My friend asked me a question; Where are the statesmen? Where have they all gone? For the sake of some clarity, I defined statesmen as people who were highly respected for their integrity, were highly ethical and moral and showed long-term vision for their people and countries and spent their lives in helping their people achieve that vision and not in amassing personal wealth. When I did my back-of-the-envelope analysis to see when this lifeform existed, I came to the period 1800’s-2000’s; a period of roughly 200 years. To give this a more appreciable face, take Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of this period and Nelson Mandela as the last statesman standing. With his death in 2013, they became extinct. So, what happened? What went wrong? How is it that there was a time when like the Woolly Mammoth, statesmen walked the earth but today they don’t. How is it that they failed to reproduce their kind? Is it because like the climate change that killed off the Mammoths; cultural, psychological climate change, made statesmen of the like of Lincoln and Mandela, perhaps icons to worship but not to emulate?
I did a back-of-the-envelope recall of history. What I have is as follows: Starting from the beginning of recorded history, we have states which were the property of rulers and their families. These rulers amassed wealth through conquest. It was a simple grab-what-you-can strategy, aided by ever more powerful weapons and military organization and tactics. That gave rise to the so-called ‘Great Conquerors’ starting with Alexander of Macedonia, and on to Julius and Augustus Caesars of Rome, Cyrus of Persia, Pharaohs of Egypt, Umayyads (Abbasids didn’t do any conquests), Genghis and his sons and grandsons, Ottomans, Saffavids, Moghuls, Spanish, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, the Vatican (directly and indirectly) and the list goes on. All of them did one thing very well; i.e. wage war. They looted, plundered and colonized. Revenue sources for them were two; immediate plunder of warfare followed by taxation of the subject people. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘spoils of war’. War spoils. Never builds. All this continued to World War I and in a slightly different way, since nation states had by then taken the stage, it continued until World War II.
to be noted here is that the purpose of all war was conquest of territory, loot
and subsequent tax revenue. In some cases, this was open and blatant. In others
it was called ‘civilizing barbarians’, ‘Holy War’, ‘Crusade’, ‘White man’s
burden’ and so on. Soldiers benefited both from the spoils of war which they
looted on their own and what the ruler dished out when the counting was done.
In the case of most rulers, their people were given land in the conquered
territory and settled there as a prize of war for them and as a safety measure
for the rulers. In the case of the Roman Empire as well as many others, this
significantly changed the demography of the region and enabled better policing
of those territories as well as tax collection. In short therefore, rulers
ruled and amassed wealth because their people were willing to support them at
the cost of their life if necessary, in exchange for the crumbs from the table.
World Wars, came the period of decolonization. Freedom struggles started in all
colonies. Some won their freedom after long, protracted and bloody conflict.
Other colonies were freed because they were no longer financially viable to
maintain as they had been bled dry and now the colonizing countries had to
spend their own money to maintain the colony. So, they granted them ‘freedom’.
These freedom struggles shifted the focus of people from materialism (amassing
wealth through conquest) to higher goals of freedom, nation building, social
change and realigning values. People had to and were ready to submit their
personal aspirations to the higher goals of nationalism and patriotism. Freedom
is heady stuff. It was during this period that we see the likes of Lincoln and
Mandela; my two symbols of the kind of leader that one can call ‘statesman’ and
not merely ‘politician’. There were others but these will suffice for this discussion
especially as they bracket the period between 1800 and 2000.
with the wars and in many ways fueled by them, the Industrial Revolution
metamorphosed into the military industrial complex that we are familiar with
today, producing myriad products and services for mass consumption. Apart of
course from weapons of war. People needed funds to buy stuff and that fueled the banking
system. It is not that there were no banks before World War II. Banking was well
established with almost the same financial instruments from the time someone
had money and someone else needed it. Jesus spoke about the bankers and money
lenders. Shakespeare wrote about them. The Roman Empire ran its entire commerce
through bankers. Medieval European monarchs, to a man (or woman) were in debt
up to their gills. But after the World Wars and successful freedom struggles, banks
became accessible to the common man and woman through what we know as
‘Commercial banking’. Money was made available, not for any altruistic reasons,
but because owners of products needed a market for their produce and banks
enabled those whose desires (or needs) exceeded their means, to achieve those
desires by enslaving themselves to a payment schedule for the rest of their
lives. That kept them out of trouble as they were too busy paying to worry
about anything else, which suited those who ruled the roost. Rome invented the
circus. We invented Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood. Both serve the same
purpose. Keep people distracted and steer thought into the channels that the
establishment wants them to think along. Add to this all the TV shows, football,
cricket, shopping, advertising, social media, FB algorithms; all things that I don’t
think I need to explain to anyone today. But do reflect on them to understand
how you and I are fish on the end of the hook, enjoying the taste of the bait,
not realizing that we are there for one reason only; to be reeled in for the
fisherman’s sport and profit. Shopping, sports and sex are the formula from the
beginning of recorded history to keep the population subjected, distracted and
interesting thing is if you look at the demographic of the rulers, you will see
that it has not changed at all, except perhaps for the kind of clothes they
wear. That changed from chainmail covered by ermine and mink, to business
suits. The ‘mailed fist’ became more symbolic but no less lethal. Pre-World
Wars and down through the colonial period, the ‘ruling class’ was a small group
of men (with the very rare woman) who ruled with only one motive; personal
profit. The cost didn’t matter at all. If it meant annihilating an entire
population (Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals,
Hottentots, Bushmen, 2 million Indians…not end of list), then it was done by
whatever means it took ranging from arranging a famine to smallpox infected
blankets to simply separating the head from the body. Millions of Africans were
enslaved and transported across the ocean to give their life and blood to build
someone else’s nation. The list of what was done in the name of profit is well
documented for the one who is interested in reading. It is not my purpose to go
into it here.
profit motive continues, though the means have changed. Now the chains are
greed and debt. The result is the same i.e. profit for the ruling class. That
is why things that are clearly harmful to society are legal and are sold at a
premium. I mean all kinds of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes,
tobacco products, human bodies, gambling in many forms, the latest being
football and cricket, porn (including child porn) … once again an endless list.
Consumer perception is manipulated and influenced to make them buy this or that
product and buy more. The infamous pharma racket is a case in point among many
others. All to make profit, which is the final decider. I can’t forget to
mention the biggest of them all, manufacture and sale of weapons of mass
destruction. That is by far the most profitable which gives the best ROI. That is
the reason there is more money invested in death than in life; in weapons
research and manufacture than in cancer research and cure. When production and
sale of weapons of mass destruction is a mainstay of the economy then all
values, morals and peace vanish behind the smoke of bursting bombs and burning
homes. Manufacturing weapons of mass destruction is the most immoral,
despicable and abhorrent thing to do and has no moral justification. It must be
stopped. It is the only reason for wars and as long as it exists wars will happen,
and peace will remain an illusion. When
people who go to work in these factories turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what
their effort, energy, intelligence and industry are creating and do it in the
name of supporting their families, we must know that there is something very
seriously wrong with our society.
hold on, nothing is wrong. It is business as usual. Wars happens because wars
make profit. Peace doesn’t happen because peace doesn’t make profit. Hate sells
because hate makes profit. Love doesn’t sell, because love doesn’t make profit.
It is not about good or evil. It is about profit. Whatever makes profit is
good. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t. It may not be called ‘evil’, but it certainly
won’t get any traction, funding, facetime, airtime or any kind of time. That is
why global warming, water conservation, clean drinking water, alternate energy,
poverty alleviation are all dragging and will continue to drag because they
don’t make profit.
all this have to do with statesmen, which is the subject of this essay?
It is my
conclusion that the world hasn’t changed very much, if at all from the
beginning of recorded history to the present moment. The ‘Statesmen Period’,
was a brief interlude thanks to some special circumstances while the ruling
class changed their ‘clothes’. When they were done, they took charge once
again. They moved from direct control by military conquest to indirect (but
equally strong) control through debt. The latter has proved to be even more
profitable because it obviates the necessity of spending money to administer
another land, collect taxes, fight insurgency from time to time, maintain your
own administrators and myriad other elements of colonization. Much easier and
cost effective to allow local rulers to do your work and we don’t pay for their
sins. Taxes are replaced by sale markup with the benefit that the population
gladly and willingly pays out, while they resent being taxed. Losing colonies
worked out very well, thank you very much. All you need to do is build
attractive tax-collection centers, aka Shopping Malls and revenue flows in. However,
where the inflow of revenue is threatened for any reason by anyone, the mailed
fist does the job. When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Fredrick
Bastiat. Armies cross borders to open the doors of commerce. While they are
there, they help themselves to whatever they can; a well-known soldier’s
prerogative. Compliant local rulers are supported and protected, no matter how
brutal or corrupt they may be. Non-compliant rulers are removed, very publicly
and brutally, both to clear the blockage as well as to demonstrate to potential
aspirants what their fate would be if they dared to buck the system. As
Fredrick Bastiat once again said, ‘When plunder becomes a way of life, men
create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that
became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.
hasten to mention what we can all see clearly, ‘the people’ are very happy with
the current system. The beauty of materialism is that like cigarette smoking,
the gratification is instantaneous while the harm is invisible. You draw the
smoke into your lungs and feel so refreshed and relaxed while some more alveoli
are filled with carbon and your lungs are primed for cancer. Only, you can’t
see it happening, so it is easy to ignore, especially since you are addicted to
smoking. We are all addicted to materialism, violence, promiscuity,
sensationalism, instant gratification of desire. We are blind to the harm this
does to us personally as well as to our society. We don’t care that our way of
life is disastrous for those who share this planet with us, animals, birds,
insects, or even the earth, air and water. We simply don’t care.
heroes are those who make the most profit. I challenge you to ask anyone to
name the top five leaders that he/she admires, and I will guarantee you that it
will be businessmen. Buffet, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Dell – or some such
combination, but businessmen. Ask what about them that they admire, and they
will mention net worth. Which means the money they have. Not their character, learning,
wisdom, compassion or anything else. Just the amount of money they have. I have
asked this question umpteen times. Not once did anyone mention a great
scientist, social activist, philosopher, theologian, scholar, poet, dramatist,
artist, surgeon, astronaut, researcher or teacher. It is as if such people and their
contribution have no value. By our choices, we have trashed centuries of contribution
that ennobles us and raises us from merely grubbing for money. None of the
qualities which make us uniquely human seem to count. Only money. Only profit.
We don’t see any need for statesmen.
But do we need statesmen and women, whether or not we see the need for them?
question to ask in this context is, ‘Was the world a better place when Abraham Lincoln
and Mandela were in positions of power or when George Bush (and now Donald Trump)
and Jacob Zuma were in power?’
I say we
need statesmen like an alcoholic needs a deaddiction clinic. The alcoholic
won’t accept it, but without it he will die and take his family down with him.
We need people who are not focused on profit alone but who can show us how we can
gain quality of life by focusing on ethics, values and morals. The challenge is
to demonstrate this in ways that will still make profit for them. Statesmen
happened because circumstances enabled, even enforced, the natural selection of
the best to deal with the great goal of freedom. As I said, freedom is heady,
and it is a goal that people are willing to work for. Political freedom we may
have achieved. But freedom from poverty, corruption, discrimination, injustice,
oppression are all goals which remain on the horizon, unachieved. What we need is
statesmen (and women) who will address these goals and enable us, as a global
society, to achieve them. If circumstances create statesmen, I submit that
those circumstances exist even today. If only we can recognize and address
them. The tragedy is that as in my analogy about smoking, instead of recognizing
that materialistic pursuit of profit at any cost as the cancer it is, we seem have
created a mindset where it has become an aspirational goal. That is why I suggested
the test of asking about who our icons are. That will tell us what we aspire to
Today the challenge is to bring about a change in perception where people learn to see the benefit (profit in perhaps non-monetary terms) in compassion, justice, empowering the weak, alleviating poverty, education, public health, alternate energy, husbanding resources, conservation and such world building (not merely nation building) goals. It is to inspire and lead this new effort that we need statesmen and women. When we begin to see that we are all interconnected in a very real sense and that we can only swim together or we will sink, that we will hopefully be prepared to change the destructive lifestyles that we have become used to. Aspiring statesmen and women must invent ways to convince people to make this change. For that they must first believe and then they must lead by example. Each statesman is guided by his/her religious/nonreligious philosophy. Therefore, it all depends on which philosophy is guiding him/her. Statesmanship can be constructive/destructive. It all depends whether destructiveness will be called statesmanship! The world listens with its eyes. It doesn’t care what you say until it sees what you do. Statesmanship is about creating a need for value-based leadership and then fulfilling it. Statesmanship therefore must begin within ourselves. Within our families and neighborhoods. We need to inculcate values of care and concern, kindness and compassion, the willingness to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and to find personal fulfillment in it. We must understand that it is uniquely human to work to help others who can’t help us and to work for a time that we will not live to see. After all, that is the definition of vision. Given access to technology and open source material, I believe that all that a child needs today are literacy and numeracy. That takes less than one year of learning. After that the child has access to anything in the world that he or she wants to explore. To decide what that should be, the child needs a value system, a criterion for judgment and decision making. That is why value education is so critical. That is why skills of critical thinking, decision making, communication, conflict resolution and a sense of trusteeship are so essential. Sadly, almost nobody teaches them in any school curriculum and even more sadly both parents and people running schools, don’t see the need. Children are the voiceless victims of their elders’ apathy.
what must change. The statesman within must be nurtured and allowed to flower
so that appreciable change can happen in the world. The reality is that true
happiness doesn’t lie in a shopping mall or buying stuff or in consumerism. It lies
in seeing the smile on a face where you had seen tears a little while earlier
and to know that you were the reason for that change. That is truly inspiring,
motivating and satisfying.
Sunset from Manjapettai – Lower Sheikalmudi
One day we were at dinner in my bungalow in Lower Sheikalmudi when suddenly I noticed an orange glow in the sky. It looked like a brilliant sunset, but we were a long time past sunset. It was so marked that I got up and walked out on the veranda to see what it was. What I saw is a sight that I will never forget and which I hope I will never see again. It was like a picture out of a war movie. Sheikalmudi factory, which was probably about four km away as the crow flies, was enveloped in the brightest and biggest fire that I have ever seen. From where I stood on my veranda, I could see flames shooting high above its roof which was three stories above the ground. Tea factories that were built by the British planters were made primarily of wood, bolted over a steel structure. This wood was old and weathered and burnt with a vengeance. Fire was always a hazard and something that we took very seriously. Obviously something had gone very badly wrong and here was the grandmother of all fires, way beyond control.
I grabbed my coat and drove my bike like a racer and reached Sheikalmudi in record time, going hell for leather over dark unpaved field roads. Mercifully, the ride itself was uneventful. When I reached the factory, I parked my bike some distance away and ran to the fire. Lots of people had come to see a sight that thankfully most never see in their lifetimes. The manager of Sheikalmudi, Mr. S. M. Taher, a dear friend was standing by with tears in his eyes, watching his factory burn down. I stood by him. The heat was so intense that we were forced to stand at a distance. As the higher floors burned through, fan motors from the leaf withering lofts started to fall like meteors. The force of impact was so tremendous that in places it cracked the concrete floor. Steel girders got soft with the heat and twisted and bent under their own weight into strange snaky shapes. Every time the fire found something that burned more brightly there would be a huge flare and a lick of flame would reach for the sky.
There was no lighting and neither was there need for any. The fire lit up our whole world in its eerie orange glow. I dare not call it beautiful because it destroyed something that had stood for almost a century. But then, it was beautiful in its own way. A transitory beauty that belied its real destructive power. Among the first people to reach there after I did was Mr. Saleem Shareef who had seen the fire from his estate Uralikal, which was much farther away. He came as fast as he could to try to help in any way he could. This was the code of the planter. We all went to each other’s aid, no matter who it was and no matter how far we had to go and no matter that we may actually not be able to do anything concrete. To stand by the side of a friend is to fill an invaluable space.
In this case there were literally hundreds of people gathered but nothing that anyone could do to put the fire out. As I stood there, watching this sight, the thing that I was most conscious about was my own helplessness. The fire was so big and powerful that there was simply no way to put it out. We had tried everything already. All the fire extinguishers that we could reach had been used up. The ones inside the factory simply melted in the heat. There was no Fire Service to call. We were left to our own resources to fight the fire. And we had none other than a garden hose which was less than useless. All we could do was to stand by and watch. It was a sense of helplessly bearing witness to destruction that we had no power to halt. Today as I read about world events (2002-19 and still watching), I am reminded of that night. Standing by and watching something that was so valuable to us, burn to the ground, with no power to stop it.
But despite that we could not imagine leaving the place until the fire itself had gone cold and all that was left was a black pile of debris, soot, and ash. It was sacrilege to leave and not stand by to bear witness to the end of the life of Sheikalmudi factory. It was like being next to a dying friend. How could you possibly leave? Somehow just the standing by seemed to have some meaning in itself and gave us a sense of parting that those who had not been able to come by that night, did not have.
Fires and estates are companions. Not surprising given the combination of people who smoke and don’t always bother to put out their cigarettes, and forests with semi deciduous trees that regularly carpet the floor with their leaves every summer. We used to take a lot of preventive steps including clearing fire boundaries where we would clear a wide swathe of ground of all undergrowth and leaves and keep it swept clean so that even if a fire started it could be contained. We had also constructed water tanks and dammed streams to create small reservoirs, which would be useful if we needed water in a hurry to put out a fire. These reservoirs were also very useful as watering holes for wildlife in the summer and a source of endless delight for my dear friend, Berty and me to watch the animals as they came down to drink.
One day late in the afternoon someone came running to the office (days without mobile phones or walky-talky radios) and said that a fire had started in the Murugalli coffee area. In the plantations emergencies were everyone’s affair. News would go to all those who could be informed and they all rushed to the aid of the estate which had the problem. All who could go would go, regardless of whose estate it was.
As soon as the runner caught his breath, I put him on the back of my motorcycle to guide me and we were off. When I reached the place I realized that this was a fairly large forest fire. There were about thirty of our workers and two supervisors who had been working in the area. I marshaled them all and got them to clear a belt and start a counter fire. The idea was to burn an area across the direction of the fire and clear it of all inflammable material so that when the main fire reached this place it would simply starve to death. We started the counter fires and once the dry stuff was burnt we beat out the flames with green leafy branches that we had previously cut and kept at hand. The main fire was moving very fast as it was being pushed by a tail wind. As it came up to us it was our task to ensure that it did not jump the cleared boundary. Every time a flame jumped the fire boundary, we beat it to death. There was no water available where we were otherwise to wet as much area as possible as a preventive measure.
It is very interesting to reflect that not a single one of us there had been formally trained in firefighting. Yet we did all the right things. The result in my case of a lot of reading, some of it about forest fires. And in the case of the others, the result of listening to stories of fires of the past that others had fought. Story telling as a way of informal, but very powerful teaching is the mainstay in villages. This is how even great classics of literature are born; as stories to teach life lessons. Over the centuries they acquire a life of their own, get embellished with local color and imagination and are even believed to be real. Be that as it may, their teaching value remains until the story gets converted to mythology where it starts to be considered holy and read as a ritual instead of as a means of learning.
There was huge excitement. People shouting instructions to each other, cheers as a small fire was put out, curses at the main fire and so on. But in all this excitement, we did not pay attention to one small, but critical detail. The main fire had sent a tail around a small hump in the land and while we were busy fighting the main head, its tail had all but surrounded us. I can’t remember who it was who first noticed the smoke and glow because it had become dark by now. We had been fighting the fire for more than four hours when suddenly one of the workers shouted that we were getting surrounded by the fire. All activity stopped and people looked to me for direction.
This is the kind of leadership challenge that the plantation career faced you with. Not every day but certainly more than once in your career. And you had only one chance. I realized that the only way left for us was to actually go across the face of the main fire and down a very steep hillside which would take us down to the Parambikulam Lake. I called out the directions to the people and said to them, “Go ahead, I will follow you.” The reason for this was because the danger was behind us and so I wanted to be the last in the line. But the people of the estates form bonds that are hard to describe. The formal relationship is that of manager and subordinate with all its usual ways. The fact that we all lived together and shared in each other’s joys and sadness led to bonds that may not be visible in normal times, but which in time of crisis came to the fore.
The result of this was that the workers refused to obey me. They told me to go first. I refused. And we had a stalemate in the middle of the fire. Eventually one of them said to me, “Dorai, if something happens to you while we all get away, how will we face Madam?” To this I replied, “If the father gets away and leaves the children to die, what do you have to say about such a father?” That clinched the argument and we started out the way I had ordered in the first place with one small change. Two of the biggest guys flanked me as body guards while the others ran ahead. A knowledge of the culture, tradition and the local language all play a very strong role in leadership situations. As also does symbolism in a culture that is based on a very strong mythological foundation. I loved those people and they loved me. We fought when we had to, but the bond of love based on respect only became stronger.
The forests of the Anamallais are evergreen rain forests and so are not susceptible to burning down completely like temperate forests of coniferous trees which exude oil that is itself inflammable. So during a forest fire, there is no real danger to the trees apart from some temporary damage. The undergrowth burns down and leaf litter converts into potash-rich ash. Fallen dry logs burn partially in every fire. Once the fire cools the forest regenerates. New green grass, germinating seeds and the ash itself attracts all kinds of herbivores. If the fire burns in the day, Bee Eaters, Swallows, and other birds follow the fire and eat insects that the fire flushes. Snakes leave their holes and race to safety. At this time they are harmless as they are too busy trying to get away. Larger animals are in no danger at all as they have plenty of time to get away. The real danger is to the plantation crops that border the forests and that is why we planters are very concerned about fires. This time around, our tea wasn’t damaged apart from some damage to the bushes on the boundaries.
So it all ended rather well.
For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”
Over the past more than ten years I have wandered around almost every tiger sanctuary in India from Kaziranga and Manas in Assam to Idukki in Kerala. I lived in the middle of the Anamallais for seven years. In my childhood and youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent every summer and winter holiday with my dear friend and mentor Uncle Rama (Venkatrama Reddy) in his house on the bank of the Kadam River in the middle of what is today called, Kaval Tiger Reserve. I would spend every single day and many nights in the forest, walking or in a bullock cart. No tiger. I spent ten days in Badhavgarh living in the house of a good friend, alone, in Tala village which is in the buffer zone. I went on safari drives every morning and evening. No tiger. I spent days in Pench, even slept in a dry nala on the boundary of the forest, one hot afternoon. No tiger. I have spent days being jolted around in Gypsy vehicles in sanctuary after sanctuary, my backbone witness to the wear and tear on the suspension of the vehicle and still live to tell the tale. Yet all I saw of the elusive tiger was one glimpse as it leapt across a road in Corbett and a decent sighting in Tadoba. At the end of all this wandering, I concluded that I was jinxed as far as tigers are concerned. But since I love the forest and all those who live in it, I continued to escape to the nearest forest that I could find at every opportunity; tiger or no tiger.
Then I went to Ranthambore. My very first visit. My most gracious host, Sonu Khan and his driver Sajid, ‘promised’ me that I would see a tiger. Having heard such promises from many others over the years, I hardly paid attention to it. I wanted to be in a forest and Ranthambore was not only a forest but one of the most beautiful ones that I have ever been in. Massive banyan trees, flowing streams, lakes, high rocky hills, mysterious pavilions, Muslim graves and even an abandoned masjid near one of the streams. The main river that flows through the forest especially the part that comes down from the Ranthambore fort has ‘inexplicable’ date palms all along it. Inexplicable because though Rajasthan has date palms, this is a different variety, not indigenous to Rajasthan. Excellent perches for kingfishers, owls, parrots and parakeets, as I discovered.
Ranthambore fort is very impressive to say the least. We were sitting in our Gypsy waiting for the driver to submit the entry pass at the gate house and I looked up at the battlements of the fort in awe at the amazing architectural challenge they would have posed to build. With my interest in military history, my first thought when I saw the battlements rising high into the heavens was, if I were to besiege this fort, how would I do it? I concluded that this fort is impregnable and can’t be conquered keeping in mind the armies and armaments of the time i.e. the 16th century.
Later, my dear friend who shares my interest in history and wildlife, Jehangir Ghadiali solved the mystery of the date palms for me. He told me that apparently Ranthambore was besieged for a month by the Moghul Emperor Akbar and then submitted to the Mughals in 1568. Moghul soldiers ate dates and the seeds they discarded sprouted all along the streams that they would have camped on. ‘Mughal soldiers’, is a general term referring the army they fought in. As it was, most of Akbar’s army consisted of Rajputs. It is easy to condemn them as being anti-national but one must realize that the concept of India as one nation is only from 1947. For all our history, we were individual countries that existed in the landmass of the subcontinent, much like European countries exist to this day in the landmass called Europe. Rajput kings fought other Rajput kings and were being patriotic to their tribe and country and not anti-national. The Moghuls capitalized on this and with their superior technology and generalship, they commanded Rajput armies that won the day. Rajputs rose to become generals in Moghul armies and fought loyally for the Moghul Emperor who they considered their liege lord. One of the most famous of Akbar’s generals was Raja Mansingh who was one of this Navratans (9 Jewels – Nobles held in the highest esteem). Today all this sounds strange and that is why history has many lessons to teach us.
Rai Surjan Hada was apparently demoralized by Akbar’s victories in Chittorgarh and Thanesar and when the Moghul cannons were brought to bear and bombardment started, he decided to capitulate. It was cannons that gave Mughals the edge over their opponents. Babur had cannons when he fought Ibrahim Lodhi thanks to which war elephants which were the ultimate weapon of Indian armies were rendered a liability. War elephants would run amok with terror at the sound of cannon and turn and charge through their own troops, creating havoc. Another thing that gave the Mughal armies the edge was light cavalry using the famous double curved Mongol bow. That gave them mobility and range which effectively nullified the advantage of massive infantry which was the hallmark of Indian armies. European armies of the time had infantry in thousands, but Indian kings could field hundreds of thousands. All this force came to naught when faced with highly mobile cavalry shooting from powerful bows and cannons which though not too accurate at long range, could create total mayhem in massed troops, especially when loaded with scatter shot.
Indian wisdom decided that losing lives unnecessarily would serve no purpose and so Rai Surjan Hada opened the gates to the Moghuls. In my view, Ranthambore fort can withstand a far longer siege and even Akbar would have been hard pressed to keep the siege going for a long period given the issues of supply lines and the semi-arid country that Ranthambore is in. Though the area has forest, which in those days it would have been more, but there is not much in it for an army to eat. That they were eating dates is a sign because dates are dry rations. They would have hunted in the forest but to feed an army needs a lot of meat and animals move away when they are hunted. Not easy, laying siege. This also explains the masjid and pavilions in the middle of the forest.
It is with these thoughts that we entered the forest. We drove through semi-deciduous forest with a variety of bird life. We entered the forest through a beautiful gateway that is today framed by the aerial roots of a banyan tree. In the days of Ranthambore’s glory it would have had soldiers posted on top of it and the gate itself shut, except to those who were authorized to enter. We drove through it and along the track that borders Padam Talao on one end of which is the beautiful Jogi Mahal. That makes Jogi Mahal a part of the Ranthambore fort complex because to get to it you must pass through gates on either end. Imagine that you are a guest of Rai Surjan Hada of Ranthambore in happier times before Akbar came on the scene and are sitting on the deck of Jogi Mahal watching the sunset (I hope I have my directions correct), drinking sherbet and eating savory snacks followed by Rajasthani sweets. The survival of Jogi Mahal through the siege of Ranthambore is evidence that beauty is protection in itself.
There were several waders and other birds in the shallows of Padam Talao. A pair of Indian Thick-knees, simply standing in one place. The Stone Curlew or Thick-knee is active in the dark and feeds at dawn or dusk. During the day it stands still in shade. In this case they were standing at the edge of the lake, in the hope perhaps of getting the odd worm. They had for company a pair of Black-winged Stilts, a most attractive wader whose delicate long legs give it their name; a pair of Brahminy ducks (Ruddy Shelduck) and a solitary Darter drying its wings. A more peaceful scene can’t be imagined.
As I contemplated all this, it occurred to me that all is right with the world. Until I woke up and reminded myself that the reality is far from this. We are at a stage where we humans have wiped out 85% of wildlife and are facing the specter of extinction. It is true that my tiger jinx was broken in Ranthambore and in three days I saw twelve tigers. It is true that when I watch Blue Planet or Planet Earth, with Sir David Attenborough commenting on the glory of nature and the profusion of wildlife, I am carried away with the sheer beauty of what I see. But it is good to remember that the reality is far from this. Very far. Yes, I saw twelve tigers in Ranthambore, but tigers are so seriously endangered as to be close to becoming extinct in the wild in India. Our population pressure, total ignorance and apathy towards forests and wildlife, greed to make money at any costs and a political class that is innocent of any ethics, responsibility or knowledge, means that forests and wildlife continue to get short shrift. Every mining concession, highway or railway line tends to get precedence over the forest that it will either seriously endanger or completely destroy. It is no secret that tiger reserves which get a higher level of protection from reserve forests, were systematically de-tigered so that the status of the forest could be officially downgraded to reserve forest, in order to start mining for marble.
The solution is to educate people. Ordinary people like you and me, about the importance of forests and wildlife and how our own survival is intrinsically linked with it. Self-interest may not be the most noble emotion, but I believe that unless people understand the importance of forests and wildlife, they will not do anything to protect it. As it is, people at best consider forests to be a source of entertainment and tigers and other wildlife to be performing artists which must put in an appearance for people to get value for money. Forest Department officials succumb to this pressure and I know of instances where, using tame elephants, tigers are driven to the road from where they are resting in the heat of the day, so that tourists can take photos.
The challenge is to educate those who will be affected by global changes. What is their level of awareness? Simply ask anyone the meaning of “Big Data”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Peak Oil”, “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” and you have the answer. Most people simply don’t even know what these things are, much less how they will be personally affected by them. The powers that be, the billionaires who rule the world, manufacture weapons of mass destruction and sell them to those willing to use them on their own populations, while stridently calling for peace; benefit from wars, forest depletion, polluting industries, global poverty and oppression. Looking to them to bring about change is like asking the tiger to eat grass. That is the challenge.
How do we show the oligarchs that eliminating poverty is not for the benefit of the poor but so that a bigger market can be created for what the oligarchs sell? How do you convince those who work in weapons factories that living off the blood of others is immoral? Educating the public seems to be the obvious answer but the challenge is to find a way to do it fast enough to energize people to stand up and make a difference.
He had killed a sambhar stag the previous night. Sambhar are plagued by horseflies and their defence against them is to roll in the mud which when it dries off, makes a very effective shield against the biting insects. This part of the forest, in Ranthambore, has a river flowing over a very rocky bed. Flowing is what it does in the monsoon but for most of the year, it trickles and eventually all that are left are isolated pools, in particularly shady spots.
Ranthambore topography strikes you for three reasons; and high rocky hills, large number of Banyan trees (Ficus Bengalensis), and a sprinkling of temples, and domed pavilions just sitting in the middle of nowhere. This creates a unique ecosystem unlike in any other national park that I have seen, where thanks to the high rocky hills, animals can simply go away from vehicle tracks if they want to get away from people. People, the less said about whom, the better. More on this later.
To return to our story, the stag came to the depression in the riverbed which was on its way to drying out totally but was still wet enough to have enough mud to make a very nice mud bath. The pool had not dried out as it was shaded by two massive banyan trees whose aerial roots had descended to the earth and created their own columns until it was almost impossible to decide which the original trunk of the tree was. The result was thick shade in which you were a few degrees cooler even in the hottest part of the day. Sunlight never struck the water directly and though the overall dryness of the atmosphere would eventually evaporate the water and dry out the pool, that was still some months away.
The stag walked down the hillside very carefully, all senses alert. His excellent eyesight was somewhat impaired as darkness had fallen and though starlight was enough for him to see clearly in the open, when he entered the shade of the banyans, he was seriously handicapped. What kept him going was habit. He had done this all his life and grown from a small fawn to the size of a horse with a massive neck that supported a rack of horns. He was confident. Tonight, was just another night. The horseflies had been particularly irritating all day. To roll in the mud in daylight was simply too dangerous. So, he had waited until it was dark and then cautiously, very cautiously, he came down the hillside. One step at a time, all senses alert, listening, interpreting the sounds and then deciding to take another step. Sometimes he would freeze with one forefoot in the air, totally still like a statue carved in rock, while he listened and smelt the breeze rising up to him from the river at the foot of the hill. Only when he was sure that there was no danger, would he take another step down the hillside.
He knew Kumbha. They were the same age, 8 years old. As he had grown, many a time, he had seen Kumbha’s mother and her two cubs, lying in the water of the river in the summer. Tigers are the only cats that love water and spend a lot of time in it especially during the heat of the day in Rajasthan’s very hot summers. At that time, he was himself a fawn, skittish and given to dashing off at the smallest sound. That is what kept him alive and he grew big and strong. Sambhar live in family groups and fawns learn to survive from their mothers. His mother had been a good teacher. He remembered that where he was headed was Kumbha’s territory which he regularly marked by spraying urine on trees as well as rubbing his face on low hanging branches so that the facial glands left their excretion as a mark of his territorial boundary. This was for the benefit of other tigers, to attract breeding tigresses and to keep other males away. But these chemical messages were smelt and respected by everyone in the forest. Some his prey, some passersby, some competitors. Deer, leopards, tigers, hyenas and humans who could recognize the signs. The stag reached the bottom and entered the shade of the banyans, headed to the mud bath beneath them.
The shade hid from him his greatest fear, Kumbha. Kumbha was not close to him at the time. He knew that it would be far easier to kill the stag when it was down and rolling in the mud than when it was still on high alert, approaching the mud bath. He was lying some distance away in the riverbed, completely hidden by the rocks, his own dappled, striped camouflage making him invisible. His stillness was such that even if the stag looked at him directly, he would not see him unless the wind changed direction and he smelt the tiger scent. Tigers have a kill rate of about one in seven and so Kumbha was no stranger to things going wrong at the last minute thanks to an errant eddy of air, leading to the deer scenting him and escaping in an explosive burst of speed, adrenalin coursing through his veins. Live deer, hungry tiger.
Kumbha hadn’t eaten for four days. He was keen, light on his feet and very hungry. Spells of starvation followed by gorging on meat until he can eat no more, is the routine of the tiger and all carnivores. Kumbha was in his element, his cat eyes enabling him to see clearly in the dark. He watched intently, but occasionally he would look away for a second or two. It is my guess that this is because the intense look can be sensed by the one, we are looking at. We can see this even with people, who will turn around and look at you if you stare at them. Animals with senses that are far keener than ours can sense anyone looking at them much more easily. So Kumbha looked away from time to time, to allow the sambhar to approach within striking distance.
All this took far longer than it will take you to read this, but for the players, the stakes are the highest; life and death. Eventually the sambar reached the mud, looked around for a final time and stepped in, knelt and rolled over once. Kumbha took that opportunity to race ahead a few steps, moving over dry leaves and twigs without cracking a single one and then went to earth again. The sambar scrambled up, looked around again to ensure that he was safe and then went down again to roll on the other side. Kumbha was within range and charged with an earth-shattering roar that is designed to paralyze prey for the instant that the tiger needs to seize it. The sambar struggled up, but Kumbha’s shoulder hit him and then the tiger closed his jaws on his throat, at a bite force of 1000 psi, keeping well clear of his lashing hoofs and the horn rack on his head. One strike by either can disembowel the tiger or injure him permanently so that he eventually dies of starvation.
Once that sambhar was still, Kumbha started eating, starting from the rear soft underbelly of the animal, going for the stomach contents. This is where carnivores get their quota of trace elements and other things that their own pure protein and fat, keto, diet can’t give them. While he ate, he would insert his head inside the thorax of the carcass to reach the heart and lungs and emerge completely covered in blood. Not nice to watch but if you are a tiger, you don’t give a hoot for public opinion. Tigers can eat as much as one hundred pounds of meat at one sitting, and then starve for days after. Kumbha ate his fill. The sambhar was big and there was plenty more to eat. Daylight was approaching, and he had to hide his kill from scavengers, so he dragged it out of the river and across the road that ran alongside, up a slight slope on the other side deep into a thicket where it was completely hidden. Then he returned to the river to drink. Having drank his fill, he returned to lie by the kill to sleep off his dinner and guard the kill simply by his presence. As the sun climbed in the sky and the heat intensified, Kumbha arose and walked to a damp spot on the side of the road and lay down in it, the cool mud feeling good on his belly. Later he would go further to the river to drink some more and lie in the water until the evening. For the present, he was asleep by the road, shaded by the banyans, and that is where we met him.
We were in Ranthambore almost at the end of our morning drive when we saw nine men, young and middle aged, standing on a culvert in various stages of undress. This was in the middle of the forest and I was astonished to say the least. I asked our guide and he said that there was a Solesar Mahdev mandir (temple) in the forest and these people had probably spent the night there and were returning to their village outside the national park. On the way they had decided to bathe in the river, evidence of which in the form of soap suds, soap packets strewn carelessly and their own state, bore witness. As we passed them, the Forest Guard who was our guide called out to them to get out of the forest immediately.
We drove perhaps less than a kilometer from there, on our way out of the forest, when we saw Kumbha lying by the roadside. We stopped in awe because a tiger in the forest is an awe-inspiring sight. It seems to light up the darkness and has a majesty that I find impossible to describe. An animal that can be five hundred pounds in weight with a head that seems to fill your vision to the exclusion of everything else, looking at you directly and unflinchingly with the yellowest eyes that you can imagine. His striped coat dappled in the sunlight filtering through the leaves, stained dark with blood around his face from the kill that he had been eating. Lying with the relaxed grace that only a cat can muster. Yet I know that to go from there to 60 mph in a flash if he decides to charge, is something that he can do without raising a sweat. We stopped a respectful distance from him and took our photographs. He raised an eyebrow to keep us in sight but didn’t move from his totally supine position. He knew that we didn’t represent danger, but he kept an eye on us.
As we were photographing him suddenly it was as if he had stepped on an electric wire. He suddenly sat up and looked intently beyond us. I knew what he was sensing, though the temple devotees were not visible yet. Then he got up and walked up the slope to his kill and we lost sight of him. We remained where we were because we were concerned about the men. They came along, talking loudly among themselves, totally unaware that they were under surveillance. I have heard many people who know the jungle say that a tiger could be six feet away, but you wouldn’t know it. That day I saw how true this is. As the men came up to us, we told them about Kumbha. Their fright was amusing to put it politely. We then told them to walk on the other side of our vehicle so that the vehicle would be between them and the tiger until we were sure that any potential danger was past.
Human intervention in our national parks is a very serious problem in all parks. In some of them we have highways and train tracks running through the park paid for with the lives of animals crossing them. In others there are villages or temples which result in both pollution with paper and plastic as well as human-animal conflict which always has the same result. The animal is declared the villain and the punishment is death. In other cases, villages along national park boundaries constantly encroach on forest land by ring-barking trees so that in a few months they dry and fall and the area they covered becomes a part of the village fields. These fields are also protected by illegal electric fencing which electrocutes any animal trying to cross it. Many villagers lay out sticks of dynamite encased in rotting meat to attract wild boar which explode as soon as the boar bites into the meat. If the boar is lucky, his head is blown off and the people who set out the bomb, feast. If not, his jaw is blown away and he runs off into the forest to die an agonizing death, many hours or even days later. Sometimes, it is not a boar but a tiger, leopard or hyena that takes this bait with the same results. As I said earlier, human-animal conflict always has the same result.
The solution is a combination of relocation of human activity from inside the park to an alternate location, education of the public about the need for conservation of forests and wildlife, not merely for their entertainment but as a critical need for our own survival and law enforcement to ensure that forests and wildlife remain protected. In India we have reached a highly critical stage already and it is debatable if we have already gone over the edge as far as wildlife, especially tigers, are concerned. Be that as it may, what we must do is to focus on inculcating a sense of shared responsibility in all those who benefit from the forests, so that they learn to respect this great asset we have before it is gone forever.
To close with Kumbha’s story, what could have happened? Kumbha had eaten and in any case, humans are not tiger prey. So most probably nothing would have happened, and nobody would have been the wiser. But what is equally likely is that one of these people could have thrown a stone into the bushes and then who knows what would have happened?
Because there is a limit, even to the patience of a tiger.
He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feeds mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.