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Sacred Animals of Maharashtra


Nanditha Krishna[§], M.Amirthalingam[**] and Archana Godbole[††]
Various animals are considered sacred by different religions and cultures of the world. In India, several animals are regarded sacred by one or more communities and thus they have been well preserved. Some of the common sacred animals are the tiger, peacock, tortoise, cobra, elephant, monkey, buffalo, bear, jackal, dog, deer and black buck. The tradition of attributing sanctity to plants and animals dates back to the days of hunter-gatherers (Chandran and Gadgil, 1993). Sacred animals also became the vehicles of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses. At times they also reflected the character of the deities.
Animals assumed sacredness because of their association with the Gods. The swan, the eagle and the bull are considered sacred because they are the vehicles of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. Some of the animals acquired sanctity because they directly manifested as Gods - Ganesha the elephant headed god, Hanuman the monkey god, and Naga the snake god (Israel and Singlair, 1989). Many gotra (lineage)names of the Brahmins are derived from animal names, such as Bharadwaja (owl) and Garga (crocodile). Many castes or clans within a caste in Maharashtra have totemicnames such as More and Ghorpade, derived from peafowl and monitor lizard respectively (Balasubramanian, 2003). 
There are many classifications of animal worship (http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal worship) including pastoral cults, hunting cults and totemistic cults. The tradition of worshipping animals is a common phenomenon throughout India and there are different cultures and anthropogenic groups in various states wise with traditions that are common, with subtle variations according to the regional cultures and practices.   Indian tradition accords animals a revered position unequalled by any other.   For this reason, many animal species have been traditionally protected and continue to be conserved in many parts of India.
In this paper, we have made an attempt to highlight the sanctity attached to various animals in the state of Maharashtra and their roles in the local ecological traditions.
Many traditional religious ceremonies involving animals are observed by the Maharashtrians.   One such tradition is to worship animals like the peacock (mor) vahana of Karthikeya, the crow vahana of Shani (saturn), Hanuman the monkey god, and the crocodile (ghorpad). 
Khandoba, one of the forms of Lord Shiva, is the patron deity of the Marathas. He is depicted as a horseman holding a sword in his right hand with his consort sitting beside him. The Marathas worship him with rice and flower offerings on Sundays. Khandoba, who protects the village, is accompanied by the dog. Thus the Marathas will not harm the dog. It is deemed a deity by the Ghorpade clan.
The Dattatreya cult is prominent in Maharashtra, although it has also spilled over into the neighbouring states. Dattatreya is commonly understood to be a form that integrates within itself the attributes of the Trinity of Hinduism - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Amongst the Nath-Panthi cult, Dattatreya is regarded as the primordial Guru of both men and gods. For the common folk he is an endearing divinity, without the rigidities of Brahminic authority. He is commonly worshipped in temples as a great healer of the sick.
Normally Dattatreya is depicted with four dogs around him - an ancient image reminiscent of the Vedic Rudra.   The cow, a symbol of purity and abundance in Hindu culture, is sometimes used as a backrest.  The four dogs symbolise the four Vedas – the repositories of all wisdom.
In the early 20th century Dattatreya made a remarkable comeback into public consciousness and now his shrines proliferate. However, there are few exclusive Dattatreya temples.   The idols of Dattatreya invariably share space with other deities in a temple or are situated in a separate niche within a larger temple (http://www.indiayogi.com/content/indgods/dattatreya.asp).
Waghoba is recognized as a forest god by villagers and there is a special function in the month of Chaitra (March-April) when hens and goats are sacrificed to this tiger deity. Waghoba is worshipped is to ensure that tigers cause no harm to the people and farm animals. An   image of the tiger made of clay, known as Waghdev, or the tiger’s pugmarks in clay (in its modern form), is worshipped at Pench National Park in Maharashtra. 
Warlis worship Waghya, the lord of tigers, which is symbolically represented in the form of a shapeless stone (http://dictionary.laborlawtalk.com/zoolatry). The tiger is associated with Lord Siva and Goddess Durga and its cult is restricted to a few forest tribes. Waghya is the main deity of the Dhangers and Bapujipoa of the Kolis (Gadgil and Malkotra, 1979). 
Wagle is a family name derived from the tiger as a totemic symbol. Waghmare, as the name indicates, is a title borne by one who killed a tiger.
In the sacred groves of Ratnagiri district of coastal Maharashtra, ant hills abound. In some sacred groves these anthills are regarded as the abode of Lord Shiva and worshipped with reverence (Godbole & Sarnaik 2005).
Mhasoba, the horned buffalo, is considered a deity and worshipped by pastoral tribes in western and central India.   In Maharashtra, many cattle owners (tribes who make a living by cow-herding and by selling dairy products) have been worshipping this deity for hundreds of years.  
The buffalo god is said to be in conflict with the mother earth - the goddess of the rival food-gathering (agricultural) people and is worshipped by the farmers of Maharashtra. It is also worshipped by the Katkaris tribes of Sahyadris and Nasik.   
Mhasoba is the most dreaded of all evil spirits and when wronged, is supposed to bring ill-fortune to a village. He is worshipped by the Katkaris, one of the forest tribes of Maharashtra (www.maharashtra.gov.in). The conflict between the buffalo god of the hunter-gatherer tribes and agricultural communities is reflected in the story of the demon Mahisha’s defeat at the hands of the Mother Goddess of fertility, Durga.   It is believed that the Bhosles (Shivaji’s clan) also worshipped the deity Mhasoba, who can be identified with Mahisha.   One can find many Mhasoba shrines surrounding the buffalo breeding settlements of Pune district (http://manollasa.blogspot.com/2003/08/kasar-gavlis.html).
Bial Pola is a festival celebrated throughout Maharashtra by farming communities, irrespective of caste, to pay respect to the bulls used for agricultural work. On this day, bulls are decorated and a procession of bulls is organized in the evening. Dishes made of wheat and jaggery are specially cooked and fed to the bulls. This festival observed on the fifteenth day of Bhadrapada(Shravan month, usually falling in August), is to honour the bulls for their utility (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathi_people).
The bulls and cows are worshipped by farmers during the Dev Diwali festival that is celebrated in the month Margashirsha. Dev Diwali coincides with harvesting time and the credit for a good harvest is duly given to farm animals.
Bulls are also worshipped in other forms.   The nomadic Nandiwalas from central and eastern Maharashtra earn their livelihood using the Bull. They wander with decorated majestic bulls   (referred as Nandi - Vahana of Shiva) and use them for fortune telling and weather forecasting. 
Biroba or Viroba is worshipped by Dhangar, a nomadic shepherd community of Satara, Sangli, Pune and Kolhapur districts of Maharashtra.   A major pilgrimage (jatra) of Biroba is celebrated between Dasara and Divali on the third day of the dark- half of the month Ashvin (September/October) (“Some notes on Biroba, the Dhangar God of Maharashtra”, In Prof. D.D.Kosambi Commemoration Volume, Science and Human Progress, Popular Prakashan, Bombay: 167-175.)
Biroba resembles the Shiva lingam. There are two bull sculptures made of stone found in the forest of the Biroba and a stone image of a ‘Vir’ symbolising virility is also seen adjacently. Gods can have Virs as their servants and Khandoba is said to have fifty two Virs under his control.
The Rig Vedic symbol of the bull as iconic of strength, power and virility is manifest in the deity.
Vasubarasis first day of the Diwali when the cow and her young ones are worshipped. It is associated with the welfare of Gokul, the residence of Shri Krishna. This custom is observed not only by the farmers of Maharashtra but also by urban dwellers who celebrate Diwali as the festival of lights and prosperity.
Monitor Lizard
The Monitor lizard (ghorpade) is widely mentioned in Maratha history, mythology and folklore. Karna Singh, a famous Maratha warrior, breached the walls of the Kelna fort by tying a rope to a monitor lizard, allowing it to scale the wall and climbing the rope after the lizard had tightly secured itself.  After this rare feat, Karna Singh’s tribe was known as Ghorpade (pronounced ghorpaday), (the Marathi name for the Bengal monitor, ghorpad) and every soldier in the army was trained in this strategy (Ramakrishna, 1983). It is unfortunate that criminals subsequently started misusing the lizards to climb the walls of houses they were burgling (Robinson in Gaddow, 1901).
More (pronounced moray) is a totemic name of a Maharashtrian clan. Mor means peacock (Indian peafowl), which is the national bird of India. 
In Maharashtra, a village is called Morachi Chincholi due to the abundant presence of peacocks. In this village the peacocks are as common as crows and they are pampered and protected by the villagers.
Morgaon is also named after the peacock and it is situated on the banks of river Karha in Baramati taluk of Pune district.    
There is also a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha as Mayureshwar or the lord of the peacock rider at Margaon, near Pune. Ganesha, it is believed, brought a wild peacock (mayuresha) under control (Krishna, 1996).   
Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Parvati, is probably the most popular deity of Maharashtra. During the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, Maharashtrians worship the elephant-headed God in the belief that he would help them overcome the obstacles in their lives. All Hindus initially pray to Lord Ganesha before worshipping the principal Gods, Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu. There are eight important Ganesha shrines, or Ashta Vinayak, where the icons are swayambhu (self-made) out of a single rock where the head, trunk and body of the elephant deioty can be discovered. They are Mayureshwar or Moreshwar at Morgaon, Chintamani at Theur, Mahaganapati at Ranjangaon, Sidhirvinayak at Siddhatek, Vighnakara or Vighneshwar at Ojhar, Girijatmak or Gririjatmaja at Lenyadri, Ballaleshwar at Pali and Vinayak at Mahad (Krishna, 1996).
The Ganapati festival is celebrated all over Maharashtra for ten continuous days during the Hindu month of Bhdrapada. There is no specific animal worship during this period except the worship of Lord Ganesha who has manifested from the elephant. Ganesh Chaturthi is, today, more in the nature of a celebration than a festival of animal worship.
The crow is believed to represent the soul of a dead person. Feeding crows is equivalent to offering food to one’s ancestor. It is believed that crows carry offerings of food to the departed. 
The crow is an environment-friendly bird because it is a scavenger which eats waste food materials and also feeds on dead animals. It also restricts the population of rodents and other pests by eating them. 
The crow is associated with the goddess Alakshmi (goddess of ill luck). It is also a vahanaof the planet Shani (saturn).
The worship of snakes is fascinating and finds wide reference in all Indian traditions. Adisesha, the king of snakes acts as the couch of Narayana (a form of Lord Vishnu) when he lies on the ocean. The snake is coiled around Lord Shiva’s neck.
Snake stones are widely available in most Indian temples and under the peepal and neem trees. The cobra with its two-eyed hood is also worshipped all over India.
The Jaina Tirthankara Parshvanatha is framed by a many-hooded snake.   Jain Tirthankaras are represented by totemic figures and most of them are shown as animals.
Snake worship is widely prevalent in Maharashtra. During the festival of Nag Panchami, men, women, and children worship freshly caught cobras with flowers, ghee and milk. This practice is observed particularly in Battis Shirala in the Sangli District of Maharashtra.    Nagpanchami is the fifth day of the auspicious month of Shravan of the Hindu calendar. It is believed that, in this village, anybody can handle the snakes on this day without getting harmed. The snake worship in this village is unique and forms part of the worship of Amba.   A week before the festival, live cobras are captured from nearby fields and kept in covered earthen pots. The people who handle the snakes are extremely proficient and keep the snakes without removing their poisonous fangs as any harm to the snake is forbidden.   On the day of Nagapanchami, these pots are carried to the temple of Goddess Amba in a grand procession. At the temple, the snakes are worshipped and then set free in the temple courtyard. It is an amazing sight to watch several cobras raising their hoods, entranced by the white bowls swung in front of them. At the end of the day, the cobras are put back in the pots and carried in a procession. As they travel through different localities of the town, women come out of their houses to have a glimpse of the sacred cobras.   During this festival woman bathe early, wear their nav-vari (nine yards), adorn themselves with jewelry and get ready for the puja of Nag-devata.   Snake charmers sit by the roadside or move about from place to place with their baskets containing the dangerous snakes. While playing the lingering melodious notes on their flutes, they beckon devotees with their calls -"Nagoba-la dudh de Mayi" (give milk to the cobra god, oh mother). On hearing their call, women come out of their homes and the snake-charmers release the snakes from their baskets.
The worship includes the offering of flowers, haldi-kumkum (turmeric and vermilion), and sweets, and the performance of the arati.   It is astonishing that the cobras do not harm anyone who comes near them, despite their fangs being intact. In the evening, a fair is held near the temple of the Goddess and pots carrying the snakes are displayed here. Large crowds arrive from the nearby towns to witness the cobras raising their hoods from within the pots. The snakes are released in the fields the next day.
A sage who belonged to the Naath sect is associated with the Nagapanchami fair held at Battis Shirale. Guru Gorakhnath was once passing through this village and saw a woman praying before a clay idol of cobra. He infused life into the snake and advised her not to be afraid of the snake as it was now the Snake God.   Since then, the people of Battis worship snakes reverentially. A temple for Gorakhnath is situated on a nearby hill (Battis Shirale: http://spirituality.indiatimes.com/articleshow).
However, today the festival is opposed by environmentalists as the population of snakes is dwindling and the snakes caught for the festival are not treated with care. Many die of the trauma of being caught, caged in a pot and force-fed milk.
Wild boars are considered a menace to the farmers as they have tremendous capacity to damage different crops including cereals, pulses and tubers. However, in coastal Maharashtra, they are worshipped during the first four days of the Ganesha festival and no boars are killed or driven away from the agricultural fields. Farmers also pray to wild boars to keep away from their fields and urge them not to eat the crops unless damaged. The ritual worship in the field is done both during the sowing and planting of rice. Farmers believe that due to their prayers, the damage by wild boars is   restricted.
The origin of this faith is unknown. However, Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu, is associated with agriculture. Just as the farmer ploughs the field and lifts the earth, so does the boar, as did Varaha who taught people agriculture.
Preying mantis
In Maharashtra some very unusual forms of animal worship are also seen but these are vanishing very fast. Among the Gond communities from Vidarbha, the vaid or medicine man of the tribe keeps a preying mantis as a pet.   He uses the insecs for fortune telling and worships it. This practice is very peculiar and its origin and significance are not known.
Conservation significance
Animal worship has its roots in man’s respect for nature and natural beings.   Traditional societies considered animals as important creations, sharing natural resources and helping human beings in many different ways. Their worship significantly contributes to the conservation of the species that are worshipped. While conservation efforts are restricted to the `Protected Areas’ where conservation is enforced by law, local traditions contribute, knowingly or unknowingly, to the conservation of several insignificant small species. Therefore there is a need to conduct more research to learn about animal worship and to find ways of how we can use this concept for community-based conservation of many species and their habitats.
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[§] Director, C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, 1, Eldams Road, Alwarpet, Chennai – 600 018
[**] C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, 1, Eldams Road, Alwarpet, Chennai – 600 018
[††] Director, Applied Environmental Research Foundation, Pune


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