World Wildlife Day (March 3rd) is the day dedicated, by the United Nations, to the noble cause of promoting awareness and celebrating the variety of flora and fauna found across the world. India itself has a long history and relationship with wildlife, especially as portrayed through its literature. Although the representation of wildlife has changed over the ages, animals have always been a common and popular presence in Indian societies and their literature.
Ancient Animal Avatars
One can find animal motifs present in Indian literature even in its ancient civilizations. Animal fables are found in ancient sources such as the Jataka Tales, the Upanishads and the Panchatantra. The inclusion of animals and animal characters in these sources are for specific reasons: The Jataka Tales talk about Buddha’s previous incarnations, while the Upanishads and the Panchatantra have animals standing in as human types and even re-imagine humans as animals. In all these sources, human qualities as projected on to animals, and human morals are celebrated and commented on through these human-animal characters. This shows how the literature of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, in the ancient period of Indian civilization, did not differentiate between human and animal souls, and considered them all equally a part of life and the cycle of rebirth.
Animals were also considered a part of the spiritual world as, in the Puranic period, deities were often accompanied by animals or vahanas, demonstrating the bond between the spiritual and the mortal worlds. Nowadays, we can instantly recognise gods and goddesses like Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Ganesha by their vahanas.
Hunting under the Mughals and the British
Animals played an important symbolic role even in the Mughal period, as seen in their court literature and paintings. Akbar was known to indulge in hunting tigers and trapping wild elephants, and even had as many as 900 hunting leopards. Jahangir too had a passion for hunting, having spent a record three months in a hunt, during which over 500 animals were killed. Nurjahan also shared her husband’s passion for hunting and used to shoot at tigers with guns and arrows. Elephants were also given to the emperor as tribute or peshkash. The hunting of animals, though a common activity, played an important role in the political power of the Mughal emperors. The pretext of a hunt was often used to find out about the conditions of the people, gather intelligence, and camouflage major military expeditions. In this era the mindset towards wildlife and nature shifted; as opposed to the earlier view of seeing nature as a balancing force, nature was seen as an encroaching, threatening force that needed to be ‘tamed’.
This mindset continued under British rule. From colonial literature it is evident that the British continued the Mughal tradition of hunting animals like tigers to emphasize their supremacy and legitimise their rule. Tigers were reimagined as being savage and man-eating animals in order to encourage people to hunt them. Through the activity of hunting, not only was the wildlife ‘tamed’ but so were the local rulers, as the defeat of the animals signified the symbolic defeat of the native Indian kings. Most famous among these British victories was the defeat of Tipu Sultan, whose very symbol was the tiger. The British also offered rewards for the killing of tigers and elephants so that forests could be destroyed in order to extend agricultural land. While the animals were being hunted for game and for their symbolic status, the destruction of forests and local flora was for commercial purposes.
Conservation efforts came up in the colonial era only after a large number of species were destroyed or hunted nearly to extinction. India’s first National Park, the Jim Corbett National Park was founded in 1936, and in 1956 the Indian Wildlife Board passed a decree declaring all Game Parks to be National Parks or Sanctuaries. Legal conservation efforts began in the 1970s with the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 and Project Tiger in 1973.
The reference to Project Tiger is a relevant one given that the theme for World Wildlife Day 2018 is ‘Big cats: predators under threat’. The United Nations wants to raise awareness about the situation of these animals, whose populations are under threat, mainly because of human activities.
At Niyogi Books we are proud to have a number of publications on the diverse wildlife of our country, including books about the tiger population in India. Wild Wonders of India takes the reader on a journey across the country to showcase its wonderful flora and fauna, while Sundarbans: The Mystic Mangrove gives an account of the heavenly Sundarbans, a UNESCO world heritage site.
The running theme in the other wildlife publications under Niyogi Books is that of tigers, which, along with the World Wildlife Day 2018 theme, attests to the rising popularity of these big cats across the world. A Decade with Tigers: Supremacy. Solitude. Stripes clearly portrays how popular tigers have become for photographers, across social media, and even in the popular imagination. The books contains exquisite pictures by photographer Shivang Mehta, who has spent thousands of hours in the wild capturing the images of these big cats. Incredible real-life encounters with tigers can be found in My Encounter with the Big Cat and Other Adventures in Ranthambhore, where the author dazzles the reader with photographs as well as accounts of dramatic encounters and near-death experiences with tigers in Ranthambore. And finally, shifting back to the topic of conservationism, Sariska:The Tiger Reserve Roars Again, describes the efforts at wildlife conservationism when tigers were successfully shifted from Ranthambore to Sariska Tiger Reserve.
At Niyogi Books, we are proud to have such a collection of books that not only give vivid accounts of the wildlife and of tigers in India, but also present attempts to preserve these endangered creatures.
- World Wildlife Day – http://www.wildlifeday.org/
- Kemmerer, Lisa. 2012. Animals and World Religions, New York: Oxford University Press
- Rangarajan, Mahesh. 2001. India’s Wildife History: An Introduction, New Delhi: Permanent Black
- ‘Tiger Hunting in Mughal and British India’, History Speaks (blog), blogspot.com, January 10, 2008, http://indiahistoryspeaks.blogspot.in/2008/01/tiger-distribution-map-past-and-present.html
- ‘Hunting in Mughal India’, India Netzone, October 21, 2013, http://www.indianetzone.com/52/hunting_mughal_india.htm