Sacrality is a fascinating concept to explore, and many swamps in my study area of Uttara Kannada are considered sacred by local communities. One of these swamps is Chaare, a lovely, fenced swamp nestled in the crook of wet evergreen forest and (surprise, surprise) an arecanut plantation. Named for the small village that borders it, this swamp is relatively undisturbed, its stream gurgling gently and tiny night frogs hopping from sodden leaves to muddy ground. The chatter of an agitated giant squirrel clashes with the lonely whistling tune of the Malabar whistling thrush. A great commotion makes us look upwards eagerly; it is only a troupe of grey langurs swinging from tree to tree, the young ones playing in the dappled sunlight.
We sat down for tea and conversation with Ganapathy Hegde, the land owner whose arecanut plantation extends to the boundaries of Chaare. While conversing with him, we stumbled across a strange lore – the lore of Hulidevaru, the tiger god.
Worshipped in a small patch of Myristica swamp beneath a giant Lophopetalum tree, Hulidevaru is the guardian of the local people of Chaare. Only three households worship him, appeasing the deity and asking for his protection against wild animal attacks and for bountiful water year-round. According to Hegde, only Brahmins may enter the swamp to worship (hence the three households that worship there) and he performs religious rituals there during festivals, notably Deepavali in October. Outsiders are not permitted inside the swamp – indeed, he did not want to show us where the deity resided at first – and all must remove shoes before entering.
The concept of worshipping the tiger god before entering a forest is not unusual in India. In the Sundarbans, local villagers worship Dakshin Ray, the tiger god, before entering the Sundarbans to collect honey or NTFPs, given the high incidence rate of human-tiger conflict in this mangrove forest. Some people wear a mask of the god on the back of their heads to confuse tigers and ward off attacks. Dakshin Ray is the god of beasts and demons, and the tiger is seen as an unpredictable monster in this landscape. Perhaps it is the salinity of the water that makes the tigers so aggressive, but certainly, the level of human-tiger conflict seen in the Sundarbans surpasses that seen in other tiger reserves in the country. Apart from offering daily prayers, locals revere and appease Dakshin Ray every Amavasya (new moon) with animal sacrifices and musical performances. This is a god whose mood determines the fate of villagers surrounding the forest, and locals firmly believe in his power.
Such is the power of Hulidevaru in Chaare and other swamps in Karnataka. Earlier, tigers were commonly sighted in the Sirsi region, using the dense forests as a corridor between Bhadra Tiger Reserve in the south and Kali Tiger Reserve to the north. But over time, fragmentation has reduced the number of tigers encountered in the area. Leopards, however, are common in these forests. Hulidevaru is worshipped to ward off attacks by both leopards and tigers, and, according to Hegde, this makes the local people feel safer and less likely to disturb the forest. Maintaining the forest cover is a way to keep the tiger god happy by protecting the habitat for his creatures – the wildlife – and thus the god will continue to provide resources such as clean air and water, NTFP products, etc to local villagers.
Standing below the dense canopy of Chaare, I wonder if the tiger god is watching us collect water quality data and survey for odonates, and if so, does he approve of our presence? Because every time I enter Chaare, I can sense something watching me. And whether it is the tiger god or one of his creatures, I have been blessed by his protection thus far and for that, I am grateful.