Sacred Tigers And The Farmers Who Worship Them
Around Umred-Karhandla, the satellite core of the Bor Tiger Reserve, farming communities have started to worship the tiger, instead of the bullock, as their ‘annadatta’.
Roheet Karoo has a soft spot for Chandi. At the mere mention of her name, his face splits into a wide grin and he starts ruminating on when he encountered her last. ‘Was it by the lake? Or on the roadside? Or by the forest checkpost?’ For a few minutes he’ll lose himself in reverie, reliving that moment.
Though the massive tiger, Jai, who traversed over 150 km. from Nagzira to make the Umred-Karhandla landscape his home, has fast become the sanctuary’s favoured poster boy, stalwarts like Karoo acknowledge the tigress Chandi as the real symbol of the park’s fecundity. Her blood runs hot in a large proportion of Umred’s new generation of big cats, and those behind Umred’s success are now ensuring that the tigress is paid her dues.
This year, when farmers through large swathes of Maharashtra celebrated Pola, a festival to honour the bullock as their annadatta or food provider, five villages from Vidarbha and Nagpur district instead honoured the tiger. As the rest of the state’s agrarian community decorated their cattle and fed them special foods, these 5000 villagers chose to worship a life-sized idol of Chandi. Stripped of their land by the Ghosikurd dam project and consequently finding little use for their bullocks, the fringe villages around Umred-Karhandla have, in a massive demonstration of good faith in wildlife tourism, chosen to recognize the tiger as their new annadatta.
In custom, ‘regular’ Pola and Waghancha (or Tiger) Pola are almost identical. The same traditional stews and curries are concocted in the kitchens, and song and dance filter through the night. But in the evening, when traditionally the bullocks would be paraded through the village after having been bathed, ornamented, had the rope removed from their nostrils and turmeric paste smeared on their shoulders, the festivities were different. In the place of bedecked bullocks, a stream of young boys dressed like tigers pranced through the crowds, accepting blessings on behalf of the tigers of Umred.
In a country where religion and conservation are too often at odds, the guardians of Umred have swiftly demonstrated that sometimes conservation is religion.
Waghancha Pola will now be celebrated annually around Umred-Karhandla, which has recently been incorporated as the ‘satellite core’ to Bor Tiger Reserve.
Author: Cara Tejpal.