People who have read Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tides can be divided into two groups — those whose desire to go to the Sunderbans is fuelled and those who are either going or have gone there. I haven’t met a third kind till now.
Ramapad Mandal works on completing the statue of his ‘Ma’
And I can check both these boxes.
The Royal Bengal Tiger’s abode is full of vignettes — tales of death, accounts of pain, and narratives of miraculous escapes from the jaws of death. And lurking in the corners are myths and legends.
One such legend left me spellbound. I had found it buried in the folds of The Hungry Tide much before I encountered it in Sunderbans — the miracles of Bon Bibi.
In preparation of the festival dedicated to the Goddess, Ramapad Mandal, a fisherman by profession and idol-maker by choice, delicately carved out the features of the Goddess. “Ma amader rokhha kore (Ma protects all of us)”, he said.
This deity has a legend that no villager would deny. “If one falls in danger all he has to do is call for Ma and she would be there. I have faced tigers but they have never touched me,” Mandal continued.
Bon Bibi, folklores have it, was sent by Allah to protect the Sunderbans, while also making it habitable for human. Bon Bibi and her brother Shah Jongoli came all the way form the holy city of Medina to do the bidding of God.
The siblings shared the duties and while Bon Bibi took on the mantle of protecting the people, Shah Jongoli lived in the forests to fight the much-feared demon king Dokkhin Rai who took on the form of a tiger to kill humans.
Unfinished statue of Bon Bibi — the Goddess of Sunderbans
The ‘Lady of the Forests,’ or Bon Bibi, and Shah Jongoli fought off Dokkhin Rai, forbidding him from killing people and gave him his own space — the forests — to reside in and rule over.
Chiselling with great concentration, Ramapad — who looks 65 and is 40 — goes on to tell us how human greed threatened to destroy peace.
“Greed knows no bounds. Once, this man named Dhona went into the forests to make a fortune from honey. He took on board a young boy named Dukhey (meaning sorrowful). In the forests Dhona came to an agreement with Dokkhin Rai to exchange Dukhey for treasures troves of honey and Dukhey was left behind for the tiger-demon. But, just in the moment of danger Dukhey called for Ma and was rescued.”
Ramapad’s sun-baked face creased into a gentle smile as he moulded the clay and said, “You must not disregard this. It is not fiction, it is a true story. Everyone here knows it.”
The legends hint at different socio-religious parameters in the area. The Goddess has an Islamic origin, but the idol reminds one of the Hindu deity Durga. The rituals have Hindu undertones but always start with the name of Allah. The tales have also been a secularising force in this land of eighteen tides
The legends also mark a clear distinction between the wild and the inhabited land.
“The jungles are the tigers’ domain. When we step in there we must be careful,” Mandal concluded.