From abundance and a position of reverence to a brush with extinction. This sums up the story of the tiger in India. In this luxuriously illustrated book, Valmik Thapar takes the reader on a fascinating journey, tracing the myth and lore of the tiger depicted through paintings, sculpture and folk art. A short and useful annotation is provided by credentialed historians for every era.

Some of the earliest depictions of today's threatened national animal are to be found in the rock art of central India going back nearly 10,000 years, followed by Indus Valley Civilisation seals of the period 3000 to 1700 BCE. There are references to the occult powers of tigers in the Atharva Veda, in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and in the Buddhist stories. It figures in the paintings of Mughal era hunts and is sculpted in Tipu Sultan's throne and etched into art based on the 19th and 20th century hunts.

A distinctive feature of this book is that it brings together all the curated imagery of the tiger, sourced from far and wide, including the museums of the West. Appropriately, historian Romila Thapar, among others, provides valuable knowledge to go with the pictures. She highlights, for instance, that in the Ramayana, Dasaratha, when asked to banish Rama, is described as shaking in fear like a deer facing a tiger. By contrast, other mythological descriptions talk of sages sitting in ashrams surrounded by totally placid tigers and prey animals.

Invincibility

The tales surrounding the tiger's phenomenal power and its aura of invincibility have cost it dear over the centuries. Kings wanted tiger skins to sit on, and puny humans armed with deadly weapons went about decimating its population from a plentiful estimate of 250,000 in the 18th and 19th centuries to frighteningly low levels.

To the author, the great cat is ingrained in the soul of India. He quotes the Mahabharata which says, “The forest which has tigers should never be cut, nor should the tigers be chased away from the forest.” Clearly, these sentiments would seem very remote to rulers keen on feeding the growing hunger of consumptive forces. They will not be deterred by tiger or tribal in redefining the forest.

Although he delves mainly into the past, Valmik once again pursues his advocacy of tigers passionately. But does he need to be scornful of his scientist friends who have provided key insights on tigers? Although sighting a tiger is an unmatched event, a radio collar tracks the range of a tiger beyond what the eye can see. Scientists should, therefore, be logical partners and they will be glad for the visibility that he brings to the cause of the tiger.

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