India has had several human communities living with wild animals in and around its diverse forests for centuries. The remarkable coexistence could be a consequence of some unique and age-old indigenous beliefs. Beliefs like the sun, moon, rivers and almost all other wild beings that have thrived on earth for eras are their wiser ancestors. They have sought their lessons on survival and sustenance from them. These beliefs substantiated into humble practices such as those worshipping the natural forces and animals.
The ‘worship’ is a mutual acknowledgement led by a deep understanding of the ecosystem and its roles and contributions. Passed on for generations, these practices have now been institutionalized as rituals. And while the communities’ interactions with the animals have ranged from collaborations to conflicts, they have always been guided by these rituals of close association and reverence. India’s rich legacy of such indigenous beliefs and practices can potentially expand our understanding of human-wildlife relationships and address the complexities of conservation.
One such institution of hope is ‘Waghoba’- the big cat deity of India. In villages situated in and around the tiger territories of Maharashtra and Goa, human communities have been making shrines of ‘Waghoba’- a deity who they believe is the protector of their land and forests. It is essentially a wooden shaft with tiger, sun and moon forms sculpted on it. The villagers gather at the central shrine on occasions of any threats or celebrations, leave meal offerings for tigers and make prayers for the safety and prosperity of their farms, cattle and community. Tigers walking fearlessly in their territory and humans living in harmony with them have demonstrated for centuries that the institution of Waghoba has been a respectful and responsible conversation between big cats and humans.
This is the first artwork from a series of visuals attempting to paint a comprehensive image of India’s tiger- a combination of the ‘scientific tiger’ and the tiger as seen by indigenous communities living with them in various parts of the country.