With the political unrest in India brewing along communal lines, it is pertinent that we recall the historical relevance of solidarity that the country has enjoyed since aeons. One such place which has always experienced communal harmony in Bengal is the Sundarbans, where Hindus and Muslims have lived together in harmony and have also worshipped the same gods. What we are looking at is the tradition of syncretism (amalgamation of different cultures, religions or schools of thought) which is a predominant phenomenon in many regions of India with its pool of people from various religions and castes.
However, such syncretism does not develop out of thin air, but is based on similar needs and fears of the community living there. After Bengal was partitioned in 1947 on communal lines, the Hindu-majority (western) part of the state merged with the dominion of India, while the Muslim-majority (eastern) part of Bengal merged with the dominion of Pakistan. However, the Partition was politically motivated, and never quite made sense to the common people of the state.
Hindu backward classes and tribal communities have lived in the Sundarbans even before 1770. The Muslim population in Bengal started increasing from the 16th century onwards, owing to the numerous conversions to Islam during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Pir Gazis (Muslim saints) who helped the exploited and downtrodden people of the region revolt against the elite Savarna Hindus, played a central role in these conversions. There were many poor Hindus as well who would turn to the Pir Gazis for help. This was one of the reasons which created Hindu-Muslim unity in the region. Other than this, the difficult terrain of the Sundarbans and the need to be protected from tigers drove the two communities to reach a level of conciliation. They began placing their faith in a common goddess, the Bonbibi, who is an embodiment of the folk religion of the Sundarbans, and does not belong to either the Hindu or the Muslim faith. Rather, she symbolises the long history of Hindu-Muslim harmony in the region.
In order to understand Bonbibi’s mysterious power of protecting the people from the onslaught of the famous Bengal tiger, we need to learn about her origin first. According to folklore, Bonbibi is the daughter of a sufi fakir, and the greatest adversary to Dokkhin Rai, which literally means “southern lord”. Rai is a zamindar who takes the form of a tiger to prey on the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. Allah chose 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. The Bonbibi puja performed wearing masks along with the riotous beating of drums is a sight to behold.
The intrusion of modernity has however undermined the importance of Bonbibi who is a symbol of syncretism, having roots in the folk culture of both Hindus and Muslims of the region. The wave of Conservatism and communal politics in present-day India has also invaded the culture of the Sundarbans which has led the people of the region to embrace a whiff of religious fundamentalism in recent times.
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