Inverting “Tipu’s Tiger:” The Terrifying Tiger Trembles in Bengal’s Mangrove Tiger Land

Walking through the halls of the Victoria and Albert Museum, one will notice a peculiar object called “Tipu’s Tiger.” It is a wooden mechanical toy showing a tiger pouncing on a British soldier. When in working order, the wooden contraption could be brought to life by turning a handle attached to the wild cat. Once brought to life, the soldier would have yelped dying moans, gesturing helplessly with his hands while the tiger puffed air from its nostrils and roared. 

This amazing wooden article was owned by Tipu Sultan famously titled as the “tiger of Mysore,” who was in continuous warfare with the East India Company until his death at the Battle of Srirangapatna (1799). Tipu Sultan is thought to have commissioned many such articles depicting helpless British soldiers dying and humiliated by animals like tigers or elephants. However, only Tipu’s tiger survives. British soldiers discovered this artifact, which symbolized Tipu’s “deep hate and extreme loathing” for the British, during the “ruthless” plunder of Srirangapatna after its fall. 

Nonetheless, this object, which is largely considered a symbol of Tipu’s “arrogance and barbarous cruelty,” holds a different meaning for me. It allows me to chart a portion of the environmental history of the lower deltaic Bengal. In order to enable the expansion of agriculture, the British had to fight desperate wars of extermination against tigers and their habitats in various pockets of the Indian subcontinent, especially in the Sundarbans. This testifies the colonial state’s complex reactions to its hierarchal subordination to the Asian tiger, especially during the early stages of colonial conquest. Tipu’s Tiger served as a reminder of that unpleasant pecking order. They consciously hoped to invert “Tipu’s Tiger” with the metaphorical British lion attacking the metaphorical Asian tiger. John Tenniel’s cartoon “The British Lion’s Vengeance on the Bengal Tiger” published in 1857 in the British satirical magazine Punch, illustrates this best. The British also exhibited their discontent with their symbolic animal, lion, being placed at the feet of the goddess Durga in Bengal. Therefore, the elite bhodrolok households in Bengal who wanted to garner British favors replaced the lion in the Durga idol with the white horse. Hence, in trying to invert the “Tipu’s Tiger,” the company and later the crown’s attempted control of the deltaic environment irreversibly escalated human-tiger conflict in the Sundarbans.

Stretching between India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is a distinct ecosystem of mangroves providing a home for endangered Royal Bengal Tigers. The conflict between humans and tigers in deltaic Bengal is a well-researched phenomenon. However, such interrogations hardly investigate the external interventions that might have increased this discord. When this conflict intensifies, it equally affects the animals and the human residents of the reserved forest. 

The British had categorized Sundarbans as a “wasteland” covered by the “jungles.” To maximize profit from this wasteland they needed to convert the jungles into taxable agricultural lands. The British, in their attempts to generate revenue from the tiger-infested forests, started to lease out portions of lands to the Zamindars of the area. As part of these lease agreements, the zamindars would use self-appointed labor to deforest the parceled area for agricultural purposes.[1] Subsequently, the revenues generated from the produce would then be taxed by the British. Such methods of agricultural expansion reduced the “colonizer’s burdens” of direct conflict with the tiger. Nevertheless, it was impossible to expand the agricultural frontier and establish control over the communities inhabiting the fringes of the forest without the annihilation of the big cats. 

In Sundarbans, killing the Royal Bengal Tiger was proving to be a difficult task for the British. It was not as easy as exterminating the foxes in England. As a result, they had to develop a bureaucratic and ideological system to handle the situation. As in South India, they could not hire British experts as “tiger killers.” The terrifying, ferocious nature of the Royal Bengal Tigers disempowered even the strongest of the British, who were known to hunt for sport to exhibit their valiant superiority.[2] This meant that the impossibility of mimicking the established systems of tiger killing pushed the British administration to think of newer methods they could implement in the Sundarbans. 

They proposed that if any native killed a tiger, they would receive a reward. Surprisingly, the bounty money attracted many deltaic inhabitants to the job of induced human-animal conflict, unfortunately resulting in many untimely deaths. Among the natives, this mortal loss strengthened the belief that the deaths were a divine punishment for overstepping the law of the land by trying to harm the innocent tiger.[3] This again generated pressure on the colonial state, forcing it to raise the amount of the reward to fuel the spirits of the natives. Reluctant to increase the reward amount, the colonial state had to resort to establishing an ideological rationale for cleansing the tigers. 

These tigers are revered as mystical beings in the Sundarbans. To some cults they are divine and the favorite of their lineage god Dakshin Rai. They would not harm this animal as is decreed by the law of the land set by the mistress of the forest, Maa Bonobibi.[4] In the face of such religious restrictions espoused by the resident communities, the British employed their ideological apparatus. They reduced the identity of the folk gods and goddesses to mere humans. They taught the deltaic communities that, if the tiger were a divine being it would not be disempowered by modern technology. However, it has already been proven that one can always shoot a tiger down. Using lines of reasoning like this, the British diminished the folk divinities to mere manageable, mortal entities. 

The British were effective in influencing the sedentary communities of the delta—who for so long had lived by hunting, gathering, and farming for self-consumption—by directing their attention to the benefits of settled farming without fear of animal attacks in a large market economy. This created unnecessary mayhem and natives found new vigour to attack the tigers. They deforested land and killed as many tigers as they could. This increased the human tiger conflict in the delta by pushing the men to voluntarily enter the forest to kill the tiger for rewards. These methods used for the expansion of agriculture could not erase the mangroves, but fragmented the forests and reduced the tiger population to the point of extermination.

Now, the tigers walk into the villages after losing their sense of direction in fragmented habitats. Accordingly, increasing the possibilities of human-tiger conflict even if the community do not enter the forest for necessary resource gathering. It seems evident, how after the British intervention with their ideological apparatus and rationale justifying the killing of Bengal tigers for expansion of taxable lands, these majestic, terrifying beings are rendered vulnerable and trembling. Such that, in the present day it was felt necessary to administer governmental regulations to protect the endangered Royal Bengal Tigers to save them from extinction. 

[1] Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). 

[2] Mahesh Rangarajan, “The Raj and the Natural World: The War Against Dangerous Beasts in Colonial India,” Studies in History 14, no. 2 (1998).

[3] Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

[4] Asutosh Bhattacharya, “The Tiger Cult and its Literature in Lower Bengal,” Man in India 27, no. 1 (March 1947), 44-56.

*Cover Image: Robert Armitage Sterndale, Denizens of the Jungle: A Series of Sketches in Pen and Pencil, printed and published by the Calcutta Central Press Company, Ltd. (1881).

[*Cover Image Description: a triptych of historical photographs with indiscernable writing underneath. The right-hand image shows a Bengal Tiger confronts a woolly mammoth in tall grass. The second, a despondent-looking tiger stands in tall grass. In the third, a lion and a Bengal Tiger stand off in tall grants.]

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Emily Webster.