Indian Princes and Royal Tigers

Dr. Julie E. Hughes, Assistant Professor of History, Vassar College


Fig. 1 Silver medal, the British lion/the siege of Seringapatam. English 19th century.  Given by the late Jas. W. Fleming, V & A Collections
Tigers dominated the imagination of British imperialists and sportsmen in India. Summed up in the commemorative medal issued by the East India Company to mark their 1799 defeat of Tipu Sultan (fig. 1), the tiger stood as a totemic representation of the savagery and uncivilized exoticism of the East, destined to defeat when faced with the superior nature and morality of the lion and the West.[1] Yet, Indian rulers – like other colonial subjects throughout the empire – had their own tales to tell. In their view, they were linked with tigers in the project of state governance, together capable of proving themselves against the British.

Because the princely states of Rajputana had become requisite stops on viceregal tours and holiday itineraries by the late nineteenth century, these places were especially important mixing grounds between Indian rulers and British imperialists through the end of empire. Strung along the rugged Aravalli range, the south-westernmost of these states also had tigers.

Whether they styled themselves maharajas, maharanas, or maharaos, the princes of these south-western Rajput states believed tigers were essential features of their realms. They feared habitat loss and reduced numbers came with social, cultural, economic, and political problems.[2] Because they refused to separate the needs and characteristics of wildlife entirely from their own situations and identities, prominent rulers including the maharanas of Mewar State (fig. 2) concluded they needed to save tigers in order to protect themselves.

Fig. 2 Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar, detail of wall-painting inside Nar Odi,Udaipur, c. 1888 © Julie Hughes, 2008

Fig. 3 Shooting towers where Indian princes once shot wild boar, leopard, and other game alongside their English guests, Udaipur © Julie Hughes, 2008
Surrounded by British India and closely watched by British agents, these princes couldn’t raise armies, declare war, or engage in direct diplomatic contact with other states. But they had relatively free reign on the hunting ground, an old standby of sovereign privilege and power in South Asia.[3] It just so happened this was a field, too, where princes could compete with the British in ways the imperialists readily understood, but also by other means clear to the princes, but largely obscure to the British.[4] This enabled the princes to pick their battles.
Fig. 4 Former hunting grounds, Udaipur, India © Julie Hughes, 2008

Royal investment was a mixed blessing for tigers: princes harvested the benefits of these animals and competed with their rivals by hunting, baiting, and caging. It is important, if uncomfortable, to realize these violent practices arguably emerged from a deep admiration of and identification between tigers and the ideal characteristics of heroic Rajput rulers. We find no clear-cut binary of indigenous harmony with and colonial, western, or capitalist abuse of nature here.[5] Princes also failed to take on responsibility for the species at large; although some did participate in the empire-wide perspectives on wildlife conservation that were gaining prominence as the twentieth century progressed, Indian rulers primarily promoted their own local interests and animals.[6] Princes could and sometimes did limit exploitation and some worked to reestablish locally extinct populations. But despite their high valuation of tigers and tiger habitat, their best legacy has not been their attitude towards wildlife or wilderness. Rather, it has been the game reserves they set aside, helping today to maintain the extent and condition of India’s globally significant, post-colonial network of protected areas.


When wildlife was abundant and the landscape verdant, all was well in the state.  Shooting rules like Mewar State’s order no. 21746 of October 15, 1927 (fig. 5) were attempts to preserve sovereign perks by saving wildlife for the privileged few – shown as practices in a painted photograph of Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar (in long dress at center) with a tiger he killed in his state, c. 1888 (fig. 6).

Generally including exceptions for self-defense, these documents equally reveal the dangers wild tigers could and did pose for commoners. Order no. 21746 asserts that no one could kill any tiger in Mewar without the maharana’s express permission.

Fig. 5  Mewar State order no. 21746 of October 15, 1927 © Julie Hughes, 2013
Fig. 6 Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar (in long dress at center) with a tiger, c. 1888 © Julie Hughes, 2008, painted by K. R. Sharma & Sons, Jaipur, courtesy of Boheda family, Hotel Mahendra Prakash, Udaipur

If a specific tiger caused trouble, attacking or killing people, or if a nobleman had never killed a tiger and wanted leave to do so, a petition had to be filed and the maharana’s pleasure awaited.

Consorting with tigers was an important index of sovereignty and masculinity.[7] Those that killed, captured, or controlled tigers deserved admiration, like this Mewar State huntsman (fig. 7). Easily identifiable by his fallen pith helmet and other accoutrements, this Englishman (fig. 8), on the other hand, was a failure as a ruler and a man. The mutual intelligibility between the British and Indians in matters of tiger hunting is on full display in fig. 7, and also in fig. 6, in the posing of hunter and hunted.
Fig. 7  A Mewar State huntsman with his trophy, detail of wall-painting inside Nar Odi, © Julie Hughes, 2008

Colonial-era sportsmen, whether British or Indian, enthusiastically documented their kills and, in their souvenir photographs, nearly always stood behind the outstretched bodies of their quarry. The successful sportsman often rested a hand, foot, or rifle butt on his (and occasionally her) trophy. Both grouped high ranking individuals in the middle and relegated less significant figures to the periphery. This mutual intelligibility surely would have extended to fig. 8, but it is highly unlikely the artwork’s royal patron ever invited any Englishmen to view this particular image. Both wall paintings are in Maharana Fateh Singh’s Nar Odi shooting box, Udaipur, c. 1888.
Fig. 8 A fallen Englishman, detail of wall-painting inside Nar Odi, © Julie Hughes, 2008

Fig. 9  A huntsman trapping a tiger, detail of wall-painting inside Nar Odi, © Julie Hughes, 2008
Hunting was not the only way Indian princes interacted with tigers: they also kept live animals. Most tigers were caught as cubs in gunny sacks, unlike this scene (fig. 9) from the Nar Odi wall paintings, Udaipur, c. 1888. Here, an apparently full grown tiger crouches outside an open cage, while a huntsman sits above on a tree branch, waiting to drop the door the moment the animal enters the trap.

Affectionate bonds could develop between hand-raised cubs and their keepers, as they clearly did between the huntsman Kesri Singh and his cub Hero, who enjoyed playing with the family dog and riding around Jaipur in the passenger seat of Singh’s convertible.[8] But as these animals matured, often around two years of age, they were sold or gifted to zoos, pitted against other animals in arena fights, and occasionally deployed as lures to attract wild tigers for sport.

Mewari princes trapped wild boar near Machhla Magra hill and staged fights between them and captive tigers in the nearby arena attached to the Khas Odi hunting palace and shooting tower. An undated painted sculpture of a tiger and boar fight in Dudh Talai park on the slopes of Machhla Magra, Udaipur, seems to commemorate this local history (fig. 10). In addition to the tiger, Rajput princes greatly admired wild boar for what they considered the species’ great strength, endurance, and pugnacity. Out of twenty-eight known animal fights at Khas Odi between 1884 and 1912, almost half pitted wild boar against a tiger, and another 18% substituted a leopard for the tiger. Very few of these fights featured no tiger, leopard, or wild boar at all.[9]
Fig. 10  Painted statute in the park above Dudh Talai, Udaipur © Julie Hughes, 2008

The arena used for animal fights is inside the attached enclosure on the right in this wall painting of Khas Odi (fig. 11), set against the backdrop of Machhla Magra hill, in the Nar Odi shooting box, c. 1888, Udaipur.

This view below (fig. 12) towards the north from the summit of Machhla Magra hill shows fortifications on the ridgetop and the Tikhalya re Mul shooting tower halfway down the western slope, Udaipur, 2009. Although tigers remain in only a few of these sites, the old princely shooting reserves – including the modestly sized Machhla Magra preserve, which mostly houses wildfowl despite the historical presence of tiger on the hill – help form the heart of India’s expansive network of protected areas today.

Fig. 11  Khas Odi with Tikhalya and Machhla magras (hills) in the background, detail of wall-paintings inside Nar Odi, © Julie Hughes, 2008

Fig. 12  The summit of Machhla magra with the Aravelli Range in the distance, Udaipur, © Julie Hughes, 2008


1 For the medal discussed alongside a Punch cartoon featuring a British lion and an Indian tiger, see Anand S. Pandian, “Predatory Care: The Imperial Hunt in Mughal and British India,” Journal of Historical Sociology 14 1 (2001): 81-83. For the tiger from Tipu’s perspective, see Kate Brittlebank, “Sakti and Barakat: The Power of Tipu’s Tiger. An Examination of the Tiger Emblem of Tipu Sultan of Mysore,” Modern Asian Studies 29, 2 (1995): 257-269.

2 Julie E. Hughes, Animal Kingdoms: Hunting, the Environment, and Power in the Indian Princely States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), chapters 3 and 6.

3 Hughes, Animal Kingdoms, 7-8.

4 Julie E. Hughes, “Royal Tigers and Ruling Princes: Wilderness and Wildlife Management in the Indian Princely States,” Modern Asian Studies (forthcoming); for a similar point and a fascinating discussion about Indian shikaris hired by British sportsmen, see Shafqat Hussain, “Sports-hunting, Fairness and Colonial Identity: Collaboration and Subversion in the Northwestern Frontier Region of the British Indian Empire,” Conservation and Society 8, 2 (2010): 112-126.

5 Hughes, “Royal Tigers and Ruling Princes,” Modern Asian Studies (forthcoming).

6 Mahesh Rangarajan, India’s Wildlife History (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001), 37. For another view, see Divyabhanusinh, “Junagadh State and its Lions: Conservation in Princely India, 1879-1947,” Conservation and Society 4, 4 (2006): 539.

7 This point has been made by a number of scholars, for example see Pandian’s “Predatory Care: The Imperial Hunt in Mughal and British India.” For British sportsmen, tigers, and masculinity, see Joseph Sramek, “‘Face Him like a Briton’: Tiger Hunting, Imperialism, and British Masculinity in Colonial India, 1800-1875,” Victorian Studies 49, 4 (2006)

8 Kesri Singh, One Man and a Thousand Tigers (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1959), 148-149.

9 Hughes, “Ruling Tigers and Ruling Princes,” Modern Asian Studies (forthcoming).

JulieHughes bio - use jpg formatDr. Julie E. Hughes, “Royal Tigers and Indian Princes”

Julie Hughes (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is Assistant Professor of History at Vassar College. She is the author of Animal Kingdoms: Hunting, the Environment, and Power in the Indian Princely States (Permanent Black, 2012; Harvard University Press, 2013). Her research seeks to explain the interplay between social, political, and ‘natural’ categorizations of people and animals. Currently, she is investigating colonial and post-colonial adoptions of sub-adult tigers, leopards, and other undomesticated carnivores by Indians, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans in South Asia, as well as the purported parallel adoptions of human children by wolves and other wildlife.  Photo courtesy: Vassar College Buck Lewis

If you’d like to learn more:

Julie E. Hughes, Animal Kingdoms: Hunting, the Environment, and Power in the Indian Princely States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

Miniature paintings of the hunt from Mewar State, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Maharana Bhim Singh of Udaipur Returns from a Boar Hunt, c. 1810, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Maharana Ari Singh of Mewar Hunting Deer, 1765, Harvard Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum

National Tiger Conservation Authority, Government of India

Silent film footage by Major Ronald Sinclair of Pichola lake (11:50), palaces, and wild boar (13:53) in Udaipur, Mewar State, 1930, Colonial Film Database

Silent film footage of pig-sticking at the Kadir Cup Meeting, 1934, Colonial Film Database



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