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Maharashtra: Researchers document 150 Warli shrines dedicated to big cats

Some shrines have also been documented in Goa, Gujarat, Pune and south Maharashtra. So far, a total of 176 such Waghoba shrines have been documented across this larger region, though several others are sure to exist, researchers believe.
By Prayag Arora-Desai, Mumbai
UPDATED ON APR 26, 2021 12:24 AM IST

Wildlife researchers documented the presence of a total of 150 shrines dedicated to Waghoba — the Warli deity representing big cats — across Mumbai (suburban), Thane and Palghar districts. The term Waghoba comes from the Marathi word “wagh” (tiger and/or leopard), and “ba” (a suffix denoting respect, usually for the elderly).

These findings build on existing research published in 2018 which had recorded the presence of 20 Waghoba shrines in and around Mumbai, largely in Aarey Colony. Some shrines have also been documented in Goa, Gujarat, Pune and south Maharashtra. So far, a total of 176 such Waghoba shrines have been documented across this larger region, though several others are sure to exist, researchers believe.

The new research paper, which is yet to be published, titled Sharing Spaces and Entanglements with Big Cats: The Warli and their Waghoba in Maharashtra was helmed by first authors Ramya Nair and Dhee of Wildlife Conservation Society, India. Over six months between November 2018 and April 2019, Nair and team travelled approximately 2,125kms to villages in Dahanu, Palghar, Talasari, Boisar, Vasai, Wada and Jawhar in pursuit of these artefacts.

Crucially, Nair said, this led her to personally discover the vast extent of the Waghoba myth (geographically and culturally) in northwest Maharashtra. Nair and her colleagues also found that reverence for Waghoba was more prevalent in multi-use landscapes, where indigenous and even urbanising populations share space with leopards, than in protected areas (like Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (TWLS).

“We were honestly a bit surprised. Nearly every Warli village we visited had at least one Waghoba shrine where prayers were being offered regularly,” said Nair, whose work also identifies at least four other Indigenous groups — namely Mahadeo Kolis, Malhar Kolis, Thakkers and Dublas — in the study area who also worship Waghoba.

Though documented as a powerful cultural and social institution in the community, the concept of Waghoba (and the broader Warli cosmology) does not figure prominently in conservation literature. But through an ethnographic rather than ecological approach, this study affirms mounds of anecdotal evidence, scientific inquiry and media reports about leopards (and even tigers) in the study area. The last tiger sighting in the selected region, the authors pointed out, dates back to 2003.

But modern taxonomy — with its focus on separation of species — may not account for how the Warlis who live in the closest proximity to these big cats perceive them. For example, Nair explains, “These areas were historically home range to both tigers and leopards, though today in a large part of these areas, only leopards remain. For people in such communities, biodiversity may be perceived as a whole rather than through the eyes of modern taxonomy, resulting in both the tiger and leopard being referred to as wagh.”

Mainstream conservation literature, for its part, also abides by the theory that predators (like lions and tigers) originally ate wild animals in their natural habitat, and then transitioned to hunting livestock. This also perpetuates the view that “livestock depredation is a new phenomenon that we have just had to start making sense of”.

But the Warli belief system, particularly that of Waghoba which is rooted as much in the human-livestock equation as the human-wildlife one, pre-dates mainstream conflict discourse “by at least a few hundred years”.

In as much, the paper suggests, a purely biological approach to leopard conservation within the study area would have inherent limitations. Conservation need not follow only a “techno-managerial” approach, it argues, but can also rely on “socio-cultural drivers” of coexistence.

“When conservationists focus on only the ecological aspects of conservation without engaging with its social dimensions, it leaves local communities (who face direct impacts) feeling neglected and often pitted against the species being conserved… This can perhaps result in uncooperative responses... Acknowledging these beliefs and integrating them into bureaucratic practices lends these communities the respect and justice they deserve,” the authors note.

Information was gathered for this study using three methods.

The first included tracking down individual shrines, geo-tagging and photographing them, and analysing their iconography. The visuals that the authors discovered were predominantly that of “a feline under the sun and moon, carved on either stone or wood (specifically teakwood) slabs covered with a bright vermillion paste”.

“Some participants explained that the sun and moon symbolised energy. Many villages had Waghoba shrines built at the entrance of the village indicating that Waghoba might be considered as a gatekeeper, protecting the entire village,” the authors noted.

The second approach involved semi-structured interviews with 34 individuals and gathering information through “snowball sampling”, an interview method commonly used in sociology and cultural studies. Both Warli and non-Warli subjects were interviewed, largely elderly or middle-aged men.

“Even though we also aimed to interview women, many factors restricted this,” the study clarifies.

Researchers also gathered information using “participation observation”, using “direct observations, group discussions, and off-the-record conversations”. For example, first-hand observations recorded (mainly by Nair) at annual Waghbaras or Wagh festival celebrations at three locations have also been interpreted to arrive at the study’s conclusions.

Held annually as an appeasement for Waghoba, Waghbaras festivities typically take place on the day of Vasu Baras, which marks the first day of Diwali on the Hindu lunar calendar. The occasion, as observed by researchers, can last up to two days, and are marked by ritual animal sacrifice, shamanic rituals, feasting, singing and dance.

“Participant observations revealed that members of the community who have converted or expanded their religious beliefs continue to worship Waghoba as one of their chief deities and take part in Waghbaras festival. This indicates that Waghoba is not just a deity who is worshipped within the confines of one belief system but is an integral part of the cultural fabric, entwined with the traditions and social life of this landscape,” the study notes.

The larger dominant narrative of Waghoba is one of a protector who is prayed to for protection from human-animal conflict, as well as disease and other natural disasters. “Participants spoke of the wagh as the junglacha raja (king of the jungle). One participant also called Waghoba the main boss,” the authors noted, highlighting that these perceptions stem from a mix of fear and awe.

Another oral tradition which lends credence to the notion of Waghoba as a protector is the anecdote of leopards following people back home in the dark. “This narrative is present not only in our study site but also in other parts of India and South Asia,” states the study.

“The thing to remember is that the idea of Waghoba is in fact born out of conflict,” Nair emphasises. But, as her research reveals, Waghoba also embodies the trust that indigenous populations wilfully place in the animal (and in nature) — a necessary prerequisite to establishing co-existence.

One of the study’s interviewees, quoted in the paper, said, “About 35 years ago, my father was going to my mother’s village before they got married by road, on foot. He saw a wagh right in front of him. Now what do you do in these situations? The person cannot attack it, right? So my father said, “If you are going to eat me then go ahead. You are our god.” Then he closed his eyes. The wagh just walked away, did not do anything.”


Waghoba origin story:

The Waghoba does not have one single origin story but a common thread uncovered through interviews. It involves a woman who gives birth to a baby out of wedlock. The child shape-shifts into a tiger and eats livestock of the village. When the villagers decided to kill the animal, the mother asked that her child be sent to the forest. In exchange, people would install shrines for the wagh and give an offering once a year.

While some participants, especially shamans, shared elaborate origin stories, most of the other participants narrated fragments of these stories, containing similar underlying beliefs.

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