A statement attributed to Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) says, “Animals grow biggest in India. From India comes the dog that is larger than all others.” With its varied climatic zones, from the snow-covered mountain ranges of the Himalayas to the blistering deserts of western India, the Indian subcontinent is home to a bewildering variety of creatures. However, few people realise that this biodiversity is reflected in the country’s canine population as well.

India is home to a number of indigenous breeds of dogs. Sadly, some of them have already disappeared, due to indifference. This is unfortunate, especially given that in ancient times they were much prized around the world. Exported in large numbers (next only to the elephant where livestock exports were concerned) Indian dogs were used for hunting. Historians have recorded that Indian hounds were exported to Rome and to Egypt.

Old travel accounts tell us that dogs from India were sent to Babylon.

During the reign of Artaxerxes I, the king of Persia (465-425 BCE), four revenue-free villages were allotted to the Assyrian governor exclusively for the purpose of maintaining and breeding hunting dogs received from India. These were used for military purposes as well. When Alexander the Great invaded India and overpowered the local rulers, King Sopeithes of Gandhara (present day Gundurbar), gifted the invader 150 hunting dogs.

Another story that has come down from this period says that to demonstrate the pluck of these dogs, two of them were set upon a lion. Even as one of the dogs suffered a badly injured leg, it held onto the lion. Alexander is said to have watched the display of tenacity with awe. The story may be apocryphal, but it indicates the mettle of the dogs.

In his book titled Indica, the Greek writer, Ctesias (415-397 BCE), talks about an Indian tribe called Kynomologol that kept many large, ferocious dogs to protect them from wild animals.

Recent scientific evidence shows that long before these trade exchanges, Indian dogs might have travelled overseas.

A study done in Adelaide, at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, has linked ancient Indian canine visitors to the dingoes of Australia. Researchers like Alan Cooper, director of this centre, say that the dingoes, which most closely resemble the Indian dog, probably arrived with some people from the Indian subcontinent around 4,300 years ago. He says that there is evidence of migration from mainland India to Australia at this time although the numbers may have been small.

Although Indian dogs were in demand abroad, at home, except for some kings and nobles who indulged in hunting, the upper class and middle class shunned them.

In fact, the dog was despised and the word “dog” was used as a derogatory term in daily usage and in literature. A Tamil Saivite poet begs god in the Thevaram to “have mercy on me, one who is lower than a dog”.

The dog rarely figures in Indian mythology though one is aware that Shiva, as Bhairava, had a dog as a companion.The dog was not associated with any ceremonial event (unlike the horse, the elephant, the camel or the cow) in any of the religions of India. The people who owned dogs and handled dogs were working-class people, farmers, graziers, trappers and hunters.

It is clear that dogs in India were primarily work animals, like the horse and the ox, and the practice of keeping dogs as house pets seems to be of recent origin.They were not given the run of the house or treated as part of the family. The Tamil poet Kapilar records in a poem that the Brahmins did not allow dogs or chickens in their households.

Compared to other animals like the elephant and the cow, there are relatively few references to dogs in ancient Indian literature and art, another indication of the lowly status dogs had in Indian society. In Tamil literature of circa 3-5 CE, we find some references to dogs, but mostly in the context of hunting. In the collection of poems called Kurunthogai by Sangam Age poet Sembula Peyaneerar there is a description of “a big clawed hound, whose teeth shine bright like bamboo shoots”. Another poem in the same work talks about “hounds that do not ever miss their prey”.

Some of the earliest representations of dogs in the Indian subcontinent are seen in prehistoric rock paintings, dating from about 30,000 years ago.

In the Singanpur rock paintings in Madhya Pradesh, we see a barking dog rushing towards its quarry. With its straightened tail and exaggerated leg motion, the painter has tried to accentuate the speed and action of the animal.

About 6 kilometres from Usilampatti in Tamil Nadu, in a place called Pudumalai, a team headed by archaeologist KT Gandhirajan found prehistoric rock paintings which included a hunting scene depicting a dog walking with a man. In some Stone Age sites in Tamil Nadu, we see depictions of hunting parties accompanied by dogs going about their work. This is clear evidence that dogs were domesticated as early as the Stone Age. These representations are, of course, stylised and do not give us any idea about the breed of the dogs.

Other early representations of dogs can be seen in the frescoes of Ajanta, which date from the second century BCE onwards. Kings of the Vakataka dynasty excavated from rock a series of caves in the valley along the Waghora River and decorated the interior walls and ceilings with frescoes relating to Buddhist subjects.

There are at least three frescoes of the pre-Christian era in Ajanta that have representations of hunting dogs. In Cave I, the story of Janaka is told in the frescoes in comic-strip style. When his wife finds that he has eaten food discarded by a dog, she leaves him in disgust.

Another mural in Cave XVII featuring dogs tells a story from the Mriga Jataka about a queen who wants a golden deer. In a scene referred to as “The Return of the King”, the king sets out and captures a golden deer and returns with it in his chariot. Men with dogs on leashes, presumably from a hunting party, follow the chariot. In this panel, at least four similar-looking dogs can be seen, all on leashes.

Another story is from the Sutasoma Jataka, a tale about Sudasa, the king of Varanasi, who sets out on a hunt with a pack of dogs. As a reflection of their respect for animals, Buddhist artists paid a lot of attention to detail while depicting these dogs in the Ajanta murals.They look distinctive – brown-coloured, short-eared, round-headed, and their tails are short. They are unlike the many Indian sighthound breeds that we see in show rings today.

Mughal miniature paintings from the sixteenth-century recorded aspects of the lives of the emperors. There aren’t many representations of dogs in these works, as compared to elephants and horses. Even in their hunting scenes, we rarely see dogs. However, we read of a painter of miniatures named Manohar Das (whose work flourished between 1580 and 1620 BCE and spanned the reigns of the emperors Akbar and Jahangir) who was given to depicting dogs.

In a painting in the Baburnama, which depicts Khusrau Shah (the Indian emir who became general of the Mughal army and commanded the left wing of Emperor Babur’s army in the Battle of Khanwa) paying homage to Babur, we see a Tazi dog, which is originally from Afghanistan. In another painting from Emperor Jahangir’s time, two greyhounds feature.

There is also a Mughal miniature painting which shows a beggar with a dog. In a Rajasthani painting, dating back to 1707-1708, depicting Maharana Amar Singh II in his garden in Udaipur, we see two hounds reclining. From their jewelled collars, it is evident that these dogs belong to royalty.

Down south, the Nawab of Arcot, Saadatullah Khan I, sought dogs from Britain.

In fact, in 1710, he presented six elephants to the officers of the East India Company and requested four dogs in return. The East India Company officials wrote to headquarters requesting “three or four large Irish dogs and six pairs of swans to present to the Nawab”, but I have been unable to confirm whether these were ever sent. We must note that most of the dog-fancying Indian royals did not show any interest in indigenous breeds.

I spoke to the novelist Amitav Ghosh about the opening of his novel Flood of Fire, which describes the British army on the march to India. He told me he had taken details from a lithograph of 1841 depicting such a scene. In these lithographs, called “company paintings”, we see dogs featured. In this particular etching, which shows the Bengal Regiment on the move during the Sind Operation under Sir Charles Napier, dogs are moving along with the soldiers. Some dogs are on leashes and some run free.

A Banjara caravan with carts and camels also forms part of the movement, and so it can be presumed that these were the dogs of the Banjaras, which were used to guard their goods, brought along as supplies for the soldiers. The appearance of these dogs matches the description of this breed in The Kennel Encyclopaedia of 1908. Banjaras were also called Lambanis in some parts of India.

Another lithograph of 1844, attributed to the artist Emily Eden, sister of Governor General George Eden, shows two soldiers of the Nawab of Awadh with two dogs which are clearly hounds.

After the advent of photography, by the middle of the nineteenth century, some pictures of dogs were made.

What strikes the viewer is how different they are from present-day animals of the same breed. Take, for example, Rampur hounds in photographs taken at the turn of the century. In the photographs of Indian kings, zamindars, and British army officers, one is also able to see the dogs used for hunting. But for the captions provided for some of these photographs, we would not be able to identify them as Rampur hounds, since over the centuries cross-breeding has changed their appearance dramatically.

WF Sinclair of the ICS, writing in 1892, talks of nomadic herders called Thilaris in Maharashtra who had dogs of the same name. He describes the breed as follows: “A tall, shaggy, lurcher-like dog, whose appearance suggests a cross between a greyhound and a black Newfoundland.” Some British officers, who used Indian hounds for hunting, have left informative notes about their experience with local breeds.

RW Burton (1939), who raised a Rajapalayam hound at the end of the nineteenth century, recorded that dogs of this breed are “good tacklers, sound feet, not too fast, stand the heat, splendid staying power and the best of constitution. They come from the Poligar country in the south of India”.

He also owned Banjara hounds and said of them: “Banjara dogs are very good but those of pure breed are seldom to be procured, as their owners, the most interesting nomad tribe of gypsy appearance and habits, will not readily part with them. These dogs hunt by both sight and scent and being fast and courageous are suitable for every description of hunting and coursing.”

Excerpted with permission from The Book of Indian Dogs, S Theodore Baskaran, Aleph Book Company.