Hunting and its Depiction in Indian Art – A Journey through Time


Rama would not have had to go to the forest if King Dasharatha had not killed Shravankumar accidentally while hunting and cursed by his blind parents to die of Putrashoka. Mahabharatha probably would have been narrated differently if Pandu had not killed Rishi Kindama while hunting. He was cursed and so had to step down from his kingship of Hastinapura. So many stories in the Indian sub-continent involve the hunter, or the hunted or hunting, that it feels the act of hunting is as old as the land itself. In fact it is, at least as old as human habitation can be traced back to. After all we have evolved from being hunter gatherers to survive as what we are today.

Myths, legends, folklore, plays, and poetry have been written, enacted and sung over eons, weaving the hunt in them and leaving a lasting impression upon our minds. But it is the miniatures, lithographs, folios and paintings on medium as varied as rocks, lime plastered surfaces, cloth and paper, left behind in the last 500 years that tell us the stories most graphically. These colourful remnants give us a good idea about the land that India was.

Bhimbetka rock shelters, near Bhopal, show paintings, some as old as 30,000 years, of humans hunting. Humans have inhabited these shelters since 100,000 years back. These hunts were probably for survival as well as for protection. The paintings depict hunting of buffaloes, rhinos, bears, tigers, and elephants. A clear indication that the rhino was extant over much larger areas and not confined to a pocket in NE, as it is now.


Plate 1 : Bhimbetka Rock Paintings (Source: Wikimedia)

Greeks, like Ctesias, who lived in the 5th Century BC, and was a historian and physician to the Persian King Artaxerxes Mnemon, through to Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Alexandrian merchant and hermit, in the 6th century BC, have described the rich wildlife of India. Wherever there has been wildlife, men hunted.

What did we hunt?

Humans have hunted almost everything across time. From mammoths to rats, from lions to dogs and everything in between, and we have painted them too. An interesting painting that comes to us from nearly 500 years back, is that of the Mughal king Babur hunting rhinoceros in Punjab. Greek sources tell us that Alexander and his men met the rhinos in Punjab and so did Rao Ram Singh in 1720-30 as the painting below shows. It is a strange feeling that overcomes us when we realise that Rhinos have ranged from Lahore to Guwahati. Babur, in his memoirs, says that a large number of rhinos roamed around in the forests near Hashnagar, Bhera, and Peshawar, and also along the Indus and Ghaggar rivers. These gentle vegetarians have been hunted down from ages, singularly for their horns, thanks to the use of rhino horn powder in elixirs concoted using traditional methods in many Asian countries.

Inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent have not been any different and literally hunted everything that moved right from lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears, elephants to peacocks, cranes, crocodiles, wild boars et al – the list is fairly long to say the least.


Plate 2 : Babur hunting rhinoceros (Source : Wikimedia. Painting at the National Museum, New Delhi)

Plate 3 : Rao Ram Singh I of Kota upon an elephant hunting a rhino 1690-1700 (Source : Sotheby’s)


Plate 4 : Mughal hunting of Lions, Rhinos, Elephants~ 1605 (Source : Sothebys)

Plate 5: Jahangir Hunting Lion, 1590-60 at the Aga Khan Museum (Source : Internet)

Plate 6: A 1760 painting shows Maharaja Isri Singh hunting crocodiles with attendants and helpers (Source : Jay Shankar)


Plate 7: Marksmen on the banks are ready in case the crocodile gets the better of the King (Source : Jay Shankar)

Plate 8: Maharaja Fateh Singh of Mewar hunting female bear, a 1917 painting. The bear lured by a bait is depicted five times (Source : Jay Shankar)

Plate 9: Huntings tigers and wild boars from machan (Source: Jay Shankar)

How did they hunt?

For the kings of India, at least since 16th century, hunting was akin to going on a picnic. They went with their retinue of wives, children, friends, ministers, servants, scouts, and bodyguards. The hunting caravan travelled for days and carried with them essentials  that included tents, food, and the entire kitchen.They hunted both on horseback and on foot as well. They took the help of dogs, trained cheetahs, lynx, hawks, and falcons too for hunting.


Plate 10: Maharana Jagat Singh with his retinue. (Source: Jay Shankar)


Plate 11: Maharana Jagat Singh of Udaipur hawks for cranes, 1744 (Source: Jay Shankar)


Plate 12: Hunting wild boars with dogs (Source: Jay Shankar)


Plate 13: Emperor Shah Jehan hunting blackbucks with his cheetahs (Source: Jay Shankar)

Egyptians used cheetahs for hunting as early as 1500 BC. They introduced the sport to Persians. Emperor Akbar was the first in India to keep cheetahs for hunting. He had as many as a thousand cheetahs after receiving the first one, Fatehbaz, as a tribute. Hunting with Cheetahs continued well into the first half of the 20th century. Though this might be a bit difficult to imagine now but the entire region of North Western India was once lion country. There are reports of giraffes too being extant. Today, giraffes are a myth, cheetahs have gone extinct and lions are cornered in Gir in Gujarat.

Here’s a 1939 film of hunting with cheetah in India.


Plate 14: Emperor Akbar hunting with cheetahs and dogs (Source: Jay Shankar)

Plate 15 : 1878 Painting by Marianne North shows the street of hunting cheetahs and lynx in Alwar (Source :  British Library)

Who Hunted?

The kings hunted and so did the common man especially those who lived in and around the forests. Mughals hunted, Rajputs hunted, and so did the Deccani Sultans. The British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese also hunted. Women too hunted. It was a popular sport and naturally a trending topic among artists of the time. Craftsmen too did not lag behind in showcasing their skill in the making of ornamental arms that were used for hunting.


Plate 16: Bhils hunting at night (Source : Sothebys)


Plate 17: Chand Bibi of Bijapur hunting with ladies, 1750 (Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)


Plate 18: Guru Gobind Singh killing a lion (Source: Internet)

It is said that once Guru Gobind Singh was approached by the villagers requesting him to save them from a man eating lion. He killed the lion and on that spot, now stands Gurudwara Shergah, near the town of Paonta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh.


Plate 19: Roopmati and Baz Bahadur, Punjab Hills, 19th Century (Source: Sothebys)


Plate 20: 17th Century Elephant Goad, South Indian (Source: Jay Shankar)

Plate 21 (a, b, c, d): Hunting Sword 18th Century – Mid 19th Century, Rajasthan (Source: Jay Shankar)

Any answer to Hunting?

While it does look as though everyone in India was involved in the sport of hunting, there were also movements and groups of people who were equally protective of the environment. Khejarli, a village 26 kms from Jodhpur, derived its name from Khejri (Prosopis Cineraria) trees that were abundant there. In September 1730, a minister of the Maharaja of Mewar came to cut the village trees to use as firewood to produce lime for a new palace.

A local lady Amrita Devi protested the felling of trees, as their Bishnoi religion prohibited such an act. She refused the bribe offered by the minister, and in the bargain she and her three daughters were killed. The news spread to the surrounding 83 Bishnoi villages and the elders decided that a volunteer would sacrifice his/her life for every tree that was cut down. Initially the older folks hugged the trees and were promptly killed. When the young, women and children hugged the trees, they too were killed.

Eventually the shocked royal team went back to Jodhpur failing to fell more trees and kill more Bishnois. The Maharaja, on hearing the tale of sacrifice, ordered a royal ban on tree felling. 363 Bishnois died protecting their beloved trees. A Cenotaph commemorating the event still stands in the Khejarli village. The famed Chipko movement had a predecessor.

Where are we headed?

In the Indian sub-continent hunting still persists. As recent as a decade back, actors Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan in separate incidents were charged for hunting the endangered black buck. The case is still pending in the courts. As time ticks by, the rhinos now remain restricted to a very small region in the North East, cheetahs have gone extinct, Indian Aurochs and Sumatran Rhinos are extinct, while another 132 species of plants, reptiles, fishes, birds and mammals are listed as critically endangered in India.

Hunting once earned fame. Names such as Pulikesi, Hoysala etc. are a testimony to the duel between man and wild animal. Today, very little of wilderness is left and even lesser wildlife. Hunting today brings shame upon the famous, as the case of Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan has illustrated.

Land and water and all that inhabits on or in them are our first heritage. We are born with this. Buildings and man-made structures show the culture of our ancestors. As the human population explodes, hunting that was once an essential act for survival is now an act that we as humans must stop in order to survive. Across the world we are leaving barren the fundamental heritage that truly belongs to all humans of today and tomorrow. It is time we stopped hunting, and started gathering the animals and other beings with love and protect them.


Plate 22 : Huntress Chenchu Lakshmi at the Kolaramman Temple, Kolar, KA (Source: Jay Shankar)

Author – Jay Shankar

The author can be contacted at

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