Man’s greatest foe is undoubtedly man himself, but until not so long ago, the stories we told about ourselves were mainly about our battle for survival against an amoral nature.
For centuries, one animal above all symbolised nature in her beautiful and terrifying aspect: the tiger. A man who could triumph over the tiger was a man who had triumphed over nature herself. Thus the tiger hunt came to play a central role in the civilizational discourse.
Not surprisingly then, the tiger hunt has always been a favourite subject of poet, philosopher and painter alike.
Tiger hunting was a favourite pastime of the Central Asian warrior kings of India, providing a good workout during times of peace. It was also a demonstration of their abilities and helped establish political legitimacy. Without the advantages offered to man by modern weaponry, the hunt was a genuine contest.
In the words of thirteenth century poet Amir Khusrau :
“The hunting ground presented the spectacle of an enjoyable festivity inasmuch as the leopards clapped their hands, the deer and the antelopes frisked and jumped, the short-footed quadruped, with spotted back and horns, beat their legs off the ground, and the Turks stretched their bows…The dancing animals played such a note half way…that everyone appreciated the skill of the harpist. The harpist very skillfully caught every one by his tricky fingers and killed them.”1
This joyous atmosphere can be seen in Basawan and Tara the Elder’s sixteenth century painting of the Mughal Emperor Akbar hunting tigers, when the tiger hunt still called for athleticism and martial prowess.
With the introduction of guns, hunting became a more leisurely sport, conducted from on high, on the backs of elephants. Gentlemen of the hunt could afford to concern themselves with trivialities like the appearance of their horse, preferably “black and white with a long mane,” or their own appearance. Mavens of etiquette admonished hunters who rode too fast and risked having their head dress fall off. Apparently safety was no longer a pressing concern.2
With the spread of artillery, the hunt became more sedentary. Huntsmen would lie in wait on specially-constructed treetrop platforms, waiting for the beaters to arouse the beast. Safely above the typical range of a tiger’s spring of twelve to twenty feet, the hunters would pick the animals off one by one. But it wasn’t all a picnic on the treetops. The smoke from the gunfire was rather unpleasant, and it was crowded up there, among the paraphernalia for loading a muzzle.
With capitalism and the industrial revolution, man’s dominance over nature was no longer in question. And weapons technology had improved to the point where a hunter could even hunt on foot but still be assured of his safety. The hunt became an indiscriminate carnage and tigers were hunted almost to the point of extinction.3 4
And women were in on it too. A precursor to today’s corporate feminism?