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Professor wins fellowship for research on India's 'lady of the forest'

Sufia Uddin, associate professor of religious studies, has been awarded a Senior Short Term Research Fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to complete research for her introduction and annotated translation of "Jaharnama," a 19th-century poem about the Muslim and Hindu deity Bonbibi. The fellowship, which will pay for Uddin's travel to the Kolkata, Sundarbans and New Delhi regions of India, is estimated at $11,333.

Uddin is an expert in 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. Bonbibi - "the lady of the forest" - is worshipped in the remote forest villages of the region by people who believe she protects them from tigers. As Uddin told writer Alex Barnett in a 2009 CC: Magazine article, a central element of Bonbibi worship for both Muslims and Hindus is the recitation of a poem belonging to a Bengali Muslim genre known as puthi. Uddin's project, "Tale of the Sublime Manifestation of Grace (Jaharnama): Annotated Translation of the Story of Bonbibi," focuses on the first recorded version of the puthi, a 40-page document printed in the 19th century in an antique form of Bengali.

"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 told Barnett. 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." Uddin, a professor at Connecticut College since 2007, has been a recipient of numerous teaching and research grants, including a Fulbright Scholarship and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, American Institute of Bangladesh Studies and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. Her first book, "Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity, and Language in an Islamic Nation," was published by UNC Press in 2006.

July 18, 2011