We know less about what the hunts meant to the Ranas, except that it was important on many levels. Hunting was a rite of passage for Rana youth. On the 1921 hunt, one of Chandra’s sons, though only eight years old, shot his first tiger.
But the hunt, as anthropologist Piers Locke writes in an exhibit at the Chitwan Tharu Culture Museum outside Sauraha, also ‘served several political purposes’. It ‘demonstrated the leadership skills of Chandra Shumsher and allowed elites to show off their strength and virility. It showed the ruler’s concern for local people by helping to rid their land of crop-destroying pests and dangerous predators’.
And not least, Locke explains, ‘it provided a forum for diplomacy’.
Ten years earlier, Chandra had used the visit of George V to follow up on a request he had made on his recent trip to London for formal recognition of Nepal’s sovereignty and permission to import and manufacture weapons. Nepalis had always maintained their complete independence, but in recent years British officials had wavered, speaking of Nepal as more independent than the Indian princely states but not as fully independent as Afghanistan. Chandra pushed for a formal British acknowledgement of Nepal’s full independence. In 1911, he didn’t get it.
But by 1921, the situation had changed. In World War I, over 100,000 Nepali men had helped the British maintain their empire, serving in India and in Europe, 14,000 had been wounded, 10,000 never returned home. During the hunting expedition in Chitwan, Nepali and British officials reached a new understanding about Nepali independence, as Thomas Cox explains in an article in the Journal of South Asian Studies. They formalised things two years later in the Treaty of Friendship. Nepal would get weapons and a formal acknowledgment of its independence.
After the hunt, the Prince of Wales sent a note to Chandra Shamsher. He thanked the Rana leader for the meticulous planning and preparations that had made his hunt so successful. He also thanked Chandra once again for the great assistance Nepal had given Great Britain during the war.
‘Under the Conditions that Prevail’
None of this – the ‘Oriental magnificence’, the roads, the crescent of tents facing the mountains, the rhino writing table, the fine French meals, the 423 elephants, Nepal’s famous ring method, the 18 tigers shot – was possible without the work, skill, and knowledge of thousands of ordinary Nepalis, particularly the Tharu and other indigenous groups of Chitwan.
We do not hear much about them. We catch a glimpse in a photo here and there: Tharu mahouts on top of elephants. Guides and beaters in the tall grass as a ring is being formed. Animal skinners.