One-Bird Orchestra: Magpie Robin

The mellifluous notes fill the pre-dawn darkness. You wonder who these “earlier birds” are that have already got their orchestra going in full throttle, even before the other ‘early birds’ clear their throats and tune up for the day ahead. As you walk along you see a little bird on the ground under a tall tree. Dapper in its neat dress of black and white, its tail is held upright as it moves, just as the baton of the orchestra conductor. This is the Magpie Robin—the conductor and orchestra all rolled into one.  This one does not need a warm up. It bursts straight into a symphony.

The Oriental Magpie Robin is a member of the order Passeriformes which includes more than half of all the bird species. Passerines are perching birds which are distinguished by their toe pattern—three toes facing forward and one toe facing backward—which allows the bird to easily grasp, and cling to both horizontal and nearly vertical perches, including branches and tree trunks

Its scientific name is Copsychus saularis. In the early days there was confusion about this name as early scientists were misled by its Indian name dhaiyal which they believed referred to sundial and hence ‘solaris’. An Englishman Edward Blyth thought that this was inappropriate, and rather felt that the Hindi term saulary (meaning hundred songs) was more fitting. A specimen of the bird along with its Hindi name, was even sent from Madras to James Petiver, a London apothecary famous for his collections of specimens.  

Saularis or hundred songs aptly describes this handsome song bird. A black-and-white bird with a cocked tail and upright stance, it is about the size of a bulbul. The male has glossy blue-black upper parts, head and throat, with a white belly, and a broad white band on the wing and white edges on the tail. The female has similar markings, but with slate-grey upperparts and buff flanks.

Magpie Robins are commonly found hear human habitation, in gardens, parks and wooded areas. They can be seen singly or in pairs near shrubs and bushes. But for the most part of the year they are not conspicuous, as they are shy and quiet, only uttering a plaintive swee-ee and harsh chr-r, chr-r notes from time to time.  

It is during their breeding season from March till June that they attract our attention, not so much by their sighting but by their sound. This is when the male Magpie Robin pours his heart out in song to attract a mate, as well as to declare and guard his territory. He can be seen perched on a post, or unseen, high up on a leafless tree top, filling the air with his musical notes, punctuated with upward jerks of his tail.

The little fellow has an amazing repertoire of tunes, switching effortlessly from one to another. Besides his own calls, he is also adept at perfectly mimicking the calls of other birds. This ability he uses, not so much to charm his future mate, but to guard his territory. Sometimes, by pretending to be three different birds calling from different locations, the magpie robin male can fool potential intruders into believing that the large territory is already occupied, and unavailable for new lodgers. In case a bold outsider ventures within, the songster transforms into a pugnacious defender, raising his bill, fanning the tail, puffing up his feathers, and strutting aggressively.   Additionally, the bird also emits different types of calls, such as threat calls and distress calls, depending on the occasion.

Having finally won over his mate with song and macho displays, the Magpie Robin is ready to set up home. It is the female who takes on the task of the nest builder, making a pad of grass, rootlets and hair in a hollow cavity in a tree trunk, old bough or wall. She lays three to five pale blue green eggs with brownish specks; the eggs are oval in shape. She alone incubates the eggs for 8-14 days, and then feeds her fledglings. Her musical mate however shares some other domestic duties such as protecting the nest from intruders or damage.

Magpie Robins are largely insectivorous. Though chiefly arboreal, they pick crickets, grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars and other insects off the ground, as well as eating worms, snails, centipedes and small lizards. They also visit Silk Cotton and Coral tree blossoms to feed on the nectar.  

The Magpie Robin is known by many names in different parts of India. Dhaiyal or Dhaiyar in Hindi and Bengali; Daiyyad in Gujarati; Dominga in Marathi; Kali sooi chiria in Madhya Pradesh.

The bird is equally familiar and known in our neighbouring countries where it is viewed in different ways. In Sri Lanka this bird is called Polkichcha (coconut bird) as well as Pahan-Kichcha (Dawn bird); and it was traditionally believed to be a bird of ill-omen. Its singing is believed to announce bad news, and villagers usually chase it away from the neighbourhood of their dwellings.

On the other hand, in Bangladesh the Magpie Robin known as Doyel or Doel is so well known, and liked, that it has been recognized as the national bird of the country, It is a widely used symbol, even appearing on currency notes in Bangladesh; and a landmark in the capital Dhaka is called Doel Chattar (Doel Square).

Unfortunately it is the song of this bird that puts its own survival in danger. Magpie Robins are popular as caged song birds and there is a widespread illegal trade in these birds, which are sold as pet songbirds. They are smuggled out in large numbers especially from Malaysia, leading to an alarming decline in their populations. As with all species, these birds are also threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed the Oriental Magpie Robin as a species of Least Concern, the declining numbers are beginning to cause concern. In Singapore and Hong Kong, this species of birds is protected by law.

In these times when the senses are besieged 24/7 by sights and sounds of war and destruction, I feel blessed that I can start my day with the lilting music of the Magpie Robin. And I cannot but help wistfully thinking what the world would be like if we humans too could defend our territories with songs instead of guns and bombs.


Telltale Pencil

Every year, 30 March is marked as International Pencil Day. It is the anniversary of the day when the American Hymen L. Lipman received the patent for a pencil with an eraser attached to the end. This was in 1858.

But there is another patent which is even more fundamental to pencils as we know them today—the one obtained by Nicholas-Jacques Conte’ in 1795. This was for the clay-graphite lead in the pencil.

In the 1790s, France was at war with most countries in Europe. Countries and people, all faced the multiple woes that wars bring (and as we are experiencing today). But the specific problem that is relevant to our story today is the shortage of graphite that France faced. In those days, pure graphite was at the core of pencils, and pencils were critical in war times. For instance, if anyone needed to send a note on the go, pencils were needed, as it was difficult to deal with quill pens and ink. Sometimes, fortifications or battle formations had to be quickly sketched, and that was easily possible only with pencils. But in those days, graphite for pencils used to come from England or Prussia, both of which France was at war with. The French War Minister thought of calling upon Conte’, a brilliant inventor, to solve this problem, viz, how to minimize the use of graphite and make pencils which still wrote clearly and for long? Conte’ had to come up with an answer in a hurry. He applied himself to the problem day and night, and after many trails and errors, came up with the answer: mix graphite powder with clay, press the mixture into moulds, and fire it in a kiln. With this process, a relatively small amount of graphite yielded a large number of pencils. By varying the amount of clay, pencils of various ‘hardness’ could be made—i.e., the more the clay, the harder the pencil. It is such an efficient process that it is still used today to make pencils.  

The mention of Pencil Day also brought to my mind a poignant story my grandmother used to tell me. I don’t think it is the story of any particular girl, but definitely reflective of the fate of many young girls a century ago.

The story goes thus…

Gomati was the much-loved only daughter of a middle class family in rural Tamilnadu. Her’s was a joint family and the warm-hearted Gomati was everyone’s darling. She had been married at 9 to a boy from an important family who lived quite far away—7 or 8 hours by bullock cart. She was now 14 years old, and it was time for her to go to her husband’s house.

There was joy in her house, but also a lot of fear and apprehension. Those were the days when in-laws had a lot of power over daughters-in-law, and could be quite mean and cruel. How would the in-laws treat their gentle child? How would she cope? They were so far away, they would not be able to meet her too often. And anyway, the mother-in-law had made it clear that there was no need to visit quite often. They were particularly worried because after the wedding, they had heard that the groom’s family was quite arrogant.

Gomati’s mother and aunts and grandmother; her father and uncles and grandfather; her brothers and sisters-in-law, were all worried. How would they even get to know how they were treating her? How relieved they would be if they knew they were kind to her. And if she were not, maybe they could go and talk to the in-laws and try to improve the situation.

They knew that her mother-in-law would read any letter before it was sent. There was no way that Gomati would ever be able to write the truth if she were being mistreated. How then would they ever get to know?

And then one of Gomati’s uncles had an idea. ‘Gomati, you will have to write only good things about your in-laws, your husband and your life. But if these good things are true, then write with a pen. If they are untrue, write the letter with a pencil. We will then know what is happening.’

So it was decided. And Gomati went to her husband’s house.

Everyone at her parents’ house was anxious for the first letter to arrive. They watched for the postman ever day. Till at last the letter arrived. Everyone gathered around for the reading. And what a wave of joy went through the house, for they could see the letter was written with a pen!

The letter described how happy and busy Gomati was, how kind each and every in-law was, how attentive her husband was, how every meal was a gourmet meal, and how no one let her do any difficult or demanding chores.

The relief and the happiness increased with every line that was read out.

Till the last line, which said: ‘I have everything that the heart could wish for. If I lack anything in this household, it is that I cannot find a pencil.’


Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.


Ode to the Sparrow

The last few days have seen many ‘DAYS’.

March 21 was World Poetry Day. It was adopted as such by UNESCO 21 March as World Poetry Day in 1999, at its 30th General Conference. The aim of Poetry Day is towards ‘supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard. World Poetry Day is the occasion to honour poets, revive oral traditions of poetry recitals, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, foster the convergence between poetry and other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and raise the visibility of poetry in the media.’ (UNESCO).


March 20 is celebrated as World Sparrow Day (WSD). The Day, celebrated for the first time in 2010, is meant to raise awareness about the house sparrow and the dangers it confronts. World Sparrow Day was established by Mohammed Dilawar who grew up in Nashik, Maharashtra. Birds were a big part of his childhood. As an academic, he came across a student-project about the decline of sparrows in UK, and that got him thinking about the same thing happening in India, and he decided to do something about it. He started Nature Forever Society (NFS) in 2005, and has been recognized as an Environmental Hero. WSD is one of his many initiatives to protect biodiversity.

Let’s bring the two ‘Days’ together with poems about….sparrows.

And interesting, I found two poems which also resonate with what we are going through today.

The first, a poem by the Tamil poet Mahakavi Bharatiyar, is about his yearning for India’s freedom.

Liberation – Little Sparrow: Subramania Bharathi

O May you escape all shackles

And revel in Liberty

Like this

Sprightly Sparrow!

Roam about in endless space,

Swim across the whirling air,

Drink the measureless wine of the light

That flows for ever from the azure sky!

Happily twittering and making love

Building a nest beyond danger’s reach

Guarding the fledgling, hatched from the egg

And giving it feed and a wholesome care.


The other, a poem is by Paul Laurence Dunbar who was born in 1872 to two formerly enslaved people from Kentucky and became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. He sees the sparrow as a bird of peace and hope and love, whose calls our hearts are too deadened to listen to.

The Sparrow: Paul Laurence Dunbar

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Ten taps upon my window–pane,
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay,
Till, in neglect, it flies away.

So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above,
To settle on life’s window–sills,
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.


Here is to a world where we make poetry, see sparrows, and importantly, listen to their call!



It is the season of colours. In Nature this is when blossoms and blooms announce the arrival of spring. The birds flaunt their plumage to attract their mates. It is colours that make this statement with an astounding variety of shades, from the flamboyant to the nuanced.

Colours are also significant in the world of humans. They express our moods, and our preferences. They indicate our race, nationality, or our sexuality. They inspire, as well as give form to our art, our textiles, and our cuisines. Each colour is unique in itself, but it is when colours come together that the real magic happens.

Sadly it is when colours begin to define race and politics that the magic turns murky. It is when national colours become the label of “friend” or “enemy”, and when the colour of the skin assumes pejorative tones that colours begin to create dangerous schisms and chasms. This when humans become so blinkered that colours begin to assume divisive identities; that colours increasingly create silos within which monochromatic sentiments fester until they explode in violence and war.

These ruminations were triggered by a poem that I came across. The words are simple, but the thoughts profound.


While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

Today as we celebrate Holi, the festival of colours, let the colours unite us in our revelries, in their true spirit. Let colours become all-inclusive rather than exclusive. Let the many different shades and tints come together to weave a magnificent and rich multi-hued tapestry. Let us remember that within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of cultures.

Happy Holi!


Celebrating Slimy

You would have been exhorted to vote for Parliamentary and your State legislature. You would have been urged to vote at your college elections for your Union rep, or in your housing society for office bearers. . You are routinely encouraged to vote for your favourite participant in some reality show or other.

But have you ever voted for a mollusc?

Well, that is what researchers in Germany are asking you to do! Experts from Senckenberg Museum, Loewe-TBG and the worldwide society for mollusc research (Unitas Malacologica) have put together a shortlist of five molluscs, and the one that gets the most votes is crowned Mollusc of the Year!

And the prize? Well, a bit sad for one representative of the winning species, which will be euthanized, and its cells burst to extract its DNA, which will then be sequenced. But happy news for the rest of that species and molluscs in general, as hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

Why the song and dance? Why can’t the experts just decide which mollusc they want to study and go ahead? Well, essentially, the competition is a way to raise awareness about molluscs. And boy, do we need our awareness raised! The very title of this piece which is propositioned on the world ‘slimy’, is an indicator of the lack of awareness. Our perception of moullscs as slimy creatures comes from our encounters with snails and slugs. But these are just a few species of the over 1,00,000 known mollusc species. Slime is NOT one of the characteristics of that the phylum, unlike the common perception.

Molluscs are the largest family of invertebrates after arthropods, with fossil records going back over 550 million years. They span in size from the microscopic to 45 feet; can weigh up to 750 kgs; can live from hours to centuries—the longest-lived one is known to have survived over 500 years. There are species which live on land and water, both fresh and salt. They inhabit every continent and ocean.

Snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, cuttlefish and chitons are all molluscs. All of them have soft bodies which typically have a “head” and a “foot” region, and often their bodies are covered by a hard exoskeleton.

These creatures have played a significant role in the lives of humans. At one level, they have been a source of protein down the ages; pearls are of course a coveted gem; mollusc shells have been used as money at many times and in many parts of the world. At the same time, some species are serious pests of crops, have destroyed ships at sea, and have led to economic devastation. 

Though there are so many species of molluscs and they are so wide-spread, very little is known about them, either to the general public, or even to scientists. And that is why the competition is important—to create a widespread awareness of this set of creatures which are such a large part of our living world; and to enthuse scientists in their work to study them.

Coming to the specifics of the competition, the five contenders this year are:

Painted Snail
Painted Snail

Tustiaria rubescens, the Barge-footer, also known as the tusk or tooth shell. They live in both the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Atlantic Ocean, inhabiting muddy bottoms, normally offshore.

Telescopium telescopium, the Telescope Snail lives in mangrove forests along the Indian Ocean including parts of the coasts of Pakistan, Goa (India), Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Madagascar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Vietnam, and  Papua New Guinea.

Cymbulia peronii, the Sea Butterfly, is a species that has been reported from all oceans around the world. These 6 cm wide animals have a gelatinous shell which looks like a transparent slipper. They also have what looks like two wings which enable them to “fly” through water columns.

Polymita picta, the Painted Snail is an endangered snail. known for its colourful shell and the ‘love dart’, a device to stab partners during mating to transfer ‘sexual hormones’. It is found only in Eastern Cuba.

Teredo navalis , the Naval Shipworm is a clam which looks like a worm. They are also called shipworms, as they used to eat through the hulls of wooden ships. They are said to have eaten through Columbus’ ships and stranded him in Jamaica! They are found throughout the tropics and subtropics. 

The competition (this is the second edition) closes today, 15 March. So hurry to and cast your vote to support research which will help us understand our living planet better.


Two Faces of War

As the world watches in despair at another meaningless war, amidst the dark and dismal narratives, it is the stories of hope and resilience that resonate the loudest. And unknown or forgotten connections are remembered anew.

For many of us, Ukraine was just another name on the map, and we imagined that it was far away geographically and personally. Until we read about the many many Indians who have been living, studying and working there. It got even closer with the media in Gujarat full of stories not only of the Gujarati students who were stranded there, but equally of the way other Gujaratis in neighbouring countries were offering overwhelming help and support to fellow countrymen in need. In Poland especially food and shelter is being given with open hearts and homes—helping to create a little India in a distant land.  

This link with Poland goes back many years, back to another war—World War II, and a reverse flow of displaced people. One of the heart-warming stories is about how the Maharaja of Jamnagar created a Little Poland in Gujarat.

In 1939 Poland was invaded by both Germany and Russia. There were mass arrests, massacres, grabbing of land and businesses, and large-scale deportations. Over two million Polish civilians were sent to camps in Siberia, and thousands died, even before they got there. Hundreds of Polish children were left orphaned or abandoned. In 1941 there was an international amnesty that allowed the destitute refugees to leave the Soviet Union. They undertook arduous and long journeys to distant lands that were offering them refuge.

India was at the time, still under British rule and the British government was not keen on accepting refugees. In the face of severe opposition by the British, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja or “Jam Saheb” as he was called, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, a princely state in Gujarat was the first to offer the orphaned children from Poland refuge. The 46 year old king had developed a special interest in Polish culture ever since his meeting with Ignacy Padrewski, a Polish pianist that he had met in Switzerland. He was moved by the plight of the Polish orphans. Despite the official British refusal to accept these refugees, as the head of a princely state the Maharaja had some level of autonomy. He was determined to use it and take in the homeless children. 

In early 1942 the first group of 170 children who reached Bombay, and travelled on to Balachadi a small seashore town close to the maharaja’s capital Jamnagar. The maharaja welcomed them with the words “You are no longer orphans. From now on you are Nawanagarians and I am Bapu, father of all Nawanagarians, so I’m your father as well”.

Bapu Jam Saheb and his Polish children at a Xmas show

Jam Saheb was true to his word. The children were initially put up in tented accommodation while the Balachadi camp was being built. The maharaja went to great lengths to ensure that Balachadi became a home away from home for these children who, at a young age, had experienced dislocation, loss of family and home, and the horrors of war. He built dormitories in which each child had a separate bed, and generously provided food, clothes and medical care. He converted the guest house of his Balachadi palace into a school, and even set up a special library with Polish books so that the children would not forget their mother tongue. He was concerned that they should not forget their own culture; he encouraged the children to put up shows including their songs and dances, and continued the country’s strong traditions of Scouts and the church. He encouraged children to play sports, and they were free to use his gardens, squash courts, and pool. He was concerned about their choice of food and would host special meals for the children. One of the children recalled, many years later, how the children did not like the way spinach was cooked and went on a ’spinach strike’. When the Jam Saheb heard about this he immediately ordered the cooks not to include spinach in the meals. 

Between 1942 and 1946 over 600 Polish children found a home in Little Poland thanks to the maharaja. When the war ended and the orphans had to return to Europe, both the children and the maharaja were heart-broken. The unusual bond that was formed remained strong, and played a crucial role in giving stability and hope to children who had lost everything.

The Maharaja died in 1966. His Polish “children” had spread across the world in countries where they started new lives after the end of the war. 76 years later, as a testimony to the enduring bonds, and to mark 100 years of Poland’s independence, in 2018, six of these “children” (now in their nineties) returned to Balachadi. They walked down memory lane, remembering the Bapu who not only gave them a home, but also their childhood.

Jam Saheb is remembered not only by his children, but is also considered a hero by the country that honours his generosity. He was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit. A city square in the heart of Warsaw is named Skwer Dobrego Maharadzy (The Square of the Good Maharaja). When he was alive the Maharaja had been asked how the Polish people could thank him for his generosity and he had replied that they could name a school after him. One of the city’s foremost private schools is named the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji High School. A fitting tribute indeed.

Today, as another war rages, Poland is welcoming thousands of displaced women and children. Perhaps some of them will find refuge in the Square of the Good Maharaja, and history would have come full circle.


Women of Substance

Some people know the name Savita Ambedkar. Fewer know the name Gyan Patnaik. These were women who were achievers in their own right, but decided to stay in the background, while their husbands took the larger stage. A small peek into their lives…

Savita Ambedkar: Dr. Savita (born Sharada) Ambedkar was the wife of Dr. BR Ambedkar. Born in 1909, she belonged to a very forward-looking family which gave great importance to education. This enabled her to pursue her MBBS in a day and age when it was not very common for women to even complete school. After graduating from Grant Medical College Bombay, she was appointed as Medical Officer in a major hospital in Gujarat. However, due to ill-health, she gave up her job there and returned to Bombay in a while, and started assisting a senior doctor in his practice. It was at this time that she met Dr. Ambedkar at the house of a common acquaintance He was immersed in his work as Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Council. The acquaintanceship began with a few conversations about women’s rights, Buddhism, etc., and continued for many years. . Dr. Ambedkar had lost his first wife and had resolved not to marry. During the writing of the Constitution which obviously must have been a very stressful time,  Dr. Ambedkar’s health suffered and he came to Bombay for treatment. Dr. Savita was closely involved in his treatment, and they had many conversations about social change, literature, religion, etc. Their friendship grew, and they decided to get married in 1948. After that, she not only lent her intellectual support in his many tasks, she also acted as his personal doctor-nurse, and was involved in social work. Dr. Ambedkar has credited her with increasing his life-span by 8-10 years.

Tragically, after his death, she was accused of having poisoned him. Govt. of India set up committee to look into the circumstances of his death. The committee found no indication of foul play. While during Dr. Ambedkar’s life, she was a very respected figure in the Dalit-Buddhist movement, after that, there were allegations that she was not really committed to it, given her Brahmin birth. However, after some years, there was a reconciliation and she actively participated in it once again. She was responsible for the preservation of many documents and papers related to her husband and received the posthumous Bharat Ratna on his behalf.

Gyan Patnaik: Fiesty Gyan was the wife of the flamboyant Biju Patnaik.  She was one of the first women-aviators in India, and probably the first woman to get a commercial pilot’s license in the 1930s. It was their joint love of flying that brought the Punjabi Gyan and the Odiya Biju together.  He piloted his baraat across the country for the wedding, and was known as Punjab’s son-in-law.

Gyan participated fully in the nationalist movement with Biju. She co-piloted the plane with him in his daring rescue of Indonesian leaders from Dutch-occupied Java. She went back there on several missions with Biju to bring humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people. She was also very active in supporting the freedom struggle in Nepal in the 1950s. She flew several sorties to Burma along with her husband to rescue British families as the Japanese invaded the country during World War II.

Gyan Patnaik with her Husband
Gyan Patnaik with her Husband

She was passionately interested in science and the use of science for improving people’s lives, and provided leadership to these initiatives through the Kalinga Foundation. She was a wise counselor not only to Biju Patnaik, but also to many leaders in Orissa. However, during the later years, Biju preferred that she live away from Orissa so as not to get caught up in the rough and tumble of state politics.

A woman-doctor and a lady-pilot in the 1930s were on path breaking journeys and would have made waves. Being married to prominent men brought them to the public eye and they garnered accolades in a different way—one where they were seen more as supporters of men on the national stage, rather than achievers in their own right.

On International Women’s Day, we claim back the stage for them and many others like them, and wish all readers.


PS: We started our blog on International Women’s Day, 2018. Four years and 480 posts–an opportunity for immense learning and sharing. A big thank you to all our readers!

War and Peace

Once again the world is at war. Just as the images of the ravages in Afghanistan were beginning to fade, our senses are once again overwhelmed with the heart wrenching narratives of the unfolding tragedy of war in Ukraine. As the powers that be are flexing their muscles and showcasing their might, and statesman are spouting rhetoric, people like you and me have had their entire life turned upside down overnight. Behind the smoke and the rubble are thousands of human faces, each with their personal stories of loss and trauma, looking into an abyss of uncertainty.  

In all the din and despair, we all need some words of sanity and hope, but there are so few voices now that can bring some reason and solace. Sadly in the last few months the world lost two such voices who saw the senselessness of war and dedicated their life to peace. One was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who passed away in December 2021 and to whom we paid tribute in our piece Looking Ahead With Hope posted on 30 December 2021. The other was Thich Nhat Hanh who passed away in January this year at the age of 95.                        

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was a prolific author, poet, teacher and peace activist. He was born as Nguyen Dinh Lang in Hue in Central Vietnam on October 11, 1926. He joined a Zen monastery as a novice monk at the age of 16. Upon his ordination in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich is an honorary family name used by Vietnamese monks and nuns. Later he was universally best known as Thay which means teacher.

Even as a young bhikshu (monk) in the early 1950s, Thich Nhat Hanh was actively engaged in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism. He was one of the first bhikshus to study a secular subject at university in Saigon, and one of the first six monks to ride a bicycle.

When war came to Vietnam in the mid-1950s, monks and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both. Even as he was getting deeper into the spiritual realm of Buddhist beliefs, he was also actively engaged in the efforts at mitigating the devastating effects of the war on his people and country. In the early 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth and Social Service, a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers including young monks. They went into the war affected areas to care for the wounded, to resettle the refugees by setting up new places for these people to live, to build schools and health centres. The youth did not see themselves as just social workers, but as practitioners of the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.

In 1961 Thich Nhat Hanh travelled to the United States to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University, and the following year went on to teach and research Buddhism at Columbia University. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join the growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, which attracted global attention because of self-immolation by several monks as a gesture of protest. He travelled once more to the U.S. and Europe to make the case for peace and to call for an end to hostilities in Vietnam. Towards the height of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict.

In 1964 Thich Nhat Hanh published a poem called Condemnation in a Buddhist weekly. It reads in part:

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I cannot accept this war.
I never could I never will.
I must say this a thousand times before I am killed.
I am like the bird who dies for the sake of its mate,
dripping blood from its broken beak and crying out:
“Beware! Turn around and face your real enemies
— ambition, violence hatred and greed.”

The poem earned him the label “antiwar poet,” and he was denounced as a pro-Communist propagandist. As his voice began to be heard in America and Europe, and because he refused to support either North or South Vietnam in the conflict, both the communist and non-communist governments banned him from entering the countries, forcing Thich Nhat Hanh to live in exile for over 39 years. As he explained “I did not intend to come and to stay for a long time in the West. In fact, I was invited to deliver a series of talks and took the opportunity to speak about the war, the version that was not heard by people outside of Vietnam because the Buddhists in Vietnam, we represent the majority who do not side themselves with any warring parties. And what we wanted really is not a victory, but the end of the war. So what I told people over here at that time did not please any warring parties in Vietnam. That is why I was not allowed to go home.”

During this period of exile, Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, became a global advocate for peace and spoke and wrote widely against the cycle of war and violence. He also continued to teach, lecture and write on the art of mindfulness and ‘living peace,’ and in the early 1970s was a lecturer and researcher in Buddhism at the University of Sorbonne, Paris. In 1975 he established the Sweet Potato community near Paris, and in 1982, moved to a much larger site in the south west of France, known as Plum Village which grew into the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery, with over 200 resident monastics and up to 8,000 visitors every year, who come from around the world to learn “the art of mindful living.”

Thich Nhat Hanh was able return to Vietnam only in 2005, when the Communist government allowed him to teach, practice and travel throughout the country. His anti-war activism continued. In 2014, a month after his 88th birthday he suffered a severe stroke which left him largely paralyzed and unable to speak but he continued to spread his message through his serene presence. Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at his root temple, Tu Hieu, in Hue, Vietnam, on January 22, 2022 at the age of 95.

If his physical presence was here today, the gentle monk would have been anguished by yet another meaningless war and reminded the world that there is an alternative path of trust, compassion and fellowship.  Let us remember his words:

“We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

And most of all: “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

With hope for a better tomorrow.


Serendipity is the Best Travel Guide

Last week, along with dear friends, we had driven to Shimoga to see the Jog Falls, maybe visit the Bhadravathi Sanctuary, and do the other local sights.

Alas, trouble broke out there and we decided to cut short our visit and drive back—fortunately after seeing the Falls. While we were not heart-broken to return a day early, there was an air of slight disappointment in the two cars.


…we suddenly saw a sign ‘Welcome to Amrutapura: City of Ancient Amrutesvara Temple’ (Karnataka has a wonderful practice of labeling its towns, from Chennaptana: Toy Town, to others which are Silk Towns, Arecanut Towns, Coffee Towns etc.).  We recollected that the Hotel Desk had cursorily told us that Amrutapura was a possible place to visit, but we hadn’t really registered it it was a casual mention.

But now that we were here with a day to spare, we decided to explore the possibilities.

And what an experience awaited us!

Amruthavarsha Temple, Karnataka
Gopuram of Amruthavarsha Temple, Karnataka

Built in what experts deem the older Hoysala style, this 12thcentury Shiva temple was commissioned by Amrutheshwara Dandanayaka, one of the commanders of Veera Ballala II, the Hoysala King. The beautiful little temple, where worship still happens, is dense with an amazing array of sculptures. Friezes from the Ramayana adorn one side of the structure, while stories of Krishna and tales from the Mahabharatha decorate the other. One tower has a detailed panel of Shiva slaying Gajasura. Another tower showcases the emblem of the Hoysalas, a young man battling a lion. As per folklore, a young man, Sala, saved his Jain guru, Sudatta by striking dead a lion near the temple of the goddess Vasantik. The name of the dynasty itself comes from this incident– ‘Hoy’ meaning strike, and ‘Sala’ for the young man’s name. (I am a little confused about this story, not being able to make out the connection between Sala and the dynasty–did he found it? Was he one of the scions? Obviously, more research is called for on my part. But what really intrigues me is the killing of a tiger to save a Jain muni. Surely the teacher could not have approved of this?). There is also a large stone embedded in the premises, with a poem inscribed on it, which is believed to have been written by Janna, one of the most famous poets of the region and times.

Vasudeva praying to the Donkey, Amruthavarsha Temple, Karnataka
Vasudeva praying to the Donkey

It would seem that a lot of thought had gone into selection of the incidents to be depicted on the friezes. Krishna’s birth, the events subsequent to that, the various attempts of various hideous demons to kill him in his infancy, and his mischievousness as a child form a large part of the display. The most intriguing was of one of a man bowing to a donkey. We could not figure it out, but the temple priest was kind enough to tell us the story. It seems that when Vasudeva was preparing to smuggle Baby Krishna out in a basket on the night he was born, to deliver him to Nand at Mathura to save him from Kamsa, there was a donkey outside the prison gates, all ready to bray aloud and attract the attention of the guards. Vasudeva prostrated himself in front of the donkey, pleading with it not to make a noise. And it finally agreed, thus allowing the clandestine operation to proceed smoothly.

Krishna's Cradle Ceremony, Amruthavarsha Temple, Karnataka
Krishna’s Cradle Ceremony

There is of course the aesthetic beauty of the temple created in ancient times. But at a time when my 7-year old house has leaks and cracks and sundry problems, it is amazing to see how the 12th century structure is still so well maintained and standing so strong. And then, the peaceful and serene ambience of the temple, the spotless cleanliness, the well-maintained greenery. Kudos to the ancient masters, the priests who have taken care of the temple for 900 years+, and now the ASI, which seems to be managing it. But also a small request to ASI: how about a sign somewhere on the temple with its name (no, there was no hint that it was indeed the Amruthavarsha Temple)? How about some information on the temple itself, apart from signs warning of dire consequences of defacing the structure? How about a little more publicity for such a wonder? How about public conveniences built somewhere in the vicinity for travellers who drive many miles to get here?

But no complaints. The temple just blew our minds.  Maybe it is only in India that one would serendipitously happen on a 12th century masterpiece while driving along desultorily.