In the period between Dasara and Diwali, when large parts of India are recovering from the 10-day-long festivities and getting ready to light up their homes with lamps, the Korkus—a Munda ethnic group concentrated chiefly in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra—gear up for an annual ritual of their own in the Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) and other forested areas of the Satpura mountain range, which they call home. Each year in these days, they make their way to shrines closest to their hamlet to worship the tiger, a creature they consider one of their protector deities.
“We pray to the tiger not to harm our cattle or livestock and the humans who graze them in the forest,” said Vasant Bethekar, 39, a Korku farm worker from Boryathakheda village, which is part of the Sipna forest division in the core area of the MTR. “We also ask the tiger to protect us from other animals and keep our villages safe from evil eyes.” The shrine Bethekar prays at is on the outskirts of his village and on the edge of the forest, as most tiger shrines are in the Melghat landscape. This shrine is just a pair of stones under a large teak tree, surrounded by more teak and many palash trees. The river Khapra flows close by, in the shadows of a forested hill.
Not all tiger shrines consist of stones. In some, the tiger’s face is engraved on a rock, while others have large tiger statues made of cement. Nor are all shrines in scenic places like the one Bethekar visits. Some are along mud roads between two villages, a few are close to agricultural fields, but all border the settlements of the Korkus, whose villages are spread across the Satpura range in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, divided by the river Tapti.
Revering big cats like the tiger and the leopard and other wild animals like the elephant, the cobra, and the crocodile is common among the Adivasi communities of India. Inhabiting the western coast of Maharashtra, the Warlis revere the leopard, whom they call Waghoba. There are several Waghoba shrines all along the northern Western Ghats in the Sahyadri range—from Dang district in southern Gujarat to Goa, including the forests of Aarey colony in Mumbai. While the Warlis’ practice is fairly well documented, the Korkus’ worship of the tiger, though similar in nature, is not that publicised. Many other tribal communities across India consider the tiger their kin. For instance, the Idu Mishmi tribe of the Dibang Valley region in Arunachal Pradesh think of the tiger as their brother. For the Korkus, the tiger is their maternal uncle, addressed as “Koola mama”.
“The forest is the Korkus’ universe, and the tiger is one of their gods,” said Kashinath Barhate, a professor at C.M. Kadhi College, Paratwada, Maharashtra, who has documented several aspects of Korku culture, customs, and rituals for his doctoral thesis on the community. The rituals invoking the tiger are not elaborate: a goat is sacrificed after prayers and the feast is shared by the entire village. Nobody speaks during the feast as a mark of respect to the tiger. The rituals are performed by a bhumka, who is the anointed priest for all significant rituals like birth, marriage, and death. The bhumka is considered to be a spiritual guide, and his knowledge and title are passed down from father to son. Although the Korkus respect the tiger, they are not afraid of it. “If we encounter a tiger in the forest and stand our ground, facing it bravely, the tiger walks away, giving us space,” said Bethekar. “We believe they don’t attack humans.” Sometimes, they would mutter a prayer to the tiger, requesting it not to show itself again or to change its direction. Avoiding contact minimises any potential negative interactions while keeping the admiration intact.
Strangely, the Korkus do not feel the same admiration for the sloth bear. Barhate said: “There is a saying among the Korkus—inz koola ke ban higra pene bana ke higraba, meaning ‘I’m not afraid of the tiger, but I’m afraid of the bear.’” The Korkus believe that while the tiger does not attack casually and chiefly sticks to its part of the forest, the bear will claw anybody who comes too close. Barhate spoke of the Korkus’ great respect for nature, amidst which they have lived for generations and which gives them their identity. Besides praying to the tiger, they worship rivers, mountains, and trees. Their lineages are tied to nature: they have toponymic surnames derived from tree names. For instance, Bethekar is from the bethe, or baheda tree; Jambu or Jambhekar is from the jamun; Takher is from the same name for cucumber; and Zarekar is from zarra, or grass. Such is the respect for trees that if, say, a Jambhekar wants to pluck jamun, they will first perform a ritual to obtain permission. No Jambhekar will ever put their feet or an axe on a jamun tree. Every clan does the same to the trees or other natural beings from which they derive their identity.
“Tribal life is in symbiotic relationship with nature,” said Purnima Upadhyay of Khoj Melghat, an organisation working for the tribal people’s right to self-governance. “If they were in constant conflict with wildlife, we would not have been able to see the wildlife and forests that are there today.” In the symbiotic relationship she referred to, people take fuelwood, grass; graze cattle; and harvest mushrooms and other vegetables in the right season in the forest. In the past they would hunt a boar or a deer once every few days. In return for these gifts, they do not cut certain trees, they do not hunt indiscriminately, and they burn the forest floor to let fresh grass sprout, thus ensuring food for the herbivores.
- The Korkus—a Munda ethnic group concentrated chiefly in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra—worship the tiger
- Revering wild animals is common among the Adivasi communities of India. Project Tiger, meant to conserve the big cats, has pushed Korkus out of their ancestral lands in the Melghat Tiger Reserve.
- The relocation of Adivasi communities is also part of an ongoing “civilisational” attempt to bring them into the mainstream on the pretext of uplifting their standard of living.
The Indian government launched Project Tiger in 1973 to conserve tigers after their numbers were estimated to have shrunk to fewer than 2,000 from over 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century. The MTR was one of the nine tiger reserves established under the project in the first phase. While the demarcation of territory as reserved forest area was intended to give tigers and other wildlife a safe space, it also meant pushing out indigenous communities like the Korkus, who had lived inside the forests for hundreds of years. Restrictions were placed on their free movement, and they were denied access to the areas from where they had traditionally collected firewood, grazed livestock, and foraged for vegetables.
The Korkus were also prevented from visiting the forest shrines or burying their dead in their customary spots. “These projects are designed to harm the very roots of Adivasi communities,” said Barhate. “The national park has hurt the cultural feelings of the Korkus.”
Barhate pointed out that the Korkus have lived with tigers for centuries, long before the creation of any tiger reserve. Both the Korkus and the tigers were not only surviving but doing well until the British and other local rulers started shooting tigers for game, reducing their numbers. “The presence of the Adivasi people does not harm the tiger and the existence of tigers does not harm the Adivasis. So, why uproot the people from their land?” he asked.
The relocation of Adivasi communities is also part of an ongoing “civilisational” attempt to bring them into the mainstream on the pretext of uplifting their standard of living. “We don’t think of what the Adivasis want, what they feel, their expectations, their sensitivities. In the name of these projects, we’ve torn them away from their cultural heritage,” said Barhate. “Relocation breaks them because they are one with the jungle, the trees and animals.”
“Revering big cats like the tiger and the leopard and other animals like the elephant, the cobra, and the crocodile, is common among the Adivasi communities.”
Upadhyay has witnessed elderly Korkus who were forcefully relocated to alien lands dying of anguish. “The psychological shock caused by the loss of livelihood, home, and ancestral lands as well as the demeaning reality of having to do menial jobs in nearby towns shattered them,” she said. Bethekar complained of persistent water scarcity, barred access to the forest, unpleasant interactions with the forest department, and the lack of electricity and cellular networks in Boryathakheda. The villagers are fighting to get their traditionally accessed forest area marked as Community Forest Resource (CFR) under the provisions of the Forest Rights Act.
In another part of the MTR, things have changed for the better over the past decade or so. With assistance from Khoj, the social activist Ramlal Kale, 38, led his village, Payvihir, in its successful fight to gain CFR rights over their old lands in 2010. Since then, the once-barren CFR land has been transformed into a flourishing landscape, with the villagers planting trees like mango, custard apple, jamun, mahua, arjun, amla, tamarind, teak, bamboo, tendu, and peepal there. They used mechanisms like Continuous Contour Trenches to conserve water and reduce soil erosion. The water table has risen in recent times, benefitting not only Payvihir but also neighbouring villages. “There is tap water in every household in Payvihir, and women don’t have to fetch water from far away any more. They don’t wake up before 7 am,” said Kale. The village facilitates the sale of custard apples in cities like Pune and Mumbai through their marketing brand called Natural Melghat. The money is collected by the gram sabha and distributed to individual homes.
The greened patch is also attracting animals: the villagers regularly spot wild boar and sambar in the CFR areas these days. With herbivores come the occasional leopard searching for prey while the sloth bear comes for fruits.
Success stories like Payvihir prove that if communities are allowed to decide the way they would like to manage their resources, they will fare far better than they do with external interference. “It is possible for tribal communities like the Korkus to prosper alongside thriving wildlife,” said Upadhyay. In the future, Kale’s project of reviving traditional ways of interacting with the forests and wildlife can be extended to Boryathakheda village too, benefiting all parties concerned.
Vrushal Pendharkar is an independent journalist working on environmental issues.