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- Published 17.10.12
Investigations by an RTI activist have revealed that three lakh rupees have been diverted from government funds to build two shrines for Banbibi — the reigning deity of the Sundarbans — in Harikhali and Kendo. Government funds are meant to be spent on infrastructure, such as the construction and renovation of protection camps and watch towers. Civil activities — building staff quarters, for instance — are permitted, but outside the core area. There are no provisions for the construction of shrines inside core areas. But wood-cutters, honey-gatherers and members of forest patrols often build temporary shrines to appease the deity in the belief that she protects them from predators. The dismantling of the shrine in Kendo, which falls inside the core area, may undermine patrolling activity.
The diversion of government funds is certainly a violation of the existing rules. But the institutional rules themselves continue to ignore the urgent need to examine the possibility of the inclusion of local myths and rituals — worshipping Banbibi being one such — to augment conservation efforts in the Sundarbans. This perhaps is a legacy of the colonial philosophy, which dismissed the oral tradition of indigenous people as a primitive knowledge system.
But the enormity of the environmental challenge makes it imperative to widen the ecological debate to include ancient texts, myths and folklore that abound in fragile ecosystems such as the Sundarbans. This is because myths are invariably linked to rituals that are in reality coded systems of knowledge allied to sound ecological practices. For instance, Banbibirjohuranama, an ancient and neglected treatise, contains ideas about afforestation that remain unexplored. Gunins are known to issue strict edicts not to fell certain trees or consume some kinds of meat, thereby helping conserve some endangered species inadvertently. Fishermen honour Makal Thakur — the deity of fishes — by repopulating the rivers and creeks with meen on auspicious dates, thereby helping replenish depleted stocks.
The marginalization of myths in the conservation enterprise stems not just from the residues of the colonial legacy but also from a deeper tension in the relationship between reason and unreason. There is no scientific explanation yet for natural phenomena such as the Shamukkhol — a migratory bird — unerringly predicting the onset of rains or the unease among fishes before natural calamities that are common occurrences in these islands. What has remained unexplained has crystallized into myths that persist within community knowledge systems. Is then the prejudice against myths an expression of modernity’s unease with gaps in its charter of reason?
Sensitized institutional support — adequate funds and greater manpower — to study indigenous knowledge systems in the Sundarbans may possess the potential to unlock natural mysteries and bolster conservation. This, however, has to contend with mobile technology that has led to the dissemination of a popular culture which remains unapologetically anti-ecological.
Research in local myths must also allot space for revision. The legend of Banbibi and Dakkhin Ray is much more than a sociological fantasy of the triumph of an inclusive culture over feudal orthodoxy. The villainous projection of the tiger god as casteist and sectarian obfuscates the fact that he is also an ecological warrior, who, unlike the goddess, had the foresight to predict that human depredations would imperil the forest in the future.