turtle (Photo: Sea turtle hatchlings make their way to sea in Orissa, 26 April 2008/Sanjib Mukherjee)

Hundreds of poor Hindu villagers in Orissa state in eastern India have refused to hand over a rare sea turtle to authorities, saying it is an incarnation of God. Villagers chanting hymns and carrying garlands, bowls of rice and fruits are pouring in from remote villages to a temple in Kendrapara, a coastal district in Orissa.

Policemen have struggled to control the gathering and have failed to persuade the villagers to give up the sea turtle. “We have asked the villagers to hand it over as it is illegal to confine a turtle, but they are refusing,” said P.K. Behera, a senior government wildlife official.

The turtle is protected in India and anyone found keeping one without permission can be jailed for a year or more and fined. The Indian Coast Guard is patrolling offshore to protect the turtles from fishing trawlers that trap turtles in their fishing nets.

But adamant villagers have refused to give up the reptile, saying the turtle bears holy symbols on its back and is an incarnation of Lord Jagannath, a popular Hindu deity. “Lord Jagannath has visited our village in the form of a turtle. We will not allow anybody to take the turtle away,” said Ramesh Mishra, a priest of the temple.