Between temples and tigers

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Photo: Vibhav Srivastava
Photo: Vibhav Srivastava

Three years ago, Hemraj Gujjar was killed by a tiger in Ranthambhore. He climbed quite a distance from Gopalpur village to enter the tiger reserve in Rajasthan and visited a Hanuman temple before setting off further to cut grass. The big cat probably mistook his crouching frame for a prey animal. Last week, I visited that temple atop Indala plateau. The only village on this 100-odd sq km flat table top was shifted out of the reserve in 2008. An amazing feat, considering its 50 families, in complete defiance of the Forest Department, sheltered 10,000-12,000 cattle from nearby villages every monsoon — year after year — on the Indala top. As a result, the landscape was grazed clean and rarely attracted wildlife.

Post-2008, nature made a comeback and the vegetation cover lured herbivores, tigers and outsiders like Hemraj. Since that tragedy, tiger numbers have increased further in Indala with cubs showing up at regular intervals. The rapid ecological turnaround has been a remarkable example of what removal of biotic pressure can achieve.

Indala’s Hanuman temple — one of the 100-odd spots of religious significance inside Ranthambhore — has also flourished since. The absence of resident devotees is compensated by a steady trickle from peripheral villages. Not too far away, the ruins of a dargah draw another set of followers. Since 2008, the temple building and its Hanuman idol have become significantly bigger.

Devotees routinely add to temple infrastructure to please their gods and ensure facilities for themselves. Even inside the tourism zones of Ranthambhore, several ‘religious spots’ are flourishing openly. Not surprising because lakhs of pilgrims trample all over the reserve during the annual Ganesh festival every year. The best the administration can do is to clean up after the pilgrims. There is just no stopping the march of the devout.

That is why the Karnataka Forest Department’s bold decision to shift four temples out of Bandipur reserve has surprised many. The two bigger temples inside the reserve will stay put though. The flow of pilgrims, the reserve management told the media, will be controlled by banning the entry of private vehicles. The Forest Department will ferry and monitor the temple crowd.

Similar regulatory attempts have yielded precious little in the past. Be it in Rajasthan’s Sariska or Karnataka’s BR Hills, pilgrims have defied most restrictions. Thousands of temples and dargahs attract millions of pilgrims to protected forests. On the auspicious days every week, the crowds swell to thousands. It is impossible to monitor so many people trespassing, camping, playing music, burning firewood, carrying gas cylinders, bathing and littering inside forests. The open house also attracts poachers.

But the Indian reality is still more complex. The elements, trees and animals are worshipped in all Oriental religions. Religion has been the reason why most Indian societies are tolerant towards the wild. Growing population and shrinking wilderness have changed that equilibrium in recent times when even traditional lopping and cattle-grazing tends to wipe out entire forests.

Laws don’t permit pilgrims unrestricted access to protected forests. But laws need social resonance to be effective. Both rape and child marriage are illegal. But people don’t feel the same way about the two. Unlike collecting firewood or hunting, which are issues of material rights and determined by the ruler, religious rights have almost always been a given. So when they enter the forests in thousands, the pilgrims do not reckon they are breaking any law.

There is obvious strength in numbers. So Bandipur exempts the Gopalaswamy and the Belladakuppe temples. Ranthambhore simply holds its breath every Ganesh mela. Given that every unexplained ‘holy spot’ by the wayside has a tendency to grow into a major shrine, the tiger’s best chance lies in timely action. Forest authorities need to act before every vermillion-smeared stone gets a roof and a fence. Monkeys are tiger meal but the monkey god has more pull than the big cat.

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