Traditionally they charmed snakes, removed unwanted reptiles from village huts and insects from people's teeth. They practiced natural healing using herbs and animal products and they were village entertainers.
They are the Bede people of Bangladesh, river gypsies who for centuries roamed the waterways of the region, living their lives on boats and earning a good living through their esoteric arts. For ten months of the year, they sailed from village to village to earn, and settled on a riverbank for the remaining two months to celebrate their weddings and their festivals. Unlike other Bangladeshi women, Bede women were the breadearners, unafraid to go into society without a veil.
A culture in decay
But these days, the million strong community is suffering from a destitution remarkable even in so poor a country as Bangladesh. 98% of them live below the poverty line, and though each family has an average of 7-8 children, 95% of them don’t have any access to education. The Bede live on ancient boats that for the most part are too broken to sail or repair and provide only the most basic and ramshackle of shelters.
Some of the older Bede are trying to cling on to their ancient ways but they are being squeezed in by the modern world – and they have hardly any skills to cope with a developing globalizing Asia.
Reporter Bijoyeta Das visited the Bede people and you can hear their story here, or click on this link.