That cheetahs were once plentiful in India is easily established – dozens of paintings record them being captured from the wilds of Rajputana during the 16th and 17th centuries. Emperor Akbar famously had a thousand cheetahs of his own and used them for coursing (hunting using animals that hunt by sight, rather than scent) blackbuck and gazelle. The royal cheetahs wore jeweled collars and rode in palanquins, their blindfolds keeping them calm until the hunt began.
Akbar’s successor, Jahangir, more famous for his opium addiction and his very capable queen than any political achievements, nevertheless had one great victory – he was the first to successfully breed cheetahs in captivity, in 1613. (The feat would only be repeated three centuries later, in 1956, by the Philadelphia Zoo)
Be that as it may, by the time our feline-loving Tipu Sultan came along, the cheetah population had been severely compromised – he owned merely sixteen fine specimens, one of which he gifted to King George III in 1799. In 1947, Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Koriya (in today’s Chhattisgarh) shot the last three Asiatic cheetahs dead.
What was the cheetah doing in the years between Tipu and Singh Deo? In 1930, so the legend goes, one of them was attacking young, well-muscled Chinna Reddy of village Rangavaram in present-day Tiruvallur as he kept nightly vigil over his banana plantation. Reddy fought back bravely with his trusty sickle and chased the cheetah away. A few years later, Wimco Ltd immortalized the incident on its iconic ‘Cheeta Fight’ matchboxes.
In our own city, in the first decades of the 1800s, according to ‘Bengalurina Ithihasa’ (1986), an acclaimed history of Bengaluru by Ba Na Sundara Rao, cheetahs were apparently fighting each other, or British army officers, in a sporting arena located somewhere between Domlur and Austin Town, while bloodthirsty members of the audience bet on their favorites!
Meanwhile, as early as 1752, the official rules of horseracing were formulated by the members of England’s Jockey Club in Newmarket, Suffolk. Madras, the British HQ in the south, had its own racecourse by 1777. Bangalore’s weather, perfect for the breeding and maintenance of fine Persian steeds, had ensured that there was a surfeit of horses here – from the 1830s, the Mysore cavalry stabled theirs at Kalasipalyam, and the horse-mad commissioner, Sir Mark Cubbon, had over 60 of his own on the grounds of his residence (today’s Raj Bhavan) by the time he retired in 1861.
As the cheetahs dwindled in the city, therefore, horseracing came to the fore. Naturally, Bangalore’s first racecourse – one of the shorter ones at a mile and two furlongs, but more challenging because of the uneven terrain – came up in the largely abandoned cheetah fight arena.
In 1858, the administration passed from the East India Company to the Crown. The military personnel streaming into Bangalore Cantonment needed new barracks, and the racecourse was the ideal location to build them. Scouting began immediately for a new racecourse location. One near Lalbagh was considered and speedily rejected because it was low-lying (a sensitive decision, as recent flooding events have proven). Finally, officials picked a piece of land at the western end of the Cantonment, in the High Grounds.
In March 1921, at a meeting of the stewards of the Bangalore racecourse, the official rules for a new club called the Bangalore Race Club were passed. By May, duly rechristened, the Bangalore Turf Club was inaugurated. A century later, it functions from the same location.
As for the old cheetah fight arena, no vestige remains of it save the name of a street – Old Racecourse Road – in Victoria Layout.
(Roopa Pai is a writer who has carried on a longtime love affair with her hometown Bengaluru)