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Year : 2007  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 136-139

The Story of Asia's Lions

B-3/7 Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi 110 029, India

Correspondence Address:
Radhika Govindrajan
B-3/7 Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi 110 029
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Govindrajan R. The Story of Asia's Lions. Conservat Soc 2007;5:136-9

How to cite this URL:
Govindrajan R. The Story of Asia's Lions. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2007 [cited 2020 May 31];5:136-9. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2007/5/1/136/55817

Divyabhanusinh, The Story of Asia's Lions. Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2005, 259pp, 160 illustrations, references, appendices, maps, bibliography and index. Rs. 1895 (Hardcover). ISBN: 81-85026-66-1.

In his latest book Divyabhanusinh crafts a remarkable life history of the Asiatic lion, commencing his narrative in the second millennium BCE and winding his way right down to the twenty-first century. In the process, he brings together a rich and eclectic range of sources including an array of visual and architectural material, as exemplified by Harappan seals, Mauryan pillars and Mughal paintings; a wide-ranging corpora of literary texts from early Sanskrit poetry and lexicons to colonial period hunting memoirs; administrative records that span the history of pre-independence India in addition to that of the independent republic; as well as scientific research on the lion's genetic make-up, behaviour and habitat.

The author begins his account with an analysis of the varied relationships between lions and humans in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon and Achaemenid Persia, noting that the former were simultaneously venerated, worshipped, feared, mythologised and hunted. From there he moves eastwards to India where the rest of the narrative is then anchored. Emphasising the Harappan culture's lack of familiarity and contact with the lion, as revealed through archaeological evidence and an examination of Harappan seals, the author concludes that lions came to 'prosper and proliferate' in the Indus region from about the third century BCE (p. 57). That they were well known in India by the fourth-century BCE is attested to by Mauryan monumental art, where a large number of Ashokan pillars, including the famous pillar of Sarnath, were topped by lion capitals. Very soon, the lion made its way onto coins, being represented on the currency of the Indo-Greek, Western Kshatrapa and Satavahana dynasties between the first-century BCE and the secondcentury CE.

Drawing on the work of art historians, Divyabhanusinh suggests that the growing importance attached to the symbolism of the lion in India in the second- half of the first millennium BCE was inspired by the great empires of West Asia, where the lion was associated with kingship 'as the counterpart of its strength and nobility' (p. 57). Moreover the lion, being a gregarious and very visible inhabitant of open country, was popularly perceived as the king of the jungle and was therefore more easily appropriated as a symbol of the monarch than of his subjects. The increased symbolic importance of the lion was thus, according to the author, occasioned by the rise of large and powerful kingdoms in India.

In another chapter, Divyabhanusinh argues that Sanskrit literature is also an important source through which common perceptions of and attitudes towards lions from about 1000 BCE onwards can be reconstructed. That the lion (simha in Sanskrit) was revered and feared is clear from the use of terms such as 'frightful like a lion' (simho na bhimah) to describe deities in early Vedic literature (p. 68). Moreover, the close association between lions and monarchy is also borne out by texts such as the epic Mahabharata, which refers to the king's throne as simhasana or lion's seat (p. 71). However, while the lion was exalted as a symbol of monarchy, it was also hunted for pleasure as is revealed in coins struck by the Gupta dynasty, where the lion-slayer was a favoured motif. For a later period, the sixteenth-century Sanskrit text on hawking, Shyainika Shastram, contains a detailed discussion on contemporary hunting practices, with three different methods proposed for the killing of lions.

It is from the Mughal period onwards, however, that a rich archive of material on the lion, including miniature paintings, memoirs and biographies, travel accounts such as those of Francois Bernier, and royal farmans (imperial decrees), comes to light. The author skillfully weaves together these different strands to provide a comprehensive picture of the Mughal attitude towards lions. As was the case with earlier rulers, the Mughals too drew on the imagery and symbolism of the lion to assert their superiority; the imperial standard prominently displayed the couchant lion and the rising sun, both associated closely with royalty and divinity.

Hunting was a favourite pastime of the Mughals, lions being declared royal game to which only the emperor could permit access. Accounts of lion hunts were preserved for posterity in a number of texts, including Jahangir's biography, as well as in the miniature paintings rendered faithfully by court artists who accompanied the royal hunting party on its expeditions. These records are important not just for reconstructing Mughal hunting methods, but also provide an invaluable source of information on the geographical distribution of lions, their general habitat as well as their prey base between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

This section on the Mughals and lions is arguably one of the best in the book. Divyabhanusinh introduces the reader to a very diverse set of source materials, particularly visual artefacts, which have traditionally been passed over by environmental historians of India. Moreover, he displays an awareness of the pitfalls involved in reading the discourses embedded within these texts and paintings too literally, and attempts to approach them in a critical and questioning manner. This chapter is also the most beautifully illustrated in the book, with a number of colour plates of Mughal miniature paintings accompanying the text.

From the Mughals, the book moves forward to the colonial period, which was when, the author suggests, the lion experienced a significant downswing in its fortunes. The lion could still be found all over north India till the middle of the nineteenth century, 'but its frequent encounters with the British had disastrous consequences leading to its near total disappearance from India' (p. 122). Moreover, the pressure on different habitats increased steadily over the eighteenth and nineteenth century that undoubtedly encroached on the grassland and scrub jungle habitats of the lion. Lions were thus gradually wiped out from Haryana, central India, Rajasthan and the Punjab, and by the secondhalf of the nineteenth century were to be found only in a small pocket of forest in Junagadh in present day Gujarat.

However, the rapid decline in the lion population did not go entirely unnoticed or unchecked. It was in the princely state of Junagadh, the last home of the Asiatic lion, that the first efforts for its conservation were made, an attempt that the author chronicles in great detail. As early as 1879, the sixth Nawab of Junagadh ordered the protection of lions in his state and it was subsequently declared that anyone caught poaching a lion would face a jail term of 6 months and a fine of 1000 koris (p. 138). Moreover the actual number of lions in the forest was constantly downplayed in official reports so as to act as a deterrent to sportsmen eager to have a shot at them. This was a tactic that proved almost over-effective; much to the dismay of Junagadh state, as important a personage as Lord Curzon declined an offer to shoot a Junagadh lion after a Bombay newspaper raised the alarm over declining lion numbers in the Gir forest!

The last three sections of this book focus on the position of the lion in postindependence India. Divyabhanusinh begins by describing the many attempts that were made to estimate lion numbers in Gir at different points in the twentieth century, terming them 'the great numbers game' (p. 117). His account of the politics of underestimation and overestimation of lion numbers is lucid as is his argument in favour of modern scientific census methods, and should be of particular interest to conservationists and policy makers associated with Gir as well as other protected areas and national parks across India.

The next chapter deals with an issue which requires urgent consideration particularly in the context of escalating incidents of poaching and lion deaths in Gir: the creation of a second home for the Asiatic lion. The author argues that the lack of commitment displayed by the concerned governments when it comes to the issue of relocation might finally spell doom for the Asiatic lion population. Given that the total population is so small and concentrated in one area, an epidemic of feline disease, such as the one that struck Africa's Serengeti in 1993, would be absolutely fatal. The solution, he suggests, might lie in shifting those lions that live outside park boundaries to their proposed new home in the Palpur Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.

The final chapter of this book engages with a wide range of issues including the past and current relocation and resettlement of Maldhari and other settlement villages within the boundaries of the park; the problems caused by growing tourist traffic in the region; the increased pressures on the Gir-protected area from the large human and cattle populations settled around it and the resultant rise in human-lion conflict. One wishes that the author had devoted more time and space to a discussion of these issues, given their importance in ensuring the survival of the lion in the future.

The Story of Asia's Lions is a well-researched compendium on the history of the Asiatic lion in India, which is sure to interest a cross-section of readers, including conservationists, administrators, social scientists and those more generally interested in the conservation of this highly endangered species. The beautiful illustrations, maps and photographs painstakingly compiled from the author's private collection as well as from archival sources are a more than fitting accompaniment to the text, and a source of absolute delight to the reader.


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