Hoopoe Who?

This is the time of year when I look at my little patch of lawn in the mild December sunshine and miss the winter visitors who used to add little dabs of colour and movement on the grass. Alas, in the last few years, with the erstwhile fields now transformed into towering concrete jungles, these feathered friends have forsaken us. Among these was one of my favourites—the hoopoe.

The Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) is a striking bird distinguished by its appearance. A fawn-coloured bird, about the size of a myna, it has zebra-like black and white markings on its back, wings and tail; and the head is topped by a conspicuous fan-shaped crest. It has a long, slender, gently curved beak.

The bird has a soft, musical hoo-po or hoo-po-po call which may go on intermittently for ten minutes at a stretch. It may be this call that has given rise to its name. Another possible root of its common English name is that it is a derivation of the French name for the bird huppee which means crested.

Hoopoes have two basic habitat requirements: bare or sparsely vegetated ground and vertical surfaces with cavities for nesting. Hence they are found in a wide range of habitats including lawns, gardens, and groves. They are usually found singly, but sometimes in pairs, striding over the ground and periodically pausing to probe the ground to forage for food. They eat mainly a variety of insects, small reptiles, frogs, plant matter, seeds and berries. The beak is also used as a lever to move stones and flake from tree bark. The strong musculature of the head allows the beak to be open like forceps when probing the soil. While probing, the crest is folded back into a neat point behind the head.

While mainly a ground-walking bird with a quail-like waddling gait, the hoopoe has broad, rounded wings capable of strong flight. Due to the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats, hoopoes have a characteristic undulating flight like a giant butterfly. As it lands, the crest opens out fully, as it does when the bird is agitated or frightened. The hoopoe likes to sunbathe by spreading its wings and tail close to the ground and raising its head. Hoopoes also enjoy dust and sand baths.

Hoopoes are territorial and the males call out to proclaim the ownership of their territory. The male and female pair for a single mating season. The nest is in a natural hollow in a tree or wall lined untidily with straw, rags and rubbish; which usually make the nest stink. The female alone is responsible for incubating the eggs. It is the stink which act as the defence against predators. The stink is not just from the rotting rubbish but also from a foul-smelling liquid generated by the incubating female. The secretion is rubbed into the plumage of the mother and chicks to deter not just predators but also parasites and harmful bacteria.  The secretions stop when the nestlings are about the leave the nest.

These distinctive birds have made a cultural impact over much of their range. Considered sacred in Ancient Egypt, they were depicted on the walls of tombs and temples. The Egyptian considered the hoopoe as symbolical of gratitude because it repays the early kindness of its parents in their old age by trimming their wings and bringing them food when they are acquiring new plumage.

The Arabs call it the doctor, believing it to possess marvellous medicinal qualities. The hoopoe is also considered a waterfinder. It can see through the earth and can point out hidden springs, a virtue which is much appreciated by desert dwellers.

In contrast, hoopoes were thought of as thieves across much of Europe and as harbingers of war in Scandinavia. In Estonian tradition, they are strongly connected with death and the underworld. Their song is believed to foreshadow the death of people or livestock. But in many parts of the world they are seen as harbingers of good things.

In the Middle East, there is an interesting legend about how the hoopoe got its crown. Solomon the wise king was once journeying across the desert, and was fainting with heat, when a large flock of hoopoes came to his assistance, and by flying between the sun and the King, thus protecting him from the strong sun.

Grateful Solomon asked the birds how he could reward them. After some consultation among themselves the hoopoes answered that they would like each bird to be decorated with a golden crown. Solomon cautioned them that this would not be in their own interests, but as the birds persisted, he gave each Hoopoe crown of gold. For some days the Hoopoes preened in self-admiration and showed off their gift to all the other birds. Then a bird-catcher discovered the prize on their head, and as the word spread, every hunter in the land started pursuing and catching hoopoes. The hoopoes’ very existence was in danger. They begged for forgiveness for their greed and requested Solomon to take away their crowns of gold. Solomon granted their request, and removed the golden crown from their heads; but, being unwilling that the birds should be left without a mark by which they might be distinguished from their fellows, he substituted a crown of feathers for that of gold. And thus the Hoopoe still wears its distinguishing crown of feathers.

It must be that Solomon also gave the hoopoes the gift of wisdom. A classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem titled The Conference of the Birds tells the allegorical story of thirty birds who set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh. The birds are led through the journey by the Hoopoe who the birds recognize as their spiritual leader thus:

Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
He knew your language and you knew his heart.

Nevertheless each bird is afraid to undertake the journey, and comes up with its excuses. The poem is made up of one-to-one stories in which the Hoopoe addresses each bird’s concern and excuse. What makes the Hoopoe’s responses even more insightful are the anecdotes and stories that follow each piece of advice. The Hoopoe is full of words of encouragement and wisdom reminding the birds to look at the bigger picture and aspire for the higher goals; explaining that the quest for ultimate wisdom must not be limited by oneself or the system! These words are as relevant to every one of us too.

The ocean can be yours; why should you stop  
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”


Save Our Soils

December 5 is marked as World Soil Day every year as a means to focus attention on the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system, and as a vital contributor to environmental and human well-being. The day reminds us of the degrading state of this resource, and urges for the sustainable management of soil resources. The date of 5 December was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

At first glance soil seems just like a layer that covers the earth’s land surface. In fact soil is a world in itself, made up of inorganic and organic components, that provides food for humans and animals through plant growth. The inorganic components include air, water, minerals, and masses of tiny particles of rock broken down over millions of years by baking sun, rainwater, atmospheric gases, cracking ice and penetrating roots. It is the living organisms like lichen, algae and fungi, as well as earth-dwelling organisms from earthworms to microscopic bacteria—dying, decomposing and leaving their remains on and in the soil that transform these lifeless particles into a form that initiates and maintains life on earth, and that can support millions of life forms. Hard to believe that there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people on Earth!

Like humans, soils need a balanced and varied supply of nutrients in appropriate amounts to be healthy. When this balance is disturbed soil loses its ability to process nutrients and convert them into a form that enables plants to grow.

Agricultural systems lose nutrients with each harvest, and if soils are not managed sustainably, fertility is progressively lost, and soils will produce nutrient-deficient plants. Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation process threatening nutrition. It is recognized as being among the most critical problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe.

The theme for World Soil Day 2022 is “Soils: Where Food Begins”.  This aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

Even as humans are using this day to speak up for the health of the soil, I thought that it should also would be a chance for the soil to speak up for itself!

Here is what I imagine the soil would like to share!


I am soil, ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains, in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

I can often get weaker, unable to help life to grow

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are to sow and to reap

Have you ever dreamed that I too need time to breathe?

Ever thought that I also need to recuperate

From trying to keep up at such an unnatural rate?

Give me break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients right from my depths.

One day quite soon I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be only a dream.

Then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Imagining that the fruit I bear will be so good,

But could you thrive on just pills, not natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

You will drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy all “enemies” in just one stride.

You don’t realize that with the deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not only the foes.

You strip me of my protective cover

Rip the grasses, trees, and shrubs that flower.

Those keep me protected in a secure cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, naked and bare

To be blown, swept or washed away somewhere.

You clad me in an armour of tar and concrete

So I can’t breathe, nor can the creatures beneath.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to factories, labs and vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass

The bugs and beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, one that never fails.

It’s these myriad earth dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow upon all plant life.

Let my friends and foes all show their might

If I am strong and healthy, it will be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.


Angela Ruiz Robles: eBook Pioneer

What is it that would help to lighten the weight of school bags, is portable, makes learning more attractive and adapts teaching to the level of each student; can be used in the dark, supports learning with sounds, can be used in multiple languages, can be a useful teaching aid for teachers?

Today most school children can easily answer this as a “Tablet”. But this list, and this vision of such a teaching-learning device was made over 75 years ago, and resulted in an invention called Mechanical Encyclopedia. The inventor was Angela Ruiz Robles–a Spanish school teacher. 

Angela’s story is fascinating and inspirational.

Angela Ruiz Robles was born on 28 March 1895, in Villamanin, a municipality in the province of Leon in Spain. Her father Feiciano Ruiz was a pharmacist and her mother Elena Robles a housewife. Angela completed her higher education at the teacher training college in Leon, and went on to teach shorthand, typing and business at the same college from 1915 to 1916. In 1917 she was a teacher and director at the Gilberto Gordón School in Gordón, a town located near the city of León.

In 1918 she accepted a position as teacher in Santa Eugenia de Mandía, a village near Ferrol in Galicia, and remained there for the next decade. It is here that she found her true calling as a teacher. She was totally dedicated to her students, giving personal attention to each one; noting those who required special attention according to their needs. Her work was not confined to the classroom; she visited the homes of her students to provide additional instruction and support. She understood that every child has unique learning abilities, personalities and insecurities. As her old students recalled: “Doña Angelita, who was known by her first name to all of us, was the perfect teacher. She never treated any student differently and always honoured each individual learner’s needs.” Angela spent ten years in the village school and was greatly loved and respected by all.

Angela lost her husband when she was 40, and in 1928 she moved to Ferrol. She needed to teach, but now also to provide for her family. She founded the Elmaca Academy named after her daughters Elena, Maria Elvira, and Carmen. The Academy located in her own home provided classes for those aspiring to join customs, become mail carriers, or telegraph operators, as well as apply for business management studies. Her academy followed participatory pedagogical methods that were much ahead of their time; and this was reflected in the highest pass rate in the country for her students.

Along with the regular courses Doña Angelita gave free night classes to people with few resources. The Academy also became a social centre. Letters were read to, and written for illiterate immigrants; literary gatherings were held; food distribution was organized, and religious processions could be watched from here.

In 1934, she became manager of the Escuela Nacional de Niñas del Hospicio (National Girls’ School of the Hospice) in Ferrol, which cared for orphaned or abandoned girls. Doña Angelita made sure that the girls got a primary education, musical education and learned a useful trade so that they could earn and integrate with society.

As Doña Angelita continued her teaching and other educational work, she also had to support and bring up her three young girls by herself, but she made time for her own research and writing. Between 1938 and 1946, she wrote, lectured, edited and republished sixteen books. She published three of them: Compendium of Castilian Orthography, Castilian Orthography (abbreviated) and Modern Abbreviated Martinian Shorthand—books addressing the conventional Spanish spelling systems. In 1944, Ángela Ruiz started her Scientific-Grammatical Atlas project. Her goal was to teach Spanish grammar and spelling while making Spain better known through Spanish grammar, syntax, morphology, spelling and phonetics.

Angela Ruiz was also constantly thinking of resources, innovations, and inventions that would help to improve the teaching-learning process, and spent hours after her daily work in exploring and experimenting with such tools. Her aim was simple: “To make teaching easier, to get maximum knowledge with minimum effort.”

It was then that she dreamed of what she described as a “Mechanical Encyclopaedia” which addressed the needs listed in the first paragraph of this piece. This book included a vast range of information which was represented in graphic, sound or textual form. It could be made of waterproof and lightweight materials. It had the possibility of directly incorporating lighting and magnifying glasses.

Her invention consisted of patterned sheets. When you put your finger on them, they lit up and an educational text appeared. For this to happen, she incorporated an electrical circuit that she designed herself.

Angela made a sketch and detailed out her new kind of book which she described as “a mechanical, electrical, and air pressure procedure for reading books“. She was certain that her invention was a valuable educational tool and she went to Madrid to find promoters. Her invention was appreciated, but did not result in any funding for her to develop the patent. Angela was disappointed, but undeterred she continued to work on improving her invention.

On 10 April 1962, ten years after her first attempt, she filed a patent entitled An Apparatus for Various Readings and Writings. That prototype made of zinc and bronze was the Mechanical Encyclopedia. Today this prototype is exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in A Coruña in Spain.

With that physical prototype, she once again undertook the rounds of different ministries in Madrid. Again the previous story was repeated: many pats on the back, but not a single penny. After all she was a woman, and a provincial school teacher, how could her invention be taken seriously? Angela continued her efforts until she was almost 75 years old, but she was unable to develop or distribute her inventions.

Today writer and philanthropist Michael Hart is best known as the inventor of the e-book, and in 1971, he created the Gutenberg Project, the first project to make e-books freely available via the internet. Sadly, forgotten in history books is the name of Angela Ruiz Robles, a passionate and dedicated teacher, and the original pioneer of the electronic book.


The Tree Pies Are Here!

The last couple of weeks we have been hearing a new addition to the usual morning symphony of bird calls in our garden. This new sound was different—a somewhat harsh and raucous intermittent call. The other birds fall silent while this fills the air. As we looked for the source of sound, at first we could not see anything except the familiar babblers and doves and crows going about their morning business, until a rustling among the drying leaves of the tall old palm tree caused us to look closer. Suddenly we saw a hitherto unknown bird emerge and perch on the branch. Another swoop brought its partner flying from beyond to perch next to it. The first thing that struck us was the striking colouring and long tail that set these birds apart from the more staid and dull-hued birds that usually frequented the tree.

Rufous treepie
Rufous treepie

The tree-pies were in the neighbourhood! Last year they had caused a similar excitement when we had spotted them one day, but sadly that was only a one-time sighting, and we did not see them again. This time it seemed as if they were seriously prospecting the tree as a suitable site for potentially settling in to nest and breed.  

The Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) belongs to the Corvidae family, to which also belongs the common crow. The bird is endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and it is found in open forests, woodlands, groves and gardens in cities and villages. This species is not found elsewhere.

The body of the bird is the size of a myna, but it is elongated with a long tail which distinguishes it. The body is rust orange, with an ashy-black head and breast. The tail feathers are black interspersed with light grey, and the wing feathers are black with a white-grey band down the outside. The beak, legs and feet are black; the eyes are deep red with black pupils. The beak is slightly hooked at the tip.  With such striking colouring, the tree pie makes quite a contrast to its relative, the common crow, with its monochromatic colouring.

What this bird does share with its Corvid family kin is the attraction to shiny objects. Tree pies look for and steal shiny objects such as coins and small jewellery, and stash these in their nest. Possibly a male ploy to attract the females! No wonder then that one of the local Indian names for this bird is taka chor, literally ‘coin stealer’. The bird is also called kotri, derived from one of its calls which sounds like a screeching ‘ko-tree’.

The tree pie indeed has quite a repertoire of calls—from the loud, harsh and guttural to some which are sweet and melodious like ko-tree or bob-o-link. Thus it is confusing when one looks for the source of the squawking call, only to find a melodious tune emanating from the same place. It makes one wonder if it is one bird or several different ones calling.

The tree pie is an arboreal bird, rarely seen on the ground. It is an agile climber and hops agilely from branch to branch, or flies from tree to tree with a swift noisy flapping followed by a short glide on out stretched wings.

The rufous tree pie is an omnivorous and opportunistic feeder. Its diet includes fruits, seeds, small lizards, insects, as well as the eggs of other birds, and even small birds and rodents. In the forest tree pies often join mixed hunting groups of birds like drongos and woodpeckers; they collectively disturb insects in tree canopies and feast on them. 

Tree pies make their nests concealed in the foliage of middle-sized trees. The nest resembles that of its cousin the crow, made of thorny twigs, but it is deeper and well-lined with rootlets. It is here that 4-5 eggs are laid, and when they hatch both male and female share the parental duties.

A fortnight has passed since we heard the first harsh call of the tree pies. Since then we have been able to also enjoy the rest of their repertoire, in something like sound-surround. The soft melodious chirping coming from the foliage of the karanj tree, the bob-o-links that punctuate from the neem tree, and the kotri call from the top of the straggly palm. If we look hard enough we can also spot the tip of the long tail peeping out from the leaves, and occasionally are treated to a glimpse of its sweeping graceful flight from one perch to the other. It looks like the tree pies are here to stay this year.


Poppy for Remembrance

As a watcher of the BBC news channel, one thing that I have been noticing since this month began was that all the newscasters and other people who appeared on the channel have been wearing a lapel pin in the form of a poppy. This week there was also a picture of Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also wearing the same while flagging off the Poppy Appeal.

Why are poppies so much in the news? The crimson poppy flower has become a symbol to honour those who have fallen in battle over the years, and also symbolizes hope and gratitude. The history of this century-old tradition goes all the way back all to World War I.

 As the story goes, during World War I, after a particularly bloody battle in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, thousands of bright red flowers mysteriously appeared. These were common poppies. Interestingly, the common poppy (Papaver rheos) is technically classified a weed which can grow even in the most inhospitable of landscapes. Basically it sprouts naturally in areas where there is massive disruption of the soil and the natural environment, such as bare lands which had been disturbed by the movement of troops and battle equipment. It is believed that during the Napoleanic wars of the early nineteenth century poppies bloomed profusely around the bodies of fallen soldiers, painting the battleground blood red. The same thing must have happened at Flanders.

John McCrae, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces fighting in Flanders, who had just lost a close friend in the battle, was so moved by this spontaneous bloom that he wrote a poem about the flowers’ resilience and ability to grow in such inhospitable conditions. Titled In Flander’s Field, it was told from the perspective of the fallen soldiers buried beneath the poppies, and honoured the troops who lost their lives in that conflict. The opening lines of the poem:

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae’s poem was published in London’s Punch magazine in December 1915. It touched a chord in all those who were suffering the losses of loved ones in the war. The poem was read at memorial services, and reprinted it in many publications. Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia in the United States, first came across In Flanders Field in the Ladies Home Journal and was so moved by it that she vowed always to wear a red poppy in remembrance of the lives lost in war. She found some poppies made of fabric in a store; and bought 25 silk poppies for herself and her friends. Once the war ended she herself began to make poppies out of red silk, and sell these to raise money to support the veterans returning from the war. She also lobbied for the poppy to be recognised as a memorial symbol. In 1920 the little red flower was recognized by the National American Legion as the official national emblem of remembrance.

The United States marks this memory on two days– Memorial Day is celebrated in May while 11 November marks Veterans Day. Over time, in the United States, the tradition of the poppy as the symbol of the day has been largely replaced by the yellow ribbon and red, blue and white ribbon campaigns. 

The poppy tradition however took firm root across the Atlantic, and continues to flourish. It first reached France through a French lady Madame Guerin who had seen the introduction of the poppy in America. She thought that selling poppies was a great way to raise money for children who had been affected by the war in France, and she engaged thousands of war widows in making paper poppies, and selling over a million poppies by 1921.  The Royal British Legion adopted the symbol immediately. The idea also spread to the other Commonwealth countries. The first poppy event was held on 11 November 1921.

Thus for over a century now, wearing a poppy has become a symbol of remembering the soldiers lost during World War I in many countries. The flower made of paper or fabric, is generally affixed to the left shoulder to symbolize the act of keeping those who have passed away close to one’s heart; the left shoulder is also one where military medals are worn. 

In the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, red poppies are worn in November, especially on 11 November. This date is marked as Remembrance Day as it commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that formally ended World War I “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918. This day is now an occasion to remember all those who have lost their lives in all conflicts since World War I.

While the original batch of poppies were bought from France, the first factory to produce poppies in England was set up in 1922, employing five disabled ex-military personnel. Today the Royal British Legion has a factory that employs 50 ex-servicemen all the year round to make poppies for fund-raising events. The poppy has transcended its purely commemorative status to become an object that provides financial stability for the war-affected. 

The annual Poppy Appeal flagged off by the British Prime Minister last week raises funds for The Royal British Legion to support the armed forces community who have served, or are currently serving in the armed forces, and have subsequently been affected physically, mentally or economically by war.

In an age that is even today more war-torn than ever, where young people are laying down their lives in brutal and meaningless warfare in so many parts of the world, this single flower serves as a powerful symbol not only of remembrance, but also a mark of honour, pride and support for those who still give up everything for the security and peace of nations.


Bridge-building Women

The recent tragedy of the collapse of the suspension bridge in Morbi in Gujarat has brought into focus a lot of information on bridges and news reports are filled with engineering terms related to bridges.   

While the blame game is on about who was at fault—engineers, contractors, civic authorities, or just the uncontrollable rush of holiday makers, it is perhaps a good week to go back and understand a little about early bridges and bridge builders. And to discover that one of the first patents for a chain-suspended bridge in England was filed in 1811 by a woman! This was Sarah Guppy an engineer, inventor, campaigner, designer, reformer, writer, environmentalist and business woman, in a period when it was unthinkable that women could be anything except wives, homemakers and mothers.

Sarah was born in 1770 in a wealthy merchant family of Birmingham. It was a period when the industrial revolution was shifting the largely agrarian economy of England towards mechanized manufacture. In 1795 Sarah married Samuel Guppy, a rich Bristol merchant fifteen years older to her and settled into family life in Bristol.    

As per the societal norms of the time, women were expected to keep house and raise children. Sarah largely conformed to her role (she went on to have six children), but she was far from docile and dull. Sarah was exceptionally well-read, talented and creative; she and her husband were part of a Bristol social set that included mercantile and innovative people. Among their friends were Thomas Telford a road and tunnel engineer, and the family of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was one of the most versatile engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. He is best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Coming into contact with such people sparked Sarah’s interest in the science and craft of engineering, and triggered in her creative mind the desire to herself invent engineering solutions.

Sarah was an early advocate of a suspension bridge in Clifton, and was engaged in preparing models of a bridge that could span the river Avon, a project that had long been debated and discussed. Her idea was to work on a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge, and she made drawings for the same. Her son Thomas was GWR’s principal engineer, and she gave the design and plans for her bridge over the Avon to Brunel.

When her youngest daughter was just a year old, Sarah applied for a patent for a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge. In March 1811, she obtained a patent for ‘erecting and constructing bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoided’.  What was noteworthy was that Sarah became the first woman ever to patent a bridge. Even more noteworthy that this was in a period when married women could not even own property in their own name. This included patents which were considered to be intellectual property which could have some value.

The patent had no drawings and no detailed information as to how the bridge was actually to be built. However her designs provided the blueprints for Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge. When Telford approached her for permission to use her patented invention, she reportedly waived the fees, but managed to claim credit for its design.

Sarah’s inventive mind did not stop with that. She developed a devise to prevent barnacles forming on boat hulls, and sold the contract to the British Navy. She also put forward a scheme to prevent soil erosion on railway embankments by planting willow and poplar trees. Even as she played her role as homemaker, she came up with innovations. She designed a bed that could also be used as a gym with steps and bars for exercising; and a coffee urn whose steam could be used to boil an egg and at the same time keep the toast warm. An all-in-one breakfast hotplate! She was even granted a patent for this in 1812. In all Sarah took out ten patents, a remarkable achievement.in the late Georgian and early Victorian period.  

Sarah was not just ahead of her times in her engineering prowess. She wrote and presented schemes for a wide range of issues including animal welfare, education, agriculture and horticulture. She also wrote a book for children, and founded a charity school for girls. 

Bridging the span across continents, and across nearly a century, this is a good time to remember Shakuntala A. Bhagat—India’s first woman civil engineer. Shakuntala was born on 6 February 1933. Her father S.B. Joshi is regarded as the Father of Bridge Engineering in India. She was just 20 years old when she got her civil engineering degree from VJTI in Mumbai, the first woman in India to do so. From 1954-1956 she went to West Germany and UK for practical training, and went on to get her master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She returned to India to join IIT Mumbai as assistant professor in 1960. She went on to become Head of the Heavy Structures Laboratory at IIT.

Shakuntala was more than an academic. She pioneered many innovative structural designs, especially for bridges. She and her husband designed and patented an innovative prefabricated modular system known today as the Quadricon Modular Bridge System. This is a series of prefabricated mass-produced modular bridge steel parts, small and lightweight enough to make transport easier for builders. They can be used in different types of bridges, different spans, traffic widths, and loads, all they had to do was change the combination of the assemblies.

Shakuntala Bhagat was awarded the Woman Engineer of the Year Award in 1993.  She passed away in 2012, a century after the first patent for a bridge was awarded to Sarah Guppy. She left behind a lasting legacy of over 200 Quadricon bridges around the world (including 69 in India) in terrains that challenge engineers even today.

Recently the Government of India announced the establishment of the Indian bridge management system to collect information on bridges. This would certainly be enriched by adding information on the pioneers who designed and built bridges.   


Splendid Bloomer: Silk floss Tree

In most parts of India, March is usually the month when the big trees are in bloom. In cities like Delhi which have avenues of old trees, it is a delight to see the changing colours of the blooms on different trees. October however, is the month that is marked by the spectacular blooming of the Silk floss tree.

Sometimes mistaken for the Silk Cotton tree with its flamboyant red flowers, the Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), is unique in many ways. The species was originally named Chorisia speciosa in 1828. The generic name Chorisia was in honour of Louis Choris, a Russo-German painter and explorer who was one of the earliest expeditionary artists (artists who accompanied military, exploring, and trade expeditions to document the expedition through sketches and paintings). He accompanied Otto von Kotzebue, a Baltic German navigator in Russian service on several expeditions across South America and Europe, and is said to have painted nature as he saw it.  However, in 1998 the genus Chorisia was merged with the genus Ceiba (which is the Brazilian name for the tree). Speciosa means ‘beautiful’, or ‘splendid’ (Latin), alluding to its spectacular flowers. Thus, the currently accepted name for the species is Ceiba speciosa.

This grand ornamental deciduous tree is in fact native to Argentina and Brazil. With its bulging prickly trunk, exotic flowers, great height, and pods with pea-sized seeds and silky floss, this unique tree literally stands out from other trees.

The Silk floss tree begins as a young sapling with a small bulge near the base of the trunk that slowly enlarges as it grows. But the tree tapers again upwards of the bulge, reaching a height of anywhere between 50 to 70 feet, with wide-spreading branches. The immature trees have an attractive green bark, which turns grey as the tree ages, and its girth increases. The trunk and branches are characterized by the coarse sharp conical spines that cover it, but these fall off as the tree gets older. The spines not only protect the tree from climbing animals, they are also good dew collectors; they collect the moisture from the air that the drips down to the soil below, making the tree capable of surviving even in arid conditions. In dry regions, in ancient times, the presence of the ceiba trees indicated the presence of nearby water sources, which led to the establishment of human settlements where these trees grew.

It may take many years before the trees start to flower. But when they do, it is the flowers that make this tree a show-stopper. Each one as large as an open hand, the hibiscus-like flowers are usually in different shades of mauve-pink. The five petals envelope a delicate creamy-white centre. The flowers appear after the tree has shed its leaves, and they cover the branches with a profusion of blossoms that make for a spectacular sight. The nectar attracts pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees, as well as hummingbirds in their native South America.

It takes a Ceiba tree at least seven years to mature to produce its first seed pods. These woody avocado-shaped pods were called pochote by the Mayan people. The pods grow gradually, and then crack open, exposing pea-sized black seeds surrounded by flossy white fibres.  It is this component that gives the tree its common English name Silk floss tree. In Hindi it is popularly known as resham rui (literally silk cotton). In pre-Hispanic times this fibre was important for making cloth. The floss was traditionally used for stuffing pillows and mattresses as this did not cause any allergies. In the 1940s it was also used to fill life jackets because of its buoyant properties and water resistant abilities. In the 1950’s it was used to fill automobile seats and upholstery. Over time it has been replaced by synthetic fibres.

Other parts of the tree also have multiple uses; the wood from the trunk has been used to make wood pulp; the light and flexible wood is suitable for making boxes, packing material and even canoes; while thin strips of the bark can be woven to make ropes, and the seeds pressed into edible and industrial oil. 

As in all indigenous cultures, where people lived in close connect with their surroundings, this tree is associated with its share of myths and legends in its native lands. In Argentina the tree is commonly referred to as Palo Boracho, literally ‘drunken stick’ referring to its swollen trunk that tends to lean on one side.

In Bolivia this tree is called Toborochi which means ‘tree of refuge’ or ‘sheltering tree’. A beautiful legend explains why this is so.

When the world was still very new, the Aña, or spirits of the darkness, liked to abuse and kill humans. When they found out that Araverá, the beautiful daughter of a native chief, cacique Ururuti, who had married the god Colibri (Hummingbird), was pregnant and would give birth to a son, the spirits were alerted. The spirits believed the son would punish them when he grew up, so they decided to kill Araverá. With the help of a flying seat her husband Colibrí had given to her, Araverá fled from the village, but the evil spirits followed her and harassed her wherever they found her hiding.

Finally she was so exhausted that she decided to hide in the trunk of a Toborochi tree. Sheltered within, feeling secure and at peace, she gave birth to her son. The boy grew up and fulfilled the prophecy, killing the spirits and avenging his mother. But as the gods had decreed, Araverá, could never come out of hiding, and had to stay inside the tree until she died.

But as the legend goes, while forever buried in the bulging trunk of a Toborochi, Araverá does come out, in the shape of a beautiful flower that attracts hummingbirds. And thus, she keeps contact with her husband.

While the tree is indigenous in South America it is also native to Central America, where the ceiba or yaxché, is considered as the sacred tree of the Mayas, a place to withdraw for meditation. The Mayans believed that the ceiba tree connected the different levels of the universe, from the underworld to the sky. The story is told of a mythical ceiba tree that functioned as the axis or centre of the world, encompassing the three planes of the universe: the roots are Xibalba, the underworld, the trunk and branches are Cab or the terrestrial level, and the bird Quetzal, perched on top of its canopy, the sky. Once again, reinforcing the link between the flowers and the birds. The Ceiba is thus a tree of life that plays an important part in ceremonies, art and mythology.

Though far from their native lands, the Silk floss trees which have taken roots in other parts of the world, are a majestic symbol of the ancient spirit of trees of life. And nothing is a better reminder of this than the magnificent flowering of these towering trees.  


Saralabehn: Gandhian, Educator, Enviromentalist, Feminist

Of the many women who dedicated themselves to Gandhiji’s thoughts and practices, the name of his English disciple Mirabehn (nee Madeleine Slade) is well known. Perhaps not as much written about, but no less inspiring, is the story of his other English follower who took the name Saralabehn.

Catherine Mary Heilman was born in Shepherd’s Bush, London on April 5 1901. Her mother was English and her father was of German origin, who had come to England via France. As a child living in a bi-national and bi-lingual liberal family, When she was in her teens, Catherine was rudely shocked when her German surname led her to be stigmatized during the World War and its aftermath. Her father was wrongly jailed as an enemy, and the young Catherine was not allowed to take part in school activities, and deprived of a scholarship. At sixteen she had to leave her studies and work in an office where the hostility continued.

It was while she was in a London boarding house in 1920 that she met a group of Indians who became her friends. This is when she began to learn and understand something about the nationalist struggle that was going on in India against the imperialist colonial rule. She realised that the way her history books had presented the colonies as the “white man’s burden” was quite different from the accounts she heard from her new friends. She also learnt about the non-violent nationalist struggle that was being led by Mahatma Gandhi. She started following news of the movement as it was evolving in India, and began to empathize with his thinking and practice. As she later wrote: “For the first time in my life, I was exposed to ideas that resonated with me. Every statement uttered and every word written by this individual, Gandhi, clad in just a small dhoti, held true meaning”.  Even as her European friends warned and discouraged her from getting carried away by events that were happening in a country far away, Catherine was planning to go to India herself.

Catherine wrote to Gandhi to request permission to join his work but he was not very encouraging. She continued to explore ways of getting to India. She had no particular skills nor training, so she enrolled for a midwifery course which brought her in contact with English pacifist groups. Before she finished the course she received a letter inviting her to work at a school in Udaipur, so she transferred to a short programme in child education. In January 1932 Catherine finally reached India, and did not go back again.

She started work in Vidya Bhavan in Udaipur; work which along with teaching included manual work in fields, cleaning toilets, washing one’s own clothes and utensils. This gave her a sense of the typical chores that women did, as well as the dignity of labour. But she still did not feel that she had achieved what she had set out for—to participate in Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, which she considered to be “the true foundation of the freedom struggle”. She continued to write to Gandhiji, the man whose pull had brought her to India, but did not hear from him. In the meanwhile Catherine steeped herself in the life and culture of her new home, and at some point also took on the name Saralabehn.

In 1935 Saralabehn visited Mahila Ashram in Wardha. Gandhi was there at the time, and one morning the two finally met. Gandhiji asked her who she was and how long she was staying, and on being told ten days, he assigned her some work. Saralaben relocated to Wardha in 1936 and worked on the education of the girls in the Ashram based on the principles of Nai Talim. In 1941, when her health declined and Gandhi suggested that she move to cooler climes and concentrate on Nature Cure. There was a Gandhian Ashram in a village called Chanauda in the foothills of the Uttarakhand Himalaya and this is where she reached in August 1941.

As her physical health improved, Saralabehn began to get restless. She had her own routine which included learning how to spin Tibetan wool; she started travelling through the villages of the area and learning the local language. She also interacted with the villagers, especially the women, and began to discuss Gandhi’s ideas on Gram Swaraj or village self-reliance. She continued to be active in Gandhi’s nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The British placed her under house arrest for her involvement in the 1942 Quit India Movement. As soon as she was released, she again devoted herself to helping freedom fighters and to further preparations for the freedom movement. Hence in 1944 she was arrested and imprisoned again. After her release Saralabehn returned to her karma bhoomi. Having lived and work in the Kumaon villages she felt that the best way to carry forward Gandhiji’s constructive programme was to establish an educational institution for the local girls.  

A local Indian Civil Service officer offered a cottage which he had named Lakshmi after his wife, for the new venture. Thus was founded the Lakshmi Ashram in 1946. Beginning with three students, Lakshmi Ashram began imparting education based on the principles of Nai Talim—education for economic self-reliance where Hands, Heart, and Head should all develop in Harmony.

As there was no local tradition of sending girls to residential schools, Saralabehn had first to gain the trust of the parents. Saralabehn designed her own syllabi and taught the first girls herself. Her curriculum included science, mathematics, Hindi, history and geography. In keeping with the applied-learning focus of Gandhian education, field work which involved close interaction with the local community and manual labour was an important component. This provided the opportunity of learning directly from villagers, especially women, as well as interactive settings for ashram students and teachers to share information about hygiene and health, as well as social, ecological, and political issues. Students also learned to spin, weave, and sew khadi.

An important step was to make the Ashram self-supporting. Saralabehn and her first students worked together to do all the chores of the Ashram. Milk and yogurt came from their own cows, and they collected fuel wood and fodder from the forest. They dined on vegetables, spices, and fruit that flourished in terraced gardens that they established on the ashram grounds, and prepared simple meals over a wood-burning hearth. They did their own housekeeping and ran a khadi shop and a homeopathic dispensary in a roadside bazaar. The aim of the all-round education and exposure was to teach girls to become self-reliant, self-confident community activists who could meaningfully contribute to the Gandhian ideal of Gram Swaraj.

Lakshmi Ashram grew to accommodate more students. Saralabehn continued to engage herself not only with its programme but also with other movements for similar causes. She journeyed to Bihar to join the Bhoodan movement, which Vinoba Bhave had initiated in 1951. In the early 1970s, she went to the Chambal Valley to work with families of surrendered bandits.

By then many of her early students had themselves taken on unconventional leadership roles, pioneering social and environmental movements especially in the Uttarakhand region. These include the famous Chipko Movement, protests against large dams and strip mining, campaigns against alcoholism, and protecting the forests and natural resources. The important role many of her students played demonstrates how a different type of education can have a powerful impact.

Saralabehn continued to live and work in her adopted country until she passed away on 8 July 1982. She was cremated at Lakshmi Ashram where she lived and worked not just as an educator but as a visionary who helped change lives of Himalayan women, and equally fought for the cause of the environment.


The Post Lady Always Knocks Twice

9 October is marked as World Post Day. As an extension to this, the Indian Department of Post is celebrating 9 to 13 October as National Postal Week.

The last month has been unusual in that we have had more knocks on the door by our post lady than by couriers. In the last few years one had become so used to sending and receiving letters and parcels through courier services that we had almost forgotten what an important part post offices and postal services had played in our lives. In the days of ‘life in the slow lane’ the process of hand-writing letters, finding appropriate envelopes, going to the neighbourhood post office to get stamps, and slipping the letter in the post box afforded a great sense of satisfaction. Equally wonderful was the anticipation of receiving letters of response, and other exciting missives announcing results, admission notices, job interviews, and news from near and far. We didn’t consciously realize it then, but the postal service was an integral part of our life.

The history of the postal communication in India dates back to ancient times of kings who used to convey important messages, especially wartime news, through a relay of runners on foot. During the reign of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, trained pigeons with small cachets of letters tied to their feet were used to send communications across the vast kingdom. This system of ‘pigeon post’ continued even during the time of Emperor Ashoka. The Mughals used a system of runner services which expanded to include horses. Horses were stationed at relay posts every few miles, and the messages were passed on from horseman to horseman. During the reign of Sher Shah Suri it is believed that there were 3400 horses with riders all along the Grand Trunk Road, for conveyance of news.

Post offices, as we know them, were first established in India by the East India Company. The Company opened its first post office in 1727 and the postal service was administered with the main aim to serve their own commercial interests. The post service was opened to the public in March 1774 with the establishment of the Calcutta GPO. This was followed by the opening of the Madras GPO in 1786, and then the Bombay GPO in 1794, and the Bangalore GPO in 1800.  The Post Offices were manned by the respective District Collectors or military officers acting as ex-officio Postmasters.

In addition to managing the postal services of British India, the Post Office was involved in the transmission of correspondence between England and India. This was done by the sea route, and one way travel time was up to three months. In the 1820s Thomas Waghorn, then a naval officer with the East India Company, investigated a possible overland route between Alexandria and Suez, which could cut down the time to just over a month. It took ten years for the British Government and East India Company to be convinced of the viability of this route, which it subsequently took over.

Lord Dalhousie appointed a Post Office Commission in 1850 and the approved recommendations of Commission were framed as Post office Act XVII, 1854. Under this Lord Dalhousie recognized the Indian Post Offices as separate organization of national importance. 700 Post offices which included what were called 55 Receiving Houses were placed, for the first time, under the unitary control of a Director General, Henry Phillip Archibald Buchanan Riddell, on 1st October 1854. The Head Quarters was at Bengal, and was responsible to Home Department of the Government of India.

Roadways were at the time the main form of transporting post. The first line of postal communication by railway was opened from 18th September 1854. Mail service by steamer was introduced between Calcutta and Port Blair on 28 May 1859. And it was in India that the world’s first official “airmail” was operated on 21 February 1911 when Henri Pequet, a French pilot flew a biplane carrying 6500 pieces of mail from Allahabad to Nainital—a distance of six miles.

The Indian Postal Service has come a long way since then, to become the world’s largest postal network managing more than one-and-a-half lakh post offices. The postal department has met the challenges of India’s diverse geography, catering innovatively to remote areas. There is a floating post office in a houseboat on the Dal Lake in Kashmir; and the world’s highest post office in a small cottage in Hikkim district in Himachal Pradesh. The Nagpur Post Office is located in a large Victorian-style heritage building which accommodates the post master’s residence, a parcel hub, a postal depot, a recreation club, and a canteen. And there is a small metal post box among the tea plantations of Munnar in Kerala which has been used for a hundred years now. Known simply as Postal Number 9, the oldest postal number in the country, the post office continues to deliver mail to thousands of plantation workers. 

The Indian Postal Service does much more than delivering mail. It offers a range of other services that help reach out to people and places which do not have access to variety of institutions like banks and other agencies. The post office remits money in the form of money orders (which is the only way of sending money for many Indians). The Postal Department also offers a variety of small savings schemes. It provides life insurance coverage under Postal Life Insurance and Rural Postal Life Insurance. It also plays an important role in discharging government services such as payment of pensions to senior and retired citizens. Wages under government welfare MGNREGA are also distributed through post offices. During the COVID lockdown the red postal vans were even used to deliver medical equipment like N95 masks, medicines, test kits and ventilators across states as part of their “essential services”.

My family has had pleasant experiences with India Post in the past few years. From efficient despatch and delivery of parcels both within the country, and even overseas (all the way to New Zealand!), to the Speed Post with its online Track and Trace (that is sometimes overzealous in informing about the journey of the post), it is indeed a service that calls for respect. This year we could also avail of the home visit by Postal Staff for taking biometrics of my 97 year-old father-in-law for his Jeevan Praman (Life Certificate for continuing pension).    

No wonder then that the post office (dak khana) and the postman (dakiya) on his trusted bicycle were always a component of “village life” in stories and movies in the past. Even today, when we get message on our phone that Tinuben our post lady is on her way to deliver a speed post, we await her scooter and her knock on the door. From pigeon post to speed post, India Post has come a long way indeed!


Gandhiji’s Amanuensis: V. Kalyanam

When one thinks of Gandhiji’s personal secretary, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Mahadev Desai, also one of Gandhi’s close associates. Not as well-known is V. Kalyanam who worked as Gandhiji’s personal secretary after Mahadev Desai passed away, and remained with him until the end of Gandhi’s life. Kalyanam’s story is worth sharing.  

Like many people from South India in the early 1900s, Venkatram had moved to Delhi in 1914. This was where jobs could be found, working for the British government where the South Indian work ethic and knowledge of English were appreciated. Venkatram married Meenabal, and the young Tamil couple settled in Delhi. On 15 August 1922 a son was born to them; they named him Kalyanam.

In those days the entire apparatus of government used to work in Delhi for part of the year and move to the cooler climes of Shimla during the hot summer months. So also Venkatram’s family, with their son Kalyanam, who spent his school days shuttling between Delhi and Shimla. After school he studied at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. Upon graduation the young man also found a job with the British government.

Kalyanam grew up as a thoroughly anglicized and faithful servant of the British, till then more or less oblivious of the growing nationalist movement in the country. Having started work, he took to reading the newspapers and found that they were full of news about a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He wondered why this man was so adamant to free India from British rule. The Quit India movement had just started, but Kalyanam had no interest nor inclination for what was happening around the country. However on request of some South Indian friends, he agreed to help them to secretly slip some anti-British pamphlets under doors at night. Young Kalyanam had not read the pamphlets himself, but one night he was arrested by the British police and accused of treason. He ended up spending nine months in Lahore jail. After his release he returned home to find that he had lost his government job, but he found work in an insurance company. Little did he know that his life was very soon going to take him on quite another path.

During this time he was introduced to Gandhji’s son Devdas Gandhi who was also C. Rajagopalachari’s son-in-law. Young Kalyanam expressed his frustration at his secretarial job, and his love for all kinds of manual work, Devdas suggested that he go to Sevagram Ashram. Kalyanam knew nothing about the Ashram, nor did he then know about Devdas’ link to Gandhiji. But he was willing to visit what he thought was a spiritual Ashram, and luckily his boss gave him 2 months leave to do this.  Around the same time he accompanied his British Boss’s wife to a Khadi shop in Chandni Chowk. Here bought a handkerchief and towel for three rupees and a kurta pyjama for nineteen rupees. From that day onwards he never wore any western clothes.

In October 1943, Kalyanam arrived in Wardha after a two-day train journey, and presented himself to the manager of Sevagram ashram, still not knowing anything about the place. Gandhiji himself was at the time interned at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. Kalyanam’s introduction to the very frugal and basic living conditions was an eye-opener for the city-bred boy. In addition to the common chores, everyone in the Ashram had the specific duties. As he knew good English, Kalyanam was assigned the work of segregating by language the many letters that arrived for Gandhi every day, from every part of the country and the world. The first lesson he was taught was how to open the envelopes in such a way that the unused side could be used by Gandhi for writing!

Kalyanam finally met Gandhi in Bombay when he was released from jail for medical treatment. He was introduced as “the Madrasi boy sent by Devdas.” Gandhiji was weak and ill, but he asked Kalyanam many questions. The last one was whether he could type. Kalyanam was surprised because he assumed that he was at the Ashram to do menial work that he enjoyed, and to avoid the secretarial work that he hated. But he admitted that yes, he could type, and that he was fluent in English and Hindi, as well as versed in Tamil.

Once more, Kalyanam’s life was about to take an unplanned turn. Gandhiji’s long-time and faithful personal secretary Mahadev Desai had passed away in prison in 1942; and Gandhiji saw in this young man a possible replacement. Kalyanam returned to Sevagram, and awaited Gandhi’s return on 1 October 1944. From that day on Kalyanam’s life changed. Till then he had been working in the garden and fields most of the time, but now he was assigned a new job as the Mahatma’s stenographer.  

With that he also became a part of Gandhiji’s daily routine which started at four o’clock every morning. Kalyanam’s job was to segregate the hundreds of letters by language, give each letter to Gandhi and take dictation for the replies that Gandhi personally gave for each letter. He then had to type the English letters, and give them back to Gandhi to correct. This was done from 5 to 6 every morning, except on Monday when Gandhiji observed the vow of silence. On this day he would write notes for Kalyanam, who found it hard to decipher his handwriting. Kalyanam recalled that he never saw Gandhi read a book. He did not read the daily newspapers either. It was Kalyananm’s duty to read the papers and type the important items on a piece of paper and place it before Gandhiji. His other duties included accompanying Gandhiji wherever he went and noting every word he said, replying to correspondence, scheduling interviews, preparing his English speeches and coordinating with the press. Kalyanam was on-the-job, as it were, from the time Gandhiji woke up till he went to bed at 9 pm. But as he recalled, he never felt tired as everything he did was interesting. Although it certainly did have many moments that challenged the young assistant.

One incident as recalled by him was when he was on the train with Gandhi; being his day of silence, Gandhiji drafted a note and gave it to Kalyanam to type. Kalyanam thought that this could be done when the train reached is destination. But in the evening Gandhi asked him for the letter and Kalyanam confessed that he was not carrying his typewriter. Gandhiji was not pleased. He muttered “When I send for a barber, I expect him to bring his tools.” Kalyanam somehow managed to get it typed on a typewriter belonging to some journalists who were travelling on the train.

Kalyanam remained as Gandhii’s personal secretary from 1944 till the minute  Gandhji breathed his last on 30 January 1948. Every moment of those four years were a unique learning experience for Kalyanam; and the frugal habits, discipline and commitment to a cause that were planted in those days became a way of life for him for the rest of his long life, until he passed away at the age of 99 years on 4 May 2021.

At the age of 93 years, V.Kalyanam had shared many reminiscences of his years with Gandhi with author Shobha Warrier, and these were published as a book titled His Days With Bapu: Mahatma Gandhi’s Personal Secretary Recalls. A fascinating and inspiring read.