Wagh deva jungle vachava yela tu dhav re
Udvasta zale jeevan, pakshanchi tutali gharti
Geli amchi shetti, haravli natti gotti
Hi natti vachava yela tu dhav re
Amchi sheti vachava yela tu dhav re
O leopard god, come to save the forests
Ruined are lives, bird nests are broken
Our fields are gone, lost are relationships
Come to save these relationships
Come to save our fields
Prakash Bhoir composed and sang this song, invoking the leopard to join their ranks during the protests against the cutting of trees at Aarey colony for the Mumbai metro in 2019. Bhoir belongs to the Warli community, among the original inhabitants of forests around Mumbai. “To us, the leopard is a father figure who guards our homes,” says Bhoir, a Warli artist and activist, who was born in Mumbai and has lived all of his 55 years in Keltipada, a settlement of 100 Warli homes in Aarey colony. “Our Warli art, too, depicts not just humans but also nature and forests with the leopard being at the centre of it.” All Warlis consider the leopard or Waghdev as their deity whom they pray to first on all auspicious occasions, he explains.
Also read: How the leopard became one of India's most adaptable big cats
Bhoir has seen and lived beside leopards all his life. His most recent encounter was on 12 May, on the eve of his son’s wedding. The house was decorated with lights. Just as he was winding up for the night, Bhoir saw a leopard looking at him through his bedroom window. He filmed the cat on his mobile phone. The leopard gazed at him for a while, wandered in the backyard and climbed back to disappear into the forest beyond. When he shared the clip with his relatives, they teased him saying the guests had started to arrive. “We felt as if the leopard came to bless our house,” says Bhoir.
In the nearby hamlet of Khadakpada, Shevanti Choudhary says they see a leopard often “but he’s never harmed us.” She recounts the time when the chickens she keeps came running to the front porch at dusk. Wondering what had set them off, Choudhary went towards the coop at the back of the house. She almost bumped into the leopard standing beside the cage. “I wasn’t frightened, nor did I scream,” says the 47-year-old homemaker. The leopard melted away.
The Warlis have lived amongst animals and in forests for generations in Maharashtra. “Just like fish can’t stay without water, we can’t stay without forests,” says Bhoir. Waghdev is at the heart of all the customs and festivities celebrated by the Warlis. They pray to Waghdev to protect them before venturing in the forests, to guard their homes and at the time of weddings or new births in the family. The community celebrates the leopard during their annual festival of Waghbaras, a carnivalesque gathering that goes on through the night to pray and appease the benevolent spirit of Waghdev. “We pray that our god keeps a watch over us and doesn't let anyone harm us,” says Choudhary.
Every household contributes towards the festival and a goat is sacrificed as an offering. The main priest or Bhagat plays an important role, performing rituals and acting as a pacifying bridge between the community and the deity.
Passed through oral tradition and ritual practice, the legend of Waghdev is believed to have originated when a woman gave birth to a child out of wedlock. While she was busy, the baby transformed into a leopard and preyed on the village cattle. To pacify the angry villagers, the mother asked the child to live in the forests and in return, villagers built shrines to honour the Wagh.
“This cosmology of Waghoba isn’t a relic of the past but an active institution where the leopard is revered as their chief deity by the entire Warli community to this day,” says Ramya Nair, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and lead author of a recent study that documents this relationship between Warlis and the leopard. The study maps over 150 shrines in honour of Waghoba used by the Warlis in Mumbai and Maharashtra.
According to the study, the Warlis share a reciprocal relationship with the leopard. “We found the lives of the leopard are in many ways entwined with those of the people,” says Dhee, co-author of the WCS study. “We can’t really separate life with Waghoba and life with leopards as they are all enmeshed.”
Worship of the Waghoba is also prevalent in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. A small Waghoba shrine resides at the famous Moharli gate of the popular Tadoba-Andhari tiger reserve. In the nearby Umred Karhandla wildlife sanctuary, an annual procession is taken out in reverence for Waghoba.
There are other instances of local communities co-existing with wildlife in India. The Soligas lived as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers amongst animals in the forests of the Biligiri Rangan Hills till the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 forced them to settle down permanently. The ways of Idu Mishmi of Arunachal Pradesh are somewhat similar to those of the Warlis where the Shaman, a designated member of the tribe, is the only one capable of speaking with the animal spirits, much like a Warli Bhagat or priest. Recent work of Sahil Nijhwan, a conservation anthropologist at University College London, documents a brotherhood that exists between the Idu Mishmi and the tigers that live in the adjoining forests.
These cultures of coexistence between animal and man aren't devoid of problems. There are instances of the leopards preying on the livestock of the Warlis, or an occasional attack on their children. “We do feel angry sometimes,” says Choudhary. But the Warlis attribute these attacks or visits to their village by the leopards to blunders committed by people. “We then pray to the leopard to go away and not to harm anyone for which we’ll break a coconut in his honour,” says Choudhary.
Despite unpleasant incidents, the Warlis have never asked for the leopards in Aarey to be caught or caged, nor have they attacked one that visits their hamlets or poisoned water holes these cats drink from. This sort of understanding is a far cry from the retribution animals like elephants, bears and leopards experience in many parts of the county.
“We don’t think the leopards are a threat to us or that they are violent beings,” says Bhoir.
The WCS study documents these complex layers of interaction between the Warlis and the leopards. “At one level, they wouldn’t kill a leopard and at another level, if there was livestock depredation, they would associate it to Waghoba as they didn’t do the ritual properly or the deity is angry,” says Dhee. Communities living beside wild animals consider them thinking beings with whom they negotiate space and resources on a daily basis. “It is not a static process but a continuous one - they way you through your relationship with your neighbours - where both are willing to engage.”
According to Anish Andheria, president of Wildlife Conservation Trust, local communities are not the problem in wildlife conservation but the city dwellers. “The fact that cats survive besides people is because they aren’t looked at as demons, it is something that city dwellers have to understand,” he says. “Urbanisation is cutting the umbilical cord between nature and man.” With more people has come more garbage which has led to proliferation of stray dogs, which in turn attract leopards.
The relationship between the Warlis and the leopard is under threat too. If areas like Aarey are built upon, communities like the Warlis will be evicted, snapping their links to the forest and their customs. “The city is clawing at us from all sides,” says Bhoir. “When I hear of development, I start to see destruction.”
Vrushal Pendharkar is a Mumbai-based independent environment journalist
Also read: India records increase in leopard population but real number could be much more