Once upon a time, there was this happy place called Kokkrebellur. Once upon a time.
Now, this age-old nesting site for the endemic Painted stork has become another casualty of human greed.
In Kannada, the word “kokkre” means stork. The very name of this village is derived from the storks that come here every February to breed. It is believed that this location has been the nesting ground for the Painted stork since a thousand years.
It has taken Homo sapiens less than a decade to ruin it.
What else do you expect from the most destructive species on the planet? Microwave towers, loudspeakers blaring, massive old trees chopped down, waterbodies gone dry, illegal sand mining, heaps of garbage – no effort has been spared to screw up Kokkrebellur as only humans can.
Once, there was a grove of Mahua trees that was three centuries old, and housed dozens of mating Indian grey hornbills and a hundred other species. Now there are charred stumps. And an illegal function hall in its place. Littered with discarded bottles, plastic, rotting food and all the usual shit that humans like to throw around.
I’ve written at length about Kokkrebellur in an earlier blogpost, written in the days when there was something to write about this unique village in Maddur district. But now there’s nothing left at Kokkrebellur to write about. The storks and pelicans have arrived this year too, but each year their numbers dwindle.
The Kabini river that provides sustenance to these great birds has gone totally dry. There are fewer trees to nest on, more vehicles, much more competition for what little space and resources are available.
Eventually, the storks will simply fly off to a better place.
When the Kokkre is gone from Kokkrebellur, then what?
What the eff am I doing here, I ask myself as I trudge barefoot in the heat, through the filthiest temple town I have been in.
This is Melukote. Global hub of Shri Vaishanavism, second only to Sriperumbudur in importance. A world-renowned center for Sanskrit learning. The scriptures say that Rama and Krishna themselves worshipped the ancient deity here. The temples you see today are a thousand years old, built stone by stone by Shri Ramanuja and his disciples.
This is Melukote. And it is filthy.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness, we are told. If that is true, then please be assured that God would keep His distance from Melukote.
Due to my being born a Thenkalai, I am a follower, albeit a reluctant one, of Shri Ramanuja and a Shrivaishanavite by default. Melukote is therefore “my” place. Each year, I find myself drawn to this place. And year after year, I find myself being repelled by the general filthiness. This year, the filthiness was just intolerable.
The history of Melukote is truly Vedic. The temples are merely ten centuries old. The primary deity here, Cheluvanarayanaswamy or Thirunarayana, has been worshipped at this place since the time of Rama. After the long-lost metal idol was rediscovered by Shri Ramanuja in 1100 or so, Melukote was heavily patronised by the Hoysalas, the Wodeyars, even by Tipu Sultan, and in modern times, by Shrivaishnavites across the world and by all other sects. With all that patronage, past and present, there is no excuse whatsoever for Melukote’s current state.
It’s not a question of money. There is no shortage of money, I have no doubt. It’s not a question of government support. You need neither money nor political support just to be clean. It’s a question of attitude and it’s a question of arrogance.
At no other major shrine have I seen cars parked right at the temple walls, nowhere else have I seen so many hawkers peddling their wares so close to the main temple. No where else have I seen garbage so carelessly strewn about. Sullen watchmen at the gates and sundry people expecting money at every nook are common features in all temples. One expects Melukote to be different, but no. One is totally wrong. Give me twenty rupees, insists an elderly priest inside the temple, and I tamely hand over the money, not due to piety, but due to pity.
My visit there yesterday coincided with an “abhishekam” of Ramanuja’s idol. The term “abhishekam” means a ritualistic libation of a religious idol with various sanctified liquids like milk, ghee, honey, sandal paste and others.
There were innumerable Iyengar mamas and mamis inside, in traditional vestis and 9-yard sarees respectively. Technically, I am an Iyengar mama too, and I ought to have been in a vesti too. But my priorities are crystal clear.
Cleanliness first. Godliness next. Hygiene first. Spirituality next. Sanctity of body first. Purity of mind next.
Three years ago, my elderly mother ate the food here, came back that evening to Bangalore with acute gastroentiritis and had to spend a full week at Fortis hospital. That horrible week comes back to my memory, and I bluntly turn down the offers of puliogare and annadana that I am plied with.
History and divinity both get buried under the filth of Melukote.
As a Shrivaishnavite, I am not just angry. I am filled with a cold rage as I make my way through this ancient town. In vain do I tell myself that Rama and Krishna might have walked down the same lanes that I walk now, and that Shri Ramanuja definitely did. All I can see are the piles of garbage, the plastic bottles everywhere, the stray dogs, the hawkers, the growling monkeys – and the devotees who create all this filth by tolerating it and worse, by patronising it.
Enough. I call up the driver (who is of course parked right next to the temple wall) and we make our way back to the Garbage city, also known as Bangalore.
The newly laid road from Mandya to Melukote provides little consolation, since I’ve seen the hundreds of old trees that once stood on either side of that road, and were butchered for no reason.
In comparison, Tipu’s tomb in Srirangapatnam is a pleasure to see. Gumbaz is immaculately maintained, and more important, it is clean. There’s no entry fee although there is a stiff parking fee – but no parking lot. The outside is no doubt dirty and hawker-infested. But the inside is just the opposite. Manicured lawns, old trees that date back to Tipu, and the tomb itself is shining white – and clean.
So. This is “my” Melukote. I don’t feel good, I feel ripped off. I don’t feel sanctified, I feel dirty. I am not filled with spirituality and enlightenment, I am filled with dark anger.
Next time I feel the desire to commune with God, I won’t take the expense to hire a cab and drive 150 kms through dense traffic to end up at a place that is filthier than the urban slum I live in.
I’ll either visit the small temple at my street corner, which is far cleaner, or just stay at home and visit Wikipedia, which is far safer.
For the third time, I set aside a weekend to attend Neralu, Bangalore’s annual tree festival. And for the third time, I came back with some nice pictures – and little else.
Neralu, like other such “celebrations” of Nature, has a lot of passion, enthusiastic volunteers, energetic workshops, the usual collection of grey-headed academics and assorted “experts”, and the mandatory music concert accompanied by lusty applause and thunderous foot-stomping.
The primary reason for carting myself across the city through all the traffic (even on a Sunday) was the talk delivered by Dr Harini Nagendra. Turned out to be a disappointment. The title of the talk was itself misleading, the content was nothing new and its conclusion was hardly inspirational. One expects a lecture by a qualified ecologist of her repute to be considerably better than what one can learn from Wikipedia.
That Bangalore’s current state is alarming, is already well known. Bangalore’s ecological history is also well known, at least to me. And I’m not even an ecologist, mind you. What one is really concerned about is Bangalore’s ecological future. This was the one question that I posed to her that Dr Harini would not answer.
Her evasiveness on the question served to confirm what I have long known – that Bangalore’s doom is all but inevitable. To my mind, Doom is already here.
The cyber-talk on plant evolution that followed, delivered via skype (or whatever) by Pranay Lal was equally pedantic. It may be fascinating to learn that dinosaurs once ruled the Deccan and feasted on cycads during the Mesozoic, but the questions that trouble those of us who live in the Cenozoic remain unanswered. Nothing wrong in an author trying to promoting his book through a lecture, but in this instance, I do not think the purpose was served.
What I did like was the tree-walk at Krishna Rao park conducted by Narayan, Divya and Srikanth. And I did enjoy the workshop conducted by Charumati Supraja. These are nice, unpretentious folk with a genuine fondness for trees.
The evening musical performance was, well, passable. One cannot doubt the musical know-how of Bindumalini Narayanaswamy and Vasu Dixit. What one looks for though, is clean melody, a sweetness of voice, that sincerity of sound that pleases the ear and thrills the heart. The raucous support from their fans in the audience notwithstanding, this rare quality is missing from their music. This is what separates the good from the great. One hopes that this singular quality will develop in this couple’s music over time.
A professional music critic I am not. I am not even a bathroom singer, I am that bad. But I did learn a thing or two from a lifetime of listening to real musicians (like my mother) and I did learn something directly from Dr Balamuralikrishna himself, whom I once met in my childhood, that all music is Carnatic music, because Carnatic music is nothing more than “Karnau madhura”. That which pleases the ears, that alone is Carnatic music.
Passion, enthusiasm, concern, anguish, energy, so much youth.
But, no answers.
That is because Neralu, like other eco-movements in the city, has all other emotions, except the one emotion that matters.
Nature photography is one of my serious hobbies. Outdoor photography is a powerful stress-buster, a good way to get myself some cardiovascular exercise, and it keeps me off my butt and off the streets.
For the serious hobbyist, modern digital photography is an expensive avocation. Thankfully I’m single. Even better, I don’t need to pay alimony, to either of my ex-wives. Neither of them would let me buy expensive lenses, speedlights, filters and other costly accessories that I keep buying to pursue my passion.
Notwithstanding the absence of a sullen wife, there are several major irritants that frequently keep me from enjoying photography as much as I would like to. Too many inquisitive on-lookers who keep poking around my equipment. Too many drunken sots who keep asking me if I am from a TV channel (as if!). Too many stray dogs. Too many moronic security guys who keep blowing their whistles in my face. As if taking a photo of a flower will kill it.
The worst irritants however, are those half-assed nitwits who insist on calling me ‘Uncle’. Last evening, as I was taking some particularly difficult shots of a Saraca tree in bloom, a boorish photographer taking photos of his clients told me to ‘Move aside, Uncle’.
I let him have it. That a*hole of a photographer got the shock of his life when he discovered that ‘Uncle’ knows several foul words in several languages. Apart from questioning his legitimacy and his father’s mating habits, I informed him in the worst possible language that I am not his mother’s brother, and therefore not his effing ‘Uncle’.
Don’t call anybody ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’, unless you know them really well. Hailing a random stranger as Uncle is insulting, abusive, arrogant, condescending and downright rude.
And equally abusive and condescending are phrases like “even at this age”, “he’s an inspiration to other people of his age” or worse, telling a 70-year old grandfather of six grandchildren that “you just don’t look your age”.
We elders have mirrors in our homes and we know exactly what we look like, thank you very much.
In civilised society, the correct form of address for a person of mature age is Sir or Madam, or the equivalent in whichever language you use. Samskrit being an especially refined form of communication, specifies the use of ‘Mahoday’ or ‘Mahodaya’. Since all other Indian languages are derived from or influenced by Samskrit, they each have honorifics to be used for elders. Learn them and use them.
Don’t go ’round town creating brothers for your mother. Unless you want an ‘Uncle’ like me to ask you why your mother has multiple brothers from multiple fathers.
Bangalore is finished. For years, the demise of this fair city was foretold by heads much wiser than mine. I have been a prophet of doom as well, to the amusement of anyone who took the trouble to listen to me.
What I did not expect was that demise to occur so soon. Cheerful optimist that I am, I always hoped that my grim predictions and the ecologists’ dire warnings would be proven wrong.
But no. Doom is here. It is today. It is now.
I finally had to accept this reality during the annual Bird Race on Sunday last.
Since a decade, the third Sunday of January has been the day of the Bird Race. Sponsored by HSBC, the Race was one event that birders would look forward to. Although no prize money was involved, winning the Bird Race was a matter of prestige in the birding community. Competition was fierce albeit cordial, bird tallies and sightings were taken seriously, often resulting in furious arguments. There were bad eggs who would cheat, but the majority of us birders were scrupulously honest in our reporting. Invariably someone would sight a rare species and win the Bird of the Day prize – as my team did with our sighting of the Grey-necked bunting. Well, my friend Sumesh and his team saw it too and shared the prize with us, but I’d like to think we saw it first!
Until one fine day, the organisers decided abruptly to remove the competitive aspect of the Race. If a race is not competitive, then how is it a race? Whatever be the reasons, the Race stopped being a race. That resulted in the best birders in the city dropping out of the event, and the overall quality of birding going downhill.
Even so, some of us would participate in the event for the sheer love of the sport and for the sake of our feathered friends. The problem with our feathered friends, unfortunately, is that very few of them are left in Bangalore.
Birds are primary indicators of impending disaster. Bird populations in Bangalore have drastically declined, many native species like the sparrow are gone, and most of the migrant species that would visit us every winter have stopped.
What else do you expect? Trees butchered, lakes filled with human waste, or better yet, choked with chemical foam. Where there were parks there are over-crowded malls. Where there were grasslands there are enormous condos. Where there were farms there are huge IT corporates. Where there was a century-old well there is an open-air toilet. Where there was a 400-year old banyan tree there is a parking lot. Where there was a pond, there’s a slum.
Corporate greed and political gluttony are not new to Bangalore. But now there is savage glee, brutal rapacity, blatant disregard for the law, a terrifying recklessness, a complete lack of discrimination.
We started the Bird Race long before sunrise, so that we could be at our first location, Rishi Valley school, at the crack of dawn. Only to find that all our favorite birding hotspots have been replaced by rubble and garbage heaps. Apartments and an effing industrial estate right in the middle of what is supposed to be a forest reserve.
Kanakapura road, our favorite birding route, has been destroyed in less than a year. Every last banyan tree, each of which was a century old, butchered. Every quiet little waterbody, that existed since the times of Kempe Gowda, buried under debris and shit. Ancestral homes raped out of shape to make way for Namma Metro. Cement dust, construction debris, migrant laborers crapping in the open, deafening noise, a million honking vehicles, chaos.
Every place we went, it was the same hellishness. Not one village, not one hamlet, not one lake, not one tree has been spared.
Birds? What birds? We were grateful for the few that we could sight. Since the Bird race is not a race anymore, we were not too worried that our tally was “just” 110. During the dinner meet at the end of the day, I found out informally that this was the highest tally for one single team, but that doesn’t matter. Three years ago, we would rack up a tally of 130 species without breaking a sweat.
What matters is that just three years ago, the evening meet was held in a large hall, with 300 birders and enthusiasts in attendance. Exhausted with an entire day’s birding, they were still excited to be there and the atmosphere was electric.
This time, the meet was in a hall so small that the ceiling could scrape your head. And this time, I counted hardly 70 of us. The mood was gloomy, the birders dejected. Even the normally cheerful compere of the event wondered if there would a Race at all next year. Notwithstanding the excellent movie on the Amur falcon that we were shown, there was an air of despondence and resignation. The food was bad. The gulab jamoons were nice though.
Bangalore is done. For years, the scientists warned the government that the city was reaching the point of no return. That point has been crossed.
Nothing can save the city. Worried citizens have done what they could. Several have taken to the streets in protest. Some have taken the government to court. Some have tried to rejuvenate local waterbodies, and have faced criminal intimidation and outright violence. I applaud them all. And I feel for them all.
Too little. Too late. Bangalore is done.
Nothing can reverse the horrific damage. Nothing will bring back our lakes and our trees. Nothing will bring back our birds.
I cannot leave the city. I have no options. If you can relocate, do. If you can’t relocate, then no matter how rich you are, brace yourself. Learn to live without water. Learn to sleep in the midst of constant honking and drunken brawls. Learn to inhale the stink of human waste instead of real air. Get yourself vaccinated against rabies. In Bangalore, rabid stray dogs have the sole right to life – unlike you.
Dog activists don’t care if your child is eaten alive by street dogs. When a city tells you that the life of a mad dog is more important than a four-year human infant know that you are living in a doomed city.
I no longer need be a prophet of doom. Doom is already here.
If you die within the next decade, consider yourself blessed. You will wind up in Hell, but you are going to a better place, believe me.
And as for the birds? They are the lucky ones. Birds have wings. You don’t.