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The Uniting Power of Bonbibi: How a Shared Deity Brings Hindus and Muslims Together in the Face of Danger

At a time when India is divided along communal lines due to Hindu majoritarianism and Islamic radicalism increasing worldwide, there is a local goddess who is revered by both Hindus and Muslims, serving as a symbol of hope for genuine pluralism. 

PayBito team on its way to conducting their ‘Brokering World Hunger Away’ movement in the core villages of Sundarbans, came across the fascinating story of Bonobibi, the forest goddess, who saves people from tiger attacks. The team visited the huge festival celebrated by the village people and discovered the various angles of the deity. The fascinating syncretic power of the goddess has managed to bring two communities suffering from communal conflict together in the terror-stricken land of Sundarbans.

The tale of Bonbibi, a revered deity in the dense forests of the Sundarbans in West Bengal, exemplifies the longstanding history of Hindu-Muslim unity in India. Bonbibi, a local Goddess worshipped in the Sundarbans forest of West Bengal, is venerated by both Hindus and Muslims. Hindus refer to her as Bandurga, Bandevi, or Banbibi, and depict her with a crown, garland, club, Trishul, and a tiger as her vahana. In contrast, her predominantly Muslim images show her with braided hair, wearing a cap with a tikli, and attired in a ghagra, pajama, and shoes instead of a saree. 

The confluence of the three rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna formed the largest delta islands of the Sundarbans. The dense network of swamps and forested islets is a diverse ecosystem that houses 50 mammal species, 315 types of birds, and 59 varieties of reptiles. However, the region is most renowned for being one of the last refuges of the Royal Bengal tiger. For centuries, this majestic predator has coexisted with humans in a fragile balance, roaming the forest depths and swimming between islands, while being known to attack anything or anyone that encroaches too closely.

Also Read: From Despair to Empowerment: A Sundarbans Child’s Transformational Journey

The Folklore of Bonbibi and Dakhin Rai

Bonbibi, which means “lady of the forest,” is a revered figure among both Hindus and Muslims who believe she was sent from the heavens to protect them. Legend has it that she was born a Muslim in Saudi Arabia and traveled to Mecca, where she was granted supernatural powers. She then traveled over 5,000km east to the Sundarbans, where she discovered that the forest was infested with man-eating tigers and ruled by a demon called Dakshin Rai. 

The Sundarban region has a folklore known as “Banbibir Jahuranama,” which emphasizes the importance of peaceful coexistence between humans and nature in the tiger-filled forest area. The story tells of a sage who lived in the forest and became greedy, refusing to share any of the natural resources with humans. He used his ascetic powers to transform into a tiger named Dakshin, leading to division and destruction in the forest.

Dakshin Rai, who was once a sage living in the forest, turned into a tiger and began attacking humans who entered the area. He justified his killings as a form of tax payment for using the resources of the forest. To put an end to his greed and terror, God selected a young girl named Bon Bibi, who also lived in the forest. According to folklore, Bon Bibi rescued a poor boy named Dukhe from the grasp of Dakshin Rai. The people living in Sunderban have a tradition of worshipping Bon Bibi before venturing into the forest. 

According to the local legend, Bon Bibi once rescued Dukhe from Dakshin Rai and then instructed that only what is necessary for survival should be taken from the forest. However, at present, we are on the verge of surpassing many limits that pose a threat to our existence. “Banbibir Jahuranama” serves as a warning beacon, cautioning us to avoid a perilous course of action.

Also Read: The Plight of Widows in Sundarbans: A Story of Emotional Resilience

The Complexities of Coexisting with Tigers in Sunderbans

The PayBito team also observed that despite the increasing instances of human-tiger conflict leading to fatalities, the number of tigers in the Sundarbans continues to rise. Tigers hold significant cultural importance in the region, with Bonbibi being revered as the guardian deity of the forest, and Dakshin Rai as the God of the Tiger. The locals respect and value the tiger’s presence as a protector rather than an enemy, making it unthinkable to harm them.

According to a 2016 publication in the Sustainable Forestry Journal, from 1999 to 2014, there were 437 reported tiger attacks in the Sundarbans forest, resulting in 368 fatalities. Sometimes tigers venture into nearby villages, but the Forest Department, with the help of villagers, is usually able to safely rescue the animal. The Indian Sundarbans is a rare example of successful coexistence between tigers and humans, which is a result of the collective efforts of the West Bengal Forest Department, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), and dedicated individuals. This coexistence was not achieved overnight but is a result of continuous hard work.

The Syncretic Power of the Goddess: Uniting Communities

In the Sundarbans region of India and Bangladesh, Bonbibi shrines are present in almost every village, and they are revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Despite the fact that idol worship is forbidden in Islam, Muslims contribute money along with their Hindu neighbors to buy offerings such as milk, fruit, and sweets for the deity. During the annual Bonbibi Festival, which occurs between January and February, villagers gather at the local Hindu temple to listen to the story of Bonbibi’s victory over Dakshin Rai. Women fast during this festival, believing that it will provide protection to their families. Although permanent shrines are found within villages, temporary ones are also scattered throughout the nearby forests. 

When fishermen or honey collectors venture into the jungle, they make a stop at their village’s Bonbibi shrine and promise the goddess that they will only take what they need from the forest. Local women offer flowers to Bonbibi on special occasions to bring good luck to their homes. Although Bonbibi is revered throughout the Sundarbans, villages located in the lower islands practice a more traditional form of worship, offering items like rice pudding at simple shrines with hay roofs and bamboo poles. In contrast, villages located in the upland islands host grand festivals and celebrations, during which the Bonbibi deity is adorned with intricate garlands and sits atop a tiger.

Will Bonobibi Be Able to Protect the Villagers from the Tiger’s Wrath?

Despite their prayers to Bonbibi before entering the forest, fishermen, prawn catchers, and honey collectors in Sundarbans still face frequent tiger attacks. Some villagers believe that the goddess is angry with them for being greedy and taking more than they need to survive, while others think that once a tiger decides to attack, there’s no stopping it. Nevertheless, the people’s faith in Bonbibi has allowed them to continue living and working in the dangerous mangrove forests of Sundarbans. 

The PayBito team has shed light on the challenging realities of life in the Sundarbans, where the local population worships a shared goddess as a means of surviving in the forest. Despite experiencing communal tensions, the two communities come together to celebrate the important festival of Bonbibi. Through the ‘Brokering World Hunger Away‘ movement, the hidden truths of the Sundarbans have been brought to light, highlighting the remarkable unity between the two communities.

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