Thursday, April 25, 2013

The lion's homecoming

The lion's homecoming
Business Standard

Wildlife enthusiasts will soon be able to see the lion in Madhya Pradesh also. Rajat Ghai traces the big cat's journey in India down the ages.

Once upon a kingdom
From Vedic and Biblical times to the 19th century AD, the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) roamed over a swathe of Asia, from Turkey in the west to Bihar in the east, and from the Caucusus in the north to the Narmada river in the south. In the Indian subcontinent, the lion lorded over Punjab (Pakistan and India), Sindh, Baluchistan, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Lions in the subcontinent largely inhabited dry, tree-covered Savannah and low-scrub jungle in comparison to the Bengal Tiger which inhabited mature-tree forests.

Ancient India
The lion's impact on South Asian history, culture and art is significant. Mahesh Rangarajan notes in his paper 'From princely symbol to conservation icon: A political history of the lion in India': "It (the lion) was perhaps only rivalled in its power over the human imagination in India by the tiger." Adds Divyabhanusinh Chavda, author of The Story of Asia's Lions: "In the Vedic period, you had Narasimha ("Man-Lion"), the fourth of the Dashavatara of Lord Vishnu. The Buddha was known as 'Shakya Simha', the Lion of the Shakyas. His first sermon at Sarnath has been likened to (and is known as) by Buddhists as 'Simhanada' (Lion Roar). The lion is also the symbol of Mahavira. And we, of course, know of Emperor Ashoka's association with the lion."

According to legend, 2,500 years ago, Vijaya, a disinherited Indian prince migrated to the island of Lanka with 700 followers. Vijaya's grandfather was a lion. His descendants, the Sinhala ('Lion people'), are today the majority ethnic group on the island, the flag of which is emblazoned with a lion too.

Medieval India
From 500 AD, Rajput princes across India started adopting the title Simha instead of the classical Varman. Today, we know this surname as 'Singh', most commonly associated with Rajputs and Sikhs.

Lions find constant reference in the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal periods too. Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan warlord from Bihar who dethroned Humayun, reportedly acquired the name 'Sher' after killing a lion with his bare hands. The Mughals, Persianised Turko-Mongols from Central Asia, used the regal Persian Sher-o-Khurshid ('Lion and Sun') as their personal coat-of-arms.

The Leonine Holocaust
Lions in India were never maneaters like their African cousins, but were notorious cattle thieves. They were also hunted for sport. "Colonel James Skinner (1778 -1841), the famous founder of Skinner's Horse and builder of Delhi's St James' Church, is recorded as shooting lions on horseback. Another officer, Andrew Fraser killed 84 lions," says Chavda. "In 1810, a General Mundy shot a lion near Hansi (modern Haryana). In the first half of the 1800s, British soldiers stationed at a cantonment in Deesa (North Gujarat) are recorded as spearing lions. And the all-time record in lion hunting in India goes to George Acland Smith, an officer who shot 300 lions near Delhi in 1857, on the eve of the Sepoy Mutiny," he adds.

Soldiers of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh sovereign of the Punjab, are recorded killing lions with bayonets in Lahore in the 1830s. In Patiala, hunting lions was an annual affair in which "400 horsemen beat vast plains teeming with antelope and Nilgai" (Rangarajan).

The End
All this killing eventually did its job. Region after region recorded local extinctions: Bahawalpur (1800), Palamau (1814), Haryana, Baroda and Ahmedabad (1830), Sindh (1842) and Gwalior (1872).

By 1890, when Prince Victor Albert visited India, the only place where he could find lions was the Gir forest in Kathiawar, where politics between three feuding princely states (Junagadh, Bhavnagar and Baroda) and the British Government in Bombay ensured safety for lions. Later, the Nawabs of Junagadh took on the task of preserving lions in Gir, where they survive till today.

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