About the Book
The Lions of India
Lions are associated mainly with the African grasslands. Few people know that in India they once roamed the plains of Haryana and Punjab, wandered as far as Bihar in the east and above the Narmada in the south, and walked the grasslands and scrub forests around Delhi. Today, the Asiatic lion has been reduced to one tiny population in a single forest of Gujarat. Has the Asiatic lion been so spectacularly unfortunate because it is not secretive enough to survive hunters and poachers? Is its survival the outcome of one prince's efforts? Could a single epidemic wipe it out forever?
This book celebrates an animal whose magnificent beauty has been the cause of its tragic destiny. Princes, generals, and viceroys have all coveted it as royal game. Ironically, however, it is the men who hunted it as a trophy who have also written of it in the most loving detail. Scientists, photographers, scholars, and conservationists have added to this body of work in later years.
The earliest extract included here dates from 1884 and is about shikar; the newest, written in 2008, analyses the implications of politics for the lion's survival. Some pieces charm and entertain with their vivid literary style and their close observation of nature; others explain population patterns and genetic reduction. The editor's erudite Introduction provides a historical overview.
About the Author
Divyabhanusinha is the author of The End of a Trail, the only book on the cheetah in India, and his work on the history of Asia's lions has been university acclaimed. He has received an honorary D.Litt. from the university of Pune for his research on the cheetah. He is President of WWF-India, and a member of the Cat Specialist Group, Species Survival Commission World Conservation Union (IUCN), and the National Board for Wildlife.
The lion in India is fighting a rearguard action in its battle for survival, with a very small number of them left in the wild. In fact, outside Africa, India is the only country with a lion population. The last two hundred years or so have been particularly disastrous for the lion, though its numbers have been depleting steadily through the recorded past.
Much has been written about the shikar of mega species like the elephant or the tiger. The lion, on the other hand, has largely been ignored in spite of its pre-eminent place in India's culture and even though it is the symbol of our republic. Not a single book was written about the lion during the British period though the British have left voluminous records of wildlife and shikar. It is mentioned only in passing in several sources and a chapter is devoted to it in a few books. In the post-independence period six books have appeared in English on the lion and one on the Gir forest, its last abode. Of these four are by officers of the Forest Department of Gujarat and one is a pictorial booklet rather than a book. This apart, there are a couple of books in Gujarati and, surprisingly, one in Swedish. That is all that we can account for, and all of them are difficult to find in bookshops.
In ancient and medieval literature, references to the lion abound, but almost all of them are in passing: in fables, sage advice, figures of speech, or a sentence here and a sentence there. Its prominent place in coinage, art, artefacts and architecture tells us little about its existence in the wild or its unfortunate brush with humans. It is with the establishment of the Mughal empire that we encounter written descriptions, albeit small, of hunts or specific events.
In recent years, several field scientists have extensively studied the lion and its habitat. Their contribution to the understanding of its ways is crucial for anyone interested in the lion. It is sad that none of them has written much for a wider audience of conservationists or wildlife enthusiasts. Their works are doomed to gather dust on the shelves of some library, to be consulted only by others of their own fraternity. An Ernst Mayr, Edward 0. Wilson, George B. Schaller or a Stephen J. O'Brien has yet to make an appearance in India. This anthology makes no claim to fill this void; nonetheless it is hoped that a far wider number of readers will find it of interest.
Any selection is by definition a process of elimination. In this anthology I have confined myself to the British and the post- independence period because of the paucity of writing on the lion in earlier times. I have tried to select pieces that give a rounded picture of the lion and its brush with humans in the last century and a half. The Battle of Plassey of 1757 put the conquering power on the road to empire. The first English book on shikar appeared exactly fifty years later, in the early 1800s. The lion first came under the scanner in the work of William Rice, who had encountered it before the revolt of 1857-8 when in the Bombay Army. Some thirty years later, in 1884, he described the animal and its habitat, and provided the first bits of information available to us of the lions' numbers in India. L.L. Fenton, like Rice, was an army officer who has left a graphic description of the lion's condition around the time of the 'chappanyo kal', the great famine of 1889-90. His description of methods of shikar are of equal interest. In S.M. Edwardes and L. G. Fraser we have an official account of the Gir sanctioned by Junagadh State. They also provide an authentic report of Major H.G. Carnegie's death, which was caused by a wounded lion during an official shikar of the governor of the Bombay Presidency.
CA. Kincaid, the well-known ICS officer, gives us a description of the Gir around 1915: he records its decline, describes his own hunting experience of a maneater and the Nawab's generosity. A.H. Mosse's article gives us a glimpse of why Lord Curzon did not go for shikar in the Gir. Apart from his own shoot, he also describes how the neighbouring principalities 'poached' 'Junagadh's lions'.
After the First World War, one sees a shift in the writings concerning lions. N.B. Kinnear and R.I. Pocock are the best examples of such a shift. The former describes the lions of Asia and their status. The latter carries the story further and gives the morphological basis of the subspecies status of the lions in Asia. Sir Patrick Cadell, who went on to became Junagadh's diwan, records the problems the state encountered in preserving lions.
Nawab Mahbatkhanji III's decision to accede Junagadh State to Pakistan exposed the Gir and its lions to quite unexpected onslaught in the political confusion that followed. M.A. Wynter- Blyth and K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji provide us an account of the forest at that time. Their census methods came to be the standard not only for lions but also for tigers. M.K. Dalvi's essay carries the story further and gives a detailed description of the census method adopted in his time, whereas S.S. Negi's essays describe the initial success in translocating lions to Chakia in U'P followed by its failure; his account provides some lessons for future attempts, particularly the one planned at the proposed Kuno-Palpur site in Madhya Pradesh.
An early comprehensive report of wildlife in independent India was by the renowned conservationist and tea planter E.P Gee whose observations of the Gir of the 1960s provide a picture of how the Gir, much altered from the time of Wynter- Blyth and Dharmakumarsinhji, evolved. M.Y Ghorpade and M.K. Ranjitsinh, both princes, provide different perspectives:
Ghorpade brings a photographer's perception while Ranjitsinh has been an eagle-eyed bureaucrat with unequalled experience in the wild.
The next few essays are dominated by wildlife biologists and professionals specializing in conservation and animal behaviour. A.J.T. Johnsingh and Ravi Chellam are both field zoologists of the highest order. Johnsingh gives us a glimpse of the esoteric art of the pagi, the tracker, which is all but lost, while Chellam provides us a general picture of the lion while introducing the reader to the work methods of wildlife biologists. Paul Joslin was the earliest field zoologist to study the lion in the 1970s, and in his essay he discusses the limitations of the lion's conservation and what the future holds for it. Stephen J. O'Brien, the pioneer of DNA analytical studies of cats, draws an alarming picture of the genetic uniformity of Asia's lions and the uncertain future that they may face as a result. It is an eye-opener for all interested in the protection of lions to sit up and take note.
This anthology does not cover the pre-colonial period, because of the paucity of material earlier mentioned, while some writings on the lion in the British or postcolonial period have had to be omitted for other reasons: sometimes because they were too technical for a book of this nature or because they were not suitable for excerpting. In my introduction therefore I go beyond my selection in order to flesh out the story of lion- human interaction through the ages in the Indian subcontinent. As all editors of anthologies do, I hope this book will be a starting point for readers and they will use it to read further on the Indian lion.
I am thankful to Mahesh Rangarajan for encouraging me to prepare and edit this selection, to my publishers, Anuradha Roy and Rukun Advani, for their constant support and for seeing the work through to its publication and to Jitendra Rathore who prepared the manuscript for the publication.
Mrigraja, the Sanskrit word for 'King of the Deer World', aptly describes the position the lion occupies in human consciousness. Large mammals have always fascinated us, but this feline holds a position unequalled by any other, including its better-known cousin the tiger. Ancient Egyptians deified it, and Indians see it as the divine mount of goddess Durga even in the heartland of the 'Royal Bengal Tiger'.
With such impeccable credentials the animal should have thrived in our midst. It has not. According to a survey of 2005, in India it has been reduced to a minuscule population of some 360 animals in the wild in and around the Gir forest of Saurashtra, a far off corner of the Indian subcontinent. The story of human- lion interaction over the last 3000 years or so of Asia's past is the story of how the animal was reduced to this sorry state.
Not long ago the lion's roar echoed across the Atlantic coast of Africa to Egypt, north of the Sahara desert, and westward on the Asian mainland through Palestine to Bihar. Today the lion, including the nominate race Panthera Jeo Jeo or the Barbary lion, has disappeared from the wild in this part of Africa. 1 The same fate has overtaken the Asiatic lion, Panthera Jeo persica, in Asia apart from the one relict population in the Gir.
The Asiatic lion and its sub-Saharan counterpart are roughly of the same size and weight though there are noticeable morphological differences between the two populations. The mane of the male Asiatic lion is luxuriant, covering the throat and upper part of its front legs. Animals with a dark mane look as though they have a halo. However, the mane is not prominent over the head and its ears are visible unlike those of the African lion. The tufts on the elbows and the tail are again more pronounced and both the lion and lioness have a noticeable abdominal fold usually absent in the African specimen. Recent DNA analysis carried out by StephenJ. O'Brien and his team at the National Cancer Institute, Maryland, USA, has led to the conclusion that such differences are the result of inbreeding caused by a bottleneck created by the isolation of the Saurashtra peninsula from the mainland of India three millennia ago.
The earliest record of human-lion interaction is from Egypt.
Situated as it is on the doorstep of Asia, Egypt had lions of the nominate race which 'appear as only slightly varied relict forms of lower middle Pleistocene lions' that is, those which evolved less than 1.9 million years ago, from the Asiatic lions. Ancient Egyptians worshipped lions at their cult centres at Leontopolis and Heliopolis. At the temple of Amun Ra, they were fed the choicest meats, were waited upon by high priests and public mourning was declared on their death by law," At the same time, the lion--along with the hippopotamus-was hunted by the Pharaohs as a dangerous beast that needed to be eradicated or controlled in the interest of human survival. 5 Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1391-451 BCE) killed as many as 102 lions in the first ten years of his reign."
On the mainland of Asia, the lions fared no better. We have several records of their brush with humans. In Assyria, the great civilization which sprung up along the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers in present-day, Iraq, lions were killed by kings as early as 3000 BCE and it appears that they had become royal game as early as 1750 BCE.7 King Ashurnasirpal 11 (884-59 BCE) boasted that he had killed 370 lions with hunting spears". King Ashurbanipal (669-31 BCE) had another problem. He claimed that his rule had been very beneficial to his subjects. At that time the forests had grown and reeds in the marshes had shot up and with them had grown the number of lions until, 'they became fierce and terrible through devouring of herds, flocks and people,'? The king had no option but to destroy them in the interest of his subjects. The hunts of both these kings recorded in the great friezes from the royal palaces of Assyria (preserved in the British Museum and elsewhere) are a testament to the sport and conflict of the kings with this, the most visible of land predators.
In Persia too, lions became a symbol of royal power. Bahram Gur, the hunter-king, is reputed to have seized the throne of Persia in 590 CE by managing to retrieve the crown by defeat- ing the two lions that guarded it. At a much later date, Omar Khayyam (c. 1050-c. 1123 CE) in a famous quatrain from his Rubaiyyat sings of the passing of great empires where in ruins of Bahram Cur's palaces 'The vixen whelps and the lion nods'; and the king, a renowned hunter, 'lies tumbled in the pitfall called the grave'.
It will be apparent that from the earliest times, the lion became an animal which needed to be eradicated for human benefit even though it was worshipped in Egypt and was royal game there and elsewhere. Over the centuries its population dwindled as a result of such pursuits and was wiped out all over Asia by the middle of the last century. It survived only in India.
The earliest record of lions in India 11 is connected neither with their eradication as pests nor as royal game to be meddled with only by the king and his entourage. Lions entered recorded Indian culture suddenly and grandly.
The earliest known civilization on the Indian subcontinent is about 5000 years old and we turn to it for a glimpse of animal lite through human eyes. The Indus civilization has left a record of its animals in its incomparable seals. On 16 of these there are tigers, there are rhinoceroses on 40, gharials on 49 and elephants on 55; some other animals are represented too. There is no lion.
Several Harappan sites have been excavated in India and Pakistan.
Not one has revealed definitive remains of the lion and no artefacts which could identify a lion with surety were found either. It is always possible that something will turn up, but the indications we have are that the lion unlike the tiger, rhino or elephant, didn't play an important role in the life of the people then. This does not rule out the existence of the animal there, for the last lion was recorded in Sindh as late as the nineteenth century. What is evident is the presence of the tiger in the Harappan culture, whereas the lion was an oddity.
The period of Harappan culture ends c. 1400 BCE. Several causes have been attributed for its decline, one of them being climatic changes which caused the drying up of the Lunkaransar lake around 2000 BCE and the Sambhar lake a thousand years later. 13 Though the theory has been challenged, the lakes did dry up. It is difficult to reconstruct what happened to the environment at this time from Baluchistan to the bank of the Ganga. Did recurring dry spells open up large swathes of land to grasslands and scrub, thus making it hospitable for lion habitation, causing a spurt in its population? Did the river Indus no longer remain a barrier to the lion's migration from Persia? Did the lion inhabit the environs of the Indus and cross it to populate the regions that it occupied until the nineteenth century? There is another factor that could have impacted these regions. Several human settlement sites around the Indus have been excavated which prospered from about 3000 BCE and later. These would have meant the use of fire, presence of cattle, the clearing of large tracks of forests, all of which may well have helped edge species like the lion to prosper and proliferate in these regions. While we do not have definite answers, such an occurrence could explain its sudden appearance in India's history.
Lion symbolism gained importance in India from the second half of the first millennium BCE and the concept probably came from Persia. John Irwin gives two possible reasons for its predominance at this time. First, the decline in the Indra cult from about the fourth century BCE would have caused a decline in the importance of the bull and the elephant as well. Second, the new kingships of the Nandas and the Mauryas may well have taken the lion as their symbol simply because it was not associated with any other cult.!" or as J.C. Hesterman put it succinctly, the animal was 'conveniently available for use as a symbol of the new concept of royalty' .
It is therefore not surprising that with the passage of time, Mahavira and Buddha came to acquire the lion as their symbol. The Buddha's first sermon came to be called Sirnhanada, the lion's roar, and he himself came to be known as Sakyas imha, the lion of the Sakyas.!" Even Emperor Ashoka's (273-232 BCE) most famous pillar has four lions executed in a foreign heraldic 'Perso-Hellenistic style'. This is now India's national emblem, printed on its stationary, currency and elsewhere.
There is another reason for the lion's identification with kingship and its prominence. A gregarious animal living in prides, it is visible during the day in its preferred habitat-grasslands and scrub jungle-and is extremely tolerant of human presence unlike the other great cat, the tiger, which prefers thick jungles, is solitary and less tolerant of humans. The tiger lends itself easily to mystery, and as a result, is both dreaded and worshipped by jungle dwellers that live in its awe. On the other hand, the lion was seen to be the king of the deer world just as the king was the lord of his human domain. The equation is self-evident. The lion was not worshipped, unlike the tiger. It simply would not do to give the lion a position higher than the king, who ruled often by divine right. Instead it was the chosen mount of Goddess Durga and thus occupied a position of prominence by association in the divine pantheon.
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