Book Reviews

History and Fiction

Book Reviews-Susan Sharma

Book I
Animals and People of the Ottoman Empire (2010) edited by Prof.Suraiya Faroqhi

Throughout the Eurasian continent, power over wild animals since ancient times has been considered a significant attribute of the ruler. This issue has been well studied for many cultures, including ancient Mesopotamia, or, closer to the Ottomans in time, Moghul India. However while in the Ottoman case, palace architecture, pious foundations or the display of precious cloths and furs have been intensively studied so as to elucidate their respective roles in sultanic legitimization, the power of the ruler to control wild animals has not attracted much attention.

Ottoman official sources do not say anything much about the meaning that the sultans and their servitors attached to the display of wild and/or exotic animals. However the 17th-century Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi does offer some clues. When describing a parade apparently held in honor of the campaign of Sultan Murad IV against Iran, he claims that attendants marched ten lions, five leopards and twelve tigers in addition to other wild animals. Particularly the lions were loaded with chains; but just in case one of them broke loose, their keepers carried gazelle meat treated with opium and other somniferous drugs. In case of an accident, the lion, so it was hoped, could be pacified by this food.

The lions were not kept in cages mounted on carts, as seems to have been the case in later periods; this manner of display may indicate that officials intended to strike terror in the hearts of the populace. Thus viewers were not meant to feel a moderate and vicarious titillation, but rather the grip of real fear. Moreover even if Evliya had invented his description, the story would still be of interest, for he was a well-informed observer familiar with Ottoman court practices, and should have known very well what effects the designers of the procession had intended with their display.

But in the end this was a time of festivity; and the feeling of terror was not to get out of hand. Thus Evliya also told us that participants in the parade dressed up as wild animals, and scared the spectators ‘for the mere fun of it.’ Thus the spectators experienced a transition between the ‘real’ and the ‘theatrical’, as the real fear aroused by the chained lions was dissipated by the tame bears and other creatures which amused the spectators at this and other sultanic processions. Apparently it was an essential feature of Ottoman festivals to highlight people on the point of coming to grievous bodily harm, but to stop just short of this eventuality. If a bit of speculation is permitted: this mixture of fear of a wild beast, and of trust in the joyous outcome of the festive encounter may well have enhanced popular trust in the protective powers of the padisah-i alempenah, ‘the refuge of the world’ to whom even wild beasts did obeisance.

Matters are somewhat different in the case of the elephants also often displayed in sultanic processions. If their depiction in eighteenth-century miniatures is any guide, they appeared not as wild beasts, denizens of the jungle, but as animals specially trained to serve their owners. While the Ottomans never took elephants along to war, they emulated this widespread Indian practice, often depicted in Moghul miniatures, by the accoutrements that (artificial) elephants were made to pull in festive processions. In artwork depicting a famous celebration that took place in 1720, we see these animals carrying turrets equipped with mock cannons.  At least in the make-believe world of the festival, the Ottoman sultan had thus augmented his army by the formidable force of a few war elephants.

Moreover India with its numerous wonders both man-made and natural enjoyed a certain prestige in the Ottoman world while on the other hand at least around 1600 there was a more or less explicit competition between the Moghul rulers and the Ottoman sultans. Therefore we can surmise that elephants were paraded in the streets of Istanbul to show that the sultans could rival their Indian counterparts in every conceivable way. If we carry speculation yet a step further, we can also surmise that the Ottoman officials who designed the 1720 procession were out to show that the sultan was not merely the equal of any Indian ruler but in fact the most powerful figure in the Islamic world. This question, and others like it, will need further investigation.

Book II-Fiction
Ladakh Adventure  by Deepak Dalal

Vikram and Aditya's adventures, "Ladakh Adventure" is a book targeted at teenagers, I was told.  But when I started reading "Ladakh Adventure", it sustained continued interest, especially since I had visited Ladakh and most places in the book came alive before me.  

Ladakh is the land beyond the Himalayas. On a visit to this remote, majestic outpost of India, Vikram and Aditya camp out on the lofty Changthang Plateau.  Here, they meet a young Tibetan boy named Tsering. But Tsering is unexpectedly abducted and Aditya pulls off a daring rescue. Suddenly Vikram and Aditya are on the run. On the frozen plateau, often referred to as the ‘Roof of the World’, the two friends play a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with a band of mysterious men. Traversing the barren wastes of Ladakh, the story moves to the mountain-city of Leh.

Who is Tsering? Why is he being chased by such fierce resolve? Discover the fascinating secret of Tsering in this fast-moving adventure tale.
‘Ladakh Adventure’ is another enthralling VikramAditya story, set in a wondrous land of startling contrasts and magnificent mountains.

In Deepak's own words
"Animals and birds are doubtless the main draw of a forest, but there is more. No forest experience is complete without absorbing the peace and tranquility of a wilderness area. Imagine the absence of the rumble of traffic, of the bustle of humanity, of the drone of engines and motors that run our world. Take in instead the rustle of the wind through the trees, the call of birds and animals, and the serenity of a forest. Understand what primal human beings enjoyed and what cities and civilisation have robbed us of – the grandeur of nature."
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