Behula’s Riverine Odyssey
The story of the snake goddess Manasa’s epic struggle to win the homage of the recalcitrant merchant prince Chand is probably the most popular folk narrative from the eastern part of the subcontinent. Of the numerous mangalkavyas on the subject the majority were composed in the region that now comprises Bangladesh. A festival honouring Manasa is celebrated every year in some of our villages at the end of the monsoon. The main event is the enactment of parts of the tale by folk theatre troupes; and the segment most popular with actors and audience is the one that takes Behula with her dead husband’s corpse on a raft past seven bends in a river. Incidentally, Professor Jamil Ahmed turned this episode into an innovative stage production titled “Behular Bhasan”, a film of which can be accessed on Youtube.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here are its bare bones: Manasa, born of Shiva’s spilt semen, is goddess of snakes and all venomous creatures. Her spectacularly successful campaign of intimidation and rewards to win the homage of people of various ranks is thwarted by Chand, who acknowledges no deity except Shiva and dismisses Manasa as a low-caste upstart. She harries him in unimaginable ways, to no avail. Her ultimate strategy is to incarnate a celestial couple as his son, Lakshmindar, and the girl who becomes his daughter-in-law, Behula. Manasa has vowed to dispatch Lakshmindar on his wedding night, and does so by inveigling a tiny but extremely venomous snake into the virtually airtight bridal chamber of steel. Custom dictates that one killed by snakebite be cast adrift on a raft of banana trees. Behula insists on accompanying the dead body, vowing to bring it back to life with the help of Manasa.
The raft carrying Behula and Lakshmindar’s corpse goes by a place near her parents’ kingdom, and her brothers come to make an attempt to dissuade her from her unprecedented mission. “Who can resurrect someone dead of snakebite?” they ask rhetorically, and sadly bid farewell to their headstrong sister.
Behula’s is going to be a long, arduous journey down the meandering river. She prays continuously to Manasa (aka Padma) while surveying the passing scene on the river and its banks: men, women and children bathing and swimming or giving cattle a bath, people washing clothes, women filling pitchers to take home; men working on agricultural plots or grazing cattle and goats in fields; white-blossomed reeds growing wild on the banks. The river flowed into another, and then into yet another, changing names as it rippled on, until Behula didn’t know what river she was on and felt quite lost. Behula’s voyage vividly brings home to us the paramount importance of rivers in facilitating communication in pre-modern Bengal. Rivers were the highways, canals the byways, and they offered a panorama of the variegated lives of the inhabitants of this land.
The raft drifts on, and at a number of the bends she passes Behula has strange, unforeseen and unforeseeable encounters that reveal life in all its terrifying, disgusting, grotesque, and shocking aspects, and by the time her odyssey ends she is no longer an innocent child but has become, as it were, a battle-hardened veteran. These encounters are of historical and sociological significance. The first bend the raft comes to brings the danger of a feral animal, a tigress that demands the dead body; such dangers were common in pre-modern Bengal. In this instance, though, the animal is Manasa’s sister Neta in disguise, acting at Manasa’s behest.
Next comes a point known as Goda’s Bend. Goda in Bangla means “fat” or “swollen”, and the eponymous personage who dwells there is afflicted with pronounced elephantiasis. Goda is trailing a fishing rod in the water when he espies Behula’s raft and at once starts jumping up and down in excitement. What a gorgeous beauty is coming this way, he muses; she must be coming to fulfill my hidden desires. As the raft draws nigh he calls out to Behula to abandon the rotting corpse and become his companion. In a comically bizarre spiel he describes Behula and himself as well-matched: she is young and lovely as a mermaid; he is seventy and an expert in the erotic arts. He dwells longingly on the bliss life with Behula would bring: he will feed her rice with ghee while she rubs oil on his swollen pumpkin-like feet. Behula firmly puts Goda in his place, calling him brainless, and not only deformed in his legs but a hunchback too, and abjures him to live happily with his old wife. “I’ll get rid of her,” the irrepressible Goda shoots back, and starts swimming for the raft. Behula puts a curse on him that sends him to the river bottom. But the ordeal of coming up spluttering to the surface brings him back to his senses. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he says in relief.
Behula too is relieved at having shaken off the weird and deformed Goda, but this is only the first of a series of indecent proposals. Before long she comes to another bend where there is a cremation ground. But to her it will be known as the Gambler’s Bend because of a wastrel youth, an inveterate gambler who scours the place looking for cowries amidst the detritus left by burnt corpses in the hope of rustling up enough capital to gamble and win back his lost fortune. The sight of a beautiful woman on a raft rouses his libido and he brazenly propositions Behula. She threatens to stamp on his head on her way back and carries on undeterred.
The wind picks up, the raft goes skimming over the sparkling waves, and presently comes to a bend where two brothers like to hang out. Predictably enough, they are both attracted to the lovely woman going by, and set off in pursuit in a dinghy. As is her wont, Behula prays fervently to Manasa to safeguard her, and the goddess foments jealousy between the two brothers, in a manner reminiscent of the mythological tale of Sunda and Upasunda. Their altercation overturns the dinghy, allowing Behula to sail to safety.
But no sooner does Behula find herself in a clear stretch of water than she comes upon another bend, this time at a point where the river narrows dangerously, forcing the raft to go aground at a ferry ghat where a low-caste character called Apna Dom lives in a house on stilts. He behaves like the other men encountered at different bends. Behula is now quite experienced at dealing with sexual harassment and simply knocks out the man with a curse.
Scavengers and vultures and crows show up next, demanding the dead body, but Behula invokes Manasa to drive them away.
The seventh and last bend has in store the most painful experience Behula is to undergo on her long journey. At this bend sits a man called Narayan Dani. The surname, which means “munificent”, is appropriate for he has with him bags of money that he likes to give away to people in need. But a charitable disposition is not incompatible with a libidinous nature. Narayan propositions Behula, not crudely like the men seen earlier but in a sophisticated and even poetic manner. The bottom line is the same, though: abandon the stinking corpse and come live with me and be my love. It transpires that Narayan is the brother of Lakshmindar’s mother Sonaka; to put it in Bangla he is Behula’s mama shoshoor. Narayan is embarrassed and averts his eyes, but soon recovers his composure and renews his advances. Behula is shocked at what she describes as a sinful proposition, and reaffirms her devotion to her husband and her determination to bring him back from the realm of death.
Narayan Dani rejoins acerbically that she doesn’t know anything about her husband’s hidden life, his crimes and sins, and stuns Behula with the revelation that Lakshmindar had raped his aunt, Narayan’s wife.
Behula can only seek refuge in Manasa. She calms down Narayan and Behula, and sends her on her way. That night she appears before Behula in a dream and explains that it was she who had induced Lakshmindar to commit rape, as part of her grand design to get at Chand. Behula didn’t argue, but woke up a wiser, sadder being.
The raft speeds on, carrying Behula and the fast decomposing corpse to the swirling waters of Tribeni Sangam, where three rivers meet, and the banks are invisible from the midstream. Behula is overwhelmed by the immensity of the waters, and invokes Manasa without whose help she will be utterly lost amidst the wildly dancing waves through which crocodiles and sharks swim menacingly, while huge birds circle above.
Manasa doesn’t let Behula down. She has sent her sister Neta to impersonate a washerwoman, surely a common sight in ancient rural Bengal, as indeed in other countries and fictions: gossiping washerwomen on the Liffey feature in a famous episode in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Neta takes Behula in hand and accompanies her to call on Shiva, who revives Lakshmindar, preparing the way for Manasa’s triumph in her struggle with Chand. Before the move to Shiva’s celestial realm, a boal fish tries to make off with one of Lakshmindar’s kneecaps, a gruesome but realistic detail reminding the reader of the strange perils that lurked in Bengal’s waters.
Behula is enshrined in the popular imaginations as an embodiment of wifely devotion, comparable to other, more widely known mythological models of chastity in greater India, Sita, Savitri, Damayanti. The riverine odyssey serves to highlight Behula’s profound attachment to her husband by putting her to the test of facing the lewd advances of a number of men of varying backgrounds and personalities. To my mind, the lurid colours in which these predatory males are presented reveal a profound awareness of the social psychology of gender relations in traditional Bengali society.
Kaiser Haq is a professor in the deparment of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He is the author of The Triumph of the Snake Goddess, published by Harvard University Press in 2015
The story of the snake goddess Manasa’s epic struggle to win the homage of the recalcitrant merchant prince Chand is probably the most popular folk narrative from the eastern part of the subcontinent. Of the numerous mangalkavyas on the subject the majority were composed in the region that now comprises Bangladesh. A festival honouring Manasa…