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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 151 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 23, 2004

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The Season of the mowali s

Mustafa Zaman

April 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.

Honey 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.

"The 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.

The 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 his documentary.

"We 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.

But 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.

"The 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 the deaths.

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.

At 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 past redundant.

As 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 (drinking water).

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 Tanjil.

Tanjil 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.

Two 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, the receptacle.

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.

Photographs: Elizabeth Fahrni Mansur
and Rubaiyat Mansur Mowghi


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