My first memories of the Sunderban Delta are of its people. Every year during my childhood – I am talking about 80´s India – I had seen people knocking from door to door asking for alms. They came after nearly every monsoon and spoke in a strange nasal voice. Their speech inevitably included ´´Jhore bhashailo modern ghor´´ (Storms took away our homes) and as a child, I compared it with the tornado taking away Dorothy´s house in the ´Wizard of Oz´. As I grew older, geography became one of my favourite subjects and I took a keen interest in the massive Sunderban Delta that stretches like a claw into the Bay of Bengal. I learned about the tides that ebb and flow there, the unique fauna (mangroves) that keep the land safe from the saline tidal waters, and the devastating cyclones that hit the region every year. That utterance of my childhood days of the delta people made sense to me and I realized how this unique geographical feature protected the Indian subcontinent landmass from cyclonic destructions. Every year, more than one cyclone forms itself on the Bay of Bengal and they nearly always break over the Sunderban Delta.

Sunderban Delta – a land half-submerged

The people of the Sunderban Delta

This massive landscape of interconnected channels and hundreds of islands bear the brunt of the tropical storms and by the time, these pass into the mainland, their destructive powers are weakened. The people of the ´matir desh´ (Sunderban Delta) as it is called locally are used to their fierce poundings. Their homes are blown away, their boats dashed to pieces, and dozens of their men lose their lives each year. Tidal floods bring salt water inland thus making their ponds and lakes undrinkable and most of their sick and injured die en route the long transportation across the water channels to a hospital. To me, it seems as if the people of the Sunderban Delta live in a constant state of fatality. Cyclones are not the only threats they face in their lives. These storm inhabitants are strange, brave beings made of sterner, more resilient stuff than most people. The livelihoods of most of them depend on the forest and the water – the two elements that constitute their habitat – and they are either fishermen, honey collectors, woodcutters, or all rolled into one. For some purpose or other, they go into the forest, and there lies in wait, their greatest enemy – the Bengal tigers.

The people of the Sunderban Delta

The intriguing geography of the region

Sunderban Delta sees the maximum number of tiger attacks in the wild each year and the tiger widows (women whose husbands have been killed by tigers) are a matter of great concern in the region. Located in the lower deltaic region of Bengal, it is formed by the confluence of three major rivers namely the Brahmaputra, Ganga, and Meghna Rivers as they pour into the Bay of Bengal. Stretching over 10,000 km2, the Sunderban Delta is a complex ecosystem of closed and open mangrove forests, agricultural land, mudflats, and barren land. Hundreds of islands dot the Sunderban Delta and these are interspersed by multiple tidal streams and channels. Selected for as many as four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Sunderbans is home to the largest area of mangrove forests. Humans and animals coexist very closely here and the deadly combination of human-wildlife conflict has created a major population of ´tiger widows´. This is a category of unfortunate women whose despair spreads across international borders and they are ostracised in the Sunderbans of both countries.

Sunderban Delta – a strange wild land

The fate of the tiger widows of Sunderban Delta

The Sunderban Delta women whose husbands are killed in tiger attacks are considered to be ill omen. They are prevented from undertaking traditional occupations like fishing, shrimping, or crab collection. Moreover, if their husbands´ fatal attacks resulted due to illegal entry into the forest, they do not receive any financial compensation from the government. This is the reason why most of them end up in brothels in big cities like Calcutta or Dhaka or work as domestic help if they are lucky. The Sunderban Delta islanders are highly superstitious people. They believe that the penitence of and observance of austerity by the wife back home while the husband forages the forest can prevent the ill omen of death by tiger attack. Therefore, if an unfortunate man falls prey to a tiger attack, the woman is blamed for being impious. She is unkindly labeled ‘swami khejo’  (husband eater) and is shunned by her immediate community and family members (including her parents). Strangely, this slur is shouldered only by tiger widows, and not women who become widows because of snake bites or crocodile attacks.

Tiger widows of Sunderbans                                         Photo Credit – The Quint

The forest guardian cult of Hindus and Muslims

One would think that for a land that has a long human history of being dependent on the forest to gather resources for survival, women whose husbands have been killed by tigers would meet with pity.  Unfortunately, it is not so. Sunderban Delta is a strange land with its ways of life, beliefs, and practices. It is a place that is rife with folk cultures and a unique religion that reveres tigers as divine entities. The idea of tiger widows as ill omen can be traced to the Bonbibi’r Johuranma (The Miracles of Bonbibi)—the religious text that forms the backbone of the Bonbibi cult of the Bengal delta. Both Hindus and Muslims of the Sunderban Delta believe in the power of Bonbibi and excerpts from Bonbibi Johuranama are chanted in the forest fringe villages before the forest workers venture into the forests.

Bonbibi and her brother Shah-Janguli

The tale of Bonbibi, the forest guardian

According to Bonbibi’r Johuranma, the forest guardian Bonbibi and her brother, Shahjongoli, were sent to Sundarbans by Allah. Their duty was to resolve the conflict between humans and the shape-shifting tiger, Dokkhin Rai who was terrorizing the region. Anyone who gathered resources from Rai’s forest without his permission was attacked and killed by tigers. After a long battle in which the divine siblings defeated Dokkhin Rai, Bonbibi divided the land between forest and human settlement. She announced that anybody who took from the forest out of greed should fear death by tiger attack, and she would not come to their rescue. This religious tale that arose from the intrinsic adaptive capacity of the local people, in the form of their traditional ecological knowledge and their adaptability to the inhospitable forests, led to the superstition that tiger attacks are divine punishments. Hindus and Muslims of the Sunderban Delta unanimously pray to Bonbibi for protection and tiny thatched-roof shrines containing the idols of the divine siblings can be found everywhere.

A land of water

The solution for the tiger widows

Today, the plight of the tiger widows remains the same. Although some organizations are fighting hard to break the stigma by training them to sew or make handicrafts, the social ostracization is hard to break. Shrinking tiger habitats, increasing water salinity, and declining food resources have increased the human-tiger conflict and attacks are on the rise. What we need are more and more people to help the tiger widows of the ´matir desh´ in Sunderban Delta. One such organization is May their tribe grow.

Tigers of the Sunderban Delta                                                 Photo Credit – Science The Wire

A tree crab

Follow the rest of the West Bengal series