Sarus

The_Killing_of_Krouncha_Heron

By Balasaheb Pratinidhi (Chitra Ramayana) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The death of a bird led to the birth of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Sage Valmiki headed out to take a dip in the river Tamasa. He decided to take a stroll before his bath, soaking in nature’s beauty. A little distance away were two birds, a male and female, completely engrossed in one other. Even as the sage watched, a hunter’s arrow killed the male. Overcome with grief (shoka), Valmiki uttered these words, which, even to his surprise, came out as a shloka – a verse perfect in rhyme and rhythm – and was the first ever Sanskrit verse.

मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥

mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam

http://ozcranes.net/images/valmiki.jpg

Source: ozcranes.net

Melchior_de_Hondecoeter_Birds_in_a_Park_1680

A Pelican and Other Birds Near a Pool, known as ‘The Floating Feather

The verse roughly translates to, “Oh hunter, may you repent for life and suffer, find no rest or fame, for you have killed one of the unsuspecting, devoted and loving krauñcha couple.” Of the several interpretations, one says the hunter is the demon Ravana, who separated the loving couple, Sita and Rama.

My Sanskrit teacher in school, Mrs. Sulabha V Hubli, explained ma nishada in great detail with its many meanings and interpretations, imprinting the epic scene on my memory. A few months ago, I had attended Shyamal’s talk, where he discussed Melchior de Hondecoeter’s 1680 artwork, Het drijvend veertje, one of the most accurate representations of the Sarus Crane. The Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) at the center of the frame got me thinking about this verse again.

Was it the Sarus that Valmiki referred to? In different literature, the  krauñcha has been described as a dove, flamingo, swan, snipe, curlew or even a Demoiselle Crane. The wiki for Demoiselle Crane has a reference to krauñcha and Valmiki. However, more recent studies have established the identity of Valmiki’s krauñcha pair as Sarus Cranes.

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Sarus Cranes in a grassland, Keoladeo National Park

As the story goes, the female lamented with a pitch and tonal quality so deep in emotion, that compassion welled up within Valmiki. Julia Leslie’s paper, A bird bereaved, does an exhaustive study of the verse, considering thirty two separate species, and eliminating all but one, the Sarus Crane.

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Sarus Cranes in Keoladeo National Park

Literature says the name Sarus came from the Sanskrit word sarasa, pertaining to lake, water. Sarasa explains the habitat of the crane – wetlands, grasslands, marshes and [un]cultivated fields. Another study talks about the word relating to any crane or waterfowl, but it also translates to crying or calling out.  In Tamil, the word sarasa is closely related to dance – which relates to the “dancing” movements of these birds, not only during the breeding season. They are famous for their fascinating display, with perfect poise and calling in unison. They jump, bow and circle around, stand in front of each other, swinging their necks. One may jump and descend flapping its wings. Oh, how I wish I could see this someday 🙂

We did see this graceful pair foraging in the fields at Lesser Rann of Kutch. How time flew, we never realized, for they were a treat to watch. That they decided to call, was an icing on the cake.

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http://indiapicks.com/Indianart/Images_MP/Mughal_Cranes.jpg

Source: Gallery of Indian miniature paintings, National Museum, New Delhi

While Valmiki’s Ramayana gave a poetic introduction to the tallest flying birds, Emperor Jehangir pioneered in noting its behavioral ecology and natural history, in early 17th century. Again, one of his notes also refers to a crane’s pining, its mournful notes, after its mate was predated. Although all cranes bond for life, it is the Sarus that is a symbol of marital fidelity. The Emperor was so interested in these cranes that he had also gold-ringed a few of them on their noses and legs!

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An etymology of krauñcha says that it is the one that gives out calls. This bird with its grey plumage is described as the one with the red head (raktamoordha). In fact, Valmiki’s description of  tamra sirsa (coppery head) aided in identifying the krauñcha in his story.

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There are references to instances where bereaved Sarus Cranes have pined away to death. You may call this poignant episode and the female lamenting as anthropomorphic. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. All I can say is,  most of mankind has transformed into a more vicious form of the hunter of Valmiki’s story. To make our lives better – be it in the form of more money, better infrastructure, real estate, agriculture – we destroy  homes of not only the Sarus Crane, but of many other wild citizens. We kill them without giving a second thought. The Sarus Crane will continue to lament. There are people who narrate those stories. But will the audience read, listen and care?

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Sugandhi

References

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18 Comments

  1. December 2, 2015 at 8:18 am

    An excellent blog ! Well researched ! Congratulations.

  2. deponti said,

    December 2, 2015 at 11:51 am

    Very informative and interesting post. I’ve learnt so much about the Sarus, in fact and legend. Deepa.

  3. akshatakaranth said,

    December 2, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    What a fantastic post!

  4. GT said,

    December 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Lovely writeup and photos Sugandhi / Rana …. awesome…i did not know the valmiki’s story…

    • belurs said,

      December 5, 2015 at 7:46 am

      Thanks GT! The story became that much more interesting after learning the identity of the bird 🙂

  5. Priya Suresh said,

    December 2, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Nice parallel drawn from Ramayana…good read Sugandhi!

  6. Ravi Maganti said,

    December 2, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Par excellence. A story weaved across eons and so pertinent now!

  7. Bhawani Singh said,

    December 2, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Very nice photos along with nice writeup.
    A nice way to connect the recent of photos of bird (sarus) with history.

    • belurs said,

      December 5, 2015 at 7:44 am

      Thanks a bunch Bhawani, glad you liked it 🙂

  8. Sudhakar said,

    December 3, 2015 at 4:13 am

    Excellent article Sugandhi. Amazaingly insightful and well written

  9. Amitabha Saha Roy said,

    December 6, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Beautifully written ! Loved the comparison of Valmiki’s verse to the modern day. Some things are timeless – like man’s greed…


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