Spots, Stripes, And Stains: The Bewildering Legacy Of Colonial Taxidermy In India

Hunting for game was a sport enjoyed by colonial officers as well as Indian royalty.
Hunting for game was a sport enjoyed by colonial officers as well as Indian royalty.L:, R: The Hindu

The sharp crack of colonial gunshots reverberated among the unsullied Nilgiri Hills for the first time in the 1830s. The Ooty Hunt Club travelled with an entourage of imported foxhounds and rifle toting Indian servants on elephants. The scampering feet of sambar deer, wild boars and jackals amidst the undergrowth were no match for the British army officers leading the huntsmen under the pine needles and envisioning their trophies mounted above the mantelpiece.

Before being the shooting grounds for the imperial garrison, the grassy slopes of Wenlock Downs at Udhagamandalam served as pastures for nomadic tribes like the Todas, who composed paeans to the horned bison and other beasts they spied in the wilderness.

Seven kilometres away at the Dunsandle Tea Estate, Mr E.E. Limouzin wounded the largest panther he had ever seen in 1921 and after losing it, retrieved the carcass a few days later. Fearing that it was beyond redemption, Mr. Limouzin resorted to what most shikharis did back then, he delivered its vulture-ravaged skull and ribcage to the care of the most prominent taxidermist in British India, Mr. Van Ingen. Formerly Dutch traders, the Van Ingen family emigrated to the Deccan in the 17th century and it was not before the early 1900s, when Eugene Melville van Ingen recognised the promise of transforming the exploits from Mysuru’s imperious jungles into rugs, mounts and mannikins. 

The ecological denigration of India’s flora and fauna remains a dark blemish upon the colonial regime and their infamous Forest Act of 1878 — which allocated at least one-fifth of the South Asian landmass as hunting grounds for quarry — facilitating the commodification of animal hides, tusks and horns for domestic and international trade. The reparations we are owed for the damage wreaked upon our biodiversity, which could destabilise entire ecosystems, would probably run into billions of pounds

As recently as in January 2020, the Supreme Court issued a hearing to reintroduce cheetahs from Africa in the woodlands of Madhya Pradesh, where they had been hunted to extinction by the 1950s. While the lion and tiger were seen as game animals by the colonial administration, smaller cats including the cheetah, were not challenging enough to be trophies. Offered up for bounty rewards ranging from six to 18 rupees, close to 127 cheetahs were exterminated between the years 1800 and 1950, meticulously archived by the district gazettes and memoirs of the time. 

But no figure comes close to the heartbreaking 80,000 tigers speared and trapped for their skins between 1875 and 1925 alone. Endorsing themselves as the specialist tiger taxidermists, the Van Ingen factory ‘processed’ close to 43,000 tiger and leopard trophies during their bloody legacy that lasted for almost a century, according to their own ledgers. 

Rising in popularity by consorting with Indian royalty like the twenty-first Maharajah of the Mysuru Kingdom — Chamaraja Wodeyar who was known for his bar stools made of paws and the stuffed elephant head at the entrance of the Bengaluru palace — the Van Ingens received orders from princely states of Vizianagram, Vijaynagar and Jaipur and even overseas in New York and London. 

Their factory in Nazarbad employed over 150-200 people toiling away in what was then the only mass-producing enterprise in the world of taxidermy. Handed down from father Eugene to his sons John de Wet, Henry Botha and Edwin Joubert, the business of recreating the thrill of shikhar, Van Ingen & Van Ingen became a household name among taxidermy aficionados across the world. 

Prince Philip accompanied by the prince Jagat Singh, Queen Elizabeth II, and queen consort of Jaipur Gayatri Devi in January 1961.
Prince Philip accompanied by the prince Jagat Singh, Queen Elizabeth II, and queen consort of Jaipur Gayatri Devi in January 1961. Getty Images

Their methods were largely mimetic of the assembly line, needing at least eight workers per mounted piece, the mannikin made out of papier-mâché with the skin sewed tightly over it. After glass eyes were fitted into the empty sockets and the muscles sculpted in, the trophy would shape up incredulously to be a polished product, a far cry from the pickled and salted corpse it started out as. Renowned for their snarling expression and lifelike quality, the trophies produced by Van Ingen & Van Ingen froze the deceased animals in poses of leaping or running, and their esteemed ‘art’ was commemorated by the family in a handbook called Preservation of Shikhar Trophies complete with copious notes on the entire process.

Owing to the irresistible romance of shikhaar literature from writers like Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson, the tiger was branded as a menace to society and evolved into an allegory for white man’s bravado in defending the helpless tribals from the lawless beasts of nature. Moreover, because the tiger was a revered emblem for anti-colonialist monarchs like Tipu Sultan of Mysuru, the British doubled down on eliminating the beast and what it stood for. According to a chronicle recording the imperial visit of George V, the shooting party on December 25, 1911 annihilated 39 tigers, 18 rhinoceroses, four bears and a leopard killed in a single day. 

A handbook that outlined the beautification of animal corpses.
A handbook that outlined the beautification of animal corpses.AbeBooks

The tiger-human conflict eventually reached new heights in areas severely afflicted by hunting like Kumaon in Uttarakhand, where man-eaters began their reign of terror and in 1972, the Wildlife Protection Act under Indira Gandhi banned hunting in India. This was the final nail in the coffin for the Van Ingen factory. Thousands of their trophies ended up in natural history museums or rotted away due to negligence in private collections. 

The landscape around the Niligiris today is overwhelmed with eucalyptus and tea plantations, both introduced by the British in Ooty around the 1850s, and the potable water for the indigenous tribes is slowly disappearing due to extensive irrigation from sprinklers. The cattle herders and foragers from communities like the Badagas and Kotas are at risk of losing their livelihood and turning to farming or tourism.

Edwin Joubert Van Ingen and his brother Botha Van Ingen from the early 1990s.
Edwin Joubert Van Ingen and his brother Botha Van Ingen from the early

Though the English sahibs and their insidious game laws are long gone, the detrimental impact on Indian cultural identity and our endangered species is unravelling even today, our most fearful predators butchered for ornamental value. Meanwhile, the work of Van Ingens is still admired internationally, and a firm in Australia called Van Ingen Mysore is reputed for salvaging and selling their trophies. 

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