Home Feature ‘Shikar’ in the Shadow of the Siwaliks

‘Shikar’ in the Shadow of the Siwaliks


Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

The British, through the efforts of the East India Company, started their association with the Siwalik Ranges of the Doon Valley in 1815. This was one of the landmark outcomes of the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-5 when the forces of the East India Company pushed back the Gorkhali army units over a lengthy disputed border stretching from Himachal Pradesh through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. As a result, the East India Company now had virtual control over much of the subcontinent barring Punjab and further west. It gave the British access to land and resources far beyond they had ever expected when they ventured out to south Asia from their remote British Isles in the early seventeenth century.

The territorial control of much of India had necessitated the permanent presence of a very large population of Britain’s subjects like the Scots, Irish, Welsh and the English in various parts of India. But the conquest of the country was easier than the conquest of its climate and geography. Nothing in their past experience had prepared them for the harsh vagaries of different and difficult climatic zones of India: there were the hot humid tropics, dry arid plains, deserts, hot and cold, tropical forests and the several mountain ranges. This hybrid geography did not bend to the mortals who sat in plush offices of the Company at London or Calcutta, forcing them to look for strategies for the survival of their vast manpower in India.

The search for congenial living conditions was a perpetual preoccupation of the British. For their crucial army needs, they had set up cantonments across the country. They also, however, needed agreeable stations for other civil servants and their families. It was in this endeavour that they found Dehradun and its limitless bounties and charms that endeared it to them from the very first years following the acquisition of the region in 1815.

Though they now had Simla, Nainital, Almora, Ranikhet and Dalhousie, yet it was Dehradun with its unique attributes that made the British take to it. The Valley at 2000 ft altitude and the verdant stretch going steadily northwards towards Mussoorie and on to Landour at 7000 feet gave a choice of stations unmatched that could be reached within an hour or two. This was something that was distinctive about Dehradun. And to add to all this was the sway of the Siwaliks that enclosed the district from the Yamuna on the west and the Ganga on the east; a mighty Sal forest that provided a biodiversity quite astonishing in its flora and fauna. The forests teemed with herbivores: Cheetal, Sambar, Kakar, Neel Gai and Ghural on the stony crags of higher Siwaliks. Carnivores were a special group here: Tiger, Leopard, Fox, Hyena and Jackal. Other denizens like the black bear, monkeys and langurs also were in abundance. The Doon Valley was the western-most extent of the Asian elephant and they were in large herds, too. Not just the forests, the rivers of the Valley, the Song, Suswa, Asan, Tons and others, were abundant with trout and mahaseer, providing the British their favourite angling delights.

While naturalists, zoologists and paleontologists took the opportunity given by the biodiversity of the Siwaliks to enhance their knowledge of the natural world and collected samples for further examination to create museums for the same, the mandarins of the East India Company found in the Valley and the Siwaliks a solution to their more mundane headaches of creating an environment for the sustenance of their citizens (natives not included). The challenge had always been to engage the energies, and more importantly, to alleviate the ennui that their countrymen felt in their forced residence in an inhospitable and alien landscape.

Here, the social experiment of “Shikar” was stumbled upon. Back in the British Isles the forest cover had disappeared in the age of building sea-faring vessels and along with it the fauna, too. This had happened in the middle- ages and before the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Hunting in the British Isles was synonymous with fox-hunting with hounds and shooting was predominantly for water fowls and birds in flight. In the Scottish highlands, some deer hunting on private estates was a niche preserve. Thus, Dehradun Siwaliks came as an El Dorado that allowed the pursuit of latent and denied pleasures of the chase, stalking and exercise of power over the natural world. It made enormous economic sense to the bureaucracy of the East India Company and later the Crown to create an ecosystem of Shikar. In this ecosystem, the upper echelons of its ‘nabobs’ and other higher civil service officers could go trophy hunting. Specially organised hunts became common with hundreds of native hands and experienced trackers for the Gora Sahibs to participate in comfort. Luxurious tents, elaborate menus, choicest wines and high tea that had Huntley and Palmer biscuits laid out added to the charms in the open.

It became a rite of passage for an Englishman to shoot his tiger in the Doon, where these were in good numbers. A photograph with the boot on the dead big cat was a bigger trophy and to be bragged about with cheroots and brandy in the Clubs, of which Dehradun had an elite one at the Parade Ground.

The low ranking business classes of the British were allowed to hunt for the pot and they generally enjoyed a weekend trip to Motichoor, Kansrao or Phandowala, bagging a cheetal or a wild boar as a reward for their efforts. But this privilege, denied to natives, kept the resident Britishers in a happy mood. There were ‘positives’ too. Such activities provided healthy outdoor exercise, built courage and allowed a grassroots level of contact and engagement with the Indian population.

While Shikar kept its usefulness intact for the British and solved some of their existential problems, its pursuit with high-powered precision rifles, and high velocity ammunition along with the help of expert local Shikaris who took the hunting team to the best locations led to decimation of wild life to near extinction. The blanket permission to officers of the regiments posted in the Valley to shoot in their surrounding forest areas too caused a heavy reduction in the number of wild species. The pretty forest bungalows located in pristine Sal were forests grossly overused for Shikar in pre-independence Dehradun. The “empire forestry” of the British has left untold and unhealed wounds on the biodiversity of the Doon Valley and while nature will take its own course beyond the feeble efforts of man yet our abdication of moral responsibility will not be forgotten.

{Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the “Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun” (2011) and the “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun”(2017)}