Read an exclusive excerpt from The Story of India’s Cheetahs
Divyabhanusinh’s book traces the cheetah’s journey in India. In this section of Chapter 5, he revisits early representations of the animal in British records.
The British noticed the cheetah as early as their arrival at the Mughal court. Ralph Fitch, who visited Agra and Fatehpur Sikri during Akbar’s reign (1556–1605), records that the Emperor had at the two cities “as they doe credibly report, one thousand Elephants, thirty thousand Horses, one thousand and four hundred tame Deere (sic), eight hundred Concubines: such store of Ounces [cheetahs], Tygres [lions], Buffles, Cockes and Hawkes, that is very strange to see”.1 William Hawkins, predecessor of the more famous Sir Thomas Roe as envoy to Jahangir, had noticed “Ounces for game” at the Mughal court in 1610 as well.2
Soon thereafter, the cheetah came to be depicted on a carpet ordered by a British trader. William Fremlin was an agent of the East India Company at Agra and elsewhere from 1628 to 1644 during the reign of Shah Jahan. Between 1635 and 1640 he commissioned a carpet for his personal use, which is described by Deborah A. Swallow of the Courtauld Institute as follows: “The ground of the carpet is red, with a deep blue border; the pattern consists of floral, animal and bird motifs, interspersed with the Fremlin arms (size 6.99 metres x 2.49 metres) … Nine colours and white: 2 shades of red, 2 blues, 2 browns, 2 greens and yellow.”3
The animal motifs include some fantastic and composite animals, three leopards pouncing on wild goats and so on. But clearly identifiable are three cheetahs in full flow, chasing blackbuck. Their colour appears white. Before the carpet came to be preserved at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, it had gone through usage and transportation. Whether this was the original colour or has faded through use and transportation over the years, is moot.
The cheetah is recorded to have been transported to England during this period. Lord Piggot, Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Fort St George, Madras, from 1755 to 1763, presented the Duke of Cumberland a cheetah for the royal menagerie at Windsor, no doubt as a strange animal likely to arouse interest at court for its hunting ability. An attempt was made to course with it in Windsor Great Park “but the crowd was so great that the creature would not move”.4
This attempt may have been a fiasco, but it was strange enough to have resulted in a painting by George Stubbs of c. 1765, preserved at the Manchester City Art Gallery. The cheetah stands ready, wearing the kamarkach (waist-band), a collar and a tamancheki topi, the latter slipped back onto its neck. One keeper holds it by the kamarkach while another seems to be urging it to attack as he points with both arms towards a stag whose antlers resemble a sambar’s rather than a red deer’s. The anatomy of the cheetah is exquisitely painted with its claws distinctly visible. The look on its face is alert and directed towards the deer it is meant to attack, though its tail is curled upwards and the posture of the body appears as though it is pulling back! Whether it was the crowd, the unfamiliar English countryside or the size of the selected prey that did it, we do not know. But the cheetah refused to course.
(Excerpted with permission from The Story of India’s Cheetahs by Divyabhanusinh, published by The Marg Foundation; 2023)