There was once a charismatic being that stalked the scrublands, deserts and mountains of the Indian subcontinent but skirted around dense forests. Smaller than the tiger but larger than the wolf, it defied easy categorisation. Some considered it half cat, half dog, a link between the feline and canine worlds, while a 13th-century Persian text outlining the “Wonders of Creation” claimed it was one of these, born of the lion and the leopard. Indian falconers classified it as a bird of prey for it leaped so high that it seemed to soar through the sky.

Unlike the leopard that slunk through the dark of the night, it conducts its business in broad daylight. Yet it is often mistaken for the leopard. But once you note the difference between the cheetah and the leopard, you can never confuse the two.

In spite of the old adage about the leopard and its spots, the leopard’s coat is in fact marked by rosettes, whereas it is the cheetah that is covered with perfect spots – and its long history of being trained by humans suggests that it can very well change its “spots”. Taller and lithe in comparison to the leopard, the cheetah is the fastest land mammal on earth – but, like a short-distance runner, it tires as fast as it sprints. The characteristic that sets it apart from the leopard at once are the two black streaks that run across both sides of its face from its eyes to its mouth like perpetual streams of tears – as though the cheetah was born ruing its fate in the Anthropocene.

The dramatic life of the cheetah in India

Divyabhanusinh’s The Story of India’s Cheetahs is full of such insights and fires the imagination. At a time when we are reminded of the extinction of the Asiatic cheetah in India and a project is underway to resurrect its presence in some form or the other on the subcontinent, through the African variant, Divyabhanusinh has written a book that is at once authoritative and attractive. After he accidentally became an expert on the cheetah, as he self-effacingly explains in the book, he dedicated himself to earning his reputation and wrote his first monograph on the subject.

The present book reboots, repackages and brings up to date the previous study to present an account that is as absorbing as it is sobering. Combining the talents of a naturalist, going on to become the president of WWF India, with those of a historian, Divyabhanusinh is well positioned to chronicle the dramatic life of the cheetah in India. He does this with vigour, scouring all kinds of historical texts in Sanskrit, Persian and various other languages, including cheetah manuals, and modern scientific studies, bringing in the visual analysis of numerous images, field knowledge and consultations with specialists.

The author is ably supported by his publisher, Marg, which specialises in illustrated books and is thus able to reproduce a plethora of images of the cheetah. Even a summary of the book indicates the knotty history of this one creature in one part of the world and the complexity of the South Asian Anthropocene.

The cheetah is elusive through the annals of antiquity. On the one hand, two rock paintings probably depicting it, one comprising a mother and her cub, as a creature with a concave back recalling its real-life hunched profile, dated to 2500-2000 BCE from Madhya Pradesh suggest its early presence on the subcontinent. On the other, it is missing from the terracotta seals of the Bronze Age Harappan, or Indus Valley civilisation, famous for their representations of a range of animals that made an impression on these early Indians.

However, Divyabhanusinh is quick to point out that this may not mean anything – and perhaps the absence of the arcane cheetah is less telling than that of the ubiquitous horse. It seems that the practice of taming cheetahs began in the cat-friendly ancient civilisation of Egypt, from where it travelled to India, and the cheetah went on to gradually become “the ultimate royal pet”.

The cheetah also features in the early European exoticisation of India. A silver plate produced by a Greek metalworker unearthed from a Byzantine settlement in Turkey dated to sixth–seventh century depicts the personification of India as a dark women wearing a patterned toga and open saddles sitting on a throne made of ivory tusks exuding power. She is surrounded by animals that include a parakeet, a pair of langurs, a tiger, and a cheetah.

The inclusion of an African guinea-fowl indicates that orientalisation began early with all of the East, including north Africa, collated into one distant and mysterious land. The langurs are collared while the two big cats are on leashes held by their handlers alluding to the ancient trade in exotic animals between India and Rome. Nonetheless, the role of the cheetah in Indian courtly culture remained marginal until about the 12th century, by when it was brought into the mainstream of hunting for the purpose of deer coursing, with the blackbuck being its main prey.

The cheetah continued its rise as a hunting animal with that of the Turk and Afghan rulers of India. Firoz Shah, the Tughlaq sultan of Delhi, was devoted to the hunt and amassed beasts and birds of prey, the former including cheetahs, caracals and hounds, not to mention lions. Meanwhile, a hunting manual from the court of the Qutb Shah rulers of the Deccan advocated that men emulate the best traits of the cheetah, which included knowing when to strike and, equally, when to withdraw, as well as self-respect, independence and dignity. As with many aspects of the history of north India, the one pertaining to the hunt also came to a head with the formation of the early modern empire of the Mughals. The emperor Akbar was known to have about a thousand cheetahs at a time and collected some nine thousand over the course of his reign spanning half a century. The book reproduces many, if not most, of the Mughal paintings that display the cheetah.

Foremost among the images are the ones from the Akbarnama or the history of the reign of Akbar by Abul Fazl featuring the eponymous emperor, who was often portrayed taming the wildest of beasts in a show of both his physical bravado and miraculous nature. The cheetah was no exception as Akbar is depicted capturing the creatures, coursing with or hunting alongside them. Abul Fazl credits him with devising the successful method for capturing cheetahs, as the fawning chronicler does all the achievements of the Mughal empire under him.

Earlier cheetahs were captured after they fell into deep pits that they could not spring out of but often had broken bones to show for it, until Akbar intervened and pioneered shallow pits with trapdoors – an innovation that was so successful that once six male cheetahs tumbled into such a pit one after the other in heady pursuit of a female cheetah on heat that had been the first to fall.

Akbar was also fond of chasing cheetahs on horseback to tire them out (and one can only envy him such well-trained mounts) – another of the many methods used to capture cheetahs on the subcontinent. In hindsight, it appears a tragic forerunner of the British propensity for pursuing cheetahs on horseback to spear them. So passionate was Akbar about his favourite cheetahs (as playthings) that when one of them performed a feat during a hunt, the event was immortalised in a painting and the animal was given a jewelled collar, while another cheetah, for reasons unknown, was accorded such honours as being carried on a palanquin to the sound of beating drums.

'Akbar hunts with a trained cheetah', Mughal painting by Lal and Sanwala, 1572. | Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The cheetah also appears in a number of Mughal paintings of animalia as one of four kinds of big cats. In a particularly poignant image given its subsequent extinction, even if only in the subcontinent, it is one of the animals that makes it onto Noah’s Ark. Perhaps the best painting of the cheetah from the Mughal atelier is “the earliest known study of a family of cheetahs in the wild in India”, as highlighted by Divyabhanusinh, fittingly forming the cover of his book.

The painting is marked by a sense of idyll as the father relaxes while the mother licks and suckles the cubs bounding about her against a golden sky. Although this painting reflects a Mughal fascination for cheetahs as creatures of the wild, any such concern coexisted with the ever-growing demand for them as hunting animals among the aristocracy – as attested by the images of them collared, tied around the waist with a band or a halter (kamarkach) and blindfolded with a hood (tamacheki topi).

“In order to keep the Mughals supplied with cheetahs, an elaborate organisation developed and specific areas were earmarked for catching the animals from the wild [as they rarely bred in captivity] . . . It is evident that cheetahs were most numerous in the grasslands, scrublands, and semi-arid regions of western India.” Thus began the decline of the cheetah as it was increasingly deracinated from its natural habitat by humans to hunt for both their sport and livelihood.

The cheetah and the common man

Divyabhanusinh does not restrict his story to the shenanigans of the elite. “Hunting was not just the sport of kings, but also the means of subsistence for the common people”, he writes, and brings home the intrinsic conflicts of the Anthropocene. A group of the Pardhi tribe of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh specialised in snaring cheetahs and making use of them to hunt to the extent of becoming known as Cheetawala Pardhi in a case of identity formation based on human-animal relations. Over time, the same group as well as others such as the Bavariyas of Rajasthan (eventually deemed a criminal tribe by the colonial state) and Muslim retainers became adept at capturing cheetahs to peddle them to or for Indian rulers.

Handling cheetahs also became a hereditary profession and the same families specialised in maintaining the menageries of elite owners. Divyabhanusinh mentions interviewing Mohammed Azizuddin, the son of the last cheetah trainer employed by the Jaipur state, in 1985, whose family had lived in Cheetawala ka Mohalla or the colony of cheetah-keepers since they migrated from Afghanistan.

Alongside the dominant narrative of the subjugation of the cheetah, Divyabhanusinh gives us glimpses of the social contract and emotive bonds that may have arisen between the captured animal and its human minder. As John Lockwood Kipling, author of Beast and Man in India and his son Rudyard Kipling’s father, noted: “It is difficult to give a just idea of the curious intimacy with animals that exists in India among those who have charge of them. The cheetah’s bedstead is like that of the keeper, and when the creature is tamed, leopard and man are often curled under the same blanket”. He also provided a silly little sketch illustrating the cohabitation called “A Restless Bedfellow”.

Divyabhanusinh discusses the likelihood of cheetahs in the care of Indian keepers enjoying a longer lifespan than usual and indeed at least one cheetah manual insists on slowly and lovingly nursing ailing animals back to form. He also constantly reminds us that of all the big cats, the cheetah was least likely to turn on humans, so it may have been easier to form bonds.

'Cheetah and keeper, Jeypore', 1894 |Image source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Cruelty abound

Nonetheless, accounts of cruelty towards the cheetah abound. In yet another example, one of the methods of capturing cheetahs for training was spying on young mothers and carrying off their litters while they were out hunting for their young. This endogenous history is outshone only by the colonial one as the British ensured that the cheetah went from being a hunting animal to a hunted.

Speaking of cheetah mothers, this one example of a British “sportsman” setting his dogs on one along with her cubs reflects the addictive thrill of blood sport to practitioners, becoming that much more vicious in the colonial context when the annihilation of the fiercest of animals symbolised the conquest of the wildest of places: “It was a pretty sight, and I would have let them off scot free, but that these animals are comparatively rare in Central Provinces, and the few there are, are seldom seen on account of the heaviness of the jungle . . . To the reader in cold blood this may seem to have been unnecessary slaughter, but . . . when once on the spot among them the sport was wildly exciting and our blood was up, for each animal that was run into put up a strong fight before it was killed.”

Divyabhanusinh sums up the importance of shikar to colonial life nicely: “As the subcontinent was opened up with the railways and the telegraph, forests were cleared for settlements, and for plantations of indigo, tea and coffee . . . Besides, the British took on the lifestyle and pastimes of the maharajas and the Indian elite, a lifestyle most of them could hardly have dreamt of back “home”, which included organised hunting for sport.” Later Indian princes would in turn adopt the hunting practices of the colonial ruling class including killing rather than coursing with cheetahs, with the book highlighting this role reversal. Bagging a tiger, declared vermin by the colonial government, was the height of shikari aspirations. And the British disdained the practice of coursing with cheetahs as passive, suited to effete Indian gentleman who preferred to watch as spectators rather than jump into the fray.

Instead, they felt that pursuing the fastest mammal on earth on horseback was exhilarating, while spearing a growling, snarling big cat was enormous fun – besides setting the dogs on them or simply shooting them. One colonial army officer once speared six cheetahs in one gallop in a frenzy of killing and riding. As Divyabhanusinh explains: “The luckless cat, which is harmless to humans unless intimidated, was an easy target as it tired easily when chased on horseback. It was easier to spear than even the wild boar.”

The last shots, however, were believed to have been fired in, ironically, the year of India’s Independence, 1947, by a figure who was also, effectively, on his way out as a maharaja in the soon-to-be republic. Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, the ruler of a miniscule state confusingly called Korea, was supposed to have shot dead the last three of India’s cheetahs in the wild in a single instance.

However, Divyabhanusinh argues that the animal may in fact have survived into the ’70s in modern India and at least the ’90s in Pakistan, and provides a list of sightings co-authored with Raza Kazmi. A precarious population of about thirty in Iran now constitute the last of the Asiatic cheetahs and one can only hope that this sub-species can be preserved, allowed and aided to multiply, before it enters the textbooks as another example of animal extinction in the Anthropocene. If the history of the Asiatic cheetah in India over the longue durée form the first few chapters of the book, in the final chapters, the African cheetah makes an appearance leading up to its introduction in the Kuno-Palpur National Park in Madhya Pradesh last year.

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Deo, the ruler of the Indian princely state of Korea, with the three cheetahs he shot in December 1947, long assumed to be the last in the wild on the subcontinent. |Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

One of these chapters demonstrates that, as the supply of Indian cheetahs dwindled, some Indian princes imported African cheetahs in the early 20th century and successfully coursed with them. Another contains a comparison between the Asiatic and the African cheetah comprising a “tortuous journey through phylogeny, Linnaean classification and genomic [to present divergent arguments] that converge on a single point: The cheetah evolved in southern Africa and radiated out to the rest of the continent and Asia”.

As one of the architects of the present-day “Project Cheetah”, in the last chapter, Divyabhanusinh takes us on another tortuous journey, through government offices, expert committee meetings and courtrooms, that lead to the arrival of the African cheetahs in 2022. But he makes a strong case for it, putting it into the perspective of recent wildlife conservation and natural regeneration programmes.

Besides the richly illustrated chapters, the book also contains a number of appendices concerned with technical matters with the exception of a wonderful little history of another ill-fated hunting cat, the caracal. If I have any problem with this book, it is with its style, at times, resembling a report rather than the story it claims to be. Divyabhanusinh seems to anticipate such reservations in the preface itself as he explains why the both the previous and this iteration of the book have “altogether too many quotation marks” preventing them from being easy to read.

Given all the controversy surrounding the origins of the cheetah in India and, one might add, now the re/introduction project, he felt the need “to tell the story of the unfortunate species in the words of contemporaneous sources.” Thus the style in both the iterations remain more or less the same, “of quoting from authoritative sources”.

Compelling as that logic may or may not be, one thing is for sure – Divyabhanusinh does restore the cheetah to its special place on the historical landscape of India. Meanwhile, the death of three of the first four cubs born of the transplanted African cheetahs, as their birthplace in central India is engulfed by a heatwave for the second consecutive year, reminds us that if the eradication of animals has contributed to the climate crisis, it is also leading to their eradication, becoming a metaphor for our own imminent doom.

The Story of India’s, Divyabhanusinh, Marg Publications.

Yashaswini Chandra is lecturer in South Asian art history in the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback and has special interest in animal history and environmental humanities.