Adivasis Of Sunderbans

Going Back to the Roots

Papia Roy

The Sunderbans, spread between the two neighboring countries India and Bangladesh, contains a multitude of mysteries in its forests and waters. The inhabitants, despite belonging to two different nations, share the same culture, same professions and the same hazards to their existence. In its diversity of people, rich historical tradition the Sunderbans is a much more than a wonder of the subcontinent. It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.

It is commonly believed that it was during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar that people started inhabiting the Sundarbans. But this belief is erroneous. Archaeological evidence suggests the existence of a very advanced society in the region in much earlier times—most of the artefacts dating back to the reign of Sena and Pala Dynasties in Bengal. Some of the artefacts are from the time of the Gupta Empire, while some are from the times of the Pathan Dynasties and later, the Mughal Empire. The Shahi Mosque, established in the year 1465, is still in existence in Bashirhat.

Interestingly, only the northern part of the Sundarbans was under the control of the Mugnal Empire. The southern part, with its very dense forests, was very difficult to deal with. It was the station to the notorious Magh and Portuguese pirates. They plundered this region so relentlessly and tortured the inhabitants so mercilessly that the entire region along the bank of the Bhagirathi River was reduced to ashes.

The whole of the population of the Sundarbans was erased because of two devastating cyclones in the year 1739. The rich cultural heritage of the region also vanished with the populace. Later, as people started inhabiting the islands once again, a new form of culture was born in this region. This society, dominated by cultural rituals, is shaped largely by the Adivasis in the areas, including Oraon, Munda, Santhal, Bhumija, Poundakshatriya among many other tribes.

Natural disaster destroyed the Sundarbans, but that act of destruction lasted only momentarily. The carnage carried out by human beings continued unchecked. The influence of the pirates did not diminish even as India went into the hands of the British. Incredible as it may seem, pirates still roam about and continue to terrify the local people seven decades after independence! But the people of Sunderbans continue to fight and survive.

The Adivasis who came to the Sundarbans from far away regions had grown up surrounded by forests and hills. In search of a new land, they lost their hills and in return, received forests and rivers infested with wild and violent animals and reptiles. In addition to the natural hostilities, unspeakable treatment at the hands of the Zamindars who were British stooges and sustained malnutrition meant that their caring deity Marangburu went as far away as the hills they were born in. Thus enters a new deity who would protect her helpless children as they would brave the forests and waters to procure honey or to catch fish—Goddess Banabibi, the Queen of the Forest.

Banabibi is not the only deity worshipped by the Adivasis in the Sundarbans. A deity is there who can control the treacherous and venomous serpent which sends thousands of people to an extremely painful death every year—Goddess Manasa. She is loved and respected by all her children. The existence of people of the Sundarbans is also threatened by many diseases and ailments, including smallpox and cholera. To save themselves from such deadly diseases, many inhabitants devote themselves to Goddess Shitala. Besides the three deities, many other Goddesses and Gods are worshipped here, who are also worshipped in other parts of the country with many local variations. In addition, there are a few deities who are worshipped only in certain regions in the Sundarbans.

A new form of culture has grown out of the worship of Banabibi, Manasha and Shitala. The unique ritual, involving dance, music, songs and enactment of play lasts all night. This is what is known as palagan. The story of the pala of Banabibi, and the palagan that grew out of it, can uniquely be identified with the Sundarbans. Although the cult of the goddesses Manasa and Shitala is not unique to the Sundarbars, it acquires new dimensions and meanings in the palas of the Sundarbans. This is particularly true in the context of the tale of Manasa. The original tale pertains to the struggle of Behula, a newly-wed, to bring her husband Lakhinder back to life who died from snakebite on their wedding night. The river which would take Behula to her destination is located in the Sundarbans.

Adivasis are incredibly brave and hard-working. Cultural activities are not a pastime for them. On the contrary, their culture is an inseparable aspect of their daily life. The communal activity of dance and music makes them forget the hardships and gives them a fresh lease of life after a hard day's work.

The British rulers and the zamindars made sure that Adivasi population could not return to their original homes from the Sundarbans The local residents viewed these people with suspicion and hatred. Feeling helpless, the people from the Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Bhumija communities wanted to integrate with the mainstream to save their life and livelihood. As a price for this integration, they have lost much that was their own. It is very hard to say what they have received in return.

Unknown to both the parties, there really was a curious and unexpected exchange of cultural values, making it an "integration" in the purest sense. Although they were forced to worship Banabibi, Manasa and Shitala because of their fear for their lives, the colours and sounds of the palagans naturally attracted them. In no time, they turned from spectators into artists. Naturally, their rhythms and tonalities were gradually absorbed into the palagans. It also gave rise to new images. An audacious performer taking a live snake into his mouth, a handmade boat in the pond carrying Behula, a venomous snake set to bite Lakhindar on stage—these are just a few of the many remarkable images. This is how the new Adivasi culture of the Sundarbans was born, which is also the culture of the non-tribals. In short, this is the culture in the Sundarbans. (The dry, rough breeze that swept through the shal forests in Bihar gradually made its way for the salty winds through the mangroves.)

As for what was gained by the worshippers of Marangburu, Ganesh Sardar—a young man of the Munda tribe living in the Adivasi Para of North Sonakhali Pal Bari, told his story—their story. 'The number of things they have lost for the past three generations is beyond count now. First of all, they have lost their identity. They do not know where they came from; there remain no records. Ganesh's grandfather came to the Sundarbans to clear the forests. Besides clearing the forests, he was part of very strenuous activities like erecting river dams. His son, Ganesh's father also continued the same activities. But Ganesh has got no land to call his own. Nobody in his community does. To escape insult and oppression from the upper castes, they gave up their Munda identity and adopted the surname "Sardar". Not only have they given up their caste identity, they have also forgotten their language and food habits. All of them now speak Bengali and eat Bengali food.

No one in Ganesh's village has ever worked as a government or private servant. He was the first one in his village to pass the Higher Secondary examination. He had enrolled in a college but could not continue his studies because of financial hardships. Their daily life is in an utterly miserable state. They have virtually no access to drinking water. The roads are in a very poor state. Moreover, they have not fully recovered from the devastation caused by the cyclone Aila in 2009, as evident from the structures in the village. The people have to toil away in others' lands as daily labourers without any contract, under extremely unfavourable circumstances. This picture is largely representative of the whole of the Sundarbans.

But even in the face of such dehumanising adversity, a new picture continues to emerge. Nowadays, many people are trying to regain the Adivasi identity to avail themselves of aid from the government. But it turns out that losing the identity is much easier than gaining it back—there are no documents to establish their credentials. In order to regain their identity, they are now looking for their original lands and their own people. In the context of cultural practice, they are trying to reconstruct Karam, Tusu, Jhumur, Soharai from the second-hand account of the senior members of the family. They are also trying to reconstruct their language.

But how does the new generation plan to achieve the seemingly impossible? It was surprising to learn from Ganesh that they have already started enacting their plans. Taking into account the sense of community within the Adivasis, it should not be very surprising. They have remained poor for centuries. That is why Adivasis from Bihar and Jharkhand are brought to the brickfields in the Sundarbans where they face unlimited exploitation. But "civilization" marches on, as cities are built with bricks upon bricks smeared with the blood of the nameless, faceless labourers.

The nameless ones, on the other hand, take out their dhamsa and madal in the evening to get rid of the fatigue and to gain strength and courage for another day's work. It is this sound that brings together Ganesh and others of his generation in search of their root. Ganesh told this writer something alarming. The palagans of Manasa and Banbibi are changing in form to cater to the tastes of the tourists visiting the Sundarbans. They have to often include Hindi songs or dance routines from Bollywood movies to make it more attractive to the visitors. This does bring in more money but makes young people like Ganesh feel alienated. That is why going back to the roots is important for them. Very important.

Vol. 48, No. 46, May 22 - 28, 2016