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Culture

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 fruit crop.

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) magic.

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.

Bonbibi:
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.

Dakshin Rai:
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).

 



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