Lifestyle of the Nomadic River Gypsies and
their Threat Narrative: A Tale of Two Villages
Mohammad Sujoun Lasker¹*, Liza Mithila Dio², Mohammad Hasan Chowdhury3, Md. Sajjat Hossain4, Md. Nurul Islam5 and Md. Jayed Chowdhury6
¹Department of Geography and Environment, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka (Bangladesh)
2Department of Statistics, Tejgaon University College, Dhaka, (Bangladesh)
3Department of Food Technology and Nutrition Science, Noakhali Science and Technology University (Bangladesh)
4Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Begum Rokeya University, Rangpur (Bangladesh)
5Professor, Dept. of Geography and Environment, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka (Bangladesh)
6Faculty of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka (Bangladesh)
Submission: February 18, 2019; Published: March 14, 2019
*Corresponding author: Mohammad Sujoun Lasker, Department of Geography and Environment, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka-1342, Bangladesh
How to cite this article: Mohammad SL, Liza MD, Mohammad HC, et al. Lifestyle of the Nomadic River Gypsies and their Threat Narrative: A Tale of Two
Villages in Bangladesh. Int J Environ Sci Nat Res. 2019; 17(5): 555973. DOI:10.19080/IJESNR.2019.17.555973
Rivers have been an attention of human activities throughout the history. The livelihood of people is essentially dependent on river and its resources in Bangladesh, but the story of river gypsies is totally different. River gypsies are an ethnic group in Bangladesh. They are known as “water gypsies” or “bedey” to local people. They have their own lifestyles and culture. This paper focuses on the Bangladeshi gypsy community living in Porabari, Savar and Dakatia River in Chandpur Sadar district. This study investigated the gypsies identity in the society and status in the community level and also explore their existing entitlements, need and social rights, and finally examine the problem and threats they frequently face for living an unstable condition in the society. Both primary and secondary data are used in this study. A questionnaire survey and focus group discussion (FGD) are conducted in the study area. Besides these data some secondary data is also used in this study. The major empirical findings are:
a) In Bangladesh context day by day river gypsies lost their culture;
b) One of the major problems in bedey community is water and sanitation, in Chandpur Sadar district 260- 280 families (approximately 500-600 people) use only 4 kacha toilets by sharing. They are directly drinking the river water by using potassium aluminium sulphate (KAl (SO4)2);
c) About their own opinion they use the river water to clean, cook, bath and drink and they have no land;
d) They want their domestic culture, but the problem is they do not want to roam in the river and jungle because their traditional professions losing their demand. Now they want to transform their occupation and many of them runs grocery shop in Porabari;
e) More than 96 percent of bedes are illiterate and they are living below the poverty line, only 3 percent bedey children got the opportunity to be vaccinated against vaccine preventable deadly diseases;
f) In Chandpur Sadar district most of the bedes are enlisted in the voter list but the scenario of Savar Porabari are totally different. Most of the Bedes still could not enlist themselves in the voter list. This research demonstrates the overall lifestyle of gypsy community in the study area. At present they are facing many problems, due to rapid urbanization and drying out the rivers, many of them changing their profession. Government and NGOs should take some initiatives to support them for protect their culture and also need to provide them an environment friendly living place.
Keywords: River Gypsies; Ethnic group; Water and Sanitation; Deadly Diseases; Environment Friendly
Rivers have been a focus of human activities throughout
the history. Rivers have played a leading role in the history of
civilization of several country of the world. Bangladesh is a riverine
country with hundreds of rivers overlying its landscape.
The livelihood of people is essentially dependent on river and its
resources in Bangladesh, but the story of river gypsies is totally
different. River gypsies are an ethnic group in Bangladesh. They
are known as bedey to local people. Bede, a nomadic community
and is regarded as “Water Gypsy” or “River Gypsy” or “Nomadic
People”. Dalton in his brief report mentions Bedayas a gypsy-like
tribe . Anthropologist H.K.S. Arefeen  mentioned “Bede” as a
marginalized Muslim community in Bangladesh perspective .
Wise calls the Bedes “bands of vagrants…who correspond to the
gypsies of Europe” . The community gives rational explanation
of the term “Bede” and defend their Arab origin on the basis of
similarity with the Arabic word “Bedouin”. Though, Banglapedia
mentioned them as descendents of `Montong’ tribe of Myanmar.
Bedes are engaged in the snake charming, catching of snakes, curing
snake-bites, selling of snakes, traditional and spiritual healing
services, magic show and monkey show, selling of bangles and
trinkets. According to their own estimate they were 1.5 million in
number in 1987 living in Bangladesh . According to a recent estimate
Bedays are 500,000 in number in Bangladesh . Around
10,000 nomadic groups roam around Bangladesh and they gather
for two months in an area. A survey reported about 65 prominent
areas where Bedes come for yearly gathering and some of the Bedes
have purchased some land to settle there [6,7].
About 16000 of population have settled by the Bangshi
River in Porabari village of Savar Municipality in Dhaka district
of Bangladesh which is the biggest gipsy village in the country.
Because of their living close by Dhaka city, which is the capital of
Bangladesh, the Bede community of Porabari is getting used to
a semi-urban lifestyle and is fast losing their traditional lifestyle
and culture. On the other hand, in Chandpur 10 no ghat in Dakatia
River, there is approximately 500-600 people are living and most
of them are Muslim’s. Both of them are fighting to protect their
culture and tradition.
The main aim of this study is to explore the state of socio-economic
condition of the nomadic river gypsies and also investigate
their major problems and threat in the society. To meet the aim of
this research several specific objectives are given below:
a) To find out the socio-economic and environmental
situation of the river gypsies in the study area;
b) To analyze the major problems of the gypsy community
in the study site;
c) To examine the main threat in their culture and also find
out their risks and vulnerability.
The study area was selected by two major gipsy villages.
One of them is biggest Bede village in the country named Savar
Porabari Bede village which is situated in Savar union, vatpara
road under the Dhaka district. The location of the Porabari village
is 23°51’45.75”N latitude and 90°15’20.88”E longitude. They live
in boat and bank of the Bangshi River. On the other hand, another
village situated in the 10 no Ghat in Chandpur Sadar upazila,
bank of the Dakatia River. The absolute location of the study area
is 23°13’26.13”N latitude and 90°38’57.04”E longitude which is
relatively located beside the Chandpur press club.
This is a qualitative research; however, this research has
drawn numerous inferences from various secondary sources and
quantitative data sets that were available in the public domain.
Semi-structured one-on-one interviews and also Focus Group
Discussion (FGD) followed by extensive participant observations
went into the primary sources of data collection in this research.
Interviews of 30 river gypsies were conducted with the help of a
semi-structured questionnaire and the guided field-walk method.
In-depth interview and group discussion techniques were followed
to collect more information on poverty, human deprivation and
social exclusion of the Bede community. Secondary data were
collected from different published and unpublished materials,
journal, newspaper, thesis work, different published and
unpublished research and books. Data obtained from the survey
were analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistical tools.
Different software such as, Microsoft word, Microsoft Excel, SPSS,
are used for data analysis.
In this research mainly highlighted in to three major objectives.
These are socio-economic and environmental situation of
the gypsy villages; their major problems and major threat of their
losing domestic culture also their risks and vulnerability. By analyzing
respondent’s age, monthly income, educational qualification
etc. try to understand their socio- economic situation. On the
other hand, by analyzing their household structure, toilet structure,
sources of drinking water, major diseases, medical facilities,
waste management etc. it was examining their health and environmental
By analyzing the respondents age, it is found that 20-39 ages
are maximum, and they are almost 70 percent. In this age most of
them (10%) are related to the catching fish. In the age of 35-39
(7%) of respondents are related to selling of bangles and trinkets
(Table 1). Snake catcher are found (7%) also in the age of 30-34. on
the other hand, other respondents are related to snake charming,
monkey show, business and snake catching professions.
Source: Questionnaire survey, 2018
In the Table 2 it was observed that monthly income of the
respondents is not enough. 15000-19000 taka is monthly income
of 24 percent respondents. 20 percent of people earned 5000-
9000 taka monthly and 20000-24000, 10000-14000 taka earned
by 16 percent respondents. 10 percent respondent’s income level
is 25000-29000 taka. In Bangladesh per capita income is 4,040
PPP dollars .
Source: Questionnaire survey, 2018
It was observed that (Figure 1) about 97 percent gypsies
are illiterate. Only 2 percent gypsy was completed primary
education. 1 percent is found who can complete class 8 or 9. A
large majority of children cannot attend schools because they stay
all the months of a year with their parent outside home, and travel
from one place to another. Because of illiteracy Gypsies cannot
enjoy the independence to select any other occupation except the
hereditary and traditional ones. It was also observed that (Figure
2 & 3) almost 50 percent of the respondents living in a boat. 34
percent live in kacha house, 6 percent in tin shed, 3 percent people
live in half pacca house which is found in Savar Porabari, and 8
percent are live in the bank of river.
Pure drinking water is very important for maintaining sound
health. In the analysis it was observed that 95 percent of the gypsies
drink the river water (Figure 4). In that case they are directly
drinking the river water by using potassium aluminium sulphate
(KAl (SO4)2). Four percent of the villagers used to drink tube
well water because they live in the land permanently in Porabari
Savar. Others are using different source of water by the purpose of
their business and travelling. Most of the villagers (96%) directly
through their waste in to the river (Figure 5). Because of their
illiteracy and unconsciousness of the environment protection
they through all of the waste in to the river. About 2 percent are
through their waste in the dustbin because they live in the land
and try to take the surroundings neat and clean.
It was observed that (Table 3) 60 percent of the respondents
used kacha toilet, 17 percent used ring slub and 13 percent are
using hanging toilets. In Bangladesh there are 57.5 percent people
are used well toilets .
In this research it was observed that about 47 percent of
people are assailing from diarrhea, 13 percent dysentery and 12
percent are attacked by pneumonia (Figure 6). Fever are their
common diseases, they also attacked by the typhoid, malaria and
The gypsies are also snake charmer. They point out that every
day more than 200 women of their community spread out in
different areas of the capital and adjoining villages to earn their
livelihood by demonstrating their skills as snake charmers. A large
number of Bedes live on snake related trading e.g. snake catching
and snake selling (Table 4).
(Source: FGD, 2018).
The presence of snakes reduces crop damage by the rats in
the crop fields. Snake catching by the Bedes without creating
any scope for snake reproduction causes loss of different species
of snakes and is creating an imbalance in the ecosystem. Snake
catchers are facing difficulties in collecting snakes from the forests
of Bangladesh because of deforestation and excessive catching of
snakes from forests. Eventually their earnings from snake trading
reduced . They polluted the river water which is another cause
of water pollution and they also polluted their surroundings that’s
why people are do not allow the Bedes to anchor in their land
because they know that after anchoring the Bedes will pollute the
environment through defecating in the open places both on
land and in water.
The Bede community is strictly under privileged from all
types of basic requirements of life e.g. food, shelter, education,
medical care, etc. They travel almost throughout the whole year
by boats on the numerous waterways of Bangladesh and earn
their livelihood by selling sundry items, performing jugglery
acts, catching snakes, and treating village people by the various
riversides with their traditional medicinal formulations . Lack
of awareness and health education increases the risk of getting
diseases especially communicable diseases in Bede community.
An estimate shows that death rate from communicable diseases
among the age group 5-14 of the poorest 20 percent of the global
population is 67 times higher than that of the richest 20 percent
of the global population . The condition of Bede community
indicates that the health seeking process and causes of death in
this community must be more frustrating than any other socially
excluded and deprived ethnic groups in Bangladesh. Though
many researchers worked on the culture of the Bede community
but until 1999 no research was done on the development crisis
of this community . NGOs have launched numerous programs
for the poor and marginalized people but almost no development
program was launched for the socially excluded and stigmatized
Bede Community. Many research works were done on the Bede
community, but no research work could find a way for changing or
initiate a change process in this community. There are some major problems found in the 10 no Ghat Dakatia river gypsies and also
the Savar Porabari river gipsies. These are:
a) There is no pure drinking water source in the villages.
b) No electricity and gas in the villages although some
peoples living in the land.
c) Without river water, everything’s of daily life they bought
in the market.
d) There are no permanent educational institutions of their
e) Early marriage is a major problem of their community
f) Many children are died by drop in to the water
g) They do not find enough fish in to the river.
h) Pregnant women are attacked in different diseases.
i) Sometimes their boats are sinking in to the water
because of natural hazard and also the high tide.
j) 500-600 peoples used averagely only 3 toilets that is a
k) There are no medical facilities of them, and no one can
provide any medicines.
l) Bede has no alphabet, but they practice or restore their
language, tradition, custom, song, dance and culture orally.
m) They do not have any control over land and local or
national political power.
n) Almost all the Bedes are not included in the voter list of
o) They want domestic culture, but they do not want to
roam in jungles and catch snakes.
p) Lack of nutrition and food security.
q) Lack of opportunity for savings.
r) Gypsies do not have land, so they can not apply for Bank
loan or NGO microcredit.
s) Diminishing Market Demand for Services and products
provided by Bedes.
t) Illegal Seasonal Migration and Violation of Human rights
Rivers are life for Gypsies. For hundreds of years, they have
meandered along involved waterways, charming snakes, training
monkeys, selling trinkets, performing magic and healing people.
Most of the Gypsies are live in below the poverty line, they are
illiterate, and children are married at age 11 on average. Some of
them told that, it is a myth for them that they want their domestic
culture. They said that they do not want to roam the jungles and
catch snakes. They and their children want to be educated so that
they can go abroad. “Our traditional occupations are losing their
demand. People no more trust in our mystical healing service.
Snake charming has also lost its acceptance,” said Khadiza Akter, who once lived a conservative gypsy life but now runs a grocery
shop Savar Porabari. Halima Begum also added “Earlier, we used
to earn well when there were no doctors in the village. But people
don’t trust in herbal medications or magic anymore. We earned
around 500-1,000 taka a day - now maybe 50, 100” But most Bedes
are love their centuries-old expertise and healing confidences.
They do not want to wildness their old-style lifestyle because they
trust they were born to be river wanderers (Figure 9).
Gypsies are often become endangered during the uneven
weather. Due to storms, heavy rains and wind their boats
sometimes get sunk in the river. Although they live on slight and
insecure boats, they are at danger of sinking of their children into
water. Most of the pieces of land on those Bedes settled are on
the bank of the river. So, river erosion destroys a good number
of Bede households every year. Day by day they are losing their
heritage. They believe that it is not possible for them to survive by
retaining the gypsy culture, because they understand the world
has changed so much. This is a major problem for losing their
a) Government organizations and also different Non-Government
Organizations and their development partner organizations
should acknowledge the special need of education
for the gypsy children who are roaming different Gypsy
b) Government should include them in primary education.
c) Government Primary Education department can plan
for a flexible primary education system for this community
because they are always move from one place to another
place; they stay in one place just for 2 or 3 months.
d) Low cost education program should be promoted for
them and the best option is to launch a 2-3 month’s teachers’
training program for the Bede teachers.
e) Mobile school program should be promoted for their
children to progress the quality of education.
f) Environmental education should be promoted in Bede
community with importance because their live and livelihood
is very closely influenced by their surrounding environment.
g) Gypsies use the same river water for drinking, cooking
and using in other domestic purposes where they evacuate.
The condition of environmental, sanitation and hygienic
practices in gypsy community is highly injurious to their own
health and disastrous to adjacent environment. Safe water,
sanitation and environmental health should be executed in
h) Gypsy women need leadership and entrepreneurship
development training, because they are good entrepreneur.
i) It is high time to promote them stop the child marriage
and also promote female education.
j) Gypsies are denied including in the voter list since they
do not have any land tax certificate or SSC certificate. All the
gypsies should be enlisted as voters in Bangladesh.
River gypsies are an ethnic group in Bangladesh. They are
known as bedey and water gypsies to local people. They live in
groups and they have own lifestyle and culture. They have no
land and they lead a nomadic life by travelling from one place to
another. In the study areas, Chandpur Dakatia River gypsies and
Savar Porabari gypsies occupations are different. Surveys were
conducted among a large Bede community, who reside in boats
on the Bangshi River by Porabari village of Savar area in Dhaka
district and 10 no. Ghat, Chandpur Sadar upazila in Dakatia river
of Bangladesh. In Chandpur most of the gypsies are fisherman
and some of them doing different business. On the other hand,
in Savar Porabari, some are snake charmer, business man, snake
catcher, fisherman etc. They roam across the rivers and waters in
small country boats. These boats are their houses. Throughout
the monsoon, they remain busy with fishing. They also dive for
natural pearls in waters. Men and women both are catch snakes
and entertain people with snake charming and sell herbal cures.
Women go from door to door sell bangles, cosmetics and many
other things. They also try to heal pains of old people often by
sucking out blood from their body. They have no education. So,
the authority feels the need to bring them under formal education
network. Some voluntary organizations are running special
schools on boats to educate river gypsy children in some areas.
Mohammad Sujoun Lasker contributed to the conception,
design, implementation of the research, analysis of the results
and took the lead in writing the manuscript. Liza Mithila Dio,
Mohammad Hasan Chowdhury, Md. Sajjat Hossain and Md. Jayed
Chowdhury contributed to the acquisition of data, participated
in the design of the research & in writing of the manuscript. Md.
Nurul Islam; Professor, Jahangirnagar University conceived of
the research, participated in its design, coordination and helped
to write of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the