Sundarbans deity turns exclusively Hindu; Muslims shun her ‘due to BJP’

While Muslims complain BJP's act of renaming the local deity alienated them, Hindus say Muslims never worshipped her in the first place

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Sundarbans Bonbibi Bondebi

Kolkata: Society in West Bengal now stands polarised between the BJP and Trinamool. But now gods are divided too. Vanbibi (pronounced Bonbibi, a combination of the Sanskrit vana for jungle and Persian bibi for mother), said to be the goddess of the Sundarbans, has fallen prey to this polarisation. Both Hindus and Muslims of the region used to bow to Goddess Bonbibi traditionally, but now this goddess is exclusively Hindu.

At several places in the Sunderbans during the election, BJP leaders began their campaign with the worship of Bonbibi in the name of Bondebi, solemnised by some local priests, and made public statements about the local tradition of which the deity is an integral part, say some local Muslims. “Calling Bonbibi Bondebi defies our joint heritage,” said one of them, adding that not only the Hindus but Muslims also have faith in Bonbibi.

Muslim voters say that they are hurt by this “propaganda” and so they have distanced themselves from the Sunderbans tradition.

Sundarbans
Bonbibi and Dukhe

On this, BJP leader and local panchayat member Paritosh Mandal of the Sundarbans says, “Muslims never worshipped Bonbibi. This tradition has been kept alive by the Hindus and it’s they who have been worshipping the goddess. That’s why we address her as Bondebi instead of Bonbibi. Now the villagers call them by this name.”

Mandal lives in the Gosaba locality of the Joynagar Lok Sabha constituency where voting is going to be held in the last phase on Sunday. Especially honey collectors and woodcutters worship Bonbibi. It is believed that she is the enemy of the king of the jungle.

According to the local belief, Bonbibi was the daughter of Ibrahim, a fakir who came from Mecca. Ibrahim became the king of the Sundarbans. He had no children from his first wife, Phoolbibi. He married Golabibi who gave birth to twins Bonbibi and Shah Junglee.

But Ibrahim had promised his first wife he would abandon the second. When Golabibi was pregnant, he left her in the woods. This is where Bonbibi was born and raised as a Muslim since birth.

However, whether the name of the deity has traditionally been Bonbibi or Bondebi, it’s not the local BJP unit alone that says only Hindus have worshipped her traditionally.

Supad Mandal, who collects honey in Gosaba, says, “We always take the statue of the goddess with us and worship her on the banks of the river before entering the forest. However, Muslims do not worship her.”

In the books and old temples, the deity is mentioned as Bonbibi. According to the local people, the old tradition is now over and the goddess is now wholly Hindu.

But research on the subject yielded a different result. Bondebi is not a name coined by the local BJP. It is as old as the other names of the deity, Bandurga and Byaghradevi. These names are found in the book Beyond National Borders and Religious Boundaries: Muslim and Hindu Veneration of Bonbibi by Sufia Uddin published in 2011. The alternative names figure also in In Mathew N Schmalz and Peter Gottschalk-edited Engaging South Asian Religions: Boundaries, Appropriations, and Resistances. They find mentions in Sukumar Sen’s 1993 Bengali title Islami Bangla Sahitya as well.

Along with Bondebi or Bonbibi is often seen an idol of a boy called Dukhe, about whom there is another folklore not related to the current political dispute.