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Revisiting the legend of Bonbibi in Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’ – Eagles Vine

In the chapter titled ‘Garjontola’ of the novel ‘The Hungry Tide’, Amitav Ghosh gives his readers a rare glimpse into something quite peculiar and exotic to them. He writes:

“Tutul ran ahead to the far side of the clearing and stopped in front of what seemed to be a small shack built on stilts. On approaching closer she saw it was not a shack at all but a leaf-thatched altar or shrine: it reminded her distantly of her mother’s puja table, except that the images inside didn’t represent any of the Hindu gods she was familiar with. There was a large eyed female figure in a sari and beside it a slightly smaller figure of a man. Crouching between them was a tiger, recognizable because of its painted stripes.”

If one ever plans to travel deep into the Sundarbans – a large mangrove forest in the southern region of Bangladesh and West Bengal – it would not be surprising for them to come across ‘Bonbibi’ – the “large-eyed female figure in a sari” that Ghosh mentions in his novel.

Bonbibi

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‘Bonbibi’ or ‘Bandevi’, which literally translates to the ‘lady of the forest’, is a guardian spirit of the forests of the Sundarbans. A densely populated area, Bengal is inhabited both by the Hindus and Muslims. Interestingly, nothing more symbolizes their cohabitation than the Goddess Bonbibi, worshipped by both communities in the dense Sundarbans forest. Moreover, since the title ‘bibi’ is used commonly by Muslim women as a surname, that makes it is a distinctive name for a Bengali goddess.

The myth of Bonbibi
According to mythology, Bonbibi is believed to be the daughter of Ibrahim, a fakir from Mecca. As his wife Phulbibi couldn’t bear a child, Ibrahim married Golalbibi. However, to keep a promise made by Ibrahim to his first wife, he left the pregnant Golalbibi in a forest. She soon gave birth to two children whom she called Bonbibi and Shah Jangali; unable to raise them both, the woman abandoned the girl. Fortunately, she was raised by a deer and grew up. Later the family was shortly reunited before Bonbibi and her brother went to Medina where they consulted Fatima (a holy woman) about their future. Hearing Bonbibi’s story, she granted her the possibility of saving forest people whenever they would seek her assistance. Thus, Bonbibi and Shah Jangali went to India where they were to become lords of the swampland, inhabited by a demon, Dakkhin Rai, and his mother, Narayani, who attacked the twins. Bonbibi called Fatima who came to her rescue and defeated Dakkhin Rai and Narayani. However, Bonbibi showed her generosity and decided that she would rule only on half the land, leaving the rest to the demon. After this, Bonbibi started moving from village to village to establish her rule.

Narratives of Bonbibi
The narratives of Bonbibi are found in several texts named as the ‘Banbibir Keramati’ or the ‘Banbibir Jahuranama’. The latter was published at the end of the 19th century by a Muslim author called Munshi Mohammed Khater of Govindapur. In his introduction, Khater reveals that the legend is not his invention, and he merely set it to verses at the request of the people. It is written in Dobhashi Bangla, a variety of language used by Muslim religious literature and containing several Urdu and Arabic elements.

Present-day relevance of Bonbibi
Death is quite unpredictable in the Sunderbans. Thus, its inhabitants (both Hindus and Muslims) have worshipped Bonbibi for centuries to protect themselves from the dangers residing in the jungle. She is called upon mostly by the honey collectors and the woodcutters before entering the forest for protection against the attacks from the tigers. Even today, they come with offerings of sweets in an effort to receive her protection from tigers and other dangers of the forest. This is because of the widespread belief that the demon king Dakkhin Rai appears in the disguise of a tiger and attacks human beings.

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Despite all this, it is important to note that due to several reasons, Bonbibi is under threat. Many Hindu priests now address and worship the goddess as ‘Bondebi’ instead of Bonbibi. In addition, Muslims used to worship the deity because they went into the jungle but many of them aren’t into such professions anymore. Resultantly, they don’t visit the temple – as was the case in the past.

Pic credit: Penguin India, Wikipedia

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