the deity speaks

In Bengal's Sundarbans, the fading Bonbibi goddess cult straddles the Hindu-Muslim divide

As modernity intrudes into the thick mangrove forest, Hindu and Muslim Bengalis separate out into their own theological silos.

Bengal was partitioned in 1947 on communal lines. Hindu-majority western Bengal became a part of the dominion of India while Muslim-majority eastern Bengal became a part of the Pakistan dominion. Belying this recent history, however, Bengal has a tradition of communal coexistence which stretches back centuries. Bengalis, both Muslim as well as Hindu, have lived cheek by jowl in the most densely-populated area on earth. Maybe nothing symbolises this long history of Hindu-Muslim cohabitation than the Goddess Bonbibi, worshipped by both communities in the dense Sundarbans forest on the Bengal coast.

The name Bonbibi literally means lady of the forest. Since the appellation bibi is used by Muslim women as an all-purpose surname, that makes it a unique name for a Bengali goddess. Daughter of a sufi fakir, Bonbibi is the great adversary of Dokkhin Rai, literally southern lord. Rai is a zamindar who takes the form of a tiger to prey on the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. Allah chooses Bonbibi to end Dokkhin Rai’s tyranny – a task accomplished easily enough after a short trip to Mecca and Medina. The Bibi, however, decides not to kill Rai and instead makes him promise that he will not harm anyone who worships her. In the Sundarbans, where death can come quickly, its inhabitants have worshipped Bonbibi for centuries as protection from the jungle’s many dangers.

Bonbibi (second from left) has been relegated to a supporting role in her own temple. Durga (on a lion) now occupies centre stage.
Bonbibi (second from left) has been relegated to a supporting role in her own temple. Durga (on a lion) now occupies centre stage.

Modernity vs syncretism

However, the worship of Bonbibi is receding now as modernity intrudes into the jungle. In Bokkhali, a small tourist resort at the edge of the Sundarbans forest, the Bonbibi mandir is located on the beach. It is, however, sparsely visited now even as more orthodox Hindu festivals such as Durga Pujo are celebrated fully.

A banyan tree besides the temple. Devotees tie wish fulfillment threads on it, in the manner of a Sufi dargah.
A banyan tree besides the temple. Devotees tie wish fulfillment threads on it, in the manner of a Sufi dargah.

As Bonbibi recedes in importance, there are also attacks on her syncretic character. Jadav Pramanik, a clerk at a nearby bank, carries out the duties of the priest at Bokkhali’s Bonbibi temple (given their unorthodoxy, Bonbibi temples rarely have Brahmins who officiate). He is, however, uhappy with Bonbibi’s cross-communal character and wants to rename her Bonodebi, to “remove a Muslim name from a Hindu goddess”. This hardening is represented in the temple itself which along with Bonbibi also has the idols of more orthodox Hindu deities, making it highly unlikely that a Muslim would use this as a place of devotion. In fact, the principle deity of the structure is now Durga, occupying a central place, as Bonbibi gets relegated to her side.

The purohit of the temple, Jadav Pramanik, wants to rename the Sanskrit-Arabic compound
The purohit of the temple, Jadav Pramanik, wants to rename the Sanskrit-Arabic compound "Bonbibi to the purely Sanskrit "Bonodebi" to remove syncretism from the cult.

Pramanik’s ideas are increasingly reflected amongst Muslim Bengalis in the Sundarbans too, who see the worship of Bonbibi as against Islam’s strictures against monotheism and idol-worship. However, in Bokkhali town itself, Pramanik’s ideas seem to have little currency. The name “Bonodebi” is unknown and the town’s sweet shop is named after the goddess’ original name.

The sweet shop in Bokkhali town named after Bonbibi. The name Bonodebi is unkown in the town.
The sweet shop in Bokkhali town named after Bonbibi. The name Bonodebi is unkown in the town.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Advice from an ex-robber on how to keep your home safe

Tips on a more hands-on approach of keeping your house secure.

Home, a space that is entirely ours, holds together our entire world. Where our children grow-up, parents grow old and we collect a lifetime of memories, home is a feeling as much as it’s a place. So, what do you do when your home is eyed by miscreants who prowl the neighbourhood night and day, plotting to break in? Here are a few pre-emptive measures you can take to make your home safe from burglars:

1. Get inside the mind of a burglar

Before I break the lock of a home, first I bolt the doors of the neighbouring homes. So that, even if someone hears some noise, they can’t come to help.

— Som Pashar, committed nearly 100 robberies.

Burglars study the neighbourhood to keep a check on the ins and outs of residents and target homes that can be easily accessed. Understanding how the mind of a burglar works might give insights that can be used to ward off such danger. For instance, burglars judge a house by its front doors. A house with a sturdy door, secured by an alarm system or an intimidating lock, doesn’t end up on the burglar’s target list. Upgrade the locks on your doors to the latest technology to leave a strong impression.

Here are the videos of 3 reformed robbers talking about their modus operandi and what discouraged them from robbing a house, to give you some ideas on reinforcing your home.

Play
Play
Play

2. Survey your house from inside out to scout out weaknesses

Whether it’s a dodgy back door, a misaligned window in your parent’s room or the easily accessible balcony of your kid’s room, identify signs of weakness in your home and fix them. Any sign of neglect can give burglars the idea that the house can be easily robbed because of lax internal security.

3. Think like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone

You don’t need to plant intricate booby traps like the ones in the Home Alone movies, but try to stay one step ahead of thieves. Keep your car keys on your bed-stand in the night so that you can activate the car alarm in case of unwanted visitors. When out on a vacation, convince the burglars that the house is not empty by using smart light bulbs that can be remotely controlled and switched on at night. Make sure that your newspapers don’t pile up in front of the main-door (a clear indication that the house is empty).

4. Protect your home from the outside

Collaborate with your neighbours to increase the lighting around your house and on the street – a well-lit neighbourhood makes it difficult for burglars to get-away, deterring them from targeting the area. Make sure that the police verification of your hired help is done and that he/she is trustworthy.

While many of us take home security for granted, it’s important to be proactive to eliminate even the slight chance of a robbery. As the above videos show, robbers come up with ingenious ways to break in to homes. So, take their advice and invest in a good set of locks to protect your doors. Godrej Locks offer a range of innovative locks that are un-pickable and un-duplicable. To secure your house, see here.

The article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Godrej Locks and not by the Scroll editorial team.