Nature, Bonbibi, American cetologist in the Sundarbans

The Bonbibi deity

To find answers about how to define the idea of nature, French anthropologist Philippe Descola went to the depths of the Amazon to find the Achuars, an indigenous tribe of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian descent. He was interested in finding why they lived remote from others, isolated in their respective groups, under the domination of nature. In the process, he found out how human and the natural world immersed together. He came away seeing in what manner the Achuars balanced the ecosystem. He wanted to discover whether nature exists or not. He refuted the established theory that is different from his, ‘nature is everywhere, we are part of nature but we forget it.’ In contrast, his hypothesis is that nature is the invention of the European mind.

Since the Paleolithic Age, another innate question has been what is the interconnection between nature and mythology? Finding an exact theory about connection has been an essential part in finding answers to the unknown. Mythology often enables human’s relationship with nature and its elements. The place of nature in mythology is extremely important; as nature has always been looked with aversion as the mysteries that may never be solved. Nature versus myth can give rise to ennobling thoughts. People claim those to be valid when assessing one against the other.In the modern days, when science fails to explain various natural phenomena, mythology is used as a medium to explain the obscure questions. I came across one of Sundarbans’ mythical entity, Bonbibi (the lady of the forest), while reading Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide. In the Sundarbans, mystical elements are mixed in and entwined with the lives of people who depend on the mangrove forest for their livelihood and survival. On both sides of the Sundarbans, which crosses India and Bangladesh, islanders seriously believe in Bonbibi. She is perceived as a mother to humans and tigers. Whether Bonbibi is real or just a myth, her spirits govern the nature – all the people who enter the jungle believe that they are at her mercy.

Thousands of years ago, when humans moved away from the power of the elements such as earth, fire, water, and the wind, they started to create spiritual entities and personalized them with human forms like Bonbibi. They put their trust in such deities, who they believed are in control of the natural elements of the universe.Similarly, another example is Poseidon; a god from the Greek mythology who was in control of the sea and rivers, a creator of storms and flood. His brother Hades ruled the land of the dead, known as the underworld. The inhabitants of the tide country believe that Bonbibi tames the nature to protect humans from the fury of the wild animals that roam the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Bonbibi has the status of a Muslim deity, who is worshipped by the islanders – the Muslims, Hindus and the Christians. The landscapes of the Bengal coast of the Sundarbans have been treated with respect, reverence and fear because of its mythical elements.

A 19th century booklet called Bonbibi Johuranama, written in Bengali, tells the story of Bonbibi, a daughter of a Sufi fakir. ‘Bonbibi is the great adversary of Dokkhin Rai, literally a southern lord. Rai is a zamindar who takes the form of a tiger to prey on the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. Allah chooses Bonbibi to end Dokkhin Rai’s tyranny – a task accomplished easily enough after a short trip to Mecca and Medina. The Bibi, however, decides not to kill Rai and instead makes him promise that he will not harm anyone who worships her.’ In the Sundarbans, since animal attacks are a cause of human fatalities, its inhabitants have worshipped Bonbibi as protection from the jungle’s many dangers. This practice is a centuries-old ritual. The legend has it down as follows; a very greedy villain gives his young nephew to the demon in exchange for all the honey in the forest. When a tiger approaches to devour the boy, Bonbibi swoops in time and saves the child from getting eaten. That story remained, and the islanders to this day pray to Bonbibi to protect them before entering the jungle to cut wood or to collect wild honey.

In Bengal, both Hindus and the Muslims have a tradition of living in communal harmony. The rough terrains of the Sundarbans unify people of various religions and beliefs. The syncretic culture is based on Bonbibi myth and worshipped across religions. In debating modernity versus syncretism, the entity of Bonbibi appears to be a myth to many. But even as an old time story, at the backdrop of today’s political climate in India, believing in such a myth can bring different communities with different religious beliefs closer. One can think of Bonbibi as a cross communal character, who is protective of both Hindus and Muslims.

According to Indian tradition, a village or a town is considered uninhabitable if there is no temple for worship. In Bokkhali, a small tourist resort at the edge of the Indian Sundarbans, there is a Bonbibi mandir, and the tourists stop to worship before taking boat rides around the Sundarbans. The temple is a bustle of noise and activity visited by people of different religions. There is also a sweet shop which is called ‘Bonbibi mishti ghar.’ The Muslim Bengalis on the Bangladesh side, however, see the worship of Bonbibi against the dictates of Islam as idol worship is forbidden in the scripture. The Indian tourists are enamored by Bonbibi. Those who take trips to the Sundarbans area, either for a day trip, or to stay at the village theme resort, pray to Bonbibi for their safety before starting their journey. The mud-built cottages depict the traditional village atmosphere where worship is a major part.

It is believed Bonbibi blesses all her devotees, irrespective of religion. In Ramrudrapur, an upland area of the Sundarbans where the forest has receded, there is a yearly Bonbibi festival day. On the day of the festival, Hindu and Muslim women fast throughout the day. They offer traditional sweets to her idol; some pray earnestly to conceive a child, askfor the well-being of their families, for better harvest, and bring their babies for the deity’s blessings. A cultural program follows where people sing Bengali folk songs about mythological characters ruling the jungles. However, in the low-land areas of the Sundarbans, the islanders always worship Bonbibi with simplicity and passion. They fear death every time they enter into the jungle, and call on her when they are afraid. There, Bonbibi’s role is to protect the islanders that consist of fishermen, wood-cutters and honey-gatherers from the dangerous animals.

In the novel, The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh uses Bonbibi’s legend as a metaphor ‘to create and define a relationship between human beings and the natural world. Nowhere does a term equivalent to Nature figure in the legend of Bonbibi, yet nowhere is its consciousness absent.’ In the story, a headstrong Indian-American cetologist (a biologist who studies whales and dolphins) named Piyali Roy, a PhD researcher, with a small grant from the university, goes to the Indian part of the Sundarbans. She plans to be there for two weeks to conduct a survey on the behaviour of a rare species of river dolphin called Orcaella.

Piya was born to Bengali parents from Calcutta; she grew up in Seattle, and does not speak Bengali. That did not prevent her from pursuing her dream. Upon arriving in Calcutta, she boards a train bound for the Sundarbans. She carries with her a backpack which contains data sheets, camera, binoculars, drinking water and energy bars. She enlists the help of a middle-aged translator named Kanai, director of a translation bureau in Delhi. She hires a local crab fisherman named Fokir as her boatman. Kanai knows the Sundarbans intimately, as he was sent there when he was ten, to live with his aunt and uncle. Near a place called Garjontola, they all sit in Fokir’s fishing boat, as they wait for the sightings of the Irrawaddy dolphins. Piya also discovers that through body language and facial expressions she can understand what Fokir is saying to her. Later it becomes an indicator (body language) that she is attracted to Fokir. Kanai and Fokir stand in stark contrast when they communicate with her. Believing in her conservation efforts, Piya takes a long and arduous journey with two unknown men. Throughout this journey, Amitav Ghosh reflects on the myth of Bonbibi, and the islanders’ religious and cultural values. Piya also notices the ‘merging of the cultural rites’ when Fokir prays to both Bonbibi and a Muslim Pir.

During high tide, the dolphins come in hundreds. Sometimes only a mother/calf pair shows up. Piya watches in amazement how a newborn catches a fish, only to toss it in the air, a typical behaviour of these mammals playing with the prey. Piya soon realizes in order to come to a correct hypothesis – ‘that the dolphins had adapted their behaviour to suit the ebb and flow of the water’ by observing the dolphins’ movements; she will need to stay there a whole cycle of tides to collect supportive data. That will require years of field research.

In between waiting for the dolphins, Piya and Kanai have a lot of philosophical discussions about the ‘connections and interrelations’ of different aquatic mammals. During their nature versus nurture debates, many unrequited queries tinkle in Piya’s inquisitive head. Kanai tells Piya, once in these islands in the Bay of Bengal, people lived in fear of getting eaten alive by the tigers. Every week, poor people who went into the forests in search of food and firewood, used to be killed by tigers. It happened so frequently that such killings went unreported because these people were too poor ‘to matter.’

Piya and Kanai have an emotional discussion about keeping the earth free of animals, where there will be total dominance by the humans, while Fokir and his young son Tutul make chapati to be eaten with honey. Father and son are totally oblivious of Piya and Kanai’s critical thinking and reasoning. Piya opposes Kanai’s logic, and reasons other species matter as much. They also chat about how tigers in America exist in captivity, not in the wild.Piya, as a cetologist, is in favor of preserving endangered species in captivity, in zoos and animal reserves as her profession calls for it. She passionately argues that it is lesser of two evils where there is a possibility of total extinction.

Throughout her extra ordinary journey, Piyali Roy realizes that in order to save the dolphins, one has to save the Sundarbans’ habitat first. The symbiotic relationships between the aquatic mammals and the ecosystem can only be sustained by keeping a balance. This remarkable environment is the only place where river dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins are found together. She figures that conservation efforts do not have to happen at the cost of the poor people in the islands. She recognises that her dissertation data will help the locals immensely in preserving the dolphins, and increasing awareness among the communities for protecting these beautiful mammals. Afterwards, she chooses to share her research findings with the Babadon Trust that helps towards community development. It becomes obvious that the joint collaboration in implementing the plan can be a scenario where everyone in the tide country wins.

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA




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