Monday, 20 February 2017

Divine vehicles (Part 2)

In continuation to the deities and their spectacular 'vahan's worshipped in India.

The Blackbuck, 'vahan' of the wind god or 'vayu'. The Blackbuck is probably associated with the wind god owing to it's speed and agility. The buck looks like it's flying through the air when in motion, thereby posing as the 'vahan' for 'vayu.'

The Ram, 'vahan' of the fire god or 'agni'. A powerful god in Hindu mythology, agni is considered to be as powerful as Indra some texts even pronounce him to be Indras' twin. A messenger of gods, agni is usually a symbol of  important rituals be it a wedding, a havan or a normal religious ceremony in a Hindu household.

Considered to be the mouth of the Indian gods and goddesses, a lot is given to agni for well being and new beginnings also known as a sacrificial fire. It is probably due to the sacrificial nature of agni that the Ram is associated with him as it is considered the ultimate animal of sacrifice.

The Eagle, Vulture or the Crow as the 'vahan' of 'shani dev.' Shani Dev is said to be a messenger of bad luck. Potrayed as a dark coloured deity with a  displeased disposition, he sits  atop an eagle, crow or vulture who as scavengers are considered bad omen.

The vulture in particular being a bird who only consumes carcasses is said to be a harbinger of death to one who chances upon it. In Orissa, if a vulture is seen sitting on top of a house, death to one of the family members of the concerned household is said to be inevitable.

The cat as the vahan of 'shasthi' or the feline goddess. A goddess worshipped mostly in Eastern India (Bengal), Shasthi is said to be the protector of children and said to auspicious to those who want to have children. Often worshipped under a Banyan tree, the depiction is that of a motherly figure cradling an infant.

Locals believe that ' Shasthi puja' will bring them a male child and protect children against all evil and diseases. The association of a cat with the goddess could be possibly due to the cats nature as a fierce, protective mother. The other explanation could be the longevity of a cat (9 lives) which should be passed on to the child born giving him/her a long, healthy life.

The cows as the 'vahan' for usha or the dawn goddess. Depicted as a radiant, adorned maiden, Usha is worshipped as the bringer of the light of a new day, away from darkness and evil. She is said to bless humankind with strength, awakening and the need to be useful through the day, benefitting not just self but others as well.

The cows are probably associated with Usha as a symbol of purity and benefit as the udders of the cow not only benefits the calf (for milk) but all those in need of it.

The donkey as the 'vahan' of Shitala Devi or the Goddess of small pox. Known to heal diseases like small pox and fever  and keeping the environment pure and clean, Shitala translates as one who cools. The goddess is worshipped to cure children of diseases and she is said to fight demons who spread illnesses, in this case a demon called 'Jwarasur' with 'Jwar' translating as fever and 'asur' as demon. According to legend, She is said to have fought him and protected children.

She is depicted as carrying water in an earthern pot, to cool places she visits and she propagates the love for everyone equally, which is why she has chosen the donkey as her 'vahan' to show that the most spurned of animals can and should also be respected. No one should be shunned based on illnesses or their position in society.

The Rhino as the 'vahan' of goddess Dhavdi. Do not know much about this goddess except that she is largely worshipped in Gujarat. her choice of 'vahan' could be based on its brute strength and power but it would be interesting to understand, why the Rhino, considering they are not found in Gujarat.

Dog as the 'vahan' of Bhairava. Bhairava is the most terrifying form of Shiva. However why would such a strong deity need something as friendly as dog as the vahan? dogs are said to be forever seeking validation.

 Whether in terms of affection, territory or even guarding its food. Bhairava is said to be symbolic to controlling this need for validation, so as to not be territorial, seeking attention or even seeking material pleasure.

The bull Nandi as the 'vahan' of Lord Shiva. Shiva is said to be the most humble of gods and  more down to Earth than the rest of them. The bull therefore is said to be associated with him as the mark of  his grounded disposition.  Another probable reason for the Bull to be associated with Shiva is because the Bull is a symbol of rural India with who Shiva shares a close connect.

Photo credit for all images:,, 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

An illustrated guide of the Pantanal - Part 1

Illustrations are the best form of visual observation. I feel that  they help us best understand the subject in question. In humans it may help us understand  body language,  expressions and emotions. In animals, it helps us understand every muscle, colour, texture  and sometimes even their behaviour, camouflage and habitat. To that effect, I have tried to bring out an illustrated guide to different forests, starting with the Pantanal in Brazil, where I was lucky to observe a whole range of biodiversity, the true nature of which I was only able to appreciate once I had outlined them in my sketch book.

Toco Toucan 
Be it the colourful disposition of a Toucan 

Yellow Anaconda

Or the molten presence of an Anaconda 

Tiger heron 
To the brilliant purple-rust plumage of a tiger heron 

Giant River otter 
The unhurried gait of a river otter 

To the gorgeous Caiman 


  To the gentle nature of a capybara 

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Summers in the Central Highlands

Summers are said to be the best time to see animals, more specifically, tigers but what many people miss during their single-minded focus to spot the stripes during this season, is the coming alive of not just one species but a plethora of life forms.

Summers is when the forest sheds its inhibitions of any seasonal limitation and offers who ever is willing enough to be patient, to some brilliant sessions in natural history.

The dawn often breaks light into the forest with a gentle coolness. The trees exude a pleasant fragrance as if waking up to the welcome the cool of the forest. Stretching their branches, while the bamboo creaks, swaying gently, reflecting shades of geriatric disposition in the morning wind. As dawn gives way to the sun, the heat-hit forest often treats the bystander to the dense fragrance of the lantana flowers and to the enthusiastic birder, a sight of Coucals and Peafowls quenching their thirst at water holes, dipping their heat baked bodies in the welcome shimmering water.  The deep ‘hoop hoop’ of the Coucal as it rids its’ wings of water is challenged by the haunting call of the Indian Pitta echoing through the forest, purposeful and loud for a bird that small, which, if you are lucky might be spotted fleetingly on the forest floor in shades of blue and green, hopping on the leaf litter.

The Pitta is usually backed by the sound of the Coppersmith Barbet who calls earnestly from the confines of a tree, resembling a trembling leaf till you look closely and spot a blood red head and yellow chin. At this time of the year, the forest is usually awash with the red canopy of the ‘flame of the forest tree’ locally known as the ‘Palaash’ which dots the landscape like bonfires oddly out of place on a hot dry day. 

Known to be an incarnation of the fire god or ‘Agni’ this tree is favorable to the Hanuman or Grey Langurs and often plays host to the silver haired sentinels of the forest who are said to feast on the fruits pods of the tree. The heat of the season is reflected in the sky too as it shimmers a Cerulian blue, plated with tufts of cotton like clouds on its surface, and as it gets hotter, the Cicadas set up an orchestra as the common hawk cuckoo or the brain fever bird calls hysterically warning all and sundry of a coming brain fever, flying over the sun- dried yellowing grassland.

In summers, the grasslands too have a particular fragrance. A sun crisped blade of grass smells like hay, while crushed grass, a sign of the morning patrolling by the elephants or the grunting, grazing gaurs have a sweet odour. While waiting by the grasslands, one may also be privy to an explosion of honking or braying like sound which to someone unfamiliar to the forest may sound like an animal in the throes of death but the actual source of which can be traced back to the male Chital or the spotted deer. Known as rutting, summers are when animals mate and the males battle it out to mate with the females with the ones with the most impressive of antlers  usually seen strutting and calling in an attempt to woo the grazing graceful females confident of their supremacy in the vast meadows.

The Mahua (an economically important tree of the central Highlands) is in full bloom during this season with cream coloured, off white flowers littering the forest floor while the Tendu tree looks resplendent, despite the leaves being coated by the mud from the forest floor. As you drive, the muddy forest floor is often a scrapbook of animal tracks and signs decorating the forest floor affirming their presence in the sun bathed forest.

Bear tracks that look much like a human footprint, birds tracks of an active lapwing, hoof tracks of the graceful Spotted deer, locally known as the Chital, pugmarks of the big cats and sometimes even a human shoe print giving away the location of a forest ‘chowki’ or patrolling camp nearby. As the day becomes hotter, the best spot to be is in the vast, reaching shade of the Banyan or Mango tree laden with raw mangos being encouraged to ripen by the patient, sweetly calling Koel. With Blood red eyes and a glossy black body, the male Koel hops from branch to branch re-iterating the presence of summer for those harboring any doubt of the season. 

Water, though worshipped the year around, is most loved and most preferred of  ‘fauna congregation venues’ in the dry landscape with animals like vultures and wild boars dipping their beaks and snouts respectively for a taste of the shining liquid.  While Wild boars wallow in the mud, grunting with pleasure enjoying the cool Earth, a lone jackal visits for a quick pit stop at the water hole, dispersing the flock of vultures who take flight, their great wings making a ‘swooshing’ sound as they perch on a dead tree.

 In the spots, where the Earth protectively habours water in form of forest streams, the fragrance of wet Earth is intoxicating as the stream snakes its way through the forest gurgling, carving a path through thick patches of the ‘kaans’ grass, while a screech from the sky announces the arrival of the raptors or bird of prey who seem to be effortlessly air borne, aided by the thermal or warm air currents which assist the bird to a vantage point in the sky to look for prey. With a sharp curved beak, a brown dotted body and yellow eyes and face, The Crested Serpent Eagle is one of the ‘thermalling’ raptors that comes to rest on the branch of a tree. A sharp contrast to the green of tree it calls melancholically complementing the mid – day heat.  

The afternoon, which is the hottest part of the day is when the forest is usually quiet, an understood siesta, with the main explorers of the realm being the long legged Adjutant storks who wade through the water cautiously looking for un -suspecting fish resembling coat clad old lawyers wading through old case files, their body a reflection of deep thinking and pondering. 

As evening approaches, the relentless heat replaced by relatively kind evening wind, a shade warmer than the morning wind cover, the forest rings with life once again.  The Parakeets take flight in a flock, screeching in an excited manner, their leaf green body glinting in the evening sun. The deer start moving back into the meadows abandoning their cool hideouts and dotting the light yellow grasslands with a deeper shade of brown, complimented with white spots.

Dusk slowly envelops the forest, as does the presence of a phantom. The forest rings with the calls of the deer announcing the arrival of a predator. The now darkening forest is hit with shadowy figures of the nocturnal kind padding softly through the forest, given away by the sound of the its tail as it hits dried grass and crunches browning Sal leaves underfoot. As it walks out, its mighty face framed by the bushes, it ‘hunfs’ and walks down the forest road un worried of the hysteria it has caused in the theater of natural history.  Rested, after a afternoon siesta in the delicious foliage of the mighty Bamboo, The tiger stretches, releasing its limbs of the sleepiness and regaining strength for nocturnal patrolling and as the night envelops the forest in a thick haze of summer, complete with the moon and stars, the Cicadas start up an orchestra. 

The summer haze which bathes the forest in relentless heat for about three tough months challenging even the proud Tendu to look worn out, finally gives in to a darkening sky towards the end of June. Rumbling thunder and the distant smell of dust, an approaching storm gives the denizens an inkling of hope. The stage for a different weather performance is being slowly set with background lighting and thick grey clouds full of water positioned above the hilltops.  The wait can be a few days but a final growl from the sky affirms a change and as the first raindrop hits the parched forest floor, the jungle is transformed into an arena of coos and calls, dance, respite and happiness. The summers now a distant haze, has bid adieu and the rain is here to stay.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Divine vehicles!

Nature worship has always been an important part of Indian culture. With 'Peepul' trees being worshipped as the epicenter for learning and knowledge, they are also regarded as the abode of the god ' bada dev' worshipped by certain tribals in Central India. However the most important instance of animals in Indian religion, more specifically, Hinduism has been the role of animals as the 'vahans' or vehicles of the Indian gods and goddesses. While the reason for why the concerned animal is associated with the  particular god/ goddess may not be always known, some of them have beautiful logic to them.

For example, the Goddess Durga also known as 'shakti' is associated with the tiger or lion ( the cat species varies according to region) as the big cat epitomises strength, power and a protector against all evil. Which is where the concept of 'baghesur' or the tiger god also comes up. Wherein a lot of villages worship the cat in form of a tiger/ lion to protect them from all evil and hence the goddess is celebrated along with the cat.

L- R : A tiger temple at Bandhavgarh, Goddess Durga,Photo credit:,Tiger dancers celebrate Muharram 

Another Goddess who forms an important part of Hinduism is Goddess Saraswati who is more famously found in educational institutions as she is associated with education, learning, music, purity and beauty. Which could also be the reason, why she is associated with two beautiful birds, namely the swan and the peacock. In some regions, the swan is replaced by a Heron or 'bagula'. Purity in form of the swan and beauty in form of the peacock. In central India, the Peacock feather is also considered very holy and any fallen feather also known as 'vidya' is collected by the students to keep in their books to help them learn better. Saraswati's depiction as riding a Peacock also translates as taking control over arrogance and not giving precedence to materialistic beauty. 
Goddess Sarawati. Photo credit:,

Moving from terrestial to the more acquatic, two important gods associated with the 'makara' are the Goddess Ganga and lord Varuna, the god of seas and oceans. Not entirely a crocodile, the makara is said to be half crocodile and half elephant, with some statues even depicting a trunk on the head of the crocodile. The crocodile is associated with water gods as it is said to be the protector of the waters and keeps the water clean of any contamination. At times, however,there is a debate on the mount of the goddess Ganga as the Dolphin. This association of the Goddess with the Dolphin is owing to the fact that the river Ganga is supposed to be a happy, fast flowing river, thereby reflecting the traits of the Dolphin who is a fast swimming mammal. 

God of the seas and oceans, varuna, photo credit:, goddess Ganga, photo credit: .jpg

 Taking a more aerial route, we come to the goddess Lakshmi who is associated with the owl, more specifically the white owl which people believe to be the Barn owl. According to some beliefs, the Owl is her sister Alakshmi who is often  said to accompany the goddess of wealth, but if logic intervenes, she is associated with the owl because owls feed on rats, keeping their population under control and thereby protecting farms and crops which aid in yielding a good harvest which in turn brings wealth to the owner. Since Lakhsmi is the goddess of wealth and fortune she is celebrated with the owl. However, a sad turn to this belief is that a good number of owls are caught and sacrificed during Diwali owing to the belief that it will bring people wealth and prosperity.

Goddess Lakshmi. Photo credit:

Said to be the river of turtles, the river  Yamuna is said to be the best place to sight turtles even today, especially in a place called Bateshwar in Uttar Pradesh which is said to be a safe haven for the shelled beauties. This healthy population in the waters of this beautiful river could be one of the reasons why the Goddess Yamuna has been depicted as riding a turtle. In fact, despite its over polluted state,  in some parts,Yamuna has been considered a sanctuary for fauna such as dolphins and Gharials. 
Goddess Yamuna with her turtle mount. Photo
Labelled as the king of birds by lord Vishnu himself, the identity of Garuda who is depicted as half bird half human, as an eagle or Bhraminy Kite has often been debated. Said to be the ultimate creature of perseverance and determination, there couldn't be a better mount for the lord of preservation. It is said that,Garuda's only demand as Vishnu's mount was to be able to feed on snakes and is till date considered a sworn enemy of the 'nagas'. Perhaps it is Garuda's gastronomical love for snakes that has led many of the modern day birds much like the Crested Serpent Eagle to feed on the slithering beauties!

Vishnu on his mount Garuda. Photo credit:
Loved by all, lord Ganesh is associated with the most unlikely of mounts - the rat. Leading to debates of no one is small enough to deal with issues larger than oneself, the rat or the shrew( depictions again vary according to the region) represents someone who is determined enough to carry the weight of anything larger than itself and should not be considered weak or an unlikely candidate to bear the magnitude of the problem. Another reason for the rat to be the 'vighnaharta's' (remover of obstacles) mount is that the rat can go through any small space or hole which helps the lord in question reach out to any obstacle and eliminate it owing to the flexibility of his mount.

Lord Ganesh on his mount. Photo credit:

From the most loved to the most feared, lord Yama is popularly known as the god of death. Often associated with the Gaur or the Water Buffalo (varies according to region), the animal is so associated with the God,so as to depict the strength which upholds actions or 'dharma' and justice where it is needed. Lord Yama is said to be the most justice of the divine forces in Hindu mythology. 
Lord Yama on his mount. Photo credit: 
Apart from animals being recognised as mounts or 'vahans' of the gods, goddesses in Hinduism, animals have also played an important role as protectors to humankind, whether it was in form of Narsimha the Lion who eliminated an evil thought or king, to Jatayu the vulture who died fighting a wrong deed to Jambavan the Bear who was said to be very knowledgeable, to  the three 'avtars' of Vishnu as a Wild Boar, Fish and Turtle which are said to have protected  the Earth and all those living within.

Thus, it often brings to mind that we have much to learn from our mythology that gave such importance to trees and fauna existing in our forests, always accompanied with a certain message. So why can't we with these similar principles learn to appreciate those we can learn much from? 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The quest to save, has us fighting each other, everyday.

"How will what you are doing, help save the forests?" - Generalisation of human opinion.

The world already feels somewhat of a battleground what with fights for space, money,  opinions and emotions raining down almost everyday  much like this torrential downpour. The only difference is, the rain, we need. The fights, we don't. So why do I suddenly feel the need to philosophise about fighting? it is because, in my time as a 'wildlifer' I have seen more people fighting each other rather than fighting for the species in question. They fight  about what the other is doing wrong rather than what is going wrong for the species in question. Why is it necessary to pin point loopholes in another person's attempt to save the species rather than mend the loopholes in the system  that has brought  this species to the brink, where it needs to be carefully guarded lest it disappear, appearing only as dusty souvenirs in shops or books where it's shelf life will probably be even lesser than what it is now. Blaming one another, berating initiatives, mockery is  a waste of time.  All this time lost in trying to prove the other wrong, is us, losing time in forming a plan to save the species. When there are so many of us crusading to save the same thing, why can't we ever attempt at doing it together? Will it make us any less of a  human being? if anything, it will make us petty and confined to a bubble that will lose its sparkle and value if any, when we lose what we have all been tirelessly working for, leaving nothing but a carpet of self absorbed opinions and ego centric ideas in its wake, that do no one, least of all the species in question any good.

In our quest to prove a point, and to determinedly announce ourselves as the saviours of the planet, I feel we have forgotten to care or absorb  the qualities that make the forests our muse, so special. The flexible nature of water, the strength of tree roots, the protective nature of an elephant herd, the focus of a tiger, the team spirit of wild dogs or even the grace of a panther these are the qualities we should imbibe. What are we trying to prove ? why can't we work together, why can't we have a less myopic vision that barely extends beyond one's own nose?Why can't we debate or share each other insights? Why can't we talk? Perhaps we will never know or perhaps we are too indifferent to care but either way, in this constant quest to fight each other over something we all love, I hope things don't end in despair.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Bandhavgarh - Wilderness is always best described in pictures

The King 
Panther's moon

A glassy domain

Strength of the reserve
Blue skies always 
Examining his realm
Golden sunrise 
The bather and the 'bathee'
Sal delight
Gentleness is not defined by size 
The protector
Tiger tree
And we can smell the rain
Rain dance 
Spot on
The wait 

The result