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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Victorian era Indian Shikar

During both feudal and colonial times hunting was considered a regal sport in India’s princely states. Many of the maharajas and nawabs, as well as British officers, maintained whole corps of shikaris, who were native professional hunters, normally managed by a master of the hunt who would be referred to as mir-shikar. More often than not these shikaris were recruited from low ranking tribes because of their in-depth local knowledge of the environment and hunting techniques. Big and dangerous game such as tiger, were usually hunted from the back of an elephant.

Over the years of British colonial rule in India, shikar grew into an institution, offering an exclusive sport affording face to face encounters with exotic and often dangerous game. Lord Curzon reputedly remarked to a friend, while offering an alternative to English fox hunting, “Come and stay with us in India and we will arrange for you to shoot tigers from the back of elephants”.

On 16 September each year, the British would declare the commencement of the hunting season in India. In order to please the British hierarchy of Viceroys, generals, and colonels, Indian royalty organised much of the hunting. At times in forest reserves. Dhami for example, was called “The Viceroy’s Shooting Box” because the British loved its fauna and flora. Descriptive and colourful Indian words in Urdu or Hindi were all part of Shikar, and a visit from the laat sahib was considered prestigious for royalty. It was ensured the bandobast was pukka to the last detail. Tents of some of the maharajas reputedly had brick floors and Persian rugs. Their fireplaces done up like English country houses.

Servants wearing starched white pagrees served invited guests pulaus stews, curries, sherbet, and bacon all prepared in mud kitchens. The hunting entourage included khansamas, khidmatgurs, coollies and beaters. Villagers and beaters beat tom-toms and played flutes to drive tigers to the waiting hunters, and the Maharaja of Rewa used 5,000 beaters to drive 16 fully grown tigers for Lord Curzon’s hunt.

Lady Dufferin wrote, “… a thousand beaters were employed and only 24 birds killed …” Despite the English memsahibs’ generally not being able to stand the heat, there were lady shikaris, and as Anne Morrow wrote, "As a courtesy… Vicereine or Commander-in-Chief’s wife Lady Chetwode – would be offered the first shot. They may have looked frail with their porcelain skins and appealing in their becoming jungle skirts made by the dhurzie, but they would lie for hours on their stomachs resilient and elated”. Egos were often stroked, with every tiger shot invariably being declared 10-feet long! If the laat sahibs weren’t good shots, the beaters subtly ensured a flattering pile of dead birds were placed beside the laat sahibs butts.

In tandem with the hunting fields of Africa during that colonial era, sport hunters who had a sense of adventure could find equally exciting hunting opportunities on the Indian sub-continent, as could be found in Africa. Records by way of paintings and early photographs can still be found. The photographs portrayed here (some of which were obviously posed) showing shikar in India were at one time reputedly sold by Westley Richards as place mats.

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