Hindustani Hounds: ‘The Book Of Indian Dogs’ Profiles Indian Canine Breeds
If you were to go by the dogs seen on the streets of Indian cities, you’d think the country only has mutts and foreign breeds. In Mumbai at least, you’re hard-pressed to find dogs that are not local mongrels such as strays or imported varieties like Labradors and cocker spaniels. Few dog lovers and pet owners would even be aware there’s a wide range of indigenous breeds. Siberian huskies can be spotted on the sidewalks but you’re unlikely to see a pashmi or a Rajapalayam. The Lhasa apso, a well-known local breed, is one of the few exceptions. The generally low level of knowledge of local canines makes S. Theodore Baskaran’s The Book of Indian Dogs something of a revelation.
The slim tome lists 25 Indian breeds recognised by local breeders and ‘dog fanciers’, that is, people with a passionate interest in dog rearing according to the canine lexicon. Baskaran also provides a bit of history of dogs in India. This is not an academic work but a serious passion project. The former postmaster general of Tamil Nadu, Baskaran has mustered his knowledge of dogs by researching an array of texts and visiting breeders across the country. The book begins with historical accounts of dogs in literature and images of canines in ancient Indian art. Evidence that dogs have been around on the subcontinent for thousands of years can be found on rock paintings in Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, on frescoes in Ajanta, on hero stones commemorating men who died in battle, in memorials built by people to honour their favourite hunting hounds and in Mughal miniatures.
He writes that Indian breeds were relatively undiluted till the early colonists arrived around the sixteenth century. The Portuguese imported hounds to India, followed by the British. As a result of interbreeding, the appearance of Indian dogs changed. Canines in early representations in Indian art had squarish heads, unlike the dogs of today which have longer, pointed muzzles. For instance, breeds like the Mudhol hound, Rajapalayam, Chippiparai, caravan hound and Rampur hound look like cousins of the greyhound. Aside from the British, Indian royalty imported foreign dogs. The book has a story of the Nawab of Junagadh, who had 150 dogs. They wore diamond collars and each had its own kennel and keeper. Two of the dogs were ‘married’ is a ceremony that lasted three days.
There was little interest however in Indian breeds. Even nationalist leaders had foreign dogs as pets – Nehru had a golden retriever and Ambedkar, a pair of fox terriers. Baskaran writes that there’s little consensus among Indian breeders on the standards that define a particular breed. The 25 he profiles are generally considered to be distinct types, but there’s no officially recognised set of scientific standards determining breeds. While Indian pets have competed in dog shows abroad, not a single Indian breed is recognised by the Federation Cynologique Internationale, an international organisation of kennel clubs that classifies purebred dogs. It’s only in recent years that local kennel clubs have begun promoting indigenous breeds and Indian dogs have been made to compete in shows.
The centrefold of the book is an illustrated section with pictures of most of the breeds Baskaran discusses. So used is one to equating Indian dogs with strays (which are varied but share a family resemblance) that knowing that these breeds were produced on Indian soil comes as a pleasant surprise. For instance, the Rajapalayam is an extraordinarily elegant white dog. The Chippiparai, considered a safe blood donor for dogs, is lean, soldierly and in all a grand specimen of a hunting dog. One hopes that Baskaran’s book, a swift and engaging read, will elevate the awareness of Indian breeds among dog lovers, who would do better to look inland than overseas for pets. Rajapalayams and Chippiparais are far better suited to the local environment and deserve to be recognised.
The Book of Indian Dogs by S. Theodore Baskaran, Aleph, Rs399.