Exploring Bangladesh with Definitive Stamps

If I think of stamps as tourism around the world, then there are a few countries that I have thoroughly explored (ie the US, UK, and India) and many that I still want to. Bangladesh is in the latter category. This is partly because I have not come across as many websites, articles, and philatelic societies centered on it. In light of this, I want to share some Bangladeshi stamps as meaningful conduits for cross-cultural dialogue and education. Some of the stamps shown below are from a definitive series initially released in 1973 and subsequently re-released in 1976 (1). As such, I unfortunately do not know which batch these specific versions are from. However, that certainly won't stop us from learning from them! For example, note that all four stamps have the name "Bangladesh" and the price written in Bangla (the national language) on the top and in English on the bottom.


A Brief Primer on Bangladesh and its Stamps

A map of Bangladesh (3)

The nation of Bangladesh has a population of 163 million and a significant role in South Asian history (2). It was formed in the aftermath of a war in 1971, having previously been part of Pakistan (as East Pakistan) since 1947 and even more previously part of British India (as East Bengal) (4). Consequently, a tour through history shows multiple philatelic shifts in what is today Bangladesh. For example, East Pakistan stamps typically included the word "Pakistan" written in Bangla (a practice that Pakistan would later abandon).

An East Pakistan First Day Cover (1963)

From 1971-1973, Pakistan stamps were overprinted with "Bangladesh" (written in Bangla or English). Interestingly, such stamps are apparently a favorite topic of forgery (5,6). Bangladesh has released its own stamps since 1971 but outsourced production to other countries, like India and Australia, until 1990 (7). Its stamps are denoted in "taka" and "poysha"currency (1 taka = 100 poisha).


Putting it all Together

Pakistan surrenders in the 1971 War (8)

So why is Bangladesh suited for a conversation on philatelic cultural transmission?


1) Its stamp themes are more domestically focused, with significant emphasis on local culture, the 1971 Liberation War, and the first President/Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1, 7).


2) Many of the 1970s and 1980s releases on these topics were definitive stamps (7). Definitive stamps are generally intended for utilitarian mail purposes and made in large quantities. On the other hand, commemorative stamps are released selectively and thought to be more collector-oriented (9).


If earlier Bangladeshi stamps were largely locally themed and intended for local circulation, then it stands that they present reflections of meaningful cultural and national symbols. With that out of the way, let's look into some of these definitive stamps!


Hilsa, 1973 or 1976, 50 Poisha

A hilsa dish (10)
c. 1973 or 1976
Karnaphuli River, Bangladesh (11)

The hilsa fish, also known as "Ilish maach" or somewhat less colloquially Tenualosa ilisha, is the national fish of Bangladesh (12, 13). The significant role of rivers, the Bengal delta, and other waterways in Bengal (present day Bangladesh and Indian West Bengal) has long made this rich-tasting fish a coveted part of local cuisine (14, 15). For instance,

one news article lists 15-20 varieties of hilsa-based dishes (16)! Moreover, hilsa fishing has historically been an important economic force and currently represents one percent of Bangladesh's GDP. However, dwindling numbers due to factors like overfishing, pollution, and climate change have made hilsa conservation an ecological project of critical importance (17). Nevertheless, its appearance in Bangladeshi philatelic imagery drives home hilsa's multifaceted importance in the country.


Tiger, 1973 or 1976, 25 Poisha

A bengal tiger in mid-yawn (18)
c. 1973 or 1976

Ah yes, perhaps this majestic animal needs no introduction. The bengal tiger, or Panthera tigris tigris, has the distinction of being the national animal of two countries - Bangladesh and India. This is no surprise given its prominent role in "the history, culture, beliefs and myths of the Indian sub-continent" (19). While tigers used to widely habitat the forests of Bangladesh, early to mid 20th century hunting efforts decimated their population. Formally, Bangladesh issued the 3rd Schedule of Bangladesh Wildlife Act 1974 and has supported global conservation initiatives, but enforcement remains a challenge (19). Today, the Bengal Tiger is primarily limited to the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site stretching from India to Bangladesh, as an IUCN Endangered Species (20, 21). The tiger's undeniable beauty and cultural status, coupled with clear interest in conservation around the time, certainly justify its roaring inclusion in 1970s Bangladeshi stamps.


Jackfruit Tree, probably 1976, 5 Poisha

c. 1973 or 1976
A jackfruit tree (22)
A jackfruit and prawn dish (23)

You may notice that a trend is emerging with how these stamps depict national Bangladesh symbols. Next up is the jackfruit - known as "kacha kathal" (when unripe) and "paka kathal" (when ripe) in Bangla or Artocarpus heterophyllus scientifically - the national fruit (24). The tree depicted in the stamp is bursting with raw jackfruit that look very different from what ends up on your plate. When I was younger, I read a story about how this sweet fruit is deceptively tricky and sticky. In fact, the fresh whole fruit will leak "white latex like fluid" upon cutting, which one has to anticipate by rubbing cooking oil on their hands (25). However, one can imagine that the positives outweigh the negatives for a fruit chosen to represent Bangladesh. Indeed, jackfruit trees in Bangladesh "covered more than 23,000 acres of land [in 2012]", are accessible resources in rural areas, and are currently "the second most commonly planted tree, after mango" (26). Though the current trend may be partly due to agricultural initiatives begun in the 1980s (26), Bangladeshi jackfruit has been around for thousands of years (27). It is no surprise then that there is a versatile litany of different recipes. The "kacha" form is used for savory dishes like kacha kathal bhuna (28) and raw jackfruit kofta (29). On the other hand, the "paka" form is perfect for sweet dishes like kathal pitha (30). As an affordable, healthy, agriculturally and historically relevant food, the jackfruit tree is very worthy of a philatelic cameo.


Jute on Boat, 1982, 25 Poisha

A bale of jute (31)
1982

Finally, we wrap up with jute - known in Bangla as "paat" and scientifically as varieties of the Corchororus genus. Though not officially designated a national symbol, jute is known as Bangladesh's "golden fiber"- which is still pretty good! Jute is an environmentally friendly plant fiber with highly versatile applications, appearing in sacks, floor mats, and clothing (32). It was present in the Indian subcontinent as early as 300 BCE, and was an accessible clothing material in 16th century Bengal (32). Later, Bengal jute production emerged as a major economic player in the British empire (33). As indicated by the stamp, the massive role of jute extended to independent Bangladesh as well. Even in the 21st century, Bangladesh is the global leader in jute production and second only to India in consumption (34). The stamp depicts a boat loaded with jute bales, illustrating how Bengali farmers have historically taken advantage of the abundance of waterways (35). As a reminder of Bangladesh's history, economy, and geography, the jute boat is a perfect philatelic ambassador.


Conclusions

It is of course impossible that four stamps can sufficiently represent a nation or culture. Nevertheless, I hope that they can offer a meaningful introduction. I also hope that they illustrate how stamp collecting can make education more accessible. When you set out to learn about an entirely new subject, the question of where to begin can itself be intimidating. There's a blank map of overwhelming possibilities. Yet in that map, stamps are like individual cities where you can begin your explanation. A stamp on Hilsa fish leads you into Bengali culinary culture. A stamp on malaria control beckons you to India's growth as a young nation. After all, an item on a postage stamp definitely points to a topic worth knowing about. Whether it's national history, literature, or even sports, stamps are a great place to begin learning. Perhaps it is apt to close with a quote from E. V. Lucas:


The postage stamp is a flimsy thing

No thicker than a beetle's wing

And yet it will roam the world for you

Exactly where you tell it to.


Works Cited

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  2. “Population, Total - Bangladesh.” World Bank, The World Bank, 2019, data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=BD.

  3. Map of Bangladesh. Illustration. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 May 2016. quest.eb.com/search/309_2928781/1/309_2928781/cite. Accessed 31 Jul 2020.

  4. Husain, Syed Sajjad, and Hugh Russell Tinker. “Languages.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Apr. 2020, www.britannica.com/place/Bangladesh/Languages.

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  15. Nishat, Bushra. “Sustainable Livelihoods for Hilsa-Dependent Communities across India Bangladesh Riverscapes.” International Water Association, International Water Association, iwa-network.org/projects/sustainable-livelihoods-for-hilsa-dependent-communities-across-india-bangladesh-riverscapes/.

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