From the Land of Dakshin Rai and Bon Bibi
The world’s largest Mangrove Forest, Sundarbans, with enormous beauty shared between India and Bangladesh, is also known as land of Honey Hunter. The Sundarbans is home to a unique and diverse ecosystem, including a large number of rare and endangered species. This forested wetland, is full of secret and mysteries such as story of Dakshin Rai, Bon Bibi, Begho Bhoot. The area remains one of the least explored and understood ecosystems in the world.
Sundarbans forest, the land of man-eating tigers, home of royal Bengal tigers, has several groups of islands, some of which are inhabited, and some are thickly forested. Other than the striking poverty, attacks by tigers, crocodiles, venomous snakes and bees are a regular phenomenon.
The Sundarbans is known for being a dangerous and inhospitable place, with reports of people disappearing without a trace. Some attribute this to the presence of man-eating tigers, while others believe it may be due to the shifting tides and quicksand in the area.
Ghost Stories: The Sundarbans is also known for its many ghost stories, with local people believing that the spirits of the dead roam the forest.
- The local communities in the Sundarbans have a deep knowledge of the forest and its ecosystem, including the use of various plants for medicinal purposes.
The forest is blessed with some of the most amazing plants such as Khalsi, Goran, Passur, Gewa and Sundri. Some people believes that Sundarbans name is derived from the Sundri tree which is found abundantly in the Sundarbans delta whereas some people believe that Sundarbans name is derived from the word "Samudraban" (Sea Forest). Sundarbans is also famous for the most lucrative of all the forest’s products and the most dangerous to gather i.e. Sundarbans Forest Honey. It is home of wild giant honeybee, Apis Darsota and Apis Laborosia, which collects the nectar of these flowers and produces sundarbans famous forest honey.
The Sundarbans Forest starts to bloom in Feb/March and honey hunters starts harvesting the honey from April end onward. The honeybees construct their hive / combs sometimes several meters high in tree and sometimes few meters from ground. In a year, the honeybees produce honey from as many as eighteen to twenty species of flower and trees, each distinct in taste, aroma, texture, flavor and color.
Like a phantasmagoric, absurd and bizarre nightmare, the Sundarbans is equally beautiful and threatening. The wetland forest seems walled, the mud banks are a first line of defense, low-lying fortification that render invaders clumsy, slow, vulnerable. Phoenix palms, barbed with two-inch thorns, grow in dense clusters. The Gewa tree, a poisonous plant, releases toxic white sap secreted by the broken leaves, it may cause blindness if the sap touches your eyes. However, the sap also has medicinal properties and is used in the treatment of rheumatism. Peel back the gray bark of the Sundri tree and the young wood shines red, as though the tree itself were bleeding. Hundreds upon hundreds of stalagmite respiratory roots push up through the mud on the forest floor and creating a dreamy miniature. Instead of bugs, the ground crawls with crabs; instead of acorns, it’s studded with seashells. The ghostly backs of pale gray river dolphins occasionally break the deceptively still, mud-brown surface of the water, which conceals far less benign populations of crocodiles, river sharks, and venomous sea snakes. Hidden among the greenery there are cobras and kraits and pit vipers.
Indigenous wild honeybees come to the Sundarbans in the month of Magh (Janaury-February), spend their honey cycle life there and leave it in the month of Ashar (June-July).
Mainly honey collection starts from the Bengali month Chaitrya (April) and during this season, the honey hunters around the India use to come Sundarbans in to hunt the honey along with Mouwalis / Moule (local Honey Hunter) in a traditional fashion. The honey hunters, or "Moualis," of the Sundarbans are people who collect honey from the wild beehives found in the mangrove forest. They risk their lives to collect the honey, as the Sundarbans is also home to dangerous wildlife, including the Bengal tiger. The honey collected by the Moualis is considered a delicacy and is highly valued. The traditional honey-collecting practice of the Moualis is a vital part of the local economy and culture in the Sundarbans region.
The women follow some traditional rules and rituals when the Mouwalis (male members, Honey Hunters) of the community go to hunt honey in the Sundarbans. Community women do not alight fire during noon in the furnace having a belief that alighting fire this time could do harm both to forest and beehives. During this period, Women do not go to the long distance of their houses and neither use oil & soup on their body. They do not sponge out the water of the Tauliya (cotton cloth) they use during bathing. They also do not burn chilly in their furnace, cook food early in the morning and during the evening.
The collection of honey is a teamwork and each team consist of 5-10 members. The honey hunters travel through muddy saltwater rivers, creeks and narrow channels that crisscross the Sundarbans forests.
The role of Mouwalis / Moule is to arrange the boat, food supplies such as rice, cooking oil, pulses, spices, kerosene oil 30 – 45 days, basic medicine, pre-identify the hunting location etc. They also carry fish net to catch the fish for their daily meal.
The Mouwalis as well abide by some rules and rituals during honey collection. During honey collection, the Mouwalis do not quarrel with others, they do not tell lie and do not misbehave with others. The group members are always obedient to their chief who is called Sajuni in their language.
The Mouwalis perform traditional prayer to their chief deity Dakshin Rai before entering the forest. Fear is a form of respect to Dakshin Rai who rules over beasts & demons and has been considered as lord of Sundarbans Honey & Wax. It is believed that he is living in Sundarbans Forest in the form of Bengal Tiger. According to the Mouwalis (local honey collectors of Sundarbans), Dakshin Rai gives forest honey in exchange for a human life and he only afraid of "Ma Bon Biwi" (the lady of forest), the goddess mother.
In Sundarbans Mangrove Forest, you don’t protect the forest. If you’re lucky, the forest will protect you.
It is believed that Bon Bibi lives in the Sundarbans forests and protects the peoples from the fearful Dakshin Rai, with whom she is eternally at war. It is fascinating that Bon Bibi figures in the religious rituals of both Muslims and Hindus. She appears in Durga Maa like clothing for her Hindu followers and as a female Monk (pirani) for her Muslim followers.
Once, there were two Mouwalis (Honey Hunter) brothers, Dhona and Mona in a village of Sundarbans. Dhona planned to go for a honey hunting with a fleet of seven boats to collect honey in some dense forest areas but his brother Mona opposed it. Dhona took a shepherd boy, Dukhe along with him. Before leaving, Dukhe's mother told him to remember Ban Bibi in case of any serious trouble. When the fleet reached the Kendokhali char, which was a part of the kingdom of Dakkhin Rai, Dhona forgot to give an offering to Dakshin Rai. As a result, he was not able to collect any honey or wax for three days. On the third night, Dakkhin Rai appeared Dhona's dreams and asked them for a human sacrifice. After some arguments with Dakkhin Rai, greedy Dhona agreed to sacrifice Dukhe in exchange for honey and wax. So, after collecting enough wax and honey, he left Dukhe there and returned to his village. When Dukhe was about to be killed by Dakkhin Rai in the disguise of a tiger, he started chanting prayers invoking Ban Bibi. On hearing his chant, Ban Bibi came along with her brother Shah Jangali. Shah Jangali defeated Dakkhin Rai. After his defeat, Dakkhin Rai took refuge with Bara Khan Ghazi. They followed Dakkhin Rai there. Finally, Bara Khan Ghazi was able to convince Ban Bibi not to harm Dakkhin Rai. In return, Ghazi gave Dukhe seven cartful of precious items, while Rai gave him a sufficient amount of wax and honey. Bon Bibi ordered her pet crocodile, Seko, to drop him to his village. After his return to the village, Dukhe popularized the worship of Bon Bibi in the neighborhood.
It is customary to first revere Dakshin Rai before entering the forest, so that he doesn’t send any tigers your way. After performing the rituals and before entering the forest, Mouwalis and other honey hunter wear the mask with Dakshin Rai’s face on the back of their heads to prevent tiger attacks because tigers always attack from behind.
"The tradition of wearing human masks behind the head by honey hunters in the Sundarbans Forest is believed to be a form of protection against wild animals, particularly tigers. The belief is that the tigers will be frightened by the human masks and avoid attacking the hunters. By wearing the masks, the hunters are attempting to mimic human behavior and trick the tigers into thinking they are people, not prey.
It is worth noting that the tradition of wearing masks in the Sundarbans is not universally observed, and some honey hunters may not use this technique at all. Additionally, the practice has been the subject of debate, with some questioning its efficacy and others questioning its impact on the tigers and other wildlife in the area. Nevertheless, the tradition of wearing masks by honey hunters in the Sundarbans is a unique and fascinating aspect of the local culture and history."
It is surprising but true that Royal Bengal Tigers (worshiped as Dakshin Roy of Sundarbans) feast on honey every chance they get. It is an easy game for tigers to feast on honey ones a comb is located by them. To prepare their body for honey hunting, tigers roll himself in wetland and covers their body with thick mud layers of Mangrove Forest. The mud forms a good shield round the tiger's skin when dries up in sometimes. Most of time it become so thick and strong that bee sting cannot penetrate it. Now tiger moves toward the pre-identified honey hive in the low-rise tree. He runs long and jump high and with his strong paw hits the honey hive to the ground and runs away with full speed in the dense bushes to protect from stings of wild honeybees. After some time, tiger returns to his trophy once honeybees disappear from hive and enjoy the forest honey.
The Dacoits (bandits) & pirates are plenty in Sundarbans in honey hunting season and have been known to operate in the Sundarbans region, particularly during honey hunting season. Sundarbans Honey has huge cash value; dacoits use to steal honey from honey hunters or even kidnap them. They patrol the jungles in boats and hide in the creeks.
"The government and local authorities have taken steps to address the problem of dacoits and pirates in the Sundarbans, including increased patrols, arrests, and other security measures. However, the situation remains a concern for many in the region, and more work is needed to ensure the safety and security of the people and wildlife in the Sundarbans."
The entire honey hunters team lives in the boat and they have to face tigers on the ground and dacoits (bandits) in the river.
Honey hunters enters the forest when the sky is clear, and the river is at low tide. One person stays behind to row the boat along the bank. The Mouwali after entering the forest and locating a giant honeybee colony, make torches from green hetal leaves along with some other materials for smoking to drive the bees from the comb. Sometimes the bees sense the threat and sting even before the smoke rises. Smoking removes most of the honeybees and Mouwalis collects the wax and honey from hive. We do not break the entire hive, since it needs to regrow.”
When some honey is gathered, it is deposited in the boat. Giant honeybee such as Apis Dorsata, Apis Laboriosa are the principal honey producing honeybees in the Sundarbans forest.
Khalsi flower from Khalsia / Khalshi tree is first most and best nectar and pollen producing plant. The honey produced from Khalsi flower are also known as Padma Madhu (Lotus Honey). The honey produced from Khalsi flower has a big demand and the honey is of very good quality with high moisture, good fragrance and taste and does not readily crystallize.
It's interesting to know that tigers also hunt for honey in the Sundarbans:
Tiger identifies the beehive: The tiger uses its keen sense of smell and hearing to locate a beehive. Once it identifies a hive, it carefully approaches it, avoiding detection by the bees.
Claws and teeth: The tiger then uses its sharp claws and teeth to tear open the hive and extract the honey. It is important for the tiger to be quick and precise, as the bees can swarm and attack it in large numbers.
Consuming honey: After obtaining the honey, the tiger consumes it on the spot or carries it to a safe location to eat. Honey is a rich source of calories, and it is an important part of the tiger's diet, especially during the lean season when other prey is scarce.
Tigers in the Sundarbans are known for their unique hunting behaviors, and their ability to hunt for honey is just one of the ways in which they have adapted to their environment. However, it's important to note that tigers are endangered, and their population is under threat due to habitat loss and poaching. Conservation efforts are necessary to protect these majestic animals and preserve their habitat.