Maa Bonbibi In The Land Of Tigers
Maa Bonbibi, the multicultural goddess who is said to protect the woodcutters, honey collectors and fishermen of the Sunderbans from the attacks by tigers, is being invoked by conservation authorities in the Sunderbans over the last 10 years. Not a single tiger has reportedly been killed for straying into villages in a decade.
In the land of the Sunderbans, ruled by tigers, tides, and the uncertainties of nature, there is a unique tradition of conservation and communal harmony. It is based on the villagers’ unflinching faith in Maa Bonbibi (forest deity) who is believed to bestow them with strength and protection against Raja Dakshinrai (tiger god) as they struggle to eke out a living in the mangrove swamps.
In most parts of the country, ‘Maa’ invokes Goddess Shakti/Durga and her many forms. Here, strangely, Maa Bonbibi does not refer to a Hindu deity. On the contrary, she is a Muslim goddess who protects everyone irrespective of their community. Hers is the presiding “forest religion” in the mangrove delta, deeply embedded in the social and cultural mores of the villagers and passed down from generation to generation.
Thatched shrines bearing icons of the goddess, accompanied by her brother Shah Jongli and mounted on the Supreme Tiger God Raja Dakshinrai, dot villages along the rivers. Chants of “Maa Bonbibi Allah, Allah” mingle effortlessly with “Maa Bonodevi Durga, Durga” as woodcutters, honey collectors and fishermen pay obeisance before venturing out into tiger territory. Muslims tuck in their beards and sit arm-in-arm with the Hindus before the idols; Hindus, in turn, have no qualms about praying to a Muslim deity.
“The forest and the tiger bind us together. A Muslim may pray five times in a mosque, and Hindus perform aarti in the temple, but when it is time to go into the forest we are all together in our prayers to Maa Bonbibi and her mount Raja Dakshinrai. A night in the forest is enough to teach you that,” says Kanai Mondal, a honey collector from Shaterkona village on Bali Island, South 24 Parganas district.
The legend of Bonbibi that has become folklore here finds elaboration in the novel The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. The forest goddess was sent from faraway Arabia to the Sunderbans, or Atharo Bhatir Desh (Land of 18 Tides), to save its people from the tyranny of Dakshinrai, the demon king of the jungle who stalked and killed humans in the guise of a tiger. In this land, where 18 tides come together, the mythologies of both Hindus and Muslims have blended to ward off a common threat. Bonbibi’s origins therefore are not the Himalayas or the Ganga. Her story begins in Islam’s second holiest city—Medina.
Legend has it that a childless Sufi fakir Ibrahim was bestowed with the promise of fatherhood by the Archangel Gabriel. He was blessed with twins—a daughter (Bonbibi) and a son (Shah Jongli). When they grew up, the Archangel Gabriel appeared before them saying that they had been chosen for a divine mission. Gabriel said they should leave their homeland and go to this part of India to save mankind from Raja Dakshinrai, a wicked Brahmin. They obeyed and started their journey as Sufi traders. Raja Dakshinrai, or the Supreme Lord of the Jungles, had a passion for human flesh. But Bonbibi and her brother quickly overpowered him. They did not kill the demon but made him promise to stop devouring humans.
The fable further tracks the underpinnings of people’s faith in the deity through the eyes of two honey collectors. Dhonai and Monai set out to collect honey wax, accompanied by their young nephew Dukhe. A despondent Dhonai, unable to find any beehives, returns to his boat and falls asleep. Raja Dakshinrai appears to him in a dream and demands the sacrifice of human flesh. He reminds him that they had not done puja to him prior to entering the forest.
Fearing the wrath of the tiger god, Dhonai decides to sacrifice Dukhe. He leaves him in the jungle to be killed and eaten by Dakshinrai. Just as the demon is about to pounce on Dukhe, in the guise of a tiger, Dukhe begins praying to Bonbibi. She appears before him, and saves him.
A bitter fight ensues between Shah Jongli and Dakshinrai, leading to the latter’s defeat. Bonbibi sends Dukhe home on the back of a crocodile and bestows him with enormous wealth. Dukhe then establishes a shrine dedicated to Bonbibi in his village, ushering in the tradition of puja to the forest deity.
“This tradition has deep roots in the principles of conservation,” says Pradeep Vyas, Director, Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve. “Known by many names and forms—Bonbibi, Bonodurga or Byaghro Devi (tiger deity)—she is a personification of the forest. The faith of the villagers in worshipping her and Raja Dakshinrai before entering the forest is a reaffirmation of their commitment to forest and tiger conservation.”
“There has been an attitudinal shift in the last 10 years,” Vyas adds. “Today the villagers do not kill a tiger if it strays into their village. They promptly intimate the forest department and our rescue teams rush to the spot to trap/tranquilise the animal and release it back into the forest. Often the tiger may walk back from the human landscape to the forest on its own, and the process is simpler when the animal is not provoked or harassed, compelling it to strike in self-defence.”
“Therefore, instances of killing/poaching of tigers in the Sunderbans are comparatively few,” says Chandan Giri, an enterprising young man from Pakhirala village, Pakhirala Island, South 24 Parganas. The people of the Sunderbans know that without the tiger their human world is incomplete. In terms of killings, the last tiger killed was in 2002, on Pakhirala Island, Chandan claims, when a tiger ventured into the village and attacked a 14-year-old girl who eventually succumbed to her injuries. The enraged villagers not only killed the animal, they cut its body into pieces and threw them into the river, he recalls.
“We have been more proactive with the villagers, trying to involve them in the conservation process by forming eco societies and immediately paying out compensation after a casualty from the tiger,” says Field Director Dr Subrat Mukherjee. The department is erecting a fence of 10-12 feet, made from strong nylon fibre, along the boundary of the tiger reserve to stop tigers from entering villages.
Nearly 78 km of fencing has already been completed, of which 50 km is in the high priority zone. The fence is maintained and regularly monitored by the department. Another effective way to mitigate the chances of conflict, says Vyas, is to build an information management system and improve the preparedness of forest department response units. There are seven such units, comprising specially trained forest personnel deployed at strategic locations, that rush to the spot on receiving information from the villagers. Armed with rescue kits, speedboats, tranquilising equipment and nets they are ready to move fast.
Still, people remain vulnerable, thanks to the many creeks through which the tigers swim and make their way to the villages. Further, fishermen often make holes in the nylon nets to enter the jungle, making tiger passage easy.
Narrating their experiences, a group of village elders from Amlamethi village in Bali, South 24 Parganas district, recall a memorable rendezvous with the big cat. “It was unusually quiet that night, there was only the sound of our feet rustling the dry grass,” says Mohan. “Then, next to the big banyan tree at the entrance to our village we got a pungent unfamiliar odour. What could it be? Dead cattle? Something rotting?” One of them lit a match and lo and behold! “Only inches away from my forehead, hanging from the branches, was a striped tail, its tip flicking,” says Bishu Gayen. “I fell over backwards, chanting Maa’s name,” he recalls.
Quivering with fear, they screamed: “Tiger’s here!” Within minutes the whole village had assembled, flaming torches in hand. “We surrounded the tree and started calling aloud ‘Maa Bonbibi!’.” Seeing the crowd, the tiger climbed higher up the tree, then jumped off, walked past the slush of the pond and entered the mangrove. That was a fortunate day for the people; they consider it the ultimate grace of Bonbibi that saved them.
In Hindu-dominated villages, the goddess appears as a bejeweled female atop a tiger or crocodile, with a child in her lap. Her Muslim avatar is more militant, with braided hair, wearing a cap, dressed in ghagra and pyjama (instead of a sari), and with shoes.
She is not a god of the elite. In Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Kusum is astonished to learn that Kanai does not know about Bonbibi, and incredulously asks: “Then whom do you call when you’re afraid?” There are millions who, like Kusum, call upon the forest goddess when in trouble. For them she is a divine force, part of life’s trials and tribulations.
Rakhal Gayen, a village elder from Balikhal village on Jharkhali Island, South 24 Parganas, says: “Maa’s puja does not require a priest or recitation of any mantras. Neither is there any propitious moment to perform the rituals, which are largely done as per our convenience.” The goddess’s shrines are housed beneath hay sheds and bamboo poles and are usually at the entrance to the village. The rituals involved are equally ethnic, says Chandan Giri who takes pride in the social customs of the region. “Wild flowers, creepers, certain weeds and seeds are picked from the forest and offered to her as a mark of our commitment towards saving the forest,” he says.
Interestingly, the status of tigers in the Sunderbans is disputed. While the state forest department claims the presence of over 200 tigers, recent figures from the all-India tiger census puts it between 50 and 75. This figure has been challenged by the state forest department and the field director has called for a recount, pointing out that the difficult terrain of the Sunderbans makes a tiger census complicated.
In a bid to spread awareness among local people about issues ranging from global warming and ecotourism to rainwater harvesting and conservation of tiger habitat, the Sunderbans Development Authority periodically organises Bonbibi utsavs (festivals) dedicated to the forest deity. Primarily a state government effort, the objective is to reach out to local villagers and showcase achievements. Subhas Chandra Basu, Member Secretary, Sunderbans Development Authority, explains that free health camps, awareness camps on the right to education, conservation, etc, are organised. The event, which began in 2002, has since been organised on various islands between the months of December and March. It was last organised in 2009, before Cyclone Aila devastated the Sunderbans.
Local artistes perform Bonbibi jatras, or enactments of tales of valour by the forest goddess. Indeed, this has become an art form synonymous with the Sunderbans. “We take pride in bringing before the world our folk culture,” says Parbati Mondal. She plays the lead character of Bonbibi, in a 17-member theatre group from Gosaba Island. “My father-in-law lost his life in a tiger attack,” she says.
The local theatres are imbued with bucolic charm. The characters are loud, flashy and overstated; the performances melodramatic. Yet the climactic point of the plays and their underlying message is loud and clear: If the forest exists, then the tiger lives, and only then can we flourish.
“Call it their rustic tenet of faith or their pride in the age-old traditions, but eventually it is all interwoven with the same basic policy of conservation that we are so vehemently trying to spread,” Basu concludes.
By Kalpita Dutta