The cheetah is the real “spotted big cat” and the “tear lines” running down its cheeks could well be a sign that it’s weeping over the rosetted leopard getting this figurative fame.
Now, loftier beings have assumed the “spot” light but it’s Divyabhanusinh, author of the magnificent The Story Of India’s Cheetahs (Marg), who can claim some credit for the first official moves to bring the cheetah back to India. Replete with stunning paintings, amazing facts and anecdotes about the politics of conservation, this monumental book traces the animal’s presence on the subcontinent through the centuries—from prehistoric cave paintings to its glory days as the star of Mughal hunting parties to the switch to becoming the hunted, right up to the twists and turns of its return.
Having studied the powerful beast since 1984, Divyabhanusinh, the scion of the former princely state of Mansa in present-day Gujarat, first published a learned tome on the cheetah in 1995. He presented his findings at a 2009 conference to the then Union minister for environment, forests and climate change (as the ministry is now known), convincing Jairam Ramesh that the “cheetah was an integral part of Indian history and that its name had a Sanskrit origin, ‘chitraka’.”
Consequently, a task force was constituted under the National Tiger Conservation Authority. After much teamwork, storied wildlife conservationist M.K. Ranjitsinh and Y.V. Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India zeroed in on seven potential sites. Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, which ranked second after Rajasthan’s Shahgarh Landscape, was chosen ultimately but the plan fell victim to “lion politics”. Finally, on the Prime Minister’s birthday last year, the cheetah made a triumphal comeback on a custom-painted plane.
While tracing this modern history of the big cat, Divyabhanusinh’s book also weaves in fascinating cheetah facts while narrating some of the lore and anecdotes around it. Among the 41 different species of cats, the cheetah is unique. For, it runs down its prey on the plains and attains a speed of 100 kmph; other large cats pounce and kill in jungles with short bursts of a chase. It hunts only during daylight hours, and, along with the caracal, is the only wild cat that can be trained to hunt for man, readers are told. All these made it the ideal hunting partner.
In shikar, the cheetah was originally not the prey but part of the hunting party, just like falcons or hounds. The cheetah was used in India for coursing blackbuck from early times. It would be borne to the site, on a cart or even palanquin; unleashed, it would wait till it was sure of its prey and then sprint those awesome bounds to bring it down, strangling it in its grip. Even this sport contributed to the cheetah’s extinction because of the huge number removed from the wild for coursing. By the time the British, and the princes who aped them, turned up and began hunting the cheetah, spearing it from horseback, the beast was well on its way out.
Usually, only adult cheetahs were trapped for coursing. The taming process involved a “domestication”, which Divyabhanusinh records in often amusing detail. They were kept with the keeper’s wives and children so that they would get used to human sounds. They would be coaxed lovingly and addressed as “beta/beti”, in addition to their grand given names. The cheetah would occasionally share the keeper’s cot—and blanket. If it became restless, it could be quietened by dangling a stick with a cloth tied at one end in front of the fidgety animal’s face. John Lockwood Kipling recorded this in a famous drawing. More recently, a video went viral on WhatsApp of a forest guard who had three cheetahs which slept in his bed—and once one reads Divyabhanusinh’s book, it doesn’t seem all that unlikely.
The book’s spectacular Mughal paintings tell us about the deep involvement of the emperors in the sport of coursing with cheetahs and how the Mughals turned hunting into a grand spectacle. Emperor Akbar had a thousand cheetahs in his sprawling cheetahkhana, according to his son, Jehangir. They were classified into eight categories, the first getting “five seers of meat a day”. Jehangir noted that one cheetah slipped its collar, mated and three cubs were born; he specifically mentioned this in his autobiography because it was so unusual. It is, in fact, the only record of cheetahs breeding in captivity until 1956, when the Philadelphia Zoo succeeded in doing this. Jehangir also describes a white cheetah brought to him, the only such record from India. It is clear from these chapters that the Mughals’ relationship with the cheetah and the spectacular art and knowledge that they created about it is unequalled. It is somewhat ironical that this great body of work and this seminal period is being obliterated by the very government which finally brought the cheetah back to India.
Interestingly, we probably have some of the most spectacular art on the cheetah because Akbar was dyslexic and needed visual aids to feed his immense interest. The earliest representation of cheetahs in the wild—very rare, as most pictures from the era are of hunting scenes or court scenes—is in a painting attributed to Basawan, Akbar’s famous artist. It shows a family of cheetahs with four cubs.
A stunning painting by Lal and Sanwala, from Akbar’s atelier, shows him coursing blackbuck with cheetahs at Sanganer, near Jaipur. The cheetah bounds or sprints but does not leap.
One cheetah, named Chitranajan, did, clearing the stream that separated it from its prey. Akbar was so impressed by this rare feat that he raised it to the rank of a nobleman, presented it a gem-studded collar and ordered that a drum roll should precede it each time it took to the field.
Another rare painting by Jehangir’s artist Goverdhan shows the cheetah with blackbuck, cheetal, nilgai, hare and mountain goat. This is unique in that it is a complete portrait of the beast and its prey base. The mountain goat would have been hunted by the cheetah in Afghanistan, which was part of the Mughal empire.
Divyabhanusinh has spent years on research for this section of the book, even working with Mughal art expert Asok Kumar Das to study over 60 miniature paintings to understand the significance of the cheetah in the Mughal court.
A book about cheetahs cannot ignore “big cat politics”. Divyabhanusinh, who was a member of the previous government’s Cheetah Task Force for the animal’s reintroduction, naturally makes a strong case for the programme.
Tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar and other experts have voiced concern, saying African cheetahs would not survive in India. The author counters this: “This is not a genuine concern. Between 1918 and 1947, Indian princes and others imported about 200 cheetahs for coursing blackbuck. The animals had no problems in India; they behaved like India’s cheetahs; and they were treated with traditional Indian medicines when they fell ill.”
The cheetah introduction programme is a long-drawn one, he cautions, and India has only taken the first step. Over the next decade or so, some 50 cheetahs will have to be brought to ensure a sufficiently diverse gene pool for the population’s long-term survival and they will have to be dispersed to other areas, which will have to be “seeded” with prey.
Divyabhanusinh reminds us that it took 50 years of Project Tiger to get to today’s impressive corps of 3,000. It took 70 years for the rhino to reach 4,000 after Assam realised in 1952 that they faced near extinction. And it took nearly 150 years for the lion to reach the figure of nearly 700. This cheetah programme is a long haul; only a long-term commitment can make it a success.
The book is ultimately a plea for the preservation of India’s fast-diminishing habitats and endangered wildlife. “It would help a great deal if there is larger support and less sniping at the (cheetah reintroduction) project which aims to restore the only large mammal to have become extinct in India after independence,” he writes, adding the plea: “Let us return to nature what we had taken from it so cavalierly.”
Bachi Karkaria is a senior journalist, columnist and author.