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

The Mother of the Rhymes

Meena’s piece last week on nursery rhymes set me thinking. How is it that one clearly remembers most of the rhymes that one had heard and learnt when one was between 2 and 5 years of age, while many poems ‘learnt by heart’ subsequently do not seem to pop up as effortlessly? Why is it that the minute I see a toddler, I can’t resist the playing the silly  little game of Johny Johny Yes Papa, or This Little Piggy Went to Market? This is not the case with just English nursery rhymes, but equally with the Gujarati rhymes that I heard as a child. We may not have understood the words, (and often the words themselves were nonsensical), but it was the repetitive rhythm and rhyme that frolicked and danced in the head till they were firmly entrenched for life.

Today many studies have shown that nursery rhymes are very powerful influencers in early childhood development and education. At an age when children have limited attention spans, the brevity and repetitiveness make them fun to recite again and again. In the process, children develop the practice of listening and speaking; their ears and tongues become sensitive to the rhythm and patterns of language, and their vocabulary is enriched. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.

Thinking about nursery rhymes also led me to remember that as children our nursery rhyme books were titled Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. While Meena discovered the  curious origins of some popular rhymes, for hundreds of years it was thought that all the popular nursery rhymes were written by an author called Mother Goose. Over the years scholars tried to find out who exactly was this Mother Goose?

Mother Goose is so old that no one knows for sure whether she was a real or a fictional character. There are several legends, dating back to the tenth century, related to this character. One theory is that she was based on an actual person—the second wife of King Robert II of France who was nicknamed Queen Goose-Foot because of her misshapen feet. Her real name was Bertha of Burgundy; she was also known as Berthe la fileuse (Bertha the Spinner) as she was believed to be a wonderful storyteller, spinning tales that enraptured children, though she did not have children of her own. But historians have said that this is but a legend and not a fact.

The character of Mother Goose seems to have made her first appearance when French author Charles Perrault published a collection of rhymes and tales inspired by the old oral traditions of French and European folklore. The collection, in French, included rhymes as well as the classic fairy tales like CinderellaSleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. The book, published in 1697 under his son’s name, was titled Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé). It was subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye). And it became known by this subtitle. Perrault’s publication is believed to be the first authenticated starting-point for Mother Goose stories.

The English-speaking audience was introduced to Mother Goose through the translation of Charles Perrault’s book by Robert Samber.  First published in 1729, the book was titled Histories of Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose. The illustration on the cover of the English edition of the book showed an old woman telling tales to a group of children under a sign that says “Mother Goose’s Tales.” Some say this art is what started the Mother Goose legend. In subsequent editions and publications she was also depicted as a sweet elderly woman who magically travelled on the back of a gander or male goose. Thus the only rhyme in which she appears as a character goes

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Somehow, over time, the sweet old lady metamorphosed into the legendary human-sized goose with thick glasses and a bonnet. 

Mother Goose was not widely known in America until after 1786 when a publisher Maby Isaiah Thomas reprinted Samber’s book under the same title. But this gave rise to another theory that the original Mother Goose was an American lady from Boston whose name was Mary Goose, and who used to sing ditties to her grandchildren and other children. The legend spread and her grave became a tourist attraction, where visitors toss coins, even today, for good luck!

Whether fact or fiction, Mother Goose has been synonymous with childhood rhymes for generations, and remains popular even today. So much so that in America, 1 May is celebrated as Mother Goose Day. This started in 1987 when a book titled Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, tracing the history of the character’s evolution was published. This day reminds yet another generation of parents of the continuing magic of rhymes.

In naming a national day as Mother Goose Day, America has recognised the value of rhymes in child development, and uses this day to remind parents and educators of this. This is with specific reference to the well-known and popular English rhymes. Perhaps we should take a cue from this and also recall, as well as revive, the great wealth of traditional rhymes in our own regional languages. Sadly many of these have been part of the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation; many have not been compiled and published. And with the craze for everything “English medium” our children are rote learning only English rhymes from Mother Goose. In the age of nuclear families and YouTube offerings, it is sad that young children today are missing out on rhymes in their own language. If only every child could have a Nani Goose or Dadi Goose to enrich and enliven their life and language. 

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

Rhymes for the Times

In times such as we are passing through, poetry is catharsis; it is a way to share emotions and feelings; it represents the triumph of creativity even in difficult situations; it brings a ray of hope and humour, albeit often black.

And so naturally, there have been thousands of poems on COVID all over print media and social media. In fact, the Washington Post focused its annual kids’ poetry writing competition on Corona this year, with “Poetry of the Pandemic” as the theme of their 2021 poetry contest.

Corona Poetry has taken such proportions that there are several appeals against more of the genre.

So this piece will now stop talking about Corona and move on to trivia about other well-known nursery rhymes.

A widely-held belief—though some scholars disagree—is that ‘Ring-A-Ring of Roses’ has its origins in another pandemic, the Great Plague. The ‘roses’ are the red rashes which are a symptom of the disease; the ‘posies’ are the herbs that were carried as a protection against the infection; and the ‘Atishoo, atishoo’ (which at least in my childhood version became ‘husha-busha’!) represents the final sneezing before falling down dead.

But moving on to some poems with non-pandemic associations:

The rhyme ‘There was a little girl, who had a little curl’ is believed to have been written by the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for his daughter Edith, on a day she was throwing tantrums about having her hair curled. Well, I suppose that is the difference between poets and others—most parents’ reaction to a tantrum is a raised pitch rather than a rhyming verse!

‘Humpty Dumpty’ is very ancient and there are variants all over Europe. This is obviously a riddle whose answer is ‘egg’, but seems to have lost that connotation, especially as most illustrations of the poem clearly show an egg, not leaving any suspense.

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy’ is played with counters, and is supposed to indicate what the child will become when it grows up.

The historical event of the Norse King Olaf destroying the London Bridge in the 11th century probably gave rise to the popular ditty ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Children across the world wistfully recite ‘Rain, rain go away’ when downpourings stop their games. The poem’s origins go back to ancient Greece, and it is supposed to be a charm to keep rain away.

‘Little Miss Muffet’ was probably written  Dr. Thomas Muffet, an entomologist of the 16th century, who was fascinated by spiders for his daughter Patience. ‘Incy winsy spider’ or ‘Itsy bitsy spider’ the other popular spider-verse was first published around 1910, thought it may be older. It is a ‘finger song’ and children mimic the actions of a spider climbing up and down.

A popular poem about an insect is ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’. It is to be recited when a ladybird lands on your hand or arm, as harming these creatures is supposed to bring bad luck.

 ‘This little pig went to market’ is a toe game played with toddlers while counting off their toes.

While the origins of many nursery rhymes is speculative, the author of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ is known definitively to be Jane Taylor, who published this in 1806. She and her sister Ann were popular nursery-rhyme writers.

And to end, a story about a poem which is not very popular today.

Three wise of Gotham

Went to sea in a bowl.

If the bowl had been stronger

My story would have been longer.

It does not rhyme particularly well, and sounds pretty abrupt. But the origin-story is very interesting. Apparently, in England during the reign of King John (about 800 years back), when the King passed through any road, that road became a public road. Now the King on one of his journeys planned to pass through the village of Gotham. The citizens of that village did not want their village road to become a thoroughfare. So they came up with a strategy. They all decided to start acting completely silly when the King’s advance party came around. So some went in pursuit of a cuckoo, and spread the word that they were doing it to capture it and hence have perpetual summer. Others tried to drown an eel in a pond. The King’s guards were convinced that the villagers were all mad, and advised the King to change his route, which he did. So the ‘mad men’ were actually wise, and saved their village.

If only we could strategize, cooperate and subvert the more unreasonable of the plans of our rulers like this!

–Meena

Maria and her Magic Mushrooms

Source: psychedelicreview.com

I recently read a beautiful poem and I was curious to know more about the poet Maria Sabina. I assumed that she would be a modern poet, but what I discovered was a fascinating story. 

María Sabina Magdalena García was born over a century ago in a community of Mazatec, an indigenous people of Mexico who live in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Maria Sabina spent her entire life in the remote village of Huautla de Jiménez, up in the Sierra mountains in this area. Maria Sabina belonged to a family of traditional curandera (healers) and shamans. Among many indigenous peoples the healer or shaman has a very important function in the community. It is believed that these healers communicate with this world and that of the gods, and thus have the ability to cure both physical and spiritual conditions, and even predict the future.

The healing ceremonies of the Mazatec included the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (which they called “holy children”) as a method of contact with divinity. It is said that when Maria was just eight years old she and her sister were sitting under a tree when they noticed some of these mushrooms growing wild, and ingested them. The little girls had a terrifying hallucinatory experience, but during this Maria heard an otherworldly voice that told her about some herbs that would cure her uncle who was very sick at the time. She followed the instructions about where to find these, and the herbs cured her uncle.

The young girl became known in the village as a sabia or wise one. Maria seemed to have intuitively developed a knowledge of the ancient Mazatec rituals and the healing power which was attributed to the ritual intake of a particular species of fungi (Mexican Psilocybe) which grow only in mountain range of Sierra Mazatec.Thus began Maria’s lifelong use of ‘magic mushrooms’ for special healing sessions known as velada. Local people visited Maria not only to be healed physically, but also for spiritual guidance. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic mushrooms she guided the patients through out-of-body experiences that revealed the cure for the illness. She claimed that the mushrooms produced wisdom in her; as she said much later in life “I am the woman who looks inside and examines.”

Maria was totally dedicated to her healing ceremonies with mushrooms that included ritual chanting, tobacco smoke, consumption of mescal (an agave plant), and ointments extracted from medicinal plants. Therapeutic laughter was also a part of the ceremony. The rituals were conducted at night because it was believed that the healer was guided in the journey by the stars. The veladas were held purely for medicinal purposes, to purge illness and heal the sick.

Maria Sabina would have continued to live her life as the local curandera and sabia in her remote mountain village, and she and her practice of magic mushrooms or “holy children” as she called them, would have died unknown to the outside world. But destiny had planned another ending to her story.

In the early 1950s, an American Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife who were interested in ethnobotany were looking at the use of hallucinogenic plants in the rituals of indigenous groups in different parts of the world. As they were travelling in the Mazatec Sierra region, they heard of a famous healer of Huautla. In 1955, they travelled to the remote mountain village, and to gain access to her, pretended that they had come to be treated by Maria Sabina. As a curandera, Sabina would never deny a request for help. By then she was already in her sixties and her ceremonies were not known outside her immediate area. She conducted several veladas using the mushrooms with the foreigners, who also documented the entire experience in photos and recordings. When they returned, they also took back with them samples of the fungi which was identified as Psilocybe Mexicana. The fungus was cultivated in Europe and its primary ingredient, psilocybin, was isolated in 1958 by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD.

In 1957 Life magazine published an article which chronicled the Wasson’s experiences with Maria and her magic mushrooms. Maria Sabina became famous; people from all over the world began to visit her. By the mid-sixties, at the height of the hippie culture, there was a deluge of visitors to Huautla de Jiménez–media, tourists, artists, intellectuals, anthropologists, researchers, and celebrities (including among others, John Lennon, Walt Disney. Aldous Huxley, and Carlos Castaneda). Sadly, many of these visitors were interested purely in getting high on the magic mushrooms, and psychedelic recreational pursuits, and were disrespectful of local culture and traditions. The wanton rush to gather the mushrooms also eroded the delicate ecological balance of the mountain slopes and forests.  

The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the community and threatened to destroy an ancient Mazatec tradition. The people of Huautla de Jiminez put the blame on Maria Sabina and accused her profiting from their tradition. Villagers attacked and tried to burn down her house several times; they tried to run her out of the village. The police accused her of being a drug dealer. Maria Sabina was ostracised by her community.

Interestingly, she accepted her fate as if it were pre-determined and had been told to her during one of her ceremonies. But she regretted that she had opened up the ceremony for a foreigner, and felt that the sanctity of the velada had been irredeemably desecrated by the recreational use of her “holy children”. She realised that From the moment the foreigners arrived, the holy children lost their purity. They lost their force. They ruined them.” Later in life she became bitter about her many misfortunes and how others had profited from her name. She spent her last years in abject poverty and malnutrition, and died in a hospital in 1985 at the age of 91 years.

While she may have later attained notoriety for her magic mushrooms, María Sabina is regarded as a sacred figure in Huautla. She is also respected and honoured as one of Mexico’s greatest poets.  She did not know how to read or write; her verses were either spoken or sung like chants in her native dialect. She said that it was not her words that she expressed, but the voice of her ninos santos or holy children who spoke through her. She claimed to see the mushrooms as children dancing around her, singing and playing instruments. She was simply their interpreter and she treated them with great respect. She added cadence to her words and expressed them with her entire body. Her chants were first translated from her native Mazatec into English and, only later, into Spanish.

Sharing the poem that led me to this incredible story.

Cure yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.
With the sound of the river and the waterfall.
With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.

Heal yourself with mint, with neem and eucalyptus.

Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.

Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.

Put love in tea instead of sugar, and take it looking at the stars.

Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.

Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.

Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.

Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.

Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember: you are the medicine.

Today is Earth day. What better way to celebrate than to savour these words and make them our mantra for life and living.

–Mamata

Get that Goat!

Last week, newspapers reported that when the Army Medical Corp Centre at Lucknow marked its Foundation Day, the marching band was led by Munna Havaldar. Mr. Munna is not a man but a goat, serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Regiment. And he is not the first! There has been a Munna Havildar in the regiment since 1951, the title handed down without break from one handsome Marwari goat to the next!

This is in keeping with the tradition of animal mascots that many army regiments, not only in India, but across the world have. Probably a tradition popularized by the British. Today, the British Army has nine animal mascots, from goats to ponies.

The Spanish Legion has its own goat mascot, ‘Odin’. The Bengal Tigress ‘Quintas Durga’, is the mascot for the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. ‘Chesty XV’ an English Bulldog is a mascot to the US Marine Corps.  The Sri Lankan Light Infantry mascot is an elephant. This is a tradition since 1961, and they are all named after the most famous elephant in Sri Lanken history, ‘Kandula’. ‘Brigadier Sir Nils Olav’ is a King Penguin who is the mascot of the Kings Guard of Norway. Toronto Zoo is home to the Canadian Army’s mascot, ‘Juno’, a female polar bear. ‘Bill the Goat’ is the mascot  of the United States Naval Academy.

Armies have both official and unofficial mascots or pets. Official mascots have a rank, and are maintained at the expense of the State. As with human soldiers, they too can even be promoted and demoted!

For some reason, goats are very popular mascots. In fact, they may be among the first-ever army animal mascots. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers have adopted goats as mascots since the 1770s, starting from the American War of Independence, during the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, when a wild goat entered the battlefield and led the Royal Fusiliers from the field.

Of course, goats are not very well-behaved or tractable. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor, mascot of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, earned a demotion in 2006 when he deviated from the parade he was leading in front of the Queen and tried to head-butt the drummers marching ahead of him.

Which reminds me of another goat which was a mascot not of a Unit in the Army, but of a road in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. This strip of road (extremely narrow, bumpy and non-straight), lined with shops, parked vehicles, thelas and carts, temples and milling humanity, was a vital one connecting IIM, PRL, ISRO Colony etc. to the ‘other side’.

And it was ruled by a huge goat. He lay down in the middle of the road when he felt like, and all traffic had to flow around him. If he decided to take a walk and charge any pedestrian, they just had to may their way to safer ground. He was fed and pampered by all the shop keepers and denizens of the street. He had his pick of the choicest vegetables and fruits from the carts. If he felt like some sweets, he just had to make his way to one or the other sweet shop in the market. On festival days, he was festooned with garlands and daubed with paint. He was given to smoking, and the paan gallawallahs used to light beedies and put them in his mouth for him to puff at.

Sadly, the goat which gave the road so much character passed away of old age some years ago. Not being an Army Regimental Mascot, he was not replaced.

But thankfully, the road has been widened and smoothed!

–Meena

Feeling Fool-ish?

When we were in school this was the day when we were on high alert—looking over our shoulder, and wary about opening packages and envelopes; while at the same time planning silly pranks to play on family and friends. Whether the attempts on both sides were a hit or a flop, perhaps the highlight was the gleeful shouts of “April Fool”!

Interestingly, this is one day that does not have any specific geographical, cultural or religious significance but it is universally marked by fool-hearted fun and frolic. And yet, it is a day with a long, and somewhat hazy history. While it has been celebrated for many centuries by different cultures, there are several theories about its exact origins. 

Some historians speculate that it may have originated in 16th century Europe when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, the spring equinox which fell around the first of April was thought of as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, but in 1582, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was designated as the start of the new year. As the stories go, it was a while before everyone found out about this change, and adopted it. Those who were ignorant about the change, or who refused to accept it, and continued to celebrate it in March-April were the butt of derision and pranks, and were called ‘April Fools.” One of the popular pranks was to paste a paper fish on their backs, and calling them “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which referred to a young, easily caught fish, symbolising a gullible person.

Other historians feel that its precedents lie even further back to a Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, honoring Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, which was celebrated with parades, masquerades and jokes. In fact most cultures have some kind of festival to mark the end of winter and the return of spring which is marked by the vernal equinox. These “renewal festivals” were an occasion to invert the traditional social order for a day—children could challenge the authority of parents, and servants of masters—and tensions were diffused with boisterous hilarity and playful pranks. Anthropologists see 1 April as a modern form of a renewal festival where forms of behaviour that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become acceptable, for this one day.

It is only in the 18th century that April Fools’ Day spread through Britain. With time, different parts evolved their own traditions and events to mark the day. In Scotland and Ireland, a popular prank was to send people on phony errands; someone was asked to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requested help. In fact, the message read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” which translated means “don’t laugh, don’t smile, send the messenger another mile“. Each recipient upon reading it would send the person on to the next person with an identical message. This version of a wild goose chase was called “hunting the gowk” as gowk means a cuckoo bird, which symbolises a fool.

With time, even as its history became more blurred, the spirit of April Fools’ Day spread across the world, triggering challenges to devise and play the most elaborate and outrageous  hoaxes. These were no longer confined to slapstick pranks and juvenile jokes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites also joined the tradition by publishing or broadcasting reporting outrageous reports and news that would convincingly fool their audiences.

One of the best remembered hoax was pulled off by none other than the BBC, which had an old and solid reputation for its reliable reporting. On 1 April 1957, the BBC show Panorama gave the news about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland and aired a three-minute segment showing people harvesting spaghetti from trees. Viewers were totally taken in; many wrote in asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees! The BBC even replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best!”

In 1962, before the days of colour TV, a ‘technical expert’ on the Swedish national network told the public that viewing its black-and-white broadcasts through nylon stockings would enable them to view these in colour. Many Swedes seriously tried this, ruining many stockings in the effort!

The neighbouring Germans have contributed their bit of April foolery too. In 1994, a Cologne-based radio station ran a story saying that local joggers should keep their speed below ten kilometres an hour so as not to disturb squirrels during mating season; while in 2004, Berlin paper Tageszeitung reported that the American embassy would be relocating to get away from the French embassy across the street.

As the world leap-frogged from print and broadcast to virtual communication, the pranks continued, in more high tech and sophisticated forms. Google became known for its clever annual pranks on its different platforms, cooked up by its best tech minds. It goofed however when it announced the real trial launch of Gmail on 1 April 2004, and everyone thought it was a joke! Last year, April 2020, for the first time since it began its April Fools tradition in 2000, Google did not put up any pranks and jokes, as a mark of respect for the unprecedented Covid situation that the entire world had been plunged into. And Stop Press! It has decided not to do so this year also.

Once upon a time, hoaxes were a once-a-year bit of fun and games, with the guileless gowks running around to carry so-called news. Today with social media flooded 24/7 with news, views, gossip and rumours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sieve the fake news from the real. We no longer need to wait for April 1, to fool and be fooled. The joke is on gullible us, the always-in-a-rush consumers, who unquestioningly lap it all up, and spread it far and wide. That is not funny; that is foolish. More fool me and more fool you!

–Mamata