SUNDERBAN DIARIES: Of Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai
Last week we read about how migratory birds and Gangetic dolphins have gradually vanished from the mangrove forests of Sunderbans. Now read the next ….
It was from my father and Zafar Chacha that we learnt the Abads had once been part of the Sundarbans and the habitat of the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger. Men had encroached the kingdom of the king of the forest by cutting Mangrove forests and had made the land fit for human habitation and cultivable.This could not be done by the locals. The Zaminders had imported tribals from Jharkhand, Purulia, Birbhum and Assam to do this job.They were locally known as Bunos or wild people.
Even today, many members of Scheduled Tribes with surname Singh are found in the Abads. We realized man is the greatest predator in the Sundarbans. Often on the river banks, we saw small makeshift huts or brick structures with a red cloth flying over it. It was a Ban Bibir Than or Temple. Ban Bibi or Bandevi is the guardian of the forest. According to folk lore,when the first human settlers could not cope with the Tiger God Dakshin Rai, and his army of wild animals and demons of the forest, they prayed to Bon Devi or Bon Durga or Bon Bibi. Bon Bibi defeated Dakshin Rai and established her supremacy over the forest and protects her followers. Bon Bibi decked in red sari and crown, rides on a tiger and is revered by Hindus and Muslims alike in the Sundarbans. No fisherman or Honey collector known as Mouli will go to the deep Jungle to catch fish or collect honey without offering prayer before Bon Bibi. Bon Bibi Puja is an annual function in the Sundarbans. Formerly Zamindars used to sponsor these festivals. Just in front of the Kachari Bari of BoroTushkhal there was a tube-well built by my father for the villagers. Beside the tubewell, there was a small temple or Than of Bon Bibi also built by my father. From our bed room window, I would watch the village women both Hindus and Muslims come to collect drinking water. Each would offer prayer to Bon Bibi and some would also offer some candle or batasha as offerings. Zafar Chacha explained that in some places towards Khulna side, Bon Bibi was dressed in Kurta Pajama. He also said some Muslims also acknowledged Boro Gaji as a protector of the jungle.
Towards late afternoon we arrived at Borotushkali Kachari Bari, situated near the river bank. There were no ghats in those days. Abamboo make-shift jetty would be built for our disembarkment. I loved the Boro Tushkhali Kachari Bari. Somehow, I felt nearer to the Sundarbans here, watching Bon Bibi,the open fields and the big barns inside the Kachari Bari. A huge White Owl or Laksmi Pencha resided in one of the barns. My father had issued strict orders that no one was supposed to disturb Pencu Baba. We would take surreptitious peeps through slits in the barn to find the huge white owl sitting with closed eyes inside the dark barn. Late in the evening after sunset one would see a huge white bird emerging from the barn in the darkness spreading its hug wings and fly away on its nocturnal journey. On a moonlit night the sight was spectacular. No one knew when he returned and perched himself in his usual place in the barn every morning. In the twilight, flocks of bats would be seen flying out. My first acquaintance with snake was while trying to catch a glimpse of Pencu Baba. Adjacent to the barn, was a Lau Macha, covered with beautiful green tender stalks of Lauki, with tender green laukis, hanging all around. Neelkanto was with me. I told him that I wanted to pick one and take it to the kitchen. I had extended my hand to pick a nice big one when Neelkanto screamed: “Didimoni!” and literally dragged me away.
He then said what I was about to touch thinking it to be a stalk was a Lau Daga Snake. At first, I could not understand what he meant. Then following Neelkanto’s direction, I saw that one slender green stalk was slightly moving. as if swayed by wind. Watching carefully I saw that at one end of the stalk there were two black and brown spots set apart from each other by few centimetres. Those were the eyes. There was a small khal or creek running along the Kachari Bari. Neelkanto would set up a fishing rod and line for me. Everyday, I would get a catch of live fish like Magur or Shol or a small fish. A little apart from where I fished I would see quite a no of storks and a few common Kingfishers sitting silently on small branches or twigs overhanging the water. None of them moved. One would think they were meditating or had gone to sleep. Suddenly, a flash of emerald green jewel would sweep down into the waterand was gone next moment with a live fish dangling from its beak.
(To be continued)