Softshell Turtles and softshell Turtle products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.
Softshell Turtle (Islamic Cultures / Bangladesh)
A Story by Annu Jalais
(Black Soft-Shelled Turtle also known as the Bostami turtle) Bangladesh
In Bangladesh’s city of Chittagong’s Nasirabad area, there is a little hill on top of which there is a shrine dedicated to the memory of Hazrat Bayezid Bostami, a famous Sufi saint who is believed to have come to Bengal all the way from the city of Bastam in Iran. We know very little about this holy person. The shrine or the dargah complex consists of what is believed to be the “tomb” (a sarcophagus containing shells and corals and perhaps five drops of the saint’s blood) in a modern-day brick structure. The complex also shelters an old mosque, believed to have been built in the time of Emperor Aurangzeb, and a “magical” pond. The pond is full of turtles that are called “mazari” (i.e. “belonging to the mazar” of the sacred tomb i.e. of the saint), and people from all over Bangladesh come to see these turtles to be blessed by them. They do so by feeding them bits of banana, rice balls, bread or meat extended towards them on a twig, and then by gently stroking their head.
The black softshell turtle has a very distinct nose and face, with a tube-like structure protruding from its nose resembling a snorkel. They also have strange hand-like structures that are webbed. Like all other softshell turtles, they also have a semi-flexible shell that is leathery.
Folk tales claim that these turtles are the descendants of evil spirits or jinns that incurred the wrath of the renowned saint while he was visiting the area. It is believed that the saint transformed the jinns into turtles as a punishment and that they are doomed to spend eternity in this pool. These black soft-shelled turtles are known as Bostami turtles or Bostami kachim and are locally believed to exist only in this pond. However, they also exist in a couple of other ponds – one attached to the Sakta Kamakhya temple in Assam, the other to a Shiva temple in Baneswar in Cooch Behar in West Bengal – as well as in the wild (two tiny populations were discovered in the wild in Assam). They are thus very rare and critically endangered.
Some say that Bayezid Bostami may not have visited Bengal and that what is believed to be his “tomb” is actually a “jawab” (i.e. a “response” or an “imitation”) or an answer to fervent prayers that he visits. Others, however, believe that he visited Chittagong during his lifetime. The story goes that overwhelmed by the devotion of his followers who were requesting him to stay back, the saint pierced his little finger and allowed a few drops of blood to fall to the ground, thus consecrating the place and allowing his followers to build a shrine in his name. Chittagong is a sea-port and is referred to as the “city of the twelve saints” and travellers from all over the world used to visit the port from as early as the 8th century CE. Hence it is not impossible that the saint visited in the 9th century. In popular culture, there are many poems singing the praises of ‘Shah Sultan of Nasirabad’ and it is believed that the songs refer to Bayejid Bostami as his actual name was ‘Sultan-ul-Arefin’. Muslim faqirs, saints and wanderers used to come to Chittagong and clear forests and then take their seat on hill-tops in imitation of viharas (Khan, 1871).
Value in Asian Medicine or “Curative” propensity