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Tigers, Tiger Spirits and Were-tigers in Tribal Orissa

Issue: Vol 7 No. 1-3 (2013) Vol. 7, No. 1/No. 2 (Double) 2013

Journal: Religions of South Asia

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies Islamic Studies

DOI: 10.1558/rosa.v7i1-3.93


In the last years, several tiger sightings have been reported in rural areas of Orissa, in both villages and market towns. According to local rangers, such an anomalous behaviour is due to an unprecedented growth of the tiger’s population, and the consequent need for more territory. Conversely, local indigenous populations (ādivāsī) look at the strange conduct of these animals as a manifestation of the presence of the spirits of the jungle. Alternatively, this is believed to be a peculiar phenomenon of therianthropy, i.e. a metamorphosis in which a human animal takes the form of big cat (Oriya: pālṭa bāgha). In this article I will discuss were-tigers and rituals to counter such transformations among the Kondhs. On the one hand I will explore how colonial literature reported incidents of therianthropy in Orissa and how such phenomena were dealt with. On the other, I will present and discuss my own ethnographies of were-tigers, a field of research I engaged with in the last twelve years in Orissa. The analysis of the presence of the tiger and the ways it interacts with the religion and culture of the Kondhs reveal previously unexplored areas of inquiry. The tiger is the symbol and essence of nature but it also represents its power. As such, it is dynamic, chaotic and creative. By assuming a divine form, the tiger becomes the Goddess, and thus serves as a point of contact for further explorations of Eastern Śāktism, tribal culture and variegated patterns of popular Hindu folklore.

Author: Stefano Beggiora

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