Big cats are worshipped in 20 shrines in Mumbai forests

These shrines are mostly in areas around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and Vasai, says recently published study.
A Waghoba shrine in Mumbai forest, painted on a boulder, that is dedicated to tiger.(Vidya Athreya)
A Waghoba shrine in Mumbai forest, painted on a boulder, that is dedicated to tiger.(Vidya Athreya)
Updated on Jun 14, 2018 11:40 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai

A recent study has documented 20 little-known jungle shrines that are dedicated to the big cats in various parts of Mumbai.

Titled ‘Monsters or Gods? Narratives of large cat worship in western India’, which was published earlier this week in a newsletter of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the book describes the belief in Waghoba, representing the tiger or the leopard, which appears to be geographically widespread in western India. In all 33 shrines, made of wood, stones or mud, were identified across Maharashtra and Goa.

The authors said the centuries-old tradition of forest dwellers, who have a different relationship with the big cats, is largely ignored by conservationists.

“The focus today is mostly towards the negative aspects related to human-animal conflicts. However, for many years there exist these age-old cultural facets, which are positive and can help reduce conflicts. There is a need to understand more about this in the context of making such shared places more peaceful,” said Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist and lead author. “There are many more shrines that need to be documented in the western region itself through a more detailed ethnographic study.”

In Mumbai, these shrines are mostly spread across areas populated by Warli and Mahadeo communities in and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, (which is home to 41 free-roaming leopards) and Vasai (see box for complete list).

The study said Waghoba is viewed as the Junglacha Rakhandar [protector of the forest] and worshipped because of fear and respect. For worshippers, the forests are an important resource, providing food and firewood. They believe that the forest, however, is the realm of the Wagh (tiger or leopard) and appease the deity with sacrificial offerings, so that they do not attack humans and do not enter the villages.

“More than just ‘fear’, aspect we keep reading about, these shrines are way of give respect to these big cats. It doesn’t mean they (worshipers) are not fearful, but they just know better how to navigate these animals so that conflict is reduced,” said Athreya.

Other researchers who were part of the are Sahil Pimpale, Atul Sinai Borkar, Nikit Surve, Siddant Chakravarty, Mrunal Ghosalkar, Ankur Patwardhan, and John D C Linnel.

The first official survey for Waghoba sites by the team was started in 2013 in Goa. In 2015 and 2016, the team surveyed areas in Maharashtra and Mumbai region. The global position system (GPS) locations of shrines were recorded and local people were interviewed (150 in all – mostly priests and village elders) to obtain information about the shrine as well as their perceived relationship with the deity.

“Priests claim that at night, the deity comes near the temple, as is evident from pug marks which they find the next day. In order to appease the cats, villagers offer sacrificial offering of meat (chicken or goat) in mid-April and in October,” the study said.

It added, “The respondents in the Mumbai landscape stated that female leopard’s breed once in two years and move with their cubs, that they are mostly nocturnal, with each individual having its own territory which it guards. They said that the source of this understanding of leopards is from cultural transmission of knowledge, and through regular personal observations.”

Nikit Surve, another researcher, said, “The emphasis towards this type of interaction between humans and the big cat is very less. It is very important to understand the parallels between conflict and worship related to the same animal. When such information is shared, the perception changes and it makes a huge difference.”


    Badri Chatterjee is an environment correspondent at Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He writes about environment issues - air, water and noise pollution, climate change - weather, wildlife - forests, marine and mangrove conservation

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