The role of folktales in Environmental Regulation
Before modern legal regulation could dictate the nature of engagement in society, cultural regulators such as folklore, mythology, and ancient legends were already in place a set of rules that identified permissible and impermissible activities for individuals, firms and governing agencies. As emphasized in UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), folktales are the oldest existing form of cultural regulation that are a part of a society’s literary heritage today. These classic stories are forms of traditional entertainment for society that aim to transfer values, traditions, and character traits from one generation to another to regulate people’s attitudes.
The rich mangrove forest of the Sundarbans is home to more than 4.5 million people who are heavily dependent on natural resources for their survival. The Sundarbans finds mention in several historic texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. It has also been referenced in medieval texts as “lower Bengal”, traditionally called Bati or Bhati. Chinese traveler Hiuen-Tsang from the seventh century also described the Sundarbans as a low-lying area bordering on the sea and rich in crops.
In Sundarbans, folktales are constantly evolving and being shaped by the changing conditions of society. However, despite the change in details, the core values of the folktale remain intact. It is in one such folktale that the value of synergy between man and environment is propounded, the core idea that nature is not to be exploited.
The tale of a striped god
It is important for us to know that the Sundarbans has had a long socio-political history of human-tiger conflictdue to the dependence of both the tigers and humans on forest and river resources. The conflict between humans and tigers is rooted in the socio-economic condition of the people and the tigers’ man-eating habits. Villagers living in the fringe communities surrounding Sundarbans Reserve Forest (SRF) depend on forest resources to earn their livelihood. In the struggle to survive, thousands of local people enter the forest braving crocodiles, sharks and tigers to collect wood, honey and fish and thus become victims of tiger attacks. This has become a regular event with about 40 people being attacked by tigers each year.
Since the Royal Bengal Tigers are habitual maneaters unlike other tigers, they also enter villages and take off with men, women, children or cattle. However, since the tiger is a protected species, killing it invites legal trouble with government authorities, punishment and even social isolation. Hence, “bagh bidhobas” or tiger widows and their children are often forbidden to mourn the death of their fathers and are taught to say that their father died of diarrhea.
The constant struggle between man and his natural environment has heavily influenced the culture of this region. Folktales of the Sundarbans or punthi literature is devoted to the gods and goddesses of these mangroves forest who can offer protection to the simple folk against animals and other creatures of the forest.
The prevalence of tiger gods and goddesses in the local religions of the Sundarbans is indicative of how the tiger has not just been idealized into a monstrous foe by the people but is also revered, worshipped and feared as a deity.
The folktale of Bonbibi and Dakkhin Ray
The importance of environmental regulation in the Sundarbans is reflected in the ancient folktale of Bondevi or Bonbibi (van bibi), the “forest maiden” and Dakkhin Ray, the God of the Tiger. This folktale is a part of Sundarbans’ cultural fabric. Villagers have kept unflinching faith in Bonbibi for decades and it is one of the oldest folktales to still exist.
The tale originated from Banabibi Jahuranama composed in 1877 by Banayuddin. There is another verse of the tale by Marhum Munshi Muhammed Khater from 1880. These texts are written in simple verse (also known traditionally as panchalis) and is chanted like a mantra whenever people enter into the forest with the apprehension of confronting a tiger.
The chanting of these panchalis as mantras is supposed to transform the reciters reality magically and make circumstances more favourable for the devotee. The chanting of Bonbibi’s panchali is a regular cultural tradition as villagers believe it bestows them with strength and protection against Raja Dakkhin Ray, the tiger god, as they struggle to make a living in the mangroves swamp. The tale of Bonbibi is at the centre of all folk religions that exist in the Sundarbans since it is mixture of two main religions: Islam and Hinduism.
Bonbibi is the folk symbol of Mother Nature and promotes cultural and communal harmony between both the Hindus and the Muslims who are both ecologically vulnerable and equally at the mercy of the forest and depend on its resources for sustenance. This inter-faith environmental regulator is common culture shared between both these religious groups. Under this folklore, the forest is neither categorized as a forbidden zone nor as a zone where one can travel indiscriminately. Forest fishermen, honey collectors, and woodcutters enter the forest under the protection of goddess Bonbibi who protects them from the merciless Dakkhin Ray, a sage who can transform into a tiger and kill people for disturbing his forest. The folklore explains how Dakkhin Ray kills men without mercy, calling this action a ‘tax’ on humanity for what they take away from the forest.
Worshipping Bonbibi means that the locals have to respect the eco-system in the Sundarbans and take only what they need from the forest, without depleting or disturbing the eco-system and other species. This folktale explains to us that those who are greedy and wish to hoard the natural resources of the forest shall be punished by Dakkhin Ray. Thus, this folklore emphasizes on environmental regulation and focuses on sustainable development. It has informally managed to ingrain on the minds of the people that troubling wild animals, especially tigers, or exhausting the resources in the forest will earn them the unforgiving wrath of Dakkhin Ray as punishment.
If one compares the duties of this cultural regulator with that of a modern environmental regulator, we can see that this tale has fulfilled many requirements. This socio-cultural folktale ensures protection to the people (in the form of Bonbibi’s blessings) if they worshipped Bonbibi and recite her panchali. The folktale also establishes certain forest guidelines for the people (by emphasizing on sustainable living and not depleting the resources of the forest), and even prescribing a punishment (Dakkhin Ray’s merciless wrath) for those found violating these guidelines. It also explains the concept of respecting the forest and taking resources that will only fulfil one’s needs and not one’s greed.
People in the Sundarbans also recite the panchali of goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and riches), of Sitala (smallpox goddess), of Manasha (snake goddess). Worshipping a particular goddess by reciting his or her panchali is meant to ward off a particular kind of evil.
The power of Cultural Regulation
Traditionally, both mythical stories and the prohibitory rules of the Government have helped raise awareness regarding the need to preserve the forest.
The folktale describes the spirit of the forest, Bonbibi, as a kind mother who stands for ecological balance and protects villagers from the clutches of crocodiles and tigers. She protects only those who do not violate the forest and its resources. Thus, the tale wishes for forest dwellers to self- regulate their conduct and relationship with the forest while focusing on sustainable development.
Since the Sundarbans report low education levels and dismal digital literacy among tribal folks, these tales highly influence habits, religious beliefs, rituals, and cultures of the people and exercise a fearful command over the settlers of the Sundarbans who depend on them for protection and care. It is also indicative of how religious differences and barriers that can exist in the Sundarbans are regulated by this folklore and resolved to allow different social groups to adjust to the harsh realities of the natural environment.
In many parts of Northern India, goddesses familiar to Bonbibi, such as Goddess Champavati and Banaspati Ma, are believed to preside over jungles and forests, showing us how folktales act as environmental regulators in other parts of the country as well. These cultural regulators reject the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ by assuring people that divine forces will ensure the survival of all if human settlements accommodate and respect the forest. Thus, people are to rely on the forest in a sustainable manner that does not radically violate the natural environment.
In the Sundarbans, the tiger has always been at the core of managing the great ‘unknown’. Thus, managing the tiger threat in the Sundarbans is the main concern for locals. The short-sightedness of official conservation policies is reflected in the manner the local community is neglected and indigenous knowledge of folklore is ignored. The local community has never been a part of the decision-making process which further alienate them and make managing the unknows in the Sundarbans more difficult.
Many decades ago, the Sundarbans were home to the Indian Rhino, the Javan Rhino, and river dolphins. They are all extinct in this area. Much of the destruction in the Sundarbans is taking place under the garb of global biosphere preservation projects, tiger protection programmes and promotion of eco-tourism in the region. Very little is known regarding cultural changes taking place in the interiors of the Sundarbans. National policies should reflect the spirit of these cultural regulators if they wish to be successful changemakers in the Sundarbans.
(Sehrish Hazarika enjoys making meticulous observations of the societies we live in today. Currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) from NLSIU, you will find Sehrish enjoying the NLS library on most days, reading books on human rights law, social justice, international development, and the role of intergovernmental agencies in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. When she’s not in the library, you’ll find her enjoying iced tea in quaint cafes, attending policy seminars, or watching re-runs of the Big Bang Theory. Be sure to tell her your own observations at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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