Bengali culture has always been synonymous with pluralism, and centuries of multi-layered influences have created a vast array of local traditions that are anything but homogenous. Our traditions are influenced by our livelihoods, by ethnicities and localities, by religious and spiritual beliefs and of course, by language. In turn, all of these different frontiers are influenced by each other, and are constantly evolving and reshaping themselves to form the wonderfully multifaceted culture of Bangladesh.

The stories of our lives

The green landscapes and tranquil beauty of rural Bangladesh have been a constant source of inspiration for Bengali poets and songwriters. Our vast rivers have given birth to the tradition of Bhatiyali folk music, whereas the long journeys on ox carts have created the tradition of Bhawaiya music in North Bengal. These are only a few examples – starting from the Gombhiras that discuss social issues to the Agamani-Bijaya that celebrates the return of Parvati to her home in Bengal, local livelihoods and beliefs have always strongly influenced folk culture in all corners of Bangladesh. All of our folk culture is also influenced by a strong oral tradition, and often generations of rural households are involved in keeping their family rituals alive without knowing how to read and write all this down, but simply through their daily practices and collective memory.

What is most interesting about these influences is that they are not monolithic – especially in rural areas, people continue to follow their local traditions and be influenced by their regional rituals, although on paper it might seem to be at odds with their religious beliefs. This is especially true in the case of folk festivals such as the worshipping of the serpent goddess Manasa to protect against snakebites, which is most often done by rural snake-charmers and traditional healers. The worship of the benevolent forest goddess Bon-Bibi, who protects people from tigers and crocodiles in the forests of the South, is another example of local traditions and contextual practices seeping into the daily lives of people from all sections of society. In all of these cases, these local deities are revered by Bangladeshis of all religions, including Islam.

Spirituality and cultural diversity

According to Saymon Zakaria, Assistant Director at Bangla Academy, the majority of our folk traditions have existed for centuries and continued alongside the advent of many religions in this regions without creating much conflict, despite what we may think.

“The rural population in Bengal has an incredible quality of not viewing everything from a fundamental black and white point of view – they are able to accept their religion but also continue traditions that are tied in with their livelihoods and family customs. Additionally, we also have a strong tradition of spirituality that exists alongside our religions and allows us to hold on to our culture.”

This spirituality is most apparent in the Baul music of Bangladesh, which represents a long heritage of mysticism and combines it with a longing for oneness with the divine as well as with all of humanity. In Baul music, we can often find the idea of a pure and supreme entity. In Bengali we call this “Niranjan” and, interestingly enough, mentions of Niranjan can be found not only in Baul music but in many of our folklore, including the Manasa worship rituals, which show the deeply spiritual core that is rooted in our traditions.

According to Zakaria, we are more likely to see variations in local cultures according to the region and often as a result of different livelihoods, contexts and ethnicities. For example, during the Chaitra Shakranti, some ethnic communities from the tea gardens walk barefoot across the hills with their musical instruments, and perform in front of temples in village and, if invited, stay there all night and perform spiritual songs. Similarly, Bengalis also dress up as Radha-Krishna and Shiv-Parvati and march through villages in similar fashions, but with slightly different performances or attire.

Manasa puja and celebration of female power

Regional variations in culture are most obvious in studying the worship of the serpent goddess Manasa, a tradition that has existed for centuries in Bengal. In the Rangpur region, Manasa is revered specifically by widows who refer to her as “Bishohori” (stealer of poison) and sing to her at night in the Bengali month of Sraban to protect them and their villages from harm. In the Rajshahi-Natore region, she is referred to as “Padmadevi” because of her birth on lotus leaves, and villagers sing to her almost all year round in order to save them from snakebites and other dangers, rid them of disease and bring children into their families.

This is quite similar to the worship of Manasa in Kushtia, only there it involves more of a dance drama performance. In Tangail, the worship of Manasa also involves the celebration of Behula and her struggle to save her husband from Manasa through dance drama. In almost all parts of Bangladesh, there is some sort of river journey involved, and there is an abundance of regional variations in terms of rituals, music, dance, food, clothing etc. In all of these rituals, people from all backgrounds and religions participate.

The celebration of the serpent goddess in its different forms not only stands as a symbol of the cultural pluralism of Bangladesh, but embodies our core spiritual values and symbolises the celebration of female strength, both of Behula and the female deity Manasa. The oral and poetic traditions of Manasa puja have been a point of interest for cultural researchers as well. This is reflected in The Triumph of the Snake Goddess, the first comprehensive retelling of this epic tale in modern English by scholar and poet Kaiser Haq. Published by Harvard University Press, this book will be launched at the Dhaka Lit Festival on 20 November, from 5-6pm. Haq will be in conversation with cultural activist Lubna Marium, who has done extensive work with folk traditions venerating Manasa, and folk expert and academic Syed Jamil Ahmed.

Shuprova Tasneem is a journalist at Dhaka Tribune.

First appeared in Dhaka Tribune: http://www.dhakatribune.com/arts-letters/2015/nov/07/cultural-pluralism-bangladesh