'Tigers' of Muharram and the colours of harmony

'Tigers' of Muharram and the colours of harmony

Hindus and Muslims get themselves painted with tiger stripes during Muharram. DH Photos by Tajuddin Azad

During Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Neelkanth Kamble, a 55-year-old artist of Bammapur Oni in Hubballi gets busy painting ‘tigers’. He begins his work as early as 6 am and goes on till around 10 pm, painting 30 to 40 such ‘tigers’ each day.

In North Karanataka, people from Hindu and Muslim communities get themselves painted with tiger stripes during Muharram, as part of a cultural practice observed during the period. While it is mainly done as part of their ‘Harake’ (vows), people also believe that it relieves them of their skin diseases. Interestingly, more Hindus follow this custom than Muslims and most of the artists are Hindus, symbolising communal harmony. Many of the painters are from either the Chitrakar community or the Badiger community.

In Hubballi-Dharwad area, people get themselves painted to offer milk and sugar to the Pirs (Sufi saints) while in parts of Koppal and Gadag districts, people perform ‘Huli Kunitha’ or tiger dance. Later this milk and sugar is distributed among the poor.

Gopal Hombal, a third-generation artist, has been painting ‘tigers’ during Muharram for the last 40 years. He gets paint powders in different hues such as yellow, white, black, red and golden from local traders — who source it from Kolhapur and Sangli in Maharashtra — and carefully applies multiple coats of these colours (mixed with varnish) on the entire body.

“People from Hosapete, Dharwad, Laxmeshwar and other places come to Hubballi to get themselves painted. It takes around 20 to 30 minutes to paint one person but it cannot be done at a stretch, as the design (stripes) can be painted only after the base coat gets dried. People wait patiently, giving us enough scope for showing creativity. We are a group of 20 to 30 people who engage in ‘tiger painting’,” explains Hombal. On other days, he sculpts idols of Ganapathi, Gowri, Kamanna and other gods.

Hombal says that though they typically paint a person’s entire body, this year, they were limiting the painting only to the hands, to continue with good hygiene practices, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kamble says that though there is no restriction on the design, the form that a body painting takes ultimately depends on the skill of each artist, who gets paid anywhere between Rs 50 (for painting kids) and Rs 1,000 per person. Kamble does these paintings at the Basavanna Temple near his home due to space constraints at his house. According to him, there is absolutely no discord among the communities over this matter.

Prof Rahamat Tarikere of Kannada University, Hampi, who has done extensive research on Muharram, says this practice of people getting themselves painted like tigers has not come from the traditional Islamic culture but has local roots and is specially followed in Karnataka.

“Tigers are not found in Arab countries and have no direct link to Islamic culture or history. The 10th day of Muharram marks the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in the battle of Karbala (now in Iraq) and Shia Muslims across the world observe it as a period of mourning and observe abstinence, fast and engage in prayers. However, the entire episode symbolises fighting for the righteous and it is here that tiger, which is considered to be a strong animal, comes into picture,” he says.

He states that tiger is seen as a reflection of strength and this must have inspired people to paint themselves like the animal.

In Gadag district, it is believed that a saint, Raja Bagsawar (Yamanurappa), rode a tiger and so, people in this area also get the word ‘Yamanurappa’ written on their hands.