Songs of the Honeygatherers
[2023 - ongoing]

Songs of the Honeygatherers [2023 - ongoing] is a longterm project exploring the relation between Man and Nature in the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans — the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world spanning over 10,000 square kilometre across India and Bangladesh — is a tidal land wrapped in myths and mystery. The forces of nature are always at play here — ceaselessly shaping and reshaping the many rivers and estuarine islands that form the mass of these labyrinthine mangroves in the Bay of Bengal. Few people know these lands better than the Moulés.
The Moulés or Honeygatherers are willing and able men who harvest wild honey from beehives deep in the forest. Every year between March and May, when fishing and crabbing is prohibited in the Sundarbans, these men take their dinghi boats and go deep inside the Sundarbans’ tiger and crocodile inhabited landscape to gather highly sought-after wild honey which sells for 300 Indian Rupees (about 4 US Dollars) per kilogram in the local market. These expeditions last as long as 15 days inside prime tiger territory and sometimes result in close encounters with the Sundarbans’ apex predator — the feared and revered Bengal Tiger. Often, these encounters end in tragedy. But ask the locals and you’ll also hear surprising stories of triumph and survival — like that of Benoy Mondol.
Portrait of Benoy Mondol
Benoy Mondol, a resident of Dayapur village in Sundarbans’ Satjelia Island, is a former moulé or honey-gatherer. 29 years ago, Mr Mondol was attacked by a tiger during a honey-gathering expedition in the forest. Only, unlike most people attacked by a Royal Bengal Tiger, Mondol survived against all odds.
Benoy Mondol’s Scars from the Tiger Attack
Mondol lost four of his ribs, his left kidney, and part of his spleen in the tiger attack, but lived to tell the tale. In his recollection of the brief, near-fatal encounter, he was able to strike the tiger in the left eye with his sickle at the decisive moment, and that was just enough for him to escape alive “by the grace of Bonobibi.”
Bonobibi and Shah Janguli
In the Sundarbans, Bonobibi (Lady of the Forest) and her brother Shah Janguli (Lord of the Jungle) are popular folk deities worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims alike. These two figures represent rare South Asian folk icons who surpass the region’s current communal divide and allude to a longer history of syncretic co-existence.
The Lore of Bonobibi
The lore of Bonobibi, known as ‘Bonobibi-r Johuranama’ (The Jewelled Chronicles of Bonobibi) or ‘Bonobibi-r Keramati’ (The Miracles of Bonobibi) can be traced back to early 19th century when both traditions were first recorded in written form by Munshi Mohammad Khater and Abdur Rahim Sahib.
The Lore of Bonobibi and Dakshin Rai

Originally associated with Islam, the lore of Bonbibi bears striking Arabic and Persian Quranic influences and is believed to have originated in the city of Mecca — the most sacred site in Islam. According to this tradition, there lived a man named Ibrahim in Mecca, who was a pious fakir in the Sufi tradition. As his first wife, Phoolbibi, could not bear any children, Ibrahim took a second wife named Gulalbibi. Soon Gulalbibi became pregnant, but Ibrahim abandoned her in a forest far from the city to fulfil the wishes of his jealous first wife. It was only through divine intervention of the archangel Jibril, that Gulalbibi survived and was blessed with two children — a daughter named Bonobibi and a son named Shah Janguli. Blessed by Allah and the archangel, the two children were protected by chitals (a family of spotted antlered deer native to South Asia) and soon grew into guardians of the forest.
After seven years, having realized his mistake, Ibrahim repented and took back Gulalbibi and the two children to Mecca. But when both children came of age, the archangel Jibril appeared again and told them that they were chosen by Allah for a divine mission — to travel to the “country of eighteen tides” (athero bhatir desh) in order to protect its residents from the tyranny of the demon king Dakshin Rai, who ruled over all creatures that lived in these forests.
Dakshin Rai, the shape-shifting son of a Brahmin priest and his wife Narayani, was endowed with mythical powers at birth. He could assume different forms at will, and ruled over the Sundarbans in the form of a large tiger. Dakshin Rai stalked the forests in his tiger form and preyed upon any and all who ventured into the forests in search of meat, fish, fruits, honey, and wood.
One day, Dakshin Rai was roaming in the forest when he heard strange voices reciting the azaan — Bonobibi and Shah Janguli had arrived in the Sundarbans. Furious, Dakshin Rai, his mother Narayani, and their demon hordes went to fight against Bonobibi and Shah Janguli. A long and fierce battle ensued — with Bonobibi emerging victorious in the end. However, merciful in her victory, Bonobibi decided that she will only claim one half of the tidal country for the human inhabitants — leaving the other half to remain wild and uninhabited and under the control of Dakshin Rai.
Another tradition associated with the lore of Bonobibi tells the story of the moulé brothers Dhona and Mona, and the poor shepherd boy Dukhe.
One day, Dhona and Mona went deep into the forests of the tidal country with a fleet of seven boats to gather wild honey. Dukhe, a young shepherd boy, went with them. Before entering the forest, Dhona, an experienced moulé, told the young boy about Bonobibi: “if you ever find yourself in trouble, call on Bonobibi — the saviour of the weak and a mother of mercy to the poor.”
However, once deep inside the forests which fell under the realm of Dakshin Rai, Dhona’s conscience gave away to greed, and he decided to sacrifice the boy to the demon king in exchange for honey and beeswax. Sensing trouble, Dukhe started praying to Bonobibi and Shah Janguli who appeared immediately and, once again, defeated the forces of Dakshin Rai. Blessed by Bonobibi and Shah Janguli, Dukhe returned home to his mother with untold amounts of wild honey and beeswax.
The lore of Bonobibi clearly emphasises on the Eternal Law of the Forest which states that “the rich and greedy will be punished, the righteous and needy will be rewarded.” As Amitav Ghosh reiterates and writes in his 2021 novel ‘Jungle Nama,’ “all you need do, is be content with what you’ve got; to be always craving more is a demon’s lot.“ This profound emphasis on frugality and sustainability and fishing, hunting, and gathering within the regenerative capacity of the forests is a core tenet of life in the Sundarbans.
The lore of Bonobibi also emphasises on what is truly important to human life in the Sundarbans. The treasure Dukhe returns with is not riches or gold, but honey and wax — two absolutely necessary ingredients for survival in the tidal country. The identity of Dakshin Rai as the son of a Brahmin priest is also interesting. It points to who the historically oppressed inhabitants of the Sundarbans saw as their antagonist (and antagonizer), and who they saw as their saviour.
And lastly, the lore of Bonobibi emphasises on the necessity of maintaining a balance of power between the humans and the non-human beings of the Sundarbans. Even in her victory, Bonobibi never smites Dakshin Rai, and the two only engage in battle when the clearly demarcated territories of one is breached by the other — often by humans who, driven by greed, trespass into the realm of the tiger-faced Lord of the South.
The Sundarbans — A Shape-Shifting Landscape in Perpetual Motion
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