The early settlers of Sundarbans were composed
of migrant low caste Hindu and tribal population beside the
small number of resident aborigines of remote past. The establishment
of settlements comprising various ethnic groups in close proximity
to one another led to the emergence of a new society with
a heterogeneous culture. Their new environment influenced
a number of these people and many changed their religion and
customs. A sizable percentage converted to Islam and the influence
of both Islam and Hinduism is reflected in the culture of
the fishing and forest communities up to the present day and
members of both Hindu and Muslim communities worship Gods,
Goddesses, Gazis and Pirs.
Anthropologists believe that there are traces
of both animistic and totemistic characteristics of primitive
religions in the religion and culture of the Sundarbans societies.
Folk rituals and rites of Bengal are closely related to the
seasons, agriculture, trees, rivers, plants, and animals and
The folk religion of Bengal revolves around,
(1) worship of a village God, (2) cult of ancestors, (3) fertility
cult and phallic cult, (4) totem worship (plants), and (5)
The principal local folk deities are Dakshin
Rai, Kalurai, Badar Sahib, Bakra Gazi, Sonapir, Sawal Pir,
Gazi Saheb and the first goddess, Bonbibi. Woodcutters, honey
gatherers and fishermen worship Dakshin Rai, Narayani Ma,
Bonbibi Gazi Saheb, Kalu Rai, Barkhan Gazi and Sa Janguli.
In addition, the goddess Manasa is worshipped to protect the
people from venomous snakes, and Jagatguru from cobras.
Makal Fhakur and Biswalakshmi are treated
as the god and goddess of fish respectively. Manik Pir is
worshipped for the welfare of cows and Olabibi for protection
against cholera. For protection of the embankments, people
refer to Ganga as the supreme goddess.
The Lady of the Forests - is the presiding female deity of
the Sundarbans cultural zone. She is the guardian deity of
the forests. Both the Hindu and Muslim communities pay their
respects to her before venturing into the forest. Also known
as Basuli, Bibima, Bisalakshmi, Bon Durga or Bon Kali, she
is portrayed by clay modelers either mounted on a tiger or
a hen. She is pretty and graceful ever eager to protect the
people of the Sundarbans. The deity is often dressed like
a Muslim woman with plaited hair and wearing a ghagra-choli
with a brodcade cap on her head. She carries a child in her
arms. In some areas, the deity wears a sari.
The importance of Dakshin Rai is significant from a social,
historical, cultural and anthropological perspective. In different
parts of south 24-Parganas he is depicted in two different
iconographical forms, both made of earth, one depicting him
as a clay model of a human in the likeness of a warrior, dressed
in yellow robes and armed with sword, gun, bow and arrows;
and the other depicting him as a terracotta human head with
large eyes a moustache and a leaf-like, conical head-gear.
Dakshin Rai is the god of the tiger. He is worshipped below
a banyan (Ficus bengalensis), peepul (Ficus religiosa)
or neem tree (Azadirachto indica). Wood cutters, boatmen,
honey collectors and other communities worship this god especially
on Makar Sankranti day. Dakshin Rai legends sometimes depict
him as a warrior seated on a tiger with a bow and arrow in
his hands. He is undoubtedly the main folk deity and his worship
is an important ritual of the cultural and religious history
of the Sundarbans.
Among the folk rites associated with the
worship of Dakshin Rai, Jatal has a special place. This ceremony
is observed in the forest at the dead of night. The worship
is performed by lighting torches, beating of drums and offering
of wine, meat and hallucinatory drugs. Ducks and goats are
sacrificed. In these folk societies various beliefs exist
about the divinity and prowess of Dakshin Rai. Invocation
of Dakshin Rai is also made in case of diseases of cattle.
Dakshin Rai is worshipped mostly as the god who liberates
humans from evil influences and helps cultivation.
Iconographical studies of the chopped head
symbol of Dakshin Rai have established that it signifies the
primitive custom of human sacrifices and head hunting. The
stories of Barkhan Gazi, Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai probably
spread during Muslim domination in southern Bengal. In folk
stories there are references to the strife among the religious
lords and the clashes between the Hindus and the Muslims and
of eventual communal harmony and cultural synthesis (Chaudhuri
and Choudhury, 1994).