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The mangrove goddess

The mangrove goddess
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In an excerpt from her new book, In Good Faith: A Journey in Search of an Unknown India, the author meets a unique deity, Bonbibi, in the Sunderbans


December 24 , 2014
04 Min Read

A journey into the Sundarbans is to venture into a terrain that lives by its own rules... There is a great stillness in the night at the edge of the land that disappears into the Bay of Bengal. There is the dark rustle of the forests, the gentle ripple in the water, the clouds moving swiftly across the moon and stars. There is a strange goddess who is believed to be the keeper of these parts. She is called Bonbibi and the locals say she’s a Muslim goddess.

Even an ‘impure’ or ignorant Muslim knows that there are no gods and goddesses in Islam. Idol worship is strictly banned. There is only one Allah and his last prophet Mohammad and even he cannot be depicted in a picture or idol. Yet the people of the Sundarbans have created a curious creature in the form of a Muslim goddess... Her devotees insist that she is not a metamorphosis of Goddess Durga or Kali, and are convinced that she is a Muslim.

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Such a curious divinity could only have come into existence in an extraordinary landscape, Bonbibi’s home is an unusual terrain: the Sundarbans, a vast tract of forest and swamp, is now divided between India and Bangladesh. A cluster of four hundred-odd islands linked by a network of waterways form the largest estuarine delta in the world. The Sundarbans is also the largest mangrove forest in the world, much of which is exclusive tiger territory. Even the tigers here are distinct from their brethren in other parts of India — they are smaller, accomplished swimmers, and most significantly, man-eaters… So lethal are these tigers that their appetite for man has led to numerous deaths every year. There is a village called Bagher Vidhava Gram, which literally translates into ‘village of the tiger widows’ — its inhabitants are all women whose husbands have had the misfortune of being eaten up…

In response to their environment, the locals, both Hindus and Muslims, have evolved a religion that is a curious mix of animism, the Hindu Shakti tradition and a typically Indian brand of Sufism, which is described by some scholars as the phenomena of ‘Pirism’ in Bengal. The Sufis are commonly described as the wandering Islamic mystics who spread Islam in much of the subcontinent. Pir is a Persian word that means ‘spiritual guide’. In Bengal, it covers not only the Sufis but a range of holy men, some of whom appear to be completely mythical and represent various natural forces. All of them have been identified as Pirs.

The three most popular gods in the Sundarbans are Bonbibi, the Muslim forest goddess who is a Durga-like figure; a  ‘tiger god’ named Dakshin Ray; and a legendary Pir named Ghazi Miyan…

… The legend that I found most common in the district of 24 Parganas covering the Indian side of the Sundarbans was somewhat different. In this version, Dakshin Ray is a tiger god who wages a mighty battle with Bonbibi, the protector of humans. Finally, Ghazi Miyan is forced to intervene and he works out a compromise where the forest is equally divided between the two, human beings and tigers. The locals even perform an elaborate dance theatre based on this legend. It is a colourful event with villagers donning tiger masks, some dressing up as the goddess, and others putting on a very primitive beard and skullcap to depict Ghazi Miyan. This legend is enacted in a simple folk-theatre style to a riotous beating of drums and blowing of conch shells. The Bonbibi puja is a huge celebration in the forest and a delight for any visitor.

So who exactly is Bonbibi? She is definitely a less evolved Shakti deity, the female divine so worshipped across Bengal. Makeshift temples of Bonbibi line the edge of the forest and no local ventures inside without seeking her blessings. These temples are crude structures that usually have a single clay image of Bonbibi. The more elaborate temples are found in the villages. Here, the goddess stands alongside many consorts, which is usually a happy mix of Muslims and Hindus. Bonbibi also appears alongside the ‘tiger god’, Dakshin Ray, who also has to be appeased. At times she is merely standing beside him, in other temples she is vanquishing him, looking remarkably like Goddess Durga destroying the demon... Equally popular in the region is the Mobrah Ghazi or Ghazi Miyan tradition that survives not just in the forest area but throughout the 24 Parganas district. This tradition, too, originates in the need to seek protection from tigers, other animals and the vagaries of nature…

Mohammad Sheikh is a woodcutter of great fame in the region. He has the scars of two tiger attacks: on his right shoulder and the back of his neck. This is the price he has paid for repeatedly venturing deep into tiger country in quest of the famed Sundarbans honey. As his name suggests, Mohammad Sheikh is a God-fearing Muslim. But he does not credit Allah for saving him from a gruesome death; it is the blessing of Bonbibi, he believes.

She does not appear to be doing a very good job of it, I suggest, what with so many humans becoming a meal for the beast each year. Wouldn’t it be better to trust in Allah and his last prophet after whom you have been named? Mohammad Sheikh sees the world in black and white: “Allah has too many human beings to deal with. Tigers are better left to Bonbibi.”


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