Indigenous traditions honour muggers amidst modern challenges

By Akanksha PandeyonMay. 07, 2024in Environment and Ecology
Maange Thapnee at Adulshem village, Ponda. Photo by Manish Machaiah, WCS-India.
  • The annual Maange Thapnee ritual in Ponda, Goa, is an agrarian tradition symbolising the relationship between people and muggers, highlighting the cultural significance of coexistence.
  • The mugger population in Goa maintains minimal negative interactions with humans and the ritual plays a role in fostering tolerance and shaping perceptions of muggers, contributing to a culture of peaceful coexistence.
  • Increasing development and industrial expansion in Goa pose threats to both muggers and their habitat, necessitating a balance between conservation efforts and human interests.
  • The views in this commentary are that of the author.

On an unusually hot afternoon in Goa, with the tide receding and only occasional breeze offering respite, life moved slowly under the shade of coconut groves. As people emerged from their homes, they congregated near a tea stall, preparing for a unique practice. The ceremony commenced with the clearing of weeds, creating a pristine ground. An intersection of bundhs (dykes) in a Khazan, coastal wetlands of Goa used for agriculture, aquaculture and salt panning, was chosen as the site for this ritual. This space accommodated nearly 40 individuals, who began by stripping down to loincloths, forming a procession along the left side of the bundh where the water was shallow. They passed clay to the young Jalmi (priest), who skillfully molded it into a lifelike crocodile figure. Dried sticks collected from the bundh’s corners served as teeth, as vermilion, flowers and incense sticks adorned the clay crocodile.

Behind the vibrant facade of Goa, often seen as India’s party capital, lies a rich mosaic of indigenous traditions and crocodile worship is a striking example. Known locally as Maange Thapnee in Konkani, this tradition is observed annually in a few villages along the banks of the Zuari River in Ponda, Goa. Here, villagers gather to express their reverence and gratitude to the freshwater crocodiles, also known as muggers, with whom they share their lives and landscape. During the ceremony, attended predominantly by men but not excluding women, a chicken hatchling (or in some cases, an egg) is buried inside the mud crocodile, accompanied by offerings of puffed rice, coconut and jaggery.

Local residents making the crocodile model out of chikol (clay). Photo by Manish Machaiah/WCS-India.

Maange Thapnee is an agrarian tradition primarily performed by Khazan land farmers, symbolising respect and gratitude towards the muggers that often inhabit the bundhs. In Ponda taluka, four villages continue to uphold this ceremony annually, typically on Sundays or Wednesdays. While it is commonly believed to be celebrated on the Amavasya tithi of the Paush month (January/February), some villages conduct the ritual with greater elaboration in April/May. Although the specifics of the ceremony vary across villages in terms of timing, participants, decorations, and offerings, the underlying sentiment remains consistent: to seek protection and express reverence and gratitude. Such variations are intrinsic to oral traditions passed down through generations. Despite many villagers ceasing Khazan farming around a decade or so ago, they continue to observe Maange Thapnee alongside the Manas (sluice gate water system).

Most of Goa’s mugger population resides in estuaries bordered by lush mangrove forests, with a significant portion of their habitat being man-made Khazan lands. Researchers find it remarkable how muggers have adapted to the saline waters of the Cumbarjua canal, a phenomenon scarcely observed elsewhere in their Indian range. The canal is well known as a habitat of the Indian mugger and is located in Cumbarjua (or Cumbharjua, Kumbharjua), an island town on the banks of the Mandovi River in Goa, situated 20 kilometres east of the capital Panjim.

A crocodile in the mangroves of Goa. Most of their population resides in estuaries flanked by dense mangrove forests while some live in Khazan lands. Photo by Nirmal Kulkarni.

The enduring proximity of humans and muggers over generations likely contributes to the revered status of muggers in Goan culture and daily life. Despite this close relationship, fatal incidents involving muggers are notably rare in Goa, particularly in Ponda, where negative human-crocodile interactions are minimal. Maange Thapnee ritual plays a pivotal role in shaping villagers’ perceptions of muggers, fostering a culture of tolerance towards these creatures. However, regardless of the tradition’s influence, Goans generally exhibit a degree of coexistence with the species, shaped by personal experiences and observations of mugger behaviour, which challenge the widespread notion of crocodiles as man-eaters. Charotar in Gujarat offers another example of shared space and coexistence between humans and muggers, often linked to the revered goddess Khodiyar Maa, who rides a crocodile.

Social factors such as culture, narratives, experiences, and perceptions thus play crucial roles in nurturing a capacity for coexistence. For oral traditions and such rituals to persist, it’s essential that the next generation takes an innate interest in them and carries them forward. Adulshem village in Ponda serves as an example, where Jalmi (priest) is a young man who has potentially contributed to increased active participation of youths, villagers and outsiders in the ritual compared to other villages where it is practiced.

Here, it’s essential to acknowledge the threat posed by increasing development and industrial expansion in Goa to both muggers and their habitat, avoiding an overly optimistic portrayal of this relationship. Some villagers also advocate for the relocation of muggers from densely populated areas following any incidents. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that many farmers who practice Maange Thapnee and fishers who do not, both mention the muggers’ tendency to avoid humans in their encounters. Numerous Goans recount instances where muggers retreated upon sensing human presence or upon hearing sounds intended to deter them.

Historically, European narratives often depicted crocodiles as fearsome creatures with a propensity for human attacks, overlooking the nuanced perspectives of cultures that coexisted with them. As Rick Shine, a professor of ecology and evolution, aptly points out, “Few animals are as charismatic as crocodilians, and as poorly understood by the general public.” Goans, while acknowledging the potential danger posed by crocodiles, recognise that muggers typically avoid conflict and pose minimal threat unless provoked.

A Khazan in Goa. While indigenous traditions honour muggers in Goa, local village residents also advocate relocating the crocodiles, following some incidents. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

Raman (name changed), a local resident had been attacked by a mugger while fishing: “We’ve encountered muggers as close as about 1 metre. Usually, they don’t harm humans without reason. If they feel threatened, they might slap their tails… When my brother went fishing among the bushes, a crocodile was resting there. It got agitated and grabbed him! The crocodile grabbed him, presuming he was there to catch it. Later, he recovered in about 15 days.” In narrating his experience, Raman anthropomorphizes the muggers, implying that their behaviour mirrors that of humans when disturbed. In doing so, he also renders agency to the muggers. This underscores the beliefs of communities who share landscape with others and look at them as more than just wild animals.

The fishing communities of this region also have deep ecological knowledge of mugger behaviour such as territorial behaviour, individual differences, eggs and dens, accumulated over a lifetime of observation. The urban narrative around human-wildlife interactions has been focused predominantly on the notion of conflict. However, it is not the entirety of the story of human-wildlife relationships in India. Humans have always shared spaces with animals and different cultures associate with nature and wildlife in distinct ways. It may be preferable to talk about human-predator relations, with conflict as a subset of relations, alongside coexistence, where humans and predators adapt to accommodate one another; mutual avoidance; and mutual flourishing.

Traditional practices and folklore, rooted in centuries of close observation and often intertwined with religious frameworks, play a pivotal role in shaping attitudes and perceptions towards wildlife. While deciphering the origins of rituals like Maange Thapnee amid a complex history of religious and cultural transformations can be challenging, understanding such practices offers insights into the historical coexistence of humans and muggers in Goa. We are yet a long way from interpreting the origins of historical rituals. However, appreciating the significance of indigenous traditions can guide efforts to decolonise conservation practices and dispel stereotypes, presenting a more nuanced understanding of these majestic creatures as living fossils and the story of evolution.


Carter, N. H., & Linnell, J. D.C. (2016). Co-Adaptation Is Key to Coexisting with Large Carnivores. Science and Society31(8), 575-578.

Dhee. (2019). The leopard that learnt from the cat and other narratives of carnivores–human coexistence in northern India. People and Nature.

First Published by Mongabay on 1st May, 2024

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