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Keeping faith with Bonbibi

A local goddess has been the unifying force between Hindu and Muslim communities in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. In recent times, however, threats to this tradition of syncretism have emerged

Photo: Jayachandran/Mint
Photo: Jayachandran/Mint

It was 9am when Alam Mia, a moule (honey collector in Bengali), went into the forest with six others to collect the reddish-amber padma modhu (lotus honey). He kept an eye on the movement of honey-loaded bees to spot the beehives. He didn’t really notice the tiger that grabbed him by the neck. The blood-soaked loin cloth fell off his body, the knife to cut the hive and the steel vessel to store the honey lay scattered. As his companions rushed to the boat to save themselves, a naked Alam was dragged deep into the forest by the tiger. When he regained consciousness, he was lying under a date-palm tree. He spotted a boat in the distance and crawled towards it. He was admitted to hospital. It took him six months to recover and return to the forest to collect honey.

Eleven years have passed and Alam has had two more close shaves with tigers. “But I am alive only because of Bonbibi," says the 65-year-old from Kalitala in West Bengal’s 24 North Parganas district, the last village on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh, adjoining the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. “Nobody else has the power to save people from tigers except her. She listens to my prayers always,"he adds.

When Alam’s Hindu neighbour and another tiger-attack survivor, 67-year-old Sahadev Mandal, goes into the forest to collect honey and beeswax, he too relies upon Bonbibi. “Before we leave the boat, we remember Bonbibi and tell her that she is the only saviour. There is nobody else in our mind," Mandal says.

In the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, encompassing an area of 25,500 sq. km and straddling India and Bangladesh, the mythological Bonbibi has traditionally been a unifying force between Hindus and Muslims. People of the two communities who collect honey, beeswax, crabs and fish venerate Bonbibi, who is believed to be the daughter of a Muslim fakir, Ibrahim, from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Hindu majority of the Sundarbans, distributed over the North and South 24 Parganas districts, has set up temples to worship Bonbibi but Muslims too participate in the annual Bonbibi festival, generally held in January. Typically, Brahmin priests are not invited to perform prayers for Bonbibi. Forest dwellers, including Muslims, read out Bonbibijoburanamah—the holy script describing her acts of kindness.

It is Muslim women like Nadira Bibi of Gosaba village in South 24 Parganas who make the kheer-khairaat (rice pudding) offered to the deity during the festival. “My mother-in-law used to make it earlier, now I do it. It’s part of our culture," says the 35-year-old.

Over the past four years, when communal harmony in West Bengal has been disrupted by a series of riots, the Sundarbans area has remained free of violence. Bonbibi, popularly introduced to the world beyond the Sundarbans by author Amitav Ghosh in his book The Hungry Tide, not only binds these two communities but also ethnic groups like the Santhal, Munda and Oraon. “These communities worship Bonbibi for self-sustenance and mutual existence," says sociologist Amrita Sen, assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. In a paper titled Traditional Livelihoods And Survival Crisis: The Politics Of Biodiversity Conservation In Sundarban, West Bengal (2017), Sen writes that it is because of this “collective pursuit of protection" that Bonbibi “transcends communal barriers".

But though the belief remains strong, there are signs of change, and cracks between the two communities. The villagers’ relationship with Bonbibi is seeing a shift as the local economy transforms from a nature-dependent one to a wage-based one. Locals have, uncharacteristically, started worshipping other deities, like goddesses Durga and Kali, and adopting the religious practices of “mainland" Bengal, such as offering coconuts. A small section of people have even renamed Bonobibi “Bonodebi", given “Bibi" is the Islamic way of addressing Muslim girls, says Gosaba-based historian Dulal Singha. In May, a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader of Gosaba, Paritosh Mandal, even claimed that Muslims had never worshipped Bonbibi.

In most parts of the Sundarbans, however, Bonbibi still remains the glue between Hindus and Muslims. Bonbibi paalagaan, a traditional dramatic performance to invoke the deity’s blessings, has been influenced by both Hindu and Islamic cultures. “There are Muslim characters and iconography. Plus, Islamic terms are used in the narrative. There are many Muslim members in the various troupes," says Kalitala-based singer Palash Mandal, a popular paalagaan performer.

Legend has it that Bonbibi, along with her brother Shah Jangali, was sent by Allah to protect the islanders from tigers. Bonbibi is said to have once saved a shepherd boy, Dukhe, from the clutches of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful demon king in tiger’s guise. After the defeat, Rai accepted Bonbibi as his mother. Since then, it is believed that Bonbibi can save people from tigers.

Locals have their own reasoning for tiger kills. According to media reports, 11 people were killed by tigers between December last year and July. “In one of the cases, a man locked in the animal’s jaws for about 10 minutes was rescued after the tiger fell into a pit. But the man couldn’t survive for long, he passed away in the hospital," 65-year-old crab collector Riaqat Ali of Kalitala recalls.

“People who don’t offer prayers to Bonbibi before setting out for the forest face dangers," says fisherman and honey collector Noor Ali Gazi of Kalitala, who claims to have once fought a tiger solely with the help of a wooden stick. Honey collectors say they maintain a certain discipline while extracting resources from the forest. For example, they always leave behind a considerable part of the hive so that the bees can make a new one within 14-15 days. Plus, they offer honey to Bonbibi after the first chunk of a hive is broken. Locals say only the rich and the greedy are punished by Bonbibi.

“Also, if someone enters the forest between 12-2pm, the time when Bonbibi goes for her Friday prayers, the person is likely to be killed by a tiger," believes Alam.

Women have their own rituals to ensure the safety of their husbands. “For all the days that their husbands are away in the forest, the wives refrain from putting vermillion on their foreheads, combing their hair, washing utensils and entertaining guests," says Sen. “This is a tradition followed to ensure that their husbands come back home safely."

They are even falling back on Bonbibi to cope with new climatic and ecological challenges such as disappearing mangrove forests, rising sea levels, erratic rainfall and cyclones. Recently, cyclone Bulbul caused the maximum damage in the Sundarbans, leading to at least three deaths, according to media reports. A decade ago, Cyclone Aila had killed at least 78 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of mangrove forests. Upasona Ghosh, the co-author of a paper titled Living On The Edge: Climate Change And Uncertainty In The Indian Sundarbans (2018), says these ecological changes have had an increasing impact on the household income of the traditional agro-fishing communities. “The belief in Bonbibi has traditionally given islanders faith in their ability to withstand many changes, including floods and cyclones. It’s their traditional way of coping with tragedies."

Delhi-based geographer Mehebub Sahana believes it is this deep faith and fear in Bonbibi that could be used to protect the islands from natural hazards and adapt to climate change. Since locals believe Bonbibi to be the custodian of the forests, there is a sense that its overexploitation would enrage her. “It (the belief) could be used to restore the mangrove in the degraded areas, protect river banks, encourage the reduction in the use of plastics and hazardous materials that could indirectly help to cope with the climate change effects in the islands," says Sahana.

With livelihood patterns changing, nobody is sure how this will play out. Take Alam’s family. He started going into the forest at the age of 12 but his two sons, who are in their early 30s, have never stepped into the forest. Alam says he can earn only about 500-2,000 from each seven-day trip into the forest but his sons, who work as migrant daily wage labourers in cities such as Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai, earn about 5 lakh a year. “Plus, there is no risk to life," says Alam.

Bonbibi is losing her stronghold in this livelihood transition," Ghosh observes. Political factors such as the rising influence of Hindutva ideology across Bengal and India, Ghosh says, will also negatively “impact syncretism and indigenous beliefs".

But Alam believes Bonbibi will save them from all evils.

“For Ma Bonbibi, we are all her children. She knows the colour of our blood is all the same. She would not let us fall prey to tigers or politicians," he says.

Sonia Sarkar is a journalist covering South and South-East Asia.

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