29 July is International Tiger Day. The day was first launched at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 and is observed annually to remind the world about the decline of the global tiger population, and to encourage efforts for tiger conservation. On this day we will see many reports and statistics about tigers and their falling/growing population, and many conferences and seminars will be held on research and studies on tigers.
This is perhaps a good time to look at the tigers that roam not the forests, but that have also populated the pages of language and literature. The tiger has been a dominant character in folklore and mythology in many cultures.
Perhaps China is the richest country in myths, representations, traditions, and legends related to tigers. Tigers have been a Chinese cultural symbol which has inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. In Chinese folklore, tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters: fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building, facing the entrance, to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Even in modern- day China, children wear tiger-headed caps, and shoes embroidered with tiger heads to ward off evil spirits; they are given tiger-shaped pillows to sleep on to make them robust. During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.
The tiger has equally captivated the people of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – feared and revered at the same time. These majestic beats and the lives of the people, especially those that live in close proximity to the tiger and its habitat, have long been intertwined, giving rise to several myths and legends surrounding them. Tiger lore has been interwoven with gods and legends, giving it a mythical status.
According to stories from Indian mythology, the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons, to creating rain, keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Humans are often attributed as having tiger characteristics. The consecration ceremony of a king in ancient times required the king to tread upon a tiger skin, signifying the King’s strength.
Songs, proverbs, and sayings in most Indian languages feature tigers as part of their treasury of folk lore and literature. Tigers appear in many stories in the Panchatantra.
A popular belief among many tribes in the Northeast of India is that the cosmic spirit, humans, and tigers are brothers. There are many folk tales based on this theme, with local variations. The belief that the tiger is a human’s brother has meant that the people of these tribes would rarely kill a tiger. There are traditional rituals performed even today to honour and worship the tiger.
In more recent times, tigers were introduced to non-Asian audiences through the writings of Englishmen who had lived in colonial India by authors such as the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. His books like The Man Eaters of Kumaon were perhaps some of the early depictions of human-tiger conflict.
In the culture of the West, where they are not found in the wild, tigers have nevertheless sparked the imaginations of writers, and have become popular fictional characters in stories, films, cartoons, songs, and even advertisements. Perhaps the best recreation of the fearsome tiger is Shere Khan of the Jungle Book fame.
Anthropomorphized tiger characters in children’s books have won their place in millions of hearts. There is boisterous and exuberant, Tigger, who is a one-of-a-kind friend in the world of Winnie the Pooh. He eagerly shares his enthusiasm with others—whether they want him to or not, and steals our heart.
And we have the imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, who is very real to the irrepressible six-year-old Calvin—a faithful companion in all the capers, sometimes a comforting friend, sometimes a savage beast. The two friends have deep philosophical conversations, ruminating on how best to find meaning in their lives, the essence of which is what all of us are seeking.
Other than literature, tigers have permeated our language through numerous aphorisms, proverbs and sayings. Here are a few ‘tigerisms’.
Paper tiger: Someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.
Tiger economy: A dynamic economy usually referring to of one of the smaller East Asian countries, especially that of Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea.
Tiger mom: A particularly strict mother who makes her children work very hard in school to achieve success.
Catch a tiger by the tail: Try to control something that is very powerful; have a difficult problem to solve.
A tiger cannot change its stripes: You can’t change your true nature, even if you pretend or claim otherwise.
Eye of the tiger: Determined and focused
A new-born calf has no fear of tigers: A Chinese saying that means that the young are brave, but often due to inexperience.
As tigers in the wild continue to be threatened and pushed towards extinction, International Tiger Day is also an occasion to celebrate the power of words that keep the tiger alive and vibrant in the pages that they also inhabit.
Some beautiful words by Ruskin Bond capture this spirit.
May there always be tigers
In the jungles and tall grass
May the tiger’s roar be heard.
May his thunder
Be known in the land.
At the forest pool by moonlight
May he drink and raise his head
Scenting the night wind.
May he crouch low in the grass
When herdsmen pass.
And slumber in dark caverns
When the sun is high.
May there always be tigers
But not so many that one of them
Might be tempted to come into my room
In search of a meal!