Vedanthangal: Bonding with Birds

Hanae Araki strolls around Vedanthangal, that is home to the oldest water bird sanctuary in the country, and reports on the unique symbiosis that exists between the birds and the people of this village who regard them as their “children” and treasure their special relationship with them

By Hanae Araki
Japan

Vedanthangal

Treasure. What does this word remind you of? Some people might imagine gold or money. Others might imagine jewelry. Thus, the meaning of treasure differs from person to person, but the common point is that it is especially valuable for each person. Some people already have one, and others haven’t any yet. I myself didn’t know clearly what treasure means to me until my encounter with the “family” in one village, which gave me a chance to think it over. This is a story of that big “family.”

Place
We were travelling in a taxi along a narrow road, guided by the direction boards, which had pictures of various birds. It was as if we were doing treasure hunting in the middle of paddy fields and grasslands. Finally, the car stopped. There, we found the treasure. It was in a village full of love and thoughtfulness.

Vedanthangal, about 25 km south of Chengalpattu, is a small and rather quiet village which, although at first sight seems just like any other typical South Indian village, is well known among birdwatchers and ornithologists as a bird paradise. What makes this village special is the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, which is one of the oldest water bird sanctuaries in India. From November to March, this calm village is crowded with more birds than people. Once we entered the sanctuary, we were totally overwhelmed by the spectacle. We gazed at the thousands of birds, forgetting the passage of time. We could not utter a word.

People
“All birds are my children,” said C. Sampath, a bird guide and resident of Vedanthangal. After a long time spent in gazing at the birds—an activity that filled us with peace and joy, we sat on the bench and talked with one of the people in the village, E.Vedachalam (40). For him and the others in the village, birds are not mere creatures living close to them. The presence of the birds is in their lives and their hearts. Every person considered the birds to be his or her children.

When asked which bird is his favorite, E.Vedachalam said that was a difficult question because all birds were his favourites and like human parents who love all their children equally, he loved all birds equally

In my home country, Japan, there is an old poem, which says that there‘s nothing as valuable as children. Even gold and silver have no value when compared to children. For these villagers also, the birds are their own children, the most valuable “treasure.” It doesn’t have a monetary value but yet is more precious.

Within human families, generally parents earn a living and let their children have enough food, clothing and shelter. And in avian “families” too, parents offer fish, insects and shelter for their young ones. In addition, this village has also adopted several long term measures for conservation of birds. The ban on bright light at night and low levels of noise such as ensuring cracker-free Diwali are of examples of such conservation initiatives as birds, especially fledglings, are particularly sensitive to harsh light and sound.

It appeared to me that the people and birds strictly followed several“family” rules to live peacefully together. This village is one big family; villagers are parents and birds are children. The “parents” hold a family meeting regularly to have an understanding of the rules. Not only are the rules applicable within the community, but they also have to make an agreement with the “neighbours” as well. The villagers have even made an agreement with the people who own the backwaters of the lake and they too now follow the village rules for protecting the birds. Nomadic hunters, or the Narikuravas, who hunt bird here illegally, are reported to the government and expelled from the village.

Of course there are inconveniences that accompany implementation of these rules. Commercial ventures within 5km of this sanctuary are strictly banned. Land trade with outsiders is prohibited as is commercial sale of land, which is certain to cause the destruction of nature and harm the birds. Even though they can expect economic improvement by encouraging the introduction of enterprises, the people of the village have willingly given up this tempting option.

The “children” not only receive the love and benefit from their parents. They give a lot of return gifts to their parents. Birds eat insects, which prevent the need for insecticides on the crops. The guano they deposit in the water acts as a highly efficient fertilizer so when water from the reservoir is channeled to irrigate the crops, no fertilizers are needed. In other ways such as the dispersal of seeds, eaten and deposited around the area, the birds make important contributions to the agricultural cycle.

What makes this village special is Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, which is one of the oldest water bird sanctuaries in India. From November to March, this calm village is crowded with more birds than people

This family also shares their happiness. Whenever it rains, both the people and birds appreciate the rain: the people get irrigation water to cultivate rice, and the water birds living in or around water, which covers a major part of this sanctuary, have enough water in the lake. This happiness of the family also brings happiness to others: If it rains a lot and there are more birds, the tourists are also glad to enjoy the spectacle. Here in India, the well being of a family is the basis of the peace and security of the society!

Thus, this “family” lives like human families, but there is one big difference between this “family” and ordinary families. The size of the family is quite big! The members are a lot of birds as well as industrious villagers. There are about 2000 people in this village, almost all of who are farmers. 10 percent of them hold their own land, and the rest are working on their land as farm or agricultural labourers. Their lives are entirely dependent on farming, and most of them live below the poverty line. Now this village has some schools, which we saw on the way there, but about five decades ago, there was no school and the non literate people from the village had no other option but farming. And yet, the people from the village, whom we met, didn’t seem to be discontented with that. On the contrary, they were proud of being one of the members of this village.

When asked which bird is his favorite, E. Vedachalam said that was a difficult question because all birds were his favourites and like human parents who love all their children equally, he loved all birds equally. Even the pictures drawn on the sign boards on the way or inside the sanctuary seemed to be the portraits of their beloved children.

E.Vedachalam and T.Moorthy of Vedanthangal Panchayat talk about their bonding with the birds

Birds are not mere creatures living close to them. The presence of the birds is in their lives and their hearts

Prospects
The people of Vedanthangal willingly sacrifice some of the obvious benefits of development for the sake of the precious children but the human parents are also thinking about plans for the future so that both they and their birdie children prosper. In order to encourage tourism in this area, the people have suggested a plan to build more guesthouses or parks more than 5 kms from the sanctuary (so as not to disturb the birds), as currently there is only one Forest Rest House.

Such initiatives will attract more tourists, which will create more employment opportunities in this village such as transportation, restaurants, bird guides and other allied jobs. Although it might be difficult to completely avoid a negative impact on the birds, the people were confident that the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages.

Strong bonds within the family is new for me, as those in Japan aren’t as strong as its Indian counterparts. For the people of Vedanthangal, the birds are “treasure”. For me, the family itself is a “treasure”. Then, what is “treasure” for you?