Northern Ireland

The story behind the east Belfast tiger skin

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Media captionThe tiger skin has been housed in east Belfast for the past 50 years and is still in perfect condition, as Mark Simpson reports

Lying on the carpet of a bungalow in east Belfast is a prized Indian tiger skin that used to belong to the Maharaja of Bundi.

It has been housed in Belfast for the past 50 years, and is in perfect condition, apart from a chipped tooth.

The maharaja himself had hoped to come to Northern Ireland in 1977, and was scheduled to visit the tiger skin in its new home.

However, he suffered a fatal heart attack in England that year at the home of his good friend Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India.

So what was the Belfast connection to one of the richest men in India?

The answer was Ruth Shaw, a young woman from Castlereagh, who became a pen pal of the maharaja in the late 1950s.

Trip of a lifetime

She visited India in 1963 and brought home with her one of the maharaja's prized possessions - the skin of the 200th tiger that he killed.

Image caption Ruth Shaw brought home the skin of the 200th tiger killed by the maharaja

She was given a VIP tour of India, which included two visits to the Taj Mahal, on a 25-day vacation that turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

Thanks to her then-fiancé (later husband) Perry Zachary, who was a photographer, she had two cameras with her and every step of her Indian adventure was captured on film.

Perry, now aged 91, remembers: "Ruth answered an advertisement in a film magazine for a pen pal in India. At first, she didn't realise that this pen pal was anything extraordinary.

"Over the years, the correspondence went to and from India. Eventually, the person in India identified himself as the Maharaja of Bundi.

Image caption Every step of Ruth's trip to India was documented on film thanks to cameras she took owned by her photographer husband

"At first, she didn't believe it. But she believed it when he started writing on official writing-paper."

After revealing his true identity, the maharaja invited Ruth and Perry to India. Perry was unable to make the four-week trip due to work commitments in Belfast, but after assurances from the maharaja in two letters that Ruth would be well looked after, she went on her own.

She was treated like a princess, flown around in the maharaja's private plane and put up in some of India's best hotels.

"She was also given the Mermaid Suite in Bundi's palace. It was reserved for important visitors," says Perry.

"One of the things he said was that if she came to India, since it was coming up to the time when he was going to be shooting his 200th tiger, she could have the skin."

Image caption It was only after the maharaja sent letters with official stamps that Ruth believed he was telling the truth

The hard part was getting it home.

Ruth had to pay for excess baggage, and negotiate its passage through customs in London, but eventually she was able to bring it back to Belfast.

Bygone era

Later that year, Ruth and Perry got married. The tiger skin was put on display in their home, but not for long.

"It was quite pretty on the floor but people kept tripping over the head. They knocked one of the teeth off, as a matter of fact, so we put it away," says Perry.

Tiger hunting is now outlawed in India. The skin is a relic from a bygone era.

Image caption Ruth's husband Perry said her Indian trip had a huge impact on her life
Image caption Ruth and the maharaja stayed in touch until his sudden death in 1977

After the maharaja's sudden death in 1977, Ruth wrote to Lord Mountbatten's secretary to ask what had happened.

To her surprise, Lord Mountbatten wrote back personally.

Perry still has the letter, and all of the photographs that Ruth took on her Indian trip 52 years ago.

Sadly, she passed away four years ago.

Perry says together they travelled the world but he always felt that the Indian trip had a big impact on her.

"She developed a taste for four star hotels," he says, with a smile.

"And if not four star, then five star."

This story will be broadcast on BBC Newsline on Monday at 18:30 GMT

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