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In India, the worship of tigers has prevailed since ancient times and the tiger especially has played an important part in rituals and folklore. In Bengal, the tiger cult manifested itself as Dakshin Rai and Bare Khan Gazi (who was worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims) in the Sunderbans, as Baghai in erstwhile East Bengal and in North Bengal, as the tiger lord Shonarai. 

In India, the worship of tigers has prevailed since ancient times and the tiger especially has played an important part in rituals and folklore. In Bengal, the tiger cult manifested itself as Dakshin Rai and Bare Khan Gazi (who was worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims) in the Sunderbans, as Baghai in erstwhile East Bengal and in North Bengal, as the tiger lord Shonarai. 

Shonarai (or Sonaraya) is a male-centric folk ritual, now extinct, that used to be practised by cowherds and other young men of predominantly, the Rajbongshi community in Cooch Behar and adjoining areas in North Bengal and parts of Assam and present day Bangladesh.  

In the forested areas of North Bengal and its neighboring regions, tiger lore, stemming  from a fear of tigers, prevailed in abundance among the Indo Mongoloid tribes like the Bodos, Rabhas, Koch and Kochas. As a result of such folklore and folk beliefs, tiger based rituals developed. Shonarai was believed to be a tiger deity with supernatural powers and the myths of Shonarai and his brother, Ruparai dominated vast areas of North Bengal, parts of Assam like Dhubri and Goalpara and parts of Bangladesh like Rangpur, Pabna and Rajshahi. 

The cult gradually developed into rituals accompanied by folk ballads called Shonarai-er gaan (songs on Shonarai).  The rituals were performed to seek his protection for men and cattle from tigers, and to also obtain other boons and Shonarai as both protector of the fields and giver of prosperity was eulogized in ballads and worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims of the region. The name Shonarai was probably given because of the golden colour of the tiger. The independent worship of Ruparai is not known. 

The Shonarai ritual was traditionally celebrated in the month of Poush (December-January), coinciding with the end of the winter harvest. Farmers and young cowherds, the main devotees, would worship Shonarai in order to seek immunity from tiger attacks. Until about twenty years ago or so, up to the penultimate day of the Bengali month of Poush (December-January), a band of 10 to 15 peasant-boys aged between 15 - 20 years, would go from house to house, singing the Shonarai folk-ballad and begging for money or grain with which to prepare a feast and bear the expenses of worshipping the deity Shonarai. This practice is called "magon" (alms-seeking trips). 

In addition to the stories singing the glory of Shonarai, there were also songs blessing those who donated willingly, with offspring, cattle, wealth and general prosperity. There were also songs about the harming powers of Shonarai if a householder refused to give anything.  At the end of the singing (magon) in each home, the householder (if willing) would donate money or food grains, which would be placed in a sack that was always carried by a member of the group. As a gesture of thanks, the group would present some flowers to the householder on the winnowing fan (kulo) from which the grain was given and return a few grains of rice as a symbolic act. They would then leave for the next home.

Among the group would be men dressed as women who would dance as they sang. They were known as Chhokras. The use of accompanying instruments varied from village to village, but drums (khol) and cymbals were mandatory.

A feast was arranged on the last day of Poush (Poush Sankranti) from the money and food collected and the "puja" would take place.  The puja would be conducted after sundown, by any member of the group.  The assigned pujari would fast that day.  The food cooked ("bhog") was first offered to the deity for the safety of the cattle under the charge of the cowherds and then a small feast would be held. There was no fixed shrine dedicated to Shonarai. Shonarai Thakur did not evoke any feelings of dread or reverence - instead it was likened to an occasion for merriment.   

In an earlier time, this would assuredly offer safety of their cattle. However, over the centuries, as socio-economic changes developed and the tiger population reduced, they sought boons for prosperity instead.  

Shonarai is an anthropomorphic deity, as is evident from the ballads. However, traditionally, he was worshipped in the form of a bunch of small flowers made from jute fibre, along with a garland of marigolds attached to the top of a reed from a madhua or kash plant. Sometimes, the flowers would be suspended from a split bamboo frame, mounted on a vertical bamboo rod.  This symbol would be carried around during the "magon". 
Attempts have been made to resurrect the Shonarai ballad through local performances in Cooch Behar, but the visual representation of Shonarai in many of these performances have been literal interpretations from the lyrics of the ballad. Such interpretations have included a male form made of sholapith riding a tiger and a gold painted clay male figure sitting astride two tigers.

The songs have been passed down the generations orally. According to folklorist Sarat Chandra Mitra (1863-1938), who published several papers on Shonarai (Sonaraya) more than a century ago, there were several versions of the Shonarai ballad. One version of the folk-ballad of Shonarai of North Bengal embodies an account of the miraculous birth of the tiger-deity Shonarai and his brother Ruparai. Nanda, the cowherd of Gokula, and his wife Nandarani had no children of their own. Because Nandarani was barren, no one was willing to buy milk from her. Consumed with grief and frustration, Nanda decides to pray to Dharma Thakur (whose worship was a fertility ritual) for a son. Dharma Thakur agrees to grant her a boon and gives her very specific instructions. After meticulously following these instructions, Nandarani was given a pair of fruits by Dharma, on consuming which, she became pregnant. In another version, the god Krishna enters her womb as a white fly. After completing her period of pregnancy extending over ten months and ten days, she gave birth to Shonarai and his brother Ruparai. 

Meanwhile, tigers have been marauding the village and the villagers seek the help of Shonarai by worshipping him.  Thereupon, Shonarai, assuming the form of a Sanyasi, goes from house to house and runs into the invincible Moghuls, who mistaking him for a thief, rough him up and drag him to their den. It is nightfall by now, and Shonarai, bound and fettered, roars for his army of thirty crore (300 million) tigers and commands them to destroy the Moghul army. A new day dawns and Shonarai breaks free, crosses the Yamuna river and counts his tigers. In this way, Shonarai reveals his true form to the world. All the boys sing his glory to householders, telling them the boons he would grant them so that their wealth increased, their family multiplied and their granaries and cattle pens remained full.

According to Mitra, a second version of this folk ballad in this region, did not give any account of the birth of the tiger-deity Shonarai. It simply mentions that, while, on one occasion, this deity was walking about in the street, uttering the name of Hari, he was confronted by a band of Mughal soldiers who enquired of him as to who he was. But when Shonarai refused to respond to their queries, the Mughals arrested him and placing on his chest a massive stone weighing 22 maunds (1 maund= 38kgs), kept him confined in their prison-house. But, casting off the heavy stone by a miracle, he escaped from the Mughal prison-house. Discovering this, the Mughals hid themselves in seven houses. But, with a roar, Shonarai summoned his army of 2000 tigers to slaughter the whole Mughal army. Their wives and daughters too lost their lives in the ensuing panic. The Mughals surrendered to the might of Shonarai and from that day onwards, people began to worship the tiger deity, Shonarai.

It would appear from the ballads that Shonarai`s role was not for protection from tigers. Instead, he used the tigers to spread terror among those who defied him. However, the songs of Shonarai that are still in public memory today in Cooch Behar, bear some similarity with both these versions.  

Mitra also opined that where the ritual was performed by Muslims (in Pabna and Rajshahi districts of erstwhile East Bengal), Shonarai became Shonapir or Shonagazi and the songs would glorify a Muslim pir or saint. However Mitra concluded that the Muslim peasants who sang these songs to Shonapir may well have been recent Hindu converts who used to worship Shonarai earlier. Or perhaps, Muslims may have borrowed from their Hindu neighbours, indicative of a harmonious relationship and religious tolerance which among the local people. Thus Shonarai became Shonapir and it was probably expedient to transform him into a brother of another pir, Manik. 

Some researchers believe that these tiger lords were probably names of brave chieftains or feudal lords who were adored by their subjects in their lifetime. But even after their deaths, the adoration continued, now transformed as a ritual. Or they could have been virtuous mortals deified after death.

Punctuating the ballads glorifying Shonarai, the men would also sing "Dhua gaan", songs on a separate subject entirely, to break the monotony. These songs were mostly popular rhymes or isolated couplets and would be sung in choral form, led by the Geedal or chief singer. 

Although it is impossible to ascertain the exact time when these folk-ballads were composed, it is possible that they were originally composed when Dharma-Thakur worship was prevalent in full vigour in Northern Bengal. (The Dharma Thakur cult, either a form of decayed Buddhism or some form of non Aryan worship has been traced back to the 9th or 10th centuries by some scholars). However, the reference to the Mughals in some of the ballads tells us that they could not have been composed before the 16th century, indicating that while the ritual may be old, the lyrics of the ballad may have changed.

At any rate, from the songs that were documented a hundred years ago and from the snippets that have survived in Cooch Behar, it is evident that what began originally as tiger lore in an animistic society, came under the influence of later religious cults: Dharma Thakur worship and Shaivism and subsequently, Vaishnavism. Thus over time, the ballads gradually became infused with references to these beliefs. Some people have related the deity with Shiva, while still others say Shonarai is the admixture of both Shiva and Krishna. 
Many old timers believe him to be one of seven brothers, Ruparai, Manikrai, Tamak, Kansha, Heera and Mukta, and that he rode a tiger as his mount (vahan) and was worshipped as a giver of prosperity and fertility. 

Today, the Shonarai ritual is a practice of the past, but among the people who remember performing the ritual in their youth in Cooch Behar, the connect with Krishna is the strongest and the original relation with tiger lore is completely forgotten. Thus though the ritual is a relic from a previous animist time, the songs remembered today appear to reflect a more recent vintage.

Research and documentation for this feature was made possible by a grant from the Ministry of Culture, Govt of India, under their Scheme for “Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Diverse Cultural Traditions of India”,  2014-15.