The Indian Jackal (Canis aureus indicus), a subspecies of the Golden Jackal (Canis aureus), is certainly not the top dog of South Asia. Across its range, this slight creature shares space with far bigger predators – the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica), the Indian Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena hyaena), the Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), the Indian Wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) and the Ussuri Dhole (Cuon alpinus alpinus). Standing only 45 cm at the shoulder and weighing around 11 kg on average, it is no match for them. But brains count as much as brawn in the game of survival. The jackal makes up for its lack of physical strength with sheer cunning and opportunism.
A generalist, it subsists on small prey (lizards, birds and rodents), fruits and vegetables (obtained by raiding farms), carrion (stolen from or left behind by larger carnivores) and refuse (around human settlements). It is this resourcefulness and ability to beat the odds that earned the Indian Jackal its place as the trickster par excellence of South Asian folklore, making the scrawny canid a counterpart of the coyote (in North America) and the red fox (in Europe). I have already noted one tale involving it – The Tiger, the Brahman and the Jackal. There are many, many more. Here’s the most famous one – The Blue Jackal from the Panchatantra (a collection of fables dating back to the 3rd century BCE or even earlier). I read it in a comic book published by Amar Chitra Katha.
The Blue Jackal
There was once a jackal named Fierce-Howl, who lived in a cave near the suburbs of a city. One day he was hunting for food, his throat pinched with hunger, and wandered into the city after nightfall. There the city dogs snapped at his limbs with their sharp-pointed teeth, and terrified his heart with their dreadful barking, so that he stumbled this way and that in his efforts to escape and happened into the house of a dyer. There he tumbled into a tremendous indigo vat, and all the dogs went home.
Presently the jackal—further life being predestined—managed to crawl out of the indigo vat and escaped into the forest. There all the thronging animals in his vicinity caught a glimpse of his body dyed with the juice of indigo, and crying out: “What is this creature enriched with that unprecedented color?” they fled, their eyes dancing with terror, and spread the report: “Oh, oh! Here is an exotic creature that has dropped from somewhere. Nobody knows what his conduct might be, or his energy. We are going to vamoose. For the proverb says:
Where you do not know
Conduct, stock, and pluck,
‘Tis not wise to trust,
If you wish for luck.”
Now Fierce-Howl perceived their dismay, and called to them: “Come, come, you wild things! Why do you flee in terror at sight of me? For Indra, realizing that the forest creatures have no monarch, anointed me—my name is Fierce-Howl—as your king. Rest in safety within the cage formed by my resistless paws.”
On hearing this, the lions, tigers, leopards, monkeys, rabbits, gazelles, jackals, and other species of wild life bowed humbly, saying: “Master, prescribe to us our duties.” Thereupon he appointed the lion prime minister and the tiger lord of the bedchamber, while the leopard was made custodian of the king’s betel, the elephant doorkeeper, and the monkey the bearer of the royal parasol. But to all the jackals, his own kindred, he administered a cuffing, and drove them away. Thus he enjoyed the kingly glory, while lions and others killed food-animals and laid them before him. These he divided and distributed to all after the manner of kings.
While time passed in this fashion, he was sitting one day in his court when he heard the sound made by a pack of jackals howling near by. At this his body thrilled, his eyes filled with tears of joy, he leaped to his feet, and began to howl in a piercing tone. When the lions and others heard this, they perceived that he was a jackal, and stood for a moment shamefaced and downcast, then they said: “Look! We have been deceived by this jackal. Let the fellow be killed.” And when he heard this, he endeavored to flee, but was torn to bits by a tiger and died.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows an illustration of Striped Hyenas and Golden Jackals on a kill in Richard Lydekker’s Wild Life of the World Vol II, dating back to 1916. Lydekker was an English naturalist and geographer who served in the Geological Survey of India, studied the palaeofauna of South Asia, laid down the Lydekker Line (separating the biogeographical regions of Wallacea and Sahul) and published multiple works on natural history.
Reference: The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (based on Purnabhadra’s recension of 1199 CE), translated by Arthur William Ryder