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 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.