Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some Legacies cut both ways

Ghiyasuddin was an odd sort. Over 6 feet tall, and wiry, his hazel-green eyes bore into me as he approached. His sun-burnt, pock- marked face, the luxuriant henna-dyed whiskers and that aquiline nose were not rare amongst the tribes in the Alwar region. But those smouldering eyes burning with defiant pride would’ve done justice to a king clapped in irons.

I had returned to Sariska because a contact had promised a rendezvous with an ex-poacher. So there I was, sitting on a cold stone seat next to a shack on one of the arterial routes connecting Alwar and Jaipur, sipping a hot-cuppa in the early morning nip, when the towering turbaned figure of Ghiyasuddin, draped in white, blocked out the sun as he stood before me.

However, as far as poachers go, Ghiyasuddin turned out to be a disappointment. The big man, in his 50s, claimed to have only hunted deer and birds for the pot, and no, he hadn’t ever poached a tiger or a leopard. Perhaps he was afraid to divulge more. I assured him that he wouldn’t get into trouble because I wasn’t interested as much in the poacher as I was in the circumstances that fashioned one. Ghiyasuddin shook his head and right hand in rhythm rather impatiently. “Nahin huzur, I wouldn’t do it. Nor would I let anyone, if I could help it. We’re traditional shikaris, huzur… our community would disown us for hunting the cats… they’re hunters like us. Hamari purkhein yuz aur baaz se shikar karte the… unhe kaise maar sakte hain?” Yuz? Baaz? By baaz, he must’ve meant hawks. I gestured as a falconer would and he nodded… but what’s a yuz? Sher jaisa, kutte jaisa, chitkabra sa, huzur… woh hai yuz!” What was he talking about? A hyena? ‘Lakkadbagha?’, I asked. He shook his head, with that typical Ghiyasuddin impatience “Lakkadbagha nahin huzur, it can’t even run, while the yuz would fly.” Fly? Was it a bird? Didn’t he say it was like a tiger and a dog… and then it dawned on me… Could he possibly be talking about.. oh he must be.. what else could it be…? I asked if it was still found in these parts. “Ab kahan… sab khatam ho gaye… the forest’s big… hone ko ek aad ho sakta hain; umr beet gaye, na dekha na suna… they’re gone for good.” Ghiyasuddin could’ve only been talking about one animal – the Cheetah.

In the 1950s, somewhere in the great plains of India, the last wild Cheetah had sprinted his last. Since then, the word cheetah had come to mean that other great spotted cat, the leopard. Therefore Ghyas’ people used the Persian word yuz to describe the animal. I’d been digging for coal but had found a diamond instead. Ghiyasuddin was from a long line of shikaris skilled in the most aristocratic of kingly pursuits – the sport of coursing game with falcons, an animal Ghyas called the siyagoosh (which I later came to know is Persian for the desert lynx), and of course the cheetah.

Ghyasuddin was still a young man when government legislation put an end to the wanton decimation of wild game in the name of sport. Ghyas lamented that it was this legislation that destroyed the great sport of coursing and also caused the extinction of the big cat because until then, as far as he could remember, there were always about a dozen cheetahs on the princely estates in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan where his fathers and uncles worked as cheetah trainers. But Ghyas was wrong. In all probability, it was this very sport that caused the extinction of the Asiatic Cheetah in India.

The cheetah isn’t as feisty as the other big cats and therefore was easy to tame. Record of the first cheetah being tamed in India goes back more than 2,000 years. With the advent of the Mughals the sport reached its zenith. Thousands of these graceful animals were trapped in the wild, tamed and trained by highly skilled hereditary trainers like Ghyas’ forefathers (see slip stream). Once trained, these cheetahs would be taken to the grasslands on bullock carts (and eventually, jeeps), and once in sight of their quarry (blackbucks and chinkara) would be let lose for a spectacular chase that often resulted in a kill. The trainers and owners took good care of their prized coursers but there was one problem; these shy animals just wouldn’t breed in captivity. Slowly their numbers declined.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, India’s population exploded manifold and the great wild plains got cut up into farms and towns. Turned out of home and hearth, the last few cheetahs were either shot and speared by British trophy hunters or farmers who had lost livestock to the hungry cats, or just starved to death. “Then where did those cheetahs come from?” Ghyasuddin retorted, “Aapki baat bahut pehle ki hai... My people had been working with Nawabs and Rajahs and their cheetahs till about 30 years ago?” ‘African Cheetahs, Ghyasbhai!’ These princely estates used to import African cheetahs for you to train and for your masters to course with… when the government banned coursing, they stopped importing… Ghyas was stunned. He shook his head and hand impatiently, but this time he had closed his eyes. Those embers had lost their fierce glow. That look on his face reminded me of Othello - a man who had killed that which he loved most, and did not even realise it until it was too late. Ghyas got up, still shaking his head. Whether it was disbelief or defiance, I’ll never know. I called out to him, but he kept walking… the sun was stronger now, but the tall figure walking away from me had wrapped his head and shoulders in a blanket, perhaps to muffle the sound of my voice as I called out to him; or perhaps he was trying to muffle the sounds in his own head… They always hurt the most, the sounds in our own head.

Not fast enough?

Watching a cheetah chase its game is one of the most awe-inducing sights in nature. Those stretching-out-of-frame strides, that vital tail seemingly with a mind of its own and the sheer acceleration that can turn the red Ferrari green… Now imagine this fastest animal on land tethered to a leash, or with a hood on it. That’s right. Cheetahs are known to have been tamed and trained for hunting purposes, more specifically known as coursing, from Africa to Asia. The earliest records mention the pharaohs who kept these cats for pets in symbolic deference to their cheetah-goddess Mafdet.

In India, the Mughals had a particular penchant for game hunting with cheetahs. Emperor Akbar is believed to have housed upto a thousand of these cats at one time. However, using cheetahs as an aid to hunting finds mention as early back as in Manasollasa, an ancient Sanskrit text. Trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature (India) and author Divyabhanusinh Chavda, in his book The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India, mentions a treatise called Saidnaniah-i-Nigarin put together by the master of the stable (risaldar) in the administration of Sawai Maharaja Ranjore Singh, that chronicles the details of the royal activity, including catching the cats to training and treating their ailments.


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