Islam’s Bengali avatar

Annu Jalais

Folklore and religion come together in popular traditional practices that are unique to parts of Bengal, often blurring the divisions between Hindus and Muslims, and creating festivals that have an enduring appeal

When walking through Satkhira, a region just north of the Sundarbans, one occasionally comes across a small clearing where a little line of seven earthen mounds is freshly decoratedwith flowers. This inconspicuous little installation is neither a memorial nor a shrine but a sort of ‘sacred grove’ built to honour Bonbibi – a young woman believed to have been sent, by a compassionate Allah, to protect the woodcutters and fishers of the region from the deadly jaws of its man-eating tigers.

The more popular Hindu counterpart of this ‘force’, in true Indic style, is represented as a goddess. She is usually placed in the middle of a small mud- or bamboo-walled straw hut, dressed in a sari, and shown pulling her little honey-collector, known as Dukhe, towards her. Often, her brother Shah Jongoli – who wears a skull-cap, princely Mughal clothes and shoes, and is represented attacking the half-human, half-tiger Dokkhin Rai – is placed at one side, while at the other, the forest Gazi, with his right palm opened in peace, sits serenely, bringing closure to this little triptych.

The Hindus of the region have no qualms Hinduising Bonbibi in this way but she remains for them, in the local language of the region, a mollar debi, or Muslim goddess. She is commemorated or worshipped each January/ February, by people who today call themselves either Hindu or Muslim, with a reading of the booklet written in Bonbibi’s honour about a century and a half ago by Abdur Rahim. The booklet tells the story of a Brahmin sage curiously taking the form of a tiger and feeding on those who eke out a living from the mangrove island forests of the Sundarbans. As the number of humans being killed increases, Allah asks young Bonbibi (who incidentally was raised in the forest by a deer) to ensure a sort of truce between the demon and the islanders of the region. Before undertaking this task, Bonbibi goes to Medina to get Fatima’s blessings and to Mecca to obtain some holy earth to bring back with her.

This is just one kind of Islamic inheritance in the Bengal Delta; others include the songs and poems of the Bengali mystic Lalon Fakir and the tradition of Baul (wandering minstrel) singing.

When I travelled through Bangladesh between 2007 and 2009, I wondered how much of the localised tradition of Islam remained as part of contemporary Bangladesh’s socio-cultural life. Dhaka’s and Chittagong’s middle-class elites see their engagement with the ‘local’ as singing or listening to Baul songs, celebrating the arrival of spring by wearing orange and the Bengali New Year by eating a special breakfast of fish and rice, and commemorating the dates which led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971: 21 February and 16 December. These celebrations, extraordinarily artistic as well as suavely commercial, are secular in nature and definitely geared for an urban elite.

In contrast to these national celebrations, the festivals that mark the more popular calendar are very local ones. In the Sitakunda area of Chittagong District, for example, it is the various Urs (a Persian word denoting a commemoration of the death anniversary of a saint, or pir; the Bengali word is Urush) taking place around gravesite shrines of pirs, that mark, for the inhabitants of the place, the highlights of the year. These shrines are not just visited by rural or small-town Bangladeshis. In fact, most Bengalis, whatever their socio-economic background, or rural-urban divide, have visited a gravesite shrine at least once in their life and many do so on a regular basis.

During Urs, singers come from all over Bangladesh and sometimes India too. The audience sings along to songs requesting the praner bondhu, or ‘lover’, to come and become one with the singer (where the lover is Allah) and then breaks into ecstatic dancing. The intensity of these musical performances, allied with a sense of belonging to the greater community of Muslims, albeit in a distinctly Bengali way, are essential features of what it means to be a Muslim in Bangladesh today.

One of the largest minority communities of Bangladesh, the Biharis, are Urduspeakers who migrated from India both before and after the partition of India in 1947. Comprising mainly the urban underclass, they have their own very particular and colourful way of living Islam. The last three days of the month of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, are commemorated with decorated tazias (replicas of the tomb of the Prophet Muhammed’s descendant Hussein), taken out in processions along the main roads of the areas in which they live. Young boys, dressed as Hussein’s horse (and called paikis), run through the streets visiting the shrines of the area. These practices, however, are now less frequent since being condemned as un-Islamic by voices from within and outside the community.

Unfortunately, in the last decade, the un-Islamic tag has also caused sacred groves and holy shrines to become the targets of ever-increasing violent attacks by the followers of a more authoritarian Islam. The 700-year-old gravesite shrine of Shah Jalal in Sylhet has been the object of two separate bomb attacks, leaving many dead and even more injured. Even the animals linked to these shrines – the crocodiles attached to the Shah Jalal pond and the turtles of the gravesite shrine of Baizid Bostami in Chittagong – which are fondly fed by devotees and visitors, have not been spared; they have been frequently subjected to poisoning.

The very visible acts of violence undertaken by the adepts of militant Islam tend to obscure the deeply rooted, alternative manifestations of Bangladeshi Muslim beliefs and practices. The numerous graveside shrines, the commemorative practices of Moharram by the Biharis, and the few sacred groves such as those of Bonbibi, still remain popular sites for the majority of Bangladeshis because they offer a locally-rooted religion that both inspires and unifies.

About the author:
Annu Jalais is author of Forest Of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans,
and a post-doctoral fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study in Delhi

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