In estuarine villages in Goa, a unique ritual is helping save a highly threatened species
Checkered Keelback lay unperturbed as we crossed a small culvert. The non-venomous snake remained still, perhaps waiting for a meal—a frog or fish to run up in the narrow passage of water. The afternoon sun flickered over the coconut grove as we wriggled through a thick undergrowth to take a narrow muddy path down to a house under construction.
We were in Durbhat, a village on the banks of the Zuari river in Goa, to meet local fisherman Namdeo Rao. Rao and his kin take part in a unique eco-theological ritual of crocodile worship known as mannge thapnee in Konkani.
Only practised today by a few farming and fishing families in the village, the ritual is meant to protect humans from crocodiles. It also highlights how little is known about the crocodile population of Goa—although a photograph of a large crocodile strolling through a popular Goan tourist beach, Morjim, taken by an early morning walker in July last year went viral.
Goa is home to the freshwater crocodile known as the mugger. It is one of the three species of crocodiles found in India, the other two being the saltwater crocodile and ghariyal.
Anthropologists and wildlife experts say the religious significance accorded to the estuarine crocodile—through rituals such as mangnge thapne—helps conserve not only these endangered species but also their habitat, the equally threatened mangroves.
The ritual of mannge thapnee is celebrated in Durbhat every year on Paush Amavasya in the Hindu calendar, which corresponds to the first new moon day in January. This year, it falls on 10 January.
The unique crocodile worship ritual has also been documented from some other parts of India, including Gujarat (Kutch and south Gujarat), Maharashtra and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal.
In Goa, mannge thapnee has a remained sacrosanct, surviving as a ritual and drawing the attention of scholars and wildlife conservationists amid growing human-wildlife conflict.
This ritual takes place only on the Khazans, local coastal floodplains, mainly used for aquaculture and farming.
Rao narrates the details of the ritual in animated tones. First, he has to make a life-size model of a crocodile from mud scooped from the riverbank. Rao, who learnt the ritual from his father, claims it takes him 20 minutes to create the dummy croc, clamshells forming the scales and eyes. The mud crocodile is then decorated with vermilion, flowers and incense sticks.
During the prayer ceremony—this is attended only by men—a chicken hatchling and an egg are buried inside the mud crocodile along with offerings of puffed rice, coconut and jaggery.
“The legend states that when the paddy fields were flooded with adjacent seawater, the villagers attempted to pacify the sea by worshipping the crocodiles, which were numerous at that time," says Nirmal Kulkarni, chairman of the Mhadei Research Centre and member, Goa State Wildlife Advisory Board. “Every year, on the day of the new moon in January, which coincides with the commencement of threshing of harvest paddy, the ceremony is performed. The villagers believe that it is because of their worship that the crocodiles never cause any harm to them or attack their families."
According to Nanditha Krishna, director CPR Environmental Education Centre, the mannge thapnee ritual is performed for a good harvest by the Hindu Gowdas—a Goan tribe—and is rooted in the belief that appeasing the rain god Varuna by worshipping its mount protects the paddy fields.
There are alternative narratives: the book Sacred Groves In India says a popular belief among Goan fishermen is that the crocodiles prey on predatory fish, which leaves fishermen with high yields of edible fish and prawns from the mangroves.
Ironically—given the worship—crocodiles are not native to Goa, its faunal ecology or its rivers and creeks. They were introduced 500 years ago when the ruler of Bijapur, Adil Shah, as an innovative strategy to try and scare Portuguese invaders off the waters of Goa.
The story goes that Shah introduced freshwater crocodiles in the Cumbarjua canal, connecting the Mandovi and Zuari estuaries to try and thwart the Portuguese general and empire builder Afonso de Albuquerque. At the time, Durbhat was a bustling port, and Albuquerque captured it shortly after his arrival.
And in 1510, Albuquerque managed to capture Tiswadi (comprising 30 settlements, including the island of Cumbarjua) from Adil Shah.
There is also a less dramatic version of how crocodiles came to be in Goa.
“While historical records indicate that the reptiles were introduced by Sultan Adil Shah as a biological deterrent against enemy soldiers in the Cumbarjua canal, some researchers have often argued that the local population is an offshoot of the main population that once existed around the islands of Chorao and in the surrounding mangroves," says Kulkarni.
Over time, the freshwater crocodiles have adapted to the high levels of salinity in Goa and prospered in the mangrove ecosystem. Today, the Cumbarjua canal is a hotspot for crocodile spotting in the wild, with river cruises promoted by the state’s tourism department.
Muggers are considered a threatened species and have the highest degree of protection (Schedule I) under the country’s Wildlife (Protection) Act. However, there have been no recent surveys on the species or population estimates in Goa. Kulkarni and his team are awaiting permission from the government to conduct a census in the state.
Today, mannge thapnee is not restricted to Durbhat. According to Charan Desai of Sawe (Study and Awareness of Wildlife and Environment), a non-profit organization, the ritual is performed by the young and old in neighbouring villages too.
Desai has been working on human-crocodile interactions in Ponda in Goa, and is monitoring 21 villages that are known to have crocodile populations.
Like Rao in Durbhat, Tukaram Mulik has been conducting mannge thapnee in Talavli, a neighbouring village, for 30 years. Mulik does it mainly for protection and to keep crocodiles from entering his paddy fields. “We roam freely without any fear of the crocodile in the bunds and fields," says Mulik.
According to him, more and more young members of the community are taking part in this ritual even though they are not directly involved in either fishing or farming.
Neither is Mulik, for that matter—he works for Konkan Railway and rents out his landholdings. But he performs the ritual every year as part of a tradition.
“We pray to mannge (crocodile) to protect us on land and in water and take care of our well-being. Along with protection from crocodiles, we also pay our respect to nature, on which our livelihood is dependent," says septuagenarian Vithu, also from Talavli.
Today, the mangroves and its star inhabitant, the mugger, are threatened by human activity. Goa’s unprecedented pace of development has destroyed large sections of mangrove forests and polluted its rivers. Whether religious and cultural rituals can save Goa’s crocodiles and its mangroves remains to be seen.