Page last updated at 15:41 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Legal move on India turtle 'god'

By Sandeep Sahu
BBC News, Bhubaneswar

The fresh water Gangetic turtle at the centre of the row
The distinctively marked turtle is known as "Jaga"

Officials in the Indian state of Orissa have filed a case against a priest for illegally keeping a rare turtle under the belief that it is a god.

The freshwater Gangetic turtle has natural markings on its shell which resemble the eyes of a Hindu deity.

Gangetic turtles are on an official list of endangered species in India.

Worshippers chased away forestry officials who tried to rescue the creature in Kendrapara district, about 150km (93 miles) from Bhubaneswar.

Water tank

The distinctive markings of the turtle apparently convinced villagers that it was an incarnation of Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Orissa state.

Image of Lord Jagannath
Lord Jagannath is widely revered in Orissa

In Hindu mythology, sea turtles are believed to be an incarnation of the god.

The soft-shelled creature was found by Ramesh Patra in a river in Kendrapara district and is being kept in a water tank on the premises of the local temple.

Hundreds of people from the nearby villages have been flocking to the temple to catch a glimpse of the "divine turtle" since it arrived.

Many are worshipping "Jaga", the term of endearment they have given to the turtle.

The turtle belongs to one of the most endangered species of freshwater turtles, and is protected under India's Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Prasanna Kumar Behera told the BBC that the case was filed on Thursday after the priest and villagers refused to release the turtle.

"We tried our best to convince people that there is nothing divine about it. But they would just not listen," he said.

Peace and prosperity

"Investigations are going on and we shall take action against the culprits soon," he said.

"There is nothing very unusual about it. Juvenile soft shell turtles often have the markings on the carapace that resemble the god's eyes. As these species grow, the shell markings vanish."

The case was filed after local officials, who had gone to rescue the turtle on Thursday, were chased away by irate villagers, who believe the creature will bring peace and prosperity to their community.

Earlier, activists of a local non-governmental organisation tried in vain to convince villagers about the need to release the turtle.

However, they did succeed in persuading them to feed small fish to the turtle instead of milk - which they said would have killed it within days.

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