Written by Sourabha Rao
Phrases that convey something to the effect of ‘reconnecting with nature’ often seem poignant. Not because there are metaphorical allusions or poeticism for us to consider, but because they somehow seem to presuppose that it’s a connection that we are capable of severing. Especially for those of us dwelling in cities, getting away from the din into the lap of mountains or the verdant depths of rainforests, plunging into a river for a swim or going on a safari in a tiger reserve is seen as an act of ‘reconnecting’ with nature. Are we then, after all, capable of disconnecting ourselves from nature in the first place?
Alan Watts had once famously said, “We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.” On International Tiger Day, here’s an attempt to ponder upon the truth that we are, at all times, connected to nature. An attempt to explore a particular connection we have with a fellow mammal that has for ages penetrated the consciousness of various peoples across borders. The stories are numerous, but here are a few to pique your interest to dig deeper into this kinship we have with this phenomenal cat.
1. An imitation: the Huli Vesha celebration
Image courtesy: Deccan Herald
Huli Vesha. These two words might have already evoked vibrant images in your mind, especially if you live in Karnataka, India. A folk dance typically performed by groups of young males costumed to look like tigers during Navratri (a festival that spans nine nights in the month of October, celebrated differently in different parts of India) Huli Vesha, also known as Pili Yesa or Pili Vesha, finds its origins in coastal Karnataka.
The men imitating or interpreting the tiger’s impact through their dance moves are accompanied by drummers. They dance to the fevered rhythms of the beats and roam the streets of their towns. Each troop has a manager. Costumes may vary from region to region, but it is usually shorts with a tiger-skin motif and bare body covered in orange, white and black stripes. Masks or other headgear made of fake fur are also used, and sometimes, a tail is also a part of the costume. The impact that the tiger has had on humans in this part of the world is expressed in the vividness of this dance-form. You can witness the glory of it in several YouTube videos such as this one.
2. A brotherhood: the Mishmi people
Image courtesy: Current Conservation
Human-carnivore relationships can be an anchor that holds in place our understanding of our own multifaceted interconnectedness with nature. Inhabiting the Sino-India border, the Mishmi people of Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, believe that tigers are their elder brothers. A Mishmi mythological narrative goes that tigers and Mishmi were born to the same mother as siblings. A disagreement leads to the human conspiring to kill the apex predator. This conscious killing of his own brother, the spilling of the blood of one’s own kin – the Mishmi believe – unleashed many misfortunes and diseases that still haunt them.
Tigers are so deeply revered by the Mishmi that hunting the carnivore is considered homicide.
Several studies have probed into the contribution of this Mishmi story, this belief, to biodiversity protection and tiger conservation in the age of globalisation. For more detailed reading, you can refer to two of them here and here.
3. A social marker: the Sundarbans islanders
Image courtesy: Shatarupa Bhattacharyya
In the unique Sundarbans mangrove ecosystem, have you wondered what tigers mean to the islanders? How can mythological mysteries lead to protection of forests?
Bonbibi is worshipped as a deity who protects people (fishing community, woodcutters, honey-gatherers) from tiger attacks when they enter the forests. According to a 19th century legend, Bonbibi Johuranama, Ma Bonbibi's nemesis was Dokkhin Rai, a forest-dwelling sage who takes the form of a tiger in a fit of rage, resolving to prey on humans. He refuses to share forest resources with humans in his new-found greed (a detail that seems to hold a mirror to greedy landlords). A primordial trust that thus far connected humans and animals starts to fray as tigers and other denizens of the mangrove forests follow Dokkhin’s cue.
It is Bonbibi who comes to the rescue of humans from the gluttonous Dokkhin Rai. Even today, she is worshipped by people of different faiths as a protector of humans. And this protection from her is believed to be deserved only when humans take the bare-minimum resources needed from the forests.
Here is a study in which tiger-charming rituals and the worship of forest deities like Bonbibi and Dokkhin Rai are explored to arrive at a lucid understanding about people, politics and environment in the Sundarbans.
4. A compelling case: the Sumatran saga
Digital image courtesy: Daven/Deviant Art
The power of certain stories or beliefs can instill in us more consideration, tolerance and empathy towards various details of life. In landscapes where animals and humans interact frequently, such beliefs are vital for effective wildlife conservation strategies. One such fine example is the perception of tigers – within a cosmological framework – of the indigenous people living in the fringes of Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP), Sumatra.
A country with a rich history, Sumatra shelters many complex cultural stories in all walks of life, which also extends to ecology. Not only the physical tiger as we know in the wild, but several other forms of tigers are known to exist in the Sumatran mythology, including several spiritual tigers referred to as the ‘weretiger’. Weretigers are believed to shapeshift across human and animal bodies, some people also consider the weretigers to be their ancestors, watching over their lives in tiger form. And this belief is a part of multiple cultures and religions in Sumatra.
In a study based on weretiger, researchers assert that such local perceptions and belief systems relating to large carnivores can coincide with community-based conservation values. They must gain utmost consideration from conservation practitioners and policy makers. Similar studies emphasise the significance of understanding cultural landscapes while conceiving conflict-mitigation strategies.
There is an overwhelming spectrum of stories across centuries that has stirred out of the human consciousness, that which stands as a testament to our own inherent reverence to other forms of life we share this planet and its resources with. And few creatures of the wild have haunted the alleyways of our imagination as the endangered, mystically magnetic tiger.
Like Agha Shahid Ali once said, ‘the world is full of paper’, so write to us on International Tiger Day, as a fitting tribute, if you know of more divine entities conjured up by the human mind based on this fascinating cat in any part of the world. We are all eyes and ears to learn more.