Today, if you mention the word ‘Tiger’ in Chennai, the chances are that most people would assume you were referring to the two-legged variety from across the Palk Strait. But there was a time when our own Madras, or at least its environs, had plenty of the four-legged originals, and not all of them in captivity.
Perhaps the first instance is recorded on the base of the monument to Governor Edward Winter, whose tenure in Madras was in the 1600s. The memorial, which is in St Mary’s Church, Battersea, has on its pedestal a carving depicting Winter wrestling with a tiger on the seashore (Fort St George, Madras by Mrs. Frank Penny, 1900). This was apparently no hyperbole, for a Latin inscription confirms that it was a true happening in Winter’s life.
Next, sample this. “A Detachment of the 1st Battalion of the 15th Regiment lay encamped at a village near Pollevaram hills. On the night of the 28th of December, a royal tiger came into the village and seized a bullock. After gorging on his prey, he retired to a house on the banks of the river, where he took up his quarters. Lieutenant Stuart being informed of it went with a Naig’s guard to the place, where they saw the monster stretched in the cottage! They mounted on the roof of the adjoining hut, and by removing the thatch of that where he lay, disturbed him and he went out! After a few turns, he sprang at the party and settled on the roof close to them, but an instantaneous discharge of two or three firelocks wounded him and he fell to the ground but immediately got up and made a second attempt, when finding his efforts ineffectual, he made off under a pandal adjoining the house he first entered and could not for some time be found…”
The story does not end happily, at least for the tiger. Stuart walked along the edge of the river (most probably the Adyar) and, at a point where the bank rose steeply by 20 feet, the animal sprang at him. Stuart somehow managed to avoid tumbling down the bank and stabbed the tiger with his bayonet. The sepoys accompanying him did the rest and Stuart was warmly mentioned in despatches. The incident is in the Madras Gazette, dated February 20, 1802.
The Literary Panorama (ed. Charles Taylor) of 1807 reports of how, on the 1st of October that year, “a royal tyger made its appearance in the cantonment at the Mount” in Madras. Given chase by those in the camp, some of the artillery men managed to aim at him. Injured by what is termed a “fuzli ball”, the animal was “much irritated” and, in crossing the Mount, managed to injure two natives, “one of whom is now lingering with lockjaw while the other was not materially hurt.” The tiger then crossed to “the outer Mount” where he was attacked by an “inconsiderate European armed only with a stick” for which he was rewarded by being torn across the face by the paw and severely bitten in the thigh. But he managed to survive. The animal, however, had no chance and received several more “fuzli balls”. Its carcass was brought triumphantly into the camp and on being measured its length from nose to tail was 10 feet, and in height it was 5 feet. Last heard, the villagers reported that another tiger “said to be the female associate of the above” was roaming in the vicinity.
Then there’s this from The Old Forest Ranger by Walter Campbell (1842): “A Madras sepoy was killed some years ago whilst measuring a tiger which had just dropped, apparently dead. The expiring brute struck at him, and fractured his skull by one blow of his tremendous paw.”
There is a record in 1812 of a party of officers, out shooting in the vicinity of Madras, who had sat down in the jungle to dine (no doubt in full dinner dress) when a tiger sprang from nowhere and made off with a young midshipman who was waiting at the table. The officers pursued the animal but when it laid its victim down prior to killing him they dared not shoot for fear of injuring the man instead of the beast. “On a sudden the hand of the midshipman moved lightly across the tawny side of his captor; and as the poor youth had hitherto lain motionless the horror-stricken spectators thought … this must be the last convulsion before death. The tiger fell ‘plomb down’ on the earth, and the midshipman leapt forward, waving his bloody dirk in triumph…The youth, it seems, took advantage of his position to draw his dirk, felt deliberately for the brute’s heart and thrust his weapon into it, up to the very hilt…” (The Guide to Knowledge by W. Pinnock, Vol IV, 1836).
Not so lucky was Captain R.M. Humphreys of Madras. “While hunting a tiger he ascended a tree, and on the tiger attacking one of the men, jumped down, when the infuriated beast sprang upon him and killed him on the spot.” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1835).
By 1878, tigers were considered such a menace in the Presidency (and not just in the city) that there was a reward of Rs. 100 for every tiger shot. Five years earlier, a Captain Caulfield was appointed ‘Tiger-Slayer’ of Madras Presidency and he applied any method possible from strychnine to shooting. This was a temporary assignment and, assisted by Inspector Mackenzie and A. Wedderburn, he managed to bring down the numbers significantly within the stipulated time period of six months. – Journal of the Fine Arts, 1878.
Tigers in captivity too were in Madras’s 19th Century news. Apparently, a large tiger was kept in captivity in the “bazaar in Triplicane”. Henry Davison Love, in his Vestiges of Old Madras, records the testimony of Capt. William Randall recorded during the trial following the strange death of George, Lord Pigot. Randall swore that while he was aide to Amir Ul Umrah, the latter frequently expressed a desire to do away with Pigot and asked Randall for advice. In reply, Randall, rather facetiously, suggested that the Amir ought to make a present of the tiger in the Triplicane Bazaar to Pigot and “if his Lordship was pleased to be intimate and familiar with the Tyger, he the Tyger, might sometime or other, accomplish the Business so desired.” The Amir perhaps did not get the joke for he commented darkly that Comaro, the Dubash of Benfield, “could attend to the task more easily” by slipping some poison into Pigot’s dinner!
The Illustrated Magazine of Arts, London (1854), noted that in Madras it was common for people to “take round a tiger for exhibition, with a sheep or another animal to display its strength upon”. This story originally appeared in A History of the Earth and Animated Nature by Oliver Goldsmith and Others, 1847.
As early as in 1835, the Calcutta Monthly Journal and Register had a detailed report on the post mortem done by Dr. Benza, Surgeon to the Governor of Madras, on a tiger that was kept at the menagerie in Government Park, Madras. The diagnosis was that the animal died due to “ulceration of the intestine caused by undigested bones of sheep”. Was the tiger in Government Park the forerunner of the other tiger which, together with a cheetah, began the Madras Zoo in 1854 at the Pantheon Complex? Clearly, by the late 19th Century, the tigers in the zoo had become a major attraction. “Having seen the tiger of the world at Madras, all the others are but shadows,” wrote Andrew Carnegie in 1879 (Notes of a Trip Around the World). “Such glaring eyes, burning like immense topazes in his head! His stripes were glossy black and his coat not that sickly tawny colour we are so familiar with but a light fiery brown.” Those of us who had occasion to see the animals at the same location (People’s Park) a hundred years later had a different view. The moth-eaten tiger was an anatomist’s delight, for you could count each of its bones. Today, the tigers are better off at Vandalur.
What chances would a tiger have today if it wandered into Madras? Not much. It would be run over by a lorry or bus before it crossed Pallavaram. Clearly the days of “fuzli balls” are over.