Season of the
is the cruelest month of all, wrote T.S. Eliot. Not
so the mowali s , a breed of
Bangali whose livelihood is traditionally dependent
on the Sundarbans. For them April is the month of hope.
As April dawns, the mowali s , the local
name for the honey collectors, prepare to go deep into
the forest to lay their hands on the most precious natural
resource of all, honey --mou in Bangla.
is the ultimate nectar, it is called liquid gold. For
the communities living near the Sundarbans, honey translates
into profit that may tide them over throughout the year.
It is in April that trees are in bloom in the Sundarbans
and the wild Asian honeybees are busy accumulating the
nectar of flowers in their complex wax-made homes --
the bee colonies. Along with major species like keora,
passur, goran, gewa, the mangrove species, golpata
make up the greater portion of the botanical wealth
of the forest. The vegetation dresses itself in flowers
once winter is behind.
south-east region of the Sundarbans is the most important
part in terms of bio-diversity, as this is the area
that doesn't remain immersed in saline water all year
round," says Tanjillur Rahman, who has just come
back from a trip with the mowali s . Tanjil
is a photographer working on a video documentary that
focuses on honey collecting. Tanjil filmed and directed
the documentary. He informs us that honey collecting
is the most financially rewarding livelihood of the
people living at the mouth of the Ganges Delta.
Sundarbans is a vast continuous forested plain. It is
a labyrinth of rivers, creeks and islands. As the world's
largest continuous mangrove forest, the Sundarbans is
home to a diverse array of wildlife. It hems the country's
south-west shoreline, and is a source of livelihood
of people living right next to it. "It is the eastern
region where you will find the homes of the mowali s
and the people dependent on the resources of the Sundarbans,"
says Tanjil, who has long been interested in the lives
of these marginal communities. With the help of Elizabeth
Fahrni Mansur and Rubaiyat Mansur, a couple which has
earned the epithet Mowglis who have been the champions
of conservation in this region, Tanjil has developed
an understanding of the working of the eco-system of
this forest. This year his aim was to record the series
of events that culminate into the gathering of the hive
or chaak-bhanga according to the local dialect.
Starting from April 1, the day of the official inauguration
of honey collecting season, Tanjil spent four consecutive
days filming the mowali s . But such intensive
work in the scorching heat took its toll on Tanjil.
He became severely dehydrated and was forced to come
back to Dhaka for a few days after which it was back
to the forest for more footage towards completion of
were lucky that there were fifty boats this year. Each
boat carries one group of eight members. Last year there
were only five boats that paid the tax and participated
in the government endorsed honey collecting binge,"
says Tanjil. The tax, or the fee for obtaining the permit,
now stands at Taka 4,500 for each group. It is something
of a burden for many, as mowali s are
members of poor families dependent on this traditional
way of life. Alongside seasonal harvesting of modhu
(honey), they depend on fishing to keep them going for
the rest of the year, though fishing in the Sundarbans
is illegal. The people from the 'impact zone', the area
where people dependent on forest traditionally have
been living, enjoy the privilege of flouting the regulation.
Survival takes precedence in the impact zone.
even in the impact zone, resources are gradually collapsing
and the hope for making profit by legally acquiring
the permission to go honey harvesting is becoming dimmer.
Although each honeycomb of the Asian wild honeybees
accrues from 20 to 30 litres of honey, the chances of
finding combs are decreasing. Illegal honey harvesting
is a scourge that looms large in the minds of the mowali
s who pay for their mission and are intent on turning
the season into a profitable one. Each group of mowali
s that pays for their mission worries over whether
they would be lucky enough to get their money's worth.
On top of that, there is the fear of falling victim
to the pirates and the man-eating tigers. "Piracy
in the coastal water is on the rise," testifies
Mowgli, in his brochure
on mowali s .
What once used to be
a lifestyle, is now merely a trade. As the official
permission fee is high, the mowali s are
also deviating from tradition. Tanjil elucidates the
changed attitude, "In the past the mowali
s used to acquire only the part of the comb that
stores honey, but now they just slice off the whole
chunk, they are after as big a portion of the wax as
possible, as it means increasing their income."
Pure wax, moreover, is in demand in the beauty industry.
As for the illegal honey
collectors, they are contributing to the decimation
of beehives while in turn putting their own lives in
jeopardy. As the forest department fails to understand
the traditional lifestyle of the mowali s
, the high fee impedes many from joining the legal harvesters.
The consequence is adverse, as more and more mowali
s are illegally entering the forest for honey and
falling prey to Royal Bengal tigers. Tanjil adds that
the deer population has dramatically declined over the
last couple of years.
unofficial death toll of last month stands at 19,"
says Tanjil. Death is what stalks every mowali
in the Sundarbans. Illegal honey collectors are easy
prey. They start early. From the month of March till
June, scores of mowali s enter illegally,
--many to die without the Forest Department ever acknowledging
Going honey collecting
is a family matter. "Each household that has mowali
members is proud, as going honey-hunting is a dangerous
occupation," says Tanjil. "You need to be
strong, healthy and brave to go honey collecting, that
is one reason why it is the most highly acknowledged
occupation among the communities in the impact zone.
It is also the most rewarding," Tanjil adds. His
journey began from the Forest Station of Burigoalini,
in the Satkhira forest range. He accompanied two groups
of mowali s with government permits.
Burigoalini, on April 1, 2004, all the families
of the departing mowali s gathered to
say goodbye. Six years back, the maiden year of the
government-endorsed honey-collecting season saw the
participation of 100 boats, this year it stands at 50.
The drastic reduction seen last year has improved. From
five boats to fifty, it certainly is a leap. The mowali
s are learning the trade. Though their lot is still
tied to the antics of the manipulating middlemen, who
get the official papers straight for them in exchange
of a cut of the honey collected. "Honey is split
in nine ways, the one ninth portion is the fee that
the middleman gets," Tanjil discloses.
For the mowali
s and their families, honey collecting is a huge
affair. As there is a constant fear that not all men
will come back in one piece, families flock the riverside
to bid farewell and to wish them luck. The mowali
s get on board the wooden boats in their groups
of eight, ready to leave for one whole month. And this
merits a ritual of sorts. In the past a guneen
used to invoke the spirit of the Bonbibi, the
guardian of the forest, to assure them a safe journey.
It was even customary to take a guneen with
each group. Immunity from attack was guaranteed, if
a guneen could invoke Bonbibi, the
lady of the forest, and work a bandh (spell)
around the area of harvesting. It was a belief that
went back a long way and was believed to be a remnant
of the early folk religions. Now, in the surge of intolerance
and the newly acquired resolve to opt for the majoritarian
belief, the Islamic way gets the upper hand. A milaad
in each boat makes all the crude arrangements of the
for other arrangements, the mowali s carry
provisions to last them for a month, during which time
they would even refrain from uttering the word 'bagh'
(tiger). The word remains a taboo, and in the physical
surrounding of the forest the watchfulness is the only
practical strategy of these mowali s who
kick-start with a boat race arranged to mark the occasion.
The race starts with a single gunshot, and with that
kicks off the official honey-collecting season.
"The race is inevitable,
as the groups will soon be scrambling to lay claim to
the areas where they think the largest number of hives
are," Tanjil says. The urgency to get to the right
spot in the right time drives the mowali s
, and the family members they leave behind keep standing
lining the bank of the river. "They remain there
till the boats are out of their sight," adds Tanjil,
who tagged along with two groups of mowali
s facilitated by the Guide Tours Ltd. run by Rubaiyat
Monsur, aka, Mowgli.
Each boat carries a heavy cargo.
Under the floorboards of the long wooden country boats
-- rice, lentils, oil, spices, potatoes, molasses are
stored. All the kitchen appliances are lugged with the
men. But most importantly, for each group of mowali
s , there are five
essential elements, which they
can never do without: dhama, the receptacle for
the dislodged hive, the daa, the karu
or the smoke torch, the newly bought gamchas,
and finally the motkas, the pitcher-like earthen
pots to store the honey. Pitchers are quite a few, and
they are not taken empty. Each is filled with mithapani
When Tanjil left Burigoalini
forest station, he did not have to worry about the cargo.
And in addition to the two boats, Mowgli was there not
only for him but also for the mowali s
with his ship. When in dire situations, even the mowali
s could take refuge in the ship of the Guide Tours,
the eco-tourism outfit that Mowgli runs. And this time
around, it was Mowgli who paid for the permits of the
two groups of mowali s that Tanjil was
accompanying. "Mowgli wanted to revive the tradition
of leaving a part of the honeycomb while gathering the
honey. This allows the bees to quickly rebuild their
colony. Mowgli has also been working towards the ecological
well-being of the Sunderbans since 1995," reveals
was over cautious about the trip, he had all the plans
to make his voyage less uncomfortable. Yet in the Sundarbans,
there is no escape from the curses that its pristine
environment has in store for foraging humans. "Heat
is exceedingly unbearable, and the land is unsuitable
for trekking," Tanjil let us know. Braving all
these, the mowali s go out to spot the
hives to extract honey.
For Tanjil the experience of
landing on the soft soil of the bank of a creek, the
spot where the mowali s decided to make
their first forage on the morning of April 1, was something
that he will never forget. His crew consisted of Jessy
who owned the DV camera that Tanjil intended to use
in filming. Before setting foot on the ground, Tanjil
was geared in a thick denim shirt and high-ankle boots
and he, as well as every man in the group, had to make
use of the new gamcha they were given by wrapping
the head with it. "Only a slit in front that allowed
each to see was left open. And I tightly wedged my glasses
upon my nose to make sure not to leave any area open
for bite," remembers Tanjil.
Once on the mud, Tanjil's camera-wielding
companion, whom he refers to as Jessi <>bhai,
simply sunk belly deep in the mud, and feared to go
all the way down. "He needed to be pulled out of
the mud, and once out of danger his first word was,
'what a way to start'," adds Tanjil. He himself
was in knee-deep mud, and they realised at that point
that their job would not be any easier than walking
on sticky gob of mud.
The terrain that they had to
walk proved even more unfriendlier to human treading.
"The goran forest is so thick and ground so slippery
that movement seems impossible, and the mangroves are
there to hinder your journey," says Tanjil, who
accompanied the seven mowali s who would
soon find their first hive.
The rule of the game of honey-collecting
calls for seven men to tread the ground, leaving one
man behind on the boat. This man, the rower, once in
the jungle, plays the part of the horn-blower. By blowing
the horn he indicates how far the already dispersed
mowali s have reached. He is the human
compass, who helps each mowali to realise the
distance between the boat and oneself. Once in the advancing
mode, the seven mowali s would stand apart
from each other staying in calling distance, forming
an arc. "The most experienced men would be in the
middle and they would sift through the denser part of
the forest. With the inexperienced men on either side
in the less dense areas, each mowali will start
to scamper in the same direction," Tanjil reconstructs
the way a group combs the forest for prospective trees
with hives dangling beneath a forked branch.
The minute anyone spots a hive,
he shouts: "Allah, Allah". This is the signal--
the annunciation-- that a hive has been spotted. The
signal brings all the men to the spot of the hive. Then
begins another ritual with all the practical implications
that leads to the obtaining of the honeycomb.
men bear the daas (indigenous knives), two
carry the dhama and two light the karu
--the smoke-torch made out of dried golpata
with green ones as a wrapping. When the torches are
lit, thick smoke bellows from them to envelop the area.
Smoke blinds the bees, and they soon disperse. It is
at this moment that the mowali in charge of slicing
the hive swiftly climbs the tree and wipes off the remaining
bees with his bare hand. Then comes the moment of cutting
off the part of hive glutinous with honey and the part
with white wax in it.
The first encounter with the
Sundarbans honeycomb was, according to Tanjil, "a
sight of terrible beauty". After the job of slicing
off the bee-less comb is done, comes the part of quickly
leaving the place with the hive in the dhama,
In the first session, Tanjil
could only get some shots of how the comb is collected.
But he needed to know how long it takes for the bees
to come back and reclaim their home. For this he had
to come back again, as it was already time to go back
to the boat after two consecutive hive-slicing that
took more than four hours.
The groups that Tanjil was with
were lucky to have two forest guards with them. The
Guide Tours arranged for these men. There was also a
sexagenarian named Gafur, who on the first night on
the vessel of the Guide Tour Ltd., the company that
is partially sponsoring the film, delighted his small
audience with his songs on the Sundarbans and warned
them of the danger of falling prey to a tiger. Tanjil
befriended Gafur, who through his own testimony, constantly
gave credence to the fact that the tradition of the
mowali s are in decline. "This man
whom I endearingly started to call dadu, has
40 years of experience as a mowali to fall back
upon. In dadu's consideration most of today's
mowali s are amateurs," says Tanjil.
Tanjil continued to accompany
the mowali s for four consecutive days,
although severe dehydration made him weaker after two
days. The soggy forest was hot enough. The gear to stave
off the bee-sting only added to the discomfort. But
however armoured Tanjil was, bee-sting is one thing
he could not escape from. "On the second day, a
bee crawled under my shirt and struck. But, immediately
dadu came up with the remed and the strong
burning sensation magically subsided," remembers
Tanjil. The remedy was a simple potion extracted from
the beehive and then smeared on the bite. A seasoned
mowali knows all the survival tactics.
Even the pugmarks can be read to tell whether the mark
was recent or old, as dadu demonstrated.
But his is a lifestyle that is
in danger of fading. With the resources slowly drying
out, the people dependent on the biological wealth of
Asia's precious rain forest is finding it hard going
while continuing with their traditional occupation.
Not every tourist group that sails to the Sundarbans
to delight their eyes with the sight of a deer or two,
or even the Royal Bengal tiger, is keen on the impact
their tours might have on the existing eco-system. The
government must regulate tourism. It also must check
the thinning out of the forest and promote the lifestyle
that thrives on the forest. The people dependent on
the forest can become a catalyst for enforcing the forest
laws and regulations. It is they who stand to lose all
if the forest disappears.
and Rubaiyat Mansur Mowghi