Ambedkar’s Rags to Riches Tale and the Use of Archetypical Plotlines in Retelling History

When Helen Keller, the famous blind, deaf and dumb author and disabilities activist, was 11, she wrote a short story called ‘The Frost King‘ that was published in a couple of newsletters. It quickly got a lot of attention because many found it very similar to a story written by Margaret T. Canby called “Birdie and his Fairy Friends”. The scandal quickly became a national issue with Helen Keller being accused of plagiarism. At the time, many famous people including Mark Twain came out in Keller’s defense. It was in this context that Twain wrote these famous words: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”

When you read enough books and watch enough film you come to realise that this is very true. Indeed, all stories are based on one of these seven plot lines.

  1. Overcoming the Monster – where the hero has an arch nemesis (usually an evil being or force)that he/she must defeat to protect one’s family, home or country, like in Star Wars or Sholay.
  2. The Quest – where the hero and his/her companions go in search of an object, and overcome various obstacles and challenges, like in Lord of the Rings or the story of Hanuman’s journey to find Sita.
  3. Voyage and Return – where the hero travels to a strange land and, after some adventure, they learn important lessons that they could not have learnt anywhere else. They eventually return as better or wiser people, like in the Odyssey or Jab We Met.
  4. Comedy – where there are a bunch of absurd twists and turns where expectations are subverted but the outcome is always happy. Most rom-coms.
  5. Rebirth – where an event forces the hero to reconsider his/her beliefs and attitudes and forces them to change for the better. Secret Garden (one of my all time favourite book), the story of Valmiki or Gautama Buddha.
  6. Tragedy – The hero, a somewhat symathetic character, has a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately leads to their undoing, like the story of Karna in the Mahabharata.
  7. Rags to Riches – where the hero starts at the bottom, gains success, then suffers set backs to emerge triumphant eventually, like the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness.

These plotlines and the ideas that Twain was talking about might be true about fiction, but this blog is about history. What does this have to do with telling of history?

Good history writers and teachers have long employed these plotlines to tell us about what happened in the past. Some lives of important figures in history often feels like they were just made for film or novel.

Take Ambedkar for example. His life reads like a classic rags to riches tale. I do not mean that Ambedkar became a rich man or that he spent his life in the pursuit of wealth. He is no Tata or Birla. But look at where Ambedkar began and look at where we find him now – on stamps, in statues all over the city, on the sides of cobbler shops and banners in your neighbourhood. He went beyond temporal and mortal riches. The chronology of Ambedkar’s life fits almost perfectly into a typical template of a rags-to riches story.

Ambedkar: From village to Columbia to Baroda to New Delhi

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar went from a little boy who was made to sit on a gunny sack in the corner of the classroom to an esteemed scholar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee and first Law Minister. Image Source: Columbia University

A typical Rags to Riches story has 5 typical elements – a raggedy beginning, a promising series of initial victories, a giant set back, a valiant struggle, and eventual victory. Now, this is easily managed when you are writing fiction, but often, if we take a few steps back, the fully-lived life of a historical figure can also be squeezed to fit the template, as you can see in Ambedkar’s case:

A Raggedy Beginning: Ambedkar was born in a small town in Madhya Pradesh in 1891, into the Mahar caste. Mahars are untouchables and Ambedkar was never allowed to forget his low status. In school, he was forced to sit separately on gunny sacks and not given equal access to drinking water. When he would come up to the board to answer a question, children would rush to move their lunch bags out of his way so that he didn’t accidentally pollute their food. Yet, Ambedkar shone so brightly that nothing, not even caste, could hold him back.

A Promising Series of Initial Victories: After school, Ambedkar entered Bombay University and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Political Science. He was the first of his community to rise so high, but he was to meant to rise higher still. He was awarded a scholarship by the Diwan of Baroda that sent him to Columbia University, where he received a Masters and PhD in Economics. Then, he went to London where he became a lawyer and received a D.Sc in Economics. If you haven’t caught the drift yet, Ambedkar was a rising star.

The Giant Setback: After London, Ambedkar somewhat reluctantly returned to India because part of the deal with his scholarship was that after receiving a world class education, he needed to come back and serve the Princely State of Baroda. Up until this point, Ambedkar had enjoyed several years just being Bhimrao Ambedkar – lawyer, economist, a complete human. But when he came back, no one could see beyond his caste. In Baroda, no one was willing to rent him a decent home and his colleagues refused to let him drink water from the same pot, share food with them or sit with him. It was deeply humiliating. He was being treated exactly as he had been as a child. Except now, he had a taste of a life with dignity, respect and visibility and he knew that no human deserved this sort of treatment.

A Valiant Struggle: At Baroda, Ambedkar realised that academic achievement and wealth were of no value in the face of prejudice. So, he left Baroda without fulfilling his commitment with a clear mission now. He returned to Mumbai and became a lawyer who specialised in issues relating to the rights of lower caste people. One of his early cases was a libel suit. A group of three non-Brahmins had written an article blaming all the problems facing contemporary India on the upper castes. An outraged group of Brahmins filed a libel suit on these men. Ambedkar came to their defense and won. With this victory, Ambedkar made a name for himself. But he was going to become more known when he locked horns with Gandhi himself, demanding that the Depressed Classes receive their own separate electorate, just like how the Muslims and the Hindus had their own. Gandhi was anxious not to create more division. Division based on religion was grievous enough, but dividing the Hindu electorate based on caste was unacceptable. Gandhi was going to fast unto death to oppose Ambedkar’s proposition for separate electorates. Fortunately, the two men found a way to compromise. The Poona Pact was signed in 1932, where the untouchables did receive a reservation of electoral seats in the British Legislature. Ambedkar never forgave Gandhi. But during this time many noticed Ambedkar as more than just a Dalit leader. He was a political thinker.

Eventual Victory – When India was on track to get Poorna Swaraj, Ambedkar (who never joined the Indian National Congress) was asked to become Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. As Chairman, he led the Committee with his clear vision of what India should be – a fair, free democracy that valued liberty, equality and fraternity. Nehru also invited Ambedkar to become India’s first Law Minister.

Ambedkar who was once treated as sub-human was sought after for his sharp mind and wisdom. No one cared for his caste (or if they did, they dared not let their prejudice be known). They only cared about his ideas, and whether they liked them or not, they were all listening keenly till the end.

If this was a movie, then it would end with the hero winning – a standing ovation, or a shower of petals or a walk into the sunset.

Ambedkar’s narrative arc is that of a man who rose from nothing to something, and carried us all together with him, taking the role of India’s moral voice in its early years.

The Problem with Using Archetypical Plots in History

History writers and teachers have always employed one of the 7 standard plotlines from the very beginning of time. Think of any famous historical figure and you will find that they conveniently fit into one of these standard plots.

Gandhi’s tale is told to us as a Voyage and Return plot, where Gandhi grows up as an average boy in India, sails to South Africa where his adventures in this strange and deeply racist land leads him to the discovery of non-violence as a potent political weapon against injustice; a weapon he returns to India with in order to push the British out and free India forever.

Nelson Mandela’s story can be told as one of Rebirth, where prior to his imprisonment Mandela was leader of a violent guerilla group, but over his 27 year long imprisonment, he emerged as a voice for non-violence, forgiveness and peace.

Telling their stories in this manner can leave students or readers inspired, if that is the intention of the story. In addition to inspiring, one of the chief concerns of any good educator is to get students to think for themselves. Often stories like these glorify historical figures and encourage blind hero-worship. Is that the purpose of history teaching? To simply make us feel proud or feel in awe of these men and occasional women who changed the world?

There is a risk of over-simplification and glossifying history for the sake of good story-telling, but I argue that employing archetypical narrative arcs or plot lines have their place in the classroom, especially where critical thinking and reflection are valued

Employing Archetypical Narrative Arcs to Support Critical Reflection

Story-telling has been a powerful teaching method from the very beginning of time. From time to time, it has been used to rewrite history to conveniently persuade the listener to share the values of the story-teller.

But as teachers of any subject, one of our goals is to create independent critical thinkers. If we keep this goal always in sight, we will be less likely to stray.

Powerful narratives are a great way to hold a class’s interest and keep them hooked till the very end of the lesson. But, more importantly, it is a great way of showing, not telling, history. Ambedkar’s story isn’t just the story of a determined man who wanted to rise out of his miserable conditions. It is very much about the perniciousness of the caste system, about the ideas of social equality and justice that he tried to ensure had a place in the Constitution, as well as the revival of Buddhism in India.

For stories to work, it is important for a teacher or writer of history to be always aware that the story is a tool. They should not fall into the trap of actually believing that a fully-lived life can cosily fit into these constructed arcs. Life does not just abruptly cut off at the high point because it would be convenient for the audience. Life ends whenever it chooses to; in Ambedkar’s case the story did not just end when he occupied a seat in Nehru’s Cabinet.

The interesting parts of the story are those that do not fit in the narrative arc. It’s when you draw your students’ attention to the unruly bits that stick out of the template. Like in Ambedkar’s case, it is about how he was always restless and dissatisfied with his own work. He resigned from his position in Nehru’s cabinet after Parliament failed to pass the Hindu Code Bill that sought to protect gender equality in marriage and inheritance in one go. After resigning, Ambedkar stood for elections as an independent candidate on two separate occasions. He lost both times and then, he died in 1956.

I asked my class what they thought was on his mind the most in those last months, when he apparently worked just as had as he always had even though he was very sick. Did they think he was reflecting on his role in writing the Constitution, the moral conscience of India, or the fact that he lost the recent elections and wasn’t directly in government any more?

Life is more complicated than fiction. This inconvenient little ending to the otherwise perfect story had my class a little unsettled. One child found it hard to believe that even after all he had done, he was still unable to win an election. Was it because of caste? Was it because he wasn’t a good politician? He asked questions that got other people thinking. The class fell silent for a while. Then, he said that sometimes even when we do our best, people don’t notice. It happens to all of us – we try very hard and the others don’t really care that we did. There were murmurs of agreement, as am sure many thought back to times when their efforts were unappreciated.

The conscious inclusion of narrative arcs in our lessons makes a difference, but only as long as we use it carefully, remaining truthful to the actual story and focussing on the showing, rather than the telling of the lesson.

Stamp #4: Stalin, Mao, Lenin and E.M.S. Namboodiripad on the Streets of Kochi

As we drove into Kochi, red flags with the hammer and sickle greeted us almost as soon as we entered the city. My son, whose energy and patience were flagging, suddenly perked up. “Wait!” he said. “Where are we?”

It was like we had entered another alternate universe. My son who had been studying about Indian democracy and who has been exposed to ample anti-communist, anti-China rhetoric through the media was surprised to see Mao smile benignly at him from behind parked vehicles.

Nearly every other lamp post and pillar had him exclaiming in delighted horror. “Isn’t that Hugo Chavez!” he cried, before he spotted Stalin standing guard outside the entrance of a Pay and Park lot. Karl Marx was expected, but Maradona’s smiling face confused all of us and demanded some quick googling to find the connection between Maradona and Communism. Turns out Maradona was an anti-American Leftist.

By the time we reached our hotel room, Kerala’s Communist party propoganda had been so successful that I myself was wondering if I had remembered history correctly. I mean, maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad… and I never knew Mao could look so gentle and kind. I may have misjudged the man.

Over our weekend in Kochi, we could not escape the hammer and sickle at all. And I began to wonder how Communism took hold in Kerala? And why has it survived? Afterall, history has not been kind to Communism. There are 5 nations that call themselves communist today: Cuba, North Korea, China, Laos and Vietnam and I wonder if any of them had Stalin staring sternly at cars entering a pay and park lot.

Communist leaders abroad have always concerned themselves with class struggle and the inequities of industrial economies. Yet despite typical Indian hero worship (parents even name their children after Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev – listen to this interesting podcast about why they do), political thinkers in Kerala were original thinkers. The founding fathers of Kerala’s Communist party, like EMS Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan, saw socialism and communism as a possible solution to the social inequalities caused by caste, gender and religious discrimination.

EMS Namboodiripad (EMS) came from the highest landowning caste in Kerala. The Namboodiris are the Brahmins and at the time, they were a feudal elite who intermarried with the Nairs (the caste of the monarchs) to dominate society, art, culture, politics and even the economy. While EMS could have led a comfortable life, he was influenced by a rising political awakening across the nation in the 1920s. Like AK Gopalan, his comrade who came from the Nair class, and P. Krishna Pillai, he was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagrahas and joined the Indian National Congress.

But over time, like many other regional political thinkers and actors, EMS and others were increasingly disillusioned by Gandhi’s particular blend of politics and spirituality. While Gandhi might be what was needed to get national independence, Gandhi’s method did not feel practical to the issue of caste discrimination, gender inequality nor did it address the issues of landless peasants. EMS came to see Gandhi as a “Hindu fundamentalist” and yet he also recognised Gandhi as a complex person and had embraced his ideas of simple living.

In 1939, after leaning more and more to the left, first within the Congress party, and then out of it, EMS, Krishna Pillai and AK Gopalan formed the Communist Party in Kerala. In 1956, when Kerala became a state, EMS became its first Chief Minister – the first and only non-Congress chief minister in India at the time.

How had the Communist party become so successful? I think this is because of the grassroots efforts of the Communist party in Kerala. Krishna Pillai, still fondly remembered as a founding father of Communism, died at the age of 42 while hiding from authorities in a little hut. He was bitten by a snake. Although a leader of great repute, his premature death isn’t very surprising because he lived an action packed life. Coming from a poor family and having left home early to make his way in the world, Pillai was uniquely qualified to understand the suffering and the needs of the masses. Everywhere he went his emotional attachment to the cause and his personal interest in the people was evident, and so Pillai became an effective missionary of sorts. He brought Communism to all corners of his state and made an intellectual philosophy a meaningful cause. Of course, the British and the Indian government had concerns about Communists and all their talk of armed revolution, but it is important to note that apart from the Punappra Vayalar uprising against the Diwan of Travancore in 1946, Kerala’s Communists functioned within the India’s democratic multi-party framework and grew increasingly popular because were addressing specific social problems.

So when Kerala became a state in 1956, EMS became the chief minister, because the people in Kerala were familiar with the Communist Party. Those in power in Kerala society trembled because with his arrival came also terrible signs that things were about to change. EMS quickly set about making aggressive agrarian land reforms by capping the amount of land anyone could own and passing ownership of land to tenants who had been working that soil for generations. Although he could not immediately bring these land reform laws into action, eventually it went a long way in redistributing land and opportunity across Kerala.

Unfortunately, he perhaps tried to do too much too soon. His controversial attempts to reform private education to make it more accessible to all, led to vast, mostly peaceful protests led by the Syrian Catholic Church, Nairs and the Congress. In 1959, EMS was forced to resign and Kerala was under President’s rule for a while. He came back to power in the 1960s where he was able to pass more reform laws and today is credited for the state’s high literacy rates.

A curious thing I learnt as I read about EMS and other Communist thinkers in India was how international the Communist movement was. Indian Communist thinkers like M.N. Roy travelled outside India, even meeting Lenin, and helped other countries with their own movements. During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Communists like EMS remained neutral – choosing to side with neither Mao-led China nor their own nation, India. Isn’t that curious? In the minds of the early Communists what came first – the political ideology or their nation? And what about Indian Communists today?

At any rate, today, nearly 75 years later, from the looks of things Communism is still going strong in Kerala. It bypasses religious differences by being vocally atheistic. Their gods were the faces we saw on the sides of Kochi’s street – Lenin, Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Engels, Marx, EMS, Krishna Pillai and others. Like the hundreds of Hindu gods who smile down at us from prints on the wall, in calendars, wedding invitations and car stickers, they are more or less forgotten in our daily busy-ness, and only remembered in times of crisis or when in need of inspiration.

Orchha – The Hidden Kingdom

Orchha lies tucked away in the Vindyas, often overlooked by the average tourist. The shikhara of the Chaturbhuja Temple dominates the skyline in this tiny town that is packed with places to see and admire. (PC – District Administration of Niwari’s official website)

Driving through Orchha is like driving through the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Overgrown forests, ancient buildings, and then suddenly you are in a typical Indian small town, where a man on a motorcycle and a comically large bundle of mats behind him tries to squeeze past you at top speed while also confidently driving head-on into a large delivery van. The van and our SUV both came to a respectful halt, to let this brave Orchha warrior through.

This small inconspicuous sign on a largely deserted single-lane highway assured us that we were not lost.

We had not heard of Orchha till a few hours before we actually got there. It had come on our way from Nagpur to Jhansi and we stopped after quickly googling for places worth seeing en route. While overlooked now, Orchha used to be an important Bundela kingdom. While Orchha itself had been established in the mid 16th century by Raja Rudra Pratap, the most famous Orchha king was Raja Bir Singh Deo.

Since we hadn’t really planned the visit, we didn’t have the time the town truly deserves. In the hour or two that we spent there, we took a guided tour around Jahangir Mahal and the Raja Mahal, within the fort. Jahangir Mahal is a beautiful haveli style palace; a fusion of Rajput and Islamic architecture. The guide told us that Bir Singh Deo had built it as a gesture of friendship and loyalty towards the emperor. When it was complete, he invited him for a sleepover. Jahangir spent one night and never returned. And since then, the palace had remained vacant in honor of Jahangir (and perhaps subsequent Mughal rulers).

Lest you think that Raja Bir Singh was simply a vacant sycophant trying to curry favour with his Mughal overlord, our guide pointed out the subtle symbols of Rajput pride and resistance that lay hidden in the design of the palace. “Look”, he said, as we entered the palace through a narrow door. “Our backs are to the West. Jahangir and his men had to turn their backs on Mecca in order to come in. That was a great insult” At another point, he showed us a Ganesha carved into the tall doorway. “Jahangir and his men had to walk under Ganeshji to come into the palace.” According to the guide, Jahangir noted these insults and refused to stay more than a night. “This was the most expensive and elaborately planned insult in the world,” my son said wryly on our way out. According to the guide, the whole palace with its lapiz lazuli stone work, beautiful murals, trellises, hanging balconies and fountains cost a whopping 700 crore rupees in those days.

While we didn’t have a chance to visit her palace, Parveen Rai’s palace has murals of the famed courtesan and her dasis entertaining their patron and shows how much respect and power a courtesan wielded in court, given the proximity of her palace to the king’s own abode as well as the size and splendour of the place. (PC – Heritage India Magazine)

Outside Jahangir palace, our guide pointed out a large mahal in the valley below. It was the home of the famous courtesan Praveen Rai. She lived during Akbar’s time and was famous for her beauty and wit. When Akbar heard about her, he ordered the then chief of Orchha Raja Indrajit Singh to send his favourite courtesan over to him. Our guide said that Indrajit loved Praveen Rai and did not intend to obey the order, but Praveen insisted on going. When Akbar asked her to perform, Praveen Rai said very prettily, “Vinit Rai Praveen ki, suniye sah sujan. Juthi patar bhakat hain, bari, bayas, swan” or ‘Oh you great and wise! Hear this plea of Rai Praveen. Only someone from a low caste, barber or scavengers would eat from another person’s used plate.’ Ouch! Poor Akbar sent her back to dear Indrajit.

While we were there, the guide and my family were the only people in Jahangir Palace, till a short while later a small group of college boys tumbled in and spent much of their time posing for selfies. The guide told me that prior to Covid, Orchha was very popular and was mostly visited by foreign tourists. Covid had changed all that. Most domestic travellers don’t know very much about Orchha, which is overshadowed by her neighbours Gwalior and Jhansi.

Today, the settlements just outside of Orchha are empty and look worn out. The fields looked uncared for and the sides of the roads still seemed to be used as open toilets for young children. Time has not been kind to the region. We realised that kings and queens of little kingdoms such as this had played a major role to sustain local economies. While my son might view the extravagance of such kings as wasteful, such kings had created thousands and thousands of jobs. Orchha is scattered with temples, chhattris, mansions and palaces. Each had employed thousands of artisans during their construction. Think of the entire supply chain involved in the building and maintenance of such places! Aristocrats and royalty must have provided business and employment to thousands of farmers, florists, weavers, tailors, blacksmiths, jewellers, cooks, maids and manservants, caretakers of horses and camels, etc. I remember reading that in yesteryears kings would start massive public works projects during famines to provide employment and serve meals to labourers who might have starved otherwise, a practice that the British did not take up and which led to disastrous famines in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

This visit also helped me understand Mughal’s governance system better. Akbar had centralised Mughal government and had created a coherent and solid framework for governance that allowed Mughals to stay in power for 150 years. Apart from Afghan, Persian and Indo-Islamic members of his court, Akbar had wanted to include Hindu Rajput kings into Mughal nobility. He allowed Rajput chiefs and their families to receive a high rank, pay and the promise that they could continue their customs, rituals and beliefs. They continued to have control over their ancestral lands and were rewarded with more land if they pleased the emperor with their services. In exchange, Rajput chiefs had to publicly pledge their allegiance to the emperor. They had to offer active military service when called upon and willingly give their daughters in marriage to the emperor or his princes when asked to. The Mughal emperor was paramount, and he rewarded loyalty. It completely explains Bir Singh Deo’s desire to curry favour with Jahangir.

Here is a portrait of Raja Bir Singh, armed with shield and dagger, painted in the early 17th century. (P.C. Christie’s)

Bir Singh Deo occupied a prestigious position in Jahangir’s court because of the services he had provided the emperor. Before Jahangir became emperor, he once decided to flex his muscles and got into a conflict with his father. According the Jahangir’s memoirs, he hired a man to kill Abu Fazl. The man he hired was Orchha’s Bir Singh Deo. Bir Singh cut off Abu Fazl’s head and brought it to the young prince. When he came to the throne, Jahangir gave Bir Singh the title Maharaja and must have bestowed many other gifts of land and wealth. In the political world at that time, Bir Singh Deo and other ambitious Rajputs could only safeguard their positions by betting on the right guy in a conflict and then expressing loyalty through grand gestures like enormous palaces or gifts of women or personally chopping off someone’s head for their boss. What a tough, complicated world that was!

Orchha is beautiful. The murals are fading and many bits of lapis lazuli are missing from the walls. Lovers and friends have etched their names into door frames and walls and some floors are covered with a mosaic of bat droppings, and yet it remains beautiful despite the neglect. I have not given it justice and would highly recommend checking out some of these blogs if you plan on visiting.

Resources:

How India Saved the Lions of Gir

With all the attention that tiger conservation has received in recent years, we tend to forget her shaggier and more sociable cousin, the lion. When I told my class about India’s Asiatic lions, a few younger children were surprised. “Aunty, we have lions?” one asked. We certainly do. India is the only country in the world that is home to both lions and tigers.

A lion cub in Gir. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Once I started thinking about lions, I started seeing them everywhere. They were on currency, on Indian government seals on official documents, on ancient temple walls and pillars, on murals in urban centres and historical monuments, at the family altar (where Durga rides on a lion) and even as people with fierce last names like Singh, Sinha, and Simhan.

Lions show up everywhere in Indian iconography and language because it looks like they actually were almost everywhere. Their range extended from Greece in Europe to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

Today, the poor Asiatic lion is found in the little blue dot in Gujarat – the Gir National Park. What happened to the lion?

We did. First, we took away their homes by converting their grasslands and forests into farmland, towns and villages. Later, our upper classes decided that hunting lions would be a great sport. In the Middle East and India, hunting lions was seen as a rite of passage for young men seeking power. It was a way to show off your prowess and courage. And for good reason; from the numerous Mughal paintings, like the one below, it is clear that hunting lion was not for the faint hearted.

Mughal Miniature of a Prince on a Lion Hunt (Photo Credit: Christie’s)

The ruling classes all around the world have always been obsessed with hunting. The Mughals and Rajputs were no different. But I was unprepared for the sheer volume of kill. According to one record that I read, between March and May 1610, Jehangir and his companions killed seven lions and 203 other birds and animals. By the time he was fifty, Jehangir claimed to have hunted more than 17,000 animals.

During Jehangir’s time, lions were found in forests across modern day Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and even parts of Bengal. I could not find any information on when they disappeared from the Deccan plateau, but by late 19th century, lions were hunted to extinction in most parts of India.

Tiger hunt by Lord Reading, Viceroy of India (before 1935) (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Enter the Nawab of Junagadh. (Well, actually three generations of Nawabs). In 1879, around the same time when the last lion near Allahabad and the last lion In Rajasthan were hunted down, Mahabat Khan, the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, banned all hunting without special permission in his territory. The Nawab was alarmed by the dwindling numbers of lions and wanted to protect those that remained in his kingdom.

Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi, Nawab of Junagarh (1858-1911) with heir and council 1903 (Photo credit: Royal Collection Trust)

His son, Nawab Rasulkhanji, ascended the throne in 1892, and immediately instituted firmer laws – protecting more animals. The Gir Forest was within Junagadh borders, but Rasulkhanji was frustrated to find that the British and neighbouring Rajas kept pestering him with requests to go hunting for lions in his territory. If he did not allow it, hunters would tie baits just outside Junagadh’s borders to tempt the lions out of Junagadh where they could be hunted without consequence.

Rasulkhanji’s son, Nawab Mahabatkhanji, carried his grandfather and father’s legacy and fought to protect his lions until October 1947, when he acceded his kingdom to the Government of India and moved to Pakistan (with his 200 dogs but without any of his wives!). When he left, he left his lions unprotected.

After Independence, we seemed to have forgotten about the lions in Gir. We had Partition and a whole impoverished country to establish. It is somewhat understandable that we lost track of the lions for a while. In 1964, the Gir forests were home to 285 lions. Five years later, there were only 166 left.

Fortunately, the Indian Forest Service (the unsung hero that has stepped in to rescue so many animals from the brink of extinction in India) took notice. They set up a wildlife conservation programme for Asiatic Lions in 1965 and made the Nawab’s beloved Gir a Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Indian Forest Department has an all female team of guards protecting the lions around the clock. (Photo credit: Times of India)

At the start of the programme, India had around 177 lions. In 2005, we had 359. In 2020, we are up to 674. We talk so much about the saving the Tiger that we often forget to acknowledge our efforts with lions. If earlier, we were worried that we had too few lions, now we worry that we have too many lions squeezed into a rather small park. The Forest Department is looking some place to relocate a part of the lion population. I do not know very much about conservation and animals, but it sounds like this is a far better problem to have than having too few lions.

There is a story buried here somewhere – the story of our Forest Department and its extraordinary efforts to protect our wildlife heritage. I didn’t realise we had so many national parks dedicated to protect animals close to extinction.

At the end of the 20th century, there were around a hundred Nilgiri Tahrs in the wild. The Nilgiri Tahrs can only be found in India. They are like a cross between a goat and a sheep, and used to live in the mountains of the Western Ghats, from Maharashtra, down to Kerala. Today, there are close to 3,000 Nilgiri Tahrs in the wild. Isn’t that remarkable?

On a recent Safari through B.R. Hills, the forest department official explained that the morning safari had been cancelled because their staff will be busy carrying out a census. When I told him that we saw a pack of dhol (wild dogs) on our drive to the camp, his eyes grew wide in child like excitement. “Where?” he asked. He must have seen wild dogs many, many times in his years in the forest, and yet here he was nearly as excited as we were about our sighting.

When you read the story of the lions of India, you can read it as the tragic tale of a big cat that fell prey to human greed and cruelty. But, if you read on, you can also read it as a story of hope, vision and determination. It is a reminder that while we are capable of immense cruelty and destruction, we are also capable of immense compassion and regeneration. Starting from the late 19th century, when the Nawabs identified the threat to the lion till today, when the Forest Department and local communities have united to protect the big cats, the Asiatic lion has gone from being just a symbol to an actual creature we can visit on vacation.

Lion Safari (Photo Credit: Gir National Park Website)

—-

Resources:

1. Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
2. Mughal Emperors and The Imperial Hunt (Samyukta Ninan) https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/history-daily/mughal-hunt/
3. The Naturalist with a Hint of Cruelty https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/VP1pnZYhc8q2s6A3U42QzI/The-naturalist-with-a-hint-of-cruelty.html
4. Untold Story of How an Erstwhile Princely State Saved Gir’s Lions from Extinction
https://www.thebetterindia.com/235146/world-lion-day-gujarat-gir-national-park-nawab-junagadh-british-rule-india-nor41/