Acclaimed for their unique ecosystem and Royal Bengal tigers, the mangrove slands that comprise the Sundarbans area of the Bengal delta are the setting for this anthropological work. The key question that the author explores is: what do tigers mean for the islanders of the Sundarbans? The diverse origins and current occupations of the local population produce different answers to this question; but for all, 'the tiger question' is a significant social marker. Far more than through caste, tribe or religion, the Sundarbans islanders articulate their social locations and interactions by reference to the non-human world - the forest and its terrifying protagonist, the man-eating tiger.
This study is also an exploration of the history of the encounter of Islam and Hinduism in the region, expressed through tiger-charming practices, the legacy of Sufi pirs and the worship of forest deities such as Bonbibi and Dokkhin Rai. With the recent arrival of the prawn industry, the products of which are sold to a global market, the marginal workers of the forest, especially women, are beginning to shift their religious allegiances. What is driving the displacement of the traditional forest deities by the more powerful, more 'global' figure of Kali? As environmentalists highlight the unique biodiversity of the Sundarbans ecosystem and push for greater conservation, the author revisits the islanders' memories of the Morichjhanpi massacre and their uneasy engagements with statist politics. These provide the critical background for the present-day dilemmas which emerge regarding the perceived unjust allocation of resources between humans and wildlife in a region better known as 'tiger-land'.
The book combines ethnography on a little-known region with contemporary theoretical insights to provide a new frame of reference to understand social relations in the Indian subcontinent. It will be of interest to scholars and students of anthropology, sociology, development studies, religion, cultural studies, as well as those working on environment, conservation, the state and issues relating to discrimination and marginality.
Table of contents:
List of Maps and Illustrations vii
Note on Transliteration xiv
I. Introduction 1
II. The Village and the Forest 21
III. Land and its Hierarchies 35
IV. Is Salt Water Thicker than Blood? 65
V. Roughing it with Kali: Braving Crocodiles, Relatives and the Bhadralok 109
VI. Sharing History with Tigers 146
VII. Unmasking the Cosmopolitan Tiger 176
VIII. Conclusion: Beneath the Masks, the Human
Face of the Sundarbans 203
Glossary of Selected Terms and Acronyms 220
Aout the Author 241