Worship of Waghoba, a symbol of tolerance

The wooden hands and legs are kept near the deity in belief that ailments would be cured. (Photo V Athreya)

Many traditional communities in India worship ‘Waghoba’, a large cat deity, and seek its protection.

A survey conducted in parts of Maharashtra and Goa notes how people have been sharing space with the large cat and continue to do so.

The study was conducted by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) - India Programme, Annasaheb Kulkarni, Department of Biodiversity, MES Abasaheb Garware College, Pune; Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur and Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

In parts of Goa, elaborate rituals are held twice a year when priests claim the tiger or leopard call out during the process. The Velip community even claims that a large cat would accompany them home from the temple as recently as 20 years ago. Most people who were interviewed believe that the large cat deity protects them. Statues to Waghoba are said to date back to nearly 1000 years.

In Maharashtra, the deity is worshipped out of fear and respect and sacrificial offerings are also given to appease the large cat. The study touches upon literature from other parts of the country, too, that shows people shared space with the wildcat and even prayed to it for protection.

Dr Vidya Athreya, lead author of the paper and wildlife biologist with WCS India, said, “In cultures where spaces are shared between large cats and people, a phenomena which is poorly understood, it is very important to look for knowledge from other disciplines that explain what allows for both sides to accept each other’s presence.”

The paper examines these benign attitudes in contrast to those of the colonial view of "man-eaters" and "cattle-killers" as also the negative narrative of "conflict" referred to in wildlife conservation parlances and highlighted in the media.

The article was published in the Spring 2018 edition of the newsletter CATnews, published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

For the study, the authors visited various indigenous communities from Maharashtra and Goa. The GPS locations of the shrines were recorded, and local people were interviewed to obtain information about the shrine as well as their interactions with the large cats in the area.

Overall 150 respondents were interviewed, including priests and villagers.

The authors note that expanding on these preliminary studies requires the information that is not limited by their own disciplinary fields of expertise. Though social psychology and sociology have recently begun to be more active in conservation, exploring institutions like Waghoba requires tools drawn from ethnography and anthropology.

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