In making sense of the physical world there is, surely, an over-reliance on the eyes. Ears too can play a role; hearing is not less of a primary sense than sight. Besides, sometimes if we pay sufficient heed to the things we hear our lives are simply more enjoyable. I'm thinking of those wonderful words, “I did not see it but I heard…”
Middle Shilua in Pathan Nagar Union of Chhagalnaiya Upazila in Feni District is in many respects a nondescript village. It features the typical pond-and-paddy landscape; there are small stores along the main road for groceries, tea and gossip; it can surprise nobody that adhan's melody rings forth five times a day from the village mosque. All is as it should be in Middle Shilua, except for the presence of a large, conspicuous stone.
Under normal circumstances even a stone, no matter what its size, might not be more than a triviality. But the Village Flute was drawn to Middle Shilua because it heard a remarkable thing: that the stone in Middle Shilua is one that grows.
Twenty-eight-year-old Shekawat Hossein lives in the village. His house pond, beside a smaller side road, borders the small yard enclosed by a low brick wall in which the stone is situated. It's easy to find him for a chat.
“I did not see it but I heard,” says Shekawat, “that people once tried to lift that stone with the help of seven elephants but it would not budge.” While he has not personally observed the stone growing, he remarks that it is not easy to take notice of such a thing when one sees the rock on a daily basis. It's certainly true that those with children or houseplants might be the last to register the incremental growth of offspring or plant.
Shekawat is heard to say that it is those who leave Middle Shilua and return after a number of years who can best attest to the stone's enlargement, which may involve the rock's unusual folds and creases gradually pushing outwards.
A stone that lives and grows has understandably been a village talking point for many generations. Indeed, over the years the stone has successfully established for itself a tin roof shelter and a donation tin with a sign of dubious origin that instructs every visitor to leave money before departing the area. The stone has even influenced the village's name – in Feni's brand of Bangla, shil means stone.
“I heard it is a miracle stone,” says elderly shopkeeper Gazi Habibullah. “I heard it holds the power for helping others and that beneath the stone lie the riches of seven kings.” The problem is, he continues, that nobody can lift the stone to retrieve the wealth – not even those seven elephants. It is only the rightful owner of the riches that will be able to lift the stone, he heard, an owner who will be born of no mortal father.
Undoubtedly the Middle Shilua stone is a curious one. There are many places where stones belong: on mountaintops, along desert ridges, in the asteroid belt beyond Mars and even under the ocean. But like most of Bangladesh the land about Middle Shilua is the creation of great rivers that have refined and deposited particle of sand and earth to make the alluvial soils. It really isn't a proper place for a large stone, whether or not of the living kind.
From his Dada, his uncle, Habibullah heard that the rock came at first, quite mysteriously, out of the mud in the very spot where it sits today. He heard that from its first appearance the rock gradually grew – and with his hands Habibullah demonstrates how protruding areas that were once the size of a tennis ball are now grapefruit size.
I heard meanwhile, from Habibullah, that the current tin-roof shelter is the second of its kind – it needed to be rebuilt when the stone grew too large for the first. Even today the stone protrudes beyond the roofline – could this be evidence of growth?
Habibullah recalls the stone's yard was first demarcated during the British period, and from the generation before his he heard there was once a sign on which was written “If anyone destroys this stone's character or site they will be held accountable in accordance with the law.”
Shekawat's father, Mohiuddin Chowdhury Milon, says that during the British and Pakistani periods many upper level government servants including the Subdivision Officer would visit the stone. He was heard to say that as a child these official visitors used to encourage him to study and give a few rupees in ad hoc pocket money.
Mohiuddin heard the stone was constructed by the Mogh and from when he was a child until not so long ago he observed that many Hindus made puja worship there. Alternatively, it is to be heard there was once a Buddha statue in front of the stone because the Buddhists of Tripura believed the site sacred.
Village account says there is the outline of a human foot with five toes to be seen on one side of the stone while the footprint of an elephant adorns another. These features are not straightforward to see but are easy enough to be heard of.
So it was that, armed with curiosity and a few photographs, I made my way at a later date to another place where rocks might belong – the Bangladesh National Museum in Dhaka. There, I heard from Dr. Niru Shamsunnahar, expert in the history of terracotta in Bangladesh and helpful Deputy Keeper of the Public Education Department that it might be worthwhile to consult the Bangladesh District Gazetteer for Noakhali, of which Feni was a part in 1977 when the book was written, for further information about the stone.
Similarly I heard from Afroza Khan Mita, the Assistant Director of the Department of Archaeology, that the Shilua site was a protected archaeological site in Bangladesh and that more information could be found in AKM Zakaria's 1984 book Bangladesher Pratnasampad (Bangladesh's Artefacts).
In these two books it states that at Middle Shilua there is a broken protima, a religious image that is thought to have been colossal in size and is extremely old, dating from the second century BCE. On the pedestal were once inscribed some writings in an obscure language and underneath the stone may be the ruins of a temple, which might only be verified upon excavation.
Interestingly, in neither book did it mention that the Shilua stone was growing. Nor was it specified that the stone wasn't growing. In neither book did it mention the seven elephants or positively negate the possibility of finding seven kings' wealth underneath. Perhaps the researchers for those books hadn't heard these things – maybe they never spoke to Habibullah's Dada.
In the Gazetteer there was, however, a photograph of the rock from the early 1970s and it was certainly of interest to see that in light of the photos I took in recent days.
And yet it might be a mistake to base an understanding of the rock of Middle Shilua on an over-reliance on the eyes. No, being neither villager nor archaeologist I hesitate to state definitively how the two photographs compared in terms of the rock's size – or comment on whether or not it is a living stone – not least because sometimes life is simply more enjoyable if we pay sufficient heed to the things we've heard.