Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When Orientalism met Taxonomy

Just as good people today end up aiding and abetting the destruction of the planet there were enlightened people working for imperialist forces in the past. Working in the British East India Company, were a number of men (yes, I am not aware of women employees), many influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, members of scholarly societies, who landed up in India and took a keen interest in documenting the land, the people, the culture, and of course the flora and fauna. They were very well-educated for that period, many influenced by "liberal" philosophies at the East India College, Haileybury under teachers like Thomas Malthus. They started scholarly societies in India such as the the Asiatic Society and put their ideas into print. They have been called Orientalists but connotations vary. For many, 1857 marked the end of certain kinds of admiration, but some orientalism persisted, especially outside the main zone of the rebellion. It is worth examining whether this had any impact on the study of the fauna and flora of India.

Applicants to the East India Company service had to pass an exam which included a section on natural history (set in this case by J.D. Hooker, the famous botanist). We will see that many of these  questions such as the one on ascorbutic plants simply cannot be discarded as a fad, it was a matter of health and survival.

Part of an examination paper for EIC applicants.
Dublin Medical Press, 4 August 1858.

Even before the English EIC, there were other overland and seafaring visitors with an interest in the environment. Long sea journeys challenged human bodies and strengthened the role of ship surgeons who also needed to look for local substitutes for traditional medical remedies. In the 1600s some herbal remedies were almost miraculous. It was around the time when scurvy, the great killer of sailors, was found to be easily and effectively treated by lemon juice (yes, part of the answer to Dr Hooker's question 7 on ascorbutic plants is the citrus family!). It is unsurprising therefore that food and medicine, especially from plants, and local knowledge of them was big on the agenda of travellers. The Dutch, the Danes, the Portuguese, the English, they were all at work, examining traditional herbal remedies. The methods they used to obtain knowledge seem to have varied. Most collected specimens and sent them off to learned societies in there own countries.

The Dutch East India Company project of Hendrik van Rheede is exceptional in the nature of collaboration in knowledge production that put Indian traditional knowledge on record and gave local knowledge its due. Rheede came from an enlightened upper class background and it is interesting to see how he viewed other cultures. Rheede worked at a time when Linnaeus' ideas of binomial nomenclature were still in development. The only labels that he could use were what he could find from local usage. He was aware of local variations both regional and linguistic and recorded them quite carefully. He had copperplate engravings made for printing the illustrations and all of them include local names in their original scripts in the corner.

Jackfruit from Rheede's pre-Linnean work with Indian names
Sitaphal Annona squamosa from Hortus Malabaricus
A species claimed as an example of pre-Colombian biological transfers between the New World and Asia

Linnaeus considered words that came from non-classical languages (Greek and Latin) as 'barbarous'. He is said to have had reservations about using local names except in the Latinized form as species epithets and only rarely for generic names. Joseph Needham accused Linnaeus of being prejudiced about Chinese knowledge although some later workers have pointed out there is little evidence for this claim.(Cook, 2009) It has been pointed out that Linnaeus used nearly 258 names from Malayalam based on Rheede's work, the Hortus Malabaricus.

We have already seen how Brian Hodgson was a big fan of local names in his descriptions as well as binomials. He was however forced by peer-pressure to shift to the use of Greek and Latin roots.
Hodgson (1841)
We have seen also Hodgson's opinions on Macaulay and his defence of the vernaculars. This was perhaps a minority stance that was echoed only in southern India. Walter Elliott who had noted the local name of the Madras tree-shrew was commemorated in the binomial name given by G. R. Waterhouse and the genus came from the local Tamil name - Anathana. Waterhouse never went far from Europe (although he could have joined Darwin on the Beagle if had chosen to). So it seems somewhat ironic that the only the people who were pedantic about classical biological names were in the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Blyth?) and Jerdon in the Madras Literary Society.

Jerdon (1839)
Oriolus kundoo

Petrocincla pandoo - now Monticola solitarius pandoo

Names of Indian origin but with almost certainly no real connection seem to have been introduced into ornithology by Colonel W. H. Sykes. Working in peninsular India, he recorded all kinds of information as part of his job as "statistical reporter". He would later become a director of the East India Company. He measured the pressure and temperature at various times of the day at all locations he visited. Looked at the soil, counted the people, commented on female infanticide, sex ratios, army health, expenditure, the mathematics of insurance and almost anything that could be counted or measured at that time. He was one of the founders of what has been termed the Victorian statistical movement. His bird specimens got species names such as meena, seena, govinda, beema, asha, deva, pandoo, kundoo, (and a primate got lingoo) and so on apart from more routine eponyms after the powers around him. There is no reason in his bird names, they are not names used locally for the birds. The situation changes strangely when he deals with fishes and he uses local names almost as a rule - for example Gorius kurpah, Cyprinus nukta, Barbus musullah, B. kollus and so on.

C.-J.-B. Amyot and Audinet Serville (1843) Histoire naturelle des insectes 8. p. 266.
Macrocheraia grandis (=Lohita grandis )

The French entomologists Amyot and Serville are quite careful in their use of Sanskrit for insects from India. Redescribing a common northeast Indian bug which they called Lohita, they are careful in indicate the etymology and the association, even transcribing the original Sanskrit. Amyot & Serville also use such names as Sastrapada, Dalpada and Adrisa, although I have not examined the rationales for these. (in Distant's Fauna of British India. Rhynchota volumes) No such care can be found in the name usage of the W. L. Distant, G. W. Kirkaldy or Frederic Moore.

Running through the Fauna of British India volumes by W. L. Distant on the bugs gives us  some of the names that appear to be of Indian origin. Distant uses a few names in the first few volumes on Heteroptera (Nishadana ) but he really takes off with Sanskrit-origin names with the Auchenorrhycha (then called Homoptera). Presumably, the sheer volume of species and genera that are new to science make it too difficult to spend time on searching for names. Distant however does not have the time for finding meanings in Sanskrit and there is almost no association with the characters of the species. He is not alone in this, Kirkaldy (Nirvana, Krisna) and Walker (Asyla) also use a few names that are of Sanskrit or Indian origin. I call this the dictionary flipping system of nomenclature. We will soon meet the master of this art.

  • Purana
  • Haphsa
  • radha, Platylomia
  • durga, Meimuna
  • Mata
  • Aola
  • Lahugada
  • Sena
  • Gudaba
  • Basa
  • Anila
  • Baruna
  • Kinara
  • Vekunta
  • Magadha
  • Usana
  • Kosalya
  • Drona
  • Vivaha
  • Devadanda
  • Jivatma
  • usuma
  • Varma
  • Jagannata
  • Brahmaloka
  • Vishnuloka
  • Givaka
  • Tatva
  • Devagama
  • Narayana
  • Sivaloka
  • Sudasina
  • Nilalohita
  • Detya
  • Pisacha
  • Danavara
  • Satapa
  • Gomeda
  • Pulastya
  • Chaturbuja
  • Tejasa
  • Ketumala
  • Anaya
  • Gaja
  • Purohita
  • Upachara
  • Sogata
  • Nilaparvata
  • Kalpa
  • Smara
  • Bochara
  • Mahisa
  • Navarrus
  • Agunga
  • Kanigara
  • Uzza
  • Hybanda
  • Telingana
  • Dograna
  • Nilautama
  • Periaman
  • Ebhul
  • Gargara
  • Demanga
  • Yasa
  • Kanada
  • Thoodzata
  • Jembrana
  • Sounama
  • Mandesa
  • Daha
  • Abidama
  • nagasana, Cosmoscarta
  • samudra, Cosmoscarta
  • raja, Cosmoscarta
  • Chatura
  • Balocha
  • Chunra
  • Moonia
  • Busonia
  • Bhandara
  • Kolla
  • Bundera
  • Mainda
  • Pisacha
  • Tambila
  • Haranga
  • Balala
  • Preta
  • Soibanga
  • Mileewa
  • Ujna
  • Kalasha
  • Assiringia
  • Bhooria
  • Sudra
  • Hatigoria
  • Namsangia
  • Vangama
  • Traiguma
  • Gurama
  • Chudania
  • Mukaria
  • Buloria
  • Mohunia
  • Kutara
  • Kana
  • Pugla
  • Mukwana
  • Soortana
  • Varta
  • Dusana
  • Dharma
  • Guliga
  • Arya
  • Kunasia
  • Bhatia
  • Homa
  • Kartwa
  • sudra, Typhlocyba
  • jaina, Typhlocyba
  • Haidra
  • Haidara
  • Akbaratus
Frederic Moore (1830 - 1907)

Francis Walker, another entomologist, uses names that seem to be more inspired by previous workers and derived by anagrams or other means from others. His names include examples like Anitha, Asura and Baratha.

Frederic Moore was a curator of lepidoptera at the East India Museum, an establishment that was shut down and its contents moved to the V&A museum with zoological specimens going to the British Museum (NHM). He was also an accomplished artist, as was his namesake son. His truly wonderful work can be seen in the volumes of Lepidoptera Indica. This work however required him to put names on many of the specimens and it is believed that he was paid on the basis of the number of specimens described. The result was that he did not spend much time grouping similar looking species into proper genera and he gave many generic names for very similar butterflies - for instance the Euploea genus had been redescribed under numerous other names making it fun for the subsequent entomologists to decide which genus name had priority. A truly remarkable case of dictionary flipping, he picked a range of names with no meaningful association. Here are some:

  • Abisara
  • Abrota
  • Acharya
  • Bamra
  • Camadena
  • abiasa, Parathyma
  • Adisura
  • adara, Neptis
  • adara, Pantana
  • adita, Chionaema
  • Agastya
  • agna, Charaxes
  • agnicula, Polygonia
  • Agnibesa
  • Agnidra
  • agniverna, Ixias
  • amara, Bibasis
  • amba, Neptis
  • ambasa, Unkana
  • ananta, Neptis
  • anarta, Limenitis
  • andasena, Euploea
  • anila, Asura
  • anjana, Neptis
  • anjira, Cirrochroa
  • anna, Caligula
  • annada, Callerebia
  • antara, Pantoporia
  • Appana
  • apsara, Gazalina
  • Apsithra
  • Apsaras
  • Arasada
  • arbela, Indarbela
  • aruna, Argyreus
  • asita, Parathyma
  • asoka, Praezygaena
  • asthala, Symbrenthia
  • asthipa, Parantica
  • asura, Parathyma
  • asvata, Olene
  • aswa, Melanitis
  • avanta, Ypthima
  • avatar, Nepheronia
  • Babula
  • bada, Parnara
  • Badamia
  • badra, Hasora
  • bahula, Parathyma
  • bajadeta, Cirrochroa
  • bala, Sarbanissa
  • baladeva, Lethe
  • Balanga
  • balarama, Tanaecia
  • baldiva, Satyrus
  • baruna, Ilema
  • baralacha, Lycaena
  • baswana, Pantana
  • baya, Charaxes
  • beelinga, Erites
  • beema, Agylla
  • bela, Agylla
  • bhagava, Daimio
  • Bhagadatta
  • bhairava, Lethe
  • bhascara, Lymantria
  • bhavana, Apatura
  • bhira, Lebeda
  • Bimbisara
  • Bidaspa
  • Bindahara
  • birupa, Chrysozephyrus
  • bisma, Episteme
  • Brihaspa
  • buddha, Calinaga
  • byasa, Parides
  • Calinaga
  • Calidosa
  • cama, Pantoporia
  • Capila
  • cartica, Neptis
  • casyapa, Lobocla
  • casyapa, Papilio
  • Chabula
  • chalana, Ilema
  • Chalinga
  • champa, Trichosea
  • Chamunda
  • Chandrana
  • charaka, Mycalesis
  • Chatamla
  • Charala
  • Checupa
  • chaya, Pelopidas
  • Chendrana
  • Cheritra
  • Chilasa
  • chola, Panchala
  • Chogada
  • Chobera
  • chumbica, Satyrus (toponym?)
  • Churinga
  • colaca, Borbo
  • Cupitha
  • Curubasa
  • Cusuma
  • Dabasa
  • Dadica
  • Dalapa
  • Dalima
  • Dalchina
  • daksha, Callerebia
  • danava, Limenitis
  • Darpa
  • darma, Parasa
  • darana, Amblypodia
  • Dasaratha
  • dasarada, Parides
  • Davendra
  • Devanica
  • desa, Charaxes
  • deva, Elymnias
  • devaca, Delias
  • dhanada, Celaenorrhinus
  • dharma, Asura
  • Diduga
  • Digama
  • Dilipa
  • divacara, Chionaema
  • divikara, Chionaema
  • Dodanga
  • Dodona
  • Dophla
  • Dravira
  • drataraja, Prosopandrophila
  • Doranaga
  • Drupadia
  • Dura
  • Durdara
  • durga, Euthalia
  • durvasa, Appias
  • duryodana, Neptis
  • Gamana
  • gana, Tagiades
  • Gandaca
  • Gandhara
  • ganesa, Panchala
  • ganga, Abrota
  • Gangara
  • garuda, Euthalia
  • Garudinia
  • gautama, Calinaga
  • Ghoria
  • Gomalia
  • gomata, Bibasis
  • gokala, Melanitis
  • gola, Oriens
  • gopala, Satarupa
  • gopara, Spilosoma
  • gotama, Mycalesis
  • govindra, Papilio
  • Hantana
  • Harita
  • Harapa
  • Haridra
  • Harimala
  • Harita
  • Hesudra
  • Hemadara
  • Hathia
  • Hastina
  • Himala
  • Hingula
  • hira
  • Hysudra
  • indra, Appias
  • indrani, Cogia
  • indrasana, Cystidia
  • ira, Euthalia
  • Iramba
  • Iraota
  • jahnu, Tanaecia
  • jaina, Bibasis
  • jainadeva, Fabriciana
  • janaka, Papilio
  • Janarda
  • janardana, Mycalesis
  • jayadeva, Capila
  • jehana, Tajuria
  • jumna, Abrota
  • kala, Euproctis
  • kalinga, Melanitis
  • kamadena, Periergos
  • kamala, Fabriciana
  • kamarupa, Neptis
  • kanda, Euthalia
  • kansa, Lethe
  • Kaniska
  • Karanasa
  • karsandra, Zizeeria
  • Katha
  • kausala, Ixias
  • Kerala
  • Kerrata
  • kesava, Euthalia
  • Kolasa
  • Korawa
  • Kosala
  • kresna, Parathyma
  • krishna, Papilio
  • kumar, Caltoris
  • kurava, Nacaduba
  • Labranga
  • Lachana
  • linga, Miltochrista
  • Locharna
  • lodra, Perina
  • Lohora
  • Mahanta
  • Mahasena
  • Mahavira
  • mahendra, Neptis
  • mahesa, Parathyma
  • mahintha, Bibasis
  • mangala, Parnara
  • Martanda
  • maruta, Calliteara
  • mata, Limenitis
  • Mithuna
  • mithila, Cirrochroa
  • munda, Celaenorrhinus
  • Murlida
  • Nagasena
  • Nagoda
  • Nagunda
  • nanda, Lebeda
  • nandina, Neptis
  • nara, Euthalia
  • nakula, Apatura
  • narada, Daimio
  • narayana, Neptis
  • narindra, Lymantria
  • Narmada
  • Niganda
  • Nirmula
  • Nishada
  • nivaha, Miresa
  • Nikara
  • Norraca
  • Palanda
  • Padraona
  • Pandita
  • Panchala
  • Pandassana
  • Parasarpa
  • Parata
  • Parbattia
  • parinda, Papilio
  • parivala, Phalera
  • Patala
  • Pathalia
  • Pindara
  • pingasa
  • phisara, Daimio
  • Pitama
  • Pitasila
  • Pitrasa
  • Prabhasa
  • prabha, Myrina
  • pralaya, Mooreana
  • Pramila
  • prasana, Cerura
  • Pratapa
  • pravara, Parathyma
  • Putlia
  • radha, Neptis
  • Radhica
  • Raghuva
  • raja, Eterusia
  • Ramadasa
  • Rajendra
  • ranga, Parathyma
  • ramdeo, Thaumantis
  • ravana, Cirrochroa
  • Rohana
  • roona, Arhopala
  • Runeca
  • Sadarsa
  • Sadarga
  • sadana, Tridrepana
  • sahadeva, Euthalia
  • Samanta
  • samatha, Polyura
  • sambara, Nishada
  • samudra, Polyommatus
  • sancara, Euthalia
  • santana, Curetis
  • Satarupa
  • Sarangesa
  • scanda, Lethe
  • Satoa
  • sastra, Artaxa
  • sasivarna, Matapa
  • sena, Bibasis
  • Senadipa
  • sikandi, Euthalia
  • Sincana
  • sindura, Melitaea
  • sipahi, Pericallia
  • siva, Ochlodes
  • soma, Neptis
  • Sonepisa
  • Sonagara
  • sura, Odontoptilum
  • sumitra, Celaenorrhinus
  • surya, Cirrochroa
  • susruta, Neptis
  • suttadra, Arctia
  • Tarika
  • Telicota
  • Telinga
  • Thaduka
  • Thamala
  • Tirumala
  • Tiruna
  • Trilocha
  • Trilochana
  • Tripura
  • Trisula
  • vamana, Melanitis
  • Vandana
  • varaha, Melanitis
  • vasanta, Euthalia
  • vasudeva, Elymnias
  • vinata, Arguda
  • Vindusara
  • vipasa, Pontia
  • vira, Nordstromia
  • Virachola
  • viraja, Lasippa
  • vishnu, Delias
  • yama, Neope
  • Zabana
  • Zarima
  • Zeheba
  • zennara, Capila

Note that these names are included here by just a casual examination. I have specifically dropped cases where the name comes via the name of a place (toponyms). There may be errors but it should give an idea. Note also that many are not valid names and the combinations might be outdated. The full list can be readily checked by examining names used by Moore via LepIndex. Whatever Moore used was either a book or one or more books that included names from the Hindu Pantheon, the epics of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and some history as well. When I provided this list to some friends, I got a suggestion that the source book that Moore might have used would be something like this by Dowson. (This suggestion is thanks to Anna Dallapiccola via Henry Noltie. email: 16 May 2012)

Modern taxonomists resorting to Sanskrit are far more careful. The genus Sweta described by Professor C A Viraktamath for instance is white in colour and a frog like Nasikabatrachus has something to be said about its nose.

The strangest cultural artefact that got into taxonomy however is the name of a shade of grey that goes by the name of Hathi gray (Hathi is elephant in Hindi) - and is used as a standard in describing colours in zoological descriptions. I have seen no explanation of this phenomenon, particularly since this one was invented in America (yes, gray and not grey) by someone who had little to do with India. Based on some news reports from the period when Ridgway wrote his book, it appears that Hathi was an elephant that was popular at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (not far from where he lived). Hathi's name would probably have been inspired by Kipling's Jungle Book.

"Hathi gray" in a taxonomic description

The definition for Hathi Gray in the color guide by Robert Ridgway (1912)


Monday, February 23, 2015

The use and abuse of birds in India

It is clear that that the earliest human settlers in India would have tried various sources of food including eggs and bird meat. Finding the former or catching the latter would have required observational skills and a great deal of knowledge of bird habits. The skills required would have been far greater before the advent of fire-arms. With increased hunting, population pressures and the availability of alternate food sources these skills have been lost along along with a form of indigenous knowledge. Some of these techniques have been documented by travellers and later colonial naturalists. 

One of the earliest illustrations of hunting in India is from around 1596 in a book edited by A. Philippo Gallaeo with art by Jan Van der Straet [=Joannes Stradanus] (1596) Venationes   Ferarum,   Avium, Piscium. A copy of this treatise on hunting can be found on the wonderful French digital library. One of the less fantastic scenes is one that shows the hunting of ducks/geese from the head of the Indus river. There are numerous other techniques illustrated including the use of owls to attract mobbing birds, throw nets, clap nets and nooses, falconry, traps and deadfalls, stalking with cattle as cover.

"Anseram agreste genus stagnante in aqua capit Indus.
Ipse cucurbita habet tectum caput illecebris
Allicit: esuriens anser visas involat escae.
Indus pascentem facile capit arte volucrem." 
This describes use of cucurbits/gourds as a floating mask under which the hunter hides and swimming among the birds, he pulls them underwater. Later observers describe how earthen pots are floated in water for a few days until the birds get used to them. A hunter then swims with his head in one to get close to the birds. (Folkard, 1864)

Another plate describes fishing with what definitely appear to be pelicans. May perhaps have been practiced given that fishing with anhingas has also been reported.(Stonor, 1948)
Fishing with pelicans(?)

An account on the bird market at Lucknow published in the Pioneer and mentioned in the Western Daily Press (5 Dec 1889 p.6) has this bit on folk medicine. The brain of the male sparrow was supposed to cure various diseases. The blood of an owl was supposed to make someone who drinks it insane. Eating crow was supposed to keep your hair black and prolong life! The Indian roller was used in rites and set free after plucking a feather. The feather was worn as an amulet that warded away the evil eye. Birds of good and bad omen were apparently in great demand. 

One of the people who documented the birds involved in superstitious beliefs in southern India was Edgar Thurston. Thurston was one of the later successors of Edward Balfour at the Madras Museum, a mad enthusiast for the mix of scientific racism and physical anthropology that was in vogue in that period. Strangely enough, he seems to have joined hands with Hamilton Davey, one of A.O. Hume's associates involved with the South London Botanical Institute upon his return to England. Anyway Thurston describes some bizarre folk beliefs such as the idea that a person who saw crows copulating would die unless a close relative broke into tears. He documents a case where a boy sent his father a telegram purportedly informing the father of the son's death - so as to jerk some tears and prevent imminent death (Thurston: 69)! 

A Ba:l chhathri (horsehair nooses on a trellis)

Harper writes in 1903 on bird-catchers (and again from Lucknow!) and their technique of using jointed bamboo sticks extended slowly over a bird before catching it in the birdlime smeared on the tip. A bird-catching technique that is popularly known in the scientific literature as the "Bal-chatri" and widely used by raptor researchers has its origin in India. It is amazing that the etymology of the name of this trap was widely misquoted in literature until William S. Clark visited India and heard the correct pronunciation from some Indians and published a note on its etymology in 1992. Some of us listened to his talk in Bangalore that same year.

We have already seen the sad story of the plume trade and its impact on India.
Trafalgar Square minus its pigeons

Another story of interest is that of the pigeons. In August 2014 I visited London and walking down to Trafalgar Square I was quite surprised by the actions taken to rid it of pigeons. A little more than a century ago, pigeons became quite an obsession for a man named W.B.Tegetmeier. He was interested in living a very frugal life, a Bohemian who raced pigeons and enjoyed cock-fights until he rose into the higher rungs of the local social ladder especially through his association with Charles Darwin. Tegetmeier recognized the value of homing pigeons as carriers of messages and he was instrumental in getting the army interested. One of the offshoots of that was the setting up pigeon posts in India. The Lincolnshire Echo notes in a news piece published on 13 December 1894 that the 19th Hussars had established the Assaye Flying Club in Bangalore with the aim of demonstrating the use of homing pigeons in war. There was later on something called an India Pigeon Service in the North-West Frontier. Not many might be proud of being an I.P.S. officer today but the Lancashire Evening Post (3 August 1945) carries a report on a proud local, Sergeant T. Walker of Kendal, working with the Service in the North West Province. It states that "no patrol now leaves any of the frontier forts without pigeons as an aid to their endless watch on the activities of the warrior tribesmen." (Those warrior tribes, incidentally, were brought upon the British by the "work" of Charles Napier, whose statue also stands in Trafalgar Square)
Quail trappers with decoy birds. From Harper (1903)

One of the strategies for ridding Trafalgar Square of its pigeons was the use of falcons. Falconry, it would seem was a Persian introduction to India as it was to Europe. There is however a single claim to the contrary based supposedly on a Sanskrit text called Shyenavinod by a Raja Somabhupati and dated to 1029 AD. The original and the provenance of this text is unclear/not demonstrated and it is much more likely that this is a contemporary of Syainika Sastra (available online) translated into English in 1910 and based on Sanskrit text by a Kumaoni Raja, it turns out that this is actually dated to a post Mohammedan conquest period. The translator even notes that the Syainika Sastra uses words from Turkish and Persian. One the most detailed sources on falconry in India is by Colonel Emilius Delme Radcliffe. Radcliffe also wrote the entry on falconry in the ninth edition of Encylopaedia Brittanica. However other methods of catching birds with birds probably existed in antiquity. The use of decoy birds to attract male partridges and quails seems to be traditionally well understood.
Syainika Sastra

An extract from Edward Balfour's Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia on birds was printed separately as Birds of Eastern and Southern Asia (I had made a request for this through the Biodiversity Heritage Library and it has recently been made available online from a copy in the Natural History Museum at Tring) and it has some very interesting bits of historical (and ethno-ornithological) information. A later encyclopaedist, George Watt also puts in some interesting summaries on the trade value of birds and their derivatives. I was particularly interested in the bits on guano extraction which however is included under "manures" (p. 769) which states that guano was extracted mainly from Kurnool and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands suggesting that the former was mainly bat guano and the latter mainly that of edible nest swiftlets.


Monday, February 2, 2015

On the tracks of destruction

"... the terrible and wonderful ag-gadi, the fire-horse" - Edwin Arnold

Travel may be enjoyable, and adventure, exciting, but it leaves behind a wake of destruction. With a growing appetite for fast cars and straight, sterile, high-speed roads India is headed for assured destruction. In the shadows of this need for speed, those of us who have enjoyed and appreciated the wealth of wild India will have enough reasons to worry about the future. Reading about the past can either be an escape or a warning. The romance of India which attracted hordes of outsiders was its wildness. Wild India's attraction, its visitors and rulers helped fuel its destruction.

India from an early sailing perspective was just a slim peninsula
Calecut Nuova Tavola by Girolamo Ruscelli, 1561  

Getting from Europe to the exciting riches of India was not easy. The early sailships needed six to nine months and this was gradually reduced with the invention of paddle steamers, screw propeller and the construction of the Suez Canal.

Rough seas and uncertain journeys (East Indiaman by Charles Brookings, cartoon by G. Cruikshank)
Teak was found to be particularly good for marine use. Apparently you cannot use iron nails in oak (not for long at least) but teak was just great. English oak had been over-exploited[Albion 1926] and by 1795 the decision was made that "Country-built" (=Indian) ships be used by the East India Company.[Chatterton 1914:171] Shipbuilding took its toll on the forests of India but good wood does not give you a fast journey. Steam ships needed coal but ships from England could only carry a limited amount on board and coal was needed by the hundreds of tons for just a single voyage. 

The railways in India were born to harvest the coal from the hinterland of India. As if that was not bad enough, the construction of tracks needed impossible amounts of strong timber for the sleepers and the steam engines needed firewood in addition to the coal that they needed to carry from the few places in the heartland to the ports where steamships waited. In the wake of all this destruction there were some influences on the study of India's fauna and flora.

The quest for coal, which enabled faster shipping from Britain to India, became particularly urgent after 1857. The slow sailships had also had their influence on the study of natural history, for the painful and often unhealthy journey required ship surgeons who were trained to appreciate the variations in the fauna of other lands and the medical value of flora. The need for speed, steamships hungry for coal (that had to stashed on St. Helena for reasons of economy and that island had been stripped of its wood, something that would catalyze other debates on the environment) brought in a slew of geologists, many Irishmen and one especially interesting Moravian. The geologists were trained to appreciate the past history of the earth, the signs of past life and coal, the result of long-gone vegetation. 

Early plans for the railways to harvest the coal and cotton bounty

The beards of the Geological Survey of India (1870), quite a few who also took an interest in birds.
Standing left to right: Ferdinand Stoliczka, Robert Bruce Foote, William Theobald, F.R. Mallet, Valentine Ball, Wilhelm Heinrich Waagen, W.L. Wilson. Sitting left to right: A. Tween, W. King, Thomas Oldham, H.B. Medlicott, C.A. Hackett.

Valentine Ball, F.R. Mallet and Ferdinand Stoliczka were especially interested in natural history, all three were correspondents of A.O.Hume and collected bird specimens. Ball was also responsible for identifying the best route for laying the railway links between the Delhi-Calcutta rail line and the Bombay lines.

It did not take long to discover that the amount of wood needed for sleepers for the railways could simply not be met by the available forests. And there enters the story of Hugh Cleghorn and the idea of forest departments and commercial forestry.

A major "railways ornithologist" and Hume correspondent was W. E. Brooks who was early to recognize the importance of bird song in species recognition. A great friend of Hume, he named his son, Allan Brooks, the great Canadian bird artist after him.

The railway infrastructure crisscrossing the country could not avoid an impact with other denizens. An impact in which the wild would most certainly lose despite the fact that it did not involve wanton killing as with the buffalo in North America. The stories of wildlife conflict only made India more exciting and enticing. The newspaper articles were sensational.

At a point between Sutna and Manikpur the engine surprised a couple of good-sized tiger cubs that had been amusing themselves on the line. They showed no alarm but just as they knew the speed of the train to a nicety, cantered along in front of the engine for a couple of hundred yards or so, and then turned off to the right and left.

And it was not just encounters but death for many animals whose stories have never been told.
Between Sahebgunge and Mirzapore at half-past eight p.m.,  a collision between an elephant and a goods-train causing an accident "perhaps unheard of since the establishment of railways, not only in India, but throughout the world" (December 1868)
"The mail train between Madras and Bangalore ran down and killed a full-grown panther on a recent journey. Terrified at the approach of the train, the beast ran in front until exhausted, when it turned, and, viciously leaping at the front of the engine, was dashed to pieces."
- Thursday 30 April 1903, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Devon, England

A king cobra guillotined by a train on the Castle Rock line (November 2012)

Despite all this the railway system is a much better (see http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2009.07.015) transport system than roads which probably have a far greater impact, apart from killing more people and burning up more fossil fuel. 

Here is however some beautiful prose by Sir Edwin Arnold that takes one back to another time. Extracted from the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic, October 26, 1901 where it was republished from a source that is not indicated. (It does not seem to be available elsewhere on the internet.)

Railway travel in India.

by Sir Edwin Arnold 

Railway timetable 1918 (Photo: Senthil Kumar)

Although constructively and mechanically so much the same everywhere, it is remarkable how greatly railways differ in different countries. For myself, I have always fancied that countries possess individual features-faces as special to themselves as those of men and women. I think if an Afrit of the Arabian Nights were to waft me asleep through the moonlight, like Bedreddin Hassan and to put me down in any part of India, Japan, Egypt, Africa - nay, even of Europe or America - I should know at a glance - by the general aspect of trees, fields, sky and landscape, let alone of the people and the birds and beasts- exactly where I had arrived.

So too, I think a close observer could always tell, if had travelled much, just where he was journeying by the look, the system, the style, the character, of his train and his railway carriage. He could know a Spanish train by its sluggishness; a Dutch train by the prevalence of pipes and tobacco; American trains by bell and cowcatcher; Egyptian trains by the dust and the dogs rushing on board for scraps; a Japanese train by its punctuality and disregard of comfort; a Russian train by its samovar, or tea-urn; and so on.

Indian trains are particularly sui generis, and for the benefit of English tourists who are contemplating a run through the wonderful Eastern Dominions of his Majesty King Edward I will her descant a little about travelling on Indian railway lines. 

FIrst with regard to stations, you will not see anything finer or grander in that way, go where you will, than the Victoria Station, the Bombay terminus of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Suppose we take a run from there, the beautiful Gothic palace of traffic, rising stately and splendid between the picturesque vistas of the Esplanade Market and the Boree Bandar Road of Bombay. With its noble faced, rich sculpture, and high commanding dome, that edifice cost a million and a half dollars to build and yet, for all that superb appearance, there is not a more roomy or convenient station in the world.

Victoria Terminus pre-1900 (Metropolitan Museum)

One starts royally on a trip it must be confessed, from such a "gare," and nowhere else can one see a crowd so bright in colour, or varied in nationality, as will be hanging about the steps of the entrance, or filling its huge hall and waiting rooms. Western crowds are dull in general tint-grey and black and ant-like, except for what women do with hats and blouses and parasols to redeem them. But this throng about an Indian depot is a veritable moving bed of flowers, with the many-hued turbans of the men and the gladsome dyes of the saris and cholis worn by the girls and matrons. Even the lowest castes are dressed gorgeously as far as colour goes, and all have silver or glass ornaments, many, even, valuable gems in their earrings and nose-rings.

Those who are intending to make a serious journey betake themselves very early to the station, and sit down in family groups, with their modest belonging,s tied in cloths or packed in bamboo baskets, placed in their midst. They are wealthy in one thing only, that is time, which they value very little, and cheerfully waste in chatter, while circulating the hubble-bubble, or slowly chewing the pan-supari - that is, the betel-nut quid, the universal and perpetual solace of India, which is so peculiar to her peoples.

You will try it once, but never again- chips of the areca-nut are broken up by a sort of steel nut-cracker and mingled with a pinch of lime, all wrapped in a leaf of the pepper vine[sic], and fastened with a clove. Masticating this turns the saliva red, of which signs are only too ubiquitous, and the taste of the compound is astringent and aromatic; the thing itself being indispensable to the Indian natives, every one of whom in that station-hall will possess his supari-bag, with a supply for the long road.

The women, poor gentle souls, will have some chupatties-cakes-in a cloth, with a "hand" of bananas or a basket of mangoes, for the trip, and perhaps a water-jar. But in that land of thirst the arrangements for drinking on the journey are very carefully made by the management. At almost every station a man of the proper caste will go up and down the platform, shouting aloud "Pani! pani" and dispensing draughts to the thirsty, or filling up their golahs and chatties.

You yourself must also make preparations for an Indian railway run, of any length, of a kind which would never be thought of at home. First of all you must and will have engaged a good man-servant, a "boy," on whom you will vastly depend for comfort. you cannot do without him at hotel, dak, bungalow, or even in private houses; and if he cheats a little he will, if reasonably honest, limit the peculations of others. Obtain a good "boy," and pay him fairly; it is he who will buy the tickets and take the places.
An "Etna"

Then the next thing is a good tiffin basket, which he will keep sedulously filled with potted meat, biscuits, wine, soda-water, etc., with doubtless the machinery to brew tea; an Etna, spirits of wine, and the like, for you must not trust unboiled water or milk in the land. Moreover, although some of the way-side stations have excellent restaurants, these do not always turn up on the route when the voyager needs them most.

Then, again, he must carry his own light bedding with him-two silk or cotton razais, well wadded, and a pillow. The guide-books justly counsel that there must be two razais. The ready-made ones are usually very thin, but they can be got to order of any thickness. To these should be added a pillow-case, calico sheets, and a blanket. A rough waterproof cover in which to wrap the bedding must not be omitted, or the first time the bedding is carried any distance by a coolie, or packed on a pony, it may be very much soiled. A water-proof sheet is a very valuable addition to the bedding.

Without such a modesty supply of covering as is here indicated, a traveller may at any time have to spend a night shivering in the cold, which would probably result in an attack of ague.

To his boy, his tiffin-basket, and his bedding the tourists will add a copy of the "Indian A.B.C. Guide," or the "Indian Bradshaw," and for the rest he may safely trust the companies. They do all they can for the well-being of travellers, and especially those of the first class. To quote the guide-book: "Every first and second class compartment is provided with a lavatory, and the seats, which are unusually deep, are so arranged as to form couches at night. There are refreshment rooms at frequent intervals, and some of them are very well managed and supplied. The station-masters are particularly civil and obliging, and, as a rule, are most useful to travellers in providing ponies, conveyances, or accommodation at out-of-the-way stations if notice be given them beforehand. They will also receive letters address to their care; this is often a convenience to travellers."

Of course, it must be in what is called the "cold weather"  that you traverse the various lengths and breadths of Hindustan. From the middle of November to the middle of March is the ideal period. Yet even then, and always, the sun must be respected from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m, and many a burning hot hour at best will be passed in the railway carriage. This may be foreseen by the method in which the railway-stock has been constructed.

The first-class compartments will have a double roof to them, to soften the fierce impact of noonday sunshine, and the windows will be duplicated, with pale purple or green glass and "jilmil"-shutters-to exclude, as far as possible, the hot winds and the dust. On those lines, too, where tunnels do not forbid the arrangement, the Transatlantic tourist will be amused to behold the third and fourth class carriages, devoted to the traffic of the common people, fashioned in storeys, so that, as with the Chinese pork-express, there are layers of humble travellers berthed over the heads of others- a kind of rolling Noah's Ark in floors.

In this luxurious fashion will the Hindu, with his family, contentedly journey day and night and go upon pilgrimages, being easily satisfied if he can only get over the ground cheaply. It was a moot point, at the commencement of railway-making in India, whether or not that Shastras, the Holy Books, would permit orthodox and devout Hindus to perform pilgrimages by the aid of steam.

Happily for the dividends of shareholders and for the convenience of the native public the pundits decided that there was nothing recorded against such a practice in Ved or Smriti; and it is the swarm of simple people which nowadays makes the Indian lines pay, together, of course, with the trade in grain, cotton, and general produce.

Remember that one must not expect good hotels in India. There are at Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, and Madras some that are fair and sufficing, but not to him who has been accustomed to the magnificent accommodation provided by London hostelries. Here and there the railway depot will have bedroom as well as a restaurant, but along all by-roads, and in the Mofussil generally, the dak bungalow is just a plain white-washed shelter, with a "charpoy," a bed-stead or two, plus the services of a Khansamah, and the chance of a very tough fowl, which is caught, amid wild confusion, at the moment of the arrival of the guest and takes a tardy but desperate revenge for his death by the indigestion it bequeaths to this destroyer.

In whatever direction your Indian train may be moving, the landscape on either side, even as seen through the rapidly shifting frames of the windows, will be new to the Western visitor. If he be at all a botanist, or should he have any companion with him who can name and explain the details of such leafy and flowery vistas as may be seen in Guzerat or the Concan and Deccan, those leagues of moving plain, jungle, and village would not pass without instruction and interest.
1930 tourism poster of the G.I.P.

It adds immensely to the charm of any country when you understand a little of its flora and fauna. Along the Bombay lines it would go hard but that one might point out to him the white and golden star-flowers of the champak; the custard-apple, Sita's fruit; and the lotus, blue, rosy, or white, the flower par excellence of India, which has one hundred and thirty-five various names, and springs so pure and sweet from the black slime.

Then there will be the bil trees, and the neems with purple blossoms, and the bher- Zizyphus jujuba -which Mussulmans say is the Sidra, that grows in Paradise; together with the dark green mango (amba), and the gold mohur tree, and the bawa, the bloom of golden rain, and long pods like sword blades. There will be also countless acacias, babul, full of swinging weaver-birds' nests, and endless clumps of aloe and of prickly pear (nagphanna), as well as the classical kadamba and bright green karanda bushes; not to forget the banyan, the pipul, and palms of many kinds. One might see also the fragrant pandanus; the sandalwood (chandan); with everywhere bushes of erandi, the castor-oil plant, of which a Sanskrit verse says so contemptuosly:
"In the land where no wise men are, men of little wit are Lords.
And the castor-oil's a tree, when no tree else its shade affords."
If we could leave the train, and wander amid that dark deep thicket, there are many other strange plants and flowers which might be found, adding terror, or beauty, or marvel to those wild gardens of Asia. There is the deadly datura, with her flowers so milky-white and fragrant and her poison so quick; the samspan, which the little mongoose is believed to eat when the cobra has bitten him; and the charbaje, that opens her blooms exactly at four o'clock every afternoon, as punctual and almost as curious as the Desmodium gyrans, which twists and untwists her pink stem twice every twenty-four hours.

The tourist in India must not expect to see tigers and leopards, nor bears and bisons, from the windows of his carriage, but there will be something to interest any lover of nature all the same, and more, perhaps, than any other kind of swift travelling could supply. The sky will be full, especially near towns and stations, of kites and vultures, soaring aloft, and wheeling round and round with shrill cries. Over the pools and rivers he will mark the fish-tiger (muchi-bagh) hovering; a white and black halcyon and the pretty snow-white egrets will everywhere be noted stalking about among the grey cattle, and the king-crow flitting with his long black tail, and the jungle-dove with pearled and jewelled neck, cooing from every bush; as well as the green and bronze bee-eater hawking the butterflies, the "seven brown sisters" feeding and chattering in the bushes, and, perhaps, some grey thievish jackals stealing home at dawn.

There are many railways in the land along which he would be very likely to catch glimpses of the beautiful and graceful Indian antelopes, the black-buck, which are still plentiful in the central plains. I was riding myself once on a ballast-engine in the Deccan to get back more quickly to my educational duties, when we surprised a wolf in the entrance of a deep and long cutting, and never shall I forget how "Lupus" put on the pace as we rattled behind him between the steep embankments.

In passing through the green flats and forests of Guzerat, there are districts where for miles and miles you may beguile the journey by watching the monkeys, the bandar-log, those strange four-handed folk who come down to sit in the babul trees and to look at the passing trains and the travellers. Secure from all interference-for the white man must not molest them, and the brown man will not- they perch by families on the branches of the trees lining the track, and with their long tails swinging and their furry jaws busy with the fruit which they have stolen, like meditative Asia herself, they "let the legions thunder past." Or they squat demurely, in companies, about the fields of millet and grain, the old gossips together, and the youngsters merrily playing- all as confident and cool as if they were citizens of the place, and had votes.

In Rajpootana you may often notice, from the passing train, the beautiful dark blue peacocks break in a thunder of jewelled wings and lightning of purple plumes from the white marble rocks at the edge of the jungle, and you will pass many and many a spot notoriously frequented by tigers and panthers; no more visible, of course, on that account than if the wild green fastnesses concealed nothing except porcupines and mongoose.

The engineers along the various lines are mainly Europeans. There are not many Hindus or Mohammedans who have as yet the courage or the knowledge to drive the terrible and wonderful ag-gadi, the fire-horse, of which the Panjabi verse sings:
"Now is the devil-horse come to Sindh,
Wah, wah, Guru! that is true.

His belly is stuffed with the fire and the wind."
In parts of India the wandering tribes will still be offering tributes to the flying locomotives, and even prostrating themselves before the telegraph wire, which they style "sheitan-ka-rashi," the "devil's string."

Most of the stationmasters are Bengali Babus or Deccani clerks, or else some other Hindus educated at the schools and colleges. Such quiet duties suit them well, and they are very attentive and sedulous, but strictly given to carry out to the letter their bye-laws, and to refer on all possible occasions for directions from their superiors. Thus it is really no myth, but a solemn fact, that once, on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, the Chief Superintendent received at the central depot from a member of the staff of a minor station in the up-country this telegraphic message:"Tiger on the platform, has killed station-master; is now devouring tikkit-wallah, Please wire instruction"!

"Tiger jumping about on platform, men will not work; please arrange."
(Copy of telegram received at local office of the railway company)