The Book of Indian Dogs by well-known naturalist and conservationist Theodore Bhaskaran is a testimony to the importance of preserving Indian breeds. Apparently in the eighteenth century a Frenchman travelling around the country recorded more than fifty distinct breeds. But now only a handful survive — Bakharwal, Himalayan mastiffs, Himalayan sheepdog, Jonangi, Kombai, Koochee, Sindhi, Pandikona, Patti, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan spaniel, Tibetan terrier, Alaknoori, Banjara, Caravan hounds, Chippiparais, Kaikadi, Kanni, Kurumalai, Mudhol, Pashmis, Rajapalayams, Rampur hounds and Vaghari hounds.
In The Book of Indian Dogs the author builds upon his vast experience as a dog-lover, owner, naturalist, conservationist and an active member of the Kennel Club of India ( KCI) to focus on the importance of preserving these indigenous breeds. These require active patronage from governments and individuals if these species have to survive. A major reason for their disappearance from public view is attributed to the import of breeds by the British during colonial rule and the subsequent apathy by successive governements in independent India. Apparently there have been attempts to revive indigenous breeds. For instance in 1981 at the Kolhapur Canine Dog show forty Caravan hounds were shown. By 1984 standards were established and at least ten breeds — including the Rampur hounds, Caravan hound, Rajapalayam and Himalayan mastiff — were accorded recognition in the country. And yet as late as 2014 the KCI had not as yet accepted the Jonangi, one of the pristine indigenous breeds, to be recognised. The challenges in according to recognition to Indian breeds exists despite it being proven as happened during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka ( 1987-1990) when the dogs contracted tick fever leading to anaemia and needed transfusions that the Chippiparai dogs are safe and universal donors. A good way of preserving Indian breeds ( that are also considered to be a distant relative of the Australian dingoes) is by introducing them in the canine breeding programmes of the Indian Army. For now the two breeding centres managed by the Indian Army at Meerut and Tekanpur focus primarily on Alsatians and Labradors. The lineage of these dogs can still be traced back to families in Europe. As for their health management — it is another big challenge.
While reading the book I was reminded of some of the dogs we have had in the family. One of them was Jasper — a mix between a Tibetan mastiff and a cocker spaniel. He had a foul temper ( attributed to the mastiff blood) but was utterly indulgent and adorable towards my brother and I. We loved him dearly. Another one was the extraordinarily beautiful grey alsation Pasha. He had the most magnificent cowl. But it was with his arrival in the family that my grandparents bought their first desert cooler in 1970. Then we received a couple of narcotic sniffer dogs who had been trained at Tekanpur. They were siblings — Shiva and Sangha— named by their vets. Stupendous examples of yellow labradors whose lineage could be traced to Germany. Their grandparents had been brought to India by the vets at Tekanpur for the breeding programme. Though the sniffer did some tremendous work with the department they were attached to they were delicate creatures and needed a lot of caregiving. My father has also owned dogs brought in from the Meerut RVC particularly gun shy dogs who were being disposed off. Now my parents own desi dogs picked up off the streets apart from the many they look after in their colony. The foreign breeds have required a lot of care but remarkably enough one of the desis living at home — Chhoti — requires intensive caregiving and is a very delicate dog.
Theodore Bhaskaran’s well documented and passionate account of desi dogs is probably the first of its kind in the country. It gives a bird’s-eye view of the importance dogs have played in history to present times. Despite there being reservations about dogs amongst many Indians and that every half hour a person succumbs to rabies in India there is a great demand for dogs to be kept as pets. If these expectations are managed by introducing indigenous breeds it may help in their preservation.
The publishers Aleph too need to be commended for creating a niche and well-curated list of nature writings. These document as well as focus with urgency upon the work required to preserve different species. The Book of Indian Dogs is an essential part of this seminal list.
S. Theodore Bhaskaran The Book of Indian Dogs Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 120 Rs. 399