Sundararaj Theodore Baskaran, 77, is a polymath. Probably one of the last of his breed. Over his several-decades long literary career, Baskaran has written on a wide variety of subjects, including Indian history, film, politics, environment and wildlife conservation, and now dogs. His Book of Indian Dogs is a long overdue account of the history of the canine in the Indian subcontinent and a quick foray into some Indian dog breeds. The book is by no means expansive, but with next to no scholarship on the subject, Baskaran’s book is a welcome initiative. Also, in pedigree obsessed India, the beautiful breeds on display in the book and their versatile characteristics is enough for any dog lover to adopt those dogs that are ‘Made in India’.
Below is an excerpt from a recent interview with Baskaran.
Q: How did you decide to write a book on this theme?
A: I find a lot of things interesting. Sometimes I feel that I have spread too wide and not done anything profound on any one subject. I feel like a dilettante. Some of these things I have left unpursued but thankfully many of them I have pursued. That’s how I went into cinema also. Areas that I go into are somehow not very much explored. Like Indian breeds of dogs or Tamil cinema.
In terms of dogs, this has been a long overdue project. Long time back in 1968-69, I had a Rajapalayam dog. It was then that I began to look at Indian dog breeds and found it to be a fascinating world. Hence, I began to collect material ever since then. To be honest, I should have written this book long back. Even now, I think I have only scratched the surface.
Q: How is the dog been viewed in Indian history and mythology?
A: The dog was the first animal to be domesticated. Hence, it set the standard for domestication of animals. Dogs have had a long presence in Indian history. There is a terracotta figurine of a dog that was found in Mohenjo-daro, it has a collar hence we know it was very much domesticated.
Also, it is said that when Alexander invaded India, he took back many Indian dogs and handlers as well. This is because they were astonished by the health, size and ferociousness of Indian dogs. There is a mural of a stocky Indian dog at Ajanta, based on a story from the Jataka tales. There are also sculptures across the country for dogs, I have seen a Hero stone for a dog that is still standing near the town of Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. Dogs have also been portrayed in murals inside the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur.
This is a Kombai, a boar hound found in Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala.
There is also the story of the Rajapalayam being used during the Polygar wars of the 18th century. The dogs were trained to sneak into the Company army stables and bite the hamstrings of their horses, thus rendering them immobile.
These are just a few of the many examples I have come across.
Q: What are some popular Indian dog breeds, how are they classified?
A: There are many that are spread across the subcontinent. Most dog breeds are named after the community that takes care of them or the region that they are found in. Hence, you have the Rajapalayam, the Bakherwal, Mudhol Hounds, Rampur Hounds, and the Himalayan Sheep Dog and so on. In the book, I have tried to elaborate on as many of these breeds as possible. Actually, after writing the book, I have received many mails saying that there is a particular dog breed in a particular place. That is how I recently got to know of the Sindhi Hound, for example.
The Gorewali Sindhi Hound found in the Kutch region.
Q: Can you elaborate on characteristics of Indian dog breeds?
A: Sure. Each dog has its own uniqueness. Take the Himalayan sheep dog, found in Ladakh. It’s not a herding dog but a guard dog, but it’s remarkable nevertheless. The dog was in the news sometime back because Indian army personnel managed to train it as a messenger and they were using it to relay information from post to post in Siachen.
In the Himalayan region is also found the Himalayan Mastiff, it’s a fierce guard dog. The British who began mountaineering here in the 50s took to this dog and it is now extremely popular in the United Kingdom and the US as well. A peculiar feature of this dog is that it has two yellow marks on top of its eyes and local belief is that the Mastiff can see the devil coming.
Couple with Chippiparai dog.
Down in the plains you have many great hounds such as the Rampur, Chippiparai, Pashmi and many others which I have detailed in the book. All Indian plains’ dogs have some common features. They all have long legs, short courts, and floppy ears, are deep chested and have a thin tail. These are the features that let them be so versatile in Indian conditions.
Q: What needs done to preserve India’s canine heritage?
A: First, we need to understand that the people who raised dogs in India were the trappers, hunters, farmhands, workers and loaders, the working class essentially. They are the conduits of our canine heritage. They know dogs very well and have been preserving whatever is left of our canine heritage. So, acknowledging this is important, lot of people seem to have forgotten this now.
Having said that, there are many initiatives taken in recent years which are in the right direction. There are now Indian breed special shows where hound experts from other countries are invited to be judges. There is one that takes place in Nagercoil every year.
A Caravan hound being shown in a Dog show for Indian breeds of dogs at Bangalore.
Efforts by the Karnataka government to preserve the Mudhol hound are also commendable. They have a large facility in the state where more than 200 Mudhols are brought up. They also reach out to Mudhol owners to provide timely vaccination and inform them about methods of scientific breeding. This has place the hound in really good stead. More governments need to follow Karnataka’s example.
At the end of the day, people have to realize that just like the Taj Mahal or Carnatic music, Indian dogs are also our heritage. That’s the burden of my song.
Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets @sibi123.
The Book of Indian Dogs is published by the Aleph Book Company. It’s available online and in bookstores.