Sundarbans Unbound: A tale of mystery and misery in Bengal's mangrove islands

Updated: Jan 28

A tale of mystery and misery in Bengal's mangrove islands

We've all been enchanted by the mysticism usually attributed to the exotic flora and fauna of the Sundarbans. An ecological pride of not just West Bengal but also India, the Sundarbans is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is an archipelago which is known for being the largest expanse of mangrove forests, tucked away on the delta of the meandering Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal.

Soumya Sankar Bose, 'Where the Birds Never Sing', (2017-) Image courtesy:

The portmanteau 'Sundarbans' is derived from the words 'sundar' which means beautiful and 'bans' meaning forest, to hint at the natural plenitude of the region. The vast Sundarbans spans over around 10,000 sq. km, two-thirds of which lie in Bangladesh and the rest in India. The forests of the Sundarbans which in the common consciousness have become synonymous with the man-eating Royal Bengal Tiger propel a lot of intrigue among the Bengali literary imagination. About 4.5 million people inhabit the landscape, spread over 54 islands out of a total of 102 islands, with the remaining being declared as reserve forests. Located on the coastlines, traversed by rivers, the Sundarbans is often rendered vulnerable in the face of various kinds of natural disasters.

Soumya Sankar Bose, 'Where the Birds Never Sing', (2017-) Image courtesy:

Who is Bonbibi?

Being prone to such perilous calamities owing to its geographical location as well as the potential dangers of tiger attacks, the Sundarbans is knee-deep in age-old practices of faith and devotion. Unlike the popular religious figureheads of the Bengali pantheon, people here worship the syncretic cult goddess called Bonbibi. The residents of the Sundarbans which include the likes of woodcutters, honey gatherers, beeswax gatherers, fishermen and boat builders are solely dependent on the forests for their livelihoods. Therefore before venturing into the wilderness, they offer prayers to the local goddess Bonbibi to ask for protection from all the threats that the forests abound with. The word Bonbibi literally translates to 'the lady of the forest' and is an Islamic deity who is believed to have travelled all the way from Medina on Allah's orders to the Sundarbans to save its people and other lifeforms. Worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims of the region, the goddess Bonbibi can be considered to be one of the remaining emblems of communal coexistence. The folklore of Bonbibi like most oral literature is protean in nature, susceptible to socio-political changes that transpire through the ages.

Gazi Pir and his tiger in the Sundarbans, Bengal, India, circa 1800 (Gazi Pir was a Bengali Muslim pir who lived in the 12th or 13th century during the spread of Islam in Bengal).Image courtesy: Wikipedia

If you trace the history of Bengal, you'll see that in the 13th century, Islam rose to prominence, followed by the surge of Sufism in the 16th and 17th centuries, mostly in rural Bengal. The Sufi saints called 'pirs' and 'piranis' acquired a cult status among the believers who propagated 'popular Islam', more liberalized and unorthodox. This period also was conducive to many alternative literatures, that deviated from the sacrosanctity of the holy manuscripts. During this time, there occured a fusion between traditional Hindu literary genres such as the 'panchali' or the 'mangalkabya' and the Perso-Arabic 'kissa' which created a new form of literature called Pir Sahitya.

'Johuranama' is one such example of Pir Sahitya, written in 'Musalmani Bangla', which narrativizes the exploits of Bonbibi in 'Bhati'r Desh' (the land of tides; Sundarbans). It can be affiliated to the Punthi literature that thrived in lower deltaic Bengal in between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Bonbibi'r Palagaan – a eulogy to the deity

The folklore of Bonbibi depicted by artist Soleman Image courtesy: @jatraworld

A land of rich indigenous culture and enduring folklore, the Sundarbans is also known for dabbling in performance-rituals over the years such as Bonbibi'r Palagaan. Based loosely on the narrative of 'Johuranama' and also dramatizing bits and parts from the local myths, this Palagaan which is a long narrative verse is sung as a supplication for Bonbibi's blessings to safeguard the islanders from the wrath of nature's forces. Like all oral narratives, this performative text too is fluid and open to alteration and improvisation. However some of the stories which form the crux of the performance include the ones which describe the birth of Bonbibi and her brother Shah-Janguli and their conflict with Narayani, the mother of Dokkhin Rai over the possession of the forests. Dokkhin Rai, a Hindu god who rules over the place, has mythical powers and can take the guise of a tiger. It then follows the struggles of Dukhey in 'Dukhey Jatra' (the travails of Dukhey), who is a village boy that falls prey to the hands of Dokkhin Rai and is eventually saved by Bonbibi. The villagers identify themselves with Dukhey and worship nature embodied by Bonbibi out of a sense of absolute faith and fear. In more recent times, Bonbibi'r Palagaan has also been contemporized by imbibing the influences of Bengali Jatra, to act as a source of entertainment for the locals.

Tragedies in the land of gods and goddesses

Sushavan Nandy, from the series 'Ebbing Away of Identities with the Tides' Image courtesy:

However, despite several efforts to mitigate the hazards of nature, it seems that life in the Sundarbans is after all nothing short of a risk.

With the sea levels rising and the land becoming unfit for farming due to increased salinity, the people here are left with little to fend for themselves. Time and again we have seen that the beautiful landscape has suffered the worst at the hands of devastating storms and cyclones that rage up from the Bay. This time too, the Sundarbans has been literally ravaged by cyclone Amphan that took away lives and livelihoods alike to the point of no return. We have witnessed the images of death and destruction that have circulated online and we wonder how much empathy is enough to address the plight of these marginalized, under-represented people? It's always the Sundarbans which bears the brunt of the catastrophes, protecting the mainland and the plains in the rest of Bengal and Bangladesh from the deadliest impact. It's been weeks since cyclone Amphan wreaked havoc on West Bengal, Orissa and Bangladesh and left the Sundarbans to succumb to its damages so much so that it is still unable to get back on its feet. It is our responsibility to therefore extend help to the islanders and their sacred land in recuperating them, healing their wounds in whatever ways possible.

Sushavan Nandy, 'Ebbing Away of Identities with the Tides' Image courtesy: Artist

Art Fervour as a conscious platform for the visual arts wants to bring the cultural, historical and geographical significance and the gradual collapse that the Sundarbans is facing and fighting to the public eye. To raise awareness about the terrifying effects of the cyclone, artists and illustrators all over Instagram have also started making art to represent the distressing reality of the Sundarbans after being struck down by Amphan, using the hashtag #sundarbanschallenge.

By illustrator/animator Upamanyu Bhattacharyya Image courtesy: @upamanyubhattacharyya

We are sharing some of the authenticated links to the organizations and collectives that are relentlessly working towards the recovery of this massive wreckage—

Please feel free to contribute and support as much as you can. And if you know of any such initiatives being taken other than the ones shared by us, please mention them in the comments below! Lastly, you can also get a glimpse into the life of the inhabitants of the Sundarbans, as documented by Swastik Pal, our featured Fresh AF artist here.

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