Tag Archives: preservation

Endangered Greater Adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius)

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam. Read part 1 to the story HERE.

Contagious obsession

By the time the Women in Nature Network conference came to Purnima Devi Barman’s hometown in early 2019, she had transformed the greater adjutant’s prospects. Not only has the number of storks in the villages of Assam more than doubled since she began her work, from 400 birds to as many as 1,200 (of which 800 are mature), numbers of nests have grown nearly 10-fold, from 27 to 215 in the villages where she has focused her efforts. And there are signs of population growth to come. Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010, Barman says. One colony is producing about 85 juvenile birds a year, half of which survive. And her conservation work has also expanded to include an assisted breeding program that is beginning to show results. After not producing any viable birds during its launch year in 2017, the program released one fledgling in 2019 and five in 2020.

As Barman’s successes have accumulated, she has been able to tell an ever-growing audience about what she has been up to, and Melvin isn’t the only person who has been captivated by the biologist and her work. Another enthusiast is Carla Rhodes, a longtime comedienne and ventriloquist from New York who had recently picked up wildlife photography and developed her own obsession with greater adjutants when she got an unexpected call from a friend in the summer of 2018. The friend was a producer working on a TV pilot for a show called “Rickshaw Run,” which sends people out to navigate some of the most dangerous roads in the world in motorized rickshaws. The next season would soon be filming in India, he told her, and a participant had dropped out of the show at the last minute. Would Rhodes consider going in his place? 

Rhodes said yes, if only to get to India where she planned to stay after the filming so she could take photographs. She flew out that September and after surviving the rickshaw adventure, she went to Manas National Park in Assam. It was the rainy season in India, and the park was one of the few in the country that was accessible. She had an incredible experience in the park, where she took pictures of elephants, rhinos, capped langurs, and more. Then, on the drive back to Guwahati, Assam’s hub town, she spotted a giant, blue-eyed, dinosaur-like bird standing by a rice field on the side of the road. She asked her driver to stop. He told her it was an endangered greater adjutant and offered to show her more on their way back to Guwahati.

Expecting to be taken to a wetland, Rhodes was surprised when the car pulled up at an enormous, sprawling garbage dump. Hargilas stood on mountains of trash alongside cows, soiled white egrets, and garbage-pickers—people who make money by rummaging through the landfill. The temperature was stiflingly hot, and the smell reminded Rhodes of New York City on garbage day in the summer—multiplied by 100. The scene was both post-apocalyptic and beautiful, and although she had to fly home the next day, she felt transformed. “I was only there for about 20 minutes, but it just moved me and shook me to the core of my being,” she says. “It was at that moment I decided I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer. I want to be a wildlife conservation photographer.”

A muster of endangered greater adjutant storks stands atop a landfill.
A muster of endangered greater adjutant storks stands atop a landfill. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

Determined to find a way back to India and the birds, Rhodes began researching as soon as she returned home to Brooklyn. She learned about Barman, who she contacted by email in early 2019, around the time of the WiNN meeting there. Drawn in by the contagious nature of Barman’s single-minded passion, she was soon offering to help out. With a small grant from WiNN, Rhodes returned to Assam for five weeks in February and March, 2020—just before the world shut down because of COVID-19.  

Even though Rhodes was a stranger, Barman invited her to stay in her home, where she lives with her biologist husband and two now-teenage daughters. Rhodes spent those weeks following Barman everywhere. They went to the market, where the conservationist stuffed her cloth bag to the brim with vegetables, refusing to use plastic. They went to schools and villages, where people treated Barman like a celebrity. Rhodes even attended a wedding with Barman, who somehow convinced the couple to adorn their ceremony with statues of hargilas and to paint images of the birds on guests’ hands with henna.

Rhodes repeatedly marveled at how much influence Barman had on just about everyone, including the police. If someone reports an injured hargila, officers help them transport the birds to zoos for rehab. “You call the police about an injured animal in my area, they’re like, ‘We can’t do anything,’” Rhodes says. Barman’s group is also working with government officials to build nets under trees to catch any nestlings that fall.

Watching Barman at work, it was clear to Rhodes that Barman was the reason why the storks were thriving in a community that had had once hated the birds. Rhodes took thousands of photos, some of them featured in this story. “I thought it would just be like, you’d see a hargila here, you’d see one there. But there are so many, it’s insane,” Rhodes says. “And she is responsible for bringing them back because she convinced people to take ownership of this bird—that it’s a privilege that this bird chose your tree to nest in, and to not cut these trees down.”

Purnima Devi Barman presents informational posters, coloring pages, and food to the people living and working in the sprawling landfill with the goal of raising awareness for the greater adjutants.
Purnima Devi Barman presents informational posters, coloring pages, and food to the people living and working in the sprawling landfill with the goal of raising awareness for the greater adjutants. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

Non-traditional habitats

Historically, greater adjutants thrived in the vast wetlands of India and beyond, where they fed on abandoned carcasses and nested in wild trees. As wetlands have disappeared and been paved over by development, the birds have shifted their habits, building nests in the village trees of Assam and eating in the nearby landfill. For Rhodes, the landfill offered striking imagery full of symbolism: birds scavenging alongside people on mountains of discarded items. For Barman, the garbage dump is just another place to spread the word about bird conservation. One day, Rhodes watched as Barman walked through the dump, talked with people, handed out posters, and gave sweets and coloring sheets to kids.

Biologists, too, have a growing interest in places like these—often overlooked habitats in urban landscapes, where wild animals are finding new ways to adapt. And dumps aren’t necessarily all bad, according to a 2017 review of 159 studies that looked at 98 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians found on garbage dumps all over the world, especially in Europe, North America, and Africa.

The analysis turned up plenty of negative effects, including elevated risks of infection, poisoning, and human-animal conflicts in the dumps. According to a 2016 study of white storks, birds that fed in landfills were more likely to stick around throughout the year, drastically reducing their migratory range. Living around landfills also increases a stork’s chances of picking up an E. coli infection, according to a study published in 2020. 

But dumps have also become important sources of food in changing environments. And compared to animals living in natural areas, the review found that polar bears, island foxes, bald eagles, and other creatures that fed in dumps did better than other individuals on a number of measures that included body condition, reproductive success, and survival. Among the effects that dumps had on various species, more than 70 percent were positive. In one study included in the review, dump-dwelling white storks produced more eggs compared to birds that didn’t have access to these food resources.

What rapid and urban development means for the future of any given species is still unclear. But acknowledging the hargila’s adaptability to a new kind of ecological landscape has the potential to highlight novel approaches to conservation into the 21st century, Tracy Melvin says, in part by helping people relate to species that live in their midst. “What’s so endearing about them is that they survived through habitat degradation, through illegal persecution, through everything. And they are just like, ‘Well, I’m going to eat in the dumps, and I’m fine with it.’ They’re a rugged, persistent thing,” she says, adding that there are parallels between the birds and the human garbage-pickers, who have also had to adapt to incredibly difficult circumstances. “They’re a remnant bird from this vast, once-functional landscape, and here they are. This is reality. This is what they’re dealing with now.”

Barman’s approach accepts the reality of the world as it is right now, Melvin says. Her work incorporates the idea that pristine wilderness is a false construct and that saving species requires involving the people who live alongside those species. It also illustrates how persistence and a focus on raising awareness can rapidly transform the way people think about animals: from reviled to adored in just a decade.

 Migrant “rag pickers” live and sort garbage in the Boragaon landfill where a large population of greater adjutants scavenges beside them.
Migrant “rag pickers” live and sort garbage in the Boragaon landfill where a large population of greater adjutants scavenges beside them. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

It’s hard to imagine ranchers in the American West adopting wolves as their mascots, but Barman’s work holds lessons for conservation projects around the world, Melvin adds. She made conservation mainstream from the bottom up—going door to door and person to person, hearing people out, helping people develop livelihoods, making it all happen without waiting for the government to take charge. Those are steps anyone could take anywhere. “It’s truly an example of how doing a small lift for people in their home countries can make conservation truly effective,” she says. “Maybe that’s what the world needs is people to just think less and do more.”

Enacting change doesn’t have to cost much, Flores says. With a clear objective and genuine connections, it is possible to do a lot with a little for any species. Barman has made great strides with limited resources. “As a conservationist, I used to visit fantastic, very high-level projects in Africa and other places,” Flores says. “This is a simple community project, but everyone in the community is engaged. You can see the commitment in women and the kids. Everybody is very, very proud of having that project in the community. To me, that is amazing.”

For Barman, saving hargilas by involving women has been a personal mission as much as a professional one. When her daughters were little, she used to take them into the field, where they would stay with an assistant and watch as she climbed 85-foot trees to study the nesting birds before coming back down to feed her own kids. As her daughters grew, they began to accompany her on community outreach efforts. In 2018, they watched her finally achieve her dream of earning a PhD. “I think they saw all the struggles. I think that helped them to know the life, to know in depth about wildlife,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Every day your heart should be an environmentalist. Every day you wake up, you should live like an environmentalist. It doesn’t mean you have to be a biologist by profession. But every work you do, it should be for nature.’ And they agree. They really love it.”


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

Odes to Bay Area Beauties

Any San Francisco, Bay Area resident can vouch for their fondness and love for living in this area. Being the Silicon Valley of the world and a Technology hub, it draws thousands to its fold every year. People flock to the area for the jobs but stay for the sheer number of outdoor options available within a short drive, offering a distinct lifestyle as compared to any other parts of the country. The miles of beaches by the Pacific Ocean are as easily accessible as the skiing haven of Tahoe. For anyone who loves wilderness and mountains, the allure of Yosemite is an easy draw. And if you are a wine lover, Napa and Sonoma are a must-visit destination.

I was similarly swayed by the pull of the region when I decided to immigrate from India, more than a decade back. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the Bay Area outdoors exploring its serene beaches, county parks, golf courses, biking trails, hiking trails, mountains, and wilderness within the area’s vicinity, a short drive away.

Over the years, I have been captivated by the abundance of natural beauty in the area and after every jaunt, I have come back rejuvenated. Sometimes, those feelings found utterances in a free verse or poetry – can you expect any better from a creative heart (figuratively speaking)? That said, you will find below a set of three poems inspired by my hikes to Monterey, Yosemite, and Lake Chabot.      

Before we move onto the poetry section, let’s remind ourselves that we are blessed to live in this region of nature’s bounty. The environmental issue of climate change is real and poses enormous threats to the health of the Bay Area and its ecology – perhaps the last year’s raging wildfires were a manifestation of this threat. Conserving and protecting the forests and their habitat is imperative for sustainable development and for the future writers/poets to emerge from this area in the footsteps of John Muir, Jack Kerouac, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  

***

Lake Chabot in Oakland, California.

Overlooking Lake Chabot 

The white velvet 

spread across the azure sky,

The gently undulating green slopes

Rolling hills and a deep blue oasis

flowing through the turquoise landscape.

 

The gentle breeze swaying my grown hair,

The feel of cool on my bare skin,

The panorama of the striking beauty

Soothing my tired eyes.

 

The climb across the overlook point,

And the gentle exertion of the legs, 

The calmness of the surroundings 

Radiating the stillness that calms the mind.

 

It’s in these Nature that,

the Zen of mind resides.

It’s in these outdoors that, 

the sense of well-being pervades.

***

Monterey Bay in Monterey, California.

At Monterey 

The setting sun casts

a golden streak

on the azure, transparent water.

The distant horizon

kisses the vast expanse of oceanic water.

 

The green vegetation doting the hillside,

swaying in the cool breeze

hustles sweet nothings in the ears.

The feel of the cool sand

beneath the feet 

pleases every pores.

 

The waves lapping against the shore

rising and falling in a crescendo,

beckons me to its lap.

I plunge forth at their invitation,

wading through knee-deep water.

 

The gentle frothy waves

rhythmically caressing my body

elevates my senses to paradise.

My mind in magical ecstasy;

experiences a cool tranquility.

The evening at Monterey

is a sheer delight.

***

Firefall in Yosemite Valley, California.

At Yosemite: a brush with life itself

Miles of verdant wilderness

The panorama of snow-capped hills

The majestic half-dome rising in splendor

Across the delightful Curry village.

Fluffy, velvety clouds

breezing across,

the cool zephyr

rustling through,

the humming alpine butterflies

wafting in thin air,

a herd of ‘mule deer’

galloping into the distant wood,

majestic waterfall in its vicinity

rushing through in all its grandeur,

the redolent ambience,

the unbridled silence

(except the ‘voices’ of nature)

nestling in the wilderness-

lentissimo drizzle

soaking me wet;

I stand alone

transfixed, mesmerised

experiencing

my inner self;

body in complete harmony

mind in immaculate peace,

spirit in blissful ecstasy;

Rejuvenated

I breathe again,

I can feel

the pulse of life

coursing through my veins.

After days of jejune existence,

I can sense again

the lightness of my being.


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in outdoor activities & adventure sports. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).


 

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam.

In January 2019, graduate student Tracy Melvin traveled from Michigan State University to India to attend an annual meeting of the Women in Nature Network, a loose collection of women conservationists from around the world. The trip required multiple flights and many hours of travel, but Melvin was eager to join in on conversations about the successes and struggles of conservation projects in a supportive environment.

As the conference began, Melvin says she was impressed to hear what women were accomplishing, especially in low-income countries. But she was particularly interested when the host of the meeting, Purnima Devi Barman, got up to speak about her work with a gangly and obscure stork called the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius).

Once close to extinction, the bird has rebounded in Barman’s home state of Assam in northeastern India. And that success, according to widespread consensus, is primarily because of Barman, who has single-handedly transformed the species from a reviled nuisance to a beloved cohabitant among a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, including government officials, mothers, and people who pick through garbage dumps for a living.

Hearing Barman talk made Melvin want to get involved—an effect Barman seems to have on people. More than a year later, the two women and several colleagues published a paper that looked at how community involvement has helped to advance the conservation of the striking storks. Among her most successful strategies, Barman has created an “army” of women who care for injured storks, throw celebratory baby showers for the birds, and weave stork-adorned fabrics for sale.

In contrast with decades of top-down and high-cost conservation efforts, experts say, the driving principle behind Barman’s work is deceptively simple: Saving species requires buy-in from people. Women, in particular, can be powerful partners, even—or especially—when they don’t hold traditional forms of power in their cultures. By including women in conservation projects that have simultaneously changed their own lives, Barman’s work may hold implications for similar efforts everywhere.

“She not only brought the species back from the brink, but she empowered women in a way that they probably hadn’t been empowered before,” Melvin says. “She’s not just helping the birds. She’s also helping the people. She’s giving them something to care about.”

Purnima Devi Barman, biologist and founder of the Hargila Army (an all-female grassroots volunteer conservation effort), educates and empowers the Assamese community on the importance of Greater Adjutants. Cultivating personal relationships with villagers and raising awareness are key components to Barman’s successful conservation model, especially since many residents have Greater Adjutant nesting trees in their backyards. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Gathering women

The greater adjutant is not a traditionally beautiful animal, and its lifestyle isn’t pretty either. A member of the stork family, it has skinny, knob-kneed legs, a relatively puny bald head, beady eyes, and an elongated orange pouch that hangs from its neck like a deflated balloon. It is awkward and large, standing about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. It is also notable for its smell. Traditionally called hargilas, which means “bone-swallowers,” greater adjutants drag dead carcasses into tree tops, where they eat the flesh and then drop stinky messes of poop onto the ground below. The birds also spend a lot of time in garbage dumps, where they scavenge for food.

In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of greater adjutants lived in wetlands across much of Asia, from Pakistan to Cambodia. But habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, and the loss of their nesting trees pushed numbers sharply downward in the first half of the 20th century. A reputation as a bad omen in many places didn’t help them in the face of these threats. By the 1990s, there were an estimated 400 birds left. They have rebounded somewhat since but the International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies them as Endangered, with only 1,200 to 1,800 birds confined to Cambodia and two regions of India—Bihar and Assam, where Barman lives.

An endangered Greater Adjutant is pictured amongst the garbage in the Boragaon landfill. The landfill has the largest year-round concentration of Greater Adjutant storks in the world. Attracting a variety of scavenger species and encroaching upon Deepor Beel wetland, the landfill causes pollution, habitat destruction, and wildlife deaths through toxic seepage. Once covering 4,000ha, the wetland has shrunk to an alarming 500ha. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Despite the longstanding cultural disgust that surrounded the birds, Barman quickly began to appreciate the storks’ more appealing side. Raised for several years by her grandmother, who often took her outside and taught her songs and stories about birds, she developed a connection with nature that brought her solace during a period when her parents were away. Later, she studied zoology and wildlife biology at Gauhati University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in 2002. Eager to pursue a Ph.D., she gave in first to family pressures to get married and have children, giving birth to her twin daughters in 2005. She started her doctorate work in 2007, with a focus on greater adjutants.

Aware of the outsized conservation attention that goes to India’s charismatic megafauna like rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), Barman had started thinking about studying hargilas when she saw them in a wetland while doing fieldwork for her Masters. Why, she wondered, had she never seen them in her own village? As she began to collect data, she visited the few villages where they did live. While there, she would leave her phone number so people could call her if they had anything to report about the birds. One day at the end of the hargila breeding season in 2007, she got a call. A villager in the Kamrup District had cut down a giant tree on his property. The tree contained nine nests, filled with hargila nestlings.

Once at the scene, people gathered around and laughed at her. They jeered and teased her about her concerns. They were angry and mean. “Why are you lecturing us?” they asked her. Why should we care about such an ugly bird?  Would she pay them to care? Would she come live with them and clean up after the birds? Would she eat the birds on her way home? 

Trembling with embarrassment and dismay, Barman thought about her daughters, then just 2 years old. On the way home, she made a decision to delay her Ph.D. work. “I thought, ‘No, I won’t do it now,’” she says. “‘First, I’ll rope in all the people. I’ll win the hearts and minds of the people. We will start a people’s movement. And then, only if I’m successful with the birds, I’ll pursue my dream.”

Her plan was to start with the basics: Meet people. Build friendships. Try to understand community concerns. Remembering the comments from men in the village, she cleaned temples to earn trust and show she was listening. Her compassion ran deep. She recognized that these weren’t bad people. They thought they were doing the right thing: ridding themselves and their properties of a messy bird that was a bad omen. It wasn’t their fault that they thought poorly of hargilas. They just hadn’t learned about the value of wildlife.

Soon, Barman’s work coalesced around a single, if improbable, goal: Get people in the villages of Assam to incorporate the greater adjutant into their local culture and traditions. Since the birds spent much of the year nesting in trees on private property, she knew they were untouchable by government protections. Her only hope was to make people care about the birds like they care about their own children. That way, they wouldn’t want to cut down the trees anymore.

In 2009, Barman organized the first of what would become many hargila “baby showers.” She invited about 30 women to the event, and she made the celebration as traditional as possible. It included prayer songs, a cooking competition, and games that incorporated lessons about wildlife. Barman talked to the women about the birds and how vulnerable they are during the breeding season. She appealed to their identities as mothers, comparing the birds to women when they give birth. Acceptance came quickly, Barman says, and the popularity of the baby showers snowballed into a coalition of women who rallied behind the storks. Barman started to think of them as a “hargila family.” In 2014, she dubbed them the “hargila army.”

Since then, the army has helped rehabilitate injured birds. Using looms and yarn distributed by Barman, women have also started to weave traditional fabrics adorned with storks, which they sell to help support their families. More than 400 women take part in the conservation work on a daily basis, Barman says. More than 10,000 women and their families have participated in hargila-related activities.

Jonali, a member of the Hargila Army, is pictured sewing a tote bag with an embroidered Greater Adjutant motif to combat plastic bag usage. Members of the Hargila Army take great pride in protecting this endangered species. Greater Adjutant motifs are now sewn and loomed into their traditional textiles such as mekhala chadar and gamosas. In 2018, eighty sewing machines were donated by the New Zealand High Commission, further boosting the women’s livelihoods and source of income while advancing the conservation of Greater Adjutants. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

With Barman’s guidance over the past decade, the stork has become a symbol and way of life, says Ana Liz Flores, a conservationist and senior advisor for the LAC-Huairou Commission, a grassroots NGO in Argentina. Like Melvin, Flores attended the WiNN meeting in India in 2019. While she was there, she visited several villages, where it was clear to her that hargilas had become integral to the identity of the community. Women and children were leading the effort. “The schools and the women are the key pieces of the whole project,” she says. “It’s the first time I have seen a community that involved with one species. That, to me, is special.”

Barman has faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career, she says, and women in her culture are not usually included in decision-making. But women have power in their households, and by reaching them, she has been able to reach their children, relatives, and entire communities. “They are rural women. They are the homemakers,” Barman says. “I think the world should know about this huge force of women.”

Read Part 2 HERE!


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ever-changing Traditions

“India, like America, feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization,” claims The Cowboy and The Yogi, by Teed Rockwell. For those of you who don’t know, Rockwell wrote the India Current music column for decades and I carried on for a few years after him. Thus, it was an absolute honor and delight when we had a delightful conversation about his journey into India and Indianness.  

The Cowboy and The Yogi is a glimpse into the Indian music scene over a span of roughly two decades, largely in the US, as documented by Rockwell. It is an intelligently curated collection of his own research, study, writings for his India Currents music columns, and blogs. Thus, it is a passionate, loving, intimate, insider view into Indian music combined with a sense of adventure. Sprinkled with anecdotal tidbits such as “first article commissioned by India Currents,” the book traces a path between classical music and its many representations, note-worthy performances, as well as its practitioners. Thus, the book, as Rockwell himself describes, talks about Indians and non-Indians performing Indian music, along with Indians performing non-Indian music. Chapter 9, “Indians Doing Cool Stuff” is about Roc Zonte, Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, Nitin Sawhney, Vijay Iyer, and Tony Kanal, who was one of the first people of Indian ancestry to become a Western rock star and to let the world know it.” 

Rockwell is a musician himself (enjoy his fascinating introduction to his jugalbandi-friendly “Touchstyle Veena” here) and therefore it is all the more believable when he claims that “In the area of rhythm, Indian music is totally without peer.” The Cowboy and The Yogi acts as a guide to how to listen and appreciate Indian music, deliberately, through chapters such as “Listening to Indian music,” and also through his own discoveries. Such as “In Memoriam” where he rues the fact that he got to know much about the Masters and their genius when he was asked to write their obituaries. “Yogis all, but with more than a little cowboy in each of them,” he states, of Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and Bismillah Khan. 

The book is also a portrait of the gurukul that existed within the campus of the AACM (Ali Akbar College of Music). Rockwell writes, “Classes included people from Germany, Argentina, …as well as Bengalis, Punjabis,…I remember a blond two-year-old who regularly came to class with her mother, and whose baby talk combined so many different languages…There was an atmosphere very like an Ashram…spiritually devoted to profound and enigmatic music.” 

Rockwell, a Buddhist now, then does a CowBoy-Yogi-combined on you, as he dons his scholar lens and delves into Islam. This is poignant since many of the Masters of Indian music are of the Muslim faith. “I read the entire Koran in different translations, studied histories of both Muhammad’s life and the Islamic political empires, and read commentaries on the Koran and Hadith [the sayings attributed to Mohammed]. As a result of these studies, I have concluded that although many horrible things have been done in the name of Islam, a careful reading of Islamic sacred texts reveals that these behaviors are contrary to the teachings of Muhammad and to the most intelligent people who follow his spiritual path.” 

The book is a must-read for those who seek soul-food, an intellectual-nudge, a musical historical journey, and an emotion-drenched read.  

Here is an excerpt from our interview, the video can be found below:

IC: Tell us about how you got started with India and Indian music. 

TR: In the West, there is a lot of interest in Orientalism. I grew up as a hippie in the sixties interested in an alternative to Christianity, western culture in general. But what I began to find out is that any generalization that includes both Punjabis and Koreans isn’t going to be worth much…There are tremendous differences between South Asians and East Asians, for example, and I spent a lot more time with South Asians…The thing that really got me interested in Indian Music, rather than feeling that it was some sort of meditation tool, was the band, Shakti – (John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram (Ghatam) – live at Kennedy Center Washington D.C. I went out and bought my first set of tablas. Then I got the feeling, I got to study this! 

IC: America is “free”, but you’ve said that Indians are also free to follow their own intuition… 

TR: When I wrote my articles, people always said, oh you know the traditions never change, and people would say that’s the problem with India, that they need to be able to change their traditions. But every time I actually studied somebody who supposedly was preserving the tradition, they were always changing it! There was nobody who was just doing it the same way. You do go through this kind of training but then you always have to go through a period of throwing it off. I interviewed and did research on dozens maybe hundreds of artists when I was with India Currents; there was never anybody who wasn’t changing the tradition. They would preserve it but they would change it at the same time! Trying to operate without rules, I think it’s a real problem but having rules, recognizing that sometimes rules can be broken is a really important characteristic. Letting your intuition be more important than rules – I see that in Indians time and time again.  


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Sanskrit: Dead, Dying, or Dormant?

Hindus everywhere recite their prayers in Sanskrit, conduct all their ceremonial rituals in Sanskrit, and give Sanskritized names to their children. But what effort do we make to learn that language and keep it alive? In a wedding ceremony brochure, when I saw the name Vishnu distorted into Vish (meaning “poison” in Sanskrit!) and the turmeric-paste ceremony known as pithi spelt as “pity,” the outrageous neglect of our ancient, sacred language stood startlingly before me.

Language of the Gods

The significance of Sanskrit in Indian mythology, its religious and spiritual heritage, and its history cannot be overstated. It is the language of some of the most profound scriptures of the land. The spiritual knowledge it has espoused is timeless without ever being pulseless. Sanskrit (Sanskruta) is about 3,500 years old.

One reason it survived this long is its sacred status and its multifaceted enfoldments. Over centuries it has embraced many diverse components of human endeavor like religion, art, philosophy, spirituality, poetry and literature, history, complex and computable grammar, and multiple sciences. It was therefore aptly known as girvana or the language of the elite (devas). 

Sanskrit has flexibility of function and openness of space to accommodate new ideas, concepts, and vocabulary. This is because it does not erect a rigid building but provides building blocks, thus rendering it always contemporary and ready for remodeling. Besides being a complex and rich language, it is also a vehicle that is capable of conveying sophisticated thoughts.

Which other language contains about 60 figures of speech (alankar) and about 600 meters (chhanda)? 

Heritage 

Dara Shikoh

Ancient India was greatly influenced by the influx of many diverse languages and cultures. In retrospect, this was not entirely detrimental to our development. Among the Mughals, Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan and brother of Aurangzeb, was a great Sanskrit scholar and an avid follower of the Upanishads, which he translated into Arabic. 

Voltaire, the French philosopher, having been profoundly impressed by the Upanishads, translated these scriptures further into German, whereupon Germany became the nidus of Sanskrit language! The British also established Sanskrit schools in England, Wales, and Scotland. In fact, there are colorful stories of the penchant some of these Europeans had to learn Sanskrit. 

Sir William Jones was a great English philologist who mastered 28 languages mostly on his own. He failed to find a guru who would teach him Sanskrit, because of a religio-cultural barrier. Finally, a 90 year-old shastri (“scholar” in Sanskrit) agreed to tutor him, provided Sir Jones did not enter his house but kept perched on his porch (Social Distancing of those times). He was humiliated for every mistake he made while learning the language, sometimes by the guru throwing his shoes at him. But he learned the language nevertheless and produced some innovative research by drawing parallels between Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit and connecting their roots to Gothic, Celtic, and Persian languages.

In Need of CPR 

In the land of its origin, however, Sanskrit has lost steam.

During the colonial era, Lord Macaulay set in motion the introduction of English as the medium of administration, education, and a means for livelihood. Britain’s domination brought with it advances in technology and trade. India’s doors opened to the world at large, English being the global lingua franca.

And what about Sanskrit? Today, only 24,821 Indians and 1,669 Nepalese people consider Sanskrit as their mother tongue! 

Historically, too, its elitism has cost some setbacks. Because of its complexity and precision that left no room for ambiguity, the language subsequently became exclusive to kings and the Brahmins. As an example, in the classics of Sanskrit literature, such as Shakuntalam, you see that King Dushyant speaks in Sanskrit, while his beloved Shakuntala, a forest raised maiden, speaks in Prakrit. 

As the use of Sanskrit passed into the hands of Brahmins and concentrated there, they exploited this advantage to gain power and money. Knowledge became a privileged commodity.

Characters like Shambuk in the Ramayana and Ekalavya in Mahabharata illustrate this discrimination. Brahmins, for their own benefit, imparted a religious hue to the language. This worked successfully in their favor in the effort to dominate the poorly educated masses of India. Subsequently, even Brahmins could not long retain the power and sophistication of this sacred language, which now was bereft of all its multiple facets. 

The tragic outcome of this degradation is evident in the prevalent belief of even educated Indians that only Brahmins can perform religious rituals and the medium of their expression should be restricted to Sanskrit—even if they do not understand it and have no way to know if the performing priest is sufficiently equipped with the required knowledge! 

Sanskrit grammar is extremely sophisticated, necessitating years of dedicated study. Lay people do not have that sort of time available nowadays. Does that mean we throw away the baby with the bathwater? 

Sushma Swaraj

Sushma Swaraj, the late Minister of External Affairs of India, delivered a stunningly erudite and penetratingly convincing lecture on the need to preserve Sanskrit as part of our valued heritage. Her lecture on the importance of Sanskrit language is a gold standard on the subject. 

While I do not see a possibility of Sanskrit reviving as a common colloquial language in the foreseeable future for reasons of its own, I do believe its other salient aspects should be preserved and revitalized. The language connects us not only to our own cultural heritage but also to the Mid-Eastern and far-Western components of human civilizations. The resuscitation team for this noble but gigantic enterprise should, therefore, be composed not only of grammarians but also historians, anthropologists, humanists, artists, linguists, philanthropists, and many others both from India and other countries, working as a team. It is an idea whose time has come. 

It is said of the Yiddish language that there will be an extended period between its dying and death. Of Sanskrit, I would say that it will never die because it is deeply seeded in almost all 16-plus regional languages of India. A plant that has sprouted conceals its seeds, rendering them apparently invisible, but the seeds themselves will reappear in its fruits.

Sanskrit needs to be rejuvenated by a process of CPR—Consistent Persistent Revival. 

My hope is that the Sanskrit word ajaramar—never aging and never dying—perhaps best describes its timeless quality. 

Revitalizing Sanskrit 

For Indian/non-Indian children:

Simplified translations of stories curated from Panchatantram and Hitopadesham, enlivened with attractive illustrations, along with interactive discussions that link these animal tales with contemporary situations may be helpful. These ancient stories can also be choreographed as Indian dance items for performing and viewing by children. Learning Sanskrit can also be a good lingual exercise for children. Many European children have been known to master the difficult phonetics of Sanskrit with great accuracy. 

For adults:

Adult education in Sanskrit through evening/ weekend classes should be made available. Many Indians could be persuaded to learn the language so as to understand the meaning of the daily prayers they recite unmindfully. Sanskrit also contains a vast store of timeless truths—Subhashitani—or practical aphorisms to inform our daily lives. In an interactive setting, such nuggets of wisdom can generate lively and profitable discussions. Temples and religious institutions can open their doors to initiate and stimulate this vital core of our culture. 

For scholars:

Sanskrit offers a gold mine to a variety of subjects in science and liberal arts. We should invite, encourage, and fund scholars from various disciplines to dig our ancient well and excavate the rich treasure hidden underneath.

Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at [email protected] 


This was first published in Khabar Magazine, Atlanta, Georgia.

How to Preserve Your Energy

This is not a discussion on conserving energy resources given by Nature like oil and gas. This is a discussion on conserving the energy we human beings possess at the individual level so that we can make the optimum use of the resources that are given to us: the body and the mind. It is too common to miss the obvious and concentrate on things that sound glorious, all the while ignoring that which is nearer to us and that which can be accomplished easily. It is a fad today to speak of conserving energy, of mapping non-conventional energy sources, and of decreasing our use of non-renewable energy sources. In the momentum and intensity of such discussions, most of which do not find practical solutions, we forget that each one of us has been blessed with tremendous sources of energy in the mechanisms of our body and mind. We need to focus on how to harness these sources that we possess to excel in our endeavours.

Our body is a storehouse of energy but unfortunately, we not only do not know how to use it, but often times we waste its energy without bringing any good. Most people use their limbs for purposeless actions. Abusing physical energy is so common that some people think it is the natural course to take. It is really ironical that most of the times people put their bodies to severe stress and misuse its energy in the name of recreation or leisure. In the pretext of resting their bodies, most people just torture it. The ancient sages of India were very particular about the energy of the human body and acknowledged even the minutest expenditure of energy like that which is expended while we blink our eyes. The first step in preserving our energy is to preserve our physical energy, the energy that is produced by and contained in the body. It is surprising how much physical energy can be saved by just doing a rapid mental calculation about the work and motion involved in any action.Yoga begins with the taming of the physical body. Only a body tethered in silence and moving only on purpose is fit for yoga. Needless swaying of heads and moving of limbs creates a strong disturbance that percolates to the deeper recesses of the mind.

Just like a camera consumes energy even if it is just switched on, similarly our sense organs consume energy even if they just stay put on a particular object. The best way to conserve the energy of the sense organs is to restrain from taking in any sensory input that one does not need. Then, the eyes would see only what has to be seen, the ears would hear only what has to be heard, the tongue would taste only what is to be tasted, the skin would touch only what has to be touched, and the nose would smell only what has to be smelled. Trained in such a fashion, not only would the distraction caused by the senses be reduced to a bare minimum, the sensory experience of such trained senses would be accentuated and superfine with a remarkable intensity.

We constantly blame the mind for distractions and for losing focus. Our complaint is that the mind is wandering all the time. Imagine a person who is served several plates of mouth-watering dishes at the same time, all dishes exuding mind-blowing scents, and served with royal dressings. How can that person concentrate on only one dish then? Such is the predicament of our mind. It is constantly being simultaneously fed several sensory inputs. When the eyes see, all the other four senses do not shut down and so is the case with the other sense-organs. Much like a person,who is aware of the usage of electricity,would switch off the electrical appliances that are not needed; we should switch off our sense-organs that we are not using at that momentThat would lead to an enormous energy surplus in our body.

In preserving the physical energy the importance of sleep cannot be overemphasized. Numerous present-day ailments can be cured by a regular and full dose of sleep. Conservation of individual energy has to be done at the level of breathing also. Long and sustained breathing cycles help the body to be calm andand have better reflexes. It is not for nothing that all traditions of martial arts give tremendous importance to the control of breath. This also shows the importance of living in pure and unpolluted environments.To produce a good breathing cycle, we need to also eat nutritious and wholesome food. It is quite common to have one’s body spend lot of energy on digesting unwanted or improper food that was supposed to give energy in the first place!

Human beings possess an exceptional intellectual capacity. Most of it is squandered in unnecessary ruminations on things that are of no use either at the individual or the collective level. To focus our thinking and analysis is an art that has to be perfected in order to get the most of our brains. Precision of thought and a daring to do intellectually daunting tasks preserves and also invigorates our intellectual energy. A thorough grounding in logic helps one to eventually transcend all linear thought. A trained intellect can ably rein the mind.

In the pursuit of the preservation of individual energy the biggest challenge is preserving the energy of the mind, mental energy. Thoughts consume the mind. To preserve the mental energy and also to preserve the mind itself, one needs to constantly question the need for a particular thought to arise in the mind. Brooding on the past and worrying about the future are the most common leaks of the mental energy. When our mind is drained of its energy, it goes into ill-health commonly known as psychological ailments that could range from a minor bout of depression to an acute incidence of schizophrenia. Daydreaming and fantasising also rapidly consume the mental energy. To train the mind from abstaining from activities that needlessly consume its energy, one should root it on a theme of focus that the mind would hold on to when it does not have any purposeful activity to do. Too many attachments clutter the mind. A minimalist lifestyle and a detached attitude help the mind to focus its energy and prioritise its goals. Strong attachments are like forgotten anchors that do not allow the ship of the mind to move forward. Uncluttering one’s mind from attachments and unrealistic expectations helps the mind to behave in a trained and disciplined manner. With less and less of garbage the mind would not have to suffer its stench!

If one can preserve the mental energy, then it leads to the preservation of the intellectual and physical energy as well. Such conserving of energy is one of the first steps towards a spiritual life.

Swamiji is Editor of Prabuddha Bharata.This article was first published in the Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. 


To read same article in Hindi.

To read same article in English.