It’s the lion’s roar against the tiger’s stripes. Both noble animals, both part of royalty, one adorns the national emblem of India the other is national animal of the country. On November 18, 1972, the tiger ousted the lion as the national animal, but even after so many years its future does not seem too bright.
“To my mind, there can be no other animal which deserves to be the national animal,” says Valmik Thapar, of Ranthambor Foundation. But the lion is majestic, truly royal, says lion protagonists.
“It’s just that,” says Thapar, “Moreover, the lion is restricted to Gir forests (Gujrat, India), but the tiger roams all over. It is the true king of the jungle.”
The tiger has been an integral part of the Indian culture and is depicted even on some seals from the Indus Valley Civilization. But the first mention of lion is in the Puranas (earliest written versions date from third-fifth century CE. They existed in oral form much before being written), the ancient Vedic literature (Vedic period spans from 1700 to 50o BCE). The lion, even its roar symbolizes strength. Bhim in the epic Mahabharat (it’s origins probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE) after vanquishing an enemy is said to emit a ‘lion roar’.
But the tiger is an animal not just of strength but agility. A woman is described in Tamil literature as ‘tiger waisted’, but so is a warrior. But man is depicted with the tiger more frequently than any other animal. Sometimes, it is shown as a creature to be avoided or one to be kept captive, but also an animal to be worshiped, says Mahesh Rangarajan, a research scholar and an environmentalist.
It is symbolized on one hand as the embodiment of the cult of Durga, destroyer of evil. But it is seen by some as representative of evil. In the Khudabux Library, Patna (Bihar, India), is a collection of pictures of 132 Hindu gods and goddesses with a tiger. The author of Puranas is shown sitting on a tiger skin. The goddess of miraculous drugs rides a tiger as does Aurkah, commander of the 33rd cycle year. Sukra (or Shukrachaarya), priest of demons, is similarly shown.
As compared to lion, the tiger enjoyed much wider significance at popular level. Mysticism and magic are part of the animal and stories of tigers are not uncommon. But it is its medicinal value (so called) that has sounded its death knell.
Lion is today extinct all over Asia except India and the tiger is heading for it.
After about 1,500 BC, the tiger seems to have lost its supremacy in India for a time. The lion takes over and is mentioned over and over again in Sanskrit literature in general. Lions guard the gates of all temples of the early medieval period. After India attained independence the lion capital of the Ashoka Pillar of Patna (300 BC) was adopted as the emblem of the nation and later as its national animal.
Only in 1972 was the tiger declared India’s national animal, replacing the lion that had ruled for over 2,000 years.
And protection of tiger, says Rangarajan, coincided with the extinction of another species—maharajas.
Hunting, particularly tigers and lions was part of the coming of age among princely families. Even Gayatri Devi (23 May 1919 ? 29 July 2009; third Maharani of Jaipur (capital of modern Rajasthan) from 1939 to 1970 through her marriage to HH Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II) was said to have killed a tiger. So did the young Raja of Manda, V.P. Singh (25 June 1931 – 27 November 2008; the seventh Prime Minister of India), when he was in high school. Even former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shot, but with a difference—with his camera.
Just as lion was dignified in Europe and the Middle East with the title of the ‘king of beasts’ and today holds that title in Africa, there can be no doubt that the tiger has always occupied the throne in East Asia.
The two animals are both seen as political symbols. The lion, apart from sitting atop Ashoka Pillar, was associated with the Mughals. It was also the symbol of imperial British.
The lion is important in various cults of South Asia. It is an important part of Sinhala culture and finds place in the national flag of Sri Lanka. But the tiger today has come to be associated with another phenomenon, militancy, in the island nation—Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
At home, the tiger is the mascot of Shiv Sena (a political party in Maharashtra, India).
Tiger’s association with royalty in India is best exemplified by Tipu Sultan, whose association with the animal is deep. His throne was modelled like a tiger, he had pet tigers and the soldiers’ uniforms had tiger markings. Tipu himself was known as the Tiger of Mysore.
After the fall of Tipu a macabre toy was found in his palace. It was a tiger attacking an Englishman. (a PTI report published in Hindustan Times on 16 December 1995)