Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2009

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The Professor, the Goddess and the Tiger: Sufia Uddin studies the roots of a jungle cult

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The Goddess and the Tiger

The Goddess and the Tiger
Bonbibi (right) and the tiger. Photo by Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur.

A new faculty member GOES deep into the jungle to advance her theory of how global religious traditions evolve

Story by Alex Barnett


When Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Sufia Mendez Uddin goes abroad to pursue her research on Islam, she does not go to an air-conditioned archive or an ancient city in the Middle East. Instead, after a 22-hour flight to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, she boards a smaller plane bound for a town called Jessore, and from there makes a two-hour car trip south along narrow roads teeming with traffic, until she reaches the edge of the world´s largest mangrove forest. This vast expanse of jungle-covered islands and swamps stretches from southern Bangladesh into West Bengal, India. There she boards a small wooden boat that, following the countless channels intersecting the mangroves, motors deep into the forest. Finally she reaches her destination, the tiny villages where the people worship a female deity named Bonbibi — “lady of the forest” — whose purpose is to protect them from tigers.


The mangroves are called the Sundarbans, “the beautiful forests” in the Bengali language, and they are indeed beautiful, says Uddin, who first came here in 2005 as a Fulbright scholar to study Bonbibi veneration. But it is not a place one would likely choose to live. There is virtually no infrastructure — no electricity, no stores and few roads. The people who live here are extremely poor and, in a pattern not much changed since the 18th century, many venture into the forest to collect honey, fish or cut wood. In doing so, they risk attack by the most famous inhabitants of the region, the royal Bengal tigers, which kill dozens of people here each year.
Before entering the forest, both Muslims and Hindus honor Bonbibi, a beautiful woman whose face can be seen painted on clay statues in makeshift shrines in the mangroves. “Work parties will not go into the forest unless they are accompanied by a faki or a gunin, ” ritual specialists who say prayers to invoke Bonbibi´s protection from tigers, Uddin says. Five times in the last three years Uddin has come to the Sundarbans to document and study this shared worship.

CHILDHOOD PASSION


Born and raised in Queens by a Bangladeshi father and Puerto Rican mother, Uddin dates her fascination with South Asia to early childhood, when her father brought the family to live for two months in his home village in Bangladesh. Although she remembers many illnesses and difficulties (including a near-miss with a cobra), Uddin says: “I just fell in love with it. Since then, I have always been passionate about South Asian culture and history and had a strong desire to know it better.”

She majored in religion and South Asian studies at Colgate University and then earned a master´s degree in international development before pursuing a Ph.D. in Islamic studies at the University of Pennsylvania. There she studied both Arabic literature and South Asian literature and history. Her first book, Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity, and Language in an Islamic Nation, was published in 2006. The following year she left her position at the University of Vermont to join the faculty at Connecticut College.

Throughout her career, Uddin´s research has focused on Bengali Islam, a distinctive kind of Islam that took root in rural communities, in the Bengali language, in what is now Bangladesh and neighboring parts of India. She wants to challenge the idea, first advanced in the 19th century by Islamic reformers and scholars, that Bengali Islam is not really Islam at all, but a confused mix of Islam and Hinduism — in the language of scholars, a “syncretic practice.”

“I made the case in my first book that what Muslims were doing in Bengal was not syncretism, but rather a Bengali-informed Islam,” Uddin says. “I wanted to see if that was
still the case here, in the Sundarbans.”

FINDING BONBIBI


The Bonbibi cult presents an important opportunity to explore these questions. Because the people of the Sundarbans live on the extreme margins of society, their practices are virtually unknown to scholars, and they have been little affected by Islamic reform movements. And because Bonbibi is venerated by both Muslims and Hindus, the cult presents a perfect test case for examining the syncretism issue.

To understand Bonbibi worship and record the largely oral traditions around the deity, Uddin has developed an innovative research approach combining ethnography and textual studies. Working with a Bangladeshi research assistant, she photographs shrines, videotapes ritual performances, and interviews people about how they honor Bonbibi and why. Uddin travels and lives entirely on the boat, which carries a week´s supply of food and drinking water. Two crew members pilot the boat, cook meals and provide security.

Uddin is finding that Muslims worship Bonbibi quite differently from Hindus; members of both groups fit the deity into larger worldviews. For Muslims, she is a Sufi saint — a woman endowed by God with specific powers, whose protection they seek through the display of red flags and flower garlands; Hindus worship her as a goddess, leaving offerings before clay likenesses. In Uddin´s view, the shared worship is not a simple equation but reflects something else: a shared dependence on the forest and a very practical need for protection.

A central element of Bonbibi worship for both Muslims and Hindus is recitation of a poem (belonging to a Bengali Muslim genre known as puthi that tells her story. Uddin tracked down the first recorded version of the poem, printed in the 19th century in an antique form of Bengali, and spent several months translating the 40-page document.

“The puthi tells how an Arab Muslim girl named Bonbibi was given the charge by God to go protect the people in the low-lying area to the east from the tiger god,” Uddin says. In the poem, Bonbibi defeats the tiger god, a Hindu deity, in vividly described battles. Yet she allows the tiger to remain in the forest, under her auspices.

The myth, says Uddin, is a subtle story about how Islam came to the forest and how people of different religious traditions coexist peacefully there. It also has a larger significance, she believes, because it “Islamicizes Bengal, and brings Bengal into the history of Islam.”

DIFFERENT VISION


Uddin plans to publish her translation of the puthi next year, as part of a larger work on Bonbibi, and also intends to contribute the many video and audio recordings she has made of Bonbibi worship to the Bangla Academy in Dhaka and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology in India.

As a scholar, Uddin is skeptical of the concept of syncretism, with its implication of a “pure” or original tradition that has been distorted. Her study of Bengali Islam suggests to her a different vision of how global religious traditions spread and evolve. “When a religion gets brought to a new place, it´s not going to be practiced in the same way. A religious tradition is always going to be regionally informed.”

The professor is looking forward to incorporating her Bonbibi research into her teaching on religion and Islam and hopes to bring students with her to shared sacred sites in South Asia in the future.

“I love doing this research, because it breaks down assumptions about what Islam is,” she says. “This may not look like Islam to us, but it is. There are many ways of being Muslim.”

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