Home | Indigenous roots of Bengali culture, Adibashi culture and heritage in Bangladesh
Indigenous roots of Bengali culture, Adibashi culture and heritage in Bangladesh
Indigenous roots of Bengali culture, Adibashi culture and heritage in Bangladesh

Indigenous roots of Bengali culture, Adibashi culture and heritage in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is blessed with a rich cultural heritage. Bengali literature, music, dance and other art forms continue to enchant millions, Bengalis and others alike. But the cultural heritage of this country has similarly been enriched by the lifestyles and the literary and cultural traditions of other peoples as well, who are not ethno-linguistically Bengali. These are the indigenous peoples, who refer to themselves as Adibashi in Bengali (Adivasi in Hindi and Nepali). They live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the country’s southeastern frontier, and in several other regions of the country, which, in contrast to the hill region, are often called the “plains”. Yet, what we normally see in the more visible aspects of our ‘mainstream’ cultural practices, and in the official versions of our national histories and historiography, are scarcely reflective of this pluri-cultural heritage of the entire country, including that of the Bangalee people and the Adibashi peoples.

The indigenous roots of various aspects of Bengali culture are often denied or downplayed. And when I say indigenous roots, I mean not only the traditions of Adibashi peoples of today and of the past, but the lives, livelihoods and lifestyles of the ancestors of today’s Bangalees, irrespective of their ethnic, religious or linguistic origins, whether rural or urban, plebian or patrician, female or male.

The royal courts of Bengal, including those of present-day Bangladesh, were for long dominated by rulers, court officials, poets and artistes, who used languages other than that spoken by Bengalis or Adibashis. This led, among others, to the marginalization of Bengali and indigenous languages and culture. Of course, such trends were resisted, even during British colonial rule, particularly in tandem with the anti-colonial movement, nurtured further during the Bangla Language movement of the 1950s and 60s, continuing up to the freedom movement of 1971 and thereafter. Nevertheless, equating national heritage with the understanding of culture as held by a small group from among the political and social elite, still persists.

When the fourth centenary of Dhaka city was being celebrated by the government in 2008, I had pointed out – at a preparatory meeting – that Dhaka city was well over five hundred years old, being well attested in the records of Portuguese cartographers and historians. Why then, I asked, were we clipping away more than a century of Dhaka’s past, glorious or inglorious? “Dhaka was the capital city of Mughal Bengal only since the 17th century”, I was told. I understood. The pre-Mughal and non-Mughal origins of Dhaka were being rejected as unworthy of celebration, since it was not then the capital. Mine was a dissenting view, a minority view, and hence cast aside, to the winds.

Those of you who have attended state dinners and other such formal functions in Bangladesh will inevitably have noticed that the usual menu consists predominantly of meat and other cholesterol-ly-rich dishes: pilau (pilaf), biriyani, rezala, korma, etc. These follow recipes from Mughal, Persian, Turkish, Arabic or North Indian and Pakistani traditions. Fish and vegetables, unless too-liberally doused with masala, oil and ghee, either don’t make it to the table at all, and if they do, they shyly peep away from the farthest corners of the table: from the ‘margins’ and the ‘periphery’.

I waited for an appropriate opportunity to try to break this tradition, even if I couldn’t actually establish a new one. It came in the same year, 2008, when Bangladesh hosted a South Asian Environment Ministers’ dinner, and I was holding the portfolio of Environment and Forest, along with Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs, as the Minister of State. As the chair of the preparatory committee (unlike in the centenary event, where I was a mere member of the committee), I suggested to the senior officials attending the committee meeting that even if we didn’t serve Chakma fare, we could surely include some basic Bangalee items in the banquet. The Environment ministers from Islamabad and New Delhi – and elsewhere in South Asia – would perhaps be more interested to taste cuisine that didn’t include the signature Mughlai items, with which they were most likely a little too familiar. They didn’t demur, thankfully; perhaps on account of protocol rather than my logic; same old elite dominance! As far as I can remember, we served boiled rice, fish and vegetables, along with some dishes of Mughal/Persian/Arab origin. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Mughal, Persian, Turkish and Arab cuisine, especially meat dishes, and occasionally dessert. Bangladeshi cuisine has such a rich repertoire of dishes, unfortunately only a very small part of which is available in restaurants and other eateries in our cities and towns. The cultural show that followed included a Marma dance from the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Lalon songs by Anusheh Adil, in her inimitable style.

In several dinners that I have hosted at my Dhaka and Rangamati homes over the years, for Bengali, Adibashi and expatriate friends, I have served Chakma and other Jumma dishes: upland jum rice, jum pumpkin, stuffed chichinga, wild mushroom, khola stream fish, shrimp baked in banana leaf, and chicken cooked in bamboo hollow, among others. The guests seemed to lap it up, fast, in most cases! Perhaps it was the change from the usual Bangladeshi fare, especially the large number of organic or near-organic vegetable dishes, which made them enjoy the meal. We generally went easy on chilly peppers but oil was sparingly used, if at all, on such occasions. Normally, however, oil is sometimes totally dispensed with, and most Jummas, especially rural communities, like their dishes very very hot (I distinguish ‘hot’ from ‘spicy’, unlike in most English-speaking countries).

I have always wondered why there is no Bengali word for mushroom. ‘Benger chhata’ (toad’s/frog’s umbrella)? But isn’t that toadstool, rather than mushroom? And why isn’t mushroom part of regular Bengali cuisine? My guess is that, several centuries ago, before the court culture of conquering rulers came to dominate Bangladesh, the ancestors of Bengalis must have eaten mushroom, and several other meat and vegetable items that Adibashis eat (I am NOT referring to haram items here). Perhaps they gradually gave them up, when the people from desert, arid and semi-arid regions – who ruled the country – looked down upon these food items from the forests, swamps, rivers, streams, wetlands, ocean and hills as ‘unclean’ or otherwise unpalatable. But things have changed So many Bengali Bangladeshis relish mushroom in Chinese restaurants and Adibashi homes as much as Adibashis do! The more adventurous ones even venture on to several other more ‘exotic’ (sic!) items too, to the great enjoyment and satisfaction of their Adibashi hosts. (I won’t name them here. Some of them are similar to what you get in Paris, Bangkok, Chiangmai and Hong Kong, including items with and without legs and tails.)

When I mentioned the mainstream culinary delicacies above, I was referring to those favoured in court circles of the then Bengal, and not to the ‘subaltern’ practices. In the case of the latter, we have had Bengalization and indigenization of several exogenous traditions, be it in the realm of cuisine, spirituality and philosophy (Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism and “syncretic” faiths; I personally prefer to say spiritual pluralism rather than syncretism or polytheism; remember, Buddhism has no room for God as a creator or supreme being), art and music, dance and drama, and literary genres. We have developed our own brands of philosophy and spirituality (Lalonism, Raolism, and indigenous faiths that are often symbiotic with nature), music (Baul, Bhatiali, the vast array of Adibashi peoples’ vocal and instrumental traditions), art, literature, etc. But in culinary matters, and in sports and games (kabaddi excepted), among others, the indigenous traditions were generally left to survive only among the rural population, undervalued and neglected by the urban and so-called urbane circles.

In Bangladesh, many Bengali people take pride in an external or exogenous origin: that they are descended from conquerors or other immigrants from the Arab-speaking countries, or from Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, or from Northern India. In contrast, it is the Adibashis who proudly proclaim their indigenous descent, which is often spuriously denied by mainstream politicians and bureaucrats, by hinting at the former’s ‘foreign immigrant’ status, while the same racist person proudly proclaims his or her noble lineage of exogenous origin. Have you ever wondered why so many Bangalee people look somewhat ‘oriental’: like Thais, Burmese or Indonesians, not only in greater Sylhet and in Chittagong division, but also in other parts of the country? But how many admit to such oriental or eastern ancestry? Very, very, few. It isn’t deemed to be politically and socially correct.

One of the reasons why a western lineage is so prized, and is so often claimed, rightly or otherwise, is that people with such descent are generally regarded to come from a “superior” race, whose members are tall and fair of skin. Ironically, the proponents of such ancestry may themselves be small and dark. Reminds me of that diminutive Nazi brunette, Adolph, who eulogized blonde, blue-eyed and tall “Aryans”.

Thus it is not surprising that the most sought-after bride must be a ranga bou; a bride that is fair or pale in complexion. One has only to look at the pages of matrimonial ads in this country and its western neighbours, to see that this trend still prevails. The demand for the duskier Krishnakolis in the marriage market is still quite small, except perhaps where a fat dowry is concerned! And the complexion-lightening creams like Fair and Lovely are doing roaring business with huge turnovers! But alas! Such perspectives are not confined to Bengalis and other South Asians alone. They are also present among several indigenous peoples and among other peoples, nations and communities, across Asia and several other continents.

Of course, perceptions on beauty and complexion have changed a great deal in the west, and one doesn’t nowadays come across the expression, my fair lady, except in the poetry and art of bygone centuries in Europe. The value of having a suntanned skin is nowadays so prized, even by western men, that the risks of skin cancer are thrown to the devil and the Victorian women’s sun-protective parasols are made fun of. Those who can’t afford suntans in sunny beaches even resort to specialized treatments that give them a tan without the help of bared exposure before the Sun god! In these countries, suntan lotions sell as briskly as skin-lightening creams do in Bangladesh, India, Burma and Thailand. Turning back to Bangladesh, here too, perceptions are changing, albeit slowly, and if we compared statistics on love marriages with arranged marriages, we would perhaps find many more wives, and husbands too for that matter, who are relatively-speaking, dark, i.e., in the case of the unions of the heart.

Happily, appreciation of beauty in dark-skinned people is spreading beyond the realm of the love- blinded couples, to the general public in Bangladesh. Just look at the rising number of actresses and women models on Bangladeshi television (I apologise that I only mention women in this context). Many of them don’t fulfill the criteria of the ideal ‘beauty’. Earlier proponents of such beauty invariably portrayed women with not only pale skin, but with aquiline noses (Bengali: baanshir moto naakh) and large eyes (daagor daagor choakh). Occasionally this was combined with long wavy tresses. But many of today’s women celebrities, including actresses, singers, dancers, artistes and sportspersons, have noses that are quite un-baanshi-like (but perhaps ‘dainty’?), have ‘oriental-‘type and un-daagor eyes, and sport sun-grass-stem-straight hair; short, long or medium, and don’t have ‘milk-and-honey’ complexions. Decidedly different-looking from Aishwarya Rai, for example. And the men celebrities too don’t all look like Imran Khan, Milind Soman or Tom Cruise. That is variety. And variety is beauty, as we often assert, through the Bengali word boichitromoi.

A lot of this exogenous-origin hang-up or whatever you want to call it, has to do with an inferiority complex concerning our indigenous roots, because the conquered people made up the overwhelming majority of the plebian population; the ruled, the downtrodden, the poor, the hungry and the sick, also usually sun-drenched, and hence, dark. For most of the past millennium, Bangladesh, except for the Adibashi-inhabited border areas, including the Chittagong Hill Tracts, was ruled or ravaged by foreign conquerors and adventurers, who were usually of comparatively fair or light skin and had sharp features. Much of the official history of our country was therefore either written by these foreign rulers, or for them, or at their behest. The patronage of the arts, literature, apparel, cuisine, concept of beauty, etc., generally followed the tastes of the rulers, except for some ‘niche’ cases.

When we take a bird’s eye look at most of the official versions of the history of this country (or even that of some of our neighbouring countries), we can hardly fail to note a recurring theme: a series of invasions from abroad, and of the establishment of ruling dynasties from foreign countries. The imperial British, for example, as a conquering nation, naturally had a political interest in portraying the history of this country and this subcontinent with an emphasis on the series of invasions by foreigners, so that they could say, among others, that they were only one among many other foreign invading nations of the past. We, as a nation, have no such interest now.

The rule of the invaders and conquerors from the west was often glorified. Thus the defeat of Laxman Sen, the local ruler, by Ikhtiaruddin Bakhtiar Khilji, a foreign invader, is lauded, while the latter’s death, at the hands of an indigenous Koch, is forgotten. Occasionally the biases are reversed or mixed. On the one hand, the capitulation of the Mughal general, Maan Singh, an invader, at the hands of Isa Khan, the de facto ruler of Bengal (although he was of Pathan or Afghan origin), is eulogized, whilst the occasional defeats of the Mughals, the invaders, at the hands of indigenous Ahoms, Rakhaines and Chakmas, are downplayed or brushed under the carpet.

Whatever happened to the accounts of the culture and heritage of the peoples who were in our country, and in the south Asian sub-continent in general, before the arrival of the Macedonian, Greek, Mongol, Turk, Arab, Afghan/Pathan, Mughal, British, etc.? Well, we know that for long, they were cast aside to the corners of the archives by colonial and colonialist historiographers. The indigenous nations’ glorious deeds remained unsung in court circles for long, both during the conquerors’ heydays, and thereafter, with some limited exceptions in a few cases (Smith, Beal and Ferguson?). At least that was the dominant and mainstream trend until the Indian nationalist movements started to rebel against British colonial rule.

Closer to today, we had the Bengali Language movement of the 1950s and 60s, and the freedom struggle of 1971. But these movements haven’t been strong enough to instill in us a strong enough sense of pride in our local and indigenous culture and heritage except for Bangalee culture (but that too from the elite genres; regional Bangla was and is often denigrated in favour of promito Bangla, for example, apart for some limited exceptions, such as in music). We therefore need mass social and cultural movements to correct this elitist urban domination. And given the sorry state of our politics in recent years, we would definitely do best to de-politicize such movements; not to divorce these movements from the politics of rights, but to keep them distinct and separate from the politics of parties and partisan interests.

Let us return to pre-British and pre-Mughal times in Bangladesh. How many of us have heard of the Kirata people and their civilization, about whom Suniti Kumar Chatterjee has written so eloquently about (that’s subaltern history for you)? The Koch, Meitei, Garo had their kingdoms and chiefdoms. They ruled vast territories within Bangladesh and neighbouring regions. Their descendants – including Adibashis in northwest Bangladesh and India – don’t enjoy a high social status like other citizens who are descended from, or said to be descended from, Arabs, Pathans, Mughals or Kashmiri Brahmins. Do we acknowledge that the Rakhaine used seafaring ships when the rest of the country could barely make boats to withstand the waves of the rivers? The Tripura, Chakma and Rakhine royal courts patronized Bengali literature. The 17th century Bengali poets, Daulat Kaji and Alaol, were patronized by successive Rakhine rulers. The Chakma queen, Rani Kalindi, patronized the first ever publication on Buddhism in the Bengali language, called Bauddharanjika, assisted by Nila Chandra Das, with contributions by Fulchan Lothak, in the 19th century. Tagore penned several of his works while enjoying the hospitality of the Tripura Maharaja during the last century.

Do we know that the Bawm, Chakma, Garo, Marma, Mro Tripura and other indigenous peoples not only supplied, through barter trade, a huge part of the cotton used by their Bengali neighbours from their jum plots or swiddens in the 18th and 19th centuries, but even contributed to the Muslin and Khadi heritage of Bengal? Cotton was never grown at all, or at least abundantly so, in most parts of former Bengal, including Bangladesh.

Yes, it is true that many people in Bangladesh, including Bengalis, can indeed trace their ancestry, or a part of it, from countries to the west of Bangladesh; from Paschim Banga, Bihar, Kashmir, all the way across to Turkey. However, it is equally true that a very large section of Bengali-speaking people, both in Bangladesh and in Paschim Banga in India, have substantial traces of indigenous peoples in their ancestry: Kol, Bhil, Santal, Munda, Oraon, Koch and Rakhine, to name a few. That too is variety, beauty and unassailable truth.

Let us look at the origin of Bengali words. Those that are classed as of Desi or native origin – as distinct from those originating from pure Sanskrit (‘totshomo’), derived from Sanskrit (‘totbhobo’) and of foreign (bideshi) origin – are generally those of Austro-Asiatic origin, such as Santali, Mundari and Khasi. Several other languages spoken by Adibashi peoples, including from the Dravidian group (such as Sauria-Paharia), the Tibeto-Burman group (such as Meitei and Koch), and its Kokborok sub-group (Garo, Tripura and Bodo), are believed to have lent words to Bengali. The name of Bengal itself is believed to have originated from the Dravidian-speaking tribe, “Bang”. Yet, these facts are seldom acknowledged other than by a handful of linguists and anthropologists.

Of course, on the other hand, the Adibashi or indigenous peoples too have accepted many elements from the language and culture of the Bengali people and even from other peoples who came as conquerors or colonizers, the Barman, Chakma, Tanchangya and Tripura being prime examples. Linguistic and other cultural relations is almost always a two-way street.

The influence of cities to our west, and of their cultures and sub-cultures – e.g., Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore, Karachi, Dubai, New York, Paris and London – loom stronger and stronger all over Bangladesh, in towns and cities (including of the Hollywood and Bollywood variety) and in villages (less Hollywood, and more ‘Bollywood’, and occasionally ‘Dhaliwood’). Bangladeshi Adibashi society is not beyond such influences. We see this in dress, food, architecture, interior decoration, rallies, dance, music, demeanour and deportment. But don’t get me wrong. I am not in the least suggesting that we build up ‘artificial walls’ against cultural immigration and intercourse, as wisely warned against by Tagore. Culture is, of course, dynamic and not static. I am merely suggesting that the acceptance of external cultural ideas should not be at the cost of denigration or assimilation of our indigenous cultural values and practices that are intertwined with our cultural identities.

Now, how do indigenous traditional music, art, literature, dance, dress and so forth compete against the huge supply of sexily-packaged and ‘hip’ items from the cultures of the larger and wealthier societies? A few indigenous singers have come to fame at national levels on television, like Mong (Marma) and Payel (Tripura). But had they sung in their mother tongues, would they have had such a large following? Can the Khyang boy or Khumi girl expect to even recover the costs of cutting an audio CD from the sales of the discs? No matter how good the music is? I doubt it very much. There are some exceptions like Tenzing Chakma of Sozpodor Textiles, and Manjulika Chakma, of Bain Textiles, who draw upon traditional themes for the design and style of their cloths and garments, and are surviving while operating through market principles. But they are the exceptions. Just look at the two brass and other metal work artiste families of Dhemrai, near Dhaka, who do wonderful kasha utensils, among others If the expatriate diplomatic community in Dhaka hadn’t patronized their work, they would have probably gone bankrupt years ago and taken up more mundane occupations! Homes of wealthy people in Dhaka are well stocked with imported art and craft objects, of modest, refined and not-so-refined taste. But it is rare to find traditional or other indigenous art objects there. The lesson is that, market principles alone can’t make indigenous arts and crafts survive.

Some of you may disagree and point to Aarong, Kumudini, Probortona, Aranyak, etc., in Dhaka city. But that’s only a small niche market. The same is the case for all those arts and crafts shops in Thamel, Kathmandu, Bali, Indonesia and Siem Reap, Cambodia (the site of Angkor Wat). But if you had asked the artisans and artistes there, they would probably have told you about how they had to adapt to the fickle and not-so-fickle tastes of tourists, and compromise on material, texture, design, motif, dye and so forth. They had to make tradition subservient to the market. Similar challenges are most likely also being faced by the Bangladeshi outlets I mentioned earlier.

In the past, emperors, kings and princes – of the female variety too – patronized the arts. Architectural monuments, cave frescoes, dance and song traditions and so many other legacies bear testimony to that, in Bangladesh, and elsewhere. In those days there was virtually no market for the product of such talents. Now we do have an open or reasonably open market, but the market demand for such products in Bangladesh is miniscule. Artistes and artisans, and those who manage their collection, transportation and sale outlets, have to compete, to survive, and succeed. Many will not survive the rat race amidst the cutthroat competitions. A Briton of Sylheti-Bangladeshi origin once pointed out to me that unlike in the west, the governments in Bangladesh do not spend much money on arts, literature and so forth. In the west, wealthy philanthropic institutions and organizations fund museums, art galleries, universities and so forth, supplanting and complimenting public expenditure. Thus, non-market avenues are left to patronize the arts, since it is realized that the market alone can’t protect such arts, etc. Not so in Bangladesh. Thus the practitioners, proponents and custodians of traditional indigenous art, literature, etc. in Bangladesh have neither the state nor the market in their favour, barring a few notable exceptions.

What we should do in this regard, as in the case of women’s rights and indigenous rights activists, is to examine the national budgets in the concerned spheres. If the budgetary allocations are inadequate, as my guesstimate says that they will be, we should demand that the desired changes be made. Of course, that alone will not change things overnight. But we can persevere. If there can be a Bangla Academy for the language and literature of the 160 million Bengali-speakers, there should be similar academies for the Ho, Dalu, Chak, Khumi and other indigenous peoples too, particularly since the latter are numerically, economically and otherwise far more marginalized than the Bangalee.

21 February is now celebrated by the United Nations as International Mother Language Day (Nota Bene: We recall the date in February, not the date in the Bengali month of Falgun!). We celebrate the occasion nationally, every year, as we should, to honour the language martyrs. But let us ask ourselves whether it is fair to go national and international without first going local. What is the state and mainstream society doing for the mother tongues of the numerous indigenous peoples of Bangladesh? Very little, I am afraid. The pains of deprivation of mother tongue rights can be understood no better by any people than Bangladesh’s Bangla-speakers. At least that is what I hope is the case. We can start by sponsoring some research and publication, print, audio and video, supporting schools and cultural centres, run by the different peoples themselves.

Turning now from language to dress, I must give credit to the Bangladeshi women – both Adibashi and Bangalee – for wearing their own national costumes, at least on special occasions. The Bangalee and the Marma perhaps take the lead here. But on the other hand, some of the elite indigenous urbanites nowadays seem to be ashamed of wearing their traditional dresses during weddings and other such occasions. And most educated Chittagonean Bengali women don’t even dare wear their colourful floral-motif thami any more, even at home! These graceful and beautiful sarong or lungi-like nether garments were a common sight in rural Chittagong up to the 1960s. Nowadays, thami are worn only by a paltry few southern Chittagonean and Rohingya women. That will probably also cease, within a decade or so.

Talking about myself, when I got married recently – on 12 December, 2013 – the bride and I wore western dress. But that was because the event was abroad (Australia) and it was difficult to get our indigenous dress there. In any case, when the larger event is held, hopefully next year, we are determined that we will wear our respective traditional attires. I always make it a point to wear traditional attire as much as possible, even occasionally in meetings at the United Nations. Many urban Chakma women used to wear the sari during weddings. Nowadays they are switching back to Pinon-Khadi. Kudos to them, and to Tenzing Chakma’s designs.

As for the men, including Adibashi men, many seem to have forsaken all responsibility of wearing traditional dress upon their women, while they nonchalantly sport western or Bollywood-inspired apparel. This state of affairs can be easily changed, provided that the traditional weavers, designers and seamstresses don’t all die out before that. If necessary, we can flirt with the fashions of the day, but it would be a pity if we compromised too much on the essential styles and themes (recall the dilemmas of the artistes and artisans in Kathmandu, Bali, etc., that I mentioned earlier). Incidentally, Tagore compared style to the adornment of a face (‘mukhosree’), while equating fashion with a mask (‘mukhosh’), in his celebrated love poem/novelette, ‘Shesher Kobita” (The Last Poem).

Let me leave you to ponder over these matters with the hope that you will come up with some ideas and projects to better protect the heritage of the different peoples of this country, Adibashi and Bangalee, and of their ancestors. If we don’t do something about this, collectively, and on a large scale, in today’s world of globalized and ruthless market capitalism, coupled with the nonchalant attitude of our political, social and economic elite, we will have lost much by the time our children and grandchildren come of age. People might eat, dress, talk, sing and dance similarly, in the not too distant future. What a boring world that would be! We surely don’t want our future generations to have to learn of our culture and heritage only from history books (if Bangladeshi historians can indeed decolonize their minds), museums or art galleries. Wouldn’t it be better if we and our succeeding generations lived and practiced our indigenous cultures, and yet retained our full national and global citizenships? We surely don’t want our successors to be pseudo westerners, or pseudo Hollywood or Bollywood walas and walis. Do give that a thought. But please don’t take my east-west hypothesis too literally, or we might soon be all be wearing Southeast Asian sarongs and practicing Gangnam-style dance steps, from Tetulia to Teknaf, Sajek to Modhupur, Kuakata to Dinajpur.

* Similar versions of this article have been published in Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, Constitutional Recognition for the Indigenous Peoples: Solidarity 2001, Dhaka, 9 August, 2001 and in Earth Touch, No. 9, March, 2005, Society for Environment and Human Development, Dhaka, pp. 1-6. This version has been shortened and otherwise revised.

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