In some ways, the stars of INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER are India's amazing human cultures, which have helped preserve the nation's natural heritage. In scenes filmed across the subcontinent, the documentary shows that a reverence for nature can be found everywhere, from the little northern town of Kheechan, where villagers share their limited stocks of grain with a flock of Demoiselle cranes, to the city of Jodhpur, where langur monkeys who are thought to represent the god Hanuman are fed by the people, to the Satpura forests of central India, where people worship an enormous fig tree.
Indeed, though India's people speak almost 900 different dialects, when it comes to certain animals, they share a special relationship that is "inextricably linked to religion," says Thapar. "Despite the influx of cable television and Western consumerism," he writes in his companion book to INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER, "religion is still important in rural life." For instance, he notes that "the Hindu concept of the sacred cow is familiar the world over, but Hinduism treats many other animals and birds with similar respect. Reverence for things natural also extends to trees and plants -- in fact tree worship is one of the oldest forms of religion in India." Indeed, as INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER highlights, the fig tree, the peacock, the elephant, the cobra, and the monkey hold prominent places in many of India's major religions, including Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. In Hindu temples, for instance, carved coiled cobras guard sacred relics and, in the village of Battis Shirala near Bombay, thousands of the snakes are captured, celebrated, and then released in a famous festival that attracts thousands of onlookers. The peacock, on the other hand, is revered as a snake-killer, while the elephant god Ganesh is worshipped by millions as a symbol of wisdom.
It is the tiger, however, that holds pride of place in Indian religion and folklore. The great orange-and-black cat is India's national symbol, and "no other animal has so much attributed to it," Thapar writes. Some Indians believe the tiger created rain and can stop drought. Others credit it with keeping nightmares away and leading children to safety. Along the south coast of India, children and adults paint themselves in tiger colors and dance in the streets, celebrating the cat's power and strength. "There would be no tigers in India today if people did not fear and respect them," says Thapar. "We have a huge population but also the world's largest population of tigers. It is an animal that has the ability to pull on the hearts of many people."
Of course, animals are not just objects of veneration -- they can also be beasts of burden. From oxen that pull heavily laden carts to elephants that serve as natural bulldozers and forklifts, Indians exploit many animals for the labor they provide. Even the charming and playful short-clawed river otter has been pressed into a professional capacity. Along the Ganges River, fishermen tie captive-bred otters to long lines, using the speedy swimmers to flush fish out of the weeds and into their nets. "Using this method," Thapar notes, "the humans catch many more fish than they would otherwise expect, and the otters, though chained, remain well fed."