Of rafts, rivers, and rituals
‘The farther the river runs
The more its waters rise
In the distance the banks disappear
The eyes are tricked into losing direction
The flowing water turns blue
And tastes salty in the mouth
We can no longer plumb the ocean floor
As sky and water blend together’¹
It is said that the mere utterance of the triptych phrase “Bhūr-bhuvah-svah – the earth, the sky and the heavens’ holds the miraculous potential to realise the Creator. Similarly, in a land abounding with water bodies, witnessing the merging of the horizons of the vast rivers with the immense sky and the heavens above brings about a consciousness of Truth
Bangladesh, a low-lying riverine country on the northern littoral of the Bay of Bengal, is not just a confluence of rivers from the East, West and the North, but also a land that has witnessed the convergence of mystic beliefs from far and wide. Often described as nadīmātŗk, or birthed by rivers, in Bangladesh, water is revered like a mother, as it provides fertility to the land; the waterways are used for transport, and they are also the sources of innumerable socio-cultural activities. For centuries these waterways, meandering through the country, enfolding narratives within their ebbs, have inspired reflexive thinking and systems of belief, building an intimate relationship between man and nature. Discourses and tales highlighting this connection find expression in folk tales and performances. Often the underlying message of these performative rituals, subscribed to by both Hindus and Muslims, is one of plurality and diversity.
Amongst the tales inspired by rivers, there cannot be a more powerful one than that of the courageous and resolute new bride Behula carrying the corpse of her spouse, Lokkhindor, to the heavens, in an epic journey, and that also on a raft, across seven rivers, seeking justice and retribution, from Lord Shiva, against the mighty Serpent Goddess Manasa. As the legend goes, the ill-fated Brahmin merchant Chand Saudagar refused to worship Manasa Devi, the mind-born daughter of Shiva. Manasa retaliated by taking the life of Chand’s youngest son Lokkhindor. Thus, began the epic battle between Lokkhindor’s newlywed bride Behula, and the mighty Serpent Goddess.
Uniquely, this tale of wrath and retribution is variously performed in several regions of Bangladesh, each in its own form and style. However, nothing could be more Bangladeshi than the exciting day-long, riverine, processional performance, with actors dressed as Behula, Lokkhindor and other characters of this tale of Manasa. Competing groups take out colourfully decorated boats, stopping at seven ghats, or wharfs, emulating Behula’s journey, till each boat stops at a designated household where the jiyoni, or ‘bringing back from dead’ last act, is performed to bring the hapless Lokkhindor back to life.
Additionally, this saga is performed every year, on the rivers of Tangail, on Srabon Shongkranti, the last day of the month of Srabon, on colourfully bedecked boats, while devotees and onlookers line the banks, lending a festive appearance to the occasion. Known as Shone Dala, or the ‘Offering of Srabon’, these performances are in fact efficacious, performative rituals executed against a manot or pledge, by a householder to appease Manasa in the hope of getting a boon from her, in the form of ‘good health’ for the household, or to overcome other such minor household woes and obstacles. Faith healing also happens to be an integral part of these performative rituals. Incidentally, the ritual is participated by both Hindus and Muslims from marginalised communities.
The Manasa narrative belongs to the genre of Mangalkavyas, which are Bangla narrative poems written approximately between the 15th-18th centuries, depicting the greatness of popular, indigenous deities within the social scenario of that time. The poems are known as Mangalkavya because it is believed that listening to these poems brought both spiritual and material benefits. The three-part schema followed in the Mangalkavyas relates a) a conflict between male and female deities, b) followed by retribution, and c) the ultimate resolution ending in glorification of the female deity and the cementing of women’s power of moral persuasion. Manasa symbolises the quintessential, primordial fertility goddess who has survived in spite of the vagaries of time and power dynamics.
Goddesses represent the deification of female power, the iconisation of the divine as feminine. Yet despite the assumption of eternal and transcendent omniscience, they emerge, evolve, and mutate to rise or fall upon this temporal bank and shoal of time .
The popularity of this cultural practice primarily amongst the marginalised communities reflects historical caste-gendering, marking the exile of women from the privileged religious realms.
In the Folk-Literature of Bengal by Rai Saheb Dineshchandra Sen, published by the University of Calcutta in 1920, we are told,
The Muhammadans are now mostly the rojāhs or physicians of snakebites in Bengal. They recite incantations and mantras for the cure of not only those who are bitten by serpents but also for those said to be possessed by spirits. From generation to generation, these rojāhs, mostly Muhammadans, as I have said, have been practitioners of this art .
Quotes of the mantras, within Sen’s text, include appeals to Manasa Devi confirming the linkage between the tale of the Serpent Goddess, the art of faith healing and the plural nature of this practice.
At an intellectual level, cultural theorist Michel de Certeau refers to a river, a wall, or a tree as a frontier. Instead of a cartographical location, Certeau gives them a mediating role. Appropriation by ‘actors’ and the performance of rituals turns the frontier into a crossing, and the river into a bridge . The river provides a transitional passage or ‘liminal’ space between different stages of existence–life and death, childhood, and adulthood, and so on. It is within such interstices, using the likes of theatre and ritual, that creativity blooms and social transformation occurs via a breakdown of social structures. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes rituals as a tripartite scheme of a) separation b) transition and c) integration, where he characterises the transitional space as ‘liminal’ space where there is an effacement of the normative structure. It is, also, in such a space that institutionalised hierarchies of relationships dissolve to allow ‘communitas’, or a leveling of relations, to edge in. Due to the levelling of personalities a proto structure of human relatedness or ‘communitas’ eliminates differences. It is this ‘proto-structure’ which is the ‘seed-bed of creativity’.
Communitas suspends norms that govern ‘structured and institutionalised relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency’. This interstitial liminality offers an ideal platform for the transformation of the meek housewife, Behula, into a powerhouse of determination, furnishing ‘glimpses of that unused evolutionary potential in mankind which has not yet been externalised and fixed in structure.’ . Similarly, in the Rasa theory of Indian Aesthetics, theatre is described as an extra-empirical experience where emotions have no purposivity (artha-kriya karitva) thus also allowing a levelling of emotions leading to universalisation (sadharanikaran) of responses.
At the mundane level, processional events are public performances richly expressive of symbolic meanings. Such meanings are constructed by the movement of participants through space and time, in a special order, and on a particular occasion . The cast are rarely from a fixed group and most times are not professional performers. Rather, they are engaged in alternate professions i.e., landless labour, cobblers, carpenters, etc. They are mostly Muslim. Some performers are ojhás/rojhás or faith healers, with the power of healing snakebites and other ailments.
The term bhog (pleasure) designates an offering to appease deities. During the procession, each boat stops at seven different ghats, where the performers execute rites and set afloat the bhog, contributed by onlooking villagers. There is always a bevy of worshippers, Hindu and Muslim, standing on the banks with their contribution of ‘offerings’
The folk ritual performance of ‘Shaone Dala’ is an illustration of the relationship between people of Bangladesh and the riverine ecosystem around them. Ecosystem services (ES) constitute a systemic framework conceptualising the diversity of interconnected values that ecosystems provide to humanity, many of which may be degraded or lost through solely utilitarian exploitation . People seek and interact with aquatic ecosystems such as seas, rivers and wetlands to obtain non-material benefits provided by cultural ecosystem services. These services influence the way people live and feel in the world and contribute to the satisfaction of fundamental human needs.
Symbolic representation of the Goddess by a richly decorated earthenware ghot, or ritual pot, absolves the dichotomy of Muslim adherents having to pay obeisance to a Hindu deity. The other form of imaging is pata-chitra or scroll paintings. In Sanskrit, ‘pata’ means cloth — the Patuas initially painted stories of culture, religion, society, nature and folklore, on dried leaves or cloth; accompanied by song.
The great folklorist, A.K. Ramanujan maintained that South Asian traditions are indissolubly plural and though conflicting, they are responses to previous and surrounding traditions. If normative society is viewed as ‘structure’, responses against those structures, or ‘anti-structures’ arose to invert, subvert, and convert their neighbour. However, a transfusion of tradition continued through an imaginary ‘permeable membrane’. In the liminal or transitional space of ‘rituals’ the compartments break down and the space allows a fluid mix of traditions.
The geospatial character of human abode plays a defining role on how identities are formed. While the social, cultural, ideological, and religious roles of water include deep ontological relations and identities ranging from personal perceptions and gender relations to rainmaking and fertility rites for the benefit of the whole society, it also gives rise to perceptions of cosmological realms and religious beliefs . The performance of the tale of Manasa reflects all these aspects of folk culture, reiterating the strong ties between man and nature.
Practicalities notwithstanding, aquatic systems are a source for reinforcing cultural identity.
Lubna Marium is a dancer, art director, researcher and cultural activist from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Irvine, Katherine N., Liz O’Brien, Neil Ravenscroft, Nigel Cooper, Mark Everard, Ioan Fazey, Mark S. Reedh, and Jasper O. Kenter. 2016. “Ecosystem services and the idea of shared values.” Ecosystem Services (Elsevier) 184 – 193.
Brown, Elizabeth A. R, and Nancy Freeman Regalado. 2001. “The Parade of the Parisians at the Pentecost Feast of 1313.” In Moving Subjects Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by Kathleen Ashley and Wim Husken. Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi.
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: ALDINE DE GRUYTER .
Oestigaard, Terje. 2009. “Introduction.” In Water, Culture and Identity: Comparing Past and Present Traditions in the Nile Basin Region, by Terje (ed.) Oestigaard. Bergen: BRIC Press, University of Bergen.
Sengupta, Saswati. 2021. Mutating Goddesses: Bengal’s Laukika Hinduism and Gender Rights. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Certeau, Michel de. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sen, Dineshchandra. 1920. Folk Tales of Bengal. Kolkata: University of Calcutta.
Leading Image : Ritual performance of Shaone Dala, based on the Myth of Manasa, the Goddess of Serpents; August 16, 2017, Tangail, Bangladesh; Here the bride Behula, singing by the corpse of her hapless husband, Lokkhindar, appeals to Lord Siva to bring him back to life.
¹Excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Nodi: ‘Nodī colē jāy joto dūrē, toto’i jol ōthē purē purē. Śēsē dēkhā nāhi jāy kūl, chōkhē dik hoyē jāy bhul. Nīl hoyē āshē joldhārā, mukhē lāgē jēno nun-pārā. Kromē nīchē nāhi pā’i tol, kromē ākāśē miśāy jol….’
‘The farther the river runsThe more its waters riseIn the distance the banks disappearThe eyes are tricked into losing directionThe flowing water turns blueAnd tastes salty in the mouthWe can no longer plumb the ocean floorAs sky and water blend together’¹ It is said that the mere utterance of the triptych phrase “Bhūr-bhuvah-svah – the…