THE TIGER IS often venerated as the protector of the forest. Indian mythology is replete with tales where the tiger is believed to have multiple powers that range from producing rain to fighting dragons, healing the sick and banishing children’s nightmares. Followers of Islam believe that Allah has dispatched the tiger to protect his devotees and punish apostates.
Maharashtra’s Warli tribe worships the tiger God, Vaghdeva above all other gods. They consider the tiger a symbol of life and regeneration and offer a part of their harvest to it. The tiger is also regarded as the harbinger of fertility and Warli couples dress in the colours of the tiger – yellow and red shawls – when visiting the temple of Palaghata, the Goddess of Marriage. According to a tale, if the goddess were pleased she would bless the couple with a child; or else the shawls would transform into tigers and consume the pair. Warli paintings depict the tiger as a part of daily life, often walking through or sitting in a village.The Nagas believe the tiger and man to be brothers since the mother of the first tiger and of the first man, are believed to have come out of the earth through the same exit, a pangolin’s burrow.
The Goddess Durga, worshipped since the time of the Indus valley civilisation, is shown riding a tiger. Durga is charged with destroying evil and the tiger was possibly chosen as a representation of strength and immortality.
Tiger dances, performed by young children, are an important part of the celebrations on Lord Krishna's birthday in Karnataka’s Udipi town.
In the northern regions of Bengal, both Hindus and Muslims revere the tiger. Local paintings depict a Muslim priest, prayer beads and a lathi in hand, astride a tiger and combating evil. In the Sunderbans, the Hindu Goddess Banobibi or the Muslim deity Dakshin Rai protect the people from demons, crocodiles and even tigers. So before they set foot in the park, people soothe Dakshin Rai with music or make offerings of sweets, rice and fruit to Banobibi.
Tigers are often painted as developing wings, giving princesses a ride, or becoming a white streak in the sky to protect the earth. Through the ages, tigers have been seen as life-givers, sentinels and saviours.