Beasts of the pujo

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The first signs are in the scents. The Saptaparni is blossoming, peppering the air with a smell that is equally off-putting and intoxicating—like an expensive cigar that lingers on curtains. Then there’s the delicate, cool scent of the Shiuli, or Harsingar—a talcum-powder scent that feels like ice on your wrists and temples.

The air is turning, from city-sultry into a light, easy chill. But the change isn’t just in the scents or temperature. The whole feeling is that of transformation—colony parks will become pandals, menus will be doused in mutton curries and “deemer debil”, and people will flock together in new clothes and new anticipation.

It’s the time of the Durga Puja: a mostly inclusive community project with competitions, songs, food, crafts and worship. As a child, I thought the colours were giddily overwhelming, as was the whiff of danger in the smiling face of the goddess. She is depicted with her children flanking her, but between the gleam of the Banarasi brocade, there is the glitter of weapons. Below her munificent self, there is a snarling lion, his teeth knife-like, his tongue bloody. A rat sits like a god under Ganesh, a Peacock’s neck periscopes proudly, an owl—a lot like a Barn owl—seems to smile at its surroundings.

I always came away changed after every Puja. And as I grow older, I reflect on how this happens each time—the sameness creating something new. Apart from celebrations, there is always back-breaking work to be done. And to be done in one’s finest clothes. Puja was our first stage, our first musical and dramatic performance, our first brush with being social (while also being responsible—feeding strangers with bhog, coordinating both accomplished artists and local, gauche fashion shows, and creating and sticking to budgets). Was the goddess attainable? Perhaps not. She wouldn’t step off her pedestal and walk into our lives. But even as a child, it seemed to me the animals were a link between the ordinary and the valourised: that if I looked a little harder, I would be able to find the animals in real life. The pandal would fold up and shut down but the cosmos near the pandal continued to throb with the fierce, everyday and wondrous animals in the pantheon.

Years later, I think with both my head and heart about the animals in the Durga idols. I want to start with the Peafowl. Accused of being vain, the one adjective I can now think of for this bird is: successful. The 2023 State Of India’s Birds report finds the Peafowl has increased by more than 150% in abundance in India. It has expanded to wet areas like Kerala and thrives in forests, fields and cities. It is unexpected to have such a big, noisy bird doing well everywhere but the Peafowl’s adaptability seems to have helped in its population growth. Their yodelling shouts interrupted my Zoom calls during the pandemic, and, even after the lockdown lifted, I see them roosting on a forest boulder and the wall of a member of Parliament’s residence with equal elan.

For Lakshmi’s owl, I worry a lot more. Owls are generally targeted and poached for black magic. Because many of them are nocturnal, their numbers are lesser known than day-flying birds. And the hunch is that overall, owls may not be doing well. This month, we were in the Himalayan forests. I listened for the sweet who-who-who of the Brown wood owl, a bird with a somnolent call which likes to sit on leafy trees. I listened and looked for Brown fish owls, birds that specifically live near streams running through forests. Closer to the cities, I looked for Barn owls. Like the name suggests, these are birds that live near outhouses and garages. Yet the number of Barn owls I see now is drastically less than the ones I saw growing up. We know that birds of prey are generally not doing well—perhaps this may also be true for the owls.

Saraswati’s swan was always a mystery to me. Swans are not common in India. But the Hindi and Bengali word for swan—hans—applies to both swan and geese. Hans may thus refer to Bar-headed geese, a widespread winter visitor. Bar-headed geese migrate to India from Central Asia, crossing the Himalaya each year. While they are still abundant, these are the kind of birds which are likely to be affected by the bundled impacts of warming areas in their breeding ranges and the loss of wetlands and habitats.

And then I think of Durga’s lion, her proud steed. Depending on the artist, the lion in the idol has looked like a leopard, a tiger, or even a house cat with a mane (much like Mahishasur’s Spectacled cobra, which often resembled a greenish Rat snake). The wild lion is now relegated to a corner of western India. A recent photograph of a lion standing at the shore of the sea in Gujarat reminded me that the lion seems keen to expand its range. Many ecologists have urgently called for the fulfilment of the 2013 Supreme Court order for giving lions habitat outside Gir. This is yet to be done.

It occurs to me that the cultural zeitgeist of the Puja is successful because its impact is for more than a few days. It lingers for longer. Its colours are a chiaroscuro that change you; you hold your own people tighter, you search for islands of togetherness in vast crowds, you learn stillness from the carnivalesque. Yet it also seems right to turn this individual significance outwards: into transformation for the wider world, the broader environment. It seems right to think about the wild lions, cobras, owls and migratory geese and what they need too. I can imagine Ganesha’s rat growing fat on the opportunities of garbage, but the rest need habitat and space that extends beyond the days of the pandal. They might not need worship always but they do need patronage. The lion needs new habitat of scrub forest away from Gir; owls need rock faces, chemical-free fields and cities, forests with streams and dense vegetation; the geese need wetlands with natural banks and sludge-free waters.

As it peeks from under Durga’s brocade, I imagine a big cat emerging from white-headed Kans grass, in air redolent with Saptaparni. In the twilight, a wood owl calls. A snake slithers past; geese honk. All the beasts and birds from our cultural events live amongst us. A little lift for keeping their wild spaces safe, and public support for keeping habitats free of interference, would be the best way to remember our favourite days.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

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