Tuesday, November 11, 2014

White-tailed Stonechat: a rare find

In the first instance I thought I got a Common Stonechat, closer examination and it turned out to be White-tailed Stonechat (Saxicola leucurus). These are found along the marshy patches of Central and Eastern part of India till lower Assam and Manipur, though quite common is difficult to spot. Caught up with this one at the reedy marshy part of Okhla Bird sanctuary, towards the watchtower. 

A E Housman: Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun are the quietest places under the sun!!

A E Housman (1859-1936) was a 19th century English poet. He worked for a while as a clerk in a patent office, pursing his classical studies in his spare time. It was on the strength of the articles that he managed to get published, he was appointed Professor at Cambridge University, where he remained until his death. His most popular collection is A Shropshire Lad. It is a cycle, or series, of 63 poems –incidentally available at gutenberg.com. The haunting but leisurely quality is what attracted me to write about him. Several publishers turned the collection down, resulting in him having to publish the poems at his own expense in 1896. It's been in print ever since. His long-awaited second volume of verse, Last Poems (also available at gutenberg.com), was published  after his death.

The immortal part

When I meet the morning beam,
Or lay me down at night to dream,
I hear my bones within me say,
“Another night, another day."

 "When shall this slough of sense be cast,
 This dust of thoughts be laid at last,
 The man of flesh and soul be slain
 And the man of bone remain?"

 "This tongue that talks, these lungs that shout,
 These thews that hustle us about,
 This brain that fills the skull with schemes,
 And its humming hive of dreams,-"

 "These to-day are proud in power
 And lord it in their little hour:
 The immortal bones obey control
 Of dying flesh and dying soul."

 " 'Tis long till eve and morn are gone:
 Slow the endless night comes on,
 And late to fulness grows the birth
 That shall last as long as earth."

 "Wanderers eastward, wanderers west,
 Know you why you cannot rest?
 'Tis that every mother's son
 Travails with a skeleton."

 "Lie down in the bed of dust;
 Bear the fruit that bear you must;
 Bring the eternal seed to light,
 And morn is all the same as night."

"Rest you so from trouble sore,
Fear the heat o' the sun no more,
Nor the snowing winter wild,
Now you labour not with child."

"Empty vessel, garment cast,
We that wore you long shall last.
-Another night, another day."
So my bones within me say.

Therefore they shall do my will
To-day while I am master still,
And flesh and soul, now both are strong,
Shall hale the sullen slaves along,

Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
The steadfast and enduring bone.

Many of his poems didn’t have any titles…
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered:  if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here's the fair,
But where's the lost young man?

-To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long 'tis like to be.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.

Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread,
Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There's nothing but the night.

From my scribble pad… 

Morning of the Blue tigers
Blue tigers cross my path
Not one, but two, but three, but four
wait there’s more.
Azure sky is bright blue tiger bloom
flicking like myriad thoughts
staining the heart here and there
some flying  high, some quite low
some an afterthought, some right away.
Ahoy here we marshal into the mountains. 

Common cold
Time has become too audible these days
like a freight train in the night
knifing the darkness
in a persistent linear clockwork.
The corpse that creeps under the skin
don’t feel or behave different.
It’s the chill that acts funny
Must be the cold

Indian Robin, does mind the intrusion
Where the dead stump ends
Stillness begins
Alert in all its senses
Alive to my careless stride
Off he goes into the wilderness 


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Laughing dove doesn’t laugh!

Quite a common bird, Laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is seen in dry scrub and semi-desert habitats. They have a characteristic call the reason for the name. While in sub Saharan Africa they are referred to as Senegal dove. Spotted this one at Bharatpur (Rajasthan), further away from the lake. 

Itty Achuthan: 17th century Ayurvedic doctor and a pioneering botanist 

I was in Kerala, as I was flipping through the newspaper at the village reading room (that hasn’t changed in last many decades) I came across this news item related to declaring Itty Achuthan’s  ‘kuriala’, a small pagoda like wooden room used by the scholar almost three centuries back,  as a heritage site. I recall reading about Itty Achuthan, as also visiting an exhibit few years back at Natural Historical museum (Delhi) where there was an exhibition on Hortus Malabaricus. Next day I was at Kadakarapally (a coastal village near Cherthala town), about a kms walk is the Kuriala, it’s clear that the region had quite strong Buddhist influence before Shankaracharya (his birthplace Kalady isn’t far from here) advaithic philosophy, which unfortunately gave impetus to a pan-India resurgence to ritual driven deviance that degraded the religion as also the gave the foundation to mediocre and cannibalistic society. This need to be asserted since Itty Achuthan belong to marginalized section and his access to knowledge was possible due to a parallel stream of egalitarianism that existed in the society. Buddhism being the forerunner to this. Hortusum Itty Achuthanum - Sathyavum Mithyayum (by AN Chidambaram) cites a long list of vaidya tradition of Kadakkarappally, which had a notable Buddhist university and a large population of followers of Buddhism, going by the notes of Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang who visited India in 620 AD. 

The lady of the house, of the Kollat family, came out and explained to me about Kuriala's significance and so on. No she has no connection with ayurveda, her son later joined, he told me he does ‘some cable work’ as he took me to the Kavu nearby which is site of some rare plants. Next day I also visited the Hill palace in Thripunithara (kochi) where a botanical garden based on the plants mentioned in Hortus Malabaricus is maintained.  

Itty Achuthan was a 17th century Vaidyar (ancient traditional doctor -that is usurped under systematized ayurveda) who had precious understanding on practice of Ayurveda as also the specialized knowledge on rare endemic medicinal shrubs. Apart from his own observations the lineage, of hundreds of years of accumulated medico-botanical knowledge, that he kept in palm leafs became a rich source. He led the compilation and documentation work of Hortus Malabaricus –meaning Garden of Malabar, is a comprehensive treatise that deals with the medicinal properties of the flora in the Malabar region (that is now Kerala). Originally written in Latin, it was compiled over a period of nearly fifteen years and published from Amsterdam during 1678-1693, it was conceived, managed and financed by the Dutch Malabar governor Hendrik Van Rheede. The Hortus Malabaricus comprises 12 volumes of about 500 pages each, with 794 copper plate engravings. Over 742 different rare plants and their indigenous sciences are described and illustrated in the book, making it one of the earliest authoritative and comprehensive documentation of flora of the Indian subcontinent, it is arguably a pioneering effort from anywhere across the world. Itty Achuthan’s efforts were however lost in India, it was only when Hortus Malabaricus was translated into English/Malayalam (by Manilal, who also made efforts to focus on Itty Achudan’s significant contribution) that his greatness became apparent. Even then, he is being ignored, none of the Ayurvedic colleges nor any institutions are named after him (it is in this context you have to understand the profusion of Gandhi in all possible public places, he is being hoisted while some amazing people are willfully negated. These depraved Gandhians I have been cautioning against). It took the policy maker so many years to declare Itty Achuthan’s legacy as heritage. What a deviant society is this? Non-violently so!! In the meanwhile the West has honoured and cherished him by naming Achudemia –an entire plant family, in his name. This was done as early as 19th century! Such is our education system and culture that not many (even in Kerala) are aware of Itty Achuthan.

Itty Achuthan indeed is father of modern Ayurveda. It is his diligently acquired deep knowledge that once got published was converted into medicines and products not only in India but has become part of tradition in western countries too. Many of the knowledge related to uses of spices in Europe can be traced to not only his efforts but also benevolent nature, as he shared whatever he knew unlike the elites who kept it secret with whatever viciousness they could muster. His concern was preservation of precious knowledge, for this he got support and encouragement from a Dutch. Indians didn’t have much use of Achuthan’s knowledge is a devastating indictment of what Indian society is all about. Though must add the Cochin king did help the Dutch in the effort. Apart from specialized knowledge on flora Achuthan was also a multilingual and could converse in Portuguese this also helped his case. There were few elites from Konkan region too but their contributions were quite insignificant since they lacked practical knowledge, and were mostly superficial and techniques followed were based on weak foundation, the reason why Reede put faith on Achuthan. Achuthan’s methods of classification had context of social affinity and relevance. It should be pointed that much later Linnaeus adopted the same method of classification in 1740, as did many other scientists who followed. One could conclude that it was Itty Achuthan’s diligent observations and acumen that made Hortus Malabaricus possible, and so helped our understanding of our flora.  It wouldn’t be out of place to mention that he in many ways helped put the foundation botany as also knowledge related to it.

Itty Achuthan kept all his knowledge in palm leafs and kept it inside the cane basket, due to neglect and lack of interest they got destroyed over the centuries now only the basket survives. A lamp is lit every night at the Kuriala in memory of this great vaidyar, who should be remembered for his yeoman service in spreading knowledge and understanding of flora for the sake of humanity. He is undoubtedly father of modern Ayurveda.

Itty Achuthan’s whereabouts and what happened to him is sketchy. It is held that he was taken to Amsterdam where he died in 1670s, though no record exist to prove it.

From my scribble pad…
Hooded men
My apologies to the pause that precedes the violence 
The knife that search for the artery. 
For the black hoods that we have become. 
Anonymous lives and brutal fates fed to the gory specter 
Only the mating call of the bee eater breaks the eeriness 
Lungs gargle in blood that has lost its use 
The pain doesn’t spill but grows into an appetite. 
How have we come here, this far? 

Fragile, umbilical cord to the sleeping world 
Learning each step and being sure, very sure 
That the pause doesn’t make us listen 
Silence don’t make us searching 
Where do we go from here?