Ayahs Remembered

Recently I read the memoirs of a member of a wealthy and renowned family of Gujarat. The author describes how when she was a young girl, her family used travel to Europe, and even spend considerable time living in England. This was in the early 1900s when not many Indian families did so. She also recalled that when the family returned from England, they brought back with them two English nannies. She remembers that in addition to being instilled with all the polite and proper English manners, the regimented life that she and her siblings led under the nannies; there were even allocated times when they could meet their parents.

While ‘nannies’ have had a long and characteristic role in English literature, it was interesting to read an Indian experience of English nannies. 

Coincidentally, the same week I read a very interesting account of the Indian nannies or ayahs as they were called, in the colonial period. Ayahs were essentially nannies from colonial India and other parts of Asia who were charged with looking after the children of English families in India. The practise probably began with the large numbers of British who came to India to work in different capacities under the East India Company. While most of these came from ordinary families, and were not very highly paid, the cost of living in India was so low as compared to England, that here they could afford to live luxurious lives, supported by a retinue of servants. The ayah who provided round-the-clock child care was an important part of this support system.

When the families returned home, it was common for them to take back the ayahs, especially to continue their duties during the months-long sea voyage back. But these ayahs were most often taken without any kind of formal contract or understanding about their terms of employment. And as the history indicates, many of these ayahs were dismissed or simply abandoned by the English families once they reached England. The employers often did not even arrange or pay for their return passage home. Several were ill-treated and abused by their employers. The ayahs, many of them young girls themselves, were literally thrown out on the street, with no money, employment nor place to stay. There was often no record of these women, even on the ship’s manifest, they were not listed by name, but only as ‘nanny’ of the family.

At one stage in the mid-1800s there were a considerable number of such homeless and helpless ayahs (and Chinese amahs) in London causing concern, especially among Christian charities. This led to the founding of what was called the Ayahs’ Home in 1825. Set up by the London City Mission, the house provided a refuge for abandoned or ill-treated ayahs. The ayahs stayed there until they could find alternate work, or find their return passage home. There was an interesting arrangement whereby the family that brought the ayah from India would pay the cost of the return fare to the Home, and the same would be sold to a family returning to India who would take the ayah back. There was on average 100 ayahs living in the Home, for varying periods of time. 

The original Home moved to another location in 1900 and once again in 1921 to what remained its location at 4 King Edward Road in Hackney. The Ayahs’ Home became an important landmark. It was the only such institution in Britain with a named building. Over time its history began to be forgotten.

In 2018 Farhanah Mamoojee a young British woman of Indian descent discovered, by chance, some stories about ayahs, and tried to find out more. She was fascinated to discover that she lived not far from the building in Hackney that used to be the Ayahs’ Home, but there was no signage indicating this, nor information available about the site.  She made it her mission to draw attention and bring recognition to ayahs who were part of British history. She started the Ayahs’ Home Project through which she started collecting untold stories about the forgotten and often ‘nameless’ ayahs; and organising events with a spotlight on this little known group. She also started a campaign to petition for the building to be awarded a Blue Plaque. A Blue Plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place in the United Kingdom to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person, event, or former building. Mamoojee felt that the Ayah’s Home needed to be commemorated as the Home symbolized the collective struggles of a group of unrecognised women, and their shared but nearly forgotten histories.

Mamoojee’s efforts have borne fruit. Recently there was news that this year the building will be honoured with a Blue Plaque.

Ayahs may have been part of colonial history, but even today there is a new stream of domestic helpers from India and South and South East Asia being taken abroad to work for rich employers. And every now and then one hears disturbing stories of them being ill-treated by the employers, and being helpless and stranded in a foreign land. Perhaps there is as much need for a safe refuge for these indispensable, but often callously treated women as there was two hundred years ago.


A Fish on the Road

 Novelty or mimetic architecture is a type of architecture in which buildings are given unusual shapes for purposes such as to convey a message about what they represent, or to copy other famous buildings. They ‘mimic the purpose or function of the building or the product they are associated with.’ They are structures built with the intention that they be used. (They are different from architectural follies which are unusable, ornamental structures often in strange forms.)

While the style started in the US somewhere in the 1930s, India is quite a leading light. Any respectable  ’10 most..’ or ’15 most..’ in the world of mimetic architecture lists would include three buildings from India: the Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bangalore; the Fish Building Hyderabad; and the Lotus Temple, New Delhi. So maybe we should quickly recap what these are.

The Chowdiah Memorial Hall is a major cultural Centre in Bangalore. It is shaped like a violin to commemorate Thirumakudalu Chowdiah, the violin maestro. The building, designed by Mr. SN Murthy, was completed in 1980. It is shaped like a huge seven-stringed violin, and has all a violin’s essential elements, like the strings, keys, the bridge and the bow.

The Fish Building, Hyderabad, inaugurated in 2021, houses the offices of the National Fisheries Development Board. It is a 4-storey building which incorporates elements of the fish-form, like two circular windows as eyes. The building stands on pale blue pillars and is lighted by blueish lights in the night, to give the impression of a fish swimming in water.   Designed by Narasimham Associates (as far as I can make out!), it is said to be inspired by Frank Gehry’s ‘Fish’ sculpture located in Barcelona.

The Lotus Temple, a temple of the Bahai faith, was designed by the Iranian Faribroz Sahba, and was dedicated in 1986. It is a major tourist attraction of New Delhi. Made of 27 free-standing marble-clad petals, it is a pretty green building too, with 120 kW of its 500 kW electricity requirement coming from solar power generated by solar panels on the building. It also houses a greenhouse to study indigenous plants and flowers that can be grown in the area.

All this build-up to announce that my own nick of the world (truly a backwater by the name of Rajanakunte, in ‘who-lives-there North Bangalore’) now boasts a fish-shop in the shape of a fish! The proprietor proudly told us that it is the first such in Bangalore city itself, though Mysuru has one! While not commenting on the aesthetics of fish-buildings, either this one or the larger sibling in Hyderabad, my yellow, green and blue fish does add quite a pop to the Yelahanka area which is anyway quite rich in street art.

Other examples of mimetic architecture in India are of course the variously-shaped water tanks in many pockets across the country. It is not uncommon to catch glimpses of water-pots, aeroplanes, cars, tablas etc. atop houses. It seems to be like an endemic—there are concentrations of such water tanks in a given stretch, and taper off in the length of 5 km or so. The other prevalent example of mimetic architecture is police stations, with several of them being shaped like helmets!

There is a whole world of mimetic buildings waiting to be explored, including:  The Big Basket, Ohio, the headquarters of the Longaberger Company, an American manufacturer of handcrafted maple wood baskets; Haines Shoe House, Pennsylvania, the house of successful shoe salesman Mahlon Haines designed like one of his work boots; and the Dancing House Hotel, Prague designed as a tribute to the famous dancers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

As you browse the web to locate these, do also look around. Who knows what is waiting to be discovered next door!


The One Who Rolls Up: Pangolin

Valentine’s Day has just passed with all its lovey-dovey messages. But love is not only about humans to humans. In 2017 the Google Doodle for the day featured a little love story about pangolins!

Pangolins one may ask? What are they, and why were the stars for the day?

Pangolins are curious creatures. With their long tail, long snout and a body covered with scales, they are often thought of as reptiles. Pangolins, also known as Scaly Ant eaters are actually mammals. They belong to the taxonomic order Pholidota, meaning ‘scaled animals’, a group of unusual mammals with tough, protective keratin scales. Pangolins are the only scaled mammals on earth.  It is believed that the scales evolved as a means of protection. When threatened by big carnivores like lions or tigers, the pangolin usually curls into a tight ball, tucking its face under its tail. The overlapping sharp scales act as an armour protecting it from the predators. It is this ability to curl up into a ball that gives it the name Pangolin which comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “the one who rolls up”.

Pangolins have short legs with sharp claws which are effective for burrowing for shelter, as well as to get into ant and termite mounds. These form their primary diet, and also give it the name of Scaly Anteater. They have no teeth, but an unusually long and sticky tongue (up to 16 inches long) helps them to probe deep into the ant tunnels and termite mounds to retrieve their prey. They have poor eyesight, but a well-developed sense of smell and hearing which guides them when they come out, mainly at night.

The strange appearance and secretive nocturnal habits of the pangolin gave it a somewhat mythical association in some indigenous cultures, as well as a part in folk tales and legends. In Chinese legend pangolins are said to travel all around the world underground, and in the Cantonese language the name for pangolin translates to “the animal that digs through the mountain,” or Chun-shua-cap, which translates to ‘scaly hill-borer’.

Many indigenous African cultures have diverse beliefs associated with pangolins. Here is a delightful tale from a tribe in South Africa that tells how the pangolin came to be what it is today. 

Long long ago the pangolin did not have scales, and the pangolin did not eat ants. It had a thick coat of beautiful fur, and its favourite food was honey! The pangolin’s thick fur protected it from the bee stings when it raided beehives for honey. But the pangolin had a competitor for the honey. That was the honey badger whose thick skin was not as effective in warding off the bees as the pangolin’s fur. The bees were so harassed by the constant attacks from both these creatures that they called upon the Creator to protect them from the two honey raiders.

The Creator decided that the two would have a competition, and the one who proved to be the most cunning at the game would retain the privilege of getting its favourite food. 

Pangolin had long strong legs and sharp claws with which to open the hives, and a long tongue to lap up the honey. But it was also skilful enough so as not to do too much damage. The honey badger was in a hurry, and also clumsy, as a result of which he made quite a mess. It was a close competition. The honey badger realised that the pangolin’s biggest asset was its fur, and in jealously it began to plot about defeating the pangolin by unfair means.

One night as the pangolin slept, the honey badger stealthily poured honey over its coat with a trail leading to the nest of the fierce red ants. The army of ants attacked the sleeping pangolin and penetrated deep into its fur to get the honey. The pangolin was in great pain from the ant bites. Desperate for relief, it ran and rolled in the embers of a nearby bush fire until its fur was burnt away, leaving only sore and exposed skin. The pangolin lost its protection and could no longer raid bee hives, and the honey badger continued to do so, even though it had won by deceit. The Creator felt sorry for the pangolin and gave it another form of protection, an armour of tough overlapping scales, and also a new diet instead of honey—ants and termites. And so as the elders narrate, the pangolin got his scales and became an ant eater.  

Ironically, the very scales that the pangolin was given to provide protection have today become the cause of the greatest threat to this animal. This shy curious creature is the most trafficked animal in the world. Pangolins are heavily poached for their meat and scales which are in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies, leading to huge illegal trade in pangolin skin, scales, and meat, which poses a grave threat to their very survival.

There are eight species of pangolins. The four species native to Asia–The Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered. The other four species which are native to Africa– the Giant Ground, Ground, White-bellied, and Black-bellied pangolins are all listed as vulnerable. According to a study reported on by BBC an estimated 100,000 pangolins are illegally taken from the wild every year across Africa and Asia. One million pangolins are believed to have been trafficked between 2000 and 2013 alone.

World Pangolin Day is celebrated on the third Saturday in February every year as an international attempt to raise awareness about these unique animals, and the precarious state that they are in. It aims to bring together stakeholders to help protect this unique species from extinction.

This Saturday, let us join the world to celebrate ‘the one who rolls up’. 


Rahul Bajaj: Carrying on the Legacy of Jamnalal Bajaj

Rahul Bajaj was a doyen of Indian industry, and a rare brave man who spoke his mind under all circumstances. His passing away is the end of an era in which he played a major role–from operating in the licence-permit raj, to competing in the liberalized regime, to establishing India’s position as an industrial force to be reckoned with.

What made him ‘him’ was surely shaped by his family influences—especially his grandfather, Jamnalal Bajaj. And that is whom we talk about today.

Jamnalal Bajaj was considered Gandhiji’s fifth son, and adopted all his values—from Ahimsa, to his dedication to the poor, to his commitment to locally made goods, to his patriotic spirit. Shri Bajaj was an active member of the Congress Party, and gave up the Rai Bahadur title conferred on him by the British Government and joined the non-cooperation movement. He fought for the admission of Harijans into temples, and in the face of strong objections, opened up his own family temple in Wardha—the first temple in the country to do this.

Wardha, Maharastra was where Jamnalal’s family was settled, and that is how it came to play such an important part in the Freedom Struggle. When Gandhiji left the Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad for the Dandi March, he vowed not to go back till freedom was achieved.

Jamnalal had earlier spent time at Sabarmati Ashram with his family, and had been deeply moved by the experience. He invited Gandhiji to come to Wardha and set up an Ashram there after the Dandi March. And thus did the Sewargram Ashram come up there, and Wardha become the centre of the Freedom Movement.

A few years ago I was privileged, during a visit to Wardha, to visit Bajajwadi, where critical meetings with regard to the freedom struggle were held, marked by the presence of not only Gandhiji but also Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Sarojini Naidu, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr. Pattibhi Sitaramayya among many others. All of them stayed there when they came for meetings and discussions. The historical resolution calling for the Quit India movement was signed at Bajajwadi.

Room in Bajajwadi where Quit India movement was discussed

Wardha was also the site where the Gandhiji’s idea of Nai Talim or New Education was developed, discussed at a National Education Conference in 1937, and put into practice at a model school.

The basic tenets of Nai Talim were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

Another important initiative rooted close to Wardha was Maharogi Seva Samiti, the first indigenous leprosy care centre in India. Manohar Diwan, one of Gandhi’s followers became the first non-missionary Indian to work on leprosy, and set up the centre under the guidance of Vinoba Bhave and Gandhiji in 1937.

Jamnalal Bajaj was deeply involved in the freedom movement and every one of these political and social reform movements. Apart of course to his involvement in business and the founding of the Bajaj Group.

And thus was Rahul Bajaj’s role cut out for him!


Ref: https://www.jamnalalbajajfoundation.org/

Celebrating Pulses

They are an intrinsic part of every Indian’s meal. They are eaten as a staple or as a snack; they are part of something sweet and something savoury; they come in many forms, colours and flavours. They are pulses–the most sustainable, affordable, and versatile food items since time immemorial.

While we do not consciously think about them, we are making decisions regarding their use every day, for every meal—soak or saute, grind or roast, pressure cook or slow simmer, what spices go best with each one, and what accompaniments will make it a perfect meal?

Every Indian kitchen has a variety of pulses that go under the umbrella term of “dal”. Technically, pulses, also known as legumes, are the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses.

Interestingly pulses do not include crops that are harvested green (e.g. green peas, green beans)—these are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soybean and groundnuts), and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa).

Pulses have formed an essential part of diets in many parts of the world for thousands of years and thus humans have cultivated this ancient food crop for centuries. Scientific studies of archaeological remains have suggested that people from modern-day Turkey grew chickpeas and lentils in 7000-8000 B.C. Evidence of lentil production has also been discovered from Egyptian pyramids, and dry peas were found in a Swiss village—dating back to the Stone Age. Experts have hypothesized that chickpeas production started to spread from the ancient Mediterranean region between Morocco in the west and the Himalayas in the east before 3000 BC. There are even mentions of certain pulses in the Vedas, which are widely believed to be at least 4000 years old.

From the Yajurveda onwards, Sanskrit literature has mention of the three Ms—mudga (green gram or mung), masura (pink gram or masoor) and masha (black gram or urad). The Buddha is said to have endorsed all three Ms for regular use. The three pulses continue to be widely used in all parts of India in different dishes and forms. It is believed that when Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni came to India 1,000 years ago, he discovered the daily meal of the average Indian, the porridge-like khichdi, a mixture of rice and lentils. Traditionally, the definition of a balanced meal in most parts of India always consisted of pulses, along with cereals, vegetables, fruits, and milk products.

Pulses are indeed what we call “superfoods”. The tiny seeds are loaded with nutrients, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. They are gluten-free and have high protein content, making them an ideal source of protein particularly in regions where meat and dairy are not culturally or economically accessible. Pulses are low in fat and rich in soluble fibre, which can lower cholesterol and help in the control of blood sugar. They are a great source of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium.

Pulses are a rich source of fermentable fibre, which feeds intestinal bacteria and promotes the assimilation of nutrients, thus facilitating proper immune system functioning. Because of these qualities they are recommended by health organizations for the management of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. Pulses have also been shown to help combat obesity.

Pulses are important not just for human consumption, but also for the farmers who cultivate these. They are an important crop because they can both sell them and consume them, which helps farming families maintain food security. They provide economic stability as compared with perishable crops as they can be dried and stored for a long time.

 Pulses are farmer-friendly as well as friends of the environment. The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses improve soil fertility, which increases and extends the productivity of the farmland. Using pulses for intercropping and cover crops can promote field biodiversity and improve soil microbiome, while keeping harmful pests and diseases at bay.

Pulses are highly drought and frost-resistant, which makes them suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions and environments. Pulses are also known to be climate-smart, which means they can easily adapt themselves to weather fluctuations. They have a low water footprint. As compared to others, pulses only require one-tenth of the amount of water to grow and therefore can be easily grown in semi-arid conditions.

Pulse crops have a lower carbon footprint than most foods because they require a small amount of fertilizer to grow, and they help to naturally introduce nitrogen in the soil. One of the advantages of biological nitrogen fixation is that it provides a natural slow-release form of crop nitrogen supply that matches crop needs. By reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers which release greenhouse gases during both their manufacture and use, pulses contribute to climate change mitigation.

While pulses have always been integral to our daily diets, they are usually not seen from these other perspectives. Recognising their multi-dimensional value the United Nations proclaimed 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP). The celebration of the year, led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was aimed to increase the public awareness of the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production.

In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly designated February 10th to be marked as World Pulses Day every year, to recognise, and remind of, the important link of pulses to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Today, as the world celebrates World Pulses Day, let’s take a look at our own meals and list the numerous forms of pulses on our menu for the day. And as we relish our dal baati-churma, sambar-idli, rajma-chaaval, cholar dal-luchi, or even the simple khichdi, let’s put our hands together for the pulses!


Yellow is the Colour of Spring

Basant Panchami, celebrated on the fifth day of the Magha month, heralds the end of winter and the coming of spring. It precedes Holi which marks the beginning of summer  by about 40 days.

Basant Panchami

Yellow is the colour of this festival. With good reason—of the myriad flowers that bloom in the spring, many are yellow. Mainly the mustard flowers, which turn North India’s landscapes golden in these months. Yellow is also the colour of Goddess Saraswati, to whom this festival is dedicated in some parts of the country.

Apart from marking a major seasonal change, there are many stories and myths associated with the festival.

My favourite one is to do with Poet Kalidasa. The story goes thus, for those who need a refresher: The Princess of one of the kingdoms in the North (not at all clear which one!) was very intelligent. She laid down the condition that she would marry only the man who beat her in a contest of wits. Many a suitor came and was rejected, including the son of the CM of the country. Male egos were as fragile then (approximately 5th century CE) as now, and the CM and maybe some of the rejected suitors decided to give her her comeuppance. Imagine a girl proving that she was more intelligent than men! Anyway, they decided to hunt out the dumbest guy in the country in a kind of reverse intelligence test. They were thrilled when they located a shepherd who they felt was the epitome of dumbness—it is said that they spotted him when he was sitting on the tip of branch high up on a tree, and sawing away at the branch—which would of course have resulted in his falling down along with the branch. Through a series of ruses, they managed to trick the Princess into thinking he was very intelligent. The Princess married him, and obviously the secret came out pretty soon. The Princess threw the husband out. He was in despair and on the verge of suicide. At this point, Goddess Sarwaswati is said to have appeared in front of him, and asked him to take a dip in the river. And then the miracle happened! When he emerged shivering from the river, it was with a hymn to the Goddess on his lips—the Shyamala Dandakam! A miracle had happened–he had gained poetry, wisdom, language and knowledge! That was Kalidasa—the man who gave us works such as Abhijñānaśākuntalam, Kumārasambhava, Ritusamhara, Meghadhoota, etc. The episode of the Goddess giving him darshan and his gaining wisdom is said to have happened on the fifth day of Magha, which therefore we now celebrate as Saraswati Puja, and pray that the Goddess may bestow similar gifts on us. . (It has always intrigued me as to what happened with the marriage. Did Kalidasa and the Princess get back together? I don’t remember that the story ever referred to that.).Some people also mark this as Saraswati’s birthday.

The other story involves Shiva and Parvati and is a bit gory for my liking. Shiva’s beloved wife Sati had died, and he went into total depression (following a huge show of rage). He started meditating and was oblivious to the world and his duties. But the world needed him to keep the cycle of life going—an immediate requirement being that a son be born to him to destroy the demon of the moment. As per the larger plan, Sati had already taken her birth as Parvati, the daughter of the King of the Himalayas where Shiva sat in meditation. But nothing she did could even get him to open his eyes. That is when the gods sent Kamadeva, the god of love, who shot an arrow at Shiva and got him to open his eyes. So furious was Shiva that he opened his third eye and burnt Kama before anyone knew what was happening. But the purpose was achieved–he also saw Parvati and fell in love with her. Kama’s sorrowful wife Rati underwent rigourous penances for 40 days till Shiva relented and agreed to let Kama, the collateral damage, resume his physical form for one day a year. The day this happened was Basant Panchami.

East and North India seem to celebrate this festival much more than the South—at least, I don’t remember this as one the special days in our Tamil calendar. So for me Basant Panchami is memories of amazing bhogs at the houses of dear Bengali friends. And an opportunity to wear yellow, a colour too bright for my usual palate.

Grateful for the diversity of stories, traditions, celebrations. Surely makes our lives more colourful and interesting!


Year of the Tiger

February 1 was the Chinese New Year that marked the end of the Year of the Ox and the start of the Year of the Tiger.  While based on the Chinese lunar calendar, this day is also celebrated as the New Year in Korea, Singapore, Mongolia, Tibet, Vietnam and in Asian communities worldwide. More than just the beginning of a new calendar year, the Lunar New Year is seen as a time of reunion and rebirth, marking the end of winter and the start of spring. Thus it is also celebrated as the Spring Festival in China. This is traditionally a time to honour ancestors and deities, with family reunions, parades and fireworks to drive off evil spirits. These customs relate to a legend according to which a monster called Nian (Chinese for year) would emerge from under the earth at the start of every year and eat villagers. It was believed that the monster was afraid of bright lights and loud noises, and the colour red. Hence the fireworks, and the tradition of wearing something red on this day.

The Chinese calendar is on a 12-year cycle, with each year linked to one of a dozen animals — the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. There is a popular legend about a race as a consequence of which these animals came to be in this order. The tiger is the third animal in the Chinese zodiac. Among the other legends that tell how the animals were selected for the Chinese zodiac, there is one about the tiger found its place here.

Once upon a time the lion was the king of animals. The lion was very cruel but the supreme gods could not take away its status on the zodiac because they did not know of another animal strong enough to control the other animals. Meanwhile, down on earth the tiger was an insignificant animal, but a clever one. It learned fighting skills from the cat, and then honed these to such an extent that it could defeat any animal in battle. Over time tiger became famous for its ferocity and bravery. The supreme gods heard about this and summoned the tiger to heaven where it was challenged to prove its prowess; and it did so, defeating even the supreme god’s warriors. The supreme gods designated the tiger as one of their warriors.

Back on earth, with no one to fear, the other animals started attacking humans who called upon the supreme gods to help them. The gods sent tiger back to earth for this mission. The tiger took on all the other animals in three major battles, defeating them all, until they fled to the forest, and no longer emerged. The humans were saved from their attacks, and were very grateful to the tiger.

The tiger went back to heaven, the gods were pleased with his winning the three big battles. As a permanent mark of reward, the supreme god marked three black horizontal lines on its forehead. Sometime later there was a huge flood on earth, caused by a turtle. Once more the tiger was sent to the rescue. It defeated the turtle in battle and saved the earth. This time the supreme god rewarded it with a vertical line in the centre of the horizontal lines, creating thereby the Chinese character ‘wang’ which means ‘king’. The tiger was thus anointed the King of the Animals and replaced the lion in the zodiac.

During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger is much more than a zodiac sign in Chinese culture and tradition, and has played a significant role in Chinese mythology, history, art and craft for over 7000 years. The earliest tiger statue ever discovered was dated to the Neolithic period in China, around 5000 BC. Throughout Chinese history, the tiger has evoked a sense of both awe and admiration for its prowess, its ferocity, its beauty, and the harmony of the opposites. It was especially revered in southern and north eastern China, believed to be its original habitat, as a creature with many symbolic attributes.

According to Chinese myths, five types of tigers balance the energy in the cosmos, preventing universe from chaos: Black tiger, governs the water element and rules during winter season; Blue tiger, governs the earth element and rules during spring; Red tiger, governs the fire element and rules during the summer; White tiger governs the metal element and rules during autumn; and yellow tiger, rules all other tigers and symbolizes the sun.

According to another belief, each direction of the compass is traditionally believed to be ruled by a mythical creature and the ruler of the West direction is the White tiger.

Tigers figure largely in Chinese classical literature and performance art. They are also the main protagonists of many folk tales and proverbs. In Chinese folklore tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters; fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building facing the entrance to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Tiger charms are used to keep away disease   and evil, and babies are given colourfully embroidered tiger shoes for protection. Tiger images frequently decorate children’s clothing and caps. The “Tiger Claw” (hu chao) amulet is believed to ward off sudden fright and give the wearer the courage of the tiger. Along with the tiger, the dragon, phoenix, and tortoise are considered to be the four ‘super intelligent’ creatures, and thus are held in high esteem. They are popular design motifs in Chinese arts and crafts.

After the 12-year cycle, the year of the tiger is here again in 2022. 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998 and 2010 were all Tiger years. People born in the Year of the Tiger are said to be born leaders, who walk and talk assertively and inspire respect. They are courageous and energetic, love a challenge or competition and are prepared to take risks. They are hungry for excitement and crave attention. They can also be rebellious, short-tempered and outspoken, preferring to give orders rather than take them, which often leads to conflict. Tiger people may appear calm but there is often a hidden aggressiveness, but they can also be sensitive, humorous and capable of great generosity and love.

Cheers to the tigers!


The Silent Valley Saga: A Landmark in India’s Environmental Movement

Last week, we paid our tribute to Prof. MK Prasad—one of the key people behind saving Silent Valley. This week, I thought I would re-visit some details about Silent Valley and the campaign.

The Silent Valley deep in the Western Ghats of Kerala is a very special forest. In fact, it is one of the oldest stretches of rainforest in the world, ‘the last authentic sizeable evergreen forests left’, in the words of MK Krishnan, the eminent naturalist.

Lion tailed Macaque
Lion-tailed Macaque. Illustration: CEE

It is home to about a 1000 species of flowering plants, 107 species of orchids, 100 ferns, 200 liverworts, 75 lichens and about 200 algae, many of them endemic to the area. It counts 34 species of mammals, 292 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles, 22 species of amphibians, 13 of fishes, 500 of butterflies and moths, besides a multitude of other orders of animal life (keralatravels.com). And these are only the species documented! The valley’s flagship species is the lion-tailed macaque, a species endemic to the Western Ghats.

Many are the myths and legends associated with this forest. It is said that the Pandavas, during their peregrinations after they lost their kingdom to the Kauravas, happened to come to this forest. So enchanted were they that they decided to make it their temporary home. The river that runs through the forest is called Kuntipuzha, in memory of their mother, and the forest itself was called Sairandhari, this being another name for Draupadi.

In 1847, the Englishman Robert Wright came upon the thick forest. He or his colleagues named it Silent Valley. There are several theories about why this name was given. It could of course be an Anglicization of Sairandhari, the traditional name. Or it could be because there are no cicadas in this forest. The constant hum in most forests is due to cicadas, and the absence of this noise can be quite stark. Cicadas do not thrive in wet climate, and that is why they are not common here. Yet another theory is that the British gave it this name due to the presence of the rare lion-tailed macaque whose Latin name is Macaca silenus. But in spite of its name, the Silent Valley resounds to the cadences of the river, bird-calls, monkey-whoops, and insect chirrups.

Silent Valley burst into the national consciousness in the 1970s, when the Kerala Government proposed to construct a dam on River Kuntiphuzha, to generate electricity for the State’s growing needs. When scientists and environmentalists came to know about this, they were very concerned, as it would mean that the Silent Valley would be flooded, and that would be the end of that very special habitat and the unique flora and fauna there.

Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parshat (KSSP), a people’s science movement, took up the cause. On the one hand they did techno-economic and socio-political studies to show the impact of the project, and its pros and cons. On the other hand, they mobilized public opinion, and garnered the support of eminent scientists and people. They also came up with alternatives to building the dam e.g., building a series of small dams, rather than one large one.

It was a long and hard battle. It became a bitter war between the State which wanted the project, and the people who did not. The Centre through the course of the controversy saw many changes, and some of the PMs were for and others against the project. Each set up Committees of scientists. Media was also ranged on the two sides, beginning with local media predominantly in favour of the project, and then slowly veering against it. For a long time, national media paid little attention to the issue, but later weighed in favour of the environment. International environmental organizations also came into the fray. The matter went to court to—with the High Court at some stage giving the go-ahead.

It was when Mrs. Indira Gandhi came back as PM that it began to look as if the conservation movement would win. In 1981, she declared Silent Valley a protected area. But it was found that the hydroelectric dam was not covered in the area under protection. Protests began anew, till finally the project was scrapped in 1983. In 1984, Mrs. Gandhi declared it a National Park—the highest level of protection that can be given. And Silent Valley was saved!

Kerala government has recently decided to declare the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park as a wildlife sanctuary—the Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary spread across 148 square km.  So hopefully, Silent Valley continues to remain safe!

Hats off to the scientists, environmentalists, poets, artists, students, NGOs , media, politicians and the common people who fought the long and hard battle to preserve our common heritage.

There are other such success stories, but sadly not very many. And even more sadly, hardly any in recent times.