An Ancient ‘Tiger God’ Helps Communities and Big Cats Coexist in India

India is home to a billion people, but it is also home to tigers and leopards in its forests. Living side-by-side with wild predators is usually a recipe for disaster -most often for the predator species. But in India, people who live near forests respect the big cats, and we've even seen villages come together to rescue leopards that fall in wells. There is even tolerance for cats that attack livestock. This may be due to reverence for the tiger god of the Hindu religion, as evidenced by the shrines found in forests across the country.

For many indigenous communities in the region, tigers and leopards are the same animal, and the big cat deity they represent is known by different names: While the Gonds call it Baghdev, the Warlis know it as Waghoba, a combination of the Marathi words for big cat and community elder. Each shrine dedicated to the animal is marked by a stone statue or a wooden panel made of teak, painted or engraved with the animal’s image. The idol is often placed under a thick canopy of lush green trees. “Just like the tiger should roam freely in its natural habitat, the deity too, should exist unbounded,” says Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, an acclaimed Warli artist who grew up listening to an intricate crossweave of mythical tales and anecdotes about the forest and its inhabitants. In some villages, however, particularly those on the fringes of more populous areas, the statue or image is placed under sun-dried thatched roofs—or, if the village can afford it, installed within a modest temple, where it often shares space with other idols.

Villages have regular rituals to pay homage to the tiger god, and sacrifice a goat or chicken to ensure protection from the cats' wrath. Conservationists are studying these beliefs and rituals to see how humans and wild animals can share space without destroying each other. Read about the tiger god at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Davidvraju)

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