(Last Updated on : 23/10/2010)
India is the seventh-largest country in the world. The country has quite a rich history and tradition, and the Indian natural history has a long heritage, too. Dating back to the Vedic era, the Indian natural history can be restricted to the broad fields of paleontology, zoology and botany. The Vedas represent some of the most ancient historical records about Indian natural history whilst providing valuable notes on different flora and fauna of India. Apart from the Vedas, the medical treatises of Charaka and Sushruta also mentions about the Indian natural history. The 2000 year old text Gajashastra gives a vivid description about the capture, training and maintenance of elephants, during that time. The Tamil literature of the Sangam period also depicts a classification of lands into 5 eco-types that range from the littoral to wet paddy fields.
The Indus Valley Civilisation is an integral part of the Indian natural history. The civilisation was in existence before 1700 B.C. and it was spread across North West India. More than a thousand sites of the Indus Valley civilization have so far been studied. During the study, several animal bones have been found and one-fifth of these comprised bones of wild fauna, like the jackal, hare, chital, rhinoceros and elephant. Apart from that, several seeds of wild plants have also been found in the abodes of some Western Indian sites and the seeds are now extinct to the region. The flora and fauna of that period of the Indian natural history are nicely portrayed in the clay pottery and tablets excavated from those sites. The clay tablets document many species of extinct wildlife. Apart from that, a tiger seal, dating back to 3000 B.C. has also been found in Harappan.
Indian natural history during the Mauryan period gained dimension as the emperors seriously started to think about the protection of animals. The Maurya dynasty ruled India during the fourth and third centuries B.C. and they were the first dynasty to provide a unified political entity in India. The Mauryas firstly looked at forests as a resource and they considered the elephants, as the most important forest product. The main reason was that, the military power in those times depended not only upon horses and men but also upon battle-elephants. Another reason behind the Mauryas seeking to preserve supplies of elephants was that, it was more cost and time-effective to catch, tame and train wild elephants than raise them. Kautilya`s renowned book, Arthashastra also unambiguously specifies the responsibilities of officials like the Protector of the Elephant Forests.
The Mauryas also designated separate forests to protect supplies of timber, as well as lions and tigers, for skins. They took a lot of initiatives to protect the flora and fauna and hence, the Maurya period is considered as one of the most significant periods in Indian natural history. The Mauryas appointed Protector of Animals, who worked to eliminate thieves, tigers and other predators to render the woods safe for grazing cattle. They also valued certain forest tracts in strategic or economic terms and instituted curbs and control measures over them. Though all forest tribes were regarded with distrust by the Mauryas, they employed some of them, the food-gatherers or aranyaca to guard borders and trap animals. One of the greatest Mauryan emperors, Ashoka (304 - 232 BC) provided great protection to fauna and even relinquished the royal hunt. He was perhaps the first ruler in the Indian natural history to advocate conservation measures for wildlife. He had rules inscribed in stone edicts, as well and the edicts proclaim that many followed the king`s example in giving up the slaughter of animals. The other emperors of that time also made rules to penalize the deer poachers in royal hunting preserves, with a 100 `panas`.
The Sanskrit treatise named the Manasollasa during the Chalukya period is arguably considered to be the best treatise on hunting, in the entire Indian natural history. The treatise was composed during the period of the Chalukyas, the twelfth century rulers of the Deccan. Indian natural history during the Mughal period again can be characterised as a contemporary effort by the emperors. As they used to lead a leisurely life and decorated their gardens with their private zoos the emperors unknowingly contributed to that already rich natural history of India.
During the pre-colonial era in the Indian natural history witnessed a colossal change. The Dutch East India Company contributed a lot to it. After getting into the ruling position in India, the East India Company did a lot in preserving and protecting the Indian flora and fauna and the British rulers made a huge contribution to the Indian natural history. They were quick to note the interest in natural curiosities and set up the first museum in India. The collections of the museum grew rapidly, with the course of time. The British era in the Indian natural history brought some of the rare species of flora in India. The British period saw the Indian Civil Services bringing in several British naturalists to India. Some of them collected species on behalf of British and other European naturalists and museums, and some others carried out their studies entirely on their own. All of them enriched the Indian natural history with their own contributions. The earliest effort to document the Indian fauna was perhaps that of Thomas Hardwicke (1755 - 1835). He was a military officer in India and he hired local artists to produce a huge collection of illustrations of Indian animals. John Edward Gray (1800 - 1875) followed his work and this subsequently led to the publication of `Illustrations of Indian Zoology`. This publication was mainly selected from the collection of Major-General Hardwicke and consisted of 202 colour plates. In 1883, a large number of naturalists having an interest in sharing observations founded the Bombay Natural History Society. It was indeed another milestone in the Indian natural history.
Although the growth of modern Indian natural history can be attributed to British colonialism, there were several Indian naturalists, who have made their contributions. Some of the most notables among them were the famous Ornithologists, Salim Ali and his cousin Humayun Abdulali, who worked with the Bombay Natural History Society. Salim Ali produced the most comprehensive handbook of Indian ornithology, while working with American collaborators like Sidney Dillon Ripley and Walter Norman Koelz. Apart from them, the Zoological Survey of India also conducted its own collection surveys. The Indian natural history after Independence also has great contributions from the other naturalists like the Entomologists, M. S. Mani and B. K. Tikader; the Ichthyologists like Sunderlal Hora, C. V. Kulkarni and S. B. Setna; the Herpetologists like C. R. Narayan Rao etc. Some of the eminent scientists from other disciplines like J. B. S. Haldane also contributed to the study of Indian natural history.