Lion may snatch national animal tag from tiger
The Economic Times
It's tigers versus lions again. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is apparently considering making lion the national animal. The Times of India has reported that the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL), which in 1972 had picked the tiger as national animal, is now packed with MPs from Gujarat who want the honour to go to the lion. Gujarat is the home to the endangered Asiatic lion.
The 1972 decision was based on two factors—the tiger is found across the country and globally it is associated with India. Now, it seems, Gujarat's pride might trump this, though there are others who fervently want the cow to become the national animal. Interestingly, the tiger is missing from nearly all the official symbols of India. The national emblem remains the stylised lions of the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath, surmounting the Dharma chakra. The armed forces and government departments use the Ashoka lions set in different designs. The Presidential flag has the Ashoka lions along with an elephant.
Most Indian states use the Ashoka lions, though some have their own symbols, often derived from those of royal courts in that state. Kerala has elephants, Uttar Pradesh a pair of fish, Arunachal Pradesh got hornbills and Nagaland has a wild bull. Sikkim has a pair of splendid dragons, Manipur uses a dragon-lion and Karnataka has lions with elephant heads. The animal on Odisha's state seal is not clearly identifiable, but may be some kind of deer. None has tigers.
The only national institution that is using the tiger is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The central bank's symbol of a tiger under a palm tree is one of the most widely disseminated Indian emblems because it appears on one corner of our currency notes.
It is on the ten rupee note, along with an elephant and rhino, and old two rupee notes had fine tiger depictions.
But apart from the obligatory Ashoka lions, no lions have ever featured on our currency notes.
The choice of the tiger goes back to founding of the RBI 80 years ago. The bank was meant to appear both a part of the government and also partly independent. So it was felt that "the seal should emphasise the Governmental status of the Bank, but not too closely." The solution was to take the East India Company mohur, but "replace the lion by the tiger, the latter being regarded as the more characteristic animal of India!"
The mohur's design was one of the most celebrated images of British India. The famous British sculptor and designer John Flaxman had created it in 1835 to depict British power in India by showing a lion, the symbol of Britain, under a palm tree, one of the symbols the British had started using for India. "The palm appears on medals in specific context of the imperial, but also of oriental, overseas or exotic," explains Dr Shailendra Bhandare, a specialist in South Asian coins at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who has traced its use across a series of medals issued by the British in India.
THE TIGER OF MYSORE
The tiger had also been used as a symbol of India on such medals, but in a specific context. This was in medals made to commemorate the victory of the British over Tipu Sultan, the "tiger of Mysore" at the Battle of Seringapatam. This medal design shows a British lion defeating an Indian tiger. The association of these animals is significant because Tipu was probably the first Indian ruler to identify his power very strongly with the image of a tiger.
This is the central mystery of the lion versus tiger issue in India. Lions were always geographically limited in India and are actually missing from historical accounts for long stretches whereas tigers are widespread and well documented. Yet it is the lions which were used as symbols of royal power starting with the Ashoka pillars. Both Hindu and Muslim rulers used lion symbols, including Moghul rulers such as Babur (the meaning of whose name is tiger).
This practice went to the farthest parts of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka which uses lion symbols despite never having had population of native lions.
Lions became generalised symbols for royal, patriarchal power. Lions live in open grassland, so are more visible than tigers in jungles.
They live in prides, where the male obviously lords it over the females, whereas the tiger is solitary. Male tigers have their distinctive mane, but male and female tigers are similar. The lion announces itself with an impressive roar, while tigers growl more circumspectly.
So, as a symbol of self-important power, the lion scores over the tiger.
The geographical presence of lions also matters. They were found in North Africa and the Middle East in the places where Western civilisation was born, and their iconic value dates from those centuries. Lions appear in the Bible and in Islamic texts, from which they gain symbolic weight. But even earlier empires like the Assyrian and Persian ones had used them. In fact one fascinating, if contentious, theory is that the Indian use of lions as a symbol came from there.
This theory has been put forth by historian Romila Thapar and her nephew, the wildlife expert, Valmik Thapar in their book Exotic Aliens. In her opening essay, Thapar meticulously notes the long history of lions in imagery in the Middle East and how this spreads eastward.
In India, meanwhile, the references are rare and nearly always in reference to royal authority. And their earliest depiction, in the Ashoka pillars, seems linked to the king's desire to spread Buddhist teachings "which when recorded drew on the simile of being heard as widely as was the roar of the lion."
The Ashoka lions then could have been less depictions of an Indian animal, but more like those dragons on Sikkim's seal – fantasy creatures to guard and spread Buddhist doctrine.
And their greatest modern success came on July 22, 1947, in the Constituent Assembly, when Jawaharlal Nehru presented a new Indian flag with one major change from the earlier Swaraj flag with the spinning wheel at the centre. Nehru said that a more symmetrical symbol would be more practical, which is why the founding fathers thought of the Dharma Chakra, which would represent both the spinning wheel and the ideals of Ashoka.
It is in this context that the lions became part of India's national emblem, as guardians of the Dharma Chakra. There's no reference to real lions and Thapar's argument is that there may never have been – they are just general symbols of authority. That's exactly what they were for the British too, since Britain has never had native lions. The lion was just a symbol for the state, as mythical as the unicorn with which it is paired in the symbol of the United Kingdom. Against this widespread use of the lion, Tipu stands out for being one of the few to use a tiger.
In more modern times, Subhas Chandra Bose was one of the few to use a fiercely leaping tiger in the flag created for Azad Hind Fauj. Tipu was, in fact, obsessive about it. As Kate Brittlebank notes in her essay 'Sakti and Barakat: the Power of Tipu's Tiger' it appeared "on the uniforms of his soldiers, on his coins, as wall decoration, on his flags and, in probably the most spectacular example, on his throne, which displayed a massive gold tiger head with crystal teeth."
Brittlebank argues that Tipu, ruling a South Indian kingdom of both Hindus and Muslims, deliberately chose a symbol that appealed to all these traditions. The tiger featured in both the Devi and Shaivite cults present in Mysore. And it was Tipu's personal reinvention of the term Asad Allah, or Lion of God, the term used for Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammed, who he saw as his personal patron. Appropriate for his Indian kingdom, Tipu was the Tiger of God, and the British extended this image to show India as a tiger defeated by the British lion. There is a syncretic, specifically subcontinental sense to Tipu's choice that still makes it relevant.
It is unlikely, of course, that this occurred to the RBI when it picked the tiger 80 years ago. They wanted to pick something quickly, and substituting an Indian tiger for Flaxman's British lion was an easy option. But it failed to impress the Deputy Governor of that time, Sir James Taylor. It looked, he wrote in an internal memo, "like some species of dog, and I am afraid that a design of a dog and a tree would arouse derision among the irreverent."
Taylor tried to have it changed, but bureaucratic and practical delays in the preparation of plates meant that nothing could be done. The RBI deserves credit for its support for the truly Indian symbol of the tiger, but it is sad that in its emblem – as opposed to the beautiful tigers on its currency notes – it has never been able to move on from the underwhelming tiger of 1935. Perhaps the Bank could mark its 80th anniversary with a redesign that finally gives India the emblematic tiger that it deserves.