ANNPUR HAMLET, INDIA
A love-hate relationship exists between man and beast in the Sunderbans. Tigers are both venerated as guardians of the forest and despised for killing humans. Virtually every hamlet in the Sunderbans can claim several "tiger widows.''
Strolling through Annpur, a resident points to every other house. One woman became insane after losing her husband and a son, he says. Another refuses to tell her story, saying it is too painful. Yet another widow is consoled by the belief that her husband was taken by the gods of the forest, embodied by the tiger.
Each day before setting out, villagers pray to the Hindu forest goddess, Bonbibi, and her Muslim consort, Dakshin Ray, for protection from the tiger.
Once a year, in January on the eve of the dangerous woodcutting season, people across the Sunderbans hold a festival in honor of Bonbibi and Dakshin Ray.
At one ceremony in Annpur, barefoot women, men, and children clad in their best saris and sarongs stream to a shrine chanting songs. At the foot of plaster effigies of Bonbibi and Dakshin Ray, worshippers place banana leaves carefully piled with sweets, coconut, and rice. Bonbibi wears a jewel-studded crown, a long royal-blue dress, and a garland. Between the goddess and her consort stands a tiger effigy. Presiding over the festival this year is Barada Sarkar, a fisherman who watched helplessly a few years ago when tigers took two companions in separate attacks.
"We pray to Bonbibi and hope for the best,'' says the gaunt, gray-haired man.
But Bonbibi doesn't always answer her worshippers. In such cases, people fault themselves for tiger attacks. "I don't blame the tiger,'' says Gita Chowkidar, whose husband, Ganesh, was mauled to death a few years ago. Adds her son, Sukhanta: "After all, it's a forest.''