Friday, 4 July 2008

Their sounds will survive forever

For the last three years, Gautam Sapkota has been after birds and only birds. He follows the birds in national parks, forests, nearby gardens and central zoo in Kathmandu, and spends his time imitating their ways - the way the birds communicate with each other in different situations. And it's really hard to believe - within a span of three years, he has been able to mimic 151 different types of birds!

"I know the birds won't be here forever, they are being killed and getting extinct due to loss of habitat and human encroachment," he says. "Although I won't be able to save them, I will preserve their voices."

Although there are so many exotic birds, crows are Gautam's best friends. He can communicate with the crows more efficiently. He opines that these birds use only few basic words to communicate like "come", "go", "run - there's danger", "let's gather - one of us is in danger" and few other words. It was his long study and experience that allowed him to call a conference of crows during the auspicious festival Kag Tihar (The first day of Hindu festival - Deepawali, when people worship crow, the messenger of the God of death, Yama). Hundreds of crows came responding to his calls at the Open Theatre in Kathmandu. "They are my friends, and they come to me when I call them," says Gautam. "They know that their friend needs their help and flock to me."

Once hounded by media, he has been surviving on the presentations that he holds everyday in different schools. Till date he has visited more than 6,500 schools in 45 districts of Nepal, interacting, entertaining and education the kids about birds, their habitat, their ways of life and their calls.

When asked on how he was inspired to take up this hobby, he says, "When I was a little kid, I wondered how people imitated animals." "When I grew up, I realized that I could mimic a lot different sounds, so I started my journey and the beautiful birds became my friends."

Besides birds, he can imitate any other animal. However, following and studying the monkeys of Swayambhunath stupa and Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, he has learnt the monkey sounds too. He can initiate a brawl between two and more monkeys. And if you really pester him, he can arrange a gang fight among the monkeys and ask all the monkeys to attack you at once.

You will never get bored by his bird calls. However, to entertain the students apart from the monotonous bird sounds he has compiled songs in different bird voices. An album of popular Nepali folk songs remixed in the voice of different birds (particularly heron's voice) is on the offing.

Although born in a not so known Gadhi village of Makwanpur district in central Nepal, he is aspiring to record his feat in the Guiness Book of World Records. He is in correspondence with the officials and they are positive on recording this extraordinary feat.

Friday, 9 May 2008

A bus story

Two years back I was in a DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus heading towards Connaught Place (CP) with a friend of mine. Mistakenly, we had occupied the row of seats meant for ladies (with ‘mahila’ – meaning lady written above the seats). As the bus stopped by a station, two young ladies got on the bus. My friend sitting next to me offered them his seat as they were standing near us. To my amazement, one of them, who looked quite confident, said a no-no to his offer and told him that they believed in equality and not in reservation. Instantly, a sense of respect rose inside me for that lady, who said no to the male chauvinism. I started thinking – yes, the new generation has arrived and now each and every girl will challenge the boy of her age. They will replace and rout the male hegemony.

As we neared the next stop, few fat ladies embarked the bus. With more people getting inside, they were standing next to us. This time, neither of us offered them the seats. To my horror, one of them raised the hell there. We were tagged being insensitive and all other passengers started to yell at us for not respecting the ladies. They again and again uttered the word ‘reservation’ and ‘meant for a woman’. Immediately, we sprang out of the seats and stood clinching the rod attached to the bus roof. We were looking down with mortification. I thought – how insensitive the women could be, they talk about equality and in the meantime say all these nasty things and take the benefit of being a woman. I had the feeling, nothing has changed at all. I could see the two young ladies smiling mischievously at us.

These days whenever, I get on a local transport, I always try to take a seat which has no ‘mahila’ written above it. The ghost of the fat lady in the DTC bus hounds me all the time, I travel in buses. There are times when I see young and old ladies clinging to the rod attached to the bus roof while the insensitive men are sitting nonchalantly on the seats meant for ladies. They don’t even leave the seats for old women and ladies carrying children. At such times, I remember the fat lady and feel like telling the standing women to raise their voice and take the seats meant for them. Then again, I think of the young lady, who said no to male ego and pull myself back. I then feel that, yes, we all are equal and even the girls should stand tall along with the boys.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Jhutti – The Rice Stalk Artistry

The month of November bears a special significance for Terai dwellers in Nepal. Usually regarded as the month of harvest it brings with it loads of joy to all. The fields, villages and streets are all filled with the aroma of freshly cut paddy. The granaries are generally full with newly harvested rice and the aroma of new rice wafts away from every kitchen in the villages.

The children await the harvest with much eagerness. After school hours or taking turns to herd the cattle and goats they glean rice from fields. Scouring the fields they search the rice stalks missed by the reapers. The collected rice is bartered with the petty sellers offering local delicacies (jilebi, kachari, and sweets). The rice is often sold in shops and the sum is saved to spend in the melas (village fetes) and haats (make-shift markets).

Meanwhile the farmers prepare jhuttis – artistic form of rice stalk sheaf weaving. Especially, the Tharus prepare jhuttis for each variety of rice they harvest. The jhuttis are hung high on the meh (the bamboo pole to which the oxen are tethered while threshing rice).

Art inspired by nature, for love of nature
Jhuttis are of different shapes and sizes. They are inspired by the nature and the things around like, kauwa tholi – the crow’s beak, patiya – the mat, kakahi – the comb, jhunjhuna – the baby’s toy, bena – the fan, bakhari – the granary, maur – the turban a bridegroom wears in Terai.

The belief is that – after the rice is harvested, there remains nothing for the birds to peck at. Hence, the tradition started, with keeping a jhutti of each species of rice harvested. The jhuttis thus, hung provided food for the birds. It shows the love for nature and conservation among the Tharus.

“Our ancestors loved and worshipped the nature,” says Chandra Kishore Kalyan, President of Tharu Welfare Society, Siraha. “They weaved jhuttis so that the birds didn’t die of hunger after harvest.”

Reviving the age-old culture
With the introduction of machines, the farmers are leaving behind the tradition. Even the traditional rice threshing is becoming obsolete. Now the farmers resort to using machines for the purpose. The joy and celebration of rice threshing using oxen, hanging jhuttis on the bamboo pole is becoming rarer.

To revive the age-old tradition, Barchhawar Community Development Forum organized a ‘Jhutti Competition’ last year. The competition attracted interest from local people with one hundred and fifty entries and brought out the Tharu culture in the national media. The organizers opine that the competition has not only informed the young generation about their culture but also reawakened their love towards the dying tradition. The forum will give continuity to it in the days to come.

Traditional healing
The Tharus believe that the jhutti rice is a cure for nausea. Nathar Tharu of Sishwani village, Siraha in east Nepal has a collection of 20-25 years old rice. He provides the rice for free to the people suffering from nausea.

Month of creativity
The month of November is special to Tharu women. It’s the time to show their creativity. They weave the jhuttis in their leisure time and the young girls learn the trick while herding the goats and cattle. Playing with the rice sheaf they come up with the beautiful shapes and size.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Teach Me Tenderly

The Elephant Training Workshop at the Elephant Breeding Centre at Khorsor, Chitwan, brought forth a new advancement in elephant training combining Nepali mahouts’ vast experience and long tradition in working with elephants, and the foreign experts’ expertise in the scientific knowledge on best ways to promote learning in animals.

The sun was about to set. Although the day was coming to an end, the ticket selling counter at the Elephant Breeding Centre, Khorsor was packed with visitors. Crossing the counter, to me the sight of the huge stable was astounding – giant elephants were tethered to wooden posts with iron shackles. The mammoth animals looked helpless and pitiable. Even older baby elephants were tethered in similar fashion. As I neared the iron bar, a cute baby elephant lunged towards me. It crossed the fence and chased me. Immediately another elephant calf, a little older than the one chasing me, came to take back the younger elephant. However, it got hold of the orange I was carrying and ran back to the stable along with its brother (on asking the mahouts I came to know about their relationship). Nearing its mother, it threw the orange on the ground and peeled it with its foot and ate the contents inside. They are such an intelligent creature!

End of innocence
The baby elephants amuse the visitors at the stable with their playfulness and mischief. However, as they grow older they are taught to behave properly. On reaching two years of age, the elephants are trained to obey the mahout’s commands.

Initially the young elephant is separated from its mother for few days. It cries and laments in agony of separation and becomes desperate. Two men each on two elephants with the fifth man on the distressed calf go for long rides – the calf is made to run, go up, come down, jump and do all sort of activities as commanded by the rider.

“When the calf is tired and desperate, then the real training starts with the mahout teaching the jumbo language with the help of bamboo sticks hurting on the back of the ears and shoulders,” says Vikram Mahato who has been training elephants for the past 34 years. “In the process, the baby elephant gets angry and tries to throw away the rider. Sometimes the trainer gets hurt, ends up with broken neck and fractured limbs.”

The trainee elephant is tethered in between the two other elephants with the help of strong rope while it learns to respond to the basic commands of moving forwards, backwards, to the left and right, sitting, standing, stopping and grabbing.

After two weeks the elephant learns to be ridden by the trainer without the assistance of other elephants.

Teaching with reward and appreciation
Contrary to the traditional painful training, three young elephants from Khorsor received some basic training through Positive Learning Method, and all three proceeded quickly in their learning. The young elephants were Saraswati Kali and Kush Prasad, who were habituated to calmly accept a mahout sitting on them and to respond correctly to the signals for forward, backward, stop, turn etc. A younger, as yet unnamed calf of one year of age was not ridden yet, but was habituated to calmly accept handling and to understand the same signals that will later on be used when riding.

The Elephant Training Workshop at the Elephant Breeding Centre at Khorsor, Chitwan on 11 to 14 December 2007 was carried out under the guidance of Dr. Andrew McLean from Australia, who is an internationally highly recognized expert in the science of animal training, Tuikku Kaimio from Finland, who also conducted the previous year’s workshop, and scientist Marc Pierard from Belgium, who led the foreign team.

The Positive Learning Method promotes elephants’ willingness to cooperate with people. It is a combination of two scientific approaches in animal training –positive reinforcement (rewarding the elephant for correct actions) and pressure release (guiding the elephant with as little force as possible and releasing the pressure immediately when the elephant performs the correct action).

“As soon as the elephant performs the right action, it should be rewarded with kuchis – food packages for elephants,” says Dr. Andrew McLean. “The elephant is then sure about what it performed.”

In this training method, the trainer avoids inflicting any pain or fear to the elephant. Training elephants in this way makes the training sessions a pleasant experience for both the trainers and the elephant. The other benefits are fast learning – in this way, elephants learn the tasks faster than with any other training method – as well as increased reliability and safety of elephants at work. “Elephants trained this way will have less behaviour problem and will be more obedient,” says Marc Pierard.

Waiting for results
According to Dr. Kamal Gairhe, the top expert in elephant veterinary medicine in Nepal, the positive learning method can’t be compared with the traditional method of training.

“We have the results of traditional training method at hand but we still need to wait for the positive learning method’s results and its effectiveness,” says Dr. Gairhe.

However, Tuikku Kaimio is confident about the success of the scientific training.
“They (mahouts) have already applied some of the techniques that we taught during last year’s training,” says Tuikku. “If they use their traditional methods combined with scientific knowledge, we will be glad, because they are the experts of elephant training.”

The officers think that the new method is more humane than the traditional training and it will avoid the risks of mahouts being killed by elephants. “When an elephant gets insane, it searches the mahout who had treated it badly and tortured during the training,” says Gangaram Singh, Project Manager, Terai Arc Landscape Program. “In the past there have been several incidents when the mad and angry elephant killed the mahout ruthlessly.”

Beginning of a new era
Next day I attended the workshop on management of health of elephants. In this workshop, knowledge about handling of elephants at work in order to further promote reliability and safety of elephants, about various possibilities in the design of equipment, about ways to promote elephant health, and about elephants’ role in conservation, was shared. While the participants discussed the issues, I could see a group of baby elephants busy playing football on a ground nearby – of course they were being ridden by young mahouts.

The elephants seemed to follow each and every command of the mahouts and were trying to kick the ball past the goal post. I was amazed to see the camaraderie between the elephants and the riders. The sun was again about to set but the sight looked like beginning of a new era. People were gathered to see the elephants play and practise for the upcoming elephant football match. They were clapping and at a distance Tuikku looked more than satisfied.

The combination of Nepali mahouts’ vast experience and long tradition in working with elephants, and the foreign experts’ expertise in the scientific knowledge on best ways to promote learning in animals is a new advancement in elephant training. She is confident that it will attract positive international interest and Nepal will be an example to the countries around the world.

End Notes:

Jumbo language
The mahouts use vocal commands along with pressure to train the young elephants.
“Agat” – move forwards
“Chhau” – move backwards
“Sut” – sleep
“Mail” – stand
“Baith” – sit
“Emhar” – turn
“Leh” – grab

Three men in a job
To handle an elephant three men are employed – Phanet, Mahout, and Pachhuwa. Phanet is the main handler of elephant. He takes proper care of the elephant and keeps it in hygienic condition and drives the elephant during formal occasions. Mahout cleans the hattisar, cooks the food and cleans the utensils. He also assists in feeding and bathing the elephant. Pachhuwa collects fodder and assists the Phanet in keeping the elephant in hygienic condition. He also assists the Phanet by standing on the back of elephant on special occasions.