In an age when Hindu majoritarianism has divided India on communal lines, and Islamic radicalism is on the rise across the globe, a local goddess revered by both Hindus and Muslims shines a beacon of hope on what it means to be truly pluralistic.
Perhaps nothing reflects the long history of Hindu-Muslim unity in the country than the story of Bonbibi, a local Goddess worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims in the dense forest of the Sundarbans in West Bengal.
Her Hindu followers call her Bandurga, Bandevi or as Banbibi, and her predominantly Hindu images are found as wearing a crown and garland, carrying a club and trishul. Her vahana (vehicle) is a tiger. Her Muslim followers call her Banbibi, and her predominantly Muslim images are found with braided hair, wearing a cap with a tikli. Instead of a sari, she wears a ghagra and pyjama, and a pair of shoes.
The word ‘ban’ in Bengali means ‘forest’, while ‘bibi’ originates from the Persian word for lady or wife. The word ‘Bonbibi’ thus literally means ‘lady of the forest’. She is an Islamic deity, which is almost an oxymoron according to Islam and is believed to have travelled on Allah’s orders from Medina to the Sundarbans to protect its distressed residents.
According to folklore, found in the eighteenth-century text ‘Bonbibir Johuranama’, Bonbibi was the daughter of Ibrahim, a fakir who came from Mecca and became the king of the Sundarbans.
Since he had no children from his first wife, Phoolbibi, he married another woman Golabibi who gave birth to twins: Bonbibi and Shah Junglee. Because Ibrahim has promised his first wife, he would abandon the second child; he left Golabibi in the woods when she was pregnant. This is where Bonbibi was born and raised as a Muslim.
Years later, in the jungle, the brother-sister duo goes on to win a fierce battle with the evil lord Dakkhin Ray who takes the form of the tiger and his mother, Narayani. Since then, Bonbibi became the protector of forests and is especially revered by honey collectors and woodcutters who pray to Bonbibi before entering the Sundarbans to seek protection.
“The jongol (forest) with its looming presence is an unavoidable element in the lives of the people of the region… The islanders depend on the forest for their daily survival—for fetching wood, honey, wax, fish, and crabs, and they often encounter danger and deaths in various forms. This intertwining of fear and faith has led to the worship of nature, embodied in the form of the cult goddess Bonbibi, the guardian of the forest,” writes Mousami Mandal, Assistant professor, Delhi University.
Even though Bengal was partitioned in 1947 along communal lines, the state has shared a common history of syncretism. Tribal communities and Hindu backward classes have a history of living in the Sunderbans from before 1770.
According to Sufi Historian Muhammad Enamul Haq, the 16th and 17th centuries saw the creation of a tremendous base for Sufism in Bengal. This was especially true for rural Bengal, where Sufi saints or Pirs, imbibed many practices that were local and non-Islamic.
A highly stratified and oppressive Hindu society on the one hand, and decline of Buddhism on the other, proved to be a fertile ground for people to adopt what later went on to be called ‘popular Islam’. This also became one of the reasons for Hindu-Muslim unity in the region.
Other than this, the difficult terrain of the Sundarbans and the need to be protected from tigers drove the two communities to seek refuge in a common Goddess.
“Sundarban is the only context where a deity is worshipped not only as a prerequisite of a custom but because of need, the need to gain confidence and courage before entering the forest. It is precisely because of this collective pursuit of protection, that Bonbibi, despite being a Muslim deity, transcends communal barriers and is worshipped by all the forest workers irrespective of caste and creed,” writes Amrita Sen, in a paper titled ‘Traditional livelihoods and survival crisis: the politics of biodiversity conservation in Sundarban, West Bengal’.
The current wave of communal polarization has swept the entire nation, and the Sunderbans, too, has not been immune, with BJP politicians have tried to stoke the religious flame.
These ideas are also finding resonance amongst some Muslim Bengalis in the Sundarbans too, who see the worship of Bonbibi as against Islam’s strictures against idol-worship.
But there are still many who depend on the forest for their survival. For them, Bonbibi’s religion doesn’t matter. She is the one who protects them from tigers. And to whom they are thankful for their lives.