Sanctuary Cover Story February 2011: Sanctuary brings you excerpts from VALMIK THAPAR'S latest book that explores in depth the cultural and mystical aspects of the tiger in India: from its first impressions on 10,000-year-old cave paintings in Madhya Pradesh to Mohenjodaro seals, and from tiger worship and tribal art to the modern-day relationship between man and tiger.
I have always dreamt of writing a book on the tiger and its imagery that humans have been inspired to create over thousands of years. I fell in love with this majestic animal 35 years ago – and it was love at first sight. This love has survived the vagaries of time and the vision of the tiger continues to haunt me in the most enthralling of ways… To me it, in fact, personifies pleasure, thrill, excitement, wonder, energy, power, fear, respect, love, and absolute beauty rolled into one – what else can one want from life!
The tiger seems to assimilate within it all the potency of the dark black sky, the raging storm, the lashing rain, the golden sun, the scarlet sunset, the tumultuous winds, the quiet peace of a brilliant day, a calm dawn, the magic of a full moon, the deep blue expanse of the sea and its crashing waves. Amidst all the intensity of nature, the tiger stands as a silent but strong testimony to the impact it exercises over the human...
The beauty and power of the animal, when I first saw it, were mesmerizing. Since then, its grace, elegance, and fluidity of form have always taken my breath away, and even though my memory is fading, my encounters with the tiger remain etched in my brain with startling clarity. This animal inspires like no other – it forces the adrenalin to flow and always surprises you. It symbolizes the unexpected, the unknown, which throws up a challenge. The impact of its vision percolates down to the soul, and my experience with tigers has invariably had a profound impact – bordering on the spiritual with a touch of the supernatural. For 35 years, I have explored this connection between myself and the tiger – and tiger art. This book just touches the surface, but I have loved putting together the amalgam of all my experiences in it. I know somewhere deep down that irrespective of its eventual fate, the magical image of the tiger will survive forever, captivating and mesmerizing those it envelops.
For this book, I must first of all thank Rahul Saighal of Aircel for quickly agreeing to pick up some copies; Oxford University Press which acted fast to put the book together; Anisha Heble for her superb design; and Anjali Singh for all her pictures. I also thank Vicky Luthra for his help with the pictures.
Special thanks to Romila Thapar for all her amazing inputs into the early history of man and tiger and Paola Manfredi for her expertise on early Roman mosaics. And my thanks to Priti Bahadur for her expertise on miniature paintings. I am grateful to Caroline Aitzetmuller, Amanda Bright, and Hajra Ahmad for finding me some startling images from across the world.
I would also like to thank The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Sotheby's Picture Library, and The National Museum of India.
This book is born from my fascination with the tiger and does not attempt to be scholarly as I am not an academic. But I hope the scholar also enjoys it...
A MAGICAL ANIMAL
This book is about the amazing impact that the tiger has had on man – if I was mesmerized when I first saw a tiger at the age of nine, so was early man. In my opinion, the animal has the power to enter deep into the soul of a nation. The tiger has been appearing and disappearing, almost at will, in thick forests that camouflage it perfectly, thereby creating for the beholder an illusory feeling of… power, beauty, fear, and respect. It stares at you in the eye like no other living creature; it can glide, fly, walk, with every muscle rippling and energized. But its anger petrifies human senses – after more than 50 mock charges, you are frozen as it comes for you, ready to meet your final embrace and then it stops a foot away and snarls. Watching tigers creates such a heady feeling that it can literally shake you to the depths of your soul, which is why so many people across the world have marvelled at this awesome creature.
I remember when I first saw the tiger: it glowed while it walked, its powerful muscles rippling, its movement unhurried, and its countenance silent. And the power and beauty of that moment cast a spell that still surrounds me. Many observers must have, and doubtless continue to fall victim to this spell.
This book focuses only on India. As the famous historian Romila Thapar put it, At the start of Indian civilisation the tiger was revered and woven into mythology, yet a few thousand years later it was hunted almost to extinction. The tiger was not an alien or exotic animal, it had long been appropriated into the semantics of power and myth in Indian society. What was it then that was so mysterious about the animal?
The mystery perhaps lies in its invisibility, or perhaps its incredible ability to appear and disappear without warning that would leave you rubbing your eyes and wondering, Did I really see it? We are groping with the mysteries of this animal even today. It is this enigma which has created an enormous cult around the tiger, especially among traditional forest and tribal communities, in art and literature, and so much more. The tiger has left a deep impact on the psyche of the people wherever it has roamed.
The Warli tribal people of India believed that the tiger was the greatest of all Gods. Phallic-shaped wooden and stone images were daubed in red to indicate their extreme sanctity and were placed everywhere as symbols of fertility, not only for the crop fields but also for marriages and the birth of children. A powerful symbol of fertility, the tiger commanded fear and respect across different regions and cultures. This book is an exploratory journey into the cult of this animal, unearthing the beauty of what man created with the images of the animal, though the information on art that it divulges is merely the tip of an iceberg, and would require many lifetimes to explore in detail. This is just a tiny attempt to unravel the mystery of this magical creation of the natural world, and how it has pervaded the life of a nation for more than 12,000 years.
THE FIRST IMAGES
Some of the earliest representations of the tiger come from rock art. This is perhaps because tigers and early humans must have shared dwelling sites in cave shelters and the rocky outcrops of hills and slopes. Nearly 10,000 years old, these rock pictures are depicted at many sites, especially in Madhya Pradesh, including Bhimbetka, the Mahadeo Hills, and Panna, where a network of caves ostensibly served as temporary homes for both prehistoric settlements and tigers. Commenting on these paintings, Romila Thapar states: The hunted animals are painted with a remarkable degree of preclusion and stylistic verve, whereas the humans are matchstick men, more figurative than realistic. The focus was clearly on the animals, not the hunters, nor the forest itself, which is not depicted directly. Sympathetic magic can be associated with shamanism, where the representation acts as a communication with the supernatural world and imbues both painters and hunters with special powers.
The shaman was the healer, the person who could talk to deities and spirits, and the tiger was closely associated with this person. And it was probably in these cave paintings that the tiger first entered human mythology when it was depicted as the face of a human form.
I remember pacing through Bhimbetka with endless visions of the early people and tigers, and I was thrilled, when in one of the painted caves in Panchmarhi, I found a tiger painted in a corner.
THE MUGHAL ERA
This was also the beginning of one of the richest centuries, in terms of prolific depictions of tiger art, especially of the Mughal era. I have only come across three tiger studies and my favourite is the earliest depicting a tiger on one side and a leopard on the other. Although many natural studies were undertaken, there are very few of tigers between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The tiger basically found its place only in the hunt as tigers were slaughtered by the ruling class. However, there are a few exceptions including one wherein an alluring forest scene is dotted with tigers. It was indeed an amazing period in terms of both the content of the visuals and the documentation of the times. The Indian tiger had already been imported into English literature. In the fourteenth century, Chaucer says, Egre as is a tiger yond in Indus, while Ruth Padel, a poet and scholar writer of Shakespeare, asserts, Shakespeare's Romeo in the sixteenth century breaks into Juliet's tomb and kills himself. His "fierce intents" are "savage-wild", he says, "fiercer than empty tigers or the roaring sea".
During the Mughal period, it was Emperor Akbar who encouraged the diversification of Mughal paintings and got his lead artists to acquire training as court painters known as Katab Khanna in the Safavid tradition. Akbar loved art and is known to have personally sponsored his painters. During his reign, painters started gradually specializing in the portrayal of various subjects including court series, battle scenes, hunts, and flora, and fauna. While one of them usually handled the colouring of the painting, another was involved in its composition, and so on. Hundreds of artists were re-introduced into this profession, and tens of thousands of paintings were created during the Mughal period. The tiger constituted an important subject of these paintings, symbolizing, as it did, power, royalty, and strength and scenes depicting a member of the Mughal royal family overpowering or felling a tiger underlined both his sovereignty and prowess. One of the great schools of paintings that depicted the tiger hunt was the Kota School. Priti Bahadur, a renowned scholar on miniature painting, states: The kingdom of Kota lay along the eastern banks of the river Chambal, blessed with abundant thick forests which were home to wild game. Rulers from Kota, whose independence from the royal Hada house of Bundi was established by a firman in 1631 by Jahengir, were ardent hunters. They created several hunting preserves or rummas in the state; one of the best known even today being the rumma of Durhal or Mukundgarh which was created by Mukund Singh, second in the line of Kota's rules. Many of these were places of great scenic beauty, located along the bank of the river Chambal and bounded by rocky cliffs on the one side and the waterfront of the river on the other. These hunting grounds had elaborate arrangements that enhanced the pleasure of hunting in the form of palisades, and circumvallations with hunting seats. Painters from Kota grew to specialize in portraying royal hunts, sometimes accompanying their masters on hunting expeditions. Over time, they also took to creating large compositions with the aid of pounces or model drawings instead of always drawing from life. Large tracts of landscape were covered in these hunts which resembled preparations for war.
ENTER THE BRITISH
From the eighteenth century onwards, right till the twenty-first century, the tiger has been deeply ingrained into the very soul of India. From the Mughal era to the British period to tribal and folk
art, myth, and legend, this symbol of the powerful and enthralling beast has been omnipresent.
The Mughal miniatures of the tiger hunt soon gave way to British engravings, paintings, and records of what must have been about 2,50,000 tigers that roamed across India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tiger art flourished as amazing encounters were witnessed among animals and within the umbrella of India's rich forest canopy.
The British did their etchings, engravings, and paintings, while the Mughal rulers still continued patronizing traditional painters, most of whom largely focused on the hunts, with some of them also concentrating on the more religious symbols of the devi riding the tiger in order to defeat evil. In the early eighteenth century, many schools of art flourished, and it was a time when the image of the Indian tiger had a great impact on Western art. I would imagine that one of the first to paint the royal tiger was George Stubbs (1724–1806). Inspired by the animal's anatomy, he made a painting of a tiger in 1763, which was kept in a menagerie at Blenderim Palace.
But this was also the time of the Great Tipu Sultan (1750–1799) – the 'tiger man of Mysore', who was obsessed with tigers, and totally captivated by the power of the animal. Tipu Sultan was, in fact, called the 'Tiger of Mysore', and around his kingdom stretched some of the finest tiger habitats. Even today, some of these forests are the best places in India for spotting tigers and elephants. Very early on during his reign, he adopted the tiger as his personal emblem, and kept a pair of pistols with tiger-headed golden hilts near his throne. The Hoysalas, the ancient rulers of Mysore, had also used the emblem of the tiger. Tiger claws were prized in the region for making jewellery that was professed to make its wearers fearless and powerful. Tipu's army was knitted out in specially made tiger-striped uniforms and there was no question about the impact this had on his subjects, or the terror it evoked among his rivals. Tipu was usually seen journeying through his kingdom wearing a coat made of gold cloth with a red gold-embroidered tiger stripe. His crown too resembled a tiger's head. Most believe that live tigers were kept in his palace and that prisoners were fed to them. When his capital fell to the British, the latter found live tigers inside. The tiger emblem was all pervasive and enmeshed into the dress, arms, armour, coins, uniforms, flags, and of course, his own throne. Even the walls of his palace were painted green with red tiger stripes. Daggers and swords carried tiger head handles and stripes on their blades, and some of the guns had tigers chiselled and inlaid with stripes and crouched tigers as the safety catches. The stock of the gun had some remarkable work with silver tiger stripes. Mortars were in the form of seated tigers, while bayonets, daggers, and swords had tigers on the handles. His throne, which was made in 1786, stretched eight feet in width and was supported by a life-sized tiger heavily gilded in pure gold. Its eyes and teeth were made of rock crystal. The railing surrounding the frame of the throne was decorated with ten gem-encrusted tiger finials. Silver steps encrusted with nails led up to the throne. Even the flags of Mysore had a sun in the centre and green tiger stripes on a red background. Tipu's walled city had images of tigers seizing and killing trembling Englishmen. He had even created a life-sized wooden tiger mauling an Englishman. Housed in the Victoria and Albert museum, this work of art is called 'Tipu's Tiger' and is widely known. When this is in operation, a pipe organ, which is turned on by winding the handle, mimics the cry of a dying man interspersed with the roar of the tiger. This musical tiger must have been ordered by Tipu, especially to reflect his power over the British.
The tiger visual was as its peak. A great example comes from the Devi-Kothi temple in Himachal Pradesh which is an eighteenth century wooden shrine with murals full of tigers which were the vehicle of the goddess. It was believed that the image of this animal could defeat all evil on planet Earth.
THE TIGER IN TRIBAL AND FOLK CULTURE
The Warli tribals live in the north of Mumbai in Maharashtra on tracts of land along the border of Gujarat. They practise subsistence agriculture using the slash and burn method, and very rarely do they use fertilizers, believing that the earth has her own method of fertilizing herself and man-made fertilizers only cause land to turn barren. Like most other tribals in India, their relationship with nature comprises giving and taking without any over-exploitation of the forest's resources.
They have lived under Hindu, Muslim, Portuguese, Maratha, and British rule, with each contracting their rights over the forest in tandem with the encroachment of civilization. In 1841, the British imposed a ban on the tribals and their use of forest wood, thereby creating a severe setback in their natural rhythm. While the tribals were forbidden to use the wood, the thickly wooded areas in which the Warlis lived instead became sources of timber for the British for making wooden railway sleepers.
Today, the Warlis live in the rugged ranges and foothills around Thane district, still keeping a distance from the outside world. Known for their remarkable skill in painting, and depicting different elements of nature, they also use geometrical shapes, which seem to connect them to the earliest rock and cave painters of central India, dating as far back as 5000 BC. Warli paintings are indicative of the deep links of the tribals with the tigers, and significantly, in these paintings, the tiger is often represented as if it were a natural part of village life, sitting or walking by while casting a harmless, friendly look – much like the tiger in reality. The Warli tribals believe in the Tiger God, and carved wooden statues of the tiger can be found all over the Warli villages.
Tiger connections are endless throughout India in a variety of different indigenous cultures. In a way, the tiger also signifies a vital link between diverse cultures. It is again a mixture of awe for the power of the tiger and the symbolic magic with which it is invested, which determines the relationship between man and tiger in many parts of tribal India. The concomitant values of power and fear have led to the tiger being worshipped. Added to these was the belief in the tiger as an agent of fertility and this was of prime importance in societies where the produce of earth and the labour of men and women determined survival in an almost one-to-one equation. The association of the tiger with fertility is most clearly evident in tribal myths.
In one story, a man and woman were in the jungle. There was no one else. But Asur Dano stopped them from copulating. Many days passed and the woman thought in her mind, 'What shall we do? This Asur has stopped all the joy in our life.' She cut a branch from an ebony tree and cut off a lot of little bits. She threw them at the Asur, and they turned into bears and chased him. She threw the shavings of the saleh tree at him and they turned into tigers. She said to them, 'Go guard our camp. Do not let the Asur near us.' The bears, hyenas, and tigers prowled round and round, keeping the Asur far away. The man and woman were thus eventually able to copulate, and there was seed and fruit.
Bagheshwar, the Tiger God, is present in different manifestations among a variety of people in India, particularly among the Vindhyan and other hill tribes. The tigress, too, is worshipped as Baghir Devi. Among some tribes, the worship is extensive enough to include priests who claim the knowledge of tiger lore and who tend Bagh deo shrines, built at spots where a tiger has killed a man. Such priests claim immunity from death by a tiger and they may extend this immunity to the villagers as well. It is said that such priests have the power to bewitch a tiger.
Probably the most widespread sanctity that the tiger has in India is as Durga's vehicle. As such, the tiger is revered not just by various forest and tribal communities but also in the 'greater' Hindu tradition. The image of the tiger as a sacred vehicle has a parallel in Siberia's winged tiger spirit, China's Taoist popes vehicles, and Tibet's Goddess who rides tigers as depicted in frescoes.
Durga was the supreme Goddess who could bring light on earth, and peace after conquering the forces of evil. The energy of the gods to fight evil took on the form of Durga. They, in fact, created a feminine force or shakti to combat the evil male power on earth. From Durga sprang the goddess Kali to join the fierce battle against evil. Durga means 'beyond reach' and her vehicle in her fight was the tiger. The tiger represented shakti, was a repository of feminine force being born of the Earth Mother, and was unmatched on earth as an animal form. Both Durga and the tiger derived their strength from the Earth Mother, and together constituted the most powerful repository of power against evil. In many ways, they were joined together in battle and without each other, they might have lost the battle. This imagery has travelled from early rock art and the early Harappan civilization and sustains till today. There is a temple in Madhya Pradesh where the Devi and her vehicle, the tiger are worshipped even today.
All these beliefs in the supernatural powers of the tiger, entangled with dominant myths and legends, have led to a huge profusion of tribal and folk art from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries onward. The concept of the Goddess riding the tiger to defeat all evil and bring light to the earth have been incorporated in calendar and poster art, and through these, have entered everyone's home. Large tracts of land were cleared. Many tigers were hunted but in the process, the imagery of the tiger had a vast impact not just in India but across the world. The ruling classes in the early twentieth century ordered tigers from Italy in marble and bronze on the basis of what they had seen, leading to a lot of creations in metal, marble, and stone, in both Europe and India. Let us not forget that Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book with Mowgli and Sherkhan had captivated one and all, and does so even today. A diversity of forms in different materials, and encompassing a wide variety of cultures – classical, folk, tribal, Western and mythical – they came from every corner and encompassed one and all – such was the mesmeric power of the tiger. Even the Nathdwara paintings revealed tigers entangled with the gods in amazing scenes. This profusion of tiger art diminished after 1960, but the remarkable talent to paint tigers has lived on.
THE TIGER TODAY
The imagery of the tiger is also omnipresent and omnipotent. In India, nearly every shop and establishment has a calendar of Goddess Durga riding a tiger, which symbolizes good fortune to ward off evil. On the road too, tiger heads peep out of virtually every truck and numerous cars, reiterating the powerful symbolism of the animal. However, it is in the exploration of art that the tiger has been found to be the most dominant symbol over the last 100 years, as it can be seen on furniture, paintings, metal objects, gold and silver jewellery, pendants, textiles, wall hangings, pillar supports, carpets, and nearly everything one can imagine. Tibetan tiger rugs have been used to carry luggage from one place to another. It is also believed that the stripes of the tiger protect one against bad luck, and that if they are painted on doors, they would keep evil out of the home. Further, pillow?cases printed with tiger stripes are said to keep nightmares at bay, and shoes and caps depicting tiger imagery provide safety and security to the wearer. Thus, the tiger represents one of the strongest and most potent images of 'good' and literally permeates the collective consciousness of not just the nation, but the entire continent of Asia, as it were. This book, therefore, recognizes the tremendous impact of the tiger on human life and behaviour, and pays obeisance to this magical creation of the natural world.
Even in 2010 artists still paint the tiger, sculptors sculpt it and there is a revival in folk especially where it is encouraged by institutions like Dastkar. Laila Tyabjee's Nature Bazaar and 'tiger' motifs have been a huge encouragement to traditional artists. I for one believe that the tiger will always inspire the artist as it has done in the past. Human beings will always be enveloped in the tiger's magical spell.
By Valmik Thapar
Excerpts from The Tiger: Soul of India
Published by Oxford University Press, Hardcover, 184 pages, 250 colour photographs,
Price: Rs. 1,995/-.