WHILE sipping from a cup of masala chai and overlooking Udaipur’s Shree Jagdish Temple, I pondered the urban life of animals I had seen in India’s teeming cities and villages. Prior to arriving in India, I had thought the saturated presence of humanity would have almost completely displaced animal life. Boy, was I wrong!
From my perch in the hotel restaurant, I first heard the banshee of a street parade before a brass band tumbled from a side-street followed by a bevy of sari-clad ladies in a riotous celebration of colour.
What struck me about urbanised animal life is the way in which these supposedly dumb animals have adapted to human society in the ever-present struggle for survival. I witnessed, and was stunned, by the road sense of canis familiaris as the dogs crossed busy roads, pausing on the centre island to look the other way as a precaution against oncoming traffic. The mutts waiting patiently and crossed when safe! Cattle, on the other hand, was worse than luxury car drivers – they owned the asphalt! Tuk-tuks, cars, trucks and pedestrians moved out of their way or patiently circled around the ambling, cud-chewing bovines before hastening on their way. I was both impressed and humbled by the way in which Indian road users took such infinite care to avoid injuring animals on the road. Low speeds help, but it was quite obvious that they respect life – in all its glorious forms!
I saw one fisherman catch clutches of pan-sized freshwater fish (not catfish!) right next to burning pyres, the remains of the deceased deposited into the river
Another aspect of dog behaviour that intrigued me was the way they slept. While walking the littered streets I often mistook a sleeping canine for a dead dog. They lie flat on their sides and, well, sleep. I even saw a dog doze in the middle of a busy intersection, quite confident of not coming to harm. Not to say they did not have their challenges… In Varanasi, groups of dogs claimed ownership of particular ghats – and they protected their territory with bared teeth and snarling growls. One pregnant bitch intoxicated the male members of a neighbouring family, but her guardian remained poised and vigilant against any unwarranted intrusion into his domain.
The Holiest City
Varanasi is reputed to be the oldest permanently inhabited city in the world and also the holiest for Hindus because of the Ganga – one of the most polluted rivers in the world. However, if you thought pollution in this instance equated to an absence of life, you’d be wrong. The river teems with fish and predators that feed on them! I saw one fisherman catch clutches of pan-sized freshwater fish (not catfish!) right next to burning pyres, the remains of the deceased deposited into the river.
My rowing walla told me he has seen freshwater dolphins in the river off Varanasi, a fact borne out by Discovery Channel. Birds of prey circled over our heads and often took their catch from the Ganga. How can this be, you ask? Such an abundance of life in a toxic, polluted river system? The Hindus have their answer: the god Shiva protects the users of the holy water. While scientists admit it is a bit of a mystery, they postulate it has something to do with microphages in the water, which feed on the poison and leaves the water remarkably clean of noxious substances.
While domestic felines are less plentiful, there are still leopards around
Another animal that has adapted well to city life is the ubiquitous squirrel. They are all over, scampering along fences, over walls and into gardens. The squirrels are tiny and always succeed in bringing a smile to the most weary face. Monkeys and langurs are equally at home in the city, particularly plentiful in Jaipur where the Monkey Temple is the key prize for itinerant home-seekers. The temple grounds are fiercely protected by the resident troop, no doubt because of the pilgrims who bring food as a token of their piety. This is a common sight throughout India. I often saw Indians trudge through the early morning, dropping anything from fresh fodder to leftover chappatis in the streets for cows, goats, dogs and even pigs to eat. They believe showing kindness and respect to animals will ensure good karma. A philosophy with which I can identify.
While domestic felines are less plentiful, there are still leopards around. In Jaipur, the taxi driver told me that leopards roam the many hills surrounding Rajasthan’s capital. Similarly, leopards are occasionally seen in the nature reserve that encompasses the former hunting grounds of the Mewar Maharana at his Monsoon Palace in the scenic Aravalli Hills. My guide made a point of telling me that the Rajput rulers only hunted male or old tigers, never reproductive females. Irrespective of the self-serving truth of this statement, tigers today is highly endangered and must be protected from those that threaten this magnificent beast’s existence.
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