Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, is spread across 10,360  square kilometres in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. It has vast stretches of wilderness teeming with flora and fauna, saline and fresh water, and avian, reptile and mammal life.  This complex and unique character has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.

It is here that tales of Bonbibi are passed on from generation to generation, embedded in this land’s folklore.  This deity of the forest was sent from far-off Arabia to the Sunderbans, the beautiful forest – otherwise known as atharo bhatir desh (the land of 18 tides) – to save its people from the tyranny of Dakshinrai (locally also referred to as Dokhin Rai), a cruel Brahmin, who stalked, killed and devoured human beings in the guise of a tiger. Hindu and Muslim mythologies have blended ubiquitously to ward off the common perils of life. Religious differences have melded into a way of life only experienced in the Sundarbans.

Thatched shrines bearing the goddess mounted on Raja Dakshinrai, accompanied by her brother Shah Jangali, are a common sight along the riverbed. It is from these shrines that rare chants of “Ma Bonbibi Allah, Allah” effortlessly mingle with those of “Baba Dakshinrai Hari Hari” as the honey collectors and fishermen pay obeisance before venturing into tiger territory.

The islanders of the Sundarbans believe the forests are meant only for those who are poor and who have no intention of taking more than what they need to survive. They see life here as requiring both a ‘pure heart’ as well as ‘empty hands'. This ‘agreement’ between humans and other inhabitants permits both to depend on the forest, and yet each respects the requirements of all. The ‘purity of the heart’ means they enter the forest without greed or violent disposition. The ‘empty hands’ mean they will enter the forest without firearms.

Bonbibi is a personification of the forest itself and the overriding faith amongst the villages is a reaffirmation of their commitment towards forest and tiger conservation. The Bonbibi jatra (a drama enacting the age-old folk tales of the valour of the goddess, performed by local artists) has become an art form synonymous with the Sundarbans. These performances are melodramatic, yet the underlying message is clear:

“If the forest exists, then the tiger lives and only then can we flourish.”

This documentary tries to focus on the plight and the spirit of the people who inhabit the world’s largest delta – the Sundarbans, the land of 18 tides and one goddess.

This film was an official selection in the Competition Section of the 13th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Animation Films (MIFF), 2014.

Also read: Ma Bonbibi, mother to humans and tigers

Ferries, fish, tigers and tourism

Malay Dasgupta

Malay Dasgupta is an independent documentary filmmaker; he heads the broadcast management department at the Calcutta Media Institute. Several films on folk art and culture, music and environment, produced and directed by him have been screened at national and international film festivals.

Other stories by Malay Dasgupta