The real Indian dog

Print edition : August 04, 2017

Chipiparai dogs being given a bath. Photo: Siva Sidhu

The Sindhi hound. Photo: OVEE THORAT

The Rajapalayam dog, also known as the Paleiyakaran, or Poligar, hound at Conserve Kennel in Coimbatore. Photo: K. Ananthan

The Rampur hound at Conserve Kennel in Coimbatore. Photo: K. Ananthan

Mudhols from the Government Research Centre, Bagalkot, Karnataka, with their handlers at a dog show in Bengaluru. Photo: S. Theodore Baskaran

The book is a well-researched treatise on the historical presence of native dog breeds in Indian society.

WHEN readers see the title The Book of Indian Dogs, they might think it is about street dogs. The reason for this confusion is the misappropriation of the term “Indian dogs” by animal welfare activists. I will come to this later. The book focusses, instead, on indigenous breeds, such as the Kurumalai, the Jonangi and the Kaikadi. If none of these names sound familiar, S. Theodore Baskaran’s book is the antidote.

In a short introduction, the author narrates an incident that set him on his quest. He ran into a man with two Rajapalayam puppies at the Tirunelveli railway station in Tamil Nadu. On an impulse, Baskaran requested a puppy and forgot all about it. Five months later, the man arrived at his doorstep bearing a pup. His interactions with Madhu, his new pet, kindled his interest in native breeds. That was the year 1968. About half a century later, the result of that engagement comes to us as The Book of Indian Dogs.

Throughout his career in the Indian Postal Service, Baskaran utilised his postings in different parts of the country to explore the natural world. Before retiring as the Chief Postmaster General of Tamil Nadu, he set the ball rolling for a special series of stamps on four indigenous dog breeds, which were finally released in 2005. After retirement, he was the director of the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai for three years. This research background shows in the many interesting vignettes throughout the book.

In my lifetime, I have seen pet dogs go from being strictly outdoor animals into living rooms and, now, even bedrooms. Save for the occasional icon of Bhairava, one of Siva’s many forms, with his mutt, we did not know much of the canines’ historical presence in Indian homes and society. Were they cherished companions? Were they feral, living on the outskirts of villages? Baskaran’s extensively researched book reveals this storied legacy that has remained shuttered for long.

Baskaran summarises recent research without a heavy hand. Humans domesticated wolves, or, if you will, wolves domesticated us to take care of their needs, thousands of years before people settled down to start farming. Recent research suggests that this event occurred nearly 30,000 years ago. Where did it happen first? Europe, West Asia and East Asia are all contenders. One study even suggests dual origin in both West and East Asia. Studies of dog origins use genomes from Europe, West Asia and China, and a few go as far as Papua New Guinea and Australia. Few, in fact none, that I can trace, include Indian breeds. Nor do our dogs feature in the latest study, which maps when different breeds came into being and the relationship between them.

No matter where and when humans and dogs began their partnership, our history, civilisations and lives would never be the same again. Canines would have been indispensable in tracking animals, chasing and even bringing them down. They lent their superior sense of smell, speed and the ability to work in a coordinated pack to make human hunters more efficient.

Dogs down the centuries

The most valuable section of the book is the chapter on the history of dogs in India. Baskaran quotes Pliny the Elder of the first century: “From India comes the dog that is larger than all others.” What breed of dog was it? Google throws up various lists for the world’s largest breeds and not one Indian breed features in any. The author adds that a 5th century Persian king, Artaxerxes I, designated five villages to maintain hunting dogs from India. Perhaps, never again would Indian breeds be so coveted.

Drawing from Tamil literature, prehistoric cave paintings, Mughal miniatures, Rajasthani paintings, hero-stone carvings and early photographs, Baskaran outlines the role of dogs as hunting companions through the centuries. Raised by pastoralists, trappers and hunters, the hounds were patronised by the nobility. Canines were not molly-coddled as pets as they were working animals. But that did not prevent warrior clans from deifying their canines for their bravery. You may have heard of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s dog named Waghya or Ramana Maharshi’s Jacky. In more recent decades, people called every second dog Raja, Blackie or Roger. Now they opt for names like Karadi and Simba. What did ancient Indians name their dogs?

In the early 7th century, Kovivan died with its master while fighting off cattle rustlers in what is now Tiruvannamalai district, Tamil Nadu. This is one of the earliest dog names, carved in a hero stone. In the 9th century, there was Porakukka in today’s Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh. In the 10th century, there was Kaali in today’s Mandya district in Karnataka.

Even the Jain monks of the 4th century were not immune to dogs. Sample this poem from Naladiyar.

Avoiding the friendship of those who resemble elephants,

seek the companionship of those who are like dogs;

for an elephant will kill its mahout whom it has known for a long time,

but a dog will wag its tail even as the spear thrown at it is still in its body.

Historical records overwhelmingly show hunting hounds in action. Did the people of yore not set dogs to guard their livestock and property? Or were the artists partial to hunting scenes more than serene pastoral ones? We will probably never know.

The gentry, however, would have nothing to do with these animals, despising their very presence. Many proverbs highlight the lowly status of dogs; nor do canines star in the pantheon of divine sidekicks. Attitudes have reversed so much that we would scandalise our forebears with the many videos and photographs we share online every day.

The chapter on the history of Indian dogs does no more than whet the appetite. It is probably not the author’s shortcoming as historical source material must be thin. The account of contemporary history is much more robust. British colonials needed gun dogs to flush out small game and retrievers to fetch waterfowl they shot. Since native breeds were not good at this style of hunting, they imported canines from Europe, a trend that was stopped only last year. As foreign dogs gained popularity, indigenous dogs lost theirs and have not yet recovered. Not only did they not receive patronage, cross-breeding with foreign dogs diluted the breed.

The dogs shown in the illustrations from earlier centuries do not look anything like the ones we see now. Even photographs of Rampur hounds as recent as the mid 19th century do not resemble the breed as we know it today. Baskaran makes a plea for the resuscitation of indigenous breeds. After all, they are adapted to the climatic conditions and need little care. Besides, they are part of our cultural and natural heritage.

What role can these ancient breeds play in the modern era? Companion and working dogs would make good pets, guarding homes and farms. But at least half of our native breeds continue to hark back to their primeval role as hunting hounds. How could these hunters be re-purposed when wildlife laws prohibit hunting? They cannot be kept as house pets in cities. They could make good watchdogs in rural areas where space is not an issue. And they need plenty of exercise, as I found out.

A few years ago, a friend, whose family promotes the Chippiparai, gifted me a puppy. Lola was an elegant beauty and I could not stop taking photographs of anything she did. But the half-hour walk to exercise our other dogs was not enough for her. She grew cranky and hassled humans and mutts. Since I did not want to wipe myself out exercising her, I tried to get a mechanical rabbit used to train greyhounds in the United Kingdom. It was too expensive. I tried to fabricate one myself. It was too complicated.

My husband bought a trail bike that I would pedal and Lola would follow. She thought it silly and was content to watch me. So I held her leash in one hand. Bad idea, I fell down. I tied her leash to the cycle. I fell again when she sat down half way along the path and refused to budge. I had no choice but to run with her. Half an hour later, I was done for the day, but she looked like she had gone for a leisurely stroll. I became fit and she grew calm.

We kept a sharp eye out for our dogs for fear of leopards. Our pets did not run around without supervision. Lola, being a sight hound, took off whenever she spied the tips of a hare’s long ears twitching above the grass. My husband, who champions the rights of wildlife, stood mute watching the spectacular sight. Lola seemed to float, her feet barely touching the ground. I screamed at her to stop and when she slowed, the hare made a getaway. No matter how well I checked if the garden was clear, her eyesight was more finely tuned than mine.

Need for breed standards

Lola was afflicted by that scourge of the breed: a malfunctioning thyroid. Pills and weekly medicated baths kept her condition under control.

Deafness runs in the Rajapalayam. Propagating native breeds without following scientific protocol has led to these typical inbreeding problems. Baskaran argues that establishing breed standards and registration of dogs are essential to counteract these difficulties.

There is a case to make for the conservation of native breeds, but there is clearly a cost to it. Native cattle breeders want jallikattu and rekla as incentives to promote the breeds.

Unlike livestock, finding a role for indigenous hunting hounds is not so simple. Racing may provide the incentive to conserve them as well as give dogs the exercise they need. Baskaran notes failed efforts at conducting dog races in Sivaganga. Besides, the disrepute of greyhound racing would probably jinx their wider appeal.

Roughly half the book forms a guide to 25 Indian breeds. Besides hunting hounds, it includes 10 livestock-guarding dogs and three companion breeds. Baskaran details their adult size, geographical area, habits and history.

Stray dogs

The 10-page appendix on stray dogs has attracted hostile reactions. The author sums up the problems posed by these dogs—biting people, spreading rabies, the failure of birth control, and finally, the threat posed to endangered wildlife.

Neutering stray dogs does not fix any of these problems. Dogs, even when fixed, bite people for many reasons, including trespass of territory and innate aggression. They are a reservoir of rabies as no other mammal exists in such numbers across the country, and birth control has not solved the population numbers problem. Animal welfare activists like to quote a World Health Organisation (WHO) study to support their birth control policy. But the international organisation does not suggest neutering stray dogs. It, instead, asks for pet dogs to be fixed. Wherever stray dogs live, they are a menace to wildlife that is already beleaguered.

A recent study looks at how free-ranging dogs harass wild animals across the world. In all, there is no getting away from the fact that stray dogs pose a serious threat to humans and wildlife.

Anyone challenging the animal welfare narrative is harassed, trolled and vilified. Baskaran is to be commended for not backing down.

Branding mongrels as Indian dogs does a disservice to indigenous breeds. Nothing distinguishes our free-ranging mongrels from others running loose in Sri Lanka, Pakistan or elsewhere, unlike our distinctive Pandikona and Alaknoori. I wish Baskaran had set the record straight.

The book could have used more personal experiences. I, for one, longed to hear about how the Rajapalayam pup and a Tibetan Spaniel fared in the Baskaran household. Shared experiences will give others the confidence of trying something new: adopting a real Indian dog.

This slim volume, one of its kind, offers Indians and dog enthusiasts a look at a little-known history and heritage. Many authors apply for grants and fellowships to conduct research, but Baskaran spent years investigating the history of Indian dogs at his own expense. For this labour of love, we should be grateful.