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Resistance to Hunting in Pre-independence India: Religious environmentalism, ecological nationalism or cultural conservation?*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2014

Montclair State University, New Jersey, United States of America Email:


This article presents new evidence with which to evaluate the validity of the popular picture of religious environmentalism in India. It examines accounts of a large number of incidents described in Indian language newspapers, the colonial archive, and hunting literature published between the 1870s and 1940s, in which British and other sportsmen clashed with villagers in India while out hunting. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the colonial sports-hunting obsession was in its heyday, but opposition to hunting across India was also mounting. Rural villagers, in particular, were often willing to become involved in physical combat with hunters, apparently in order to protect local wildlife. Sportsmen often assumed that it was religious fanaticism that made Hindus defend the lives of what they saw as game animals, trophies, and specimens. The article provides evidence that, in addition to religion, a mixture of other motivations explains Hindu interest in the conservation of certain species. Anti-colonial consciousness, assertions of local authority and territoriality, and an environmental ethic can all be identified as being at work. The end result was the increased conservation of certain species of wildlife.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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Thanks to Peter Robb for reading early versions of this article, to K. Sivaramakrishnan for inviting me to present a version of this article at the Yale South Asia Seminar Series, and to David Arnold for originally guiding me towards the ‘native newspaper reports’ in the India Office Records. Thanks also to Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia and Alice Freed for suggestions on recent drafts of this article.


1 Hornaday, William T., Two Years in the Jungle: The Experiences of a Hunter and Naturalist in India, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula and Borneo (London: K. Paul, 1885), p. 1Google Scholar.

2 The gharial, or Indian gavial (Gavialis gangeticus), is considered ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. See, [accessed 22 September 2014]. Once ranging throughout the waterways of the northern part of the Indian subcontinent (mainly the Indus, Ganges-Jumna, Mahanadi, Irrawaddy, and Bhramaputra), the species is now extinct in Myanmar, and extinct or near extinct in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Pakistan. Estimates suggest that there are as few as 200 breeding pairs left in the wild, with a total population of less than 2,000. Conservation efforts in India, including ranching and reintroduction, have had some success, but between December 2007 and March 2008, over 100 gharials died due to poisoning from an industrial toxin released into the Chambal River. See and the WWF's Gharial Crisis update:, [both accessed 22 September 2014].

3 Hornaday, Two Years, p. 26.

4 Ibid, p. 51.


5 Ibid, p. 62.


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26 Findley, Ellison, ‘Jahangir's Vow of Non-Violence’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 107, no. 2 (1987), pp. 245256CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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28 Cited in Mahesh Rangarajan, ‘Troubled Legacy: A Brief History of Wildlife Preservation in India’, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Occasional Paper 1998, p. 13.

29 Rajasthan State Archives (hereafter: RSA), Jodhpur Shikar Khana Series (hereafter: JSK), ‘sanctuaries or game reserves’, 1928–9, old no. c/8 vol. I, bundle 1, rack 3, shelf 4: A letter from the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire, dated 8 June 1928: ‘Note on the Preservation of Fauna in Marwar State prepared by the Forest Superintendent Marwar State’.

30 The 1730 Khejarli Massacre, where 363 Bhishnois lost their lives while protecting trees from officers of Maharaj Abay Singh of Marwar, is certainly the most famous incident in Bishnoi environmental history. Lal Sahu, Banvari, Vraksh Rakhsa aur Khejarli Balidan (Bikaner: Krishna Jansevi and Co., 1996), p. 3Google Scholar.

31 RSA, JSK, ‘shooting rules’, 1928–46, old no. c/9 vol. I, bundle 1, rack 3, shelf 4. Letter from Rao Raja Narpat Singh, the Private Secretary to H. H. the Maharaja of Jodhpur. This letter undoubtedly refers to the maharana of Mewar, Fateh Singh.

32 RSA, JSK, ‘offences’, 1928–37, old no. c/4 vol. I, bundle 1, rack 3, shelf 4.

33 Felix [pseud.], Recollections of a Bison & Tiger Hunter (London: J. M Dent, 1906), pp. 9495Google Scholar.

34 Tomalin, Emma, ‘The Limitations of Religious Environmentalism for India’, Worldviews 6 (2002), p. 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Italics in the original.

35 Adcock, ‘Sacred Cows’, pp. 297–311.

36 Gold, Ann and Gujar, Bhoju, In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 249Google Scholar. Fisher, R. J., If Rain Doesn't Come: An Anthropological Study of Drought and Human Ecology in Western Rajasthan (Delhi: Manohar, 1997), pp. 6470Google Scholar.

37 Hornaday, Two Years, p. 84.

38 Pye-Smith, Charlie, In Search of Wild India (London: Boxtree, 1992), pp. 1819Google Scholar.

39 Shaw, George Bernard, ‘Preface’ in Salt, Henry S. (ed.), Killing for Sports (London: G. Bell, 1915), p. xGoogle Scholar.

40 For a political explanation of the dominance of vegetarianism in Marwar, see Divya Cherian, ‘Towards a Vegetarian Body Politic: Statecraft and the Construction of a Hindu Community in Early Modern Marwar’, Paper presented at the Princeton University South Asian Studies Conference, 26–27 April 2013.

41 See Upadhyay, Shashi Bhushan, ‘Communalism and Working Class: Riot of 1893 in Bombay City’, Economic and Political Weekly 24, no. 30 (29 July 1989), pp. 6975Google Scholar, for an early discussion of communalism and ‘levels of consciousness’.

42 Sivaramakrishnan, K. and Cederlof, Gunnel, Ecological Nationalisms: Nature, Livelihoods, and Identities in South Asia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), pp. 6, 223Google Scholar.

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44 See British Library, Asian and African Collections, India Office Records (hereafter: IOR) L/PJ/6/275/f.672 ‘Address for Return showing the number of Murders committed in India during the past five years, distinguishing the cases in which Natives of India have been murdered by Europeans, the number of such Murders which remain undetected, and the number in which parties have been made amenable to justice showing whether convicted or acquitted, with the punishment inflicted in each case’.

45 Ibid.


46 IOR/R/2/774/383, ‘Shooting of a tiger by the Raja of Raghogarh—His subsequent illness and treatment, etc.’, 1919.

47 IOR L/R/5/81, United Provinces Native Newspaper Reports of 1907, #7: The Union Gazette (Bareilly), 21 April 1906, pp. 232–233.

48 IOR L/R/5/81, United Provinces Native Newspaper Reports of 1907, # 74: The Hind (Lucknow), 18 April 1907, p. 526.

49 Anon., ‘Attack on a Shooting Party’, The Times of India, 19 December 1899, p. 5.

50 Anon., ‘The Shooting Affray in Patiala’, The Times of India, 23 March 1895, p. 5.

51 NAI, Home (Political) (hereafter: H(P)), November 1890, nos. 138–141, ‘Case of Empress versus Private W. Newell, of the 3rd Battalion, Rifle Brigade, who was tried under Sections 326 and 304 of the Indian Penal Code for causing the death of a Native of the Kapurthala State while out on a shooting excursion. Restrictions on soldiers shooting in Native States and prohibition of shooting at night’.

52 NAI, H(P), October 1887, nos. 179–183.

53 NAI, H(P), A, October 1899, nos. 282–283 & Sept. 1899, nos. 109–111. ‘The account furnished to the Lieutenant-Governor of the former accident is that two Sergeants of the 3rd Hussars were out shooting, and came to a jhil, where one of them fired at a crane with a Lee-Metford. The bullet killed the crane, but also killed a native boy further on . . . [T]he use of so dangerous a weapon as the Lee-Metford for sporting purposes should be absolutely prohibited in all ordinary circumstances. . .’.

54 NAI, H(P), September 1895, nos. 318–323, ‘Prohibition of sportsmen from shooting sacred birds or animals in the vicinity of villages, habitations, temples and mosques’.

55 Ibid.


56 NAI, Central India Agency, Shooting Files, file no. 3 of 1887, ‘Shooting in HH the Maharajah Holkar's Preserves by Troopers of the 7th Dragoon Guards’, p. 3.

57 Ibid, pp. 6–7.


58 Chavda, Divyabhanusinh, ‘Junagadh State and its Lions: Conservation in Princely India, 1879–1947’, Conservation and Society 4, no. 4 (2006), pp. 522540Google Scholar.

59 Saraswati, Dayananda, Gokarunanidhi: Ocean of Mercy for the Cow (Lahore: Virajanand Press, 1889), p. viiiGoogle Scholar.

60 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 76 (31 May 1939–15 October 1939), p. 209.

61 See Vanita, Ruth, ‘Gandhi's Tiger: Multilingual Elites, the Battle for Minds, and English Romantic Literature in Colonial India’, Postcolonial Studies 5, no. 1 (2002), pp. 95110Google Scholar.

62 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 7 (15 June 1907–12 December 1907), p. 203.

63 Ibid, Vol. 42 (2 May 1928–9 September 1928), p. 429.


64 Protesting at a hunt organized by some princes from Kathiawar for British officials, Gandhi wrote: ‘Such shikar, over which so much innocent blood is spilt and is without any risk of life or limb on the part of the shikari, is robbed of all charm and becomes a mild copy of the law that prevails between the Government and the people in India, whereby the public are always the sport of the Government which never runs any risk.’ Ibid, Vol. 26 (24 January 1922–12 November 1923), pp. 71–72.

65 Hames, ‘Wildlife Conservation in Tribal Societies’, p. 172.

66 As Colonel Glasfurd argued, ‘the marked diminution of game dates from the time when serviceable guns became cheap and easy of purchasing by native shikaris’. Glasfurd, A. I. R., Leaves from an Indian Jungle. Gathered During Thirteen Years of a Jungle Life in the Central Provinces, the Deccan, and Berar (Bombay: Times Press, 1903), p. 166CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Ezra Rashkow, ‘The Nature of Endangerment: Histories of Hunting, Wildlife and Forest Communities in Western and Central India’, PhD thesis, University of London, 2009, pp. 53–97.

68 Rashkow, Ezra, ‘Making Subaltern Shikaris: Histories of the Hunted in Central India’, South Asian History and Culture 5, no. 3 (2014), pp. 292313CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 Felix, Recollections, pp. ix–x; Joshi, G. M., Tribal Bastar and the British Administration (Delhi: Indus, 1990), pp. 3134Google Scholar.

70 I hesitate to use the words ‘taboo’ and ‘totem’ because of their loaded colonial origins in India, but will do so nonetheless because they are the words used in the primary sources. See Ferreira, John V., Totemism in India (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1965)Google Scholar for an early history of the problematic usage of the ‘totem’ concept.

71 Sterndale, R. A., Seonee or Camp Life on the Satpura Range (London: Sampson Low, 1877), p. 371Google Scholar.

72 Ball, Vincent, Jungle Life in India (London: Thos. de la Rue & Co., 1880), p. 600Google Scholar; Crooke, W., The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India (Allahabad: Government Press, 1894), Vol. 2, p. 154Google Scholar.

73 School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Special Collections, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf Papers, PP MS 19, Box 12, Gond 4, p. 187.

74 Elwin, Verrier, The Baiga (London: J. Murray, 1939)Google Scholar.

75 Hussain, Shafquat, ‘Sports-hunting, Fairness and Colonial Identity: Collaboration and Subversion in the Northwestern Frontier Region of the British Indian Empire’, Conservation and Society 8, no. 2 (2010), pp. 112126CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Grigson, W. V., The Maria Gonds of Bastar (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 158Google Scholar.

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79 Kant, Immanuel, ‘Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’ in Beck, Lewis White (trans.), On History (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963), p. 15Google Scholar.

80 For more on ‘selfish conservation’ and the ‘preservation of privilege’ in India, see Rashkow, Ezra, ‘Wildlife Conservation, the Preservation of Privilege, and Endangered Forest Societies in Colonial Central India’, Cambridge Centre for South Asian Studies Occasional Papers 26 (2008), pp. 128Google Scholar.

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