LABURNUM: MOLTEN SUNSHINE

As the late April heat intensifies and the scorching sun begins to wilt and melt all that it beats down upon, it is time for the golden showers. The Indian laburnum or Golden Shower tree is in bloom. Its masses of yellow blossoms cascade from the tree like waterfalls of molten gold. Indian summer is really here!

laburnum

Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula gets its genus name from the word Kasia which was given by an ancient Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscurides, and its species name fistula meaning pipe, which refers to its tube-like pods.  

C. fistula is widely grown as an ornamental plant in tropical and subtropical areas. It is native to Southeast Asia and is found in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, South and SW China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other tropical Asian countries, some parts of Australia and tropical Africa.

The Amaltas as it is commonly called in Hindi, is one of the most widespread of Indian trees and occurs throughout the country including the Andamans, and thus it has a vernacular name in all Indian languages. Many of the names refer to the long stick-like pods which appear almost alongside the blooms.

The Indian Laburnum is the common English name of this moderate-sized, deciduous tree. Its bark is greenish-grey and smooth on young trees, but with age it becomes brown and rough. This is not a tree that attracts attention for the large part of the year. It has a nondescript branching pattern and scant foliage. Between February and May the leaves get dull and ragged and many of them fall. New leaves are a beautiful fresh green sometimes tinged with pink, or a rich copper colour, and covered with a soft down; they remain folded and hang loosely downwards until they are fully grown.  It is with the onset of the summer that the laburnum bursts into full glory with sprays of golden flowers. It is the profuse mass of colour that attracts immediate attention. But a closer look reveals the delicate distinct beauty of the individual flowers that make up the mass. Each flower has five spoon-shaped petals of unequal size and ten yellow stamens of which three are long and curve gracefully upwards, the next four are shorter and curve the opposite way, while the remaining three are even shorter and straight. All are crowned with large, brown anthers where pollen is produced.

Around the same time, the long hanging cylindrical pods that give the tree some of its common names like Pudding Pipe tree appear in large numbers, making a striking picture of brown with yellow. At first the pods are green and soft, then they turn brown, and eventually become black and very hard. The pods contain large numbers of shiny brown seeds arranged in small compartments surrounded by a sticky brown pulp. 

In the scorching sun, the blooming flowers are a magnet for a wide range of insects and birds, which in turn creates dynamic ecological interactions. Bees and butterflies are important pollinating agents. The laburnum is specially connected to the Carpenter bees; the vibrations generated by the bees as they hover near the flowers cause the pollen grains to break out of the stamens, and attach to the bee’s body, and therefrom travel far and wide. Weaver Ants lurk around the flowers to pounce and prey on pollinators that visit the flowers. While flowers are the star attraction, the leaves too play important supporting roles. Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bats consume the leaves of the Golden Shower Tree, which are rich in protein and calcium. Butterflies like Mottled Emigrant, Common Emigrant and Common Grass Yellow, lay eggs on the leaves, which also provide the first food for the caterpillars as they emerge from the eggs. The ripe pods also attract mammals like monkeys, jackals, bears and pigs who break these open to eat the pulp, thereby helping to scatter the seeds that lie within, either directly or through their ingestion and excretion.

For humans, the Indian Laburnum also provides much more than sheer aesthetic pleasure. Its leaves, fruits and flowers are known to have medicinal relevance in Ayurveda and other traditional systems of medicine. In fact, in Sanskrit, the tree is revered as Aragvadha or ‘disease killer’. The fruit pulp is known to have laxative properties, while its flowers are used in certain folk remedies. The leaves have also been used as fodder to supplement the diets of domestic cattle, sheep, and goats, and as green manure. The flowers are also eaten by some tribal communities, and more recently, new age chefs are creating innovative ‘Amaltas’ recipes of teas, chutneys, jams, and salads using the flowers.

As with most indigenous trees, the Amaltas finds a place in culture and tradition. The tree finds mention in literature from the epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to folk literature, and is depicted in paintings and pictures. The Indian Postal Department issued a stamp in its honour, and some cities in India have beautiful avenues of Laburnum trees, original planted by the British.

In Kerala, the Kondrai or Kannikona flower as it is locally known has great cultural and religious significance. According to traditional belief it is very auspicious to have a first sighting of the flowering tree at dawn on Vishu, the New Year’s Day. The Vishukanni (literally the first sight on the day of Vishu) ritual includes an offering of all the ‘golden items of seasonal harvest’ like jackfruit, golden cucumber, mangoes and cashews, on this day. In fact the Kannikona flower is the state flower of Kerala.

Several countries of South East Asia also honour this beautiful tree. The golden hues of the Laburnum flowers signify royalty in Thailand where this has been designated as the national flower, and there is an annual flower festival is named after this tree.  In Sri Lanka where it is called Ehela, this tree is planted around Buddhist temples. In Laos the blooming flowers known as Dok Khuan are also associated with their new year when the flowers are offered at temples and also hung in homes in the belief that they will bring happiness and good luck to the house and family.

As I look out from my window at the glorious golden cascade of the Amaltas, I too wish that the auspicious sighting will bring the same to my home.

–Mamata

The Meandering Beetle

Sometime late last night, a beetle seems to have flown into my bedroom. I found it this morning, clinging stubbornly to my pillow. When I tried to push it away, it landed on the floor and walked around coolly, till I caught it up in a piece of paper and released it outside.

beetle
The Beetle Visitor (My phone did not get the colour right!)

Not a very unusual happening, except this beetle was one I had never seen before– about 2 cms in length, and a very pale colour, almost a dirty yellow.  I have seen large beetles but not one this large inside a home or building. The beetles that usually visit are black or brown or green or purplish, unlike the pale colour of this one. And my beetle was not iridescent, as beetles often are. But it did have the hooked strong legs that make it pretty unpleasant when a beetle lands on you!

But then beetles form the largest order among insects, with over 4 lakh species of them around. So coming across a new one is not unexpected. Nor is coming across one that is 2 cms long—after all, beetles can range in size from the barely visible, to large tropical species that are the size of a human hand. 

But what are beetles? Obviously a type of insect, but what distinguishes them is that their front pair of wings is hardened into wing-cases or elytra, which cover and protect the hind wings and abdomen. They belong to the order Coleoptera, in the superorder Endopterygota.

Coming to the iridescence of beetles and other insects, some are and some are not. But why are they iridescent?  Apparently, it helps in camouflage. It seems counter-intuitive, but field experiments found that birds found and ate 85% of non-iridescent baits, but only 60% of iridescent ones!

The most interesting of the beetles are the dung beetles, of which there are about 30,000 species. Basically, dung beetles fly around looking for the dung of herbivores, which has a lot of undigested and semi-digested stuff, which the beetles suck up as a great source of nutrition. There are three types of dung beetles: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. Rollers makes balls of bits of dung, roll it away, and bury it. The balls they make are either used by the female to lay her eggs in or as food for the adults to eat. Tunnelers dig into a pat of dung, and lay their eggs in these holes. Dwellers stay on top of the dung pat and lay their eggs, live there and raise the young. Thought most depend on herbivore dung, there are a few species which feed on carnivore dung.

Dung beetles, Scarabaeus sacer  fascinated the ancient Egyptians to the extent that they worshipped them. They believed the  dung beetle kept the Earth revolving like a giant ball of dung.

Another type of beetles which are general favourites are the Ladybirds. Farmers have special reasons to love them, as they eat aphids and other plant pests. One ladybug can eat up to 5000 aphids in a lifetime!

But sadly, a half-hour of googling through various identification sites hasn’t helped me identify my particular beetle-visitor. Google Lens helpfully tells me it a Christmas Beetle, but that seems unlikely because those are native to Australia, and my sighting was in Bangalore.

Well, the search will continue.

–Meena

Seeds to Secure the Future

Every day at CEE (Centre for Environment Education) was an education one way or the other. One fascinating tour that I recall was to visit NGOs working in projects related to biodiversity and climate change as part of a national scheme that CEE was coordinating.

I was supposed to cover Chhattisgarh as part of this. My most memorable visit was to an NGO that was collecting local varieties of rice and cataloguing them.  It was a small project, maybe only a few lakhs. The NGO had collected rice samples, stuck them to sheets of chart paper and meticulously written down details that they had gathered from the farmers about the cultivation, characteristics, uses etc.  Like a school project, but preserving invaluable genetic resources and information. What a variety of rice—different shapes, different sizes; some fronds long and wavy, others densely packed. And for the first time I saw purple and black rice! And the enthusiastic NGO staff explained the traditional use of each type of rice.

 It was an eye-opener.

I knew that Chhattisgarh was known as the Rice Bowl of India and had over 20,000 rice varieties. But seeing those modest tin trunks with the samples of rice carefully stored brought this home to me in a way that no amount of reading could have. And with it, the realization that we were fast losing so many varieties–and not only of rice but every crop. And not only in India, but worldwide.

Seeds for Food Security

There are many factors responsible for this—unsustainable agricultural practices; industrialization; the focus on a few varieties of crops which are commercially attractive to the exclusion of others; urbanization, etc. According  to UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), while over  6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food worldwide, only nine account for the majority of total crop production.With climate change, the need to preserve these varieties is even more urgent than ever before. The varieties that we cultivate today may no longer be viable tomorrow. And we may have to fall back on this preserved crop diversity to feed the world.

The small NGO that I saw in Chhattisgarh was a key in the whole chain. Several NGOs  in India have been working towards preserving crop diversity for decades—from Beej Bachao Andolan which started in the Tehri Garhwal, to Vrihi seed bank in East India, to the Navadanya movement.

The international community has set up such seed banks at large scale to preserve and conserve seed varieties. There are over 1700 such banks, the biggest of which is the Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway. This has the largest collection of the world’s crop diversity. It stores duplicates of seed samples from the world’s crop collections and hence is a back-up in case anything were to happen to any collection anywhere. The geographical location of the Vault ensures the best possible chance for the survival of the seeds— low temperatures, permafrost and thick rock protect the seed samples and ensure they will remain frozen even without power. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, the location is very remote, but still accessible. It is well above sea level, and safe from flooding even in the worst climate change scenario. The vault is 100 metres into the mountain. It can store 4.5 million varieties of crops, with about 500 seeds per variety.  As of now, there are more than 10,00,000 samples in the Vault, originating from almost every part of the world.

India too has commissioned an impressive seed preservation facility. In fact, it is the second largest in the world. The stone and wood paneled vault is located in Chang La Pass, Ladakh, and is a joint initiative of the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. In this facility, seeds are sealed in specially made three-ply foil packages, placed inside black boxes and stored on shelves. It currently holds olver 10,000 seed samples, and has plans to grow by inviting the international community it use it.

The loss of agricultural biodiversity is less focussed on than the challenges to wild biodiversity. But it can be as
devastating. Feeding the world will be impossible if we don’t act to conserve this now! As per FAO, since the 1900s, some 75 per cent of agricultural plant genetic diversity has already been lost. Seed banks, from local to international,
is one of the ways to do this. Kudos to the farmers, communities, NGOs and institutions which are doing this!

–Meena

 

 

 

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).

Sparrow

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.

From: https://tamilandvedas.com/tag/poem-on-sparrow/

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.

From: https://poets.org/poem/sparrow-0

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

–Meena 

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 https://tbg.senckenberg.de/molluscoftheyear-2022/ and cast your vote to support research which will help us understand our living planet better.

–Meena

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’. 

–Mamata

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!

–Mamata

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!

–Meena

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.

–Meena

Activist Poet: Homero Aridjis

This week several of my friends shared their fond remembrances of Prof MK Prasad. For us at CEE, MKP was the mentor with the twinkle in his eye and a gentle rebuke or prodding, even as he solicitously asked about our families, and encouraged us in our work as environmental educators.

Professor MK Prasad was a rare combination of utmost humility and simplicity with the mind of a brilliant academic, a fighter’s spirit, a scientist’s rigour, a leader’s passion, a prolific writer, and a relentless campaigner for the environment. As one newspaper article mentioned ‘activism and writing are not always identical. The activist has to be amidst people organising and motivating them while garnering available scientific facts. A writer has to confine himself to his study for long hours to research, read, think and write.’ Prof MK Prasad, like some of his other fellow members of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) beautifully combined activism and writing. This was also a unique characteristic of the Save the Silent Valley Movement that Meena described—the coming together of poets, writers, activists and citizens for an environmental issue.  

There is perhaps one other similar story that echoes this movement. The story of Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, novelist, activist, and diplomat, and founder of the Group of 100 a group of intellectuals and artists who united to tackle and environmental issues in Mexico, and raise awareness of environmental issues internationally.

Homero Aridjis was born in 1940, and grew up in the Mexican state of Michoacán near the area where Monarch butterflies gather for the winter. He recalled how as a child he saw Monarch butterflies flying across his village every winter. There was also his annual school excursion to the sanctuaries in the nearby mountains to see the butterflies. On these excursions he also saw that the mountains were being deforested with the connivance of politicians, loggers and local farmers who were cutting down the oyamel fir trees where the Monarchs roosted. Since then the young Homero became concerned that this would mean the loss also of the Monarch butterflies as the forests were their habitat. The Monarch butterfly, a fragile insect that flew thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico every winter sparked the poet in him, and he wrote many poems about butterflies. The butterfly also became, to him, a symbol of the environment. As he explained: I love poetry and the environment for me is the poetry of life. I can’t be living now in a world without poetry or be a member of humanity without feeling the poetry of human beings.

As he grew older, and embarked upon a career in the Diplomatic Service, being posted as his country’s envoy to several European countries, Homero’s passion for the environment was also growing. One day in 1985 he read a letter sent by a philosopher friend to a local newspaper. He felt that a single small voice of dissent would not make a difference, but he thought that if the writers and artists of Mexico joined together to make a strong statement, they would perhaps stand a chance of being heard. A few weeks later, on 1 March 1985, a fierce critique of the environmental havoc amidst which we live was signed by 100 leading personalities in the arts, literature, culture and science in Mexico.

The statement was published in the national and international media. Thus was born The Grupo de los Cien — the Group of 100 which took up the cause to reverse ecological damage and environmental degradation in Mexico, raising awareness about the threats to many species and habitats and campaigning to ensure the continuance of Mexico’s rich biological diversity.

Due to public pressure the President of Mexico in 1986, declared the habitat of the Monarch butterfly and five other sanctuaries as ‘protected’. But illegal logging and other destructive activities continued in the forests. Homero took up his pen as a weapon and wrote many articles in the newspapers and many petitions to draw attention to this. His diplomatic posting as an ambassador to UNESCO helped him to take the battle to an international stage. Before he left UNESCO, the committee of the natural heritage approved the monarch butterfly sanctuaries as protected Natural Heritage of Humanity.

The Group of 100 continued to take up critical issues that that threatened the delicate balance between environment and development. They campaigned to seek protection for the beaches where sea turtles laid their eggs, and that resulted in ending the commercial killing of sea turtles in Mexico. In 1995 they launched a fierce   fight against a planned industrial salt plant that would have had catastrophic impacts on the lagoons where gray whales came to give birth as well as the surrounding environment and local communities. It took five years of battles before the plant was cancelled. Homero bore the brunt of the hostility from vested interests and even received death threats. The Group of 100 remains active to this day, fighting the same battles, with the same undiminished spirit.

As Homero Aridjis put it: You have to have a commitment and a conviction to defend the environment even if you know that the forces of destruction are very big. You have governments, you have corporations, you have individuals, you have criminals, you have many people against nature. That is very difficult but you as a human being and a person with an environmental conscience you have to do everything you can, always in peaceful ways and in legal ways, to defend the environment. You have to defend the things you love.

MK Prasad and Homero Aridjis two warriors who fought with pen as well as sword.

–Mamata