Wildbuzz: Emperor’s jewelled Cheetah

The royal tradition of hunting with trained Cheetahs ended at Independence. The indulgence attained its zenith during the Mughal rule as a “peerless spectacle (conducted) on an unprecedented scale”.

Akbar was particularly partial to it and his son, Jehangir, recorded that his father’s court retained a 1,000 cheetahs, but none bred! A great naturalist himself, Jehangir went on to record in 1613 the very rare biological instance of captive Cheetahs — reckoned as breeding-averse —- actually producing three cubs after a male slipped off the collar and stole to an equally enthusiastic female! Of the numerous mentions of Cheetahs in the memoirs of emperors and court biographers, ‘Citr Najan’, stands out because this specimen was anointed ‘Chief of the Cheetahs’, a jewel-studded collar graced this royal cat and a drum was beaten in front of it.

Abul Fazl records in Ain-e-Akbari that while hunting near Sanganir (now Jaipur airport) in 1572, Citr Rajan displayed an astonishing feat to deserve the above laurels. Chasing a Black buck with Akbar watching on a chestnut horse, the antelope leaped into the air at the height of a spear and cleared 25 yards across a ravine. The Cheetah, known more for its gallop than air springing, surprised everyone by leaping the same to seize the antelope.

“On beholding this astonishing occurrence, the spectators raised a cry of amazement and there was great rejoicing,” wrote Fazl.

Another of Akbar’s exalted Cheetahs went by the royal name of ‘Samand Manik’. “He is carried on a ‘chau-dhol’ (litter) and proceeds with much pomp. His servants, fully equipped, run at his side; the ‘naqqara, a large drum, is beaten in front and sometimes he is carried by two men on horseback, the two ends of the pole of the chau-dhol resting on the necks of the horses,” recounted Divyabhanusinh in his scholarly, historical work, The End of a Trail: The Cheetah in India. Emperor’s jeweled Cheetah.

Haunts of Siswan’s ghost

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“Out of the shadows of the dark, when the day is finished and done; these yellow (and blue) eyes come alive, awake for the midnight run”, is how wildlife photographer Tanwi Chowdhury described that exhilarating moment when her lens chanced upon a “full moon” frame of the beautiful-sinister Brown Fish-owl.

The species also dwells in the Siswan dam jungles lying to the north-west of Chandigarh but inscrutable terrain here ensures the owls do not easily provide “gaping, eyes popping photos”. They turn virtual ghosts to human detection.

However, its presence and habits can be inferred. During the day, the owl snuggles into low trees and bamboo thickets on hillsides as these afford camouflage and protection from cold winds. Stones and ground under such foliage provide clues of owl existence as these are stained white with excreta and, sometimes, littered with owl pellets.

As twilight engulfs Siswan, owls fly out swiftly along jungle edges as “dusky blurs.” They are hungry. The owl makes for trees fallen in water as exposed branches lend a vantage point for eyeing fish, and, these, too, are colonised by white staining. Coves of relatively calm water are favoured as aqua-prey can be hunted here with ease. Owl claw marks on cove edges reveal signs of midnight’s gruesome dining — the “slaughter of the lambs” — on fish, crabs and frogs.

Once bellies are full and the night deepens star by star, owls break their code of silence. Joined by other owl species, eerie vocalisations and ghostly “laughs and jeers” rake the night’s hush into rushing bloodlines of quavering jungle folk. Siswan’s somnolent staff and fishermen may imagine “junglee churails” have awakened to unhinge the human spirit when already at its lowest ebb.

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Winter heralds the breeding season for owls and Siswan is sure to nurture such pairs, an indicator of its ecosystem health.


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