Dare to Outlive the Anthropocene: Changing Climate and Pouncing Tigers in India’s Sundarbans

People from the forest going (mohule) community on two boats perform a ritual to please the Mistress of the Forest.

Amrita DasGupta

Department of Gender Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

This project was supported by a CHASE Climate Justice Network Small Grant.

The present geological age is called the Anthropocene—the period in which human activities have had dominant influence in changing the climate. However, those that are to be blamed for accelerated climate change are not in the frontline of facing its consequences. This documentary project focuses on such communities—tiger widows, farmers, forest goers, tiger attack survivors who face the results of climate crisis without having made any significant contribution to it. The geolocation is Sundarbans, India. It is synonymous to the fear of the Royal Bengal Tiger—also called the man eater (manush-khego bagh in Bengali).

Sundarbans, the world’s only mangrove tiger land expands across India and Bangladesh. The delta is formed by three mighty rivers: Brahmaputra, Ganga, Meghna. The riverine communities here mainly depend on forest produce for survival. Most people do not own cultivatable land and hence, they go to the forest to etch a living by garnering wax, honey, wood, crabs, and fish. Those that have land for agriculture complain about ruined harvests owing to saltwater ingression into their cultivable lands after the annual floods or the frequent climatic catastrophes like cyclones: Aila (2009), Fani (2019), super cyclone Amphan (2020), Yaas (2021). Thus, the farmer community is also forced to visit the forest to accumulate forest products to sustain families. The penetration of forests by humans is not the only cause that gives rise to the human-tiger-conflict in the region.

The Sundarbans forests is fragmented. The tigers not only come to the villages in the winter they also often lose their way in the fragmented forest settings and wander into human settlements. These incidents increase during the monsoons when the swollen rivers on breaking high embarkments make the low-lying villages and the forest the same. It becomes easier for the tiger to swim into the village lands in search of food. Humans are easy/effortless preys. Feeding on porcupines is dangerous given their quills and hunting down spotted deer is energy consuming. Also, the increase in salinity of the water during cyclones and floods make the tigers irritable thereby increasing their inclinations for human attacks. In the winters, it is a common phenomenon that the tigress carries their cubs to safety i.e., away from the tiger to help the newborn cubs survive till an age when they can fight back the male big cats and claim their territories. Before the cubs attain maturity there is fear of their death by tiger attacks. This is common feline nature. So, very often the tigress carries her cubs to the villages during winters. This again creates potential for human tiger conflict.

Amongst all, in our patriarchal society, the tiger widows (bagh-bidhoba in Bengali)—the women who have lost their husbands to tiger attacks face the brunt of such loss. They are ostracised and kept at the margins of the Sundarbans community. They are thought to be ill omens. They are recognised as the husband eaters (swami khejo). Somewhere, the deltaic community in calling the tiger widow a husband eater equates the widow to the man-eating tiger. Attributes to the woman the aggression of the tiger and the ravaging intensity of the climate the deltaic communities of Sundarbans are experienced to weather.

The picture above shows the rituals performed by the forest going (mohule) community to please the Mistress of the Forest (Maa Bonobibi) before entering the forest. It is done to seek Maa Bonobibi’s blessings and her protection from the tigers in the forest.