The Sundarbans happen to be a region of immense possibilities. It is true that all forests share a kind of mystery that even human curiosity at times feels is better to be left alone. The difference with Sundarbans is that, it leaves no choice for human beings. Dark and glowing at the same time, this mangrove forest is spread across the delta of mighty Ganges in West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. Being the land of tides, this region is rich in agricultural prospects but ironically, difficult for human habitation. But difficulties notwithstanding, the instinct for survival is so strong that here, there has been a merging of boundaries.
It is believed, that the Royal Bengal Tigers of this region are the most ferocious and the most intelligent among the brethren though they are comparatively smaller in size. Adapting through centuries to the climatic challenges of the Sundarbans, they have mastered every art in the trade. Shredding all euphemisms, the simple fact is that, Sundarban tigers are man-eaters by necessity. And it is necessity again that drives people to invade the territory of the wild.
The Bon Bibi (lady of the forest) legend uses the power of folklore to draw a connection between human beings and the world of nature and it is also a pertinent comment on the necessity to curb greed. The story serves as a melting pot for different cultures but is not very well known outside the Sundarbans. Local theatre companies, or ‘jatra-dol’-s as they are called in Bengali, travel from village to village enacting the story, all the year round and especially during the worship of Bon Bibi.
Although all the rituals of worship are Hindu in form they always begin with the Muslim invocation ‘Bismillah’. Also, the Bon Bibi and her brother Shah Jongoli (Jongol means ‘forest’ in Bengali) do not have origins in Bengal, nor even in Hindu mythology. They are born to the Sufi faqir Ibrahim in the Arabian city of Medina, the holiest of cities in Islam. Archangel Gabriel set them on the divine mission of making the land of tides fit for human habitation. Bon Bibi, however, is always found dressed like a typical rural Bengal housewife. This bit of discrepancy is perhaps accounted for by the fact that a large population in this area is dalit Muslims. So a connection is immediately established transcending the worship of Bon Bibi over religious barriers to a traditional plane.
Until the arrival of the Goddess, the jungles are ruled by demon king Dokhin Rai, who is always hungry for human flesh. Bon Bibi overcomes him and a truce is finally struck as boundaries are strictly defined within the jungle. The human settlement became the territory of Bon Bibi and Dokhin Rai, who at most times appeared in the semblance of a tiger, withdrew to rule over the wilderness. This balance is disrupted as a greedy fleet owner named Dhona who crosses over to Dokhin Rai’s territory in search of forest treasures. The demon manages to ensnare the human troop in the forest. In order to be released, Dhona agrees to deliver a poor boy named Dukhey, who was the last to join his troop, as ransom to the demon king.
Therefore, Dhona departs with his fleet managing to leave Dukhey behind to be devoured by Dokhin Rai. Just as the Demon was about to pounce on the poor boy in the guise of a tiger, Dukhey remembers his mother’s advice to call on Bon Bibi in times of need and appeals to the deity to deliver him from his ordeal. Bon Bibi appears as if in a flash and drives the demon into the forest after giving him a lesson to remember. Later, she restored Dukhey his health and sent him back to his mother.
The legend therefore brings back Nature to its normal course, reinstating order and balance. On another level it is a story of reinstating faith. In the Sundarbans, till date, no native will enter the jungle without seeking the blessings of Bon Bibi. The presence of the tiger, alias Dokhin Rai is so palpable that the word ‘tiger’ itself is a taboo among forest people. The fear is such that in case of a man being killed by the tiger, it is generally accepted, without doubt, that he himself was at fault for having his greed take over his better senses.