Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Nature Is My Religion...

It must be the bounty of dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers, and crickets thanks to the Vizag monsoon that must have brought them in droves. Off late, I have been seeing the Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) everywhere—perched on telegraph poles, lamp posts, and tree tops, “chack-chacking”. The otherwise dull (in appearance), unruffled, and solitary bird has resurfaced in a different avatar—noisier and in company of its own ilk. Chasing each other in flashes of “turquoise and sapphire”, their merriment presents a mesmerising sight.

When the blue jay flew
overhead… the sun caught its wings
and a haiku was born

The Indian Roller has been a fixture on Dolphin Hill, inconspicuous on a perch, in a picture of peaceful solitude. In flight, the dun-coloured apparition transforms into royalty when it unfurls its blue shade-card plumage, deserving of the epithet of Blue Jay or Neelkanth (blue throat, in vernacular lingo). Its languid twirls and swirls on wings make the other sobriquet of “roller” apt indeed.  

The Blue Jay is a bird of the countryside, a friend of the farmer as it is a natural “pest control”. Not for nothing is this beauty the state bird of several states including Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, and Karnataka.  Just as I was revelling in its antics comes the news that poachers are all out to net the unsuspecting creature.

Why would anyone want to do so? According to popular belief the bird is sacred to Lord Vishnu and its darshan is supposed to be propitious, particularly on the occasion of Dasshera. The Neelkanth is said to be sacred to Hindus. Likewise, the owl that is denigrated in many cultures as “evil” or “foolish” is revered by Hindus as a symbol of knowledge. Uluka (owl in Sanskrit) is the vehicle of Goddess Laxmi; inherent in this concept of vahan is the idea of conservation. And yet, the owl suffers a similar fate as the blue jay.

We know only too well what ill-fortune befalls snakes towards Nagpanchami and temple elephants that are kept chained or paraded for pelf, routinely. Going by the track record of such barbaric practices one can only imagine the plight of these hapless birds.

Isn’t it a travesty that birds are venerated and then exploited for its “religious” significance?

Unlike many anthropocentric religions which place Man on a pedestal, Hinduism places Nature in the same bracket as humans. The religion preaches love for and worships Nature in all forms—the five elements, animals, birds, fish, even stones.  And yet some of its votaries carry on pernicious practices in the very name of religion.

Man exploits animals for sport and food, for greed and in the name of God. He ensnares, captures, maims, poaches, declaws, defangs, gouges, skins, and slaughters creatures to fulfil imagined desires and fetishes. Vegetarianism is not the bone of contention here, but animal cruelty certainly is. My focus is on unethical treatment of animals and activities that are forbidden by law for being unjust and insensitive. These “criminals” who indulge in trade of animals and animal parts of vulnerable and endangered wildlife often go scot-free and untraced by moribund authorities. Laws such as Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 are mere paper tigers.  

Criminals are deliberate offenders but what about those who seek “darshan” or partake of such rituals because of their blind beliefs? How does one trace or book them and how many will you crucify? This section of “offenders” is a subset of the masses for whom religion is the opium, for which they can kill or instigate killing of animals. Who is to say they may not extend the same discourtesies to humans?

What I do not understand is why don’t any of our more respectable spiritual leaders such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev, to name two, raise their voice against these practices and condemn them as anti-Hindu? Why don’t they take up the mantle of animal rights activists to protect our wildlife and try and stop such inhuman practices in the name of “God”? 

I am an avowed spiritual Hindu who takes pride in the ideals of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and sarva dharma sama bhava; a jnana yogi, if you will. I distance myself from rituals, symbolisms, and idol worship. I go to a temple to “see” its art and architecture, learn about local deities, and not necessarily to pray. I am not a “practising” Hindu or a “believer” in the traditional sense. Having said that let me add: I am enamoured by Hindu epics, mythology, rituals and festivals for the stories and significance behind them. I am besotted by the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses—some in animal avatar and others with their animal vehicles—for the million manifestations of mankind. I am completely smitten by images and symbolisms, therein, for the sheer ingenuity and artistry.  The universal principle of Sanatan Dharma appeals to me intellectually.

In recent times though, some political “Hindus” are giving the religion a bad name. I don't identify with that kind of collective, institutional brand of militant Hinduism. I wish to reclaim the pristine nature of my religion. I much rather worship trees, birds, animals, sun, moon, stars…that exist, if it will help break barriers, than create Gods, label them, and form a cult. Nature—the Earth—has existed for eons and is universal to humankind irrespective of geography, history, and borders. You just have to look at a tiger or an elephant, watch its behaviour in the wild, to know what Satyam Shivam Sundaram stands for.  

Look at the serendipity. As I was anguishing the roller birds’ fate and mulling over this piece, I happened to see the life-changing Marathi film, “Dr. Prakash Baba Amte—The Real Hero”, on television.

A blog will do not justice to his life-story. Let’s just say that here is a man who not only won the confidence of isolated Adivasi of interior Maharashtra and changed their lives, but also that of orphaned wild animals such as lions and leopards. For Dr. Amte, whose life and work is phenomenally inspiring, Nature is the binding factor for all humanity. It is mother, teacher, provider, healer et al.  Dr. Amte chose Nature over man-made religion to establish peace and harmony in his karmabhoomi, Hemalkasa, which is an El Dorado, of sorts.

The extreme right-wing elements of the party in power and the fringe will do well to remember that they are doing the biggest disservice to Hindu religion—to its inclusive nature—of which they proclaim to be custodians of. They better back off soonest.


“...the turquoise and sapphire-tinted splendour of his wings…" -  description of a roller from JL Kipling’s, “Animals in India”

Haiku: A three-line verse of Japanese origin usually with Nature as its theme

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: The World/Earth is one big family

Sarva dharma sama bhava: All religions deserve equal respect

Jnana Yogi: A “seeker” or one who follows the path of Knowledge, one of the four paths to attain salvation 

Vahana: Favoured vehicle of travel of Gods and Goddesses according to Hindu mythology

Santana Dharma: It is not a faith, but an idea that there is no beginning or end to Universe and that Truthwhether we know it or notis universal and eternal 

Satyam Shivam Sundaram: Truth, Divinity, and Beauty

Karmabhoomi: The concept of “land of work” where one’s purpose in life is to be fulfilled 


Saturday, September 5, 2015



When one shutter closes, another one opens.

Like any birder, I started birdwatching by procuring a decent pair of binoculars and a bird guide. This was two decades ago, in India. Then came a time, during my Kenya sojourn, when I would reach for my camera sooner than the binoculars; my birding trips were rarely complete without my Canon PowerShot SX100.

The PowerShot was my first camera and, like a faithful friend, I  tagged it along everywhere. With an effective focal length of 360mm, it served me well for wildlife photography to seal in memories of once-in-a-lifetime (figuratively speaking) safaris. Of course, it fell woefully short in the face of the “bazookas” tourists of all hues flaunted there. Thankfully, I was not shooting wild African lions and elephants with a cell-phone camera like a visiting friend once did!

That is when there was a paradigm shift.

Passionate birders believe that binoculars are all you need for birdwatching. They maintain that a camera is a redundancy, a distraction at best. They believe that in the pursuit of obtaining the perfect picture, birder-photographers sacrifice acute observation and pure pleasure. The keen birder in me sees the point, but the bird-photographer in me has her own infallible logic.

Nobody can deny the immense contribution of photography in recording and documenting vital and subtle information. In many instances, logging of bird-sightings thus has aided in accurate identification of species that has confounded even a seasoned birder. Having said that, bird photography, like any other form of photography is, primarily, a "fine art" and not just means of documentation.

There is a breed of bird-photographers, as distinct from purist birders, that has to compulsively and obsessively entrap birds in its lens-eyes. This breed suffers from an irresistible itch to immortalize the subjects and aims to give it its best shot.  

For a while, I managed with the PowerShot, but soon it lost its appeal and application and I knew it was time to move on to a DSLR. As a greenhorn in creative photography, I settled for a crop sensor camera more out of consideration of budget than desire. I landed an incredible deal in a Canon EOS 700D with a kit lens combination—of standard lens and a macro telephoto. The entire kit cost less than the price of a good camera-body alone; what's more, a macro lens costing nearly Rs. 10,000 was virtually thrown in!  But as is wont with "interchangeable-lens cameras", without an appropriate lens I am still nowhere equipped for birding photography. Reaching for a camera-body was easier; it was the lay of the lens that had me in a fix.

Birding lenses which are super telephotos are the most expensive accessory of all photography gear. Of course, there are relatively cheaper versions, but they are not a patch on the “original” ones. I surveyed, researched, and discussed with friends and photo-enthusiasts the merits and demerits of birding lenses. I deliberated on the possibility of third-party lenses with relatively smaller reach to fit my pocket size, but nixed it presently.

In my book of photography, image quality is sacrosanct. For bird photography, smaller reach is akin to getting to the doorstep of the bird-world but no further. What I have my sights on is the latest version of the enduring Canon “100 – 400 mm” zoom, a technology marvel. But there is a blip between the eye and the lens. For a hobbyist, it is an extravagance ill-afforded, and I don't see me indulging myself; not yet. Of course, if I had my way I would go in for the best prime lens! There is no end to greed and need in photography, an expensive hobby if there was one.

As I bide my time for the perfect birding lens, I am out experimenting with the macro telephoto. My birding trips are now enhanced to being wholesome nature trips. In the process, I have stumbled upon butterflies and bees, dragonflies and damselflies, and chameleons and crickets.  Butterflies are always creating a flutter in Dolphin Hill where I reside, but now I am able to “see” them better with the "55 – 250 mm" appendage. The fresh “eyesight” has brought me closer to these insects-on-wings for I am discovering their habits and habitat, now. As I hover over butterflies trying to focus, I naturally latch onto dragonflies—dainty creatures with gossamer wings—in scarlet and sunset yellows.

With my macro lens, I am unravelling micro life.

After ornithology, I am drawn into entomology.

Birding and photography make for a captivating combination. Among nature- and photo-enthusiasts, birds and birding photography are perched high in wildlife hierarchy. It was my passion for birding that led to photography and that in turn has sparked interest in insects, anew. Delegated to low life, the insects were waiting in the wings for their moment in the sun. In my eyes and lens, they are now elevated. For their part though, they were always content in the knowledge—or perhaps oblivious—of the invaluable part they play in the web of life.