"Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names."
- Japanese Proverb
AT the tender age of nine, I had a wild encounter with a tiger. It took place in Kalijhora, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. It was a moment in time that I’ll never forget...
I spent the summer camping in Kalijhora with fellow classmates who couldn’t return home for the school holidays. I remember it as a tranquil, beautiful place surrounded by forests, a wildlife sanctuary and tributaries that fed a mighty river which flowed southward through gorges and rapids in the Sikkim Himalayas. The holiday was filled with adventure, beauty, friendship and memories that all children should be lucky to have.
We followed a simple routine and would begin each day early. We’d grab our pouch of charcoal dust (a cheap but effective toothpaste), soap and towel and make our way to a small tributary at the bottom of the camping ground. There, we’d bathe in icy water, fresh from the glaciers of the nearby mountains, before heading for the church service held in a small makeshift shed further up the hill.
That fateful morning I awoke before the rest. Deciding to get an early start, I grabbed my modest toiletries and headed down to the river. I placed my precious bar of soap safely on a rock, got down on my knees and splashed numbingly cold water on my face. Then I opened my pouch of coal. Armed with nothing more than my forefinger, I dabbed it into the pouch and proceeded to lace my teeth with fine coal dust.
I started not so much to brush, but polish my teeth clean when something stole my attention. A noise. It silenced the usual morning choir of wildlife. Looking up, I slowly shifted my gaze from the reflection in the water to the bank ahead. Standing there was a tiger! A magnificent Bengal tiger. I froze! It was staring straight at me, lapping water, studying me, staring. It contemplated me from no more than a tiger’s leap away, lapping, looking, and then...
How I wish I could tell you more but unfortunately, that’s all I remember! But despite the brevity of the encounter, it’s still enough to sear the image deep into my memory. I owe that tiger a profound debt of gratitude for letting me be – and hence allowing me to write this piece nearly 40 years later.
Since that fateful day, tigers have always occupied a special place in my heart. Its mythic stature is evident in many guises, woven into Asian folklore. In Chinese mythology, it symbolises the yin or material force. References to the occult powers of tigers can be found in the Atharva Veda, in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and in images painted on rocks in central India some 10,000 years ago that are still visible today.
In Tibet, the tiger symbolises immortality. The Tungus people of Eastern Siberia regard the tiger as being close to a deity; meanwhile, in South Korea, it’s the country’s national animal. Some cultures believe man and tiger to be brothers – one being human, while the other, striped.
In Malaysia, Man’s association with the tiger is deeply rooted too, going back countless millennia. Locals living in areas populated by tigers never referred to them by their real name harimau tunggal or unique tiger (to differentiate it from the other species) in the belief that it understood human speech. In reverence, the tiger was instead called Tuhan Utan or Lord of the Jungle. The excerpt below is taken from a British colonial account in Malaya in 1839:
“One night, passing through a forest on the Peninsula, I was startled by the momentary appearance of two eyes glaring along the road before me, succeeded by a sudden crash in the bushes. I asked the Malay guide, who was about three paces from the horse's head, what it was; but for some time I could extract no reply beyond the enumeration of his relatives. At length he came close to me, and with a tremulous voice whispered, “Rimou, Tuan,” “A tiger! Sir.”
Adding to the lore of the tiger is the belief that the soul of the dead takes refuge in the body of the animal, making them even more revered. For many, killing a tiger is an unforgivable sin, unless of course it attacked first. However, should one be confronted by one, there are said to be ways to pacify “Tuan Utan”. The following excerpt comes from another British account in 1898:
“I have known so many cases of *latah (entering a trance like state while perfectly mimicking the actions of a tiger) during the years that I have spent wandering up and down the Peninsula, that I am tempted to multiply my instances indefinitely. The Malays have many tales of latah folk who have terrified the tiger into panic-stricken flight by imitating his every motion, and impressing him thereby with their complete absence of fear. I cannot say if there is any sort of truth in these stories, but I can see no good reason for doubting them...”
Other approaches to managing the tiger, besides pacification, are mystical still. For those who knew the art of Harimau Jardin or Weretiger, inheriting not only the powers but also the image of the tiger, was possible.
Like its werewolf counterpart in western mythology, the metamorphosis happens at night. Thought to have originated in Kerinchi, Western Sumatra, the art of transmutation was something that could be passed down from father to son. They could be called upon in times of need or even appear uninvited.
In his book Tracking the Weretiger, Patrick Newman highlighted accounts from the Sunda people of West Java who talked about ancestors appearing in tiger form in times of family strife to offer guidance. Other accounts collected in the 1970’s from the Batek Negrito hunter-gatherer tribes in the Malaysian peninsula also mentioned about ancestors who visited in the form of a tiger to teach them useful things through song.
In the jungle, Batek hunters would carry incense with them in case they bumped into an ancestor in tiger form. They believe that by blowing smoke towards it would temporarily transform into the human form. Another sign indicating that a transmuted ancestor is nearby is the presence of a single tiger paw print that’s smaller than the others.
However, these tiger-form ancestors didn’t always provide kindly guidance. If, for example, a member of the village or an outsider were to break social harmony (maybe through ill-doings or showing a lack of respect), they’d unleash their wrath.
The chickens would be targetted first. And should the warning go unheeded, it would be the turn of the valuable cattle. If these signs continue to be ignored, the offender would simply disappear. Such events were accepted signs that the tiger-ancestor is just trying to repair social ills. They were disciplinarians, but also guardians of their people, as described in the famous Malaysian tale, The Legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang.
The legend dates back to the 15th century when the kingdom of Melaka was at the height of its glory. It’s a story about a beautiful Javanese Hindu princess who lived on the peak of Gunung Ledang (or Mount Ledang ) and the all-powerful Sultan’s quest for her hand in marriage. According to the legend, the princess resided at the highest point of the mountain, protected by guardians.
In The Malay Magician, Richard Winstedt gives an account of the Portuguese writer Godinho de Eredia 1613 description of the forest thickets surrounding Gunung Ledang as being occupied by tigers guarding the Puteri (or Princess) residing there. He goes on to say that the Banuas (‘orang benua’ or indigenous people) learnt their magic in a cavern at Gunung Ledang, and used the art to transform themselves into the tiger form.
Not all tiger tales are set in the past. In India, through the creation of a new groundbreaking comic, director and filmmaker Ram Devineni has tried to address issues in society related to gender. Priya’s Shakti (meaning Priya’s Power) is a female superhero who rides a tiger and fights for women’s rights and equality. Having been shunned by society, the character Priya takes refuge in the jungle where she’s stalked by a tiger.
Coming to her aid, the Hindu goddess Parvati grants her superhero powers. These include fearlessness and a mantra to change people's minds. With these newly bequeathed powers she tames the tiger and rides him back to the village to start her quest. According to the character’s co-creator Devineni, Priya is like an incarnation of the goddess Parvati, who also rode a tiger and once killed a murderous demon in a battle.
Today, around Mumbai, Augmented Reality murals from the comic unlock animations, engaging the young, pulling them in with strong characters through technology whilst also tackling a huge social issue. Devineni also noted that “... what’s unique about Priya is that she doesn’t have any superpower like Wonder Woman or other superheroes. Her power is persuasion -and riding a tiger is a very persuasive argument.”
From scriptures to verses, to songs, the tiger is featured in all cultures - eastern and western. From Priya’s Tiger and Blake’s The Tyger, to Kipling’s Shere Khan and Pi’s lifeboat companion, Richard Parker, the tiger still has a strong hold on us. The symbolisms attached to this animal remain as strong today as it has been for millennia.
However, as much as the tiger has enriched our culture and heritage, we’re now at a tipping point regarding their survival. Tiger populations are dwindling across Asia at an alarming rate for a myriad of reasons, including poaching and habitat loss.
But there are many striving to usher in change for the tiger. More and more people across Asia are getting increasingly proactive in trying to protect the endangered animal. One notable example took place in India where 25,000 children took to the streets and collected two million signatures to incite change, prompting the country’s Prime Minister to respond: “Our children have woken up; why are we adults all asleep?”
EPILOGUE - TUAN NAN GEDAN
Hubert Banner’s book about Java, written in 1927, recalls the awe that the Javanese had for the tiger and how the locals would woo the animal before entering their domain. In the passage, he cites every word meant to pacify and respect the “Mighty Lord” of the Jungle, as a defender of people, their ancestors and the forest, offering utmost respect to Tuan Nan Gedang:
“Tuan Nan Gedang, Mighty Lord,
Hard is the wood, hard is the iron which cuts the wood;
But harder yet than wood and iron,
Is the Mighty Lord of the strong claw,
That tears the wood and snaps the iron of the spear.
The mighty and the good, tis Tuan Nan Gedang!”
Sadly, the Javanese tiger is extinct! To remember them only in lore is a huge injustice.
In Malaysia, the tiger population has declined from roughly 3,000 in the 1950’s to 200 at present. The tiger is part of our heritage, our national symbol, and lends itself to our Coat of Arms. On it is a shield framed by two tigers with the motto Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu or “Unity is Strength”. Nothing could be closer to the truth if we want to save the tiger. Ultimately, saving the tiger saves an entire ecosystem. It’s a cause to unite us. When we save the tiger, we save the forests and ultimately, we save ourselves.
TheCatWith5Tales.org is a project bringing together various artists and musicians to make a difference towards Tiger Conservation. “Orange Tales” is the first project featuring Penang’s nightingale Bihzhu and singer and actress Susan Lankester. A mix of original and borrowed tales from The Brothers Grimm & William Blake, it consists of five songs each one with a tale to tell about wishes, desires, duality, duplicity and dreams. Ultimately “Orange Tales”, produced by Andrew is an ode to both tiger and man.
Go to www.thecatwith5tales.org for more info.