Dipping into the past for the future
Traditional beliefs and rituals of many communities related to the tiger need a revivial to preserve the tiger population of the North East.
Tiger is a symbol of power, strength and majesty in the overall Indian social, cultural and religious perceptions. Many traditionally look at the big cat as the protector from the evil. The Bagh Deo rituals practiced by the Gond Tribe of central India is an example of such traditional beliefs among many communities across the country.
Such rituals exist in North East India too -- a habitat of the Royal Bengal tiger. Take the Ramo tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. Traditionally a hunting tribe, the Ramos avoids eating or killing tigers as they consider it their divine brother. The Mao tribe in Manipur also believes that the tiger is a god and the mankind its brother, the sons of same mother. As per their folk interpretation, ‘okhe’ (meaning 'tiger' representing all of the animal kingdom), ‘orah’ (meaning 'god' representing all of the supernatural world) and ‘omei’ (meaning 'mankind') are rooted in same mother.
The tribes like the Apatani and Singpho in Arunachal Pradesh also traditionally avoid killing tigers. If someone had to kill one in self defence, he/she has to under a ritual and ask for apology for it from the divine powers.
Among the Bodos of Assam, the Musahary or Mwsahary clan is connected with the Bodo word ‘musa’, meaning tiger. They believe that they share kinship with tigers. In parts of the state’s Darang district, the clan is often referred to as Baglari. Many Musahary use the surname Baglary. The word ‘Bag’ or ‘Bagh’ is an Assamese word, meaning tiger. The reason why many Mushaharies use Baglary as the surname is probably because of the influence of the Assamese-speaking community upon some Bodos inhabiting in close proximity to them.
In some villages of Baksa district, the Musahary clan is also referred by the Bodo villagers as ‘Musani Bahagi’, meaning kinsfolk of the tiger. Traditionally, the Mushaharies were hunters but they were not supposed to kill the tiger. It is believed that this group was also traditionally to ensure the safety of domestic animals from the attack of tigers. Interestingly, there was a tradition in the clan that on hearing about the death of a tiger in a neighbouring village, all members of a Mushahary family should observe a day of mourning for the dead tiger, as if it belonged to their family. On the day of mourning, the floors and the walls of each house of the village were to be wiped by the womenfolk with freshly prepared compost of mud and cow-dung and the articles like cloths, utensils, etc. were to be washed on the same ground and thereafter sprinkled with holy waters.
This practice is said to be still followed in some interior Bodo villages. (Paripex – Indian Journal of Reserach, Volume: 4 | Issue: 2 | Feb 2015, p.69-70).
The Karbi community, inhabiting in the areas around the Kaziranga National Park and its contiguous forests, also have tiger rituals. The Karbis of Inglepathar particularly perform the Chinthong Arnam. They believe that the soul of a person who dies in a tiger attack is unredeemable. Chinthong is a deity of the Karbis who offers protection against the Bongkrui (tiger). Therefore, he is propitiated through the performance of the ritual Chinthong Arnam.
Some Karbis also have the Rong Arnam ritual observed during the month of Matizang (December) for the protection of the entire village from Ingnar (elephants) and Bongkrui (tigers). During this ritual, the deities are invoked not only for the protection of human beings but also for the safety of their domestic animals (The International Indigenous Policy Journal, Vol. 2, Iss. 4 , Art. 10, p.5-6).
Also, among the Dimasa community, any person killed by a tiger is considered the worst kind of death. It is traditionally believed that the person might have committed some felony and therefore was punished. The death ceremony of such a person is different from the rest.
It is noteworthy that up to around 2001-02 in the Dailungjhar village -- located on the boundary of the Manas National Park in the state’s Chirang district, people belonging to Koch Rajbongshi and Bengali communities organised regular tiger rituals, locally called Bagh Puja. They also had a ‘Bagh Temple’, where rituals were held in the Assamese calendar month of ‘Puha’ (in December). Prayers were offered for the safety of their domesticated animals. The ritual gradually began to wane once the area saw a lot of insurgency-related disturbances from 2002-03 onwards. Though people have stopped visiting the temple, many still conduct the rituals at home.
There are also examples of tiger idols in the temples of the region, like in the Snyan Ghat temple and the Bagheswari Temple in Assam’s Dhubri and Goalpra district respectively. The tiger motif is present in the woodcraft of different Naga tribes too.
These reflections on tiger in the religio-cultural perception of the communities of North East India signify the wide belief that the world is a coherent whole where the divine, the human beings and the animals are organically related to each other. That, all creatures, including the Supreme Being, mutually affects each other. Though the Supreme Being is understood as the creator and the one that sustains living things, they are also perceived as a part of the overall eco system. The supreme position of tiger in the cultural and folk beliefs reflects the reality in the natural system, where it is in the position of an umbrella, which also sustains the others under its coverage.
No wonder then, conservationists look at the loss of large cats such as the tigers, which are at the top of the food web, from their natural habitat as the cause of irreversible changes in the natural eco systems. The decline in the number of large predators may lead to over-abundance of herbivores, such as the deer, which, in turn, has repercussions on tree regeneration and seed dispersal. Such effects reverberate through the food chain, causing long-term changes in natural flora and fauna, eventually leading to specie losses.
Today, human activity is posing a threat to the tiger’s existence. Poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation of forest are the major causes behind such threats. Out of the original nine species of tiger, three are extinct, in the last 80 years. The international conservation body, IUCN, considers four of the remaining species endangered and one in critically endangered situation. The Royal Bengal tiger found in eastern and northeastern region is also one of the endangered species.
In the North East, Manas, Namdapha, Pake, Kaziranga, Dampa, and Orrang national parks have a significant number of tigers. These reserves are not only repositories of the bio-diversity but also provide tangible and intangible ecological services to the immediate coverage area as well as to the larger area having ecological connectivity through terrestrial and aquatic eco systems. In this context, there is an urgent need to revive the traditional cultural beliefs of the people living in close proximity to these parks. It will help to develop awareness about the protection of the big cat and thereby the eco system.
There is a need to frame a programme on conservation education which is in tandem with the cultural and social beliefs and perceptions of the different ethnic communities to involve them in the long term conservation initiatives.
Photo and Text- Jayanta Kumar Sarma
( Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial firms and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at email@example.com )