The Raja said, “Why don’t you go with Mohini?”

T.S. SATYAN writes: Passing by the Mysore Zoo yesterday, I was reminded of the recent departure for the hereafter of its most famous resident, the 13-year old white tiger, Rajan.

Many animal lovers in Mysore have not yet overcome their grief at the loss of this incredibly beautiful albino animal that was the cynosure of all eyes.

Rajan had been brought to Mysore from Orissa as a toddler and, like all other white tigers in captivity around the world, he was the descendent of Mohan, the white male tiger cub whose parents once stalked the forests of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh.

My grief at Rajan’s passing away was all the more great because I had photographed his ancestors during my visit to Rewa in October 1960 while on assignment for LIFE magazine.

I had stayed at the palace as the guest of Maharaja Martand Singh and photographed Rajan’s ancestors who were housed in the Gobindgarh Fort adjacent to the palace. I had been particularly asked to focus on Mohini, the majestic 180-pound female white tiger.

The Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation of New York had bought this animal for US$ 25,000 and donated it to the national zoo at Washington, D.C.. The director of the zoo, Dr Theodore Reed, had flown in to escort her to the United States. Also with us at the palace was Thomas Abercrombie, the celebrated photographer and writer from the National Geographic who had also come to photograph the Maharaja with his white tigers.

On 27 May, 1951, Maharaja Martand Singh had captured an orphaned male white tiger cub which he named Mohan and, as he grew up, successfully began breeding him in hopes of producing a line of pale-coated beasts.

It was a surreal feeling at the palace. The bird song that filled the air around the palace was often obliterated by the roaring of tigers in the fort.

One evening we were enjoying a lavish dinner hosted by the Maharaja when, with a smile on his face, he asked: “Mr. Satyan, you may not be able to ride a tiger. But, I know for sure that you can travel with one. Why don’t you accompany Mohini?”

I was unable to answer him instantly. In fact, I was a little confused. I looked at Dr Reed who indicated that His Highness was not joking. He explained that Mohini was being taken by truck to Bombay with stops at some places on the way for her food and rest. “You don’t have to risk the entire journey. You can get off anywhere on the way to catch a train or plane to Delhi.”

With typical American swagger, Dr Reed urged me to “try it out just for the heck of it.”

I told him that I would consider the rare offer after I was through with my work.

Early next morning, Abercrombie and I positioned ourselves on top of the fort to photograph the tigers. We bent down from a height and looked at Mohini who was playing with her brother and two sisters. They were cared for by a retinue of servants and were all ready to dine on goat meat and mutton.

Unbeknownst to them, a barred teakwood crate was lying beside the fort wall. It had been readied to carry Mohini to the United States. As we kept clicking our cameras, the Maharaja arrived and, with a curious look on his face, asked me if I was shooting in colour or black and white.

I told him that while black-and-white was my favourite medium, Mohini had to be ‘shot’ in colour to show that she was white. “I am short of colour films, though,” I muttered, and this prompted Abercrombie to gift me some colour rolls.

“Please accept these though you are my competitor,” he said while dropping the films into my bag and added, “Your magazine, a weekly, would be the first to publish your pictures of Mohini while the National Geographic, a monthly, would hit the newsstands with my pictures many weeks later!”

There was much activity at the palace on the day Mohini was to begin her travel to America. The palace staff attired in traditional robes (somewhat unnecessarily formal for the occasion, I thought) was anxiously waiting to see Mohini being led into the cage.

Moments earlier, I photographed her brother nudging her affectionately before she suddenly entered the cage much to our surprise. As she lay inside, her brother and sisters curiously prowled about the strange, barred teakwood crate.

It was a sad and poignant moment, made even sadder by the clapping and cheering from the asembled crowd.

A little later the barred cage with Mohini in it was locked and tied to two wooden poles and carried by twelve servants for it to be loaded on to the truck. I took leave of His Highness and my American friends before I sat beside the driver.

Very soon I noticed that the vehicle was filled with an overwhelming ‘tiger smell.’ I began to wonder what could be Mohini’s feelings at the moment.

# Was she missing her siblings and the servants who had begun to love her and had brought her up since her birth?

# How would she adjust herself to her new environment in far off America?

I mentioned this to the man at the wheel. I might as well have asked the steering wheel or the wind shield.

“Why bother about all that?” he said with trademark insouciance. “Travelling with a safedi tiger is a great privilege for anybody, especially for a photographer!” So saying he started laughing aloud and started joyously inhaling a bidi.

Does the man have any feelings at all, I wondered.

Wherever we stopped on the way, small knots of curious people gathered around our truck to have a peep at Mohini. There were women in colourful saris carrying their children who would shudder whenever the animal roared.

My truck ride itself was uneventful. After five hours, my bones began to creak and I was in no mood to travel further and did not want to spend the night at some God-forsaken place by the roadside.

So, I got off at some place on the way and boarded a passenger train that was going towards Bhopal.

My ride with Mohini had ended.

All white tigers in captivity in the world today are the descendants of Mohan whose mother had been killed in the jungle. He was a male orphaned white cub when Maharaja Martand Singh joyously picked him up and brought him to his palace in 1951 and named him Mohan.

The animal world was excited at this prize catch and LIFE published his pictures in its October 15, 1951 issue making the animal a bit of a celebrity. When Mohan reached adulthood, he was bred to a normal tiger named Begum.

They produced three litters of cubs but none of them were white. When Mohan was bred to one of his own daughters from the second litter however, four white cubs were born. One of them was named Mohini, my model at Rewa, before her journey to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where her lineage continued.

It is Mohini that most of the captive white tigers abroad today are related to. And one of them, Rajan, is no more with us.

Rest in Peace.

Also see: RAJAN 1993-2006