Runa Khan has watched as traditional boats that used to ply Bangladesh’s waterways have been replaced by those with diesel engines. Determined to preserve traditional boat-building skills, she is now achieving her long-held dream of constructing a museum.
With almost half of Bangladesh being covered by a vast river delta, boats have always been an essential part of life. However, imported diesel engines radically changed boating habits, putting the heritage and technology of traditional wooden boat-building at risk. There were no written records showing how the boats were constructed, as this knowledge had been passed from one craftsman to another for centuries as oral history.
Boatbuilding is one of the oldest crafts of this country. Its authenticity makes it a masterpiece of art and technology, part of the memory of humankind.
Khan’s goal has been to save this aspect of her nation’s heritage by building replicas of the old-style boats and to build a museum to house them. The boat museum “will be in wood and glass so that visitors can watch the carpenters as they work”, says Khan. Forming a major part of a permanent art and crafts exhibition centre near Dhaka, it will be a “living museum”, with boats actually floating on the adjacent river, she says. Her NGO, Friendship, is joining forces with the Bengal Foundation to set up the museum and a collaboration with the government is also under way.
Saving her country’s marine heritage is not Khan’s only focus. Friendship provides direct healthcare services to 250,000 people a month and serves several million people in the most remote areas of Bangladesh.
The number of traditional boat designs compiled by Runa Khan
The number of boat replicas, most of them less than a metre long, built by the craftsmen
National and international exhibitions of traditional Bangladeshi boat-building, Khan’s Friendship organization participated in