Eyes on the Tiger

He doesn't entirely dismiss the oft-made comparisons between the animal whose conservation has been his lifelong passion and his own, burly self. But Valmik Thapar believes that's a thing of the past. "Now, I look more like a bear," he says with a shrug. Yet, the fire's still visible in his eyes nearly four decades after he first took up the cause of the tiger as he talks about the uncertain future of the country's national animal. Some of this passion has manifested into his new book, Tiger Fire: 500 Years of the Tiger in India (Aleph Book Company; Rs 2,995), which he launched in Mumbai at a recently concluded literary festival.

Although he has nearly a dozen titles as well as documentaries on the Indian tiger behind him, Thapar's latest takes readers on a new trail. The author has extensively researched lithographs, artworks and chronicles to trace the history of the animal in India over the last 500 years. "Detailed accounts of encounters with the tiger can be found in the Akbarnama and Baburnama as well as other texts and miniature paintings from the Mughal period. But upon close study, one gathers that the description of the wilderness hardly matches that of the dense forests where the tigers live," he says, adding that the Mughal kings wouldn't be too keen on being mosquito or leech-bitten. Instead, Thapar implies that the hunts were perhaps staged in the private grounds of the rulers they stretched to 200-400 square kilometre and were used for their pleasure, leisure and hunting at the edge of the forests where the big cats were thrown in for the purpose of being hunted down.

This narrative of the tiger in Indian history undergoes a change upon the entry of the British, who, Thapar says, came with the intention of plundering the country's resources. "They needed wood to build ships for the British navy. There, they discovered the wildlife and the beautiful tiger. It made for great game when alive and turned into precious artefacts once killed. Several man-animal combats find a mention in British texts," the author says.

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