When he was about six years old, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s father took him by the hand and led him into a dense forest, where tigers, hyenas, sloth bears, nilgai antelope, and wild boars roamed freely. Shyam’s family, which belongs to the Gond tribe, lived in a hamlet at the periphery of the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Central India. Kanha, home to thick groves of bamboo and slender-trunked trees, including sal and East Indian ebony, is the forest that provided the backdrop for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
As the pair went deeper into the thicket, they came to a solitary stone with a large, ochre cat painted on it. It was a totem of the tiger, covered in tangerine paste and decorated with symbols of the sun and moon above it. That was Shyam’s introduction to Baghdev—in Hindi, literally “tiger god.”