd at the “Final Prayer” was a bit overwhelming though. Brave or stupid, alway a fine line ;-) Keep safe as well. France

  2. Frans, your insight into these incredible occasions is amazing, your commentary and images are just fabulous – thank you!!

    1. Rose, you are very welcome. So glad you enjoy my little stories. Hope all is well in your part of the world. Warmly, France

  3. Hello France,
    Glad you’re staying away from crowds at the moment, but I expect that more crowded places are in your future. I’m self-isolating as well.
    Thanks for sharing – amazing pictures and story – makes me crave more human contact. The train photos are awesome. I’m sure it took a lot of vision guts and to capture the magnitude of Muslims’ devotion. Stay safe for now.

    1. Hello Sara, Great hearing from you. Not sure about crowded places in my future anymore. I think it will take a very long time before we can travel safely again. I think I will need to feed my need for human contact locally for a while. Stay safe as well. I’ll see you when this is all over. XX France

    1. Dear Judy, So nice hearing from you. Well, you are right, I can’t wait to travel again but I am afraid it will take a long time before we can travel safely internationally. Wishing you goo health, France

Would love to hear from you!

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