religious practices

Faith versus conservation: Tirupati temple, forest department fight over the Indian civet

The animal secretes a substance that is used to anoint the deity's idol every Friday.

Fridays are considered auspicious at the Tirupati Tirumala temple in Andhra Pradesh. Every week on this day, temple priests anoint the idol of Lord Venkateshwara, an incarnation of Vishnu, with a perfumed substance during prayers. This sacred offering is called punugu, made from the aromatic secretion of the small Indian civet, a nocturnal mammal.

The civet secretes a wax-like substance with a strong smell from the perineal gland located near its tail. This is then diluted with gingelly oil, which gives it a musky fragrance, to make the offering for the weekly ritual. But the practice has led to an almost-decade-long row between temple authorities and the forest department, which came back to life this month.

Till 2008, the temple bred civets at its dairy farm in Tirupati. The waxy secretion was collected from wooden planks where the animals habitually rubbed themselves. But that year, the Andhra Pradesh forest department seized the animals from the farm as the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 prevents their domestication. Since then, the department and the temple have been at loggerheads over the management and care of the animals, which are currently housed at the Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park in the city. In 2013, the forest officials filed a criminal case against the temple authorities for keeping the animals in captivity. But four years later, in the first week of March, a court dismissed the case.

The dispute is far from over, though, and proposals for a solution are in limbo.

Long-standing dispute

Civets rarely breed in close captivity. This realisation drove the temple authorities in 2006 to propose a different arrangement for the animals: they offered to fund a nocturnal house for them at the Sri Venkateswara zoo. However, they insisted that their own staff be allowed to look after the animals to ensure the required amount of secretion was procured for the weekly ritual.

The forest department rejected the proposal, saying extraction and exchange of civet oil was a violation of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Today, the temple authorities are still willing to fund the nocturnal house at the zoo, provided forest officials assure them that they can avail of the secretion in the quantity they require.

At present, they depend on zoo officials to extract the secretion and give it to them, according to Dr Srikanth Babu, director of Animal Care Land, a non-governmental organisation based in Tirupati.

However, while the forest authorities are in favour of the temple-funded house for the animals, they are against facilitating any supply of the civet secretion to the temple. “We are only protectors and keepers of the wild animals and we cannot do any extractions or trading,” PV Chalapathi Rao, chief conservator of forests, told Firstpost.

The ritual aspect to this long-standing tussle makes this a sensitive case, said Srikanth Babu. “Since this is an offering for God, there is a lot of sentiment attached to this custom by locals,” he added. “It is better to provide a natural environment to the civet while providing punugu to the temple, so that both are satisfied.”

Sniffer male civet. Credit: Francis Xavier
Sniffer male civet. Credit: Francis Xavier

Ancient practice

The use of civet secretion in India is not restricted to temple rituals. It is an expensive ingredient that is also used in ayurvedic medicine, said Francis Xavier, a member of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In this study by James McHugh, professor of religion at the University of South Carolina, the secretion finds mention in medical and pharmacological literature of the 9th or 10th centuries. It is also found in early Sanskrit texts and in the accounts of foreign travelers.

“The earliest foreign reference to civet in India is apparently given by Friar Jordanus in the early fourteenth century, who reported a cat with highly odoriferous sweat, which was collected from a ‘certain wood’ on which the animal rubbed itself. This would seem to establish that the method still used at Tirupati is very old, and it also appears to be distinctively Indian.”  

— James McHugh, The Disputed Civets and the Complexion of the God: Secretions and History in India

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 has not only come in the way of the Tirupati Tirumala temple’s rituals, it has also affected traditional healers in villages across South India. Many of these medical practitioners have lost their livelihoods as they can no longer keep the civet as a domestic animal or use its secretion.

Xavier, who spent five years researching small mammals in South Indian forests, said the practice of collecting the civet’s secretion has been ritualised in villages. “There is a special cage made for civets with proper dimensions,” he said. “This animal has a curious habit of walking to and fro continuously, and this cage gives enough space for the animal to roam. A small bamboo reed is kept in the centre and the civet will rub itself on the reed while prowling.”

Xavier observed that the civet uses its secretion to mark its territory and to attract potential mates. “Each civet has its own unique smell, like a human fingerprint,” Xavier said. “This secretion contains a unique property called civetone, which is chemically very similar to musk [collected from the musk deer]. It is because of this fragrance that civetone is collected to make perfumes.”

It is now easy to produce civetone synthetically, since its chemical structure is known. But the real deal remains in demand. “Actual civet secretion is a very costly product,” he added. “It is said that one gram of civet extraction is equivalent to one gram of gold. It has that much value.”

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