"No one can ignore Ma Bonbibi’s call," said Shampa, devoutly gesturing toward the sky. " Joy Ma Bonbibi!" She, her husband Raghu Gucchai, and their three-year-old son were rushing toward the 150-year-old temple of Ma Bonbibi at the southern end of their village. It was mid-day in January, and everyone in Ramrudrapur in West Bengal's South 24 Parganas district, whether Hindu or Muslim, seemed to be headed there. "Ma Bonbibi is the queen of the jungle," declared Ful mashi (aunty), a village elder. "Today the forest is not here anymore, but her blessings are still here. Bonbibi is the epitome of power and this fair is an age-old tradition of this village."

The Bonbibi festival is celebrated once a year, in January or February, and Ramrudrapur's fair is one of the oldest and biggest. Raghu took me to the stall he had set up with his brother, Shibu. It was filled with colourful bangles and other ornaments that he had bought from a trader in Kolkata. The brothers were not particularly interested in seeking Bonbibi’s blessings, but had positioned themselves strategically by the temple, where could be found the largest congregation of women. Sakina Mondal, also from the village, asked me, smiling, " Didi [elder sister], did you go to the temple?" and sent her daughter, Sabeena, to accompany me there.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

People at the Bonbibi fair in Ramrudrapur; according to the organisers, the number of participants is increasing every year

It is believed that Bonbibi bestows upon all her devotees whatever blessings they seek, irrespective of religion. Women, both Hindu and Muslim, fast throughout the festival day, and eat only at twilight. This faith in her blessings could be seen in people’s eagerness to pay homage. Arati and Bibhash Naskar, offering a plateful of traditional sweets, prayed to the deity for a child; Shampa prayed for the well-being of her family; Sanjay for a better harvest; and Mafuja and Altaf Manna brought their new-born daughter for blessings.

Sabeena and I finally made our way into the than (temple) and were greeted by 15-year-old Debol, who exclaimed, " Didi , do your prayers, the time is very auspicious."

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya
PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Left: Villagers and townspeople walk toward the Bonbibi fair at Ramdrudrapur, Sundarbans, over fields left barren after the annual harvest in December or January. Right: The Bonbibi temple, surrounding which the Ramrudrapur fair takes place; in 2013 the temple was renovated with donations from the participants

The cultural programmes soon commenced. Local artistes, as well as those from Kolkata, started gearing up in the tents that had been set up in different corners. The locals would sing torjaa gaan (Bengali folk songs about mythological characters or daily life) or kirtan (religious songs) and perform jatra (plays enacting historical or mythological scenes). The outsiders were to perform "orchestra nights" – Bollywood or Tollywood songs – jatra and a dance programme.

Every soul in that fair seemed full of enthusiasm, energy and a sense of contentment: the mothers fascinated by the ornaments, the fathers fulfilling their children’s incessant demands, a few love-birds here and there, friends laughing and chatting – everything was happening on the call of Bonbibi.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Artists from Canning, Ramrudrapur, sing ‘torjaa gaan’ (folk songs) about mythological characters at the fair

I spotted Ful mashi happily gulping down a rosogolla and asked her what would happen when the fair ended. "It will come again next year," she replied. "This fair is everyone’s life and companion."

This spectacular and celebratory form of Bonbibi's worship in these, the upland areas of the Sundarbans, from where the forest has receded, is in stark contrast to the simplicity and fervour of the original form of worship still present in the forested lowland areas. In these "down" islands, every entry into the jungle is a potential tryst with death, and Bonbibi's role is simple but vital: to protect humans from the scourge of tigers and snakes.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

A Bonbibi temple at Mollakhali, Basanti: open Bonbibi shrines are usually located on the main pathway. If the shrine does have a door, it is not locked, so that anyone can come and seek her blessing

Ma Bonbibi originally emerged as a "super power" who protected the fishing community, honey-gatherers, wood-cutters and others who entered the jungle from tiger attacks. A 19th century booklet, Bonbibi Johuranama, tells her story, probably authored by a Muslim – it’s in Bengali, written from left to right, but back to front to emulate the Arabic script.

According to this legend, Bonbibi's great adversary was Dokhin Rai, a Brahmin sage who lived in the forest and who, in a fit of anger, decided to feed on humans. So he took the form of a tiger. Being greedy, he stopped sharing any of the forest resources with humans and legitimised the killing of humans as a form of kawr or taxation. Dokhin Rai seems to have represented a rapacious zamindar or landlord. He eventually proclaimed himself the sole master of the mangrove and turned into a rakkhosh or demon that preyed on humans. All tigers and spirits of the forest became his subjects and started to terrorise the humans, and the trust that formerly existed between animals and humans was broken.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Ma Bonbibi, mounted on a jungle fowl, at Nogenabad, Kultali (left), and mounted on a tiger and with Dukhe and Shah Jongoli, at the forest office in Patharpratima

Seeing the suffering, Allah chose Bonbibi, a young girl who lived in the forest, to put an end to the reign of Dokhin Rai. When she was a baby, Bonbibi had been abandoned by her mother and was raised by a deer. When she received Allah's call, she summoned her twin brother Shah Jongoli (both bon and jongol mean jungle) to her side. The siblings ventured to Medina to receive the blessings of Fatima, and then went on to Mecca, from where they brought some holy earth back to the Sundarbans.

Dokhin Rai, angry with Allah for interceding, decided to drive them away. But Narayani, his mother, insisted that it was better for a woman to fight a woman, and took on Bonbibi herself. When she saw that she was losing the battle, Narayani called Bonbibi her sai (friend). Bonbibi was gratified and the conflict was resolved.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Pug marks, Bonnie Camp, Kultali (left): the camp is a 50-foot high watch tower near the Bay of Bengal, and tigers are often seen in the vicinity. One of the many river creeks in the Sundarbans (right)

In the festival at Ramrudrapur that year, 2014, the play being performed was the ‘Story of Dukhe’ (from dukkho , meaning sorrow). This tale clarifies the agreements that the deity extracted from the tiger, Dokhin Rai, and the humans, represented by Dukhe. "Dukhe’s story is like our story," said Ful mashi , who had lost her husband to a tiger. "Dukhe is like our son and his plight is our plight, for we understand the significance of the forest. The jungle does not allow people who are greedy. Greed is forbidden and Dukhe’s story signifies that."

Dukhe was a very poor boy who lived with his widowed mother. He was abandoned by his uncle Dhona ( dhon means wealth) in Kedokhali, the only island believed to be still in the control of Dokhin Rai. Dukhe was to be fed to the tiger, but Bonbibi saved him and sent him back to his mother. Dokhin Rai ran to his only friend and supporter, Gazi, for advice, and upon his suggestion asked for forgiveness from Bonbibi. The goddess forgave Dokhin Rai and accepted him as her son – extracting promises from him and others that all creatures, including humans, would henceforth be brothers and sisters and would share the Sundarban's riches equally. The humans, for their part, pledged to take from their siblings, the creatures of the forest, only that which they needed for their survival, and no more.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

A Bonbibi shrine at Nogenabad, Kultali: right in the middle of the forest, which hosts one of the biggest Bonbibi festivals in the region in April

This faith – that Bonbibi will protect humans, but only if they take the minimum that they need, can be seen in the simplicity and devoutness with which she is worshipped in the forested areas of the Sundarbans. She can be invoked by anyone, whether Hindu or Muslim, simply by reading the start and the end of the Bonbibi Johuranama , with companions reading the middle parts. The booklet is short enough to recite in the few hours it takes to walk along a forest path into the interior.

In addition, no forest worker enters the jungle without being accompanied by, or having received instructions from, a bauli or tiger-charmer – who claims to have powers given by Bonbibi to protect others from tigers. The charms that the bauli use are in Arabic, reflecting their derivation from Sufi saints who contributed to the reclamation of land from the mangrove forest, the control of tigers and the spread of Islam in this area in the 16th century. (Although baulis can be Hindus too, those I met were all Muslims.)

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

The Ma Bonbibi Opera presenting ‘Dukhe’r Golpo’, a jatra that narrates the story of Dukhe. Bonbibi sits on a tiger, Dokhin Rai, and to her left is Shah Jongoli, her twin brother. Dukhe sits with hands folded, and on the other side, in white, is his mother

In the Sundarbans, many see Islam as a magical technique to control evil spirits and demons, and the bauli are expected to be humble and peaceful. They have a profound emotional impact on the forest workers. Often, however, the tiger-charmers are mocked by forest officials, who insist that they feed upon the innocence of the locals and have none of the powers they claim to possess.

Curiously, given the fear of tigers among most of us outside the Sundarbans, it is interactions with outsiders that the people living in these jungles areas regard as violent and hierarchical. In contrast, for them, the forest serves to unite and equalise people. This is why the majority of the Bonbibi shrines, especially those in the island blocks, have no doors, and are located along common areas such as pathways and river banks. They are accessible to all. People also create temporary shacks, made of branches and twigs, and sometimes decorated with flowers, within the forest, where they invoke her blessings before entering the realm of the tiger.

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Ma Bonbibi, as worshipped at Khari (left), and her adversary the tiger or landlord Dokhin Rai, in Joynagar town (right), both in Joynagar, Sundarbans. Although Bonbibi is usually mounted on a tiger, she is also borne by other animals such as a jungle fowl, deer, crocodile or fish

Ful mashi's younger son, Jatindra, who sells fish in the local market, says the forest is a temple and is sacred; it is pure and serene, and must be entered in a pure and serene frame of mind. Everything that happens there is Bonbibi's will, and nothing can be done behind her back. “About 10 or 12 years ago," he recalled, "a group of woodcutters died out of snake bites. Locals believed that they were contaminating the forest and not respecting the ethos of the region. Therefore Bonbibi punished them.”

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

The fishing community at Pakhiralay, Gosaba: fishing is one of the main occupations of the people of Sundarbans

Bonbibi's egalitarianism is symbolised and enforced by the repeated re-enacting of her stories by people from multiple jatis (variously, caste, race, or religion.) Shamsuddin Ali, a resident of Ramrudrapur and an actor with the Bonbibi Opera, a jatra group, explained it to me: "Ma Bonbibi will take her hands off from our lives if we engage ourselves with the politics of caste, religion and other hierarchies. Ma is for everyone and her happiness knows no bounds when she sees everyone coming together, especially when we enact her stories. Religion is not important. The individual is.”

Poresh Briha, an elder who used to work in another jatra company in the area, added that innumerable such outfits had to shut down because they had started to fill with only one jati . “The groups no longer represented enough communities," he said. "Bonbibi demands unity and everyone’s association is crucial for her worship."

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

The locals usually use boats to travel from one island to another; the movement of the boats depends on the tides and they stop entirely during the monsoons. Basic amenities are also sent to the islands from the mainland via these boats

Another common thread that binds forest dwellers is the belief that escalating greed has prompted many to enter the jungle and ruin its tranquillity. Collectors of prawn seed, a new breed of forest worker, are often blamed when things go wrong. But Kusum Mondal, a prawn seed collector, insisted that honey collectors should instead be blamed for being too greedy. “Bonbibi will take revenge very soon because the age-old treaty between Bonbibi and Dokhin Rai is coming to an end," she warned. "Something very bad is about to happen in the forest."

PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya
PHOTO • Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Left: Forest workers make temporary shrines to seek Ma Bonbibi's blessings before entering the tiger's realm. Right: Another forest shrine to Bonbibi, made by honey collectors in Bali, Basanti

All forest workers agree, however, that the increasing strife among themselves, as well as the regular intrusion of noisy tourists, causes the tigers to feel insecure and disturbed. As a result, tiger attacks have grown. Kanchan, a fisherman from Gosaba Island, narrated how a tiger snapped away his partner, who was on the land cleaning his net: the tiger emerged from nowhere and flicked him away. "No one can do anything if a tiger decides to feed on someone," Kanchan said. "We have to let him do that.” He had also lost his father that way.

"At least 12 people were taken away by tigers, and God knows how many more,” Shamsuddin said with a heavy heart. "If this continues, not even Bonbibi can save anyone.” He paused for a moment, collecting himself. "It is actually Dokhin Rai’s wrath. Tigers are furious, because of us humans. Now only Bonbibi knows how to pacify him.”

Also watch: Land of eighteen tides and one goddess
Also read: Ferries, fish, tigers and tourism

Shatarupa Bhattacharyya

Shatarupa Bhattacharyya is doing a Ph.D. in Development Studies from the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru; she has an M.Phil. in History from the University of Hyderabad

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