Your Right To Info
Rahul Rohitashwa, wildlife activist, eco-philatelist and birder & D N Choudhary, associate professor, birder and wildlife activist
Out of nature’s bounty, birds are the mystical organisms that conquer the sky above us. Humankind has always been fascinated by the structure, habits, and natural tendencies of birds and consequently, many revolutionary texts have been written and celebrated in the admiration of these beautiful beings. Accordingly, birds are widely worshipped in different faiths and sacred texts of the world in one way or another.
Hinduism: Hinduism is considered one of the major and oldest faiths of the world. The entire faith is repleted with numerous kinds of literature, texts, tales, epics, moral stories, deities, paintings and folklores etc. which depict or portray several species of birds which are found in India. Take the instance of Panchatantra, which is a book of ancient fables, where moral stories are told and portrayed in the form of wild and domestic animals including several species of birds. Apart from this, various species of birds like cranes, herons, and pigeons etc. are emulated in many yoga poses like Mayurasana (peacock), Rajakapotasana (pigeon), Bakasana (crow), Garudasana (eagle) etc. The Indian peafowl or Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus), which is the national bird of India and also a cultural and religious icon is connected to many Hindu deities whereas crows and other corvids which are considered by the Hindus as a harbinger of departed souls are offered and fed as a part of spiritual rites known as shraddha karma.
In the epic dramas of scholars of ancient India like Kalidasa and Bilhana, birds such as herons, swans and ducks are depicted as a herald of their beloved. For example, in one of the story, a desperate king Pururvas in Kalidasa’s famous play Vikramorvasiyam, pied crested cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) and goose are portrayed as harbinger of monsoon and also for the whereabouts of the lost love. Like these, there are too many accounts where birds are featured in numerous Hindu sacred texts. In this context Bilhana who was a great poet of the eleventh century of India in his famous poem Caurapancasika has employed many metaphors in this regard. However, the first and foremost depiction of birds in Indian literary panorama is the sage Valmiki’s Ramayana where according to the story a tragic event involving death of a bird from a pair which were involved in courtshiping inspired the author to write one of the world’s greatest epic. The sage Valmiki after witnessing a distress migratory bird curlew (Numenius arquata) which was killed by a hunter motivated him to compose world’s first poetry. Not only this, in whole Ramayana many other birds such as vultures and Lake Pampa which is presented as a location is augmented with many songbirds, waterfowls and peacocks.
Referring to other literary marvels such as Sukasaptati where a talking parrot is symbolized in maintaining marital fidelity between a wife and a husband. In another great epic Ramcharitmanas which is written by a great sage of medieval India named Goswami Tulsidas has depicted several birds like Khanjan (Wagtail: A migratory bird), house crow (Corvus splendens), Indian large billed crow (Corvus culminatus), doves, pigeons, parakeets and vultures throughout the story. In Hinduism, several species of birds are also associated with many deities, which one on the first hand are symbolized as their carriers while one the second hand is sometimes honoured with high esteem. As for instance an owl attends goddess Laxmi, Yama, the god of death dispatches a dove, Kama, the god love and lust is associated with parrot, an eagle is associated with Lord Vishnu, Garuda, the king of birds is also associated with many deities like Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna etc.
Islam: Islam is the world's second-largest faith behind Christianity. Among the birds, the hoopoe (hud-hud in Arabic) has been specifically mentioned in the holy Quran, which is the sacred text book of Muslims. The hoopoe is an elegant bird, which is related to the hornbill. It gets its unusual name from its shrill call of hoops, which rings clear and far and is repeated two or three times. It is one of the old world’s non-passerine birds. Its scientific name is Upupa epops. Here a point is to be notes that kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, hoopoes and hornbills are collectively referred to as roller-like birds. There are about seven species of hoopoe in the world. It is a widely distributed bird found in the British Isles, Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. It exists in the temperate and tropical regions of the old world.
Buddhism: Buddhism is a faith which is based on a series of original teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha, who is sobriquet as the light of Asia. This faith originated in ancient India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, which in due course spread through most of Asia. Buddhism, of course like other faith, also employs avian imagery for figurative purposes. In art illustrating the cycle of suffering, the jungle fowls are centrally depicted within the Buddhist’s great wheel of life. Other species of birds like the white heron and egrets are also widely depicted in Buddhists art and culture due to their graceful movements and patient concentration, which represent meditation. Herons with its white plumage regularly appears in Buddhist texts. Another notable winged creature in Japanese Buddhist poetry is the cuckoo. In Jataka Tales, which are short moral stories recalling the past lives of Gautama Buddha, often portray human personalities previously existing as animals. According to the Jataka, Lord Buddha took many forms before his enlightenment, including peacock, goose, vulture and quail.
Christianity: Christianity is a faith based on the life and teachings of Christ. It is the world's largest faith, representing one-third of the global population. While there are many birds which are associated with the symbolism of Christian art like the dove, peacock, eagle and pelican, there are also some species of birds like blackbird, cranes, falcon, finches and owls which are described and depicted in Christian texts, paintings etc.
Jainism: Jainism is another ancient faith. Besides Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism is one of the ancient Indian faith which is still in existence and an integral part of South Asian sacred belief and practices. The spiritual goal of Jainism is to become liberated from the endless cycle of rebirth and to achieve an all-knowing state called moksha or salvation. Jainism as such does not worship pigeons but feel affection as these birds are very docile and harmless to others.
Sikhism: Sikhism was founded in the 15th century in India. Sikhism was developed from the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak (1469–1539), and the nine Sikh gurus who in turn succeeded him. In Sikh texts especially in the Guru Granth Sahib, several species of birds have been mentioned. The life of the gurus was prominently influenced by the abundance of nature, perhaps this is the reason that many species of birds like common cuckoo, common hawk-cuckoo (Hierococcyx varius), swan (hans), crows, common shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), bulbul, cranes, peacock and falcons are depicted in their sacred texts.
In addition to literature and legends, birds have been significant to human society in innumerable ways. Birds also have many ecological values as they are important elements of natural systems. Birds help in rodent control, plant pollination, and seed dispersal which result in tangible benefits to the people. Birds keep the climate stable and transform pollutants into nutrients. As birds are high up in the food chain, they are also an indicator of the general state of our biodiversity. This gives us a lesson to maintain bonds of friendships to live a happy life. Possibly this is the reason which has catapulted to portray birds in almost each and every major faith and texts of the world. The grace, power, beauty, cooperation and strength of birds have lured mankind to such an extent that some species of birds were worshipped as god in many ancient civilizations. In recent times a lot of countries have issued postage stamps, first day covers, special covers, maxim cards and other postal stationeries depicting birds which have ultimately became collector’s item. Furthermore, these postage stamps also lay stress on conservation and preservation of birds, some of which are on the verge of extinction and if potential care is not taken today than they can become extinct from the face of the earth for good.