By: Arup Saikia
Every place possesses its own unique history and traditions that have been preserved through time. These historical events or social traditions often hold great significance for the local population. In the town of Jamugurihat, one such memorable and thrilling festival was known as “Baghbheta,” which involved the capture of tigers. Even today, the local people fondly reminisce about this event, which existed from approximately the 1940s to the 1960s.
During this period, the Jamugurihat area was sparsely populated, with each village surrounded by thick bamboo and wood forests. Tigers, seeking easy prey, occasionally ventured out of the forests and settled temporarily in these village areas. They would sometimes attack domestic cows in barns or herds. In response, the villagers from neighbouring areas would come together to plan the capture of the tiger, as it was not considered wrong to kill wild animals in those days.
When a tiger entered a human settlement to prey on livestock, people from various villages would unite to capture it using a unique method. They used cotton rope nets to trap the tiger, keeping it on display to the public for several days. This practice was known as “Baghbheta” or enclosing a tiger. Typically, only the most aggressive tigers, specifically the royal Bengal tiger (panthera tigris), were captured in this manner. Other tigers were caught and killed by strategically digging pits for them. This tiger-capturing tradition became a celebrated festival in the region, and it is still vividly remembered by the local people today.
To capture a tiger, the villagers would look for signs of a tiger’s presence, such as the killing of cows or buffalo, or by observing the behaviour of other animals that indicated the presence of a tiger. They primarily used jute nets for this purpose, ensuring that the net holes were of a specific size to prevent the tiger from inserting its mouth.
In those days, each village had its own tiger trap, and these nets were stored in the Namghars (Assamese prayer houses). When two or four cows were killed, and the tiger began attacking, preparations were made to capture it. A designated tiger tracker, known as the “tiger chungi,” would locate the tiger’s position in the forest. Skilled, courageous, and wise individuals would then set out to find the tiger, a process known as “Tigerchanda,” and define the boundaries of the area, called “Chandi chong,” where the tiger was located. News of the tiger’s discovery would spread quickly by word of mouth from one village to another. Upon receiving this news, people from each village would bring nets to encircle the forest. Each group of villagers participating in the tiger hunt was called a ‘baha.’ A shed would be constructed for each ‘baha,’ with a fire lit nearby. Eating food within the tiger chong was strictly prohibited. The group with the most participants earned the honour of being the ‘first baha,’ and a village headman would be elected to keep everyone informed about the hunt’s progress.
Tracking a tiger was a highly skilled and critical endeavour. The tiger’s location was determined based on various factors, such as its footprints and signs of prey. The path commonly used by tigers in the tiger chong was known as ‘Go (cow) Khoj.’ Tigers typically followed the same route to and from the tiger chong, so the ‘first baha’ was placed along this path.
Setting Up the Tiger Net:
One village elder would lead the way, chanting sacred hymns, with others following him to clear the forest and set up the nets. Clearing the forest was referred to as ‘cheuni cutting.’ The tiger net was set up with the help of sturdy bamboo poles known as “tongi” and “kukur.” The kukur poles were approximately two feet long, sharpened at one end, and buried in the ground, leaving only a few inches exposed to secure the net with bamboo hooks. These kukur poles were placed about two feet apart to prevent the tiger from slipping underneath. The tongi poles were seven to eight feet long and were used to raise the net, which was typically ten feet high, by twisting it around the poles from both the outside and inside. The poles were arranged at a slanting angle, and two strong ropes, known as “Don,” were used to control the tension of the net.
To agitate or provoke the tiger physically, a large bamboo known as “Ra-bamboo” was inserted from outside into the innermost areas of the net. This bamboo served as a revolving see-saw or manual thrashing machine. It not only irritated the tiger but also flattened the surrounding jungle as it moved about. This provoked the tiger further, and after several days, the trapped tiger would eventually be killed.
Despite the lack of formal education, the people of Jamugurihat demonstrated remarkable unity, harmony, and scientific knowledge during the Baghbheta festival. They had a deep understanding of the process. Even though a tiger could jump up to twelve feet high, they could capture it using a six-foot-high net. Each hole in the net was equipped with a “Makori ghila,” a reddish chocolate-coloured edible fruit commonly found in the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. One villager explained that this fruit would obstruct the tiger’s vision, causing it to forget to jump. There was a strict rule that if a tiger managed to break through a particular village’s net, that village would be held responsible and face punishment from the Jamuguri regional committee (Baresohoria sabha).
In 1955, a United States-based film company, O.D.C. Film Production produced a film titled “The Man Eater,” which depicted the man-eating tiger and featured the tiger-capturing technique of Jamugurihat. The film crew reached the region through Calcutta, and the entire shooting took place in Routa, Darrang district. Under an agreement with the film production company, people from 25 villages in Jamugurihat brought 25 nets to Routa to capture the tiger for the film. Once the scene was filmed, the tiger was killed. Subsequently, wildlife protection laws were enacted, leading to the decline and eventual disappearance of the thrilling Baghbheta festival in Jamugurihat.
This unique festival of Baghbheta was born out of the necessity for the socio-economic and life security of the agrarian people of Jamugurihat. Although the festival has disappeared due to changing laws and conservation efforts, the thrilling experiences and memories of Baghbheta continue to live on in the hearts and minds of the people of Jamugurihat. It stands as a testament to the courage, unity, and solidarity of the community during a bygone era. (The writer is a noted cultural activist, actor, scriptwriter and poet)