Charulata Ravi Kumar
Having a penchant for unusual getaways and daring adventures, I was keen to visit the tiger temples near Bangkok and see for myself how these wild creatures could truly be touched, bathed and fed. With chills running down my spine, while I periodically convinced my seven-year-old that this was not a joke, we drove towards the beckoning abode of the tiger-rearing monks who were one-episode heroes of the Nat Geo channel.
This exorbitantly priced tour started with a group of monks accepting an offering of food from us before we were ushered into the sanctum sanctorum to witness the incredible. A team of tiger carers (read: keepers or trainers) juxtaposed with each magnificent tiger kept watch to protect tourists from their unpredictability and instinct (I mean the tigers’). An hour of cautious interaction with the larger cats made us comfortable with cubs scratching us with their little paws and grabbing us with their sharp yet unharming canines.
Most of the monks talked little or nothing, but those assigned to guide tourists rattled off many tales. As we were being oriented into the origin of the tiger temples and the touching story of how a few monks found some helpless tiger cubs straying into the area and took responsibility for their protection and upkeep, we caught the big slip of the tongue. One of them hinted at a split in opinion on the “nobleness” of the effort. While some seemed to believe it unquestioningly, others appear to walk along hesitantly.
To keep the excitement of the promised experience, the monks coached us convincingly on how to avoid getting attacked or eaten up by them. “Don’t stroke it gently as it may think it’s a fly and flick you with a power-paw shots. Don’t crouch in front of it or it may think you are a child and they are known to attack children. Ddon’t turn your back to them. Don’t look straight into their eyes lest it gets intimidated.” The list was long. Our fear factor was adequately aroused.
The next incredible moment was a customary bathing and feeding of the beasts, tamed into such subservience that their growls sounded like purrs. And, they were eating out of our hands! Raised on cooked chicken only — so that no instinct of attack, kill and eat is aroused — they could be passed off as tigers promoting world peace.
The thrill or rather the shock of seeing obedient, disciplined and domesticated tigers is unparalleled. We kept within fenced confines, while the playful monks and trainers rolled about in rapturous interplay with the tigers over a large rattle. It was made out of dustbin bags full of plastic bottles tied to a staff, long enough to keep away from any remnants of instinct it may still possess. They showcased amazing stunts, incredible leaps, graceful acrobatics, and understood every gesture of their masters perfectly.
And the grand finale! We could actually hold a tiger by the tail even as it allowed you to take pretty pictures, as your lips quivered and hands shook at the possiblity of any change of heart the tiger may have. We were lucky. Because either they didn’t care or it’s an ordeal they know they will have to suffer every day, with a multitude thronging to the temple.
All through, however, the slip-of-the-tongue of one monk stayed. Something was amiss. My mind and heart were in constant debate over the rumours and different opinions surrounding these tigers. Were they sedated? Were they suppressed to be this calm? Is this too lucrative to let go? How did a few small stray cubs adopted for care grow into such a large family of over a 100? Should I have encouraged this seeming trade that destroys the very dignity of the wild? Is this really just a circus set in the jungles?
Whether these stories bear any truth or not, it is heart-wrenching to see these creatures perform to perfection over human orchestration. And as the world applauds the tiger monks, you simply cannot ignore the unnaturalness of the temple tigers resolving to their fate as mere entertainers. How large will this family continue to grow is a milder question compared to the threat that it poses when more opportunists get a taste of this tiger blood. And the wild beauty of nature… here it lies… trespassed, tamed and tampered. A temple full of tigers until they are tigers
Charulata Ravi Kumar is an obsesive traveller and innovations advisor. She has worked in advertising for over 25 years