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

Gulandi

It was mid November and drizzling all day in Bangalore . Were the Gods crying to see another God (Sachin Tendulkar)  retiring ? Or maybe they shed tears because they don’t have such an option 😉 Well, whether or not they were crying, the effect was on the temperature.  I cuddled up inside my blanket, feeling  toasty, shuddering to think of how cold Bharatpur would be in two weeks’ time.

Bharatpur wasn’t cold at all, by its own standards. We didn’t need our jackets, although it was early December. Trying out a couple of rides on the cycle rickshaws, we decided to walk around the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (read “Kevalaadev”). With all the walking, cold went out of my dictionary.

BharatpurPanorama1

Click for a larger view of the panorama

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is an extremely picturesque place with different types of habitats. Towards afternoon, we walked towards the grassland area. The migratory birds were not in great numbers, maybe because it wasn’t cold enough. We thought of stopping for a brief fruit-break, to eat some Kinnow, a citrus fruit with a striking resemblance to orange fruit. Our guide hushed us and pointed to the bushes.

Indian Bush RatThere it was, one of the cutest looking rodents. We settled down a few meters away, taking care not to have any sudden movements, and watched the nibbler in action.

It would pick a leaf, nibble, run back into the bush. It would come out almost immediately, pick another leaf and go karrum-kurrum on it. We “Whatsapp”ed a picture to a very knowledgeable friend, who instantly identified it as the Indian Bush Rat (Golunda ellioti).

_46A3488I saw Shyamal‘s edit on Wikipedia about the genus name being derived from Kannada’s local name of Gulandi. [Sugandhi suddenly realized it rhymes with her name. Now, please don’t tease Gullu too much about it ;)]

One of the papers referred to in the wiki mentions its Tamil name as Utu-elli. Sugandhi and I have been trying to find Kannada books referring to this rodent, and our search continues. Some books on Coorg coffee have referred to it as the Coffee Rat, a pest coffee-growers are wary of.

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Harriers (birds of prey) and snakes feed on the Indian Bush Rat. One of the studies carried out on the Jungle Cat, Caracal and the Golden Jackal indicates Golunda ellioti as their most important prey. The statistics: it forms 47% of total rodent intake in Jungle Cat, 40% in Caracal and 56% in Golden Jackal. These numbers show how important this little fellow is in the food chain, at least for all of these predators. The Indian Bush Rat is widely distributed in India, the only existing member of its genus Golunda. 

Here’s an interesting note from an old report on coffee estates in Coorg. It says the Coffee Rat is seen in huge numbers in one season and sometimes disappears for years. The native people believe and attribute the cause to bamboo seeds! The rat feeds on bamboo seeds, apart from other plants. Now, bamboo flowers once in forty years or sixty years. With so much food available then, the rats are also available in plenty to feed on the seeds! When they finish consuming all of this food stock, they move on to other delicacies, like coffee.

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Rana

References:

Ambika Kamath

The interrelationships between behaviour, morphology, and habitat

SANDRP

South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

myriadmurmurs

MEENAKSHI POTI

Blah Ka Nas

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daktre.com

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Reconciliation Ecology

a leaf warbler's gleanings

Jungles of India

by Vidya Venkatesh

life is beautiful

...coz I am in Love with myself...

digitalfilms

a blog by Oliver Peters

Ecology Students' Society

Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science

Karthik's Journal

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Sandesh Kadur

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Catching Flies

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Gowrishankar's Blog

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