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Were-Tigers of Odisha in Adivasi Folklore  

Stefano Beggiora

The Meriah Wars, a series of conflicts that bloodied the central districts of the state of Odisha (India) in the 19th century, pitted the indigenous populations of the Konds against the British army. Historiographic sources demonstrate that although the apparent British casus belli claimed an intent to suppress the Konds because of their practice in human sacrifice, the evidence remains unreliable and incomplete on how the Konds actually followed this ritual and indicates that the British Raj’s true motivations lay elsewhere. Sources instead illustrate concretely that the British Raj focused its actual attention on areas that, until recently, drew scarce interest but reflected its increasingly urgent need to extend and consolidate the colonial rule in the belt of central-eastern India. This cultural clash with the Konds would later highlight the limited understanding of Europeans about the crucial role that many indigenous peoples played in the political balance and as social subjects in the buffer zones on the edge of the forests. If it has been reported that the Konds were often chased, persecuted, and shot down like beasts and that their villages were set on fire in this dark page of colonial history, it is also true that their communities were fluid entities capable of evading peace treaties, using the harsh and unexplored jungle terrain to their advantage and sometimes mounting a strenuous resistance. This uncontrollability is probably the main reason for their misrepresentation in colonial sources, which often emphasize the gruesome aspects of human sacrifice and the Konds’ prowess in the witchcraft arts. It is in this context that the ability of some tribesmen to transform themselves into were-tigers and possibly prevail over an otherwise stronger enemy is first recorded. The practice of theriomorphism has survived to this day, along with a shamanic-type religiosity among the Kond minorities still populating the Kandhmal district. Therefore, an ethnographic approach allows not only for a detailed investigation into this still little-known phenomenon and a clearer analysis of certain aspects of this community’s history but also a deeper understanding of the wide relational spectrum of the Konds with their territory and the wildlife surrounding them and as they coped with the challenges imposed by modernity.