Tiger Tiger

No other creature has embodied so many attributes: magic spirit, vermin, guardian of holy men, symbol of mother India, an incarnation of evil yet also its vanquisher. 

Susie Green | Published 16 May 2019

Hindu goddess Durga riding a tiger, Kota, Rajasthan, c.1800.

Almost the only place on earth where a few hundred tigers still live a wild life is the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans in Bengal. But even this last refuge, once known as Baghratatimandal (tiger temple), is being destroyed. The mangroves are being chopped down for charcoal and the swamps lost to prawn farming; nylon nets dragged down the river banks to collect the ironically-named tiger-prawn seeds destroy the mangrove seedlings as well as many fish species and endanger crocodiles. A tourist company wants to build floating hotels, helipads, a golf course and floating casinos. Such developments would spell the end for the traditional way of life of the thousands of people who live here by collecting firewood, medicines, honey and other natural products. It is on such people that the survival of much of wild nature depends. While they continue to live within the forests, those forests and the great predators they support, will continue to survive. If they leave, they will be destroyed.

Our distant ancestors who sat around crackling fires hoping to keep hungry beasts at bay gazed in wonder at the star-studded skies and honoured the spirits of the elements and the animals, upon all of whom they depended. They understood that they could not survive alone and without the compassion of the essences of earth, sky and water, the spirits of animals and ancestors, and the gods, the human life force would be quenched. These spirits inhabited a parallel realm which shamans would visit to partake of their wisdom and ask them to free earthly animals for the hunt and effect cures. To the early inhabitants of Asia, the awesome tiger was a potent representative of the natural and supernatural world. She had hunting skills without parallel, was magnificent in her svelte striped coat and incredibly powerful, while her association with water conferred the mystical ability to travel between worlds. Many early peoples sought to identify themselves with her spirit magic and make it their own.

The oldest extant images of tigers are incised on the enormous basalt boulders that rise at low tide from the waters of the Amur River in Russia. 5,500 years old, these and other petroglyphs, including Black Dragon, legendary master of the river and the counterpart of the tiger, Lord of the Forest, give us a glimpse of the creatures that inhabited the mystical and physical worlds of the tribes who dwelled along the banks of this river. Several images are part-tiger part-man in aspect – undoubtedly a representation of the shaman’s belief that, by taking on the aspect of an animal he could participate in its powers and aid his own and his people’s survival. Tigers continued to appear in ritual sculptures and on shamanic clothing in Siberia until the early 20th century. The tribes of the Amur accepted the tiger as possessing human characteristics and so as their kin, and they forgave her the occasional depredation of livestock or attack on people. Some tribes regarded her as a sacred ancestor and drove away anyone who dared kill this heavenly relative. Now she is poached and hunted, her magical aura vanishing along with shamanism. Fewer than four hundred tigers cling on in Russia’s forests and steppes.

Nobleman and attendants mounted on an elephant attacked by tiger, Rajasthan, 1790-1810.

Further south in China, the ancient partnership of Dragon and Tiger has also long permeated every aspect of life. Their entwined and balanced dominion of the heavens is reflected astronomically in the constellations of Scorpio (Azure Dragon) and Orion (White Tiger) who chase one another eternally through the heavens. These celestial attributes are reflected on the earth, where their spirits settle in hills, mountains, valleys and other landscape features that seem to resemble their form. It was from this belief that the art of Feng Shui developed as far back as the second millennium BC. Feng Shui – which means, literally, Wind (White Tiger) and Water (Azure Dragon) – underpins the entire pattern of the Chinese landscape, both natural and man-made. For a location to be favourable, the energy or chi that pulses through everything on the earth needs to be harmonious and strong. It is at its most powerful where the sexual energies of the Tiger and Dragon conjoin. Feng Shui still dictates where ancestors may be buried, great cities founded, office blocks erected and even humble dwellings situated. 

During the early Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) coffins had dragons painted on their left side, tigers on their right and a golden sun and silver moon on their lid to mirror the auspicious power of the heavens. Demons, ghosts and evil spirits were kept at bay by placing small tiger carvings, often in jade, to the left of the coffin. White Tiger was ruler of the winds and the dark, fertile, feminine power of yin, giving protection to ancestors and guarding temples. Yet the Chinese character for king is clearly stamped in the gold, black and white markings of her brow, proclaiming her the masculine ruler of the forest and mighty symbol of the emperor, the nation and its military might. In the wild she is a protective mother who will ferociously pursue those who poach her cubs; languid during the heat of the day, she is also an incomparable predator. 

The introduction of Buddhism from India around AD 200 did not eliminate the tiger from the Chinese psyche. Instead she was integrated into Buddhist mythological tales. The Buddha himself in an earlier incarnation sacrificed his life to feed a tigress so delirious with hunger that she was preparing to devour her cubs. In doing so he demonstrated the greatest of Buddhist virtues, compassion.

Durgā on a tiger, Rajasthan, c.1800.

The tiger was part of China’s soul and thus protected, at least until Western imperialists arrived in the late 19th century. The Kuomintang government (1912-49) broke with tradition to embrace Western values, beginning the process of separating the Chinese people from their cultural and spiritual past, a process continued by the People’s Republic of China from 1949. The Communists demolished most Taoist temples during the Cultural Revolution and condemned monks and priests of all denominations to labour camps. The tiger, an essential element of Taoism and potent symbol of China’s history, was branded a pest, and farmers were actively encouraged to slaughter her. Now she is extinct where she once reigned supreme.

The tigress is not only a spiritual essence of sexuality, she is a tangible physical one. The embodiment of lascivious female desire, she announces her fertility by scent-marking the borders of her territory with a pungent, thick, musky fluid and roaring lustily until several males are summoned. She then allows her suitors to fight for the privilege of mounting her as many as 50 times. Unfortunately, this means that throughout Asia body parts have been taken to make aphrodisiacs. Sacrificing a tiger for this purpose is an ancient practice but used to be relatively rare. Now she is now poached without mercy in India to feed the consumer markets of China and Thailand. Exclusive brothels sell a sweet liquor in which a tiger penis has been steeped.

The Bengal tiger of the Indian subcontinent was never incorporated into the Hindu or Muslim faiths in the way the Chinese incorporated her into Taoism. But she was, in varying ways, the object of cult worship by the peoples who made their livelihood in her lands. Hunting the tiger was, however, a sport for the wealthy. Mughal emperors and their courtiers relished pitting themselves against the supreme predator. Akbar (1542–1605) often hunted with only a bow and arrow, Jahangir (1569–1627) often on foot, and although he and his entourage had guns, sometimes they came in physical contact with the tiger and wrestled with her, carrying only daggers and sticks to defend themselves.

 Hunting in the Punjab Hills, India, c.1790.

The Mughals saw the tiger as a fearsome and worthwhile opponent. Her reputation was such that the first Mughal emperor Babur (1483–1530) was known simply as ‘the Tiger’, while the last, Aurangzeb (1665–1707), used her as his symbol of power, adorning the hilt of his finest sword with her image. The Mughals kept hunting records and enjoyed animal contests – tigers were often pitted against large numbers of horned buffalo. However, they were far more interested in the kudos that came from displays of real courage than in sheer numbers of kills. Jahangir killed only 86 tigers and lions in his 48 years of hunting.

To the British, the tiger was the embodiment of India, and their humiliation of the animal mirrored their imperial subjugation of the subcontinent. They would leave buffalo calves as bait and then shoot the tigers from the safety of tall machans (hides); they slaughtered them while standing in elephant-back howdahs, surrounded by up to 40 elephants and cavalcades of beaters. They shot them while they were mating, and even when they were resting in their lairs. They depicted the tiger as a dangerous yet despicable beast, a frequent man-eater. No one was more skilful in his manipulation of the tiger’s image than Jim Corbett (1876–1955) who recounted swashbuckling tales of the slaying of ‘man-eaters’ in books such as The Man-eaters of Kumaon (1944).

To such men, the tiger’s skills as an ambush predator showed she was ‘dishonourable’, and they saw her tendency to revenge herself when wounded and persecuted as an unquenchable desire for human flesh and blood. Rural veneration of the tiger was explained as the cowed behaviour of people who felt themselves impotent against the predations of a vicious, mean feline. Natives in Corbett’s books are described as being in ‘a state of abject terror’.

As the servants of the Raj slaughtered the tiger in the company of maharajahs, Hindus began to incorporate her into mainstream religion. The pre-eminent incarnation of the goddess Devi as Durga, slayer of the buffalo-demon Mahishasura, whose vehicle had in earlier times been a lion, now began riding the Indian tiger. Durga was feminine strength and power incarnate. She was passionate, independent and sexually charged, like the tiger; the guardian of the forests, and a potent force for peace. Images of Durga first appeared around AD 400, although she had probably been worshipped prior to this.

One symbolic moment in the identification of tigers with India  was during the reign of Tipu Sultan (1750–99), ruler of Mysore and from 1782 one of India’s most powerful princes. Tipu (‘tiger’ in Canarese) identified himself from an early age with this quintessentially Indian symbol. Bubris (stylized tiger stripes) adorned the uniform of his infantry and palace guards, tigers crawled over sword hilts and crouched on the muzzles of his cannons while his ordnance bore a calligraphic representation of a tiger’s face reading: ‘The lion of God is Conqueror’.


Tipu had nothing but contempt for the British. The walls of his capital were decorated with life-size caricatures of trembling white men being seized by tigers, but his pièce de resistance was a lifesize wooden organ in the form of a tiger devouring a British redcoat who emits pathetic groans while the tiger makes ‘the growling cough of the Bengal tiger as it kills’. This was said to represent the fate of the son of an old adversary of Tipu’s, General Sir Hector Munro, who was carried off by a tiger during a hunting spree in the Bengal Sundarbans. The British acknowledged Tipu’s tigerish nationalism by celebrating one of their victories over him by striking a medal depicting the British lion defeating the tiger of India. After Tipu’s death the tiger organ was taken to London. The Staffordshire Pottery Group produced a popular model of the gruesome scene, and the story so caught the British imagination that in 1827 a drama, The Death of Munro, was playing to capacity crowds at the Royal Surrey Theatre. The poster for 7 May 1827, notes the ‘ROYAL TIGER’s astonishing feats of agility, having been pronounced to be unequalled and his seizure of Munro received with loud cheering’.

But even Durga was no match for the Raj whose officers might shoot nine tigers in an average day’s hunting, and for maharajahs vying to hit career tallies of a thousand by 1947. The tiger population was in sharp decline, and Independence proved a further disaster. Democracy brought with it the desire to grab the privileges that had once belonged only to the Raj and royalty. Tiger-hunting was top of the list. Amateur hunters, shikar operators who offered package-holiday tiger hunting, professional poachers and farmers joined in. Large-scale hunting campaigns were organized, as symbol turned into luxury commodity. In London chic models posed in tiger-skin coats, clutching tiger cubs in their arms.

Kailish Sankhala, tireless campaigner for the wildlife of India, risked his career to investigate this trade. In 1967 the fruits of his labour made the front page of the Indian Express. Many in India were outraged. A ban on the export of tiger skins was put in place and conservationists entered the tiger in the Red Data Book as an endangered species. Project Tiger was inaugurated and for the time being, the striped predator was pulled back from the brink of extermination.

Yet her situation is now far worse than it was then. Poaching is rampant. Consumerism is both destroying the habitat of the tiger and fuelling poaching, dooming her – and many other animals – to extinction.

Susie Green is the author of Tiger (Reaktion Books, 2006). This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of History Today