Red Earth History & Culture

The legends of Carpet Sahib: A village recalls Jim Corbett’s legacy

A painting of Corbett with the majestic ‘Bachelor of Powalgarh’ that he killed in 1930   | Photo Credit: Anuj Arora

Large pug marks on the soft sandy bed of the dry seasonal river sets my heart racing in anticipation of spotting a big striped cat. I hear the alarm calls of barking deer and langoor and begin to pay attention to every rustle of dry leaves. Minutes later I realise that the tiger has eluded me.

But I am not disappointed. It is a misty morning, the air is chilly and thick with the scent of moist wood and I am invigorated. I am at the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand.

Known as Hailey National Park when it was established in 1936, it was renamed in 1957 to honour the British Colonel Edward James ‘Jim’ Corbett, known best as the hunter of man-eaters, a naturalist and author, who was instrumental in the park’s inception.

But the name of the national park is not the only hat-tip to Corbett in these parts. More than 70 years after he left India, Kaladhungi town — which got its name, meaning black rock, from the charcoal and old iron foundry — a half-an-hour drive from the national park, where Corbett stayed in winters, still memorialises him. A cottage he built in Kaladhungi in 1922, is now a museum that displays a treasure of paintings, photographs of hunting missions, letters written by Corbett and anecdotes from his life. There is a chair palanquin, a metal bed, a small raft boat and a few pieces of furniture he used.

There are also two graves in the precincts, of Corbett’s beloved dogs Robin and Rosina.

Adjacent to Kaladhungi is a little village Chhoti Haldwani ‘adopted’ by Corbett in 1915. Along the fields runs a five-kilometre stone wall that he had built to protect villagers, cattle and crops from wildlife. There is still the simple raised platform, with wooden railing and tiled roof, the chaupal where Chhoti Haldwani’s residents discussed village matters with Corbett. The chaupal was also used as a machan to look out for wild animals and to warn villagers and shooters.

Big draw

I meet Trilok Singh Negi, the son of Sher Singh, a trusted aide of Corbett who used to accompany him on almost all his hunts. When Corbett left for Kenya, he entrusted his single-barrel muzzle-load gun to Singh to safeguard the people and village. Negi is now the owner of the weapon, which is a big tourist draw. He has grown accustomed to posing for the cameras while taking a mock shot with the rifle. “I would accompany Carpet sahib and pitaji on elephant rides whenever they went hunting. Though I am proud to have the gun, it is difficult to maintain it because these are not made any more. I have to get the licence renewed every year too, to continue keeping it with me,” he says.

‘Corbett Village’ as Chhoti Haldwani is now called, is a ‘heritage village’ where residents earn a livelihood from community tourism and offering their houses as home-stays. The community organises forest trails, cultural events, organic farming tours, bird watching and a heritage village trail.

Corbett, who grew up in the mountainous Kumaon, was well versed with the flora and fauna of the region. The hunter and tracker was sought out to kill tigers or leopards that had turned man-eaters. He is known to have shot at least 19 tigers and 14 leopards in the time he spent in India.

Corbett also collected pictures of his hunt and chronicled them.

Under the shade

At the museum is an oil painting of the hunter with the majestic tiger Bachelor of Powalgarh, a most sought-after big game trophy of its times because of its size. People who saw it claimed it was as big as a camel. In the painting, made from a photo that captured the moment, a large tiger lies dead under the shade of a tall semal tree as Corbett looks on, with Robin by his side. It had taken Corbett four days to track and kill the tiger.

In the winter of 1930, Corbett, with the help of a tip-off from a herdsman, followed the tiger and shot at it, wounding it just below the eye. The tiger escaped and managed to survive for four days in the bushes. Corbett tracked him to a burrow under a large semul tree and fired two bullets, ultimately killing the animal.

In Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Corbett wrote “As I stood over him and ran my eyes over his magnificent proportions, it was not necessary to examine the pads of his feet to know that before me lay the Bachelor of Powalgarh. My sister and I measured the tiger as being 10 feet 7 inches over curves.”

Whether the magnificent tiger that never was a man-eater was mistaken for one, or killed for vanity, we will never know. But it was this hunt that is said to have turned Corbett into an advocate of tiger conservation.

Nearly a century later, the giant semul tree still stands tall.

The writer is based in Pune and writes on history, heritage, culture and books

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 12:39:30 PM |

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