Twiga’s Tales of the Giraffe

One of the most majestic sights while on safari in East Africa is not necessarily the lion nor the elephant, but that of a ‘tower’ (what better way to describe this group!) of giraffe silhouetted against the setting sun, as they stride gracefully across the flat grassland. For animals that at first glance seem somewhat ungainly with their long stilt-like legs and outstretched necks, the Twiga as they are called in Swahili, move like a bevy of tall ballerinas.

Giraffes are an integral part of the landscape in the semi-arid savannah and savannah woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, and also occupy a unique place in the cultural landscape of the African continent. They are highly regarded throughout the continent, and the giraffe spirit animal is seen as a being who can connect the material world to the heavens. In Botswana they call the giraffe Thutlhwa which means ‘honoured one’. Cave paintings from early civilizations in Africa depict giraffes, and giraffes feature in a lot of mythology and folklore of the different tribes. These indicate a high regard for this unique animal, as well as delightful tales that link to the origins of the characteristic features of the giraffe.

The name ‘giraffe’ itself has its earliest origins in the Arabic word zarafa, (fast walker), which in turn may be have been derived from the animal’s Somali name geri. The Italian word giraffa came up in the 1590s, and the modern English form developed around 1600 from the French word girafe. The history of the word follows the history of the European’s exposure to this unusual animal.

This animal has always fascinated people through history. The Greeks and Romans believed that this creature was an unnatural hybrid of a camel and a leopard and called it a Camelopardalis (which also became its scientific name). Julius Caesar is believed to have brought and displayed the first giraffe in Rome in 46 BC. In the Middle Ages Europeans knew about giraffes through contact with the Arabs. A giraffe presented to Lorenzo de Medici in 1486 caused a great stir on its arrival in Florence. In the early 19th century a similar gift to the Charles X of France from Egypt caused a sensation. He loved this animal, and it was something he showed to special guests for 18 years. His palace featured many paintings of his beloved giraffe.


In 1414 a giraffe was taken on a ship to China along with precious stones and spices. It was placed in a zoo where it was a source of fascination for the Chinese people who saw in it a beast that represented the characteristics of various animals and identified it with the mythical Quilin which is a part of Japanese, Chinese and Korean mythology. 

What makes the giraffe so unusual? To start with, it is the tallest mammal on earth, reaching a height of up to 18 feet. The height is achieved by its very long neck and legs.

African folklore has a number of tales that explain why the giraffe has such a long neck. Here is a delightful Twiga tale from East Africa.

In the beginning the Creator gave the same legs and neck to all the animals. One year there was a terrible drought, and all that could be grazed and browsed was eaten by the grazers and browsers, until only a hot and dusty expanse spread before their hungry eyes. One day Giraffe met his friend Rhino, and they walked hungrily and thirstily in search of a water hole. Giraffe looked up and sighed “Look at the fresh green leaves on the acacia trees. If only we could reach them we would no longer be hungry”. Rhino said, “Maybe we can visit the wise and powerful magician and share our troubles.” The two friends trudged on till they reached the place where the magician lived. He told them to return the next day. The next day Rhino forgot all about this and did not show up, but Giraffe was there. The magician gave him the magic herbs that he had prepared for the two animals. Giraffe greedily ate up both the portions. Suddenly he felt a strange tingling in his legs and neck, and felt giddy, so he closed his eyes. When he opened them he saw that the ground was way beneath, and his head was way up, close to the fresh green leaves on the high branches of the tall acacia trees. Giraffe looked up at the sky and down at his long legs, and smiled as he feasted. Meanwhile Rhino finally remembered, and went to the magician. But the magician said he was too late! Giraffe has eaten all the magic herbs! Rhino was so angry, that he charged at the magician, and continued to do so at everyone he encountered. And so, they say, the rhino remained bad tempered, while the giraffe retained his gift of height.    

Interestingly, the giraffe’s long neck has only 7 vertebrae, the same as other mammals. The long neck enables the giraffe to browse on the leaves and shoots of thorny acacia trees in the flat grasslands that it inhabits. This is helped by the strong, long (45-50 cm) and dexterous tongue which is bluish-purple in colour, and the ridged roof of their mouth.

The long neck with eyes located near the top of the head also provides it with a vantage view of the surroundings. The giraffe can spot approaching danger well before the other grazing animals, who are usually found around the giraffe. If they sense any nervousness on the part of the giraffe, they take it as a cue to stay alert or flee.

Curiously, once the height of the legs is added, the long neck is too short to reach the ground. Thus in order to drink from a water hole giraffe have to splay their forelegs and/or bend their knees. This is also the time when they are the most vulnerable to predators like lions. However as giraffes do not need much water, this exercise is not needed very often.  

The long slender legs make the giraffe a very fast runner. Although initially the gait may seem stiff-legged, once they get into rhythm they are a graceful sight. The legs provide more than momentum, they are also a giraffe’s only means of defense. A powerful kick from its hind legs has been known to kill a lion, and its front legs with sharp hooves can come down just as hard.

Female giraffe give birth standing up, which means that the new born has a fall of about 2 metres before it touches ground. And yet the calf can stand up within an hour of its birth; but this is the time when it is most vulnerable to attack by predators.

Giraffe have very thick skin, and they are distinguished by their reddish brown coats with irregular patches divided by light coloured lines. While they may look alike at a glance, each of the different species of giraffe have very different types of spot patterns. In fact, just like human fingerprints, no two giraffe have the same spot pattern.

Certainly an animal that “stands out in a crowd!” But where once they stood tall and strode majestically across their land, giraffe are numbers are declining alarmingly. As with all wildlife, the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of their habitat, poaching, disease, and encroachment of human settlements into their home range and competition for resources is endangering this unique animal. In 2016, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the status of giraffes was changed to ‘vulnerable to extinction.’

In response, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation has dedicated 21June to raising awareness about giraffes by celebrating World Giraffe Day. A day to remind ourselves that the loss of the Twiga is not only a loss for biogeography, but equally a significant cultural loss.

–Mamata

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

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.

When…

…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. 

–Meena

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

Year of the Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers to the tigers!

–Mamata

KING CROW 

Erect and majestic, against the clear blue January sky, sits the bird. It is imperious in its mien, the king of all that it surveys, from its perch on the branch of the drumstick tree. Its glossy black feathers lengthen into a long forked tail, like the regalia of a king. No wonder it carries the moniker of King Crow. But it is not related to the crow family.

Drongo
Drongo

This is the Black Drongo. It belongs to a distinct family the Dicrurus. Its scientific name is Dicrurus macrocercus. Dicrurus is derived from the Greek words dikros meaning forked, and ouros meaning tailed; macrosersus is from the Greek makrokerkos, where makros means long and kerkos means tail. It is this forked tail that is the distinctive feature of this bird. The body of the drongo is small (bulbul sized) while the tail is relatively long, giving it a graceful and regal appearance, not only when it is perched, but also when it flies with an undulating wave-like movement, alternating the flapping of wings, and gliding smoothly with wings held still. 

The Black Drongo can be seen in open areas—farmlands, grasslands, fields and even urban pockets, usually perched on poles and wires, or tree branches. These are favoured as they are good look outs for spotting prey. The Drongo is primarily an insect eater, on the alert for bees, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, cicadas, termites, moths and ants. The insects are snatched from the air with daring aerial displays—shooting up like an arrow, zooming down like a rocket, veering sharply to change direction—which are a delight to watch. Once caught, the prey is carried off by the Drongo, who with deft manoeuvres, clamps its catch under foot, and tears it to pieces before swallowing it. 

Drongos are also smart enough to avail of more easily available meals by being around when fields are being ploughed, or stubble is being burned, so as to feast on all the insects that are disturbed by this. They also hitch a ride on the back of grazing cattle, with the same purpose of feasting on the insects that fly up in the wake of the walking cattle. Thus Drongos help to control many agricultural pests, making them important biological pest-control agents, earning them the name ‘farmers’ friends’. 

The Drongo is not just agile in its movements, it has a versatile repertoire of calls—from harsh scolding calls to a range of sweet whistles. It is also a clever mimic, imitating the calls of other birds, so as to use this to its advantage in different ways. It can imitate sounds that make a flock of diverse birds believe that they are from the same flock; it will raise an alarm call that will cause others to abandon their food and flee, leaving the rest for the Drongo.  It is said that the Drongo perfectly mimics the call of a shikra which scares birds like mynas who fly away in panic, leaving the takings for the Drongo.

Despite its small size this bird is fearless, and can be aggressive, taking on larger species that may venture into its nesting territory. It is especially vigilant about keeping out crows who may poach their eggs. Thus being given the appropriate name of Kotwal or sentry in Hindi. The smaller birds take advantage of this vigil by also nesting safely in the ‘sphere of influence’ of this gutsy gatekeeper.  

The battle for supremacy between the freeloading crow and the feisty bird was vividly described by British civil servant and naturalist Edward Hamilton Aitken in his book The Common Birds of Bombay published in 1900. 

 “Its (Drongo’s) aim is true and its beak is sharp and its target is the back of the lawbreaker. The Crow is big enough to carry off its puny enemy and pick its bones, if it could catch it, but who can fight against a ‘bolt from the blue’? The first onset may, perhaps, be dodged, but the nimble bird wheels and rises and plunges again with derisive screams, again and again piling pain and humiliation on the abject fugitive till it has gone far beyond the forbidden limits. Then the King sails slowly back to its tree and resumes its undisputed reign.”

Little wonder then, that this bird, though no relative of the Common Crow, has earned the sobriquet King Crow. 

This agile and spunky little bird is equally celebrated for its cleverness. It displays these traits in a number of folk tales from different cultures and geographies—from South Africa to Australia to North East India. 

Here is one from the Shangani tribe of Zimbabwe.

A long time ago, the birds decided to choose a leader. A call was sent to all birds to attend a meeting to determine the same. When he heard this, Pau the Ostrich was confident that being the largest bird, he would get this title. Gama the Eagle was equally sure that he was entitled to this, being the bird that could fly highest. The little birds also decided to compete. Thus birds of every shape, size and colour arrived at the meeting. The elders had a long and argumentative discussion to fix the criteria for selection. Finally they agreed that the bird who could stay in the air the longest would be designated as leader. 

Pau the ostrich, who could not even fly, stalked out in protest at this criterion. Many smaller birds who knew the limits of their ability and endurance dropped out, knowing that they could not match the powerful fliers. But Matengwane, the fork-tailed drongo, did not throw in the towel immediately, and quietly planned his strategy. The next morning when the big birds set off flying on their course, drongo lightly settled on the back of Gama the high flying eagle, and hid amongst its feathers. As the race went on, more and more birds began to drop out from exhaustion, until finally it was only Gama soaring in the sky. The confident eagle descended, and landed to cheers. Just as the elders were about to crown Gama as the leader, they noticed that there was still one bird flying in the sky— Matengwane the drongo! The clever hitchhiker had detached himself from his ride, just as Gama was landing, and remained the sole winged creature in the sky. And thus was the Drongo declared the leader of the birds!

Certainly no bird brain—the Drongo.

.–Mamata

Neem Chameli-Indian Cork Tree

The last two months were suffused with the heavy scent of the Saptaparni flowers that hung in the early morning air. With the monsoon finally receding, this month there is a change in the atmosphere, and the scents in the air. The crisp dawns are now fragrant with a delicate scent. Following ones nose and looking up one sees some trees laden with clusters of white flowers. In the pre-dawn light, one may think that the Saptaparni is blooming again. But no, it is the turn of another night bloomer with white flowers—the Indian Cork Tree or Tree Jasmine.

This ornamental tree which grows in most parts of India is locally known as Akash Neem, Neem Chameli, Betati Neem, Mini Chameli, Karkku, Malli, Kavud, Machmach, and Buch in different Indian languages.

Native to South Asia and South East Asia, the Indian Cork tree is the sole species in the genus Millingtonia. Its botanical name is Millingtonia hortensisMillingtonia is named after Sir Thomas Millington, an English botanist who was an inspiration to Carl Linnaeus who first described this genus. The word hortensis comes from the Latin word hortensis which means ‘related to gardens’. The tree is commonly planted in gardens and along roadsides.

The Indian Cork tree is a versatile evergreen tree that can grow in various soil types and climate conditions. It grows, generally tall and straight, to a height of between 18 and 25 metres; it has relatively few branches spreading out 7 to 11 metres. It reaches maturity between 6 and 8 years of age and lives for up to 40 years.

This is a hardy tree in terms of climatic adaptation, but the wood is soft and brittle and can snap in strong winds. It has a yellowish grey bark which is cracked and furrowed. Beneath the bark is a kind of cork, which is inferior to true cork, but which nevertheless gives it the name of Indian Cork Tree. The wood can be used for furniture and ornamental work, and the cork is used as a substitute for real cork. This use is reflected in its Gujarati name Buch, which literally means ‘cork stopper’. The leaves are divided into small oval leaflets arranged in pairs along the main rib. They resemble neem leaves, giving it another local name Akash Neem, in some Indian languages.

It is the flowers that attract attention when they blossom in snowy white masses at the end of branchlets. Each flower with four waxy white petals is like a slender tube sitting in a bell-shaped calyx. The flowers open at night and are short lived, showering down to carpet the ground beneath the tree. The fruit is a long slender pod, flattened and pointed at both ends and containing flat seeds. Birds feed on the seeds and help in their dispersal.

As with almost all plants, the different parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes. Extract of its leaves is said to have good anti-microbial properties, and dried flowers are believed to be effective as bronchodilators.

And as with many trees in India, there are myths and folk tales associated with this tree also. I found a really appealing folk tale about the Neem Chameli.

I call it a Cinderella Story.

Once upon a time there lived six brothers who had one sister; her name was Chameli. Chameli was as beautiful and delicate as the flower that she was named for. Her brothers doted on her and showered her with love and care. The wives of the brothers were always jealous of this, but they could only watch in silence. Until one day, the brothers had to go away for work. Before they left they told their wives “We are leaving our beloved sister in your care. Treat her with as much care and love as we do.”

No sooner were the brothers out of sight, than the wives showed their true colours. They took away all of Chameli’s pretty clothes and belongings, and told her, “From now you will do all the housework, and obey all our orders”. The sisters-in-law were cruel and heartless, and the young girl toiled from morning till night, clad in rags and on a hungry stomach, day after day. The delicate Chameli grew frail and ill, until one day, she died.

The wives were frightened; what would their husbands do when they found out? Under the cover of darkness, they quietly buried her in the corner of the garden. When the brothers returned they were shocked to hear from their wives about how their sister who could not bear being separated from her brothers, had fallen very ill, and passed away. The brothers wept and mourned.

In the corner of the garden where Chameli was buried, grew a beautiful tree, which had fragrant blooms. Every morning the ground beneath the tree was strewn with a carpet of delicate white flowers. The brothers loved this tree, and nurtured it with care; the flowers reminded them of their beloved sister. Their wives however were always afraid that someday the truth would come out. They nagged and nagged their husbands to cut down the tree, until finally they agreed. As the axe was about to strike, they heard a soft gentle voice “Oh brothers, do not strike me; I am your sister Chameli”.

The brothers were taken aback. Eventually the truth about their sister came out. The brothers embraced the tree and promised to care for it as long as they lived. And that how, it is believed, this tree was named Neem Chameli.

As I collect the fallen flowers and breathe in the gentle fragrance of the Neem Chameli tree, I celebrate the many seasonal gifts that Nature bestows upon us.

–Mamata

Changi Quilt

What on earth is that? A fancy quilt bought at some duty-free store at Changi Airport?

No! Changi is an old area of Singapore, and its name is derived from either a tree or creeper which was common there. Changi has two major landmarks– the Airport, which is among the world’s best; and the Changi Prison. The Quilts are associated with the latter.

On Feb 15 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the Allied troops surrendered. Civilians including over 400 women and children were marched to the Changi Prison and interned there. These were women and children who had either not been able to get berths on ships to leave the island before the surrender, or who had consciously chosen not to leave. While the majority of the women were English, there were also women from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The group included doctors, nurses, secretaries, teachers, as well as home-makers.

The Changi Prison building was designed to hold about 600 inmates, but with this influx, was accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building, while the men were put in the other. There was no communication between the two wings, and separated families had no way of knowing if members had survived, how they were, etc.

While some schooling did happen, some of the women were concerned that the children lacked a structure to their lives, and normal activities that would have been a part of their daily schedules outside prison. Elizabeth Ennis, an Army Nurse, along with a young Dutch girl, Trude van Roode, decided to do something about it. They made a group of about 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 13, and started a Girl Guides unit. The activity gave a focus and provided the girls with a purpose and discipline. The girls obviously thought the world of Elizabeth Ennis. On learning of her birthday, they decided to undertake a group-project of making a quilt for her. Each girl contributed to the making of a beautiful quilt, scrounging out fabric, thread and needles—precious commodities—to make hexagonal patches. Each child also embroidered her own name on to it. They put all the patches together and presented the quilt to Elizabeth.

This inspired a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, a Red Cross representative in Singapore and chosen to be the camp Red Cross representative for the Changi women, with the idea of getting the women to make quilts for the Red Cross. The idea behind this move was ostensibly to alleviate boredom and to boost morale, and to give blankets to the wounded in hospitals. But it was also a means of passing information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive. 

Three quilts were made—one each for the British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross. Each quilt had 66 squares.

Changi Quilt
Changi Quilt

Every woman who volunteered to make a square for the quilt was given a piece of plain white cotton– from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets–and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, and also embroider her name on it. The squares varied in many ways—from the skill levels of the embroiderers, to the designs. While flowers were of course a common theme, there were animals, national symbols, and cartoon characters like Snow White and Pinocchio. Some were very poignant–Trudie von Roode’s square, for instance, shows a waiter and a table laid with lots of food and elegant cutlery, alongside the words ‘It was only a dream’. There were also messages, some which were very personal and understood only by the families concerned. For instance, one woman portrayed a baby rabbit wearing a blue ribbon—probably to inform the husband that a baby boy had been born. There was a level of censorship here too—for instance, the word ‘prison’ had to be unpicked before the quilts could go out.

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The quilts survived the War. The Australian quilt was given to the Australian Red Cross and is on permanent loan to Australia’s War Memorial. The Japanese quilt too is with this War Memorial. The British Quilt is at the British Red Cross UK office.

And thus did some personal histories get recorded and preserved.

–Meena

Telling Stories on Cloth: Patachitra

Patachitra, from ‘patta’ meaning cloth, and ‘chitra’ meaning picture, is an art form of East India, which tells stories on cloth. Believed to have originated in the 12th century in Odisha, Patachitra traditionally depicts stories of Krishna. So what better way to mark Janmashtami than to talk of Patachitra!

The art probably originated around the Puri Jagannath temple, serving both ritual uses and as souvenirs for devotees visiting the temple.  The pieces depict Lord Jagannath and the other deities of the Puri temple—Subhadra and Bhalabhadra, and temple activities. These are called Badhia paintings. Other themes include the exploits of Krishna as a child (Krishna Leela); Dashavatara (the ten incarnations of Krishna); and scenes from the Geeta Govinda. Some Patachitras are centred on Ganesha, usually depicting him with five heads (Panchamukhi). There are also Ramayana-themed ones, as well as those which are based on Lord Shiva and the stories about him. The art-form is also well-developed in West Bengal with several schools of Patachitra. Here, the Goddess Durga is a very popular theme, along with other mythological tales and folktales.

The Patachitra is not just a painting to be put up and worshipped or admired (or both!). Especially in Bengal, it is often a prop used by itinerant story-tellers called patuas. Some of these paintings are made up of several panels which are kept rolled up. The story teller unfolds the cloth to progress the story, accompanied by songs and verses which narrate the events depicted—the original moving pictures! Such paintings and story-telling are not confined to religious or mythological tales, but extends to contemporary news, juicy scandals, and even messaging for social change!

The paintings are made on strips of cotton cloth prepared by coating the clothing with a mixture of chalk and a special gum made from tamarind seeds. The coating is rubbed using two different kinds of stones to smoothen it. After this, it is dried before the artist starts work. The process results in a leathery surface.

There are specific rules that all Patachitra paintings follow. For instance, paintings are enclosed in borders decorated with flowers and other motifs. Krishna is always painted in blue, while light pink, purple or brown are used to paint Gopis. There are usually no landscapes, distant views or perspectives. Only natural colours—vegetable dyes or mineral colours–are used in Patachitra. The luminescent white comes from ground conch shells.

The master-craftsmen are so skilled that they do not draw outlines of the figures and motifs with pencil or charcoal. They directly paint it on the cloth using fine brushes. After this, the colours are filled in. A single panel may take 5-10 days, while a more elaborate work may take months.

Contemporary artists are now adapting the style to make new products, from saris to bags to decorative items, which can be commercially viable At the forefront of keeping the art form alive is the heritage village of  Raghurajpur in Odisha. About 160 families here practice this art, and even the younger generation, many professionally qualified, follow the tradition and continue to paint.

May their tribe increase!

–Meena

Froglore

May 22 is marked as the International Day of Biological Diversity. Last year the theme was Nature is the Solution. And carrying forward the same, the theme this year is We are Part of the Solution—a reminder that humans are but one strand in the intricate web of life, and that our lives are intricately and inextricably bound with every other strand in this web. Nature sustains us not only in terms of resources, but also nurtures us culturally and spiritually.

A few weeks ago I wrote about an example of how plants are an integral part of the traditional knowledge, culture and customs of many indigenous peoples. (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/22/maria-and-her-magic-mushrooms/).The study of this close relationship is called ethnobotany. Scientists and anthropologists also study the past and present interrelationships between human cultures and the animals in their environment. This is called ethnozoology. One of these relationships that has long fascinated anthropologists is the one with snakes and amphibians. These are creatures that commonly evoke revulsion, fear, suspicion and awe, sometimes even hysteria. And yet these are richly represented in mythology, culture, art, and literature of indigenous cultures around the world.

Source: Frog artefact collection of Seema Bhatt

While researching for an exhibition on frogs, I discovered a wealth of fascinating facts and beliefs about creatures that we don’t often give a second look, let alone a second thought to—frogs and toads.

The human imagination, has over eons, cast and recast frogs and toads in legends, and beliefs. They appear in the stories and myths of almost every human culture, taking on almost every role conceivable, from the trickster, to the devil, to the mother of the universe.

In many traditions around the globe, frog is generally associated with the water element and it symbolises cleansing, renewal, rebirth, fertility, abundance, transformation, and metamorphosis in different cultures.

In ancient Egypt, the frog appears as a symbol of fertility, water, and renewal. The water goddess Heket often appeared as a woman with the head of a frog. Frogs were also the symbol of the midwife goddess Heqit, who ruled conception and birth, and Egyptian women often wore metal amulets in the form of frogs to enlist her good favour. Ancient tribes in Central America worshipped a goddess known as Ceneotl, the patron of childbirth and fertility, who took the form of a frog or a toad with many udders.

This association with fertility was also ecological. Every year the flooding of the Nile provided water and brought rich silt to grow crops; at that time frogs also proliferated in such huge numbers that the frog became a symbol for the number hefnu, which meant either 100,000 or simply “an immense number.” Thus the frog’s association with water and fertility, so important for life, made them positive symbols, 

Frogs and toads were also considered to be spirits of rain, and were used in many rituals intended to invoke the rains. The Aymara tribe of Peru and Bolivia made small frog images, which they placed on hilltops, to call down the rain. Indeed, if the rains failed, some tribes blamed the toads for withholding the rain, and would lash them in punishment.

In India it is believed that the ‘singing’ of frogs indicates that the rains have come and it is a time for celebration, while the silence of the frogs means that nature and the Gods have forsaken man. In some parts of India frog weddings are held with rites and rituals, and celebrated with feasts to invoke and appease the rain gods, especially in times of drought.

In Ancient China images of frogs were found on the drums used to summon thunder and much needed rain.

Frogs feature in the myths of many Native American tribes. In some they represent transformation and growth, while in others they are associated with springtime and renewal. They are believed to have healing powers and are considered medicine animals. In the shamanistic traditions of some of these cultures, hallucinogenic compounds derived from frogs and toads are used for religious rituals of communion with the spirit world and self-transcendence.

Thus most native cultures revered frogs and toads, as they did all forms of life, and recognised that these were all intrinsically linked with the elements of nature and each other. However in later periods and cultures, the “strange” appearance of frogs and toads with their awkward form, huge eyes and croaking calls evoked fear and a sense of eerie mystery. Folklore from medieval Europe depicted toads as evil creatures whose blood was a potent poison and whose body parts had unusual powers. Toads were commonly seen as evil spirits who accompanied witches, assisting them in their evil designs, and providing poisonous ingredients for potions. Many myths were perpetuated around toads. One widely held myth concerned the Toad-Stone, a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the toad’s head. According to myth this jewel, placed in a ring or a necklace, would heat up or change colour in the presence of poison, thereby protecting the wearer from foul play. Such references are even to be found in some of Shakespeare’s plays.

In many ancient Chinese tales and legends also, the toad is a trickster and a magician, a master of escapes and spells. Some Chinese tales refer to the toad whose face is believed to be visible at the full moon; and they believe that it is this moon-toad that occasionally swallows the moon, causing eclipses.

But the Chinese also believe that that toad is the keeper of the real, powerful secrets of the world, such as the secret of immortality. There are several legends that reinforce this belief. One is about a wandering wise man called Liu Hai and his three-legged toad companion Ch’an Chu who knows the secret of immortality, and who reveals this secret to the wise man who befriends him.

This awe of the benevolent magical powers of frogs and toads is seen in most oriental cultures. In China the frog is a symbol of good luck. The Frog spirit Ch’ing-Wa Sheng represents prosperity in business and healing. Frogs and toads also signify protection. The Chinese Danwu, or Dragon Boat Festival was traditionally celebrated to ward off diseases and plagues for the coming year. Several symbolic creatures are worshipped on this day for protection against evil spirits, and ill health, among which the three-legged toad Ch’an Chu is significant.

In Japan frogs are very auspicious. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru. Kaeru also means “return”. Travellers carried bring a frog amulet on their journey as this was believed to secure a safe return.

Thus have frogs and toads captured human imagination since time began. It is also these myths and beliefs that reminded humans of the vital role that even the seemingly insignificant creatures play. But with the march of “progress” and as humans have been relentlessly destroying the habitats of uncountable, and as yet unaccounted for, living things we are losing much more than species. We are losing the essence of what makes our lives rich and meaningful. Who will populate our mythologies when these creatures are gone? Perhaps we will be left with only one story: the story of loss.

–Mamata