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Does keeping faith in Sundarban’s Bonbibi help wildlife conservation?

13 January, 2023 11:04:22
Does keeping faith in Sundarban’s Bonbibi help wildlife conservation?

In Sundarbans, Several human communities have been sharing space with wild animals for centuries. It is an example of wonderful coexistence that has primarily been possible due to certain age-old religious beliefs, myths, and legends that have been passed down generations and form an integral part of the cultural identity of these indigenous communities. Over the years, these beliefs have led to the beginning of humble practices such as worshipping wilderness and other natural forces (sun, moon, rivers, etc.) These rituals that speak of both reverence and inter-connectedness have always guided communities whenever there have been any incidents of conflict between humans and animals. Conservationists, therefore, believe that knowledge of these indigenous beliefs and practices can broaden our understanding of human-wildlife relationships and help in the implementation of modern conservation practices.

Worship of Bonbibi is one such practice. “Bipod e poriya bon e jeijon e daak e, Ma boliya Bonbibi doya r maa take… Uddhariye taro torey aponaro goon e, Maaer o hujura koto likhibo ekhane…” – Bonbibi Johuranama. The hostile conditions of the Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta, particularly the presence of the Royal Bengal Tiger, have always influenced the lives of people residing in the Sundarbans. The mythological Bonbibi has traditionally been a focal point of faith and absolute devotion for both Hindu and Muslim inhabitants of the world’s largest mangrove forest. The term ‘bon’ in Bengali refers to ‘forest,’ whereas the term ‘bibi’ has been derived from the Persian word for lady or wife. Thus, the word ‘Bonbibi’ literally means ‘Lady of the Forest.’ The above excerpt from Bonbibi Johurnama is recited by the honey gatherers, woodcutters, fishermen, crab collectors, and farmers who reside in the forest fringe villages of the Sundarbans and solely depend on the forest for their daily sustenance.

There are two versions of Bonbibi Johuranama/ Bon Bibir Karamoti: One version that has been transcribed by Munshi Mohammad Khater, and the other version by Abdur Rahim Sahib. Both have been written in the late 19th century in a Bengali verse meter known as ‘dwipodi-poyar’ and have been strongly influenced by Persian and Quranic Arabic. Bonbibir Johurnama highlights the need for the harmonious coexistence of humans and nonhuman beings in the tiger-infested Sundarbans. The Glory Of Bonbibi “Atharo bhatir majhe ami sobar ma, Ma boli dakile karo bipod thake na.” – Bonbibir Johuranama The story of Bonbibi is believed to have originated in the city of Mecca – one of the holiest places in Islam. Here lived a man named Ibrahim, who was a pious Sufi fakir. As his first wife, Phul Bibi, could not bear children, Ibrahim married Gulal Bibi. As soon as Gulal Bibi became pregnant, Ibrahim, to fulfill his jealous first wife’s wish, abandoned her in a forest. Through the intervention of arch angel Gabriel, Gulal was blessed with two children, a daughter named Bonbibi and a son named Shah Janguli. Blessed by Allah, the children were protected by chitals, and soon they turned into the protectors of the forest. After seven years, Ibrahim realized his mistake and took back Gulal Bibi, along with the two children to Mecca. When both Bonbibi and Shah Janguli came of age, the arch angel informed them that they have been chosen by Allah for a divine mission. They were directed to travel from Arabia to the “country of eighteen tides” (“athero bhatir desh”) in order to protect its distressed residents from the tyranny of the powerful demon king Dokkhin Rai, who held sway on every being that lived in these forests. Dokkhin Rai (“Lord of the South”) was the son of a Brahmin priest named Dandabakhya and his first wife, Narayani Devi. Through his mythical powers, he could assume different forms, primarily that of a tiger. Dokkhin Rai started to territorialize the forests in the guise of a tiger and preyed upon any poor people who ventured into the forests in search of fish, honey, wood, etc. One day, Dokkhin Rai heard new voices and immediately noticed that Bonbibi and Shah Janguli had come into his realm. Dokkhin Rai’s mother, Narayani, decided to go along with her demonic hordes to fight them. After a long battle, Bonbibi successfully defeated Narayani. Merciful in her victory, Bonbibi decided that one-half of the tide country would remain a wild land under the control of Dokkhin Rai, and the other half would be under her rule and made safe for human habitation.

The Journey of Dukhe --the second part of the story begins in the village of Barijhati, where lived two Moule brothers – Dhona and Mona. One day Dhona decided to go to the dense forests of the tide country with a fleet of seven boats to collect honey. Dhona took the poor shepherd boy Dukhe with him on this expedition. Before leaving for the expedition, Dukhe’s old ailing widow mother gave him a piece of advice, “If you ever find yourself in trouble, call on Bonbibi – the savior of the weak and a mother of mercy to the poor.” In the deep forests of Kendokhali char, which fell under the realm of Dokkhin Rai; Dhona, overcame by greed, decided to sacrifice Dukhe to Dokkhin Rai in exchange for honey and wax. Sensing trouble, Dukhe started chanting prayers invoking Bonbibi. On hearing his prayers, Bonbibi and her brother Shah Janguli reached there in an instant and defeated Dokkhin Rai in a fierce battle. After his defeat, Dokkhin Rai took refuge with Bara Khan Ghazi. It was on Bara Khan Ghazi’s request that Bonbibi did not harm Dokkhin Rai. With the blessings of Bonbibi, Dukhe returned to his ailing mother with a treasure trove of honey and wax. Thus the Eternal Law Of The Forest, says that “the rich and greedy would be punished, while the poor and righteous would be rewarded.”

As the celebrated author Amitav Ghosh writes in his novel “Jungle Nama,” about the lesson that Dukhe learned from Bonbibi, “Grateful forever to his teacher, Bonbibi, who’d taught him the secret of how to be happy: All you need do, is be content with what you’ve got; to be always craving more is a demon’s lot.”

In Muslim-dominated areas, Bonbibi or Bibimaa/Pirani is depicted as an adolescent girl with braided hair, wearing a cap with a tikli, a ghagra and pajama, and a pair of shoes. She is seen riding either a tiger or a hen. In Hindu-dominated areas, Bonbibi is also referred to as Bono Durga, Bono Devi, Bono Chondi, Bono Shasthi, and Bono Kali. The Goddess is seen as a bejeweled female wearing a crown and garland. She carries a child in her lap and rides a tiger or a crocodile. Thatched shrines (thaans) bearing the Goddess mounted on Raja Dokhhin Rai, accompanied by her brother Shah Jangali, are scattered all around the Sundarbans. The Bonbibi festival is celebrated once a year in January or February. Her puja does not require a Brahmin priest, nor is there any definite mantra. A Muslim fakir performs the Hazat Puja with offerings of Sirni and fowl. In the villages of Sundarbans, the legend of Bonbibi is enacted as a stage play (Bonbibi-r Palagaan) by Jatra companies to invoke Bonbibi’s blessings. These enactments usually tell the story of Bonbibi, Dokkhin Rai, Dhona, and Dukhe. In other terms, Bonobibi-r Palagaan symbolizes the “syncretist nature of the region.”

The Legend of Bonbibi quite effortlessly combines Hindu, Islam, and folk elements, thereby making it impossible to place it in a single faith tradition. Moreover, the main tenets of the legend, such as “limiting greed” and “maintaining a balance between the needs of humans and non-human beings,” cannot fit into a single tradition. These are necessary values at this crucial time of “planetary crisis” and therefore are frequently cited by the inhabitants of the forest-fringe areas around the world.

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