April Blooms

In the month of April, as our Indian spring advances into the long and blazing hot summer, we have been witness to a variety of showers. These are the copious shedding of flowers from the profusely blooming trees that, in a beautiful sequence of blossoming, are heralding the change in seasons.

The first colours to touch the magnificent canvas were the exquisite pink-mauve hues of the Tabebuia rosea tree. This is the Rosy trumpet or Tecoma pink tree which is appropriately called Basant Rani (Queen of Spring) in Hindi. Almost overnight, the nearly leafless tree exploded into a profusion of pinkish- white trumpet-like flowers that literally wrapped the tree in a frothy cloud. Cities like Bangalore reveled in the sight of the avenues of these rosy ranis, while in my city we had to make do with a chance sighting of one of the few and scattered specimens of Tabebuia. I had the privilege of enjoying this beautiful sight of the single tree on my morning walk route. The glory was short-lived. Almost as quickly as it burst into blossom, the tree shed its flowers, overnight carpeting the area under the canopy with the delicate and faded flowers. One morning we were feasting on the full canopy, and the next morning there was nothing left on the tree but bare branches. The first delicate hues had been transferred to the canvas of summer.

It was time to add more shades to the palette. It was the turn of the tiny eggshell-white neem flowers, and the slighter larger ivory karanj flowers to make their appearance. These emerged coyly amid the fresh foliage on their parent plants. The incredible shades of green, that defied definition or description, merged flawlessly with the blossoms. But while the leaves clung on firmly, the flowers, having played their brief but vital part in interaction with the birds and bees who thronged to feast on the nectar, began their graceful descent from the canopies, and carpeted the ground below. The neem flowers merged with the soil silently and unobtrusively. The karanj flowers made their presence felt with a crunch crunch sound when trod upon. The white faded from the canvas, even as the leaves took on deeper and darker shades of green.

As the summer sun gets stronger and the heat builds up, it is time for the palette to become more vibrant and vivid.  

The first splash of colour is golden yellow. The Indian laburnum or Golden Shower tree is in bloom. Its masses of yellow blossoms cascade from the tree like waterfalls of molten gold. This usually nondescript tree starts with sprouting green-copper coloured leaves which are soon all but hidden in the mass of sprays of golden flowers.  In the scorching sun, the blooming flowers are a magnet for a wide range of insects and birds which are important pollinating agents. The splash of gold shines and shimmers for a few weeks, but as the heat intensifies, the gold seems to gradually lose its gloss, and the hanging blossoms gently float to the ground to further fade as they prepare to merge with the earth.

As one yellow begins to fade, the palette is already being prepared with a more vibrant shade of yellow. It is time for the Copper Pod tree to enter the stage. With its wide spreading crown of many branches already covered in rich dark green feathery leaves, the contrast made by its turmeric yellow flowers is stunning against the pre-dawn grey sky. Unlike the flowers of the laburnum that cascade downwards in long clusters, the flowers of this tree bloom as dense bunches on long upright stalks at the ends of the branches. Individual flowers are small and delicate and have brown lines at the base of the petals.

It is these flowers that give the tree its other names like Yellow Flamboyant or Yellow Flame tree. It is also often called Peltophorum which is part of its botanical name Peltophorum pterocarpum. The name Copper Pod is derived from its fruit pods which are coppery brown at first and later become dark brown. The pods are 5-10 cm long and 2.5 cm broad with one or two seeds within. The shield-shaped pods give it yet another name of Rusty Shield bearer.

By whatever name we may choose to call it, this flamboyant tree is a great favourite for a wide variety of birds who use its abundant canopy for nesting, and who fill the air with an orchestra of calls with the break of dawn. They are joined by the silent activity of bats, squirrels and garden lizards who go about their business in the company of their feathered friends.  

Even as the old flowers turn into pods, new flowers continue to bloom, as well as shed. The fallen flowers form a molten pool at its base. Unlike the laburnum, the flowers do not fade as they dry, and continue to attract attention even after they have left their lush green abode and travelled down to the earth.

With the swirling, sweeping brush strokes continuing to fill the canvas, it is time for the palette to ready the rich oranges and reds that will put the crowning strokes. The Gulmohar is ready to take the stage.

An elegant wide-spreading tree with delicate, fern-like leaves explodes in a riot of flame-red flowers. It really looks as if the tree is afire. Up close, each flower is made up of four spoon-shaped spreading petals which are a combination of scarlet and orange-red, and one upright petal which is marked with yellow and white. The flowers blend gracefully with the foliage making a breath-taking sight that stands out not only against the lightening early morning and darkening late evening sky, but equally in the yellow-white haze of the midday sun. The flowers drift to the ground, not as the downpours of the other trees, but sprinkle the earth with a delicate pattern in shades of crimson and scarlet.

Nature’s palette has artfully mixed and matched hues and shades, light and shadow, form and function. The Indian summer masterpiece is complete!


Purnima Devi: Saviour of the Storks

Purnima was only five years old when she had to go and live with her grandmother. The little girl missed her parents and siblings, but her grandmother who had a small farm on the banks of the Brahmaputra river in Assam started taking her to the nearby paddy fields and water bodies, and showing her and telling her about the different birds that could be seen in large numbers. She also taught her traditional bird songs that described not only the beauty but the importance of birds in people’s lives and culture.

The seeds that were planted in those fields took deep roots. Purnima not only fell in love with birds, but would also go on to devote her professional life to studying and protecting birds. After her Master’s degree in Zoology, Purnima decided that she wanted to focus on a bird species that she had grown up seeing, but whose numbers seemed to be on the decline. This was the Greater adjutant storks—large majestic birds named for their stiff-legged, almost military gait. These carnivorous birds are “cleaners of the ecosystem” and play a significant role in the food chain in terms of nutrient cycling and ecosystem regulation,

Purnima started her doctoral research on Greater Adjutants in 2007. As she studied their nesting behaviour, Purnima realized that the birds needed tall trees where they could make their platform nests. But with rapid disappearance of natural forests and wetlands, these birds had to seek nesting trees wherever they could find them. The only remaining large trees were in the villages, close to the homes of villagers. But these birds were far from welcome there.

Hargila (which means ‘bone swallower’) as the storks are locally called are scavengers and bring bones and dead animals to their nests, these often drop to the ground. Along with the birds’ foul-smelling droppings, these birds are not the most pleasant of neighbours to have. Villagers even cut down huge old trees in their backyards to prevent these birds from nesting. The birds were also perceived as bad omens or disease carriers. With the declining natural tree cover, and the hostility of the villagers, the survival of Adjutant storks was in jeopardy.

In 2007, while she was still a researcher, Purnima was present when a large tree was cut down, bringing down the nest along with nine chicks. Her attempts to explain to the villagers about the ecological significance of such scavenger birds, were met with ridicule by the local people. One local resident even scoffed her saying that she should work in his house to clean up the storks’ stinking messes. Rather than being put off by this, Purnima chose to abandon her academic research and to focus instead on working with the local communities to change their perceptions towards this bird.

Purnima decided to start by reaching out to the women, who did not often have a voice, but who could potentially influence the entire family. Her first step was to gain access to the nests which were often in trees on family land. This was initially by getting close to the individual women who were the homemakers. Purnima then started to get the women together through common events such as cooking competitions. She began by appealing to their maternal instincts by stressing the importance of safe nesting sites for the birds, while also discussing their ecological importance. She told them that when our children are young they also make a mess at home, but we still love and protect them. More and more women started coming to these meetings, and joined in the efforts to protect nesting sites and rehabilitate chicks that had fallen from the nests. They organised ‘baby showers’ to celebrate newly-hatched chicks; they revived the traditional songs, poems, festivals and plays that featured these birds.

Purnima realized that for sustained community engagement they needed to take ownership. She helped to provide the women with weaving looms and yarn so that they could create and sell textiles with motifs of the hargila. This initiative provided livelihood options, supported women to become entrepreneurs, and boosted their sense of pride and ownership, as well as raising the profile of the stork. Today the “Hargila Army” consists of over 10,000 women. The Hargila army members call their leader Purnima hargila baideu, or stork sister. The power of community conservation is evident. This has also led to the involvement of the local government departments to recognize, and in some ways support the community efforts.

Since Purnima Devi Burman started her conservation programme, the number of nests in the three villages of Kamrup district in Assam, where she first started her efforts have risen from 28 to more than 250, making this the largest breeding colony of Greater adjutant storks in the world. In 2017, Barman began building tall bamboo nesting platforms for the endangered birds to hatch their eggs. Her efforts were rewarded a couple of years later when the first Greater adjutant stork chicks were hatched on these experimental platforms.

Safeguarding single nests is not enough, the storks’ habitats also need to be restored. The Hargila Army has helped communities to plant tens of thousands of saplings near stork nesting trees and wetland areas in the hope they will support future stork populations.

The Greater adjutant stork is the second-rarest stork species in the world. It is also listed as ‘Endangered’ as per the IUCN Red List which notes that there are only about 1200 of these storks remaining in the world. The dramatic decline in their population has been partly driven by the destruction of their natural habitats, especially wetlands, and the ruthless destruction of their nesting trees. Assam in India is home to the largest population (around 1000) of these birds. This is in no small measure due to the efforts of Purnima Devi Burman and her Hargila Army. 

Purnima Devi’s efforts have also received wider recognition. She has received several awards. She was the recipient of the 2022 UNEP Award for Champion of the Earth for Entrepreneurial Vision. The annual awards are the highest environmental honour that the UNEP confers on individuals and organisations whose actions have a “transformative impact” on the environment.

Purnima Devi was recognized for “pioneering conservation work that empowered thousands of women, creating entrepreneurs and improving livelihoods while bringing the Greater adjutant stork back from the brink of extinction. Her work has shown that conflict between humans and wildlife can be resolved to the benefit of all. By highlighting the damaging impact that the loss of wetlands has had on the species who feed and breed on them, she reminds us of the importance of protecting and restoring ecosystems.”

As we mark Earth Day on 22 April, this is a good time to celebrate such Champions of the Earth who have made it their life’s mission to Protect and Conserve.


Shinrin-yoku: Forest Bathing

International Day of Forests is marked on 21 March every year to highlight the importance and significance of forests and raise awareness about forest restoration. Much has been written about the ecosystem services that forests provide. They purify the water, clean the air, protect the soil, help sequester carbon to fight climate change, and provide food and medicines. Healthy forests are vital for all aspects of a healthy planet, from livelihoods and nutrition to biodiversity and the environment.

Every year the United Nations declares a theme for the International Day of Forests that addresses one of these many aspects of the important role of forests. The theme for 2023 is Forests and Health. This highlights the many connections between human health and forests—from providing food and other life-sustaining resources, including life-saving medicines. 

The contribution of forests on physical health have been well documented, but perhaps not as well-known are the therapeutic effects on mental health. This area has been the field of study of Dr Qing Li who has researched and documented what intuition and common sense have long believed: that being among trees is healthy; it can have positive effects on sleep, energy levels, immune function, and cardiovascular and metabolic health.

This research is well known in Japan and the idea has become popular under the name Shinrin-yoku or Forest bathing.  Forest Bathing is described as the art of plunging oneself in nature to revitalise and enliven the mind, body, energy and to trigger the therapeutic elements of nature.

Forest bathing or therapy originated in Japan in 1980s. Dr. Qing Li is considered to be the founder of this therapy. Dr Qing Li was born in a small village in China and grew up surrounded by nature. He came to Japan in 1988 to study advanced medicine where he was focusing on the effects of environmental chemicals, stress, and lifestyle on immune function and human health. During this period he spent a week camping on a thickly wooded island with his friends. This visit had a profound impact on him, not just personally, but also changing the direction of his professional life.

Experiencing the feeling of well-being amidst the trees, and since it is well-known that stress inhibits immune function, Dr Qing Li developed the hypothesis that immersion in the forest may have a beneficial effect on the immune system by reducing stress. He tested this hypothesis by conducting many experiments on patients with physical as well as mental health issues. He looked at the effects of walking in forests and of phytoncides (the scents that trees give off) on immune cells, stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate. He compared the effects on mood and mental state (anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion) of walking in forests versus walking on treeless city streets.

He focussed his research on what he calls ‘forest medicine’. As he describes this: Some people study medicine, some people study forests; I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.

Forest medicine which encompasses the effects of forest environments on human health is recognized as a new interdisciplinary science, belonging to the categories of alternative medicine, environmental medicine, and preventive medicine.

The terms Shinrin-yoku (literally Forest (Shinrin) bathing (yoku) in English) were first defined in a paper he wrote in 2007.

In his research, Qing Li has found that forest bathing had a healing effect on the mind as well as the body. It reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level, improved sleep, boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.

As an outcome of Dr Qing Li’s research, the government of Japan established Shinrin-yoku as a formal practice. This was not only to encourage city-dwelling people to connect with nature. The idea was also part of a campaign to protect the forests: If people were encouraged to visit forests for their health, they would be more likely to want to protect and look after them. The Japanese government invested a lot of money in forest bathing with the goals of protecting the forests, promoting human health, and preventing lifestyle-related diseases.

So what exactly is Forest bathing? This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, moving slowly, and connecting with it through all our senses: sight (colours), hearing (forest sounds), taste (fruits and herbs), smell (fragrances from different plants) and touch (feeling textures of leaves and barks). So Shinrin-yokuis the entire experience of immersion in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through all our senses.

The idea behind Shinrin-yoku is very simple: it is the belief that if a person visits a natural area and explores it in a relaxed way, they can achieve physical and mental benefits that are healthy and restorative. It is a form of preventative health care that can be incorporated in nature settings anywhere. You don’t necessarily have to travel to a forest to experience the effects of Shinrin-yoku. Even half an hour in a small park can work its magic. As Dr Li reminds us:

The best way to deal with stress at work is to go for a forest bath. I go for shinrin-yoku every lunchtime. You don’t need a forest; any small green space will do. Leave your cup of coffee and your phone behind and just walk slowly. You don’t need to exercise, you just need to open your senses to nature. It will improve your mood, reduce tension and anxiety, and help you focus and concentrate for the rest of the day.

Today, world over, we have become an increasingly urban and indoor species, focussing solely on screens for a large part of our waking hours. All aspects of our life and lifestyles have led to an escalation of stress, anxiety and depression. Before we sink further into these morasses, let’s take a few minutes to heal ourselves in nature.   

Forests and Health: the theme of International Day of Forests this year is best captured in the words of the guru of Shinrin-yoku:

Forests reduce our stress, boost our immune system and help us to live longer, better and happier lives. Our health and the health of the forest go hand in hand. When trees die, we die. If our forests are unhealthy, then so are we. You can’t have a healthy population without healthy forests.


Surprise Sighting: Indian Grey Hornbill

As part of a recent project I have been reading about the different species of hornbills in Arunachal Pradesh. These birds are characterized by their magnificent beaks and colourful plumage, with variations among the different species. Living right across the country in the arid city of Ahmedabad, far away from the verdant forests of Northeast India, it was a delightful surprise to spot a pair of hornbills amongst a cluster of trees amidst the concrete jungle. These were not the eye-catching ones but their less conspicuous cousins, the Indian grey hornbills.

Among all the hornbill species in India, the Indian grey hornbill is the most widely distributed and can be found across most parts of the subcontinent. Unlike the other forest-loving hornbills this species prefers dry plains, foothills, and open habitats. It can be seen in deciduous forests, orchards, thorny scrub jungles, gardens, and, as it did for me, even surprise with sightings in the middle of a busy city. 

Hornbills belong to the family Bucerotidae, characterised by the casque or protuberance on their beaks. These birds are usually large, with a long and downward curving beak sporting an elaborate casque, and colourful bare skin around the head

The Indian grey hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) belongs to the genus Ocyceros, which literally means ‘pointed horn’. The species name birostris means ‘two beaks’. This hornbill has a long, curved ivory-coloured beak that blackish at the base, and has a sharp, narrow protruding casque. Male and female birds look very similar, though the female is slightly smaller and has a less prominent casque. These hornbills are also smaller than the other hornbill species, growing up to half a metre in length.

Unlike the other colourful hornbill species found in India, the Indian grey hornbill, as its name indicates, is not brightly coloured. Instead, it has an ashy, silvery-grey body, with long tail feathers that end in a band of white. Adults have red eyes and the skin around the eyes is grey, while juveniles have brown-orange eyes with reddish-orange skin around; and beautiful eyelashes.

The Indian grey hornbill is primarily an arboreal bird. It flies with a rapid beating of its wings followed by a short glide. The pale edges on the wings and tail, and its long central tail feathers are noticeable when it is in flight. As they fly they give a series of short “kek-kek-kek” calls, and when they perch on trees they make a high-pitched squealing sound. The birds are usually seen in pairs or small groups. They feed mainly in canopies, but descend to the ground only to dust bathe, pick up mud pellets to seal their nest cavity, to pick up fallen fruit, or to hunt insects or reptiles.

The birds are fruit lovers, with fleshy figs and berries topping their list. They also feed on jamun, ber and neem fruits. A fruiting ficus tree is a popular partying spot for small flocks of grey hornbills. This love for fruits makes these birds important seed dispersers. Their diet also includes insects, reptiles, frogs and mice which they actively hunt. Some even feed on poisonous animals such as scorpions and snakes.

It is this adaptability in diet, as compared with other hornbills that are specialist feeders, that has enabled the Indian grey hornbill to inhabit a variety of landscapes, even close to human habitation.

The fruit-eating habit of hornbills is an important contributor to seed dispersal. Seed dispersal is vital as it ensures the propagation of trees. It also enables the trees to occupy new areas, thereby increasing green cover.

Hornbills are among the very few birds that can feed on fruits with large seeds. They digest only the fleshy parts of fruits that they swallow and then regurgitate the seeds, spitting them out, or defecating the seeds intact. As the hornbill flies from tree to tree, or during the nesting season flies back and forth over long distances to search for and carry food for its mate, the regurgitated cleaned seeds are dropped far and wide, enabling them to grow into trees far from the original trees from which they originated.  

Thus hornbills are important in keeping the forest alive. If we lose hornbills, many forest trees that depend on them to spread their seeds may eventually disappear from the forest too. Hornbills symbolise not only the health of a forest, but also a key to their continued survival.

All hornbills are cavity nesters. While they cannot build their own nests or dig cavities, they use existing holes in a variety of trees to make their nest. What makes all hornbills distinct is their unique nesting behaviour. The process begins during a month-long courtship when the male presents the female with food. As they embark on playful behaviour the pair also check out tree cavities to select their nesting site. Having done this, the two prepare the nest by cleaning it, creating the wall lining, and undertaking repair work. Once the nest is ready, the female prepares to confine herself in the nest while the male continues to prove his ability to provide for her needs by bringing food and nesting material. The female then seals the nest entrance with her own faeces, food and bark fragments, and mud pellets brought by the male. Only her beak protrudes out from the sealed nest. This helps to protect the eggs and chicks from predators. She lays her clutch of between two and five eggs and incubates them for over 20 days. Throughout this period the male diligently flies back and forth, feeding his mate through her protruding beak. While confined in the cavity the female moults all her feathers. The mother emerges from the nest shortly before the chicks themselves are ready to fly, and the chicks once again seal the nest from the inside, even as they continue to be fed. Now both the parents share in providing food and caring for the chicks. One of Nature’s many marvellous examples of nurturing the young.

This unique nesting habit of hornbills has also, in recent times, become a threat to the very existence of all species of hornbills. The fact that they use the same nests over the years makes it imperative to protect that their nesting trees, and the habitats where they grow. In the forests of northeast India the one of the biggest threats to these birds has been the destruction of this habitat by fragmentation, deforestation and clearance of forest regions for agriculture and dams. 

As the forests are being denuded, the hornbills are losing not just places to nest and breed; the loss of native trees also affects their diet, posing a significant threat to their survival.

A unique community-based initiative to protect nesting trees of hornbills is the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme spearheaded by the Nyishi tribe in the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. The tribe which traditionally hunted hornbills for their casque which were a symbol of their tribal identity have become active partners in protecting and conserving the hornbill nesting areas. The programme invites donors across the world to become ‘hornbill parents’ by adopting hornbill nests. The donations help pay salaries to the local community nest protectors who patrol the area, and ensure that the habitat continues to invite these birds. What an appropriate way to celebrate a bird that is, in its unique way, a diligent nest protector and parent.


Thanks for a Spelunking Time!

Humans and caves go back to the dawn of time. In popular media and imagination, people of the Palaeolithic era are cave-dwellers, armed with rocks and clothed in animal skins and furs. While it is true that human ancestors did live in caves in that period, these were probably not their predominant dwellings. But since bones, artefacts, weapons and paintings in caves are sheltered and preserve better, a lot of objects used by early humans are found there rather than anywhere else, giving rise to the perception that humans mostly inhabited caves.

Mawsmai Caves
Mawsmai Caves, Meghalya

Our fascination with caves is long-standing. These dark, mysterious places figure in many an adventure story. Aladdin for instance, found his magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders. The thieves in the Ali Baba story hid their treasures in a cave which opened with the famous spell ‘Open Sim Sim’. Pirates are often associated with caves, as are many children’s stories involving lions and tigers.

Most caves are formed by the dissolution of limestone. Why does this happen? Rainwater as it falls to the earth dissolves carbon dioxide that it encounters in the air it passes through. As this carbon-di-oxide laden water percolates through the soil, it turns into a weak acid. The acid slowly dissolves the limestone along the joints, planes and fractures in the soil to form cavities. Some of these cavities in time become large enough to form caves.

India has its share of breath-taking caves which are of interest from a geological standpoint as formations;  from the archaeological stand point in that they house ancient cave paintings and artefacts; and from an aesthetic and religious standpoint—as the home of fantastic carvings and temples.

The earliest evidence of humans in India have been found in the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, with some of the shelters showing evidence of being inhabited 1,00,000 years ago! The cave paintings here go back to about 8000 BC. The Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra have Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, with the oldest dating as far back as 2nd century BC! Badami, Elephanta, Amarnath and Borra are among other popular and highly-visited caves.

But Meghalaya may take the prize when it comes to caves. The Krem Liat Prah caves in the Jaintia Hills are listed among the longest caves in the world, with a length of 30,957 meters—and this is only the explored length! In fact, the top nine out of the ten longest and deepest caves in India are in Meghalaya!

Another interesting cave is the Siju Cave of the Garo Hills, also known as the Bat Cave, which spans over 4 kilometres long, but with nearly all of it is filled with underground streams and rivers, is not easy to explore.

During my recent visit to Meghalaya, we were able to visit three touristy caves (Mawsmai and Arwah caves, and the Garden of Caves at Laitmawsiang) which easily are accessible and not too difficult for even the inexperienced. And that gave me a small taste of what it would be to be a spelunker —a person who walks and climbs in caves as a sport (from the Latin spelunca, which in turn derives from Greek spelynx, both of which mean ‘cave’).

A lot of the work of discovering, exploring and bringing to light the caves of the state has been done by the Meghalaya Adventurer Association founded by Brain Dermot Kharpran Daly and his group of dedicated spelunkers.

But all is not well with the caves of Meghalaya. Limestone mining for the cement industry is a major threat to the caves. As one drives across the state, one can see hill after hill carved and hollowed out. In fact, this has already led several disasters including the collapse of the Krem Mawmluh Caves, the seventh-longest cave system of the state. Much of this mining is now illegal, but that does not mean it has stopped!

Is there nothing we can do to stop the depredation of these amazing structures that have formed over million years?


Bridging the Past and Future

Bridge-building brings to mind heavy equipment; tonnes of steel and concrete; engineers and overseers by the dozens. And lakhs of rupees.

Well, what if there were bridges which involve some rubber trees; centuries of traditional knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to another; and a lot of cooperation? And very little money.

And indeed there are such bridges by the dozens in Meghalaya. Built by the Khasi and Jaintia communities, the Living Root Bridges, locally known as Jingkieng Jri, play a key role in rural connectivity in the dense forest areas of the state, which are also among the wettest areas of the world (think Cherrapunji).

Living Root Bridge

The process begins with the planting of two rubber trees– Ficus elastica—one on either side of the river. These trees take about 10 years to grow and give rise to secondary aerial roots.  A bamboo scaffolding is created across the river, and these roots are woven together and trained onto to this to start creating the structure. The aerial roots thus grow across the river, and when they reach there, they are planted again on the opposite side. The roots along the scaffolding grow thicker and intertwine. The roots need to be guided to grow in the right direction for the next few decades, after which they can stand on their own.

The planning and engineering skills required to build these bridges is enormous– they often rise 50 to 100 feet in the air and may be as much as 175 feet in length. Many are ‘single-storey’ bridges, but there are ‘double-storey’ ones as well. They have always been built and cared for by the local communities, and the tradition continues.

The bridges need loving care—for instance, every two years, the bamboo scaffolding has to be changed since the moisture and humidity might damage it. Properly cared for, these can last for a hundred years and more.

These bridges have been around for centuries and are even today, about 100 are in use, connecting over 75 villages. While local communities use them for their normal day-to-day movement, these bridges are also now major tourist attractions. They also act as corridors for animals to safely cross the rivers—barking dear and clouded leopards have been recorded to use these bridges. The bridges support the growth of moss and provide a habitat for squirrels and other small animals, and nesting sites for birds.

The technique is used not just for making bridges but also other structures that are needed locally, for instance,  ladders and steps to provide a reliable mode of movement especially during the monsoon season; platforms and towers which serve as lookout points; erosion and landslide prevention structures to protect slopes and help in soil stabilization.

A true testimony to the patience, skill and cooperative spirit of the communities who build, use and care for them. And also to the effective methods of transmission of traditional knowledge, so that generation after generation is able to do this work effectively.

This sustainable and eco-friendly tradition has been recognized internationally. In fact, as of last year, the Living Roots Bridges or the Jingkieng Jris has been included in the UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage Site status.

I was lucky enough to see such a bridge and walk across it. It was an amazing experience. The one I visited was very accessible to tourists. But some other intrepid members of our group went to see a double-storey one, which involved six hours of trekking. And came back exhausted and with aches and pains in every joint. But they said that every pain, ache and stiff joint was worth it, and given half a chance, they would do it again!

So take the soft route or the hard, but if you can possibly see a Living Root Bridge, it will be a memorable experience.


On Orchids

For most of us:

Orchids = Rare

Orchids = Exotic

Orchids = Beautiful.

I recently went to Meghalaya where I visited an orchid park. And of course the variety and beauty of the orchids we saw were amazing. But when I tried to figure out a little bit more about these flowers, I found all the three equations mentioned above, which have been firmly planted in my mind for decades, to be false!

Orchids in fact belong to one of the top two most-common families of flowering plants on earth! This is the family Orchidaceae which comprises about 750 genera and close to 28,000 species!  So orchids are not rare!


The dictionary meaning of ‘exotic’ is ‘origination in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’. Actually, with their wide distribution, orchids may be among the least exotic flowers. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica. At least four species have been reported from north of the Arctic Circle. So orchids are not exotic in most parts of the world! 

And while most orchids are beautiful, there are some which are warty, bumpy, hairy and unbeautiful. In fact, the latest orchid to be discovered—the gastrodia agnicellus–from a forest in Madagascar, has been dubbed “the ugliest orchid in the world” by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom. It has been likened to a soul-sucking eyeless worm. While I am not very comfortable to have anything castigated so severely on the basis of looks, I have to admit after looking at pics of this flower, orchids are not always equal to beautiful!

Ok, easy enough to demolish myths. Now time to look at some facts.

To begin with, what are orchids? Orchids come in different sizes, different shapes, grow in different parts of the world. But the one characteristic which unities them, as well as differentiates them form other flowering plants, is the fusion of the male portion of the flower (stamen) with the  female portion (pistil), into one structure called the column—often visible protruding from the center. Orchids have three sepals and three petals, which all appear to be part of the flower. The middle petal is modified and is usually brightly coloured and exudes a scent.  

Orchids are among the oldest flowering plants known. A few years ago, Harvard University scientists discovered a fossilized bee carrying orchid pollen which dates back at least 15 million years. However, scientists speculate that orchids have been around much longer than that, maybe as much as 100 million years.


Orchids have the tiniest seeds in the world. A single seedpod can have up to 3 million seeds in it.  The seeds are so small they can only be seen under a microscope. The plants take about 5-7 years to bloom once germinated, and can live up to a hundred years.

Incidentally, the vanilla bean comes from a species of orchid.  It is the only orchid which is commercially grown and harvested, not for its flowers but its beans!

India has a vast orchid diversity—a total of 1256 species have been recorded, out of which 307 are endemic to the country. But our orchids are under pressure. This pressure mainly comes from illegal harvesting and exploitation for trade. Orchids are illicitly collected from the wild and traded as ornamental plants.

So yes, do get orchids for your home-garden. They will surely add a touch of colour and beauty (unless of course you choose the gastrodia agnicellus!). But make sure they are sourced ethically. For many of them are indeed under threat.


Underground Treasures: Tubers

This is the season of relishing a variety of underground edible delights. These are the root and tuber vegetables that are consumed in numerous ways, in a variety of dishes. In Gujarat these are celebrated in the undhiyu, a mix of winter vegetables led by several kinds of tubers including yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes, traditionally slow-cooked in an earthen pot. The winter season is also a multi-coloured celebration of root vegetables like carrots, beets, radish, turnip, fresh turmeric and ginger that add crunch, colour and flavour to salads, and sweets (carrot hawa!).

The distinction between tubers and roots is more botanical than culinary. Both root vegetable and tubers are geophytes, a botanical classification for plants with their growing point beneath the soil. All tubers fall under the root vegetable umbrella, but not all root vegetables are tubers. Root vegetables are aptly named because the meat of the crop is the root of the plant, growing downwards and absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. Above ground are the leaves, below ground, are the roots which are eaten as vegtables. Tubers, however, form at the base of the root. Tubers store energy and support new stem growth. You can get several tubers from one above-ground plant, while root crops will have one root vegetable from each plant.

The general belief is that tubers are starch heavy and difficult to digest. Many people feel very full after eating tubers. In fact, the complex carbohydrates found in tubers balance the glucose levels in blood, and help remain full for a longer period, thereby prevent cravings and overeating.  While they do contain more carbohydrates than protein, tubers are a rich source of essential nutrients—vitamins (especially vitamin C), minerals like copper, manganese and potassium, and beneficial enzymes. They are also high in fibre that helps to keep the digestive and excretory system healthy. 

Indigenous people all over the world have traditionally consumed a variety of local tubers to supplement their diet as a balanced and healthy food source. In the Andean region of South America, tuber-forming or storage root crops have been continuously domesticated from wild ancestors and improved via selection and breeding during centuries by the local indigenous people. Some have been used as part of traditional medicine for their healing properties. Tubers thus provided food security as they could survive the vagaries of weather conditions, especially drought.

Tubers are slowly attracting attention again for all these reasons. Tubers are packed with nutrition, but majorly neglected in our diets. They are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, and are chemical-free unlike most fruits and vegetables. Unlike other food, tubers survive for three-four months after being pulled out of the soil.

Realising their multi-faceted potential for a hunger-free world, the Food and Agriculture Organization has categorised tubers like the sweet potato, along with pulses and millets, as Future Smart Food (FSF). 

However with the spread of monocultures and new varieties of cereal crops, as well as accessibility and popularity of other vegetables, over time the genetic as well as nutritional properties of tubers have been largely forgotten or neglected.

This is what motivated Shaji NM, a farmer from Kerala to take on a one-man crusade to save and celebrate tubers. Shaji grew up in a family of farmers that often resorted to subsisting on a diet of different tubers that they cultivated, or collected from the nearby forest, when they could not afford any other food grain. While Shaji himself became familiar, early on, with a variety of tubers, as he grew he saw that these were slowly being forgotten as the market became flooded with cereals and vegetables from far and wide. He also realized that while traditionally most farmers had cultivated some tubers in their fields, these were being increasingly replaced by the cultivation of cash crops like pepper, cardamom, nutmeg. Shaji felt that he needed to do something to protect and preserve tuber varieties before they disappeared altogether. And thus began a mission that has been continuing for almost two decades now. 

Shaji began travelling across Kerala to look for wild tubers. He went deep into the forests to meet the local tribal communities. It is here that he discovered a variety of wild yams and other tubers that were part of their traditional diet, grown in small patches near their homes, or collected from the forest. These were not grown nor available commercially. Shaji saw that many such varieties were on the verge of disappearing and he began to collect the seeds of all the varieties that he came across. He brought the seeds back and started growing these on his own one acre of land. But he also began to give the seeds back to the local communities, encouraging them to cultivate these and include these in their diet.

Today Shaji has accumulated a rich basket of tuber species. Greater yam, lesser yam, elephant foot yam, arrowroot, colocasia, sweet potato, tapioca, Chinese potato are just a few among the over 200 varieties of tubers that he grows on his small farm named Kedaram that means ‘cultivation’ in Malayalam. Shaji’s passion has extended to preserving other endangered plant varieties as well. He cultivated over 52 varieties of indigenous and traditional rice varieties, 100 varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as medicinal plants. With a small fish farm, rearing of honey bees and a few cows and goats, Shaji has demonstrated the enormously rich potential of even a small landholding.

Shaji organizes a seed festival at his farm every year. He generously gives away, for free, the seeds of tubers and rice to others who want to cultivate these with the strict condition that the people return the same amount of seeds they take from him once they harvest the crop. This helps to ensure that the seeds are properly cultivated.

Shaji N.M., a truly grassroots biodiversity champion, strives to spread his mission every way he can from personal interactions, to technology like Facebook to connect and train farmers. The Tuber Man of India as he is popularly called has been recognized for his efforts through several state and national level awards.  He was awarded the India Biodiversity Award 2021 in the individual category of Conservation of Domesticated Species.

I will certainly relish my undhiyu with more respect this year!



Aquarium Alert

Last week, a huge aquarium housed in a Berlin hotel burst. Water, about 1500 fish, and debris flowed across the street causing chaos and slightly injuring two people. It was early in the morning, otherwise the 1 million litres of water pouring out from the aquarium might have led go many more injuries.

The AquaDom which burst was a star attraction of a complex with hotels, cafes and shops. It is supposed to have been the biggest cylindrical tank in the world. It is still not clear why the aquarium cracked when it did. It is speculated that the sudden overnight fall in temperature—it went down to -10c that night—may have caused in the acrylic glass tank to crack, which then led to its exploding under the weight of the water.

There were about 1500 fish of 80 species housed in the tank, of which most died. Just a few fish which were at the bottom survived.

Aquaria have never been easy to construct or maintain. Quite apart from managing the engineering challenges of building a structure that can hold the huge weight of water,, the design of these structures must take into account the requirements of the different types of creatures they house, since modern aquariums include all types of aquatic organisms: mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates as well as fishes in one exhibit. And what the tank is made of also requires thought–many substances, especially plastics and adhesives which are nontoxic to humans, are toxic to water-breathing animals.

Maintenance issues include problems such as water clarity, dissolved wastes, temperature, tank decor, disease treatment, and nutrition. And then of course, the glass has to be such that it does not reflect, so that visitors can see the creatures. Further, the structure has to be acoustically properly designed.

Maintaining water quality is critical of course—first and foremost, the inlet water must be free of pollutants including sewage and industrial wastes.  In fact, chlorine and other additives have been removed from water before it can be used for this purpose. The gaseous equilibrium of the water with the atmosphere has to be maintained to ensure adequate oxygen and to avoid super-saturation with nitrogen. Provision for  purification of metabolic wastes is of course critical.

Even addition of plants to an aquarium has to be done with care. Since aquaria are usually kept in bright light for many hours, the plants there photosynthesize much more, and the balance of carbon di oxide and oxygen and water in the water goes awry unless carefully balanced.

India never did have an AquaDom equivalent, but the Taraporewala Aquarium in Mumbai has a hoary history. It is the oldest aquarium in the country, and was opened by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India in 1951.

Taraporewala Aquarium

The cost of building at that time was about ₹8 lakhs, of which ₹2 lakhs came from a Parsi philanthropist D. B. Taraporewala. So the government graciously named this aquarium after him.

It has over 100 species of fish and other aquatic animals like sharks, seahorses and turtles. The collection consists of freshwater, marine and tropical fishes brought from across the world.

It was a major tourist attraction for locals and tourists. And to keep up with the times and modernize the exhibits, it went through a major renovation less than 10 years ago.

However, construction work undertaken for the Mumbai Coastal Road project may likely have weakened the 70-year-old building and it was feared to be structurally unsafe. An audit was carried out in March 2022. Based on this, the government was to decide whether to repair the structure, re-construct it, or shift the aquarium from its location on Marine Drive to another location at Worli.

As of now, sadly the Aquarium is closed, and it is not clear what the government has decided.

Fish are probably low down on the priority list of policy-makers and decision-makers.


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.”