Tigers (Panthera tigris) are exceptionally powerful creatures. More powerful than Lions (Panthera leo). Biologists often get drawn into debates over who among the two would come out on top in a competition. One-on-one, the Tiger holds the aces, thanks to its greater size, extra weight, dense muscle mass and aggressive temperament. Match-ups between the two predators were most probably rare in nature (on account of their preference for different habitats) but known from tournaments organized by human beings (such as those in ancient Rome). More often than not, the Tigers won. Some credit the Tigers’ success to their solitary nature (which makes them go for the kill immediately, a necessity in the absence of any support from a pride or coalition of males, a luxury enjoyed by Lions). Others assume their fighting technique (a tendency to go for the throat, and the ability to fight while up on their hindlimbs) to be superior. Whatever the reason, Asian cultures see Tigers as the epitome of strength and grace. There are innumerable tales of their unrivaled physical prowess. Here’s one story about how they became so powerful, narrated by an Austroasiatic tribe, the Khasis of Northeast India.

How the Tiger Got its Strength

After the animals were created they were sent to live in the jungle, but they were so foolish that they got into one another’s way and interfered one with another and caused much inconvenience in the world. In order to produce better order, the Bleis (gods) called together a Durbar to decide on the different qualities with which it would be well to endow the animals, so as to make them intelligent and able to live in harmony with one another. After this, mankind and all the animals were summoned to the presence of the Bleis, and each one was given such intelligence and sense as seemed best to suit his might and disposition : the man received beauty and wisdom, and to the tiger were given craftiness and the power to walk silently.

When the man returned to his kindred, and his mother beheld him, her heart was lifted with pride, for she knew that the Bleis had given to him the best of their gifts, and that henceforth all the animals would be inferior to him in beauty and intelligence. Realising with regret that he had not received physical strength equal to the beauty of his person, and that consequently his life would be always in danger, she told her son to go back to the Bleis to ask for the gift of strength. The man went back to the Bleis according to the command of his mother, but it was so late when he arrived that the Bleis were about to retire. Seeing that he was comelier than any of the animals and possessed more wisdom, which made him worthy of the gift of strength, they told him to come on the morrow and they would bestow upon him the desired gift. The man was dismissed till the following day, but he went away happy in his mind, knowing that the Bleis would not go back on their word.

Now it happened that the tiger was roaming about in that vicinity, and by reason of his silent tread he managed to come unobserved near enough to hear the Bleis and the man talking about the gift of strength. He determined to forestall the man on the morrow, and to obtain the gift of strength for himself ; soon he slunk away lest it should be discovered that he had been listening. Early on the following morning, before the Bleis had come forth from their retirement, the tiger went to
their abode and sent in a messenger to say that he had come according to their command to obtain the gift of strength, upon which the Bleis endowed him with strength twelve times greater than what he had before possessed, thinking that they were bestowing it upon the man. The tiger felt himself growing strong, and as soon as he left the abode of the Bleis, he leaped forward twelve strides, and twelve strides upward, and so strong was he that it was unto him but as one short stride. Then he knew that he had truly forestalled the man, and had obtained the gift of strength, and could overcome men in battle.

Later in the day, in accordance with the command he had received, the man set out for the abode of the Bleis, but on the way the tiger met him and challenged him to fight, and began to leap and bound upwards and forwards to show how strong he was, and said that he had received the “twelve strengths” and no one would be able to withstand him. He was just about to spring when the man evaded him, and ran away towards the abode of the Bleis. When he came there and presented himself before them, they asked him angrily, ” Why dost thou come again to trouble us ? We have already given thee the gift of strength.” Then the man knew that the tiger’s boast was true, and he told the Bleis of his encounter with the tiger on the way, and of his boast that he had obtained the gift of strength.

They were greatly annoyed that deception had been practised on them, but there is no decree by which to recall a gift when once it has been bestowed by the Bleis. They looked upon the man with pity, and said that one so beautiful and full of wisdom should not be left defenceless at the mercy of the inferior animals. So they gave unto him a bow and an arrow, and told him, ” When the tiger attacks thee with his strength, shoot, and the arrow will pierce his body and kill him. Behold, we have given to thee the gift of skill to make and to use weapons of warfare whereby thou wilt be able to combat the lower animals.” Thus the tiger received strength, and man received the gift of skill. The mother of mankind, when she saw it, told her sons to abstain from using their weapons against one another, but to turn them against the animals only, according to the decree of the Bleis.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows a painting (Great Tiger) by the German painter, author and illustrator Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert (1865-1926). He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, traveled across Europe, Africa and Asia and illustrated highly acclaimed books such as ‘Animal Life on Earth’ and ‘Brehms Tierleben’.