A few centuries back, there would have been in India as many Asiatic lions as there were tigers or may be even more, at least in western India.
The lion motif (double headed terracotta lion) is already seen in the seals of Indus Valley civilization.
In Vedic literature, the lion is mentioned as the king of the jungle. Asiatic lions were abundant in the Indus Valley (actual Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sind). Tigers were the animals of the East. For Vedic people, the inhabitants of western India, the lion was a more popular animal than the tiger and was the icon of power. That explains why in the ancient history and mythology of India, the lion is more prevalent than the tiger. Ancient fables of India likePanchatantra, a collection of ancient tales of wisdom - some believe that the fables of Panchatantra are as old as the Rig-veda- feature many more lion characters than tigers, such as in ‘The Lion and the Rabbit’ and “The Lion and the Foolish Donkey”.
In Buddhist literature (300BC), the Jatakas, a collection of 547 stories about Buddha’s prior existence in which he is described as having taken birth as a variety of different animals, the Asiatic lion is once again a prominent character. Because Buddha plays the leading role of a pre-eminent person he is styled as the Universal Monarch (Raja Chakkavatti); and a lion (siha). That could explain why, Emperor Ashoka (273 - 236 BCE), the most famous of the Buddhist rulers of India, inscribed his famous edicts on the lion capitol of Sarnath. Jataka scenes have been the favourite themes in the sculptured carvings adorning the railings of the Stupas of Sanchi and Bharhut, Buddhist shrines built by Ashoka the Great. The elaborately carved gateway of Sanchi’s Stupa is famous for its adorsed lions.
Asiatic lions have been equally celebrated during the Mughal period. Babur, the founder of the Moghul Empire, was very famous for hunting lions and he gave accounts of lions killed by him in his Babarnama. Lions would have been the preferred animals of the Mughal as the population of lions would have been widespread in northern, central and western India. Mughal miniature paintings depict many scenes with lions. Court writers recount many horrifying stories of lion attacks on travelers.
In the 17th Century, Sir Thomas Roe, the first British ambassador to India, during Jahangir’s reign, recounts the presence of lions in the Narmada Valley.
During the British period, lion hunting was considered as the most aristocratic sport in India. British journals of the 19th century show that lions occupied a prominent place in British shikaar stories. Lions were found in Bundelkand (Jhansi), in Rajputana (Udaipur, Jodhpur, Mount Abu …), in the Vindhyas, in the Tapti and Narmada Valley, in Bihar and around Gwalior and Agra. In 1857, a British officer is reported to have hunted 300 lions of which 50 were in the district of Delhi. Lions were hunted from the elephant back.
The 19th century saw the indiscriminate slaughter of lions till there were only 12 left in the Gir forest. A lion was reportedly killed in the district of Palamau (Bihar) in 1814. Fifty lions were killed in the district of Delhi between 1856-1858. In 1891, Blanford wrote that the lion was verging extinction in India.
And today, 120 years later, we have almost forgotten that lions were once upon a time a common denizen of our jungles!!
Tell your kids about the Asiatic lion, world's most endangered carnivore. Only 350 of them are left in the wild!!
For Lesson Plans and Printable Activities about the Asiatic lion visit: Ecology for Children