Beast and Man in India

Beast and Man in India: A Popular Sketch of Indian Animals in Their Relations with the People

A popular sketch of Indian animals in their relations with the people

Published by Macmillan and Co, London, 1891



"Birds, companions more unknown
Live beside us, but alone;
Finding not, do all they can,
Passage from their souls to man.
Kindness we bestow, and praise,
Laud their plumage, greet their lays;
Still, beneath the feather'd breast,
Stirs a history unexpress'd."
Matthew Arnold.

The Parrot.—The parrakeet (Palæornis eupatrius) is in some regions believed to have earned the gratitude of man by its services in bringing the seeds of fruit and grain from the garden of Paradise after the Flood and sowing them abroad on the earth for his use. Ages of shameless larceny have nearly effaced the memory of that fabled feat, but the creature is still tolerated, and is the familiar bird of the fields and groves as well as the favourite cage bird of India.

The parrot plays a leading part in many folk tales, and has thus come to be regarded as a guardian of domestic honour. In such ballads as "Lord William" and "May Colvine and fause Sir John," the popinjay's share in romance is shown to British readers as a curious survival, but in India we are nearer to the time when creatures spoke and thought, and the literary curiosity of the West is still the belief of the East. The parrot is also reckoned an auspicious or lucky bird to have in the house. An augmentation of honour is its appointment as the vâhan or steed of Kama or Kamdeo, a Hindu god of love.

Unfortunately for its comfort, it has a powerful beak, and quickly destroys a wooden cage. So it is usually confined in a small dome-shaped cage of hoop-iron with an iron floor. During the hot season, when it is painful to touch any metal surface, these cages must be cruel torture-chambers; and when one watches the free birds darting to and fro like live emeralds in the sun, with the wild scream and reckless flinging of themselves on the air peculiar to parakeets, one cannot but grieve for the captive slowly roasting in his tiny oven-like prison. Leaving the general question that is sure to arise some day as to our right to imprison creatures for our pleasure at all, the confinement we inflict should be at least as little irksome as possible; but it is hard to persuade people that creatures have rights, and a polite smile is the only answer to a plea for these prisoners.

 The parrot's cage
Illustration by J. L. Kipling

Hindus teach their pet birds the sacred words, Gunga Rām, Rama, and Sri Bhugwān, names of God, grateful to the Hindu ear and easy to parrot speech, while Muhammadans say Miān Mittū, which is only a caressing name from the vast vocabulary of endearing nonsense in which Indian domestic life excels. In Northern India a household parrot verse among Hindus is:

Latpat, panchhi, chatur Sujān
Sub-ka dada Sri Bhugwān
Parho Gunga Rām!

or roughly in English: "Pretty bird, clever and knowing, God is the giver of all; say Gunga Rām!" The word here translated "say" means to read or study, and also to recite aloud, and is constantly used for bird song. "My lark is reading very nicely this morning," a bird-fancier will say. "Little parrot" is a pet name for children, and "parrot talk" is a woman's expression for their conversation when it is pretty and respectful.

"Parrot eyed" is a common phrase for an ungrateful or deceitful person, not, as might be imagined, from the expression of the bird's eyes, but because, after years of cherishing, it will fly away if the cage door is left open. In spite of the opinion of my native friends, I cannot help thinking the phrase was derived originally from the parrot's habit of not looking at the person he is supposed to be talking to; for when one thinks of it, a parrot's eyes have always a curiously indifferent and "other-where" kind of expression. A certain type of face is well described in "a mouth like a purse, a nose like a parrot's." As a hero of song and story this bird takes part in some domestic observances. A mother will on several consecutive days divide an almond between her parrot and her baby. This will prevent the child from stammering, and make it bold and free of speech. In the Punjab Himálaya there is a whimsical superstition that when a parrot's cage hangs over the door whence a bridegroom issues to be married, it is highly auspicious, but that something dreadful will happen if he passes under it on any other errand. This fancy once caused some trouble to a political officer of Government in charge of a Hill State. The youthful Raja was to be married, and on the eve of the event, while there was still much business to be done, he was inveigled into the zenana, or feminine side of the palace, the inmates of which promptly hung a parrot over the door. It was necessary, for many and urgent reasons, to withdraw the boy from his female relatives; but the little council of the State was sorely puzzled. It would be an awful thing to make the Raja pass under the cage. Could he not be brought out by some other door behind, or even fished up through a hole made in the roof? At last a grave old Wazir came in and asked with an innocent air: "Is it quite certain that the cage is there?" It was quite certain. "Then," said the old gentleman slily, "my eyes are dim, for I did not see it as I passed but now." The Council went to see, were greatly relieved to find the cage gone, and made a great pretence of wondering how it came about. While they were deliberating with characteristic Hindu hesitation and timidity, he had ordered a menial, indifferent to omens, to carry it off. So the young Raja was rescued from his factious women folk and came out.

The parrakeet is often trained as a public performer. In the streets of Delhi I used to see one that went through gymnastic and military exercises, whirling a tiny torch lighted at each end, loading and firing a small cannon, lying dead and coming to life again; all done with a comic air of eagerness and enjoyment which it seemed hard to impute to mere hunger for the morsels that rewarded each trick. It is seldom a bird in native hands speaks really well. Orientals are easily contented, and, though they can take pains in some matters, are inclined to think that parrot speech comes, as Dogberry said of reading and writing, by nature. The Indian bird, moreover, has less natural aptitude for speech than the true parrots of other countries.

A performing parrot
Illustration by J. L. Kipling

The British soldier in India, at a loss how to employ his leisure, is frequently a butterfly-collector or a bird-fancier. Sometimes a stalwart trooper may be seen all alone, leaning over the parapet of a well, apparently in earnest converse with some one who has fallen in. Parrots are believed to learn to talk more readily when taught in a darkened and silent room. There are no such rooms in his barracks, so the soldier lets his cage half-way down a well and spends hours in teaching his pet. The practice is probably an indigenous one, but I have never seen a native engaged in it.

The Baya Bird.—As a performer of tricks, however, the parrakeet is excelled by the little baya, the weaver bird (Ploceus baya). The plumage of this clever creature is of quaker-like simplicity, but it is a favourite cage-bird and easily acquires tricks, especially of a "fetch and carry" nature. The table servant or waiter of a friend of mine has one that flies to a tree at the word of command, selects a flower or leaf, plucks it, and, returning, places it daintily between its master's lips. Some thread beads with great dexterity, others draw up seed or water, like the European goldfinch; but, judging from the skilful construction of its nest, it is probably more intelligent than the goldfinch. A popular rhyming proverb contrasts the housebuilding talent of the baya bird with the helplessness of the shelterless monkey, which, having human hands and feet, is yet incapable of protecting itself against the weather. This verse is often quoted for the benefit of idle boys and girls who object to learn. The baya is believed to light up its nest at night with captured fire-flies, stuck against the fibrous wall over the head of the brooding hen. The bird certainly catches flies, and pellets of clay are occasionally found stuck on the inside of the nest, but further evidence is wanted before one can do more than envy the unquestioning belief of the Oriental in a charming fancy which may be true.

It is true that at nesting time play nests are made with a loop across the opening, on which the birds play and the male sits and sings to solace the female. Some say these are experimental or preliminary studies in the art of nest-weaving.

Caged Song Birds.—Working people in the cities of Northern India are great bird-fanciers, and find, as they sit for hours over their embroidery, weaving, or shoe-making, that a singing bird is good company. The bulbul (Molpastes intermedius), the chendūl or tufted lark (Galerita cristata), the Shāmā (Cittocincla macrura), the hill maina (Eulabes religiosa), are most commonly seen, and there are several others. Like the operatives of manufacturing England, Indian workmen arrange singing matches between their birds, and enjoy sitting in groups in shady places round the cages in which their pets are shrilling their loudest notes. It is a cruel rule among them that a bird to sing well must be kept always in the dark. I have heard a lark-fancier say that the cage holding a good lark should have a fresh cloth cover every year—the old ones being allowed to remain. The hill maina, one of the best talking birds, however, is generally allowed to look about him; and the tiny lals or male avadavats (Sporœginthus amandava), kept mainly for their minute prettiness, a dozen or more in a cage together, are not covered up except at night as a protection against mosquitoes. In Delhi bird-fanciers often take their birds out tied to a small crutch-shaped perch of bright brass carried in the hand. It is curious that precisely the same practice obtains in Pekin, where hundreds of grave Chinamen may be seen, each carrying a small bird. In the English midland counties linnets and bull-finches are occasionally tied to perches and known as "braced birds."

Fighting Birds.—These Arcadian enjoyments are too simple for many tastes, so bulbuls, quails, partridges, and even the small avadavats are encouraged to fight. Twenty-five rupees is by no means an unusual price for a fighting quail, and in Hyderabad (Deccan), the capital of the Nizam, a hundred and fifty rupees is often given for a good bird. Besides the gray partridge (Ortygornis pondicerianus), which is the best fighting bird, the chikōre (Caccabis chukor) and the black partridge (Francolinus vulgaris) are kept as pets. The house-kept artisan goes out in the cool of the morning or evening, carrying his cage with him, and in some garden or open place releases his bird for a run. The creature follows its master with a rapid and pretty gait that suggests a graceful girl tripping along with a full skirt well held up. The Indian lover can pay his sweetheart no higher compliment than to say she runs like a partridge. In poetry the semblance is one of the most hackneyed of Indian metaphors. In poetry, too, the partridge is associated with the moon, and, like the lotus, is supposed to be perpetually longing for it, while the chikōre is said to eat fire.

Indian house-wives dislike the quail, and it is by some considered an inauspicious bird to keep; but the partridge, in spite of the taint of blackguardism attached to fighting birds, is thought lucky, for he attracts to himself any ill luck that may be hovering about the house,—a function of most Indian household pets. When treated merely as house pets and allowed to run free at times, partridges develop a good deal of intelligence and become entertaining companions, as they are inquisitive, pugnacious, and perfectly fearless. In cities where there are large populations of artisans and many Muhammadans, as Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, Hyderabad (Deccan), Agra, Cawnpore, etc., quail and partridge fighting is as popular a diversion as cock-fighting used to be in England, and large sums are betted on their contests. No artificial spurs, however, are worn by Indian birds.

The great London bird market, I am told, now that the "Dials" have disappeared, is St. Martin's Lane on a Sunday morning. In most Indian towns there are bird-dealers, and in some, as at Lucknow, there is a regularly established bird bazaar, where all kinds of birds are sold,—quails, cocks, and partridges for fighting, hawks for the chase, fancy pigeons, singing and talking birds, and others for pets. The variety is much greater than in any European bird market, yet there is a family likeness among bird-fanciers everywhere. A Spitalfields weaver or a Staffordshire potter, if he could speak the language, would find himself quite at home with Indian bird folk in all details of handling, feeding, bargaining, and swapping, and in most appreciations of bird points.

What Birds say.—Good Muhammadans think the black partridge pious, since its call fits itself to the words "Sobhān teri qŭdrăt"—"Thine, O Lord, is the power"; but more worldly ears distinguish the words "Lăssăn, piāz, ădhrăk"—"Garlic, onions, ginger"; or, according to some, "Nūn, tel, ădhrăk,"—"salt, oil, ginger," the chief condiments of curry. The Indian ring-dove (Turtur risorius) is similarly endeared to Muhammadans by its pious persistence in the cry "Yusuf ku"—"Joseph is in the well," which it first raised when the wicked brethren said he was slain and showed the grieving Jacob the blood-stained coat of many colours. Another dove is thought to say "Allah! Allah!" The partridge says "Fakiri Fakiri." A wild pigeon is thought to repeat "Haq sirr hu"—"God knows the secret"; the ordinary rooster exhorts the thoughtless to remember God by crowing—"Zikr' ullah! Zikr' ullah! ya ghafīlin!" while the raven hoarsely cries "Ghâr, Ghâr," as he did when he basely tried to betray Muhammad hidden in the cave of Jebel Thaur to his enemies the Khoreish, when the pious pigeon built her nest and the spider stretched her webs across the entrance. It is quite easy to hear these words in birds' notes—when you know them—and they are at least as much like the original sounds as the renderings of those scientific ornithologists who have tried to express bird music in syllables. In the notes to Mr. Lane's Arabian Nights are given versions of bird talk as they strike Arab ears, with wondrous instances of learned parrots, including one which knew the Qurân right through and corrected a misreading!

The Hoopoe.—Other birds are prized for the legends with which they are associated. The hoopoe (Upupa epops) has not much to say, but he is a favourite because he was King Solomon's messenger; and he is known as the king of birds from the story of his crest and crown, which, perhaps, is not too hackneyed to be repeated here. One hot day King Solomon, travelling on his angel-borne magic carpet, was oppressed by the heat of the sun, and the hoopoes flew over his head, wing to wing in a close and protecting canopy. Solomon was grateful, and promised to grant whatever boon the hoopoes thought fit to ask. They foolishly asked to be allowed to wear golden crowns like his. The great king granted their request, and presently all the bird-catchers in the country were enriched by the spoil of dead hoopoes. A remnant escaped and ruefully prayed for the removal of the dangerous distinction. So the crest of feathers was given instead, and the bird-catchers ceased from troubling. If you suggest to a native that the hoopoe's crest may serve as "the other end" of the pickaxe-like beak, and point out its balancing action as the bird drives it into the ground, he listens and assents, but his assent informs you he has no great opinion of your sense.




A regular part of the potter's business in many regions is the fashioning of toy animals in terra-cotta, gaily painted by his women folk for fairs and festival days. At Delhi, by way of compliment to the chief civil authority, the potters there have at times made small statuettes of the Commissioner and Deputy-Commissioner. These portraits were often amusingly like the originals. There is a legend indeed, that one distinguished officer was so much more than flattered by his clay images that he bought up the whole baking to be broken up. Fantail pigeons, peacocks, parrots, and the generic bird of Indian domestic decoration, akin to the "dicky-bird" of the British child's slate, are made as toys in great numbers. Crows and poultry seldom appear.

Birds and animals are often fashioned in metal, and always with purely decorative intent. The resolute conventionalism of the Indian artisan is shown in the silver mouse from Muttra here sketched with half a dozen small wares, and in the brass owl from Bengal. The parrot and the peacock are old and constant types, but the brass bison is the work of a jungle artist, who from direct observation has learned that a bison's horns meet and join over its brow. And there his lesson ended.



Initial Letter (Decorative Parrots)
Illustration by J. L. Kipling