Exotic Aliens: The Story of the Lion and the Cheetah in India

The Austrian painter, Wenzel Peter’s depiction of Genesis —the beginning of the world— has at its centre a pair of lions, a male and female. The presence of these big cats in the depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden grants the lion a position of prominence that effectively supersedes time and geographical boundaries. Subliminally, human sensibility has accepted the existence of the lion as perfectly natural in the political, social and cultural depictions of a variety of civilizations and historical contexts, even in those where there is no evidence that it naturally existed. Historically then, the lion has acquired a cultural omnipresence like no other beast, real or imagined.

Exotic Aliens: The Story of the Lion and the Cheetah in India
Exotic Aliens: The Story of the Lion and the Cheetah in India

The cheetah’s claim on human history is also very old. An illustration in the Book of the Dead of Ani (1250 BCE) from ancient Egypt portrays an animal astride Pharaonic hieroglyphs supporting the sun. At once, this whimsical creature, both lion and cheetah, combines two symbols of royalty and power. Scholars aver that ‘the earliest evidence for cheetahs under human control’ is to be seen in the famous Punt reliefs at Dayr el-Bahari, across the Nile from Thebes.These record, in word and picture, an exhibition sent during the reign of the pharaoh queen, Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BCE), to the land of Punt somewhere in the Horn of Africa, which brought back to Egypt animals such as ‘panthers’. Two very distinct types are shown in these clearly executed reliefs.The first, composed of two cheetahs on leashes, is labelled ‘Panthers of the North’.

Ramesses II returns home after a victory with a cheetah by his side (early 1800-1843 BCE).
Ramesses II returns home after a victory with a cheetah by his side (early 1800-1843 BCE).

Potently, the journey of the lion and the cheetah is a part of the narrative of globalization from ancient times, a finely choreographed progression through human history that dispersed them far from their original habitats. This was especially true of lions that were prized because nothing symbolized the conquest of nature better than the conquest of its most feared terrestrial representative. Lion slaying became a monarchical monopoly and the preserve of kings, the rite itself attributing to them a noble and superhuman ability to destroy or control savage elements. In the previous chapter, the place of the lion in ancient record has been covered in detail, as has that of the cheetah as a hunting animal of trans-imperial elites. Here, we shall focus on the place of both species in India, from the earliest Islamic arrivals into the subcontinent in the eighth century to the late Mughal period. Momentarily, it would be useful to reconsider this book’s central thesis.

At what stage does a migratory species earn the distinction or label of becoming a native one? Lions are ‘native’ to India today, but their arrival into India is clouded in conjecture, and subsequent studies on the evolution of the species are, at best, speculative. As we have seen, one premise that converts the provenance of the Indian lion from its mythological foundations into historical reality is the presence of game parks and hunting reserves throughout its former range, where the animal was enclosed, bred and stocked to be hunted and as material for diplomatic tribute and spectacle. Persian, Greek and Assyrian accounts all suggest that these animals were subsequently exported or found their way through trade and diplomatic channels into new ranges.This could be how the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) arrived in India; ‘naturalized’ over time as the centuries passed, the lion was accepted as an organic, ‘native’ species of the country. Certainly, this holds more water than theories of the Indus drying up, allowing the lion to cross over from Persia during periods of drought.
The range of Hinduism and the boundaries of India (as we know it today) were not the same at any given period of history.

Hindu, or more properly,Vedic religious thought, was more active in the Persian-Sogdiana region at a particular period and may have been very familiar with the lion, before the lion familiarized itself with India. Likewise, Vedic literature, with its wide geographical and cultural ranges, played its own part in bringing the lion into the Indian cultural mainstream. This accounts for the presence of lions in India’s cultural space despite the lack of physical evidence of the animal within India’s geographical boundaries.

Jahangir with pet lion, seventeenth century. Emperor Jahangir’s court boasted a 100 lions, tamed and perfectly trained. Lions must have been bred in the emperor’s ‘Royal Lion House’ and were plentiful in the Mughal menageries. In 1619, Jacques de Coutre, a Flemish merchant, experienced this first- hand in Agra when he walked into a patio of lions. One even caught his leg in its jaw but did no harm.
Jahangir with pet lion, seventeenth century. Emperor Jahangir’s court boasted a 100 lions,
tamed and perfectly trained. Lions must have been bred in the emperor’s ‘Royal Lion House’ and were plentiful in the Mughal menageries. In 1619, Jacques de Coutre, a Flemish merchant, experienced this first- hand in Agra when he walked into a patio of lions. One even caught his leg in its jaw but did no harm.

Although the lion and the cheetah were embedded in the art, culture and religions of India, are there any conclusions we can draw about the presence of these two animals on the ground through the historical record? Evidently, as we shall see, the range of both the lion and the cheetah in India corresponds with the existence of ancient and medieval equivalents of royal game parks (for hunting) and the locations of royal and feudal menageries across the country. Numerically and in terms of location, sightings or killings of these animals do not suggest they existed as organic, indigenous creatures of the wild, as has been supposed.

Copyright Yusuf Ansari

Yusuf Ahmad Ansari is an author with a special interest in history and wildlife. His formative experiences with wildlife occured in the Himalayan foothills and the Nepal terai, where he recounts being charged by elephant aged 7. The family home along the Gangetic Plain, teeming with antelope and rich in birdlife instilled an early appreciation for the natural world. Yusuf attended the Welham Boys’ Preparatory School in Dehra Dun and The Stowe School, in Buckinghamshire, UK. He graduated from the LSE in 2000 and spent the next few years working in politics in the rural heartlands of Uttar Pradesh. In 2007 Yusuf contested, what he calls ‘a highly successful election campaign which was followed by a highly unsuccessful election result’ for a seat in the U.P. Provincial Assembly. From 2007 to 2011 he was General Manager of Sher Bagh and is currently a Director (Wildlife Experiences) at Sujan, based in Ranthambhore at Sher Bagh. A raconteur par excellence with an extensive fund of knowledge and experience of Indian history and wildlife, Yusuf is happiest guiding guests from Sher Bagh around the Greater Ranthambhore Area and the National Park. He has authored two books and is currently working on a biography of the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar.

3 thoughts on “Exotic Aliens: The Story of the Lion and the Cheetah in India

    1. Hi Griselda,

      Thanks for your comment, I am delighted that you enjoyed it. We look forward to hearing about your experiences!

  1. Aw, this was a very good post. Spending some time and actfual effoet to make a veryy gokod article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lott and don’t seem too get nearly anything
    done.

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