Sirajul Hossain

Photographer & Naturalist

Nature: From Sacred to Profane

Posted by sirajul on May 9, 2011


Collecting Honey in Sundarban                                                                   Text and Photo © Sirajul Hossain

Text and Photographs By:  Sirajul Hossain

Whenever I go to Sundarban in the honey harvesting season, I like to hear the stories of life of the Mouals (honey hunters), stories they tell from their heart and with utter seriousness. They speak about their joy, fear, frustration and their apprehension of life. They speak with such a sublime gentle acceptance of loss and disasters like their son’s death by a man eating tiger or loss of a younger brother in last cyclone that I sometime wonder where actually they find this much altruism and sensibleness.

When Maxim Gorkey was in exile in Italy, he wrote some stories about the people of the island of Capri where fishermen at those times were always living with the danger of the sea. He wrote, these people, who are living with the danger of life every day, they are the finest people and they are wise men like philosophers. Whenever I speak with the honey hunters of Sundarban, I enjoyed their intellectual company and they reminded me of Gorky’s stories.

I was always enchanted and wondered by the glimpses of their wisdom, their ability to sacrifice with calmness and their acceptability of the inevitable, their respect to the elders and their love to their spouses and families. On the contrary I was always puzzled and confused by their super spiritual mentality and blind faith on many things. Their endless faith in good and bad spirits, believe in Bonbibi and other myths, believe in rituals and the spells of the Gunin and Ozha over modern practice equally puzzled me. It was always difficult for me to conceive the existence of their wisdom and dogma in a single brain.

I did not find these people very religious per se, did not also find much difference between the Hindus and the Muslims in the scale of their spirituality and lifestyle in that sense. I also never could convince myself that living in fear of death all the time, these people became too afraid of death and that’s why they fear God more than many other. It was not easy for me to rationalize their extreme spiritual thoughts and activity. But one vivid personal experience helped me to put some light on it for me.

Hard life but with a smile                                                                                    © Sirajul Hossain

It was in the beginning of April and like every year several hundred honey hunters gathered in front of the Burigoalini forest office with their boat. At around 10am, the forester fired his rifle and kicked off that year’s honey season. About hundred boats immediately started a fascinating race where all the boatmen participated in a very festive mood. They all came far from home finishing their domestic rituals ensuring their spiritual safeguards after taking blessing and goodbye from their families and loved ones. Although, it was known that some of them will not return back alive, either will be taken by the man-eating tigers or will be killed by snakebites. In their festivity I also joined. I took many photographs of their enthusiastic race and a group of honey hunters agreed to take me with them inside the forest where they search the trees one by one for the beehives. That is the most tedious and dangerous part because mangrove is not at all suitable for hiking. Sticky mud is often up to the knee, we need to cross countless number of canals, sometime walking, sometime swimming and when you walk on the hard soil – it is full of mangrove pneumatophores and thorny bushes all around.

In the morning of the second day I met my group again and they were preparing their journey for honey. They took all their necessary things and of course – the most important is a couple of boxes of matchsticks. The only tool they need is machete to cut some special herbs with which they make several torches mixing some green leaves with dry ones which produce a lot of smoke when lighted. I joined with them with an excited mood and followed them hives to hives till the afternoon. It was frustratingly tedious sometimes but I got some great pictures and was quite happy with that. It will be untrue if I say that the fear in the back of my mind was not there that I might be one of them who will not come back this year from the forest alive. But that fear was never in the foreground and I had the believe that if I am not lost – which was not impossible because I was always slow compared to my team mates and my camera equipments were making me even slower – I will be safe with them.

A Bonbibi Shrine                                                                                                  © Sirajul Hossain

But without any incident we came back from the forest in the afternoon and I was roaming around the forest office premises in the late afternoon to get some close shots of some common birds doing their final foraging for the day. When the sun was setting, I saw a pair of boat was coming towards the forest station, the guy on the boat was shouting loudly calling the forest personals. I was curious and went close to the boat and at the same time the forester also arrived. The man on the boat said his brother went to the jungle last morning and was taken by the tiger. They searched for him the whole day and found the body in the afternoon. He removed the blue polyethylene cover and showed us the body. The beard man in his late forties lying there lifeless, no injury in the upper body except the broken neck but the bottom part from the abdomen was missing. Two legs, mostly bones folded unnaturally were kept with the body aside. The event was so shocking and horrifying to me, because in the same jungle where I was photographing delightfully, a tiger was eating this man very close. The enchanting, glorious, colorful, photogenic jungle suddenly showed me a very sad, heavy, realistic face where apparently my reasoning to go there became the biggest joke in the world. The artist I floating in the world of colors and shades and beauty suddenly landed in the hard soil of the dangerous tiger mangrove.

We had plans that we will go to the forest for the beehives again next morning. That night was a heavy night for me. When I think of them, I still cannot forget the half eaten dead body and face of the man who rescued the brother. Then it was my time for reasoning, why I am here. Why should I go to the forest next morning, is it just for some colorful photograph of bees, birds and beehives? I had no answer.

The devastated man with the half eaten body of his brother                                   © Sirajul Hossain

Next morning, when I again saw those people, came with the same determination and spirit as the day before, to raid the jungle again – I had no hesitation any more to go with them. I felt no fear. Instead I felt a different intrigue to go with these fellow men again. I wanted to see, conceive, and understand more of them and their life by participating with them through this journey together in this dangerous jungle. From then I became more interested to know about the spirits of the jungle, which binds all of us together – me with the honey hunters, the honey hunters with the bees, the bees with the flowers, the flowers with the trees, the trees with the tigers, the tigers with the trees, the trees with the rivers and the rivers with the ocean, and it goes on. That night I became attached to those people somewhere.

It was soon clear to me that spirituality engulfed religion here and people formed a sphere of sacred universe where all the earthy being are connected together by the spirit and all has a divine purpose for their existence. In this universe, ‘Bada’, the forest, became a sacred place, just like the arena of a temple and everybody and everything related to the forest including themselves has a spiritual role to play for good. But the interesting thing is, the ultimate goal of this spirituality is not to please some supernatural somewhere – it is for the virtuous sustainability of the sacred – the forest with all its spirits. Somehow they know in their subconscious, that if this integrity is broken – all will collapse.

Holy dip in Dubla island                                                                                       © Sirajul Hossain

As Bangladesh and the entire sub-continent were almost full of jungle and wild animals from the beginning of the history, our people were also quite spiritual in that sense. Any society which evolved close to nature, showed this spirituality all over the world. And in the religions and culture evolved in those regions, Nature always remained intertwined with the spirituality and the Divine. In the valleys of Ganges and Brahmaputra, two great religions evolved: Hinduism and Buddhism. An expert in mythology, Joseph Campbell says, these are ‘nature religions’. If we look carefully we may see, in all these nature religions those originating in the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan (Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shinto, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism) all regard nature with a critical aspect of the Divine and that should accordingly be treated with reverence. On the contrary, the relationship of the three monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) with nature has been absent or neglected.

It was said in the Bible very clearly:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
[Genesis 1:28]

Similarly Islam also placed man on a very similar anthropocentric throne above all the earthy creatures. The three main monotheistic religions were born in a place which was surrounded by stones and deserts. At that time animals were also there, but almost all were domestic or used for human purpose. The human controlled life of those animals and the role of man on them as the master probably was the reason for this idea of extreme supremacy of human over animal. This also motivated them to see animals as human necessities. All these cultural aspects reflected in those religions which born in the deserts of Israel.

A Fisherman collecting his net supporting sticks in Sundarban                               © Sirajul Hossain

Campbell argues another very important idea which is the anti-life, anti-nature mindset that the monotheism produces. In most of the nature religions and cultures the serpent is the symbol of life, whereas in the Abraham’s monotheism the serpent is the Satan, the evil. Campbell says, the power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents as a symbol of the immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life together.

He says, the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the mythological Serpent King is the next thing to the Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow — the falling skin. The serpent was revered in the American Indian traditions, too.

Then he says, that amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.

Campbell says, However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature

Now, here the interesting fact is, when the myth, the culture and the spirituality are profound, established and practiced in favor of Nature from the ages in a community, I think religion really cannot be so big factor which really can change people’s psyche and behavior with the nature. That is what we see in the honey hunters in Sundarban that the jungle is sacred to both similarly, to the Hindus and Muslims. But the people who already lost their myths and spiritual lifestyle and the connection with nature and sanctified universe, supernatural ideology alienated from nature can really takeover the whole empty space. As Campbell said “The idea of the supernatural as being something over and above the natural is a killing idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing a thing they truly wanted to because the supernatural laws required them to live as directed by their clergy.”

So to conserve nature, to protect the biodiversity and all life-form around us, we have to preserve the traditional people that they can live with their ancient myths, culture and spiritual lifestyle. Especially of those who are living with the close proximity with nature. Instead if we invite people from other places with no spiritual sense or who are supernatural beyond nature will soon destroy all, which we are doing already in many places. And if we fail to protect the traditional people of the forest, to whom the jungle was like a temple, nature was sacred will become profane very soon.

Unedited Version.
Published in: Nature Quest June-August 2010

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