Every place has its uniqueness. At Jamugurihat, the festival of Baghbheta adds a unique character to the place. Baghbheta, which means enclosing a tiger, was a thrilling memorable ‘festival’ that existed from the 1940s to the 1960s.
At one time, the Jamugurihat area was sparsely populated. Every village was covered with thick forests of bamboo and wood. At that time, tigers escaped from the forests and temporarily settled in these village forests in the hope of easily available prey. The tigers sometimes caught and ate domestic cows from the barn and sometimes from the herd. When a tiger started killing cows, people of the neighbouring villages came together and planned to kill the beast. In those days, killing wild animals was not wrong.
When a tiger came to a human settlement to kill and torture livestock, villagers gathered and used a special method to tie the tiger. Nets made of cotton rope were used to catch the tiger and keep it for public display for several days. This was called Baghbheta or enclosing a tiger.
Only the most violent of the usual tigers, the Panthera tigris or Royal Bengal tiger, was caught in this way. The rest of the tigers were captured and killed by jumping, or digging a pit to fall tactfully while coming to eat previously killed prey. The tiger enclosing system, which was cleverly enjoyed by thousands of people, became one of the festivals of the region. This is still remembered by the people of the present time.
The tiger is hunted by looking for signs of killing a cow or buffalo or by observing other animals that indicate the presence of a tiger. The main tool for this tiger catching was the jute net. A tiger net is knit to a certain size in length and breadth. The specific measurements are maintained of a net hole in knitting so that tigers cannot insert their mouth.
In those days, it was the custom of the villagers to keep a tiger trap. These nets were carefully kept in the Namghars (Assamese prayer house). These nets were prepared when two or four cows were killed and the wild cat would start attacking humans. The tiger chungi (a person who finds out the location of a tiger) would detect the tiger’s hideout. Two or three very skilled, brave and wise men come together to find the tiger. The spotting of the tiger was called Tigerchanda and the area was named Chandi Chong.
The approximate boundary of Chandi Chong was defined to encircle by the net. News of Bagh Chong or tiger finding spread instantly by word of mouth from one village to another. After receiving the news, people came and covered the forest with nets. It was compulsory for all villages to carry nets to catch tigers. Every khel or group of villagers came to hunt the tiger. They lived in baha. In each baha, a shed was built and a fire was lit. It was also forbidden to eat food in tiger chong. The biggest group with the maximum number of people got the honour of first baha. A village headman of tiger chong was elected to keep the news of the hunting updated.
Tiger Changi (the tiger searching) was a skilled job. The position of the tiger was determined on the basis of their footsteps, dead prey etc. The path used by tigers was called Go(cow) Khoj. Tigers usually go to and fro from tiger chong by the same route. So, the first baha (first seat) was placed in that path.
One village elder would go ahead and chant mantras (sacred hymns) and people followed him and cut down the forest and arranged for the nets to be set. The clearing of the forest was called the cheuni cutting. The tiger net was set with the help of strong bamboo poles called tongi and kukur.
The kukur poles are two feet long. The tip is sharpened and buried completely leaving only three to four inches to bind the net with a bamboo hook. These kukur poles were placed at a two-foot gap. On the other hand, tongi poles were seven to eight feet. These raised the 10-foot net twisting it from outside and inside. The poles were kept in a slanted position. The two strong ropes fitted on the top and bottom of the net were called don. The entire force of the net was controlled by the two don.
One big bamboo was positioned from outside into the innermost areas of the net as a revolving see-saw or Assamese manual thrashing machine dheki. It was called ‘Ra-bamboo’. This long bamboo frequently irritated or provoked the tiger physically. Moreover, the movement of the Ra-bamboo around the area flattened the jungle. So, people with a clear view enjoyed the angry mood of the tiger. This way, after three or four days, the enclosed tiger was killed.
Later, the protected wildlife law was passed and the festival of Jamugurihat disappeared. This custom stemmed from the socio-economic practices and life security of agrarian people in Jamugurihat.
There was a lot of unity, harmony and enthusiasm among every village in Jamugurihat for the Baghbheta festival. All the craftsmanship associated with Baghbheta was scientific. A tiger was capable of jumping 12 feet but could be imprisoned in a six-foot net.
In fact, each of the net’s holes had a Makori ghila tied to it. The Makori ghila was an edible fruit found on the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. One villager explained, “This obfuscates the vision of the standing tiger and eventually forgets to jump.” There was a fixed rule that if a tiger broke through the net of a particular village, the village would be guilty and punished by other villages.
In 1955, ODC Film Production, a film company from the US, produced a film about a man-eating tiger, The Man Eater. The tiger enclosing technique of Jamugurihat was shown in the film. The team reached through erstwhile Calcutta. The entire shooting was done in Routa of Darrang district.
According to the agreement with the film production, people of 25 villages of Jamugurihat took 25 nets and went to Routa to catch the tiger. As usual, the tiger was killed after the scene was filmed.
Later, the protected wildlife law was passed and the festival of Jamugurihat disappeared. This custom or festival stemmed from the socio-economic practices and life security of agrarian people.
However, the thrilling experiences of the Baghbheta festival, which once carried the sign of courage, unity and solidarity, are still alive in the minds of the people of Jamugurihat.