Sher Jung, the legendary freedom fighter, hunter turned conservationist and author was born on 27th November, 1904 at Haripur Khol, a sleepy hamlet on the fringe of the dense forests of Kalesar. His father, Chaudhury Partap Singh, was the Collector of the princely State of Sirmaur. Sher Jung is said to have dropped out from school and been home tutored by a French tutor who imbibed in him the spirit of radical liberalism. The child loved the wilderness of the Shivalik hills and was still in his early teens when he took to ‘shikar’ in the tradition of his Rajput ancestors. An ace shot, with a natural understanding of the jungle craft, Sher Jung took pride in being an ‘ethical’ hunter who gave his adversary an even chance. The younger sons of Partap Singh, Jagdeep and Shamsher were also known for being excellent shikaris.
His liberal thought did not go well with the feudal culture of the princely state and he was packed-off by his parents to live with his sister at Lahore. Here, Sher Jung got in touch with revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and joined the Hindostan Socialist Republican Association. He participated in the sensational attempted train dacoity between Kup and Ahmedgarh on the Ludhiana – Dhuri – Jakhal line on the 15th of October, 1929 when the revolutionaries – Chaudhury Sher Jung, Sahib Singh Salana, Harnam Singh Charnak and others – made an unsuccessful attempt to loot the Government treasury on the train. The Sydney Morning Herald carried the news on Friday, 18th October 1929.
Ahmedgarh Train Robbery- The Sydney Morning Herald (Friday 18 October 1929)
The British authorities cracked down on the revolutionaries after the foiled attempt. Sher Jung sought refuge in the Shivalik jungles and dodged his British pursuers until a reward of Rs. 30,000 was declared on his head. He is then said to have surrendered for the sake of the reward money that would be used for furthering the cause of the revolutionary struggle. Sher Jung’s surrender to the Ambala Police in March 1930 was reported in a number of Australian Newspapers. A report dated Saturday 15th March 1930 published by Kalgoorlie Miner is reproduced for the readers:
RECENT BOMB OUTRAGE – ATTACK ON VICEROY – ELEVEN MEN ARRESTED
Calcutta, March 14. A statement revealing the existence of a widespread conspiracy to perpetrate political murders in India is alleged to have been made by Sher Jung, the notorious brigand of the Punjab, who surrendered to robbery. Sher Jung’s relatives at Jullundur are stated to have given a clue to the perpetrators of the bomb outrage on the Viceroys train on December 23, and eleven men have been arrested at Jullundur. Two bombs were found in the house of one of the accused.
Sher Jung was tried and sentenced to death in 1930 but the sentence was later commuted to life sentence. On his release from the prison in 1938, he married Nirmala Devi, a revolutionary college student who had been detailed by the editor of ‘The Tribune’ to interview him when he was incarcerated in jail. He set up Praja Mandal units in Sirmaur and edited the Urdu magazine, ‘Chingari’ that was published from Dehradun. He was rearrested during the Second World War and was incarcerated for another 5 years in prison. On his release after Independence, he organized the refugee camps at Delhi. He helped set up two battalions of the Kashmir National Militia and led them in battle against the tribal Kabaili raiders in Kashmir in 1947. Nehru bestowed the rank of Colonel on this fearless nationalist and natural leader of men. Col. Sher Jung engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Portuguese in the 1950s to liberate Goa. He along with his protégé Asish Dasgupta, crossed over behind the enemy lines in 1971 and trained the ‘Muktivahini’ in East Bengal!
He settled down at Delhi and set up a shooting club. His grandson, Samaresh Jung went on to be christened the ‘Goldfinger of India’ when he won 5 gold medals in the Air Pistol Shooting Events, in the 2006 Commonwealth Games at Melbourne.
Col. Sher Jung authored several books including Tryst with Tigers (1967) and Ramblings in Tigerland (1970). He passed away at Delhi on December 15th, 1996. The Himachal Pradesh government recently named the 28 sq. Km ‘Simbalwara National Park’ in Sirmaur as the ‘Sher Jung National Park’ to recognize the contributions of this amazing son of Sirmaur.
A friend once mentioned having read the interesting accounts of tiger hunting and jungle tramping by Sher Jung. The books were, however, out of print and the modern day book sellers had no recollection of the author. Amazon offered used copies at something like $200 a piece, which was well beyond the humble means of a Tramp! The search for the books eventually led to the library of Bombay Natural History Society that had miraculously preserved copies of these now ‘rare’ books.
Tryst with Tigers (1967) has been written in two parts. The first deals with the Tiger. Its habitat -generally the western parts of the the great Terai Arc that forms the forested southern fringe of the Himalayas that Sher Jung was most familiar with. Thus he talks about the jungles of the Kiyarda Dun and Kalesar forest in Sirmaur and the Sal forests ensconcing the Shivalik arc from Yamuna to Ganga and further east till the Ramganga River. He describes the habits of the tiger- feeding, hunting and breeding, lacing his descriptions with interesting anecdotes. Then there are tips for the hunter- on the choice of weapons for Shikar and the shots to be taken. Sher Jung compares hunting to the job of a surgeon who must wield the knife with precision to ‘remove the superfluous’ – to prune and not to destroy. Paradoxically, however, there are many accounts of mindless killing of tigers and leopards. Sher Jung speaks of his brother Jagdeep having shot three leopards in three successive nights – all for sport. He confesses to shooting of tigers encountered by chance when hunting for the pot. They were neither cattle-lifters nor man-eaters. But then one must not judge a man outside his times. There is the unmistaken pride of the sportsman in all such hunting accounts. There is also an overwhelming grief at the thoughtless destruction of the tiger and its habitat in the early decades of the 20th century that brought down the tiger population from 50,000 to less than 4000 in the 60s when the book was written.
He does try to justify his guilt in having been party to the carnage by distinguishing himself from the creed of those unprofessional hunters who lack the courage and the perseverance needed for sitting up long, lonely nights in the jungle keeping watch over the tiger’s ‘kill’. Who instead choose to mow down tigers from the safety of the elephant’s back, after having them hounded by an army of beaters. There was no sport or honour in such one-sided contests. Not for Sher Jung. For the man took pride in beating the ‘Master of Stealth’ at his own game, of outwitting the great cat by relying on his deep knowledge of jungle-craft acquired from a lifetime spent in forests. His accounts were of evenly fought duels, where the victor displayed respect for the vanquished.
The part two of the book has detailed accounts by the author of his hunting encounters with five different tigers, one of which managed to eventually outwit him despite being pursued for years. The stories talk about the jungle, its animals and its people. The characters come live in Sher Jung’s rich descriptions – they are men and women of all hues and character- brave, cowardly, noble, pompous, morose, and comical! Even his tigers have a personality. The majestic ‘Langra Chhangah’, the elusive cattle-lifter of Kalushaheed, the lovable ‘Idiot’ and the terrible man-eating tigress of Kiyarda Dun. The jungle experiences are vividly described by the author who artfully recreates the jungle sounds and feel, the suspense for the reader. The writer’s flowery language (poetic?) strikes an initial discordant note but once you are over this hurdle, you will love these simple honest accounts written from the heart by a man lamenting the passing away of an era.
A friend recounted his conversation as a school kid with the ageing Sher Jung and the Tramp cannot resist reproducing the same for his readers. This is what he had to write – “I expected a husky and masculine voice on the line but my hello was answered by a rather feeble voice – Mr. Sher Jung was really old by then. After I had paid my regards, and told him that I liked his books, he said, ‘Arey beta, toh tumney meri raddi ke dheri parh hi lee…………Beta aaj kal keh zamaane mein tumney yeh shauk kahan seh lagah liya? ……….Na woh waqt rahe hain aur na woh jangal rahe hain…………..’ he mused.”
A mention must be made of Sher Jung’s strong moorings in radical liberalism that are reflected in his rejection of the exclusive rights of the rulers of Princely States over hunting in their Zamindary Forests and Shikargahs (game preserves). He is most unapologetic and almost triumphant when he talks about his having poached with impunity for decades in these so-called exclusive game reserves! Equally noticeable is the derision directed at the police for their inaptitude and even cowardice when he talks about the sad incident involving seven deaths in a tiger attack in the scrub forest at Damdama near Bhondsi, Gurgaon. His early experiences with the police of the colonial era may have caused this resentful attitude. His strong sense of pride for the ‘noble’ Rajputs for showing courage and grace in the face of adversity, be it the charging tiger or abject poverty of the hill people, is also not to be missed!!
Ramblings in Tigerland (1970) was the second book on tigers and jungle tramping by Sher Jung and it certainly does not disappoint. The book is about his three different encounters in the wild. The flavour of narration is essentially the same as that of his first book. The descriptions are as rich. The poet in him surfaces every now and then as he describes the beautiful hilly landscape of the Sirmaur forests and the lives and quaint ways of its simple inhabitants. The account of his long chase of Landa, the vile, stump-tailed, man-eating tiger is particularly engaging. You cannot miss the savage energy of a lyrical (delirious?) star-lit evening soaked in dance and music, oblivious of the terrible danger that looms in the darkness. You’ll notice his wanton disregard, if not outright contempt, of form and custom. Jung, paradoxically, scoffs at the idea of God while revelling in His creation! He introduces you to the clear, untarnished thought of the simple, unlettered hill folk who can take delight in the simple joys of life. Who can live the moment without needing to define it in words.
Sher Jung effortlessly transports the reader to his wild, untamed world. To give him a taste of the violence of that long, unforgiving apocalyptic night – to be helplessly tossed around by the feverish waves of malaria – to be crushed under the weight of a devastating cloud burst – to be trapped in the treacherous quagmire of crumbling hillsides – to be stalked by a relentless blood-thirsty foe. The tale is real in its every enchanting and gruesome detail! A story that brings to the fore the restlessness in the man that compelled him to seek out adventure and danger. To rebel against any attempt to reign in his free spirit!
Much like Corbett, Jung shows a strong faith in pre-destiny in matters of life and death.
‘Tryst with Tigers’ and ‘Ramblings in Tigerland’ are books that deserve a place of pride on every naturalist’s bookshelf. The stories are every bit as compelling as the much loved hunting accounts of Jim Corbett. In fact, Jung’s accounts are richer in many respects as the unprejudiced reader is bound to discover.
- Sher Jung: Forgotten Hero, Shakti Singh Chandel, The Tribune, 30th September, 2007
- The Legend of Sher Jung, Vikramjit Singh, The Hindustan Times, 8th December, 2013
Any nature enthusiast keen on reading these wonderful jungle accounts may seek the assistance of ‘The Tramp’. I am sure a born rebel like Sher Jung would have pooh-poohed the constraints imposed by a copyright!!