Centennial of hunting diplomacy in Nepal

Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana (left) with King George V (right) during a 1911 hunting expedition in the Tarai. Ten years later, he hosted Prince Edward on another epic hunt in Chitwan. Photo: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVES

On 14 December 1921 – exactly 100 years ago – Edward, the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne, arrived in Chitwan to start a week of ‘shooting big game’ in the Tarai jungle with Nepal’s long-time ruler, Chandra Shamsher Rana.

Exactly 10 years earlier, in December 1911, Edward’s father George V had hunted in Chitwan, just a few days after being crowned Emperor of India. In 1876, Edward’s grandfather Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, had stalked tigers in Suklaphanta with Jung Bahadur Rana.

Many books and articles appeared about these hunts, mostly celebratory accounts by British authors writing for British audiences. To today’s readers, these accounts make for “rather depressing reading”, as one conservationist recently put it, as they are little more than “a record of who shot and killed what and when”.

A century later, it is a good time to glance back at these extravagant bi-national killing sprees – and to probe what they meant for the two countries and many actors involved.

These were no simple hunting and camping trips. The tradition dated back at least to Jung Bahadur’s early reign in the 1850s. They were choreographed displays of wealth, power, and manliness – sometimes, as in 1921, mixed with important diplomatic negotiations.

Miles from Civilisation

The scale was enormous. The Tarai hunts organised by the Ranas always displayed a lot of what William O’Connor, the British Resident in Nepal at the time, described as ‘Oriental magnificence’ – a show of hundreds of elephants, thousands of camp followers, and limitless forests ‘swarming with wild beasts.’

The 1921 hunt was no different. Because of ‘the colossal scale on which it was carried out’, wrote Bernard Ellison, an old India hand and the official naturalist of the shoot, the Prince of Wales’s 1921 expedition ‘is to be ranked among the greatest in the annals of big game shooting in India’.

The British camp was just two miles from the rail station at Bikna Thori. It was a ‘delightful spectacle’ according to Ellison: ‘a mass of creamy white tents, shaded by giant forest trees, flanked by and over-looking the river’. Beyond the river ‘lay a great tract of forest land, and still further in the distance the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas’. And on all other sides: ‘jungle of the thickest kind’.

The tents, arranged in a crescent facing the distant Himalayan peaks, housed 49 European guests, including a young Louis Mountbatten, the man who as Britain’s last viceroy in South Asia in the late 1940s, would oversee the partition of India and Pakistan. Another 250 Indians stayed nearby.

The British entourage included colonial and military officials, secretaries, and members of the press. This was a hunt, but there was business to be done, too.

There was no shortage of luxury. Electric lights lit up the tents, and leopard skin carpets blanketed their floors. A writing table fashioned from rhino hoofs, horn, and hide added extra elegance to the Prince of Wales’s tent. Each night, musical concerts sweetened the air. In case anyone needed even more imperial sport, a polo field was built just across the border in India, a short drive away.

Hunting in Nepal, the British Resident noted a few years later, is for people ‘who don’t mind roughing it a bit now and then’.

Chandra Shamsher enjoyed his own lavish camp just a few minutes from the British camp.

Prince Edward Albert and his compatriots ate well. On December 14, for instance, according to the menu for dinner that evening, written in French, the guests dined on Saumon a la Grande Duc (salmon), Suprême de Poulet Mascotte (chicken), Selle d’Agneau (lamb), Perdreaux Sur Canapés (partridge), and other delicacies.

We know about this meal today because Ellison’s account of the hunt featured it on one of its first pages. Maybe this is not unusual, the equivalent of a social media post of the day’s exciting meal. But it is worth contemplating this menu for a minute. What did it mean that the British authors celebrated Nepali Ranas serving French cooked salmon to their British royal guests in the jungles of lowland Asia? It seems a clue to a larger story.

The book gives some help. ‘This dinner,’ it says, ‘was served in the impenetrable jungles of the Nepal Tarai, miles away from any civilisation’.

South Asia may be a danger-filled, impenetrable jungle, far from civilisation, it seems to be saying, but Britain’s Rana friends in Nepal know what they are doing. Some may accuse them of being autocratic reactionaries resistant to reforms, but clearly they are capable and sophisticated partners in Britain’s civilising mission. Just look at the elegant fish they serve.

A Wall of Elephants

Another indispensable part of the show were elephants. Lots of elephants: 423 to be exact. That might seem like a lot but, by Tarai hunting standards, it’s actually not. When Edward’s grandfather visited in 1876, to get across the Mahakali River from India into Nepal, he and his escorts rode on 700 elephants. In 1911, no fewer than 600 elephants helped George V tromp through Chitwan looking for tigers.

Tiger hunting in Nepal could not happen without Elephas maximus. No better method has been devised before or since to move around the Tarai’s watery wilds and tall-grass terrain. And without elephants, Nepal’s famous ring method of hunting was not possible.  

In 1921, the shooting took place near the Rapti River. Overnight, buffalo calves were staked down as bait, to lure in tigers. The next day khabbar would arrive in camp of a kill, elephants would be dispatched to form a big ring around the killer cat, and then there would be ‘the arrival of the guns’ – the arrival of the Prince of Wales and his fellow sportsmen with high-powered rifles. Then as many as two hundred elephants – a ‘wall of elephants, side by side’ – would slowly tighten the circle, looking for the elusive striped beast.

‘This is not as simple a matter as might be thought,’ the British journalist Perceval Landon, who was in Chitwan in 1921, noted. Sensing peril, the tiger hides motionless in the dense tall grass, not revealing himself until almost crushed underfoot. ‘When this occurs,’ Landon explains, ‘there is often some confusion, the elephant’s trumpetings of fright being taken up by his companions.’

No moment in the entire operation is more dangerous. Tigers can jump up and rip through human flesh. A second unsuspected tiger may bound out. But a bigger danger may have come not from cornered animal but from confused human: in the chaos of the moment, hunters sometimes shot across the circle toward each other.

To us today, the number killed (‘bagged’) in these hunts seems extraordinary. In 1911, King George himself shot and killed 21 tigers, 10 rhinoceroses and two bears. His whole party killed 39 tigers, 18 rhinos and four bears.

In 1921, the ‘bag’ was a bit more modest: 18 tigers, eight rhinos, two bears and two leopards. And actually, the Prince said he was most proud not of his tiger kills but another quarry: While hiking one day he came across and shot a 10-foot 3-inch king cobra.

So many dead bodies could make the camp unpleasant. ‘At times,’ the naturalist Ellison pointed out, ‘when we had five or six disarticulated rhinos, together with numerous tigers and an odd bear in different stages of skinning, the stench was very bad.’

The long-term environmental costs were less than might be imagined. The hunts were surely bloody affairs, but ultimately not that damaging for wildlife populations. Conservationists generally agree that the tiger and rhino populations recovered from these hunts in a few years. A greater threat, in their view, was the loss of habitat.

The British Hunting and Shooting Craze

Why did the British care so much about killing tigers? The meanings of the hunt change over time. In their early days in India, in fact, as historian John Mackenzie has noted, the British did not actually do that much hunting in India. But in later years, especially after the 1857 Mutiny, hunting took on new urgency: shooting expeditions were seen as a way to help British sharpen their skills with guns and horses.

British men in India, one military official wrote at the time, had to be 'roused from their beds of luxury and ease' and kept from a ‘thousand temptations’, ‘injurious pursuits’ and ‘effeminate pleasures’. By the end of the 19th century, Mackenzie notes, the British ‘hunting and shooting craze’ approached a ritualistic ‘cult’.

The British developed ‘a special hunting relationship’ with three animals in particular: the elephant, the pig (in pig-sticking), and the tiger. ‘Every right-thinking Englishman,’ MacKenzie notes, ‘wished to possess a tiger skin’.

In the height of British power around the world, big game shooting became rich fodder for a set of stories the British liked to tell themselves about themselves – and about their empire.

No one was more central to this imperial story than the British royals. Written accounts celebrated their impeccable character and unmatched sportsmanship. An account of the 1876 hunt celebrated the ‘skill and adroitness’ of the Prince of Wales in the face of danger. This showed something about him and his relations with the people he ruled over: ‘The manner in which His Royal Highness comported himself in the jungle largely increased the admiration with which the natives regarded him’.

The narrative had changed a little by 1921. After World War I, Britons needed a different kind of royal hero. Writing about the 1921 hunt, the British Resident O’Connor highlighted that in the hunt His Royal Highness asked for no special favouritism. He should be treated like everyone else. At another point, O’Connor pointed out, Edward even helped to push a car stuck in the mud.

O’Connor also told a story of the Prince one day coming across an ordinary British soldier on a work detail. His Royal Highness went out of his way to meet the man, and discovered they had both served in the war in the same part of France. This bonding moment, O’Connor emphasised, showed that the Prince’s ‘sympathy and understanding were very genuine and human’.

The hunts also allowed British officials a chance to size up the Ranas. Chandra, the naturalist Ellison noted, ‘impressed one immediately by his character, brimming over with good nature and kindliness.’

Rana Diplomacy

We know less about what the hunts meant to the Ranas, except that it was important on many levels. Hunting was a rite of passage for Rana youth. On the 1921 hunt, one of Chandra’s sons, though only eight years old, shot his first tiger.

But the hunt, as anthropologist Piers Locke writes in an exhibit at the Chitwan Tharu Culture Museum outside Sauraha, also ‘served several political purposes’. It ‘demonstrated the leadership skills of Chandra Shumsher and allowed elites to show off their strength and virility. It showed the ruler's concern for local people by helping to rid their land of crop-destroying pests and dangerous predators’.

And not least, Locke explains, ‘it provided a forum for diplomacy’.

Ten years earlier, Chandra had used the visit of George V to follow up on a request he had made on his recent trip to London for formal recognition of Nepal's sovereignty and permission to import and manufacture weapons. Nepalis had always maintained their complete independence, but in recent years British officials had wavered, speaking of Nepal as more independent than the Indian princely states but not as fully independent as Afghanistan. Chandra pushed for a formal British acknowledgement of Nepal’s full independence. In 1911, he didn’t get it.

But by 1921, the situation had changed. In World War I, over 100,000 Nepali men had helped the British maintain their empire, serving in India and in Europe, 14,000 had been wounded, 10,000 never returned home. During the hunting expedition in Chitwan, Nepali and British officials reached a new understanding about Nepali independence, as Thomas Cox explains in an article in the Journal of South Asian Studies. They formalised things two years later in the Treaty of Friendship. Nepal would get weapons and a formal acknowledgment of its independence.

After the hunt, the Prince of Wales sent a note to Chandra Shamsher. He thanked the Rana leader for the meticulous planning and preparations that had made his hunt so successful. He also thanked Chandra once again for the great assistance Nepal had given Great Britain during the war.

‘Under the Conditions that Prevail’

None of this – the ‘Oriental magnificence’, the roads, the crescent of tents facing the mountains, the rhino writing table, the fine French meals, the 423 elephants, Nepal’s famous ring method, the 18 tigers shot – was possible without the work, skill, and knowledge of thousands of ordinary Nepalis, particularly the Tharu and other indigenous groups of Chitwan.

We do not hear much about them. We catch a glimpse in a photo here and there: Tharu mahouts on top of elephants. Guides and beaters in the tall grass as a ring is being formed. Animal skinners.

We can read a few lines in the British accounts, especially about the mahouts and shikaris, who were a little more visible. In 1876, a tiger leapt up and clawed two mahouts. That same year two mahouts were wounded by careless shooters.

The British sometimes applauded the skill of their Tharu helpers. ‘If he knows that the man behind him shoots straight,’ wrote a British Resident Girdlestone in the 1880s, the Tharu mahout ‘will never flinch before a tiger or let his elephant do so either’. To William O’Connor, the British Resident in the 1920s, ‘the Nepalese mahouts and shikaris are masters of their profession, as keen as mustard, and utterly fearless’.

Much of the work happened long before the hunt began – roads built, grains collected, elephants guided from their stables (hattisar) across the Tarai. During the 1911 shoot, Chandra Shamsher’s camp had housing for 12,000 “followers”.  For just the elephants, there were 2,000 additional attendants. In 1921, 36 miles of road were cleared and smoothened for motor cars. 32 miles of telephone lines were put down.

The most challenging work may have been done by the jungle “beaters”. Pointing to the roads and telephones, Perceval Landon applauded the ‘skilful vigour planning of camps’ by the Ranas. But ‘above all’ what impressed him was the ‘slow concentration within the desired territory of the great game’ of the Tarai.

‘An army of beaters,’ he explained, ‘is employed for weeks and even months before the opening of the sport in driving before them the beasts that infest the warm, damp, rich jungles of lower Nepal.’

This meant walking in a line of hundreds through the jungle scaring animals – rhino, wild elephants, tigers, leopards, bears, wild boar – from great distances away toward the hunting zone. It was a tremendous task, carried out mostly by Tharu. ‘Under the close and searching activity of these long lines the jungle is combed out with a care that is possible only in such a country as Nepal and under the conditions that prevail there,’ Landon writes.

‘The conditions that prevail there’ was a euphemism Landon used for Nepal’s autocratic rule mixed with a lot of forced labour.

Despite the malaria that kept outsiders away much of the year, the work that went into Rana hunting excursions shows that Chitwan’s Tharu did not live lives of isolation, independent and untouched from the rest of society, as many of today’s tourist brochures romantically imagine. At some times of year they had to prepare for the big Rana hunts, at other times they had to raise funds for the state tax collectors.

Nepali Independence

Some defenders of the Ranas like to point to the way they maintained and strengthened Nepal’s independence through their adroit diplomacy. If that is so, they did so with the help of a lot of ordinary Nepalis who they often disdained – the Gurkha men (and families) who gave their lives in World War I and the Tharu men and women who made possible the magnificent Tarai hunts, as in the visit of the Prince of Wales to Chitwan exactly a hundred years ago this week.

Tom Robertson


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