Nature, Ban Bibi, American cetologist in Sunderbans

Zeenat Khan | Published: 00:00, Feb 19,2020


The Ban Bibi deity. — Counercurrents

TO FIND answers about how to define the idea of nature, Anthropologist Philippe Descola went to the depths of the Amazon to find the Achuars, an indigenous tribe of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian descent. He was interested in finding why they lived remote from others, isolated in their respective groups. In the process, he found out how human and the natural world immersed together. He came away seeing in what manner the Achuars balanced the ecosystem. He wanted to discover whether nature exists or not. He refuted the established theory that is different from his, ‘nature is everywhere, we are part of nature but we forget it.’ In contrast, his hypothesis is that nature is the invention of the European mind. 

From the ancient times, another innate question has been what is the interconnection between nature and mythology? Finding an exact theory about connection has been an essential part in finding answers to the unknown. The place of nature in mythology is very important; as nature has always been looked with aversion as the mysteries that may never be solved. I came across one of Sunderbans’ mythical entity, Ban Bibi (the lady of the forest), while reading Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide. In the Sunderbans, mystical elements are mixed in and entwined with the lives of people who depend on the mangrove forest for their livelihood and survival. On both sides of the Sunderbans, which crosses India and Bangladesh, islanders seriously believe in Ban Bibi. She is perceived as a mother to humans and tigers. Whether Ban Bibi is real or just a myth, her spirits govern the nature — all the people who enter the jungle believe that they are at her mercy.

Thousands of years ago, when people moved away from the power of the elements such as earth, fire, water, and the wind, they started to create spiritual entities with human forms like Ban Bibi. They put their trust in such deities, who they believed are in control of the natural elements of the universe. Similarly, Poseidon, a god from the Greek mythology was in control of the sea and rivers, creator of storms and flood. His brother Hades ruled the land of the dead, known as the underworld. The inhabitants of the tide country believe that Ban Bibi tames the nature to protect humans from the fury of the wild animals that roam in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans. Nature versus myth can give rise to ennobling thoughts. People claim those to be valid when assessing one against the other. Historically, Ban Bibi has the status of a Muslim deity, who is worshipped by the islanders — the Muslims, Hindus and the Christians. The landscapes of the Bengal coast of the Sunderbans have been treated with respect, reverence and fear because of its mythical elements.

A 19th century booklet called Ban Bibi Johuranama, written in Bengali, tells the story of Ban Bibi, a daughter of a Sufi fakir. ‘Banbibi is the great adversary of Dakshin Rai, a southern lord. Rai is a zamindar who takes the form of a tiger to prey on the inhabitants of the Sunderbans. Allah chooses Ban Bibi to end Dakshin 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 Sunderbans, since animal attacks are a cause of human fatalities, its inhabitants have worshipped Ban Bibi as protection from the jungle’s many dangers. This practice is a centuries-old ritual. The legend has it down as follows; a very greedy villain gives his young nephew to the demon in exchange for all the honey in the forest. When a tiger approaches to devour the boy, Ban Bibi swoops in time and saves the child from getting eaten. That story remained, and the islanders to this day pray to Ban Bibi to protect them before entering the jungle to cut wood or to collect wild honey.  

In Bengal, both Hindus and the Muslims have a tradition of living in communal harmony. The rough terrains of the Sunderbans unify people of various religions and beliefs. The syncretic culture is based on Ban Bibi myth and worshipped across religions. In debating modernity versus syncretism, the entity of Ban Bibi appears to be a myth to many. But at the backdrop of today’s political climate in India, believing in such a myth can bring different communities with different religious beliefs closer. One can think of Ban Bibi as a cross communal character, who is protective of both Hindus and Muslims.

According to Indian tradition, a village or a town is considered uninhabitable if there is no temple for worship. In Bakkhali, a small tourist resort at the edge of the Indian Sunderbans, there is a Ban Bibi temple, and the tourists stop to worship before taking boat rides around the Sunderbans. The temple is a bustle of noise and activity visited by people of different religions. There is also a sweet shop which is called Ban Bibi Mishti Ghar. The Muslim Bengalis on the Bangladesh side, however, see the worship of Ban Bibi against the dictates of Islam as idol worship is forbidden in the scripture. The Indian tourists are enamoured by Ban Bibi. Those who take trips to the Sunderbans area, either for a day trip, or to stay at the village theme resort, pray to Ban Bibi for their safety before starting their journey. The mud-built cottages depict the traditional village atmosphere where worship is a major part.

It is believed Ban Bibi blesses all her devotees, irrespective of religion. In Ramrudrapur, an upland area of the Sunderbans where the forest has receded, there is a yearly Ban Bibi festival day. Hindu and Muslim women fast throughout the day. They offer traditional sweets to her idol; some pray earnestly to conceive a child, ask for well-being of their family, for better harvest, and bring their newborns for the deity’s blessings. A cultural programme follows where people sing Bengali folk songs about mythological characters ruling the jungles. However, in the low-land areas of the Sunderbans, the islanders revere Ban Bibi with simplicity and passion. They fear death every time they enter into the jungle and call on her when they are afraid. There, Ban Bibi’s role is to protect the islanders that consist of fishermen, wood-cutters and honey-gatherers from the dangerous animals.

In the novel, The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh uses Ban Bibi’s legend as a metaphor ‘to create and define a relationship between human beings and the natural world. Nowhere does a term equivalent to Nature figure in the legend of Ban Bibi, yet nowhere is its consciousness absent.’ In the story, a headstrong American Indian cetologist (a biologist who studies whales and dolphins) named Piyali Roy, a PhD researcher, with a small grant from the university, goes to the Indian part of the Sunderbans. She plans to be there for two weeks to conduct a survey on the behaviour of a rare species of river dolphin called Orcaella.

Piya was born to Bengali parents from Calcutta; she grew up in Seattle, and does not speak the language. That did not prevent her from pursuing her dream. Upon arriving in Calcutta, she boards a train bound for the Sunderbans. She carries with her a backpack which contains data sheets, camera, binoculars, drinking water and energy bars. She enlists the help of a middle-aged translator named Kanai, director of a translation bureau in Delhi. She hires a local crab fisherman named Fakir as her boatman. Kanai knows the Sunderbans intimately, as he was sent there when he was ten, to live with his aunt and uncle. Near a place called Garjontola, they all sit in Fakir’s fishing boat, as they wait for the sightings of the Irrawaddy dolphins. Piya also discovers that through body language and facial expressions she can understand what Fakir is saying to her. Later it becomes an indicator (body language) that she is attracted to Fakir. Kanai and Fakir stand in stark contrast when they communicate with her. Believing in her conservation efforts, Piya takes a long and arduous journey with two unknown men. Throughout this journey, Amitav Ghosh reflects on the myth of Ban Bibi, and the islanders’ religious and cultural values. Piya also notices the ‘merging of the cultural rites’ when Fakir prays to both Ban Bibi and a Muslim pir.

During high tide, the dolphins come in hundreds. Sometimes only a mother/calf pair shows up. Piya watches in amazement how a newborn catches a fish, only to toss it in the air, a typical behaviour of these mammals playing with the prey. Piya soon realises in order to come to a correct hypothesis — ‘that the dolphins had adapted their behaviour to suit the ebb and flow of the water’ by observing the dolphins’ movements; she will need to stay there a whole cycle of tides to collect supportive data. That will require years of field research.

In between waiting for the dolphins, Piya and Kanai have a lot of philosophical discussions about the ‘connections and interrelations’ of different aquatic mammals. During their nature versus nurture debates, many unrequited queries tinkle in Piya’s inquisitive head. Kanai tells Piya, once in these islands in the Bay of Bengal, people lived in fear of getting eaten alive by the tigers. Every week, poor people who went into the forests in search of food and firewood, used to be killed by tigers. It happened so frequently that such killings went unreported because these people were too poor ‘to matter.’

Piya and Kanai have an emotional discussion about keeping the earth free of animals, where there will be total dominance by the humans, while Fakir and his young son Tutul make chapati to be eaten with honey. Father and son are totally oblivious of Piya and Kanai’s critical thinking and reasoning. Piya struggles with Kanai’s logic, and reasons that other species matter as much. They also chat about how tigers in America exist in captivity, not in the wild. Piya, as a cetologist, is in favor of preserving endangered species in captivity, in zoos and animal reserves as her profession calls for it. She passionately argues that it is lesser of two evils where there is a possibility of total extinction.

Throughout her extraordinary journey, Piyali Roy realises that to save the dolphins, one has to save the Sunderbans’ habitat first. This remarkable ecosystem is the only place where river dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins are found together. She figures that conservation efforts do not have to happen at the cost of poor people in the islands. She recognises that her dissertation data will help the locals immensely in preserving the dolphins, and increasing awareness among the communities for protecting these beautiful mammals. Afterwards, she decides to share her research findings with the Babadon Trust that helps towards community development. It becomes obvious that the joint collaboration in implementing the plan can be a scenario where everyone in the tide country wins.


Zeenat Khan writes for Countercurrents.Org and New Age. She lives in Maryland, USA.

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