Demystifying the other aspect of human-tiger relationship

At a time when big cat populations face a steady decline, we explore the myriad traditions of tiger worship across parts of India and their significance in understanding complex aspects of animal-human relationships in the country.

One morning, we were whizzing past on Ghule’s motorbike, and as the road climbed up between two low hills at the edge of Akole, on the left was a small tiger statue. He had a grimace, which had started out as a smile I am sure, and he was sitting on a pedestal that was made of blue-and-pink sanitary tiles. There were broken coconuts strewed around him and some incense sticks in various stages of burning. I barely acknowledged the cat and went on.

The lady I went to interview had lost her goat to a leopard. But she did not appear upset; in fact, she seemed angry that I was asking her about losses faced due to the resident leopard. She told me, not very politely, that ‘he’ comes and goes his way, and does not trouble anybody. I nodded and sat back on Ghule’s bike, as we passed the tiger again on his shrine. Ghule said that the lady was a thakkar; they worship large cats, and so she was probably annoyed when I insinuated that her god was the cause of her troubles. I thought I saw the stone statue smirk and wave me on. As a biologist, I had only read about conflicts in scientific papers – where people hated large cats. Were there really other hues to this interaction?


Hulivesha Dancers

Hulivesha Dancers celebrating in style at Udupi, in Karnataka, during Janmashtami


I remembered my trip to Arunachal Pradesh in the early 90s. About 25 km west from Deban, the tourist area in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, was the Mishmi settlement–a tiny little hamlet, where I was asking people about clouded leopard sightings in the area. Somehow the conversation veered to the topic of killing large cats, and they told me how they have to undergo serious penance if they kill a tiger or a wildcat, even by mistake, to avoid misfortune on their entire family. As part of the same trip in Western Arunachal, I saw some of the Nishi daus (swords) which had leopard and clouded jaws on them, and I was informed that only the priests or the headmen could wear them. I’d forgotten about these instances till I encountered the smiling tiger on the roadside near Akole.


shrine tiger

A shrine dedicated to large cats in Shrigonda, Maharashtra


As I started searching, these tigers of wood or stone were all over the country’s landscape. During a trip to the Dangs in Gujarat, as we turned around a mud road in the middle of the forest, there was a stone vibrantly painted in yellow, blue and silver, and on it was a tiger watching us go past. While working on the ecology of leopards, I realised that there were many such depictions of large felids in our society. The most common was the tiger as Devi’s vehicle. In earlier times, people from Himachal Pradesh as well as Uttarakhand once believed that leopards accompany people to the doors of their homes in the evening making sure they reach safely. During my recent conversation with a forest ranger on the other side of the Line of Control in Pakistan, he said the same as well.


tiger temple

A tiger temple at Dang, Gujarat, known to be a district favoured by leopards.


Meanwhile, as my work progressed in Akole, and I started meeting more thakkars, I realised that these people were not scared of leopards as one would expect, given their proximity to the animals. They appear to accept the animal’s presence as part of the landscape and are well aware of its habits. The old man whose help I took to weave my charpoy, told me that the leopard comes to drink water from the tank even while he is sleeping in the night just a few feet away. Members of the Warli tribe in and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park also worship the large cat deity they call Waghoba and are well aware that the leopard walks past their open doors every evening, often taking their dogs with them. More importantly, they know that if they leave their goats in the open, the leopard will take them, so they protect them well. The Warlis are all over Thane district, and every village in Dahanu Taluka in Thane appears to have a Waghoba temple. The lady sarpanch took me to the one near her house and in the fading light of the evening, the carved wooden statues seemed to be questioning my “scientific understanding” of where large felids should be in our country.

Once or twice a year, during Diwali, Waghoba is propitiated at a ceremony called ‘Wagh bharshi’. The deity is prayed to and the food eaten can range from sweetened rice to mutton.



As I started searching, I came across several such cat deities in many places. Friends mailed me pictures they got during their travels. For instance, the Velip community in Goa has the main puja twice a year and in the night. They pour oil over the statue, and it is said that they hear the tiger or leopard call out during the ceremony. The statue is said to be more than 700 years old and used to be out in the open, though now a shed has been made. However, some villagers still feel that big cats should not be confined to a shed. At Vagragal in Goa, Atul Borkar who attended the puja said it started out by oiling the statue to make it shine. Then banana leaves were cut into small pieces and placed around the statue, on which little offerings of rice and cooked meat were placed. Each family offered a coconut, and three families offered a chicken as well while putting forth their personal requests to the Waghro.



In southern Maharashtra close to the Goa border, we were on a field trip to see an old Waghoba shrine that is a few hundred years old. After the visit, we were invited by a nearby hotel owner to join him at a village near Sawantwadi, where there was going to be a puja. This was scheduled to be a massive puja because, after 18 years, a little leopard cub had been found in the area. Although we did not have time to stop overnight for the puja, on our way back we visited the temple. Everyone en route seemed to know of the puja and the leopard cub. As we reached, the Jatra had started, stalls were coming up and people were spilling out of the six-seaters. The two of us, in our field clothes, did not make a great impression with some of the locals. They told us that they intended to release the cub back to where it was found the next day. Finding a cub does not happen often and last happened more than a decade ago. We wondered what stories the little cub would grow up and tell his grandkids; of people worshipping him in a temple and how he arranged the wedding between gods.

These stone cats were all over. Driving towards Tadoba, I saw a little statue at the side of the road of a cat and a man. I was told that the local Gonds have these wherever there has been a human or large cat death due to an encounter between the two. Gond literature is replete with references to large cats and this is seen in many tribal societies. The Gonds, Korku, Koshtis, Gosains, Bhainas, the Saoras and many other indigenous tribes have the large cat very much entrenched in their religion and culture, with various associated rituals. During the procession of the Goddess Sharada in Mangalore, Karnataka, the tiger dance or Huli Vesha is a vibrant celebration of the big cat and its cultural significance. The tiger dancers and actors used to don this role traditionally as part of a religious vow. The procession is awe-inspiring, the large goddess carried around on a wooden palanquin through the night with her tigers dancing behind her to the beat of the drums that resonate with you as well.

Hulivesha Dancer

India is supposed to have many tiger sects or clans, where they believe that they are related to these large cats. The Kathiota Kol tiger-clan, for instance, would carry out the same rituals as they would for their relative if they heard of a tiger being killed. They also believe that no tiger will harm them and if they were to meet a tiger in the forest, they would salute it and request it to let them go ahead, and it would always do so. And this not restricted only to Indian tribes. In Sumatra, locals have some very innovative ideas to deal with wild boar that damage their crops. They keep a carcass of a wild boar so that tigers would come attracted to the meat and reduce their crop losses. Even the tribal people inside Tadoba have mentioned that they have no problems with large cats and would be happy if a tiger is close by to keep the crop raiders at bay.



It would have been very simple to say that these deities would and could prevent the persecution of the cats. No matter how powerful beliefs might be, they cannot answer serious conservation problems. However, as Sunetro Ghosal, a scientist who studies the representation of large cats in people’s societies found, an institution like waghoba provides people with the better known to deal with the presence of large cats, besides providing cultural and social space for these animals among humans. Nowhere is this better emphasised than with the leopards in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. On one hand, the people who live outside the park, well – educated, with comfortable homes and lives, are generally scared of the large cat. But if you talk to the Warli people who live around and inside the park in their little mud homes, they consider Waghoba as part of their living landscape. Imagine interviewing a person living in an 11th-floor apartment in the Park’s vicinity—utterly scared of an animal they have no information about; yet a Warli woman who lives inside the Park tells me quite matter-of-factly about the leopard that walks past her open door every night.

Unfortunately, the dominant values and ideas in society are usually from people who have never lived with these animals and do not understand their habits either. So is it our interventions, along with fear, that increase conflict? Why don’t we use, instead, the experience of people who live with these animals and convert that into the dominant discourse? Perhaps, as we understand them better, be it animals or different groups of people, our apprehensions and fears will also decrease, leading to a more peaceful coexistence between both groups.

(First Published: Saevus Magazine April 2014 issue)

Illustrations: Ria Rajan

Read also: Coexistence or Conflict of Space 

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About the Author /

Vidya Athreya is a biologist with WCSIndia. She did her research on leopard ecology, to understand the ways in which large cats share space with people in human use landscapes.

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