The Lady of the Forest: Professor Sufia Uddin awarded NEH fellowship

(January 31, 2020)

Professor of Religious Studies Sufia Uddin has been awarded a $60,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a website about Hindu and Muslim traditions and ceremonies venerating the saint Bonbibi in the Sundarban island region of Bangladesh and India.

Uddin specializes in the constructions of the Bengali-Muslim religious community from the colonial to the contemporary period. Her work examines the many Bengali expressions of Islam and covers shared sacred space and religious elements common to both Bengali Hindus and Muslims, including the marginalized communities of Muslims and Hindus in the Sudarbans who share recognition and veneration of Bonbibi (The Lady of the Forest), whom they believe protects them from tigers. A central element of Bonbibi worship for both Muslims and Hindus is the recitation of “Jaharnama,” a 19th-century poem belonging to a Bengali Muslim genre known as puthi, which Uddin has translated.

With this grant, Uddin will create a website featuring audio and video recordings of “Jaharnama” recitations, video of a Bonbibi play, photographs of shrines, interviews with villagers, interactive maps and recorded forest sounds to give visitors the opportunity to enter the conceptual world of the people who created these practices.

“In the study of Indigenous religion, we know that the relationship of people to their natural world is central to understanding culture, and my study and translation of ‘Jaharnama’ illuminates the ways in which the Muslims and Hindus in the Sundarbans relate to the delicate natural environment in which they live,” Uddin said.

“This born-digital, web-based project will be accessible to those who are the subject of this study, students, scholars and anyone interested in environmental degradation and other issues. As they are in the Sundarbans, the forest, work, ritual and place will all be connected on the site.” 

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