Birds in culture– the last of the four part series that I hugely enjoyed writing.

I pontificate on the pleasures of bird watching in this audio podcast here

Like Arabs and falcons; like Indians and peacocks; like Americans and their eagles, like the French and their…..I don’t know which bird sparks the French imagination…. birds and animals are the stuff of our dreams and subconscious.

The eagle, the ‘hamsa’ and other bird myths

Birdwatching led me to delve into poetry and mythology; from Urdu children’s ditties to Maya Angelou
In which the author loops in some history and fables and talks about her habitat.

Birds are the stuff of myth and legend in every culture. Some of the most beautiful poetic images come from birds. My father, an English professor, loved the Romantic poets: Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, who lived in the Yorkshire moors in close proximity to nature and wrote lyrical poems about what they saw. John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” is one of his favorites. I have read the poem, but I don’t really understand it. What speaks to me is Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings.”

The eagle is a singular image in Allama Iqbal’s poetry. Iqbal reveres the eagle because it proudly disdains eating dead prey or anything other than what it has caught. As Mustansir Mir says in the website,, this description might apply to a hawk rather than an eagle. Iqbal gets a number of bird facts wrong, but as this website points out, the eagle, for him, is a poetic construct. My favorite Urdu poem is a children’s song sung by Nuzhat Abbas: “Bulbul ka bacchha. Khatha tha khichdi.” I used to listen to this ad nauseam years ago, and was delighted to discover it on YouTube recently.

Sanskrit literature’s most resonant bird image has to do with the Hamsa, which can separate milk and water that are mixed together in a bowl. The Hamsa is used as a reference in poetry for anyone that has the discrimination (or judgement) to simply suck up the milk and leave out the water.

Then there was the practice of divination based on the movement of birds that was common to most primitive cultures. When the crows caw, my grandmother used to say, you will have unexpected guests: divining arrivals from the sound of a crow’s caw. As K.N.Dave’s magisterial (and sadly, posthumously published) book, “Birds in Sanskrit Literature,” says, superstition surrounds the magpie, not only in India, but also in Europe and England. My tangential interest with respect to bird-watching has been to delve into poetry, but it could be something else for another birdwatcher. This ripple effect is a perk that comes from any deep dive into a hobby or passion; and clearly, I am pushing bird watching as an option.

I have seen many beautiful birds: a greater coucal, collared dove, pied kingfisher, and hoopoes in Masinagudi; racquet-tailed drongoes, shrikes, hornbills, and rufus treepies in Kanha; nightjars, spotted owlet and serpentine eagles in Pench; and several other birds at game park. But I get the greatest pleasure in my backyard. While it is good to tick off the birds that I have seen, learning to see birds in the trees around my building offer the pleasures of a deepening relationship. I know the moods of the birds in my neighbourhood if that makes sense. I know which trees they like to go when it is cloudy and the ones they favor with the first rays of the sun. The golden orioles that were here a few months ago are gone now, I know not where. I am hoping they will return when the weather becomes cooler. And I know the trees. The silk cotton tree next to my home is growing tiny leaves now—Tamil has a nice word, “thulir,” for these tender light-green shoots. It was bare just a few weeks ago and redolent with red flowers and fruits a few months before that. These last few weeks, it has been bare and has offered great sightings.

Just today, I watch two black kites huddle in a silk-cotton branch and peck at their nest. They had built a nest in the dense foliage that existed some months ago. I could barely see the nest. As the leaves fell, I saw how large it was. I never saw the chicks though. These days, the two black kites come at 8:30 in the morning to remove the nest. They peck at each twig and pull it out of the nest, throw it on the ground. Why are they taking apart a nest instead of letting it rot and die? What ancient instinct is forcing them to come every morning and remove this nest? The silk cotton tree is a good place because the birds have used twigs, earth and cotton to weave their nest. Every now and then a strange bird will come by as I peer at the kites. Today, a brilliant songbird came into view. It had yellow undersides (chest), green wings and a different coloured head. It flew away quickly so I am not sure what it is.

Kites are easy birds to watch because they are large and don’t flit around too much. Songbirds cannot stand still, and usually are a pain to catch on the binoculars. Kingfishers, rollers, cuckoos, and drongos stay still for it is long enough to observe through binoculars. Karnataka’s state bird is a roller, which has the beautiful kannada name, Neela-kanthi (or blue throat). This bird: Coracia benghalensis is the state bird for Odisha, Telengana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. West Bengal’s is white-breasted kingfisher; Rajasthan’s is naturally the Great Indian bustard. It would be a good project to go from state to state and see each of these birds. But like I said, I am content for now with my ecosystem.

Everyone says that bird-watching requires patience. I don’t think so. I think that the pleasure of bird watching comes from the questions you ask. You can watch a crow and try to figure out why it is cawing at that moment. You can listen to the variety of calls that a common mynah makes and try to see if there is a pattern. I watch the birds come and go in the trees in front of my home and see if there is a reason or pattern that they follow when they sit down and take off. I watch the way the parakeets spread their tail feathers just before landing and see the different shades of green. Most interesting of all are the birds that are sitting still. What are they doing? What are they thinking? Does their call predict something? Is the wind changing? Does that define when they take off and land?

Bird watching for me is an engrossing and pleasurable hobby. It gives me great aesthetic joy to watch these most beautiful of God’s creations. Then again, I see a butterfly and think it beautiful too. Oh, but there is the dragonfly with its transparent wings; and the honeybee that gives up its life for its colony. All waiting to connect with us.

Shoba Narayan is looking forward to seeing an Asian paradise flycatcher this year. This is the last part of a four-part series on bird watching. Write to her at


So of course I had to write about yoga

Actually, my editor suggested that I write about yoga on yoga day.

It is here and below


It is a little disconcerting, but ask yourself this question: what unites India?
I have tried asking this question in various forums. It is hard to agree on three or four things that form the value system of this country. It cannot be religion because we are secular. It cannot be language because that changes every few hundred kilometres. It cannot be clothing style because even that varies from region to region. We listen to different music in the north and in the south. We observe different festivals and we pray to different gods. We have no national paper and listen to radio or television in our own regional language. Sure, English is the lingua franca, but the number of people it touches is relatively small.
My submission—and I know that this sounds shallow—is that there are three things that unite India: Bollywood, cricket and spicy food. Can we add yoga to this list?
If you look back on your childhood, most of us grew up with yoga. We either did it at schools; or watched our relatives do it; or were taught it by parents and grandparents. Yoga, like the cawing of crows and the hiss of the pressure cooker, is part of the drumbeat of an Indian childhood. We took it for granted. That may be changing.
Yoga has now been co-opted by the West. There are computer tablets called Yoga; there is Yogi tea that promotes calmness; and there is a yoga butt that we all aspire to. Yoga has come a long way from the pithy instructions compiled by Patanjali in 196 sutras, or short verses. The yoga sutras of Patanjali form the foundation of many schools of yoga. Their beauty is in their brevity.
Consider one verse: Sthiram Sukham Asanam. The concept ofsthiram has made its way into many Indian languages. My grandmother used it in Malayalam; and my grandfather used it in Tamil. It meant repose, stability, relaxation, sitting in one place without moving. Roy Baumeister makes the same claim in his book,Willpower. In it, he says that holding your posture without moving enhances willpower. Indian yogis knew that in 400 CE.
The big news, of course, is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged the world to adopt 21 June as the International Day of Yoga. The ministry of external affairs’ website lists a number of countries, including Australia, Norway, Spain, Seychelles and Vietnam, which are hosting mega-events to mark this first International Day of Yoga. If it works, it would be a great thing because it would be a way for India to claim—or reclaim—a practice that has now become a global juggernaut.
Many Americans practise yoga without so much as a nod to its country of origin. There is Christian yoga, power yoga, energy yoga and aerobic yoga. All are misnomers. All go against the fundamental tenets of yoga as a spiritual, healing practice that promotes balance and mental stability.
The goal of yoga, or at least the intended goal of yoga, was equanimity or samatvam. It was moderation. It was balance. It was achieving a higher mental state. Yoga used the physical to get to the sublime. The way it is practised now, most people have ignored the sublime and reduced yoga to a mere weight-loss practice. That does this deep and profound spiritual practice a grave injustice.
It is time for India to take ownership of its gift to the world. It is time for India to embrace the practice that has now been adopted by people far from its shores. It is time for us to get our “Om” back.
Easy to say; hard to do.
Sure, we want to take yoga back. But what should its path be in India? Should it go back to its origins? To its first principles? To the yoga sutras? But they are unabashedly Hindu in origin. How do we square that with a secular country? Should we make yoga secular? Should we strip yoga of its Hindu tenets and revamp it to reflect the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Parsi and Jewish citizens of India? How do we do this?
My view, and I know that this may not be a popular view, is that yoga has to become pure. Its practitioners have to accept and reflect the fact that it is Hindu in origin. This is not a bad thing. Just as it would be almost impossible to enjoy Sufi music without acknowledging its Islamic heritage, it would be impossible to fold yoga into India’s fabric without linking it to the yoga sutras—which were its starting point anyway.
The role of Sanskrit in yoga has to be acknowledged. The fact that yoga is more about lifestyle and less about exercise has to be emphasized, particularly to global practitioners. The philosophical tenets of yoga have to be brought out. They cannot simply be whitewashed away. Most important of all, Indians have to take pride in yoga. Like nature, yoga broadens the mind. It takes the scientific approach to inquiry of the mind-body system. It does not exclude people based on “narrow domestic walls”, to quote Rabindranath Tagore.
To practise yoga without understanding its Hindu origins would be like stripping Bordeaux wine of its French terroir. You may get the formula right but you will lose its soul.

Birding: seeing versus hearing

This season is hard for birding.  The trees are lush with leaves.  Small birds are chirping and I can’t see them.  Drives me nuts.

How to identify birds just by seeing them


Ayurveda divides us into three phenotypes: vata, pitta and kapha. Vatas have acute hearing and enjoy the sense of touch—if my memory serves right. Pittas have acute vision and enjoy the sense of smell. Kaphas have acute taste and enjoy listening to good music or sounds.

As a classic vata, I have acute hearing, as a result of which I’m very sensitive to the sound of birds. As I write this, I hear three birds: a wagtail, a bulbul, and a parakeet. This can become a curse when I hear the sound of a bird that I cannot identify. I obsess about it and go to an app called Bird Calls, that is loaded on my phone to try to figure it out.

Some visually sensitive birdwatchers can identify birds as they fly past; as they sit in a distant tree; from a mere one-second sighting. I am not like that. I work hard at identifying birds. I have to focus on them for a while before I can see all the markings and figure it out. I make frequent mistakes, even with birds that I know. Is it a grey heron or a pond heron? Is it a painted stork or not? The bird flies away. I am not sure.

It all has to do with a way of seeing that is cultivable but not necessarily common. I use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website ( to build seeing skills. The trick to quick identification is differentiating or sorting birds based on size and shape, colour patterns, behaviour and habitat, according to this website. They even have a Merlin Bird ID app but I find that it is heavily North America focused and therefore not useful to me.

I have still not cultivated this way of seeing yet. Mostly I stare at a tree where the bird calls emanate from and wait for movement. I cannot drive by birds on telephone poles and quickly identify them. Where I score is with the sound. Once I hear and identify a bird by its call, I never forget it. Even now, I can wake up and listen to the trill of a Kingfisher calling at a distance and know that it is in my neighbourhood. I know the Rosy Starlings that have migrated from Tajikistan by their excited cheep-cheeps; the bulbul, by its sweet piercing whistle that echoes around my building; and the crow by its caw.

My birdwatching happens through the day. Usually, when I’m bored or have nothing to do, I pick up my binoculars and look out. Usually I see something. There was the time when it was raining. I trained my binoculars on a Ficus tree, and found a golden oriole perched on top. It did the most amazing thing. It circled and went upside down on the branch, almost as if it wanted the rain to wet its underside. It had been a terribly hot day. As I stood and watched the oriole enjoy the water drops, I felt like doing the same. On another branch, a Black Drongo (Dicurus macrocercus) sat still, enduring the rain that was pouring on its black head.

In the beginning, with pig-headed ambition, I decided that I would memorize the Latin names for all the bird species that I saw. I have given up that endeavour now. It is complicated enough to keep track of the markings and learn the common names. This then is the other learning that will occur: spotting minor differences between birds that belong to the same species: White-cheeked Barbet, Grey-headed Barbet, Coppersmith barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, you get the picture. They all belong to the Megalaima species.

The bird that is easiest to observe is the kite. They sit still for long periods of time on a high branch or electric pole and watch their surroundings. Suddenly, they lift off to catch a wind current that takes them high in the sky. They circle around for a long time—up to 20 minutes—before coming down for a break. The only time I have seen a kite attacked by a smaller bird was when I was walking near Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. I can recognize the keening sound that the kite makes, but for the first time I heard it shriek—and unceasingly. I stopped in my tracks and looked up. There was a crow attacking a kite’s nest. The kite would try to nip the crow, which would fly away to the nearest branch, and then return. The kite would shriek, peck the crow, would fly away and then back. This scenario continued for 15 minutes. Neither bird gave up; but I did. None of the people passing by noticed anything. I wouldn’t have either, had I not been a birdwatcher. Once you peer into the kaleidoscope of nature, she opens your eyes to the magic all around.

I use several websites to figure out what I’m seeing. India Nature Watch is great for just identifying birds. Indiabirds, The Internet Bird Collection, and Oriental Bird Images are good for learning about the various genus and species. Facebook has Birding Friends, where wonderful images come up on my feed. Although I am not a nature photographer, I follow several friends who are bird photographers. Their close-up images of birds help me with future identification. It doesn’t come easy to me but I struggle at it anyways. Slowly and surely, like a tortoise, I’m climbing up the hill of taxonomy and nature watching.

Shoba Narayan’s bookmark folder is filled with bird sites.

This is the third in a four-part series on birdwatching. Write to her at

Wild jaguar, Mumbai’s crows, feeding strays, cats, and humans

These are some of the great stories in Mint Lounge this week.

Meanwhile, my piece on religion, food, negotiation and identity is up on Mint’s Sunday edition.  Next, I’d like to visit Ajmer or Amritsar for this series.  Read the story here, because it has videos I recorded and many photos.

The Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen

Memories of the V&A and my Parisienne friend Elisabeth Guez are fresh in my mind.

The V&A has another nice exhibit where they try to answer: “What is luxury?”

Wish I could have seen the John Galliano retrospective also– in Paris.

My review of the exhibit here.  And you have to see it on the newly launched Mint on Sunday.  There is a great piece on the “Quest for the Himalayan Quail.”

I never thought I would say this, but digital publications can be just as beautiful as nicely laid out print publications.

Trees and birds

In London, it was the sweet song of the thrush.  In India, it is the kooo of the Asian koel that I am listening to right now.

Birdwatching is also about the trees

The rhythms of nature are evident in the patterns of the bird movement

In which the author connects birds and bees with flora and foliage

Like most things that require identification, be it wine, textiles, or art, identifying birds is figuring out patterns; like recognizing an artistic or musical signature, or the terroir of wine. It is about seeing patterns, not just on the birds but also on the trees that they inhabit. Nature is both generous and opportunistic. Trees attract birds during certain seasons; and then allow other trees to get that opportunity. The red silk cotton tree beside my house was agog with birds when it flowered a few months ago. Today, it stands bereft, with its flowers and leaves gone. The silk cotton pods have opened out and released their cotton puffs. Now the tree has become a playground for squirrels. Meanwhile, the gul mohar tree across the street is in full bloom; and attracting wagtails, rose-ringed parakeets, bulbuls, and barbets in droves—like the sirens of yore.

Trees are nifty that way. They know when to attract and when to repel. In his book, “What a Plant Knows: a field guide to the senses,” biologist Daniel Chamovitz talks about how willow trees that are being attacked by insects release specific pheromones that can be “smelled” by neighboring trees. Suitably warned, the neighboring willow trees produce higher levels of toxic chemicals, thus making their leaves unpalatable for caterpillars and other insects. I can see this happening before my eyes. The mango trees are in full bloom now. They are attracting the birds who have abandoned the neighboring millingtonia, bauhinia, and cassia trees. Instead, they perch on the mango branches, nipping at the green fruits and spreading the seeds.

This symbiotic ecosystem was invisible to me before I began watching birds. Now I see the dance of birds, butterflies and bees as they move across trees: mango to jacaranda to cassia to bauhinia to ficus to silk cotton, depending on the warp and weft of seasons; and indeed, the time of day. The male Asian koel calls when it is cloudy; the female Asian koel like to shriek in the middle of the day; the black kite calls throughout the day; the crows are loudest early in the morning.

The rhythms of nature–the waves of flowering, fruiting, and shedding of leaves that a tree goes through–are evident in the patterns of bird movement. Indeed, our ancients could divine an approaching storm just by the way the birds flew sideways, buffeted by invisible wind currents. Seasonal and daily differences in temperature and weather are reflected in the behavior of birds.

Some birds prefer certain trees; and some birds like certain locations in trees. Spotted doves and Asian koels, for instance are secretive birds that like to sit within the green foliage rather than look at the view from top like an eagle does. You should see how they nestle with the tree? Like a tree hugger. The male koel is black like a crow with red eyes and a curved gray beak. I had a devil of a time discovering it. It would coo loudly from within a tree and I couldn’t see it at all. It is only now—in this season– when the koels come to rest on the bare silk cotton tree that I am able to view them. Koels, once you are able to see them through your binoculars are easy birds to watch because they are of medium-size and don’t move around too much. The female bird is spotted and gray. The male bird is more beautiful–as is common in nature. It is only in our species, Homo sapiens, where the females preen and primp and take the trouble to look beautiful. Birds and animals have the opposite equation.

Hobbies and passions change people. They give you a prism through which to view the world. Religion and spirituality change people, sometimes for the better and sometimes, I would argue, for the worse. When you begin seeing the world through religious boundaries— who is faithful and who is an infidel– you close yourself in. Bird watching in this respect is unique because it gives you depth of perspective without impacting your political, moral or religious values and principles. It can become political but it doesn’t have to. You can watch birds without becoming strident about climate change and the environment. As hobbies go, bird watching like gardening or anything to do with nature allows tolerance and expansion, rather than jingoism and contraction of lifestyles and values.

The best thing that is happened to me as a result of this year-long journey is the cliché: I feel connected with the universe. Let me be clear. I don’t think you wake up one morning and suddenly feel at one with the cosmos. It is a gradual process of shedding layers of armor that you have built around yourself. The way it happened for me, and I am by no means there yet, has to do with connecting multiple species and seeing a greater whole. Once I started paying attention to birds, I began noticing the butterflies that flitted around. I began identifying them. Then I noticed the carpenter bees with their shiny backs that are just big enough to be able to fly. I began to take kindly to lizards and even became somewhat benign towards the cockroaches I once hated.

As I stand in the balcony every morning, gazing through my binoculars, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and the wind on my skin, watching the dance of birds and the wave of leaves, I sniff the air and smile. This precious, fragile planet that we are privileged to occupy has wondrous beings that are right in front for eyes if only we care to look.

Shoba Narayan has joined a butterfly group on Facebook. She had the privilege of observing a Dakhan Dark Blue Tiger at close quarters. This is the second part of a four-part series on birds. Write to her at

How to bird-watch. How to watch birds

I am writing about nature.  About what is turning out to be a favorite subject.

How to birdwatch

Shoba Narayan starts a four-part series on birdwatching

In which the author makes a case for bird watching as a hobby and tells you how to start:

It begins with a pair of binoculars; and a balcony, if you have one. If there is some greenery visible from your balcony, even better. But you need binoculars to begin this voyage. Mine are Bushnell binoculars from Amazon for about $35. They have a magnification of 10X50, which didn’t mean anything to me except that it seemed better than the 8X40 advertised by other brands. I use them every day, except during travel, and even that, I want to change. Chroma sells pocket travel binoculars for under Rs.1000. I am considering buying a pair.

My bird-watching happens around 7 AM, when the sun is up. I have a cherished morning routine. I usually begin by sipping lemon water or orange blossom water (from Muscat) as I make filter coffee. Naturopathy says that beginning the day with water and some sort of citrus is a good idea, and I have been doing that. I like making filter coffee. We use Kotha’s coffee powder with an 80: 20 ratio of coffee to chicory, available at Thoms, my local grocery store. I prefer stainless steel tumblers at home. They help froth my coffee. Recently, a friend gave me some Black Cat classic espresso beans from Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago. If I am by myself, I go to the trouble of grinding fresh coffee beans and savoring their aroma in the morning quiet, as I make myself an espresso.

Coffee and binoculars in hand, I walk out into the terrace. Across the road is an army cantonment with lots of trees. This is my ecosystem; one I have come to know very well. Friends have asked for a bird watching primer, and that is what this attempts to be. With the zeal of a convert, I can write it. Most of my bird watching friends have done this for years. They are too far-gone to give— or even remember– basic instructions such as these.

Essentially, what you do on your first day is to sweep your binoculars from tree to tree to figure out your baseline: a tree that attracts a lot of birds. My baseline tree is a tall Millingtonia with fragrant white flowers. This is the tree that I train my binoculars on, first thing in the morning. Usually, there are birds on it. Parakeets, kites, crows, this tree gives me something to see everyday. When you see your first new bird; one you cannot identify, it is a seminal moment, for this is when your bird watching journey begins. You have to train your binoculars on that strange new bird and notice its markings. What color are its wings? What color is its chest? What size is it? Does it have a long beak or a short beak? Does it have any streaks across or above its chest, eyes, or back? How long is its tail?

Once you have memorized these markings, you have to identify the bird. This is what I do. I type what I see into Google Images: “small bird, white chest, green wings, Bangalore,” or something like that. Several images appear. I keep scrolling down till I identify the bird. My first was a white-cheeked barbet (Megalaima viridis). Only it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw what I thought was a white-cheeked barbet, only to discover that there was a similar species called the brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica). Identifying sub species is a whole new game and we’ll get to that.

I spend 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before sunset—give or take half an hour depending on bird activity. This is not because the birds are most active at this time, although they are, but because it’s easier for me to stand on my terrace for extended periods of time when the sun is not shining hard. At first, even holding the binoculars at eye level for more than a few minutes was challenging. Now, I have gotten used to it. Bangalore ornithologist M.B. Krishna showed me the right way to hold binoculars. Essentially, you keep your elbows down, not at the side.

I have a simple goal: I want some sort of “wow” effect. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. It could be a close up of a male Asian koel as it emits its mournful call: koo-ooo. Or it could be two golden orioles pecking each other mid-flight. The best part is that nature usually delivers. Everyday so far, I have seen something that catches my breath. I lose myself for 15 minutes as I scan the trees with my binoculars.

A Brahminy kite flew towards me from the horizon one day. The flap of its wings were rhythmic; its movement through the clear blue sky, slow and majestic. It looked lonely and somehow profound as it made its passage across the sky. I stood still and watched unwaveringly. Pariah kites– Krishna says that Black Kites are as racist as the previously used term, Pariah Kites, and so I have started calling them that. These kites—Milvus migrans– are common in my neighborhood. I see them in the sky all the time, usually a dozen of them flying high or low. Brahmini kites are rare, and this has to do with the habitat, I guess. There was a section in Kerala where I drove past and found tons of Brahmini kites in the sky and the trees. Dime a dozen. For some reason, the trees in my neighborhood don’t support the Brahmini kite and therefore, when it becomes visible, it is usually a heart stopping sight. On that morning, I followed this kite with its white chest and brown wings etched against the blue sky all the way till it was out of sight. Where was it going? Why was it alone? Who was it searching for? What was it thinking? Lost in these thoughts, I forget who I am. Connected to the flight of that Brahmini kite, I lose track of the mundane minutiae of my life. For that moment, I am linked with nature. I am linked with innocence and divinity. That noble kite takes me to a higher plane. It is for this reason that I watch birds. Next week, I will tell you how.


Shoba Narayan has been watching birds for over a year. This is the first part of a four-part series on bird-watching. Write to her at

The Sanskrit Podcast

I met Vrinda Acharya through my sister-in-law in Florida.  She teaches my sis-in-law carnatic music via skype.  Vrinda is a young, dynamic musician, performer, researcher and has a Master’s degree in Sanskrit.  Her husband is a mridangam artist.  She lives in Malleshwaram and is steeped in music and sanskrit.

I interviewed her on the Sanskrit Podcast here and embedded below