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Tiger widows of the Sundarbans: how religion and myth stigmatise human-wildlife conflict

Forward Thinking series
Amrita DasGupta

Visiting Research Student

17 April 2023

Sundarbans is the world’s only mangrove tiger land and it straddles the region between India and Bangladesh. It is located in lower deltaic Bengal and is supplied by the Brahmaputra, Ganga, and Meghna Rivers. Humans and animals live in close proximity here. A combination of human-wildlife conflict, and folk cultures and religion that revere tigers as divine entities, has created a population of ‘tiger widows’ – a category of ostracised women in the Sundarbans.

Historically, the deltaic community residing in the area have always penetrated the forest to gather resources for survival. Such foraging leads to frequent human-animal conflict and many lose their lives to tiger attacks. In fact, according to Indian government reports, about 36 people are killed in tiger attacks every year. Shrinking tiger habitats, increasing water salinity and declining food resources have contributed to an increase in human-tiger conflict, with humans becoming easy prey.

Even as deaths by tiger attacks increase, the full extent of the problem is not known. A large proportion of such deaths go unreported because of a legal conundrum. Access to the Indian Sundarbans is dependent on permits issued by local forest officials. However, many locals are forced to enter the forest illegally because they cannot afford these expensive permits. To avoid being harassed by forest guards, families of tiger victims who entered the forest illegally refrain from officially reporting the mishaps.

Women who lose their husbands to tiger attacks, or ‘Tiger widows’, are believed to be ill omen and are ostracised as ‘swami khejos’ (husband eaters in Bengali). Tiger attack widows (bagh bidhoba) are often prevented from undertaking the traditional occupations of the islands—agriculture, fishing and crab collection. To make matters worse, tiger attack deaths resulting after illegal entry into the forest disqualifies the family of the deceased from availing financial compensation from the government. Consequently, the widows face the immediate blow of societal as well as financial trauma.

A tiger widow, a woman who lost her husband to a tiger attack standing in front of her hut in the Sundarban region of West Bengal, India.
A tiger widow standing in front of her hut in the Sundarbans. Picture by Amrita DasGupta.

The idea that tiger attack widows are ill omen can be traced to the Bonbibi’r Johuranma (The Miracles of Bonbibi)—the religious text of the Bengal delta. The story goes that Maa Bonbibi and her brother, Shahjongoli, were sent to Sundarbans by Allah to resolve the conflict between humans and the shape-shifting tiger, Dokkhin Rai. Anyone who gathered resources from Rai’s forest without his permission was attacked by tigers. After a long combat, Maa Bonbibi defeated Rai and divided the land between forest and human settlement. She declared that anybody who took from the forest out of greed should fear death by tiger attack, and she would not come to their rescue.

This religious tale has led to the superstition, in the Bengal delta, that tiger attacks are a divine punishment. Hindus and Muslims adhere to this belief and unanimously pray to Maa Bonbibi for mercy. Although the region has many widows who lost their spouses to snakes and crocodiles, because of these religious beliefs, it is only ‘tiger widows’ who are affected by social stigma.

The islanders believe that the ill omen of death by tiger attack can be avoided by the penitence of and observance of austerity by the wife back home while the husband gathers forest resources for a living. If the spouse falls prey to a tiger attack despite following the rituals, the woman is blamed for being impious. Hence, the burden of the ‘swami khejo’ slur (husband eater) is shouldered only by tiger widows, and not women who become widows because of snake bites or crocodile attacks.

Tiger widows are often pushed out of the house by their in-laws who may keep any male children she may have. Their identity as ill omens makes it difficult to get jobs in the delta. With no family to lean on and little to no access to government support, tiger widows are forced to take up any available jobs in the city of Kolkata, often as house maids or construction labourers. Vulnerable as they are, many are lured to the city under false promises of work and end up in sex work out of coercion or will in the city’s brothels.

A group of tiger widows standing in front of a boat and a tiger widower standing on the boat in Sundarbans.
Tiger widows of the Sundarbans. Picture by Amrita DasGupta.

During my MPhil fieldwork in 2017, I requested a group of tiger widows and a tiger widower to pose for my camera standing on a boat. The tiger widows protested and told me they were forbidden from accessing the ‘boat of occupation’ (kajer nouka), used for fishing. Only the tiger widower could stand on it and pose since he was a man. One of them explained:

We are tiger widows, not any other widows. We are ill omens. We have lost our right to access the “boat of occupation”. Our sons feed us, if we have any. If not, we live by begging. We will stand on the ground, let him stand on the boat. Take our picture like this.– a 'Tiger Widow' in the Sundarbans

This meant that even if the women were skilled in fishing, they were now inevitably kept away from the occupation, denied access to boats and their right to livelihood. This increases their vulnerability to false promises of housemaid jobs in the city and to being coerced into the nexus of trafficking-in-humans. The number of women trafficked from the Sundarbans into Sonagchi, Asia’s largest red light area, and Harkatta Goli in Kolkata, is increasing every year. In an interview to Huffpost, Dr. Samrjit Jana, a public health expert and activist for the rights of sex workers, said that about 700 workers from Sundarbans join the industry annually.

The social construct of the lower deltaic Bengal and its folk religion and practices create harsh survival environments for the deltaic women. Government interventions need to take into account the social aspect of human-wildlife conflict in the region, and work to dispel religious superstitions.

Creating temporary jobs within the deltaic villages, like sewing or making handicrafts, could protect the widows from having to search for jobs in the city, and from falling prey to the nexus of trafficking and sex work.

Find out more about Amrita's work

Amrita is a third year PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, a Visiting Research Student at the King's India Institute and a guest teacher at the London School of Economics (LSE).

You can follow Amrita's work on twitter: @AmritaDasGupta9

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