A Muslim craftsman devoted his talents to caring for the dead among Bangladesh’s Hindu minority on a peaceful journey to the next life.
Taher Ali Khan has made thousands of shrines for deceased loved ones around the tranquil site of Barisal Mahashashan, the country’s largest Hindu crematorium.
The dedicated mason prays five times a day and adheres to all the precepts of the Islamic faith, but has often found himself repulsed by critics of runners who question his calling.
“My prophet said to find bread through honest work. “And he advised us to refrain from stealing, hurting others or committing any crimes,” Khan, 60, told AFP news agency.
“I work here to build graves,” he added. “I see nothing that could endanger my religion.”
Hindus account for about 10 percent of the majority Muslim nation’s 169 million people and are well represented in politics, business, and the civil service.
But their numbers declined from about a quarter of the population in 1947, when millions fled after dividing the newly independent India into two separate nations along religious lines.
Another mass exodus coincided with the brutal nine-month-long Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971, during which occupied Pakistani military commanders approved attacks in which tens of thousands of Hindu civilians were killed.
Occasional flashes of deadly religious conflict continue to this day, with at least six people killed last month in nationwide unrest that also saw attacks on temples.
News of the recent violence upset Khan, who in the following days called on Hindu friends to ask about their safety.
“I consider Hindus to be my brothers and sisters,” he says.
“They love me because of my work. I pour out my heart in building graves, because everyone wants to build something beautiful for their dead. ”
Khan spends most of his time at the crematorium, toiling at ornate samadhi shrines that cross the site around the funeral fire.
The more humble monuments are small and modest concrete slabs, similar in style to Western tombstones, with ashes of the dead buried beneath them.
The largest are expansive buildings with multiple buildings with colorful towers towering over the small man-made dam that greets visitors at the cemetery entrance, which can sell for up to 250,000 taka ($ 3,000).
“If I build a beautiful Samadhi for the dead, it gives me enormous satisfaction,” he says. “I feel like I did something to help them feel good and to mourn their dead.”
Khan learned his trade 35 years ago and, according to his estimate, has built more than 10,000 samadhis in the time since then – most of those around Barisal Crematorium are his handiwork.
“Look at this beautiful one,” he says, pointing to one of the shrines during a tour of the cemetery.
“The family wanted something beautiful for their young son, who died suddenly. I did it with all my love and care. ”
His work is in high demand among Hindus living in Barisal and from remote farming communities around the southern river port.
“It does not matter if he is a Muslim, he is doing a good job,” said Gouranga Das, who came to the site to cremate his mother and seek Khan’s services again.
“He made my grandfather’s grave and it was very nice.”
Every year during the Bhoot Chaturdashi festival, when Hindu worshipers honor their dead by decorating samadhis with candles, he receives dozens of invitations to commemorate loved ones.
After working for Barisal Mahashashan for more than half of his life, his owners also consider him a family man, even though he is still nominally working as a freelancer.
“People come to him to build tombstones for their family as he is the best,” said Tamal Malakar, the crematorium’s general secretary.
“We love him and his work.”