Rewa’s White Tiger Legacy and why it left a bad taste in our mouths.

Most of you would have heard of Bundelkhand, the region in which the famous Khajuraho temples sit and which is home to the storied Chambal valley. East of Bundelkhand is the Bagelkhand region, which in pre independent India had a smattering of princely states, the largest of which was Rewa. The Maharajas of Rewa once controlled an area of 30,000 odd square kms, with their capital at  Bandhavghad. Despite its relative obscurity today, Rewa was once an important ally of the Mughal Emperors, contributing to Akbar’s court two of his Navaratnas: the Minister Birbal and the maestro Tansen.

The entrance gate to the erstwhile Rewa Fort. The palace ground now also house a school where the erstwhile Maharaja teaches.

Despite being an avid hunter the then Maharaja of Rewa, Martand Singh, who is said to have shot 131 tigers, eventually gave up the gun and was instrumental in influencing PM Indira Gandhi to have Bandhavghar declared as a National Park in 1967-68. His decision shaped the park becoming a prime habitat for the Royal Bengal Tiger, with safaris open to the public in the beautiful forest.

Today Rewa is a dusty little town that brooks little interest, but we had a two fold reason for going there. One was an article we came across on our friend Neelima’s blog that piqued our curiously in this obscure corner of northern Madhya Pradesh and we decided to make a quick stop in Rewa (which actually involved quite a detour) en route from Panna to Kanha.

The old wooden dancing Hall in the Govindghar fort overlooks the lake.

We ended up spending a couple of days in Rewa, visiting the Rewa Fort, museum in Rewa Palace and the Govindghar Fort, an hour or so outside the town. Not much is left of the Govindghar Fort, which was once the summer palace of the Rewa Maharajas, but for us that’s really part of its allure! Sitting on the banks of the man made lake, the now dilapidated palace is technically closed to public but we didn’t know that, and if there is anything we have learnt on our travels, it is that persistence in such a situation usually pays!

After 10 minutes of pleading with the caretaker we finally wore him down and he reluctantly let us in for for a quick tour. Though the palace is largely dilapidated, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that it would have been a grand and unique structure in its time. From the beautiful carved wooden dancing hall overlooking the lake to the curiously sculpted pair of Lions in the entrance courtyard and the massive ceremonial carriage sitting under the towering entrance arches, the Govindghar Fort cries out in silence for its stories to be told once again.

The massive elephant drawn carriage would be taken out during Royal processions in the days of your. Today it sits gathering dust in the entrance archway of the fort.

However apart from the Fort that drew us to Rewa we had another reason.

What makes Rewa unique today is its self proclaimed moniker of being the Land of the White Tigers!

The Maharajas of Rewa like the rulers of other former princely states across India, were once avid hunters and it is said that on one such hunting expedition Raja Martand Singh, the last of the Rewa Maharajas came across a tiger cub in 1951. The cub was all white, with brilliant blue eyes.

So enamoured was the King with this creature of rare beauty that he had it captured and not killed. The Tiger was housed in the Govindghar Fort and named Mohan. From there begins the sorry tale of the Maharajas obsession with the white tiger and his dream of ‘conserving’ the race.

A crude metal cutout marks the spot in Govindghar Fort where Mohan was once housed.

So enamoured was Martand Singh with his precious Mohan that he tried to create more Mohans’ by breeding the white tiger with other ‘normal’ tigers. He was first bred with the aptly named tigress Begum. They had three litters together but not one of the cubs was white.

When his efforts did not bear fruit, the Maharaja perhaps based on ill advice he received or perhaps out of desperation, bred Mohan with one of his daughters from a previous litter, which finally lead to the birth of four white cubs. Whilst this method ensured a small population of white tigers, breeding father with daughter also lead to genetic anomalies and cases of depression amongst the tigers due to inbreeding have also been found.

A sad looking Mohan and his startling blue eyes stare out at visitors from his little glass box in the Rewa Museum

Mohan eventually bore 46 white cubs from various litters with his daughters and grand daughters and the legacy of this effort is that a majority of the white tigers in captivity across the the world today (including the one we saw a few weeks later in Van Vihar in Bhopal) can trace their lineage back to Mohan.

The very interesting little museum in the Rewa palace, besides housing a beautiful durbar hall complete with a massive chandelier and a stunning silver throne, has a section dedicated to the white tigers, including Mohan’s stuffed bust  and a chart tracing his lineage and progeny across the world.

The Durbar Hall in the Rewa Palace was quite interesting and now forms parts of the Baghel Museum, don’t miss the pair of white tigers flanking the throne.

Unfortunately Rewa’s unhealthy obsession with white tigers did not die with Mohan or his captor. Though this practice of breeding white tigers in captivity can hardly be called conservation, Rewa today, with the support of Martand Singh’s son Pushpraj Singh, has what it grandly calls a White Tiger Sanctuary, complete with a ‘safari’ and breeding center to attract tourists.

While Rewa is proud of its White tiger heritage, we chose not to visit the White tiger ‘Safari’.

In our opinion this practice of breeding white tigers for the purpose of ‘tourism’ flies in the very face of conservation. Many conservationists and wildlife experts feel that this sort go misguided efforts distracts from real issues at hand that require attention and money.

Mohan’s Lineage

The inbreeding that results from the process is devastating for the animal and add to that the fact that these tigers, all bred in captivity can never be released into the wild, making the whole conservation agreement fallacious. The lack of pigmentation in the tiger is caused by a genetic anomaly, an accident of nature, and whilst the result is stark and beautiful, as a recent sighting of a white tiger in the wild in the Nilgiri biosphere will attest, it is something, that in the end, is best left to nature.

Some Useful Information:

Rewa is located approximately 200 km from Khajuraho and Varanasi and can make an ideal night halt between the two. The best option to stay is the Rewa Raj Vilas, run by the erstwhile Royal Family, which continues to do some good work in Rewa including running a school out of the old palace complex. 

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