Mahseer is the name used for fishes of the genus Tor. They are carps, members of the family Cyprinidae. Cyprinids form the largest known family of freshwater bony fish, with as many as 220 genera and 2,400 species. Scientists believe that they originated in Asia and spread to North America, Europe and Africa. One unusual feature of these fishes is the absence of teeth. Instead, they chew their food using pharyngeal teeth located in the region that lies behind the mouth (oral cavity). If human beings had pharyngeal teeth, they would chew food after it had passed the tongue, near the point where it enters the oesophagus (gullet or food pipe). Cyprinids also use gill rakers (bony or cartilaginous projections attached to their gill arches) to break down food.

They have also evolved a specialized mechanism to detect sound, something which helped this family be very successful and diverse. Today, Cyprinids happen to be one of the most important food fishes of the world. They have been farmed for thousands of years. Some species have been introduced into new regions as a source of food or for sport fishing. Others have been raised for ornamental purposes. The Mahseers of the genus Tor are famed for their delectable flesh (across South Asia) and stubborn demeanor (in angling). Distributed across South and South East Asia, they inhabit rivers and lakes, moving to stretches of fast flowing water in order to breed. Listed below are some of the more important species of Tor found in South Asia:

  • Himalayan Mahseer (Tor putitora): Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and India (North, Central and Northeast regions). Can grow up to 54 kg. Also called Golden Mahseer.
  • Tor Mahseer (Tor tor): Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India (North, Central and Northeast regions). Can grow up to 68 kg. Also called Red-fin Mahseer.
  • Deccan Mahseer (Tor khudree): Major rivers and reservoirs of central and peninsular India (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala) as well as Sri Lanka. Can grow up to 45 kg. Also called Black Mahseer.

Mahseers are very popular among anglers. The British were always eager to try their luck at snagging these doughty carps. They were prized for their medicinal value by the natives (with healing properties being attributed to their blood). Once abundant across the region, they have suffered greatly on account of over-fishing, habitat destruction and pollution. Today, not only are Mahseers rarer, they are also smaller. Their name has uncertain origins. Some trace it to Sanskrit (a combination of the words ‘mahat’ or big and ‘siras’ or head) while others attribute it to Persian (an etymology that appears to be doubtful). Another name used for the fish is Mahasol (from Sanskrit ‘mahat’ or big and ‘shalka’ or scale).

Their indomitable nature earned them comparisons with the big cats of India (a Tiger or Lion among fish). They were present on the coats of arms of a number of princely states in India – Rampur (northern Uttar Pradesh), Bhopal and Kurwai (both in Madhya Pradesh). The Mahseer (or Himalayan Mahseer to be more accurate) seems to have been a symbol of royalty in Persian culture. The states mentioned above were established by Afghan adventurers (whose country had been deeply influenced by the courtly culture and etiquette of Iran, the result of a process known as Persianization). The state of Bhopal, established by an Afghan (to be more precise, Pashtun) commander in the Mughal army – Dost Mohammad Khan (1657-1728) put the Mahseer on its seal, standards and stamps.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows a Quarter Anna Bhopal State postage stamp (1940). Located in Central India, the state was established by a Pashtun from Tirah Valley on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Dost Mohammad Khan. He joined the Mughal army, ascending rapidly through the ranks. After his transfer to the region of Malwa (a plateau in Central India) and the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, Dost Mohammad served local potentates. Among them was the Gond queen – Rani Kamlapati, from whom he received the village of Bhopal as payment. Dost Mohammad slowly became the most powerful notable in the region and laid the foundations for the modern city of Bhopal (when he built a fort nearby).

His dazzling ascent was brought to a grinding halt by another Mughal commander (who like Dost Mohammad had decided to strike out on his own, in wake of the Empire’s disintegration) – the Turkic nobleman Nizam-ul-Mulk Qamaruddin Khan Asaf Jah I (founder of the princely state of Hyderabad). Asaf Jah I punished Dost Mohammad for helping a Mughal faction in Delhi that had been opposing him. In 1723, the Pashtun commander surrendered his fort (Islamnagar) and paid a heavy indemnity. His son was taken as hostage to Hyderabad. Nizam-ul-Mulk reappointed him commander of his own fort and gave him the right to collect revenue. Dost Mohammad also received the Mahseer insignia (Maha Muratib – Dignity of the Fish) from the Nizam-ul-Mulk. The stamp displays the royal coat of arms and a tiger (which was a denizen of the jungles of Central India, surrounding Bhopal).