Ask any Chattogram resident what the city's famous sweetmeat was a decade ago, and everyone will refer to Sadhu Sweetmeat without hesitating.
Sadhu's products dominated Chattogram, one of Bangladesh's major coastal cities, from the 1960s to the early 2000s because of their unique tastes and flavours.
Founded by Kamoni Kumar Dey in the city's Kotowali area in the 1960s, Sadhu Sweetmeat was run by his son Gopal Kumar Dey until 2016.
The main ingredients in the sweetmeats – rabri, khirsha and chhanar mishti – came from buffalo milk from the Anawara, Karnaphuli and Banshkahli coastlines.
But Sadhu faced a severe milk crisis in the 2010s as the buffalo population fell.
According to the Bangladesh Agriculture Survey, from 2003 to 2019, the number of buffaloes declined by at least 51 percent. This was mainly due to disease and infertility caused by rising soil and water salinity; a decline in pastureland; extreme weather, including cyclones, storms and lightning; and other human activities that have degraded the environment.
"Around 90 percent of dairy buffaloes are in Bangladesh's coastal areas. In the last 15 years, milk-producing buffaloes have fallen by around 60 percent, which has led to a huge shortage of buffalo milk," said Prof Md Omar Faruque, from the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics at Bangladesh Agriculture University and a leading researcher on buffaloes in Bangladesh.
"The milk of indigenous buffaloes has a special quality. The yogurt and cheese made from native buffalo milk taste better than those of the crossbred," Prof Omar added.
Sadhu tried to supplement their buffalo milk by mixing it with cow milk and milk powder, but that resulted in a significant change in taste.
With the scarcity of buffalo milk, however, Sadhu was ultimately forced to start making sweetmeat with cow milk. Today, Sadhu's famous buffalo milk sweetmeats have almost vanished from Chattogram.
Kamoni Kumar Dey's relatives and former workers now run some shops that produce sweetmeats using cow milk. Some sweetmeats made with buffalo milk are still available in coastal areas.
"In the 1990s, when we used to make khirsha, its aroma used to waft over the area. Every day we used to sell over 400kg of sweetmeats," said Sukendra Mazumder, who had worked for Sadhu for 40 years and now runs a sweetmeat shop of the same name in the Kotowali Circle area.
"Due to the shortage of buffalo milk, we stopped producing rabri, para sandesh and khirsha a long time ago," he said.
Now Mazumder can sell around 100kg of sweets a day, all made of cow milk.
A cultural shift
In coastal areas, vendors of sweetmeats and moisher doi (buffalo yoghurt) say the decline in the buffalo population has hiked the cost of doing business.
"Because of the rising cost, we have to bring a change to the size of sweetmeat," said Rahul Saha, owner of Binoy Misti Mukh, a sweetmeat shop in Sandwip. "There is also a difference in taste if we make roshogolla with cow milk. However, yogurt and sweetmeat are still in high demand for events like wedding ceremonies," he added.
"From 10kg of buffalo milk we can make 2kg of chhana [curd] while 10kg of cow milk can make around 1kg of chhana, the main ingredients of our sweetmeats. [But] each kilogram of buffalo milk sells for Tk100-130, while cow milk sells for Tk65-80," Rahul said.
"Sadhu in Chattogram and Siddheswari of Patiya were part of our culture," said veteran journalist Mustafa Nayeem who is from Patiya.
As an example, he pointed to literary chats that centred around these sweetmeat shops and have gradually faded with the decline of these sweets.
"Buffalo is related to our traditional economy and culture," said climate and environmental change expert Pavel Partha, noting that buffalo has an important connection to 4.6 crore coastal people's lives and livelihoods.
Not only is its milk used in sweetmeat, but buffaloes are sacrificed on occasions such as Orosh, an annual gathering of Muslim devotees. Additionally, yoghurt made from buffalo milk, which is served as a form of hospitality, has a prestigious geographical tradition just like Jamdani saree, shitolpati or hilsa fish, said Partha.
"But these products are fading from our society because of the impacts of climate change," he added.
Professor AKM Ahsan Kabir of the Department of Animal Science at Bangladesh Agriculture University, who has also researched buffalo populations, said buffaloes are typically reared in coastal areas that are increasingly subject to erosion from rising sea levels and more saline water, which can harm their ability to produce milk and breed.
Cows, on the other hand, are reared in non-coastal areas and people are also importing them from India and Myanmar in legal and illegal ways.
"Coastal people mainly depend on buffalo rearing to meet their demand for protein and employment. So the fall in buffalo population causes a cultural and commercial shift in the coastal belt of Bangladesh," said Prof Mizan R Khan, deputy director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University of Bangladesh.
Mohammad Mamun Shajada of Talshara Darbar Sharif, a leading shrine on the Boalkhali coast in Chattogram, gave an example: "A decade ago, devotees used to donate around 70 percent buffalo and 30 percent other cattle. Now it is 30 percent buffalo and 70 percent other cattle as the buffalo population has fallen significantly."
Milk imports on the rise
The number of milk-producing buffaloes has fallen from 250,000 to 100,000 in the past 15 years, said Prof Md Omar Faruque, who also works as a consultant on a buffalo development project for the Department of Livestock Services.
With the fall, the contribution of buffalo milk to national milk production fell from four percent to two percent now, he added.
The decline has made Bangladesh more reliant on imports.
According to the Chattogram Customs House, in the last 10 years imports of powdered and cream milk have increased by 168 percent.
In 2011, Bangladesh imported 35,852 tonnes of powdered milk, spending around Tk1,220 crore through the country's premier port Chattogram. In 2020, around 96,011 tonnes of such milk were imported at a cost of Tk3,232 crore. It is increasing every year.
The story was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network's Bay of Bengal project.
Banner image: A herd of buffalo pictured in Sonadia Island, Cox's Bazar district / Credit: Mohammad Minhaj Uddin