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SPOTLIGHT

Canine watch

A series of stamps on Indian breeds of dogs will be released at the fifth national dog show of the Kennel Club of India, in Chennai, today.... S. THEODORE BASKARAN looks at these indigenous breeds.

S. THEODORE BASKARAN

Perhaps the rarest breed in Tamil Nadu -- the Kanni.

I SET my eyes on them for the first time at the Dindigul Railway station in Tamil Nadu many years ago. The two dogs lay curled on the floor. Improvised fibre rope leashes were around their necks and the owner, who was sitting on his haunches, dragging at a beedi with great determination, held the other ends. They were Rajapalayam dogs, he told me, and were on their way to the Anamalais for guard duty on the plantations. He drew my attention to the many scars on their pale white coats and said that they had tackled wild boars in the hills near Srivilliputtur.

Indigenous breeds

The subcontinent is home to a number of indigenous breeds of dogs. The bio-diversity of this part of the world is seen in other domestic animals too. Traditionally, dogs in India were treated like other work animals and so, not given any special attention. It was only after the arrival of the British that dog breeding became fashionable among the Indian upper class, as did golf and shikhar. Notice that even today in our homes, dogs are given English names. Most Indians began to prefer western breeds such as the Alsatian and the Spaniel and indigenous breeds became marginalised.

Conrad Lorenz, Nobel-prize winning ethologist, points out in his book The Man Meets Dog that it was possibly in India, in the Mesolithic period, that the dog was first domesticated. The Indian wolf is said to be the ancestor of the domestic dog. Some prehistoric rock paintings discovered recently in Tamil Nadu depict men hunting with dogs.

The varied geographical regions of India, have, through a long process of evolution, produced dog breeds to suit the landscape and climate. So we have the longhaired mastiff and the short-coated Mudhol to name a few. Like the European breeds, Indian breeds also acquired geographical names such as the Rampur hound and the Kombai. The Rampur hound is probably the most well known Indian breed and one of the earliest to be recognised for shows. These are the dogs we see in Moghul miniatures, accompanying nobles while out on a hunt. These dogs are originally from Rohilkhand, a small kingdom in Uttar Pradesh.

Common characteristics

For Indian dogs, there are certain common characteristics. Most of them are outdoor dogs, with rare exceptions like the Tibetan Spaniel, and are oriented towards speed and action. As the emphasis was not in making them show pieces, the practice of docking (cutting the tail) was unknown. None of these breeds was trained as gun dogs, though they have been used for hunting ever since they were domesticated. Except for kings and nobles who indulged in hunting, the upper castes shunned dogs. It is only with the arrival of the British that the upper castes took to dog breeding. The unique nature of Indian breeds, particularly the Himalayan dogs, drew the attention of early British dog-fanciers and they gave European names to these breeds — the Himalayan Sheep dog, the Himalayan or Tibetan mastiff, the Tibetan terrier and the Tibetan spaniel. The last two breeds were taken to England and have stabilised there. The Himalayan Sheep dog was recently in the news. It is running errands for Indian soldiers in the Siachen area.

The Lhasa Apso, another Himalayan breed, is also popular in England where it is known as the Talisman dog. The Himalayan mastiff is a much bigger dog, a loveable-looking animal on the lines of the Great Pyrenees. The massive head and ruff are distinctive.

Dogs from Tamil Nadu



Distinct -- the Himalayan mastiff.

The other "celebrities" from Tamil Nadu are the Kombai and the Rajapalayam. The Kombai, named after a town near Madurai, is like the Bull terrier in temperament. It is mostly tan in colour. These dogs were used for hunting and keeping watch. The army of the Marudhu brothers defended their fort at Kalayarkoil with the Kombai against the East India Company. The Rajapalayam, an all white dog has a distinct pink nose. The Poligars used this breed during the Carnatic wars to fight the British. The dogs were trained to bite the hamstring of horses and disable them, and played havoc with the British cavalry. Probably the rarest breed of South India is the Kanni, which means maiden. The story is that the Kanni was often given away as part of dowry, the idea being not to let the dog go out of the family. It is an all black dog, like the Doberman, with two yellow spots above the eyes. In all my wanderings looking for indigenous breeds of dogs, I have seen only two specimens, both near Pollachi, Tamil Nadu.

Recently in Maharashtra, another ancient breed has been noted. In the Mhalungi village of Latur district, farmers are rearing a breed called Pashmi. This breed was inducted into the police force. As the standards of these breeds have not been set, there is a lot of debate about the distinct nature of certain breeds. For instance, some argue that the Caravan hound and the Pashmi are mere variations of the Mudhol.

Characteristics `diluted'

That most of the indigenous breeds have been neglected is a sad commentary on our concern for India's canine heritage. Among popular indigenous breeds such as the Rampur and the Mudhol hounds, the male pups are fancied, leaving only a few males to breed. This has led to inbreeding and eventual degeneration.

The characteristics of many breeds too have been diluted beyond recognition. The decline of hunting and the emphasis on wildlife conservation is another reason for the neglect of these breeds. The traditional work done by these dogs, like guarding has become redundant due to modernisation. Himalayan breeds such as the Mastiff, the Lhasa Apso and the Tibetan terrier are safe in Europe and America.

In China and Japan, which have a long canine history, native breeds are taken care of. The Akita-ten is looked upon as a national heritage in Japan. The Pug, the dimunitive breed from China that was noticed by the outside world only in 1860, is now popular all over the world. (In India, it used to appear in the media advertisements of a well known cellular phone service provider) But in India, after 1947, nobody has thought of its canine heritage. There have only been sporadic attempts, both individual and institutional. In 1979, the North-Eastern Kennel Club was started in Shillong mainly to stabilise the Himalayan breeds. In 1981, a dog breeding unit was started in Chennai to breed the Rajapalayam, the Kombai and the Rampur hounds.

A revival?

The Kennel of Club of India (www.thekci.org) in Chennai has taken up the cause of the Rajapalayam breeds and is setting up a breeding centre on the East Coast Road. Here the dogs will be bred scientifically, under the supervision of veterinarians. Hopefully, other Indian breeds will be taken care of.

The set of stamps is based on the images shot by the author.

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