Bonbibi Tales from the Bangladesh Sundarbans

Getting to know the Lady of the Forest

Many may know of Bonbibi, the "Lady of the Forest," believed to be an embodiment of the protective spirit, watching over the forest and its inhabitants, and she symbolizes harmony between humans and nature.

But do you know her story?

The Story of Bonbibi

Bonbibi is believed to be the daughter of a Muslim faqir (holy man) named Ibrahim Gazi, and a Hindu woman, Gulal Bibi. She was born in a village near the Sundarbans. From a young age, Bonbibi displayed a deep connection with nature and a keen understanding of the Sundarbans.

As the story goes, the Sundarbans were plagued by man-eating tigers that would attack the villagers and pose a threat to those who ventured into the forest. The people sought a solution to protect themselves and maintain a balance with the natural environment.

Bengal Tiger Swimming
Bengal Tiger Swimming. Source: Shutterstock.

In a dream, Bonbibi received a message from the gods, instructing her to travel deep into the Sundarbans to confront the dangerous tiger, Dokkhin Rai (other transliterations include: Dakhin Rai or Dakkhin Ray). Accompanied by her brother Shah Jangali and a group of loyal followers, Bonbibi embarked on her journey.

During her expedition, Bonbibi encountered various challenges such as treacherous swamps, dense jungles, and wild animals. She displayed remarkable bravery and resourcefulness, overcoming these obstacles with her wits and determination.

Eventually, Bonbibi reached Dokkhin Rai's lair, where a fierce battle ensued between the two. Bonbibi fought valiantly, wielding her sword, and eventually managed to subdue the tiger. She spared his life and made a pact with him, declaring that he would no longer attack humans.

From that moment on, Bonbibi became known as the protector of the Sundarbans and its inhabitants. She was revered as the "Lady of the Forest" and worshipped by the local communities. People sought her blessings before entering the forest, believing that she would shield them from harm and ensure their safe return.

Variations of the Bonbibi Oral Traditions

There are variations and storylines passed through different generations. Another version states that God sent Bonbibi and her brother Shah Jangali to earth on a divine mission. They took the form of children abandoned in the Sundarbans forest where they were raised by a doe. 

Bonbibi’s mission was to protect people in the forest from the evil demon king Dokkhin Rai who took the form of a tiger and ate people who entered the forest to collect honey or wood. Because people were so fearful of him, they erected small shrines under a tree near their homes and prayed to Bonbibi for her protection when they entered the forest. 

Dokkhin Rai found out what they were doing and he flew into a rage. He decided to kill her. As he readied for battle, his mother Naranyani Devi calmed him and said only a woman could fight a woman. So, she took her army of ghosts and goblins and attacked Bonbibi. 

Bonbibi defeated Narayani, who fell at her feet asking for protection and forgiveness for herself and her son. Rai did the same. Bonbibi embraced Narayani Devi and called her soi (a term used to signify close friendship between women in Bengal). From that day on the two became close allies and Bonbibi said that the people would worship both of them. 

Bonbibi and Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Sundarbans

Bonbibi shrine near the Sundarbans
Bonbibi Shrine near the Sundarbans. Source: A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF (Wikimedia Commons)

The legend of Bonbibi represents a powerful form of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in the Bangladesh Sundarbans. This oral tradition, passed down through generations, embodies the deep-rooted connection between the local communities and their natural environment. The story's central message of coexistence and respect for nature resonates strongly with the region's delicate ecosystem, serving as a cultural anchor that guides the locals' interactions with the Sundarbans and fosters a sense of stewardship over this unique mangrove forest.

ICH encompasses practices, expressions, knowledge, skills, associated objects, and cultural spaces that communities and individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. It differs from Tangible Cultural Heritage (TCH), which refers to physical assets like artworks, tools, and monuments that represent a culture's material heritage. Both ICH and TCH play crucial roles in defining a population's collective identity.

Bonbibi's Legacy: A Collaborative Approach to Conservation

Beyond mere folklore, Bonbibi's tale has become a living embodiment of the local people's values, beliefs, and traditional ecological knowledge. The rituals, practices, and customs associated with Bonbibi's worship and veneration are intricately woven into the fabric of the community's intangible heritage, reflecting their spiritual and cultural identity. The UNESCO website highlights that ICH's existence is based on a constant recreation of the practice, making its preservation more complex and fragile than the material conservation typically applied to TCH. Therefore, strong horizontal collaborations between locals and management stakeholders are necessary to ensure the correct preservation without impacting the population's identity.

By preserving and promoting the story of Bonbibi, the local communities are not only safeguarding an important part of their oral traditions but also ensuring the continuity of their cultural practices and the transmission of invaluable environmental wisdom to future generations. This intangible cultural heritage acts as a powerful catalyst for sustainable resource management and conservation efforts in the Sundarbans, underscoring the inextricable link between cultural preservation and environmental protection.

Real Life Application of Bonbibi Lessons in Conservation of the Sundarbans

The story of Bonbibi highlights the importance of coexistence between humans and nature, promoting respect for the environment and its wildlife. It serves as a reminder of the delicate balance that needs to be maintained in order to live in harmony with the natural world.

Because of its powerful values, this story became the image of many activities aimed at increasing awareness towards the conservation and preservation of the Sundarban's fragile ecosystem. An example is the 7-minute animated short film titled "ABOSHESH (Remains) - A Shadow in the Forest" produced by Ghost Animation and Wildlife Trust of India, which used the legend if Bonbibi and Dokkhin Rai for educational purposes.


Mawalis, Bawalis, Artisans & EcoGuides All Practicing Bonbibi Lessons in their Work

Screenshot from Citizens for Justice and Peace 'How Sunderban's Honey Collectors fight all odds to earn their living'
Sundarbans Honey Products. Source: CJP

Mawali (mouyali) are honey collectors who work in the Sundarbans and gather 85% of Bangladesh’s natural wild honey each year from March 15 to June 30, with the help of traditional knowledge and beliefs. Generally this traditional knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, a deep understanding of the forest environment, as well as observation and belief in Bonbibi. After the wild honey collection, Mawallis squeeze the honeycomb by hand and separate unrefined wild honey from yellow wax. Then put it in a plastic container for fifteen days. After they return home, this wild honey is kept in a mud pitcher, which helps preserve the honey for a long time. They don’t mix anything with the honey, as the collectors believe honey is the gift of the Forest God and Goddess.

Harvesters heating up the juice extracted from golpata plants to make molasses in Nilganj village of Kolapara upazila in Barishal.
Making molasses from Nipa Palm juices.
Source: Al Mamun, The Business Post

Bawalis are nipa palm (Nypa fruticans Wurmb., Arecaceae) collectors who harvest the leaves and rhizomes for a variety of practical uses, including housing materials, crafts (hats, baskets, umbrellas, mats), medicines, and much more. The sap it produces can be turned into sugar, vinegar and alcohol. This scientific article in the American Journal of Agriculture and Forestry states that, “total nipa palm production out of the reserve forest of Bangladesh was 320,016 mounds in 2011-2012 [and] about 80% of houses in the area are made of this plant. Nipa leaf collection provides employment to over 19,000 people in the periphery communities (Forestry Master Plan of Bangladesh, 1992). Like the honey collectors, these bawalis also invoke the protection of Bonbibi before entering the Sundarbans forests to harvest the nipa palms.

Handcrafted Wall Art of a Tiger and its Prey
Handcrafted Wall Art of a Tiger and its Prey. Source: USAID EcoTourism Activity

There is a rich heritage of Artisans in the Sundarbans, particularly those that work with natural raw materials. The opportunity for women to create handicrafts for souvenirs (tangible cultural heritage) to earn extra income without having to be away from home and children is embraced in this region. Greater Sundarbans EcoTourism Society (GSETS) is working to establish an Artisan Cooperative to help organize and support these women through market linkages and capacity building. Their products feature conservation themes with images of rare and threatened species found only in the Sundarbans, and cultural motifs which include depictions of Bonbibi, as well as traditional life, such as fishing and farming.

The EcoGuides of the Sundarbans are certified tour guides who offer their services to visitors as ambassadors for the region's unique biodiversity and cultural heritage. They undergo specialized training to provide informative and engaging tours, highlighting conservation efforts and sustainable practices within the ecosystem. A unique experiential tour and guide script following Bonbibi’s Journey and lessons was developed by USAID EcoTourism Activity for GSETS as a part of its EcoGuide training and certification program. As local experts, EcoGuides play a crucial role in enhancing visitor experiences while promoting environmental stewardship and community engagement in ecotourism initiatives.

See and Experience the Story of Bonbibi in the Sundarbans

Anyone in the world can experience the story of Bonbibi through digital articles like this one and special artistic productions online, like the animation already mentioned. Another example is this music video produced by Coke Studio Bangla with 16M+ views in one year! The song called Bonobibi features beautiful singing, traditional instruments alongside a modern band, and a dancer performing as The Lady of the Forest. 

However, visitors to the Greater Sundarbans region can immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage by witnessing vibrant celebrations, theatrical performances and rituals surrounding the legend of Bonbibi. From participating in a tour led by an EcoGuide, to attending the annual Bonbibi Puja ceremonies, to exploring the shrines in each local village, visitors can gain a deeper appreciation for this intangible cultural treasure in all its tangible forms.

Attending the Bonbibi Puja Ceremonies

Every year on January 15, Bonbibi puja (offerings and prayers) and a series of melas (fairs) are held in coastal parts of Bangladesh. The dedication to Bonbibi is a ceremony that is widely observed in the Sundarbans' outlying settlements. Both Muslims and Sanatyan adherents carry out this rite, regardless of their respective religions. 

Thousands of people gather at parks and fair grounds next to the Sundarbans during these melas. Vendors at these events sell a variety of handicrafts, toys, jewelry, purses, traditional delicacies, and more.  Several cultural activities are organized locally, including storytelling, jatra (theater productions), and poter gaan (a unique kind of local song). 

Bonbibi Jatra - a theatrical presentation of the story of Bonbibi. Source: USAID EcoTourism Activity
Bonbibi Jatra - theatrical presentations of the story of Bonbibi. Sources: USAID EcoTourism Activity

Since these melas are held in various villages every year, travelers who wish to partake in this mela must decide in advance what route they plan to go. They can accomplish this by consulting local guides, tour companies, or by reviewing the destination management and marketing website for the region:

Bonbibi Shrines and Temples in the Sundarbans Villages

Travelers who would rather explore this communal faith on their own can visit any peripheral village at any time of year. The presence of two, three, or even more temples in these villages usually facilitates impromptu interactions between visitors and the pandit (the religious leader), as well as residents and followers. Most of the temples are community owned, but there are few temples owned by individual families. Usually, Bonbibi deities are made once in a year in the mid-January (depending on lunar calendar) and worshiped each year on a particular day.

Here are two well-maintained temples that guests can visit: 

  1. Purbo Dhangmari Bonbibi Temple, Village: Purbo Dhangmari, Upazila: Dacope, Dist: Khulna - just an hour by boat located in the north of the Karamjal Ecotourism Center.
  2. Bonbibi Temple, Village: Koilashganj (Horintana), Union: 4 no. Koilashganj (Ward no.: 5), Upazila: Dacope, Dist: Khulna.

Planning Your Bonbibi Tour to the Sundarbans

Tiger tracks or 'pugmarks' in the Sundarbans mud
Tiger tracks or pugmarks in the Sundarbans mud.
Source: USAID EcoTourism Activity

Are you ready to go on your own legendary journey into the Sundarbans to track down Dokkhin Rai's pugmarks? Need help in deciding which village mela to visit and when? Or perhaps you want to know how to hire an EcoGuide? 

Then please, contact us by email and we will be happy to assist you in crafting and booking your own unique experience.