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



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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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?




Regurgitate !

Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others – Benjamin Franklin

Our Chemistry lecturer in college was quoting this line quite often. I forget why this was one of his favorites, but I sure do remember it every time I come across an extremely ‘generous’ host. I had visited a friend’s home for some work, on a summer afternoon, after a heavy weekend lunch. His mother offered me a plate of ‘thaTTe’ idlis, the b.i.g kind. I politely refused, stating nothing but the truth that I had just had my fill. She returned my refusal, equally politely. The plate remained with me. I could feel my eyes swelling up – I am not used to having 2 big meals, one right after the other. How I wished I never had to go there. How I wished she wasn’t such a ‘nice’ lady. How I wished I had the powers of a bird of prey! I could’ve just regurgitated a pellet then, and be done with this traumatic experience 😉

But then, many birds of prey regurgitate – for a different reason and not because they are force-fed. Birds don’t have teeth and they swallow their food, either all of it shortEaredOwlLookingAroundor in parts. In some cases, predators would tear their prey into pieces and swallow them, one by one. In go the skull, hair, feathers, bones, fur; some of these are undigested or partially digested. After digesting the rest of the meal, the birds would regurgitate undigested or partially digested material in the form of pellets. Neat!

And how cool it is to see a

Mascara-lined captivating eyes of the Short Eared Owl

Mascara-lined captivating eyes of the Short Eared Owl

bird actually do that! At the Little Rann of Kutch, India, Rana and I headed to a grassland and saw a group of Short Eared Owls. The group was distributed across the land, with each owl choosing to rest under a different tree. They were just beautiful, with eyes so captivating that we couldn’t take our eyes off them. Wikipedia has given a very interesting description about the black rings around the eyes. They look like Mascara! Sigh, some creatures seem to have everything nice, and for free ! They have tufts of feathers that resemble ‘ears’ and hence, they get their name.

Click on the images for a larger version.

One such owl sat oreadyToRegurgitaten the ground, looked up and down, and suddenly opened its mouth wide. Out popped a neatly packed pellet and the owl went about its routine. How many things can you appreciate about one moment – the bird itself, its Mascara-lined eyes, the fact that it chose that very moment to regurgitate? 🙂

Short Eared Owl regurgitating a pellet

Short Eared Owl regurgitating a pellet

Pellet on the ground

These pellets are not just cute-looking packages, but also a wealth of information. Researchers gather pellets and other tell-tale signs around roosting sites of birds. A roosting site is where a bird would perch on or rest at, during night. The bones, hair and other items found in a pellet would help in finding out what the prey was, and in turn, give clues about the birds roosting there. In addition to this, there maybe feathers or other signs to add to the findings.shortEaredOwlHabitat

It is a pity that such beautiful creatures are being traded, abused, killed. Here are some reports related to the illegal owl trade in India, including having them as pets. I quote a line from one of the links: Owls are as important to our ecosystem as the Tigers or any other better known charismatic species. The least we can do is just let them be.

I am so fascinated by owls, I just got myself one, legally – here is an image of my new acquisition. I do hope that we get to continue to see and hear owls being free, being in the wild, rather than in these forms.




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