The Legend of Bonbibi


In the Sundarbans, an archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal, legend has it that Bonbibi, ‘the lady of the forest’, was chosen by Allah to protect people who work in the mangrove forests against a greedy man-eating half Brahmin half tiger-demon called Dokkhin Rai, the King of the South.

Bonbibi, Shah Jangoli and Dokkhin Rai

One day, in a fit of greed Dokkhin Rai decides to take the form of a tiger to feed on humans. The sage refuses to share any of the forest resources with humans and legitimises killing them as a form of tax kar, for all the resources of what he considers as his jungle. Soon his arrogance and greed know no bounds and he proclaims himself lord and master of the Sundarbans mangrove and of all the beings that inhabit it: the 370 million spirits, demons, godlings (bhoots, prets, dakinis, deo) and tigers. He becomes a demon (rakkhosh) who preys on humans. Tigers and spirits become the subjects of Dokkhin Rai and, emboldened by him, also start to terrorise and feed on humans. The trust that had existed between tigers and humans was broken.

In compassion for people of the ‘land of the eighteen tides’, another name for the Sundarbans, Allah decides to put a stop to Dokkhin Rai’s reign of terror and insatiable greed. He chooses for this task Bonbibi, a young maiden who lives in the forest.

Bonbibi’s father Ibrahim, following his second wife’s wishes, had previously abandoned his first wife Gulalbibi in the forest when she was pregnant. Gulalbibi, gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl), but decided to keep only the boy, Shah Jongoli, and abandoned her daughter, Bonbibi. A deer takes pity on Bonbibi and becomes her surrogate mother. When she grows up, Bonbibi hears Allah calling her to “free the land of the eighteen tides” from the exploitation of the man-eating Brahmin sage who takes the form of a tiger. At the same time Ibrahim comes to retrieve his first wife and children but Bonbibi calls out to her brother and tells him to accompany her to Medina to receive the blessings of Fatima and to go to Mecca to bring back some earth from there to take to the land of the eighteen tides. As they arrive, they call out Allah’s name and mix the holy earth of Mecca with the earth of the Sundarbans. Dokkhin Rai resents their intrusion and their invocation of Allah and decides to drive them away. Rai’s mother Narayani then insists that it is better for a woman to be fought by another woman and takes on Bonbibi. As she starts to lose the conflict, Narayani calls Bonbibi her friend (soi). Bonbibi, gratified by the appellation, accepts Narayani’s friendship and they stop warring.

Perparing for the Prosad

The retelling Bonbibi’s story is always followed by Dukhe’s tale. Dukhe (literally ’sadness’) was a young boy who lived with his widowed mother grazing other peoples’ animals. One day, his village uncle lures him into joining his team to work in the forest as a honey collector. Dokkhin Rai appears to the uncle, whose name is Dhona (from dhon – ‘wealth’) and promises him seven boats full of honey and wax if he can have Dukhe in return. After some hesitation, the uncle leaves Dukhe on the banks of Kedokhali and sails off. Just as Dukhe is about to be devoured by Dokkhin Rai, he calls out to Bonbibi who rescues him and sends her brother Shah Jongoli to beat up Dokkhin Rai. In fear for his life, Dokkhin Rai runs to his friend, the Ghazi who in the Bonbibi story is Dokkhin Rai’s only friend and ally. Ghazi, who is a pir, suggests Dokkhin Rai ask forgiveness by calling Bonbibi ‘mother’. He then takes him to Bonbibi and pleads on Dokkhin Rai’s behalf. Bonbibi, heeding the Ghazi’s intervention, accepts Dokkhin Rai’s apology and calls him her ’son’.

However, Dokkhin Rai starts arguing that if humans are given a free reign there will be no forest left. So, to be fair and ensure that Dokkhin Rai and his retinue of tigers and spirits stop being a threat to humans, and humans stop being a threat to non-humans (such tigers and other animals), Bonbibi elicits a promise from Dukhe, Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi that they are all to treat each other as ‘brothers’. She does this by forcing Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi to part with some of their wood and gold respectively and sends Dukhe back to the village a rich man so that he does not have to work in the forest again.

Following on Dukhe’s story, the islanders of the Sundarbans, often explain that Bonbibi has left them the injunctions that they are to enter the forest only on the condition that they do so pobitro mone (pure hearted) and khali hate (empty handed). The villagers explain that they have to identify with Dukhe, whose unfailing belief in Bonbibi saved him, and consider the forest as being only for those who are poor and for those who have no intention of taking more than what they need to survive. This is the ‘agreement’ between non-humans and humans that permits them both to depend on the forest and yet respect the others needs. This arrangement, they say, can last only as long as those who have enough leave the forest and its resources to those who are dispossessed.

Onward to the prosad

The legend of Bonbibi is not very old. The Bonbibi Johuranamah, the booklet that narrates her story, was first published at the end of the 1800s by a little known writer by the name of Abdur Rahim. The text, although in Bengali, is written from right left to emulate Arabic script. The story of the Ghazi and Dokkhin Rai is more famous. It is a version of the epic poem Ray-Mangal composed by Krishnaram Das in 1686 and thus predates the Bonbibi legend by over two hundred years. The historian Richard Eaton believes that this story is a “personified memory of the penetration of these same forests by Muslim pioneers” i.e. Sufi holy men (read his excellent The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier 1204–1760 for more info on how Bengal was Islamised - not through the sword but through agriculture). Today Dokkhin Rai and the Ghazi are always represented together, marked in Dokkhin Rai’s case by the symbol of a human head and the Ghazi through his tomb represented by a little earthen mound (these are also always present in the Bonobibi shrines).

For the islanders, the legend of Bonbibi transcends the distinctions of caste, class and religion. This is the reason why those who work in the forest as fishers and crab-collectors stress the fact that they have to consider all jatis, whether Brahmin or Malo, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor or even human or animal as equal. Tigers and humans “share the same food” because, they explain, both depend on the forest. Tigers eat fish and crabs just like the villagers, and like them, tigers are greedy for wood too. This not only make tigers equal to humans but it also ‘ties’ them to humans. The villagers also stress that Dokkhin Rai, the Ghazi and Bonbibi have to be placed together in shrines to show how different jatis must coexist and negotiate when dealing with the forest. Many Sundarbans islanders say that the most important factor for ensuring their safety in the forest, apart from entering the forest ‘empty handed’ and ‘pure hearted’, is that they should entrust their lives to Bonbibi, live up to her injunctions and not dwell on their differences.

waiting for prosad

This is a guest post by Bonbibi

17 Responses to “The Legend of Bonbibi”

  1. Nasser Says:

    Nice article. Somebody nicked my copy of “The rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier”.

  2. Mikey Leung Says:

    Really enjoyed learning about the history of Bonbibi.. Visitors to Sundarbans should know about these legends—a way for them to understand how the people of the Sundarbans relate to the forest.

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