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The Sundarbans Forest Tiger Part Three: Negotiation

Dr. Orton’s three-part miniseries explores the Sundarbans forest tiger and the people who live in its shadow. In part one, Dr, Orton talked about the Royal Bengal tiger of the Sundarbans and its reputation for being a fierce man-eater. In part two, Dr. Orton described local people’s perspectives on why protecting the tiger is so important. This week, Dr. Orton investigates how Sundarbans villagers use spiritual means to negotiate with the tiger.

Bangladesh’s forest boundary communities encompass a diverse range of religious groups including Muslims, Hindus and the indigenous Munda. Each group has a connection with Bonbibi, the deity who protects against tiger attacks (read more about Bonbibi in my next post).

For those who must enter the forest for work, there are other practical steps that can be taken to ensure protection. These include mantras, faith and even the cultivation of certain personality traits.

On Mantras

In the Hindu sector of Kalabogi, I met with several gunins, ritual specialists who offer jungle protection in the form of mantras. Often, these conversations were very playful and fun, with other villagers shouting out suggestions for different mantras.

Other interactions were very intense, with absolute silence being needed while the gunin utilised his great stamina for long periods of tireless chanting. Always, the conversations were enlightening, revealing perspectives about tigers and the forest that I hadn’t heard from any other group.

Subodh Mondol (65) is a carpenter, forest worker and agricultural worker from Kalabogi Hindu Sector. He is also a gunin.

Subodh described his role thus: “Suppose a man is caught by a tiger, then the general public without gunin is less likely to move forward. Then they call bawali (a class of people engaged in extracting wood who are also gunin).”

A gunin’s work proceeds through mantras: “First, I have to go to the forest and wash my face and recite the mantra in a holy way,” said Subodh. “Then I recite the mantra that our guru mashai (master) has taught us. Sometimes we have to chase the tiger through mantras.”

The mantra process is as follows: “I will give you this soil. A separate piece of cloth is required for this…Whenever you go to the forest, no matter how many weapons you have with you, you must take it with you.” Subodh never asks for money from anyone; if someone gives him money, he gives it to the puja (worship) of the goddess Bonbibi.

Another Kalabogi villager, Sumoti Joddar, told me that her husband Sunil, who has been a jungle fish and crab catcher for 25 to 30 years, uses this method: “To protect them from tigers, they carry the mantraput handkerchief with them,” she says.

Sunil is more nonchalant. “I'm not afraid at all,” he told me. “With it or without it does not matter.” Sumoti is philosophical. “He has earned his livelihood by working in this forest all his life,” she explained. “He is not afraid of anything anymore.”

In a group chat with members of the Munda community in the government housing project of Burigoalinee, Nilkanto Munda described how mantras are used in exchange for safety: “…there is a mantra which can save us from the tiger. After washing your hands and feet and keeping clean, if you can recall the mantra which is used in the mud, it’ll be a safeguard. Suppose you have nothing like weapon, then from the river you can clean yourself and use the mud where the mantra is chanted. The tiger won’t come near you.”

At the same time, many people feel that there is no certainty in the work of the gunin, and much depends on faith. “It is that we worship in blind faith,” Subodh said. “The reason is how much Bonbibi can protect us. Only God knows that. And we don’t know anything. But for this purpose we worship Bonbibi. And, chanting Bonbibi's name, we walk in the forest… Even this security cannot be given exactly 100%.”

A Negotiation Among Many Faiths

In the Sundarbans, the worship of different deities is malleable and there are blurred boundaries between different religions. Although Bonbibi has Muslim roots, worship of her is mostly undertaken by Hindus and Munda. Muslims might look to pirs (holy men), who also use handkerchiefs to negotiate with the tiger.

As Hakim Sheikh, a nypa palm trader from Kalabogi tells me, “Now everyone believes in different things. For example, our Muslims take some amulets from the Hindus, such as chanted soil, and Hindus also use the handkerchiefs of many Muslim masters. I myself have seen that chanted handkerchief once held up and shown to a tiger, the tiger runs away and is never to be found again. We do not have the power to understand that Allah has given such power inside that handkerchief. Everyone’s beliefs are different.”

In Kalabogi’s Hindu sector, Subodh acknowledges the blurred boundaries between Hinduism and Islam when it comes to Bonbibi worship and tiger mantras, saying, “We are all human beings living in the world as different castes. Everyone practises their own religion. This mantra contains the most verses of the Quran. The mantra that I have is more like the mantra of an infidel. Ali is also named here and so is Kali. This is called the infidel mantra.”

Other Hindus agree. A Hindu women I spoke to at the Monosha (snake goddess) shrine in Burigoalinee agreed with others in her group that Bonbibi is Muslim and told me, “When there is puja in the name of Bonbibi, time we bow down saying Allah Allah.”

Many Muslims prefer to look to Allah for protection, although some acknowledged that they keep Bonbibi in mind when entering the forest. However, I found faith to be important to people I spoke to from all religions when negotiating the threat from tigers.

Murol Huda, a Muslim crab fisherman and honey collector from Golkhali, agreed that there is an aspect of inevitability in meetings with tigers “…when the tiger is looking for prey, they come from behind, so it’s a confirmed death…Basically, for whoever works in the forest, Allah is our sustainer and saviour…we have belief in Allah and our safety is in Allah’s hands.”

State of Mind

In Kalabogi’s Hindu Sector, Provash Chakrabarty (72) added that he has seen a change in the temperament of tigers themselves: “The wild animals are not wild anymore. They are not ferocious like they used to be. But they were much more rebellious before.”

Subodh, however, maintains that the tiger has retained its fearsome nature. “Oh my God,” he told me. “The tiger is definitely ferocious… That is why it is seen that they attack people suddenly whether they want to eat or not…When a tiger catches a human, the tiger does not think that its kids will starve to death. Tigers do not catch people with this thought. This is the point…There is no persuasion with tigers.”

Subodh shares others’ sense of inevitability about the tiger and the possibility of death at its hands. “…out of 100 people,” Subodh said. “When a tiger targets one person, it will catch that person.” He refers to a Bengali proverb about “the sightings of tigers and crocodiles and the writing of snakes”, meaning that if God writes in your fortune that a snake will bite you then it will definitely happen; if God writes meeting a tiger in your fortune, then it will definitely happen.

However, humans are not helpless and can mitigate the risks through weapons, confidence and this mantras. Subodh sums this up: “The only way to survive is weapons, confidence and this mantra of ours. There is no other way to stop the tiger except this. This is the truth.”

Profulla Chackroboti, an older gunin from Kalabogi Hindu Sector in his 80s, describes how one’s mental state can offer protection: “Put that thing on your head one by one and recall the god’s name and you might leave this place…The tigers were roaming beside me. But they didn’t dare touch me. This is the belief. There is nothing above belief. You’ll leave this place with your belief in the god in mind.”

All the gunins I spoke to stressed the importance of one’s state of mind when entering the forest. Dangerous though the tiger may be, we are in control to some extent as long as we understand the spiritual demands of the forest.

“Another thing is sense,” Profulla says. “Whatever you do, if you have the perfect sense for it, you can overcome that situation. You must not have pride for anything in your mind. You should be always jolly and mindful. The forest is just like that. The forest has its own religion.”

Dr. Orton’s next blog post will be the first of a of three-part miniseries on the protective goddesses of the Sundarbans. Come back soon to read more about Bonbibi, the deity who protects against tiger attacks!

Find Out More:

To learn more about Dr. Orton’s research into people’s relationships with animals, visit Our Research Page to listen to her lectures on anthropology and wildlife, or read her blog post on Himalayan narratives to find out why we should prioritise the voices of local people in anthropological research. Learn more about how humans and animals work together in Bangladesh in Dr. Orton’s blog post about fishing with trained otters and learn more about the Sundarbans in her Bangladesh blog series!

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Follow our Orton Academy Instagram for our Bangladesh highlight reel to see pictures from Dr. Orton’s fieldwork in the Sundarbans – we would love to connect with you!

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