Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lady of the legend - bonbibi

by Prashanto Banerji of Sunday Indian
Keshab Giri is a pious man. Every evening, the bearded priest of Kultuli village would go to a banyan tree by the river and pray at its feet, light a clay lamp, then walk back to his hut by the paddy fields. This evening wasn’t supposed to be any different.

But as Giri walked, the village seemed unusually quiet. Even the village curs had fallen silent. All Giri could hear tonight was the sound of his bare feet rustling the dry grass. At the foot of the great banyan, Giri began his prayers. The air around the tree was heavy with a pungent, unfamiliar odour. Maybe it’s from the bank, he thought. Dead cattle, rotting flowers and once even a dead man, swollen and yellow had drifted past these shores. But this smell was different – overpowering, but alive.

Giri tried to return to his prayers. He couldn’t. He opened his eyes to light the lamp… there, inches away from his forehead, hanging from the branches was a striped tail, its tip flicking. “I fell over backward, chanting Maa’s name. My eyes met the tiger’s. It glowered and snarled, but didn’t attack,” Giri said. “Quivering with fear, I screamed ‘bagh ayese... tiger’s here!’ Within minutes, the whole village had gathered, flaming torches in hand. We surrounded the tree and started chanting Maa’s name… the tiger seeing the crowd, climbed higher up, and then jumped off the tree, past the crowd and into the village.” Giri pointed at a hut behind a duck pond, “…ran straight into it, past an old woman lying by the courtyard, tore through the wall and into the paddy fields. Astonishingly, no one was hurt. Maayer kripa… grace of the Mother.”

As we spoke, a sea eagle called and a streak of bright orange lit up the horizon. Dawn was breaking over the Sunderbans. Word had spread that a tiger had swum across the river from an island forest and entered the village, and we’d given chase. But we’d reached a little too late. The tiger had been captured by the forest officials and taken away before we could reach. But the journey hadn’t been in vain, because I got to meet ‘Maa’.

In most parts of the country, ‘Maa’ would mean any of the many forms of Durga, but in the Sunderbans, it does not refer to a Hindu deity but a Muslim one – and one both pious Hindus and devoted Muslims pray to together – ‘Maa Bonbibi’. Legend has it that Bonbibi, born to poor Muslim parents, was abandoned, and then brought up by a deer in these forests. Blessed by Nature, she became the protector of these forests and all who enter it in good faith. Bonobibi shrines, with the idol of a goddess sitting on a tiger, dot the Sunderbans. And today Kultuli was going to thank Maa for keeping them safe.

The villagers had organised a jatra – a musical play celebrating Bonbibi. As the gaudily painted actors got into the act, on a makeshift stage, Giri Baba’s friend, a dark eyed man with a shock of white hair and a wispy beard, Muttalib Mollah, whispered, “Sunderban’s villages have both Hindus and Muslims, but in truth they are just children of the forest. The Musholmans pray five times in a mosque and the Hindus do their temple aarothi, but when it is time to go to the forest, we are together in our prayers to Maa Bonbibi. The Muslims tuck their beards and sit arm in arm in front of an idol with the Hindus who have no qualms about praying to a Muslim deity. Even when riots have spread across the Bengals, the Hindus and Muslims of the Sunderbans have lived as brothers… because the forest forces us to remain human, remain humane and stay in touch with what religion was meant to be… a source of strength, a divine bond, with our Khuda, our soul and our neighbour. A night in the forest is enough to teach you that. Theek bolchhi dada?” Muttalib turned to Giri. Though engrossed in the jatra, Giri turned, put an arm around Muttalib, nodded and smiled “theek… aekdom theek”. The play was long, the actors terrible and the music off-key, but the Kultuli crowd cheered, enraptured and entranced. The stage was empty now. The crowd was dispersing. Giri asked Muttalib to sing. “Aekhon kayno… why now?”. He was reluctant. “Gao na, aamra nachbo…sing, we’ll dance” Some people around him also insisted and a reluctant Muttalib went up on stage. Giri told me that Muttalib sang Hari kirtans really well.

Muttalib started, tentatively first, and then with gusto…The musicians returned, the dhols erupted, and the crowd stopped and turned. Muttalib was singing and ‘shaking’, and Kultuli, Hindus, Muslims alike, were ‘shaking with him…

This was my last day in these magical forests. It was a good day…
In the marshy swamps of the Sunderbans, faith has rock-solid underpinnings. Around the largest delta of the world, forest communities hail Bonbibi to protect them against the weather, and of course, the cat. Legends of the goddess, and more elaborately her nemesis, Dokkhin Rai, were first mentioned by Krishnaram Das in the 17th century. Later, the tales were retold in late 19th century in the Bonbibi Johurnamah by Abdur Rahim, who wrote them in Bangla, but in the way of the Arabic script – right to left.
This jungle goddess was born to a Muslim, Ibrahim, and his first wife, who was abandoned in the forest by the former when she was pregnant, at the behest of the second wife. The first wife gave birth to twins and left the girl child to the elements. Raised by a deer, Bonbibi, was chosen by Providence to fight the menace of the wicked Brahmin-turned-tiger, Dokkhin Rai.
Upon her divine mission, Bonbibi set out with her estranged brother Shah Jungoli for Mecca Medina to seek the blessings of Fatima and brought back some holy earth to mix in the Sunderbans’ soil. Her return and activities agitated Rai who challenged her to a duel. Dokkhin was vanquished and he pleaded forgiveness, addressing Bonbibi as ‘Mother’. Bonbibi, in her parting enjoinders, wished the forests be accessed only by the pobitro mone (pure hearted) and khali hatey (empty handed). To date, the Sunderban communities pay their obeisance to the goddess on Bonbibi Utsav, irrespective of caste, clan or religion…
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