Monday, February 25, 2013

Spell of the Tiger

The Sundarbans is a region of mangrove forests spread across many islands.  It straddles the border between India and Bangladesh, on the Bay of Bengal.  In earlier times, it was a civilized place, a flourishing port region.  Archaeologists recently discovered a walled city, built in the fourth century, that covered two and a half square miles (6.47 sq. km).  Ruins are scattered throughout the jungle, including temples and monasteries.  In 1586, a European visitor reported seeing fertile land and sturdy, storm-resistant houses.  

Over the last 600 years, the land has experienced big changes.  Beneath the Bengal Basin, the geologic structures have tipped, and the course of the Ganges has shifted to the east.  The flow of the Ganges no longer enters the Sundarbans.  Explosive population growth upstream has loaded streams with eroded silt.  Today, little fresh water enters the Sundarbans, and the forest has become too salty for farming in many places. 

There are large quantities of valuable timber in the Sundarbans, but there is little logging, because entering the forest is fairly suicidal.  Even poachers stay away.  The sharks and crocodiles take great delight in having humans for lunch.  Venomous vipers plunge from trees onto your head, or crawl into bed with you at night (don’t roll over!).  Sea snakes are ten to forty times more poisonous than cobras. 

The primary man-eaters are the tigers.  In the dense, swampy, tangled forest, you never feel safe for a minute — and guns and numbers provide no protection.  Hundreds are killed every year.  One hundred years ago, during a six-year period, 4,218 people were eaten by tigers in the Sundarbans.  Tigers think twice before attacking a boar, because they are strong and have sharp tusks.  But humans are slow, weak, sitting ducks (and they taste a lot like monkeys).

Tigers can weigh up to 500 pounds (226 kg), and grow up to nine feet long (2.7 m).  They almost always attack from behind, and instantly kill their victims by crushing their necks.  They can leap onto a boat, without rocking it, snatch a person, and disappear into the forest before anyone realizes what happened.  They often do this at 11 PM, when everyone is asleep, and they are said to prefer the fattest.  There are many stories of flying tigers.  They can leap 20 feet with a dead human in their jaws.

Tigers may sit patiently in the brush for hours, waiting for the ideal moment to pounce and snatch.  They can move across the land without making a sound, materialize anywhere, and hide behind a blade of grass.  Tigers are rarely seen, and they always see you first.  Scientists know almost nothing about them, because there is no way to observe them without becoming cat food.

Sy Montgomery discussed the healthy relationship between humans, tigers, and forests in her book Spell of the Tiger.  Modern folks suffer from immense spiritual pain because we don’t remember who we are.  Somewhere down the line, we got confused, and began to hallucinate that we were the lords and masters of the universe.  The folks of the Sundarbans have never forgotten that humans, like everything else that breathes, are meat.  They are kept humble by the powerful spell of the tiger.  We are all simply members of the family of life, where everyone is meat, and nobody is special.

Montgomery once met an unlucky shaman.  “His father, his brother, and his favorite son were all killed by tigers.  His wife was eaten by a crocodile.  His daughter drowned in the river.  His house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.”  He did not hate tigers.  “No matter how many men are killed, no matter how deeply the man-eaters are feared, the tiger is not hated.  Almost everyone agrees on this point.”  They are sacred creatures that are worshipped, but not loved.  Likewise, the snakes are honored and loved, despite the fact that they kill thousands of Indians every year.

Hindus and Sufi Muslims live together in the Sundarbans, and they are tolerant and respectful of each other (unlike in urban areas).  Hindus worship local Muslim deities, and vice versa.  Every year, villages hold sacred celebrations to honor Bonobibi, the forest goddess, and Daksin Ray, the tiger god.  Unlike Western people, they have a spiritual connection to place.

In the Sundarbans, the Forest Service allows people to enter the forest to fish, collect dry firewood, or gather honey.  No groups are given a permit unless their party includes a reputable shaman to speak the sacred mantras, appease the forest deities, and provide the illusion of spiritual protection.  

In the Indus Valley, archaeologists have discovered a series of five clay panels at the site of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to 3000 BC:  (1) tiger and forest, (2) person chasing tiger, (3) a god begging the tiger, (4) loggers clear-cutting, (5) god gone, tiger gone, forest gone.  Moral: agriculture destroys everything sacred.  It echoes the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The tigers do a great job of slowing the destruction of the Sundarbans.  If the forest were destroyed, the land would be swept into the sea.  In 1984, a portion of the Sundarbans was turned into a national park.  India is a world leader in protecting tigers, but the tigers will never be safe until the human herd returns to sustainable levels — the sooner the better.

We are now living in the Kali Yuga, the last of four world ages, according to the Hindus.  In their scriptures, this is an era when human integrity hits bottom: “Property becomes rank, wealth the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union, falsehood the source of success.”  Some believe that the end of the world is not far off.

In any case, climate change and rising sea levels seem certain to devastate the low-lying Sundarbans, along with its mangroves and tigers.  Over the last 125 years, the rate of severe storms has been increasing.  Some associate this with deforestation.  In the Bay of Bengal, storm-driven tidal waves can grow to 250 feet high.

I will never forget this book, because it presents humans in normal, traditional way.  It’s a powerful message that reaches ancient places.  It provides a healthy contrast to Western society, where every predator is a problem that needs to be killed.

Montgomery, Sy, Spell of the Tiger, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1995.


Riversong said...


I wonder why you say that the shamans, required to accompany a group with a forest entry permit, "provide the illusion of spiritual protection".

If the state makes that a requirement of entry, it must be more than mere condescension to folk tradition.

Do you not believe that the role of the shaman is to connect the human and more-than-human realms and maintain harmony between them? To communicate with other creatures, and even shape-shift and become them when necessary to see in a different way?

Have you read Becoming Animal, by David Abram (author of The Spell of the Sensuous), in which he describes this phenomenon when he learns to partake of it?

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, because the tigers continue eating the human intruders, including shamans, and their sons and brothers. Shamans have some amazing powers, but they do not control the tigers, thank goodness.

<< If the state makes that a requirement of entry, it must be more than mere condescension to folk tradition. >>

Because all official rules are rational and reasonable? This is frontier country in India, and most folks are not literate. They worship forest goddesses and tiger gods, not Bill Gates and Einstein.

I haven't read Abram.

Take care,


Unknown said...

I really enjoy reading this blog, weekly.

I would love to see a review of two books that have impacted so very deeply.

David Abram "Becoming Animal", and Chellis Glendinning "My Name is Chellis and I am in Recovery from Western Civilization". ~Fabio

Anonymous said...

A most interesting state of affairs in India, Adrian. Thanks for the review.

I'll chime-in with a good word for David Abrams too. I have his "The Spell of the Sensuous" and found it fascinating. His website is The Alliance for Wild Ethics, with some book excerpts.

What Is Sustainable said...

Fabio and Brian,

I read Chellis ten years ago, and she was surely in the vanguard of the new eco-thinking. I’m re-reading the book now, and will review it. I think it’s a good book for those who are beginning to take a walk on the wild side.

I’ve attempted to read Abram two or three times in the past, and could never make it more than a page or two. I don’t have the mind for it. Too many sentences take five minutes to figure out, and the investment exceeds the profit. I’m sure that we agree on many or most subjects.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to your Chellis review, Adrian. I like her application of the addiction model, and civilization is much like alcohol, even to the point of physical dependency; e.g. electricity, which if taken away today (say, an EMP attack) would result in the death of millions.

Kirkpatrick Sale mentions Chellis in his After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination.

He alludes that the Toba Extinction Event was when agriculture (using fire to get human-important plants to grow more) started as a desperate means of survival, and that the Toba extinction, which nearly killed off humans, made we humans have a bad case of PTSD.

If that's the case, one could argue that Mother Earth is getting her comeuppance.

So the destructive aspect of civilization may mean the human species needs some psychoanalytical healing process from trauma 70,000 years ago.

What Is Sustainable said...

Brian, I last read Chellis in 2002. This second reading has been rewarding. Many have viewed the human predicament to be the result of runaway cultural evolution. Chellis presents a very different model: runaway mental and spiritual disintegration.