Meet Bonbibi: The Indian Forest Goddess Worshipped Across Religions

May 19, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 10:11 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In this time of religious divisions, here's something unusual - a diety who is revered by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike. In a remote corner of eastern India, just after night fell, I walked down a dirt path to meet a forest goddess named Bonbibi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: There are five musicians with traditional instruments and performers huddle behind a sheet that is hanging from a clothesline.

We're in a village in the mangrove forests called the Sundarbans. This is a dangerous and beautiful island landscape, full of tigers and fishermen, where people live in connection with the jungles and rivers all around them. Before anyone here goes into the forest to gather honey or collect firewood, they ask the goddess Bonbibi for protection. These villagers have created a makeshift stage in a clearing to tell her story. They're illuminated by a single light that throws long, wild shadows.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language.)

SHAPIRO: The performers come out from behind the sheet wearing face paint and glittery costumes. One man wears a tiger mask. He is the demon Dhokkin Rai. A woman wears gold bangles and a streak of vermillion red in her hair. She is the forest goddess Bonbibi.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language.)

SHAPIRO: In the story, a villian gives his young nephew to the demon in exchange for all the honey in the forest. Just as the tiger is about to devour the boy, Bonbibi arrives and saves the child.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMITAV GHOSH: She's such a perfect metaphor for the Sundarbans in so many ways.

SHAPIRO: The author Amitav Ghosh set his novel "The Hungry Tide" here in the Sundarbans.

GHOSH: Sundarbans - apart from being a forest, they're also this great meeting place, you know, where Hinduism and Islam and other religions sort of blend and merge with each other, creating these strange sorts of formations.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

SHAPIRO: In the landscape here, three major rivers blend into the Bay of Bengal. Tides smudge the boundaries between land and water, and Bonbibi represents a similar convergence.

GHOSH: She is the goddess of the forest, yet she is said to be a Muslim woman who returns to the forest from Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: According to the mythology, this young Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia was brought thousands of miles to east India, where she was abandoned in the jungle and ultimately became a goddess.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Foreign language spoken.)

SHAPIRO: Hours by boat from any village, far in the jungle, we've arrived at a forest camp. At the entrance, just behind a high fence to keep out tigers, there is a brightly colored shrine. Inside the small enclosure, a statue of Bonbibi wears silks and garlands with a gold headdress. She shelters a boy from a tiger. Every day, forest guard Babotaron Paik makes an offering to this goddess before he goes on patrol.

BABOTARON PAIK: (Foreign language spoken.)

SHAPIRO: "First I will wash the offering plates," he says. "Then I'll place the sweets at her "feet." He lights incense and lies facedown before the shrine. Then another forest guard pounds a gong with a wooden mallet while Paik blows a conch shell.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN AND BELL RINGING)

SHAPIRO: When he is finished the ritual - the puja - Paik explains that protection from this goddess comes with conditions.

PAIK: (Foreign language spoken.)

SHAPIRO: He says, "we will not take more than we need from the jungle. That is our vow to the goddess."

MEGNAA MEHTTA: There are all kinds of stories like this, where Bonbibi represents this difference between need and greed.

SHAPIRO: Megnaa Mehtta is an anthropology Ph.D. student doing her field research here in the Sundarbans.

MEHTTA: For example, when people will go into the forest and they've gotten all the barrels of honey - they're all full - but they'll be greedy and want to kind of hang out and get some more honey, someone will have a dream. And, you know, Bonbibi will come to them and sort of say that, you know, all your barrels are full. Go back home. And the next day, actually, it'll happen that they won't find any honey.

SHAPIRO: Bonbibi reminds the people here to live lightly on the land, but the landscape is changing despite the villagers small footprint. Tomorrow, we'll visit an island here in the Sundarbans where rising tides are swallowing people's homes, a result of climate change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.