In the middle of the night, Atul Sur, a fisherman from Koyra, arrived at Dublarchar, an island in the Sundarbans, in a small boat loaded with Batasha (sweets), candles, incense sticks and coconuts. He and his neighbour Rofiqul Islam had to navigate 60km of narrow channels crisscrossed in the formidable forest to reach their destination.
They were giddy with joy, as this was one of their grandest celebrations in the Sundarban delta. Atul prepared offerings according to his religion to pay tribute to the mother goddess Banabibi, the protector of human beings in the jungle, and Lord Krishna.
On the other hand, Rafiq arranged sweets to offer his protectors in the jungle Banabibi, Gazi Kalu and Dakshin Ray. This unique celebration of Hindus and Muslims can only be seen deep inside the largest mangrove forest of Sundarbans.
Rafiq said, “Inside the deep jungle, people always remain alert, watching out for tigers, because here the tiger always sees you first.”
“No other deity but Banabibi can save you from the gaze of a tiger,” he intones.
Here, God and nature are one, and thus the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims are kind of obscure, as both the communities pay equal tribute to nature and the deities of nature.
The magic of the ‘Super Moon’ further invigorated the devotees, as they chanted and sang popular songs on their way to the shore. Each of them has a different wish which they want to be fulfilled by the deities.
Rash Mela is a celebration held in honour of Lord Krishna in November. But here devotees honour Lord Krishna and also pay equal tribute to Banabibi, Gazi Kalu, Dakshin Ray, Ganga Devi and many other deities representing nature.
Why and how, you may ask, do dwellers place such high regard for local deities? One reason may be is that the presence of the magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger, a threat perpetually lurking around the locals here.
Another reason might be it is their way of expressing gratitude to the mother nature.
Effigies of a range of deities, starting from Banabibi, Lord Krishna to Gazi kalu, Ganga Devi, Shiv, and so many others were seen all standing together, symbolising harmony.
Banabibi reminds of a local version of Mother Mary, as she is also seen as a saint with a child on her lap. The child is the Tiger Lord Dakshin Ray. This sculpture alone summarises the story - the ancient practice of Rash Mela binding people from different religions in one thread.
In the festival Nomita Shomproday, a group of folk performers from Bagerhat, performed the Rash Leela, Podabali and Banabibir Jahuranama (songs depicting the stories of deities). Performers, portraying the characters from the myths of Banabibi, depicted her life and explained how she and her brother were sent to the Sundarbans from Mecca to protect the people and nature.
Nomita Mistri, the lead performer of the Nomita Shomproday, explains that Dakshin Ray was the ruler of the jungle back then. “Banabibi had to wage a war against Dakshin Ray’s mother, Narayani. At one stage of the war, Narayani and Banabibi became friends, and from that time onwards, Banabibi and Dakshin Ray have been sharing the realms of the jungle,” she says.
There are different versions of the legends in different parts of Sundarbans, which include characters like Barakhan Gazi, Shah Jangli, Ganga Devi, etc. No matter how varied the version, each of the stories signifies how differences and clashes between different religions were resolved to address the realities of nature.
Before the advent of Islam in this region, Banabibi was known as Banadurga (this name is still used by locals in many parts of the jungle). After Muslim settlers entered the region in the beginning of the middle age, the legend of a war between Banabibi and Dakshin Ray was circulated.
In the Bay of Bengal, the shores were brightened up by the glittering rays of the super moon. Standing on the shore with thousands of devotees, we too began to experience the spirituality that the locals here so treasure.
One by one, thousands of devotees sat on the shore chanting hymns, upholding their humble trays with lamps, flowers, sweets, coconuts and other offerings. Some of them also brought sacrificial animals, alongside small sculptures of Banabibi and other deities. Once the wave wiped out the candles, the devotees bathed in the sea in a trance-like state to cleanse their souls, thus ended the grand festival of Rash in the Sundarbans.