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Mythical birds of India
By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
Other countries celebrate their mythical animals. Garuda belongs to Indian mythology but is the national bird and symbol of Indonesia. The Phoenix or Homa is revered in Iran. Here are some we should know:
Byangoma/Byangomi are the legendary birds of Bengal. They look like hoopoes, are wise, strict and assist whom they consider deserving. They are born blind and need a few drops of blood from a donor to activate their sight. When they tell the future to someone, that person hears voices, a bird song and suddenly has an intuition about something which is to happen.
Gandaberunda is a two headed, long tailed mythological bird who possesses enough, immense, magical strength. The bird is depicted as clutching elephants in its talons and beaks. In the ancient coins of Madurai, it is shown holding a snake in its beak. In the Chennakesava temple there are depictions of a chain of destruction : A deer is eaten by a python who is destroyed by an elephant who is attacked by a lion who is destroyed by Shiva in his incarnation as Sharabha. Sharabha is then destroyed by Narasimha (man-lion) as Gandaberunda
The tale is like this: The demon Hiranyakashipu is killed by Vishnu who comes as Narasimha. But even after he was slain, Narasimha, who had tasted blood, did not change back his form to Vishnu. The gods grew scared of his raging form and they appealed to Shiva. Shiva turned himself into Sharabha – a combination of man, lion, bird – in order to subdue Narasimha. But Narasimha changed into Gandaberunda, with two heads, fearful rows of teeth, black in complexion, and with wide blazing wings, and fought with Shiva-Sharabha for eighteen days, killed him and then died in a massive explosion of energy.
Gandaberunda was first adopted by the Vijayanagara empire in 1510, and as the royal insignia of the Wodeyar rulers of Mysore 500 years ago. Coins from the rule of Achyuta Deva Raya are thought to be the first to use the Gandaberunda on currency. Found in the sculptures and bas- reliefs of many temples in the South of India, it is the official emblem of Karnataka.
The Homa bird, of Vedic times, lives and breeds in the air, lays eggs in the air, and, before the eggs reach the earth, they hatch and the baby bird flies upward to join its mother. They never touch the earth. Persian, Turkish and Sufi poets praise them as divine birds, and birds of paradise.
In Vedic literature there are references to birds bringing the divine Soma plant from the mountains. S and H have been interchanged in Greek and Persian: Hindus, eg. those living on the banks of the river Sindhu, are called Hindus. Six becomes Hexa in Greek. Perhaps the Soma bird is the mythical Homa bird. In Persian mythology it was believed that if this bird flew over someone’s head, and its shadow fell on him, he would become a mighty king. This belief made Tipu Sultan of Mysore create a golden throne with the Homa bird, in gold and jewels on the canopy .
The mythical Hansa or Swan/Goose represents purity, perfect union with the universe, divine knowledge. The Hansas, also called Aryannas, live in Manasasaras (Mansarovar) in the Himalayas. They don’t like rain, so they come to Earth when it rains in their abode ,and return as soon as rain begins here. They are the children of Dhritarashtri, who is the daughter of Kashyap and Tamra, according to the Valmiki Ramayana. The Hansas were first black and white, but they became pure white as a boon from Varuna the god, who once took their form to hide from Ravana. The gods had assembled for a havan and had to change into various bird forms when Ravana attacked them. The hansa eats pearls and separates milk from water from a mixture of both. The Hansas play an important role in the story of Nala and Damayanti.
In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Navagunjara is a creature composed of nine different animals/birds. Navagunjara has the head of a rooster, and stands on three feet – those of an elephant, tiger, deer or horse, the fourth limb being a raised human arm carrying a lotus or a wheel. The beast has the neck of a peacock, the back or hump of a bull, the waist of a lion, and the tail of a serpent.
Navagunjara is a common motif in the Odisha Pata-Chitra style of painting. The creature is considered a form of Vishnu. Once when Arjuna was meditating on a hill, Navagunjara appeared. Arjuna was terrified, as well as mesmerised, by the strange being, and raised his bow to shoot it. But he realised that Navagunjara was a manifestation of Vishnu, and dropped his weapons, bowing before the bird creature.
The Chakora is a legendary immortal partridge/crow pheasant that lives on moonbeams. On the full moon night, the Chakora cries passionately for the moon, shedding tears of unrequited love for the moon in all her glory shining high in the sky. In the Mahabharatam, when Kuchela was on his way to meet Krishna, he saw the Chakora. By the time he returned home after meeting him he was rich!
The Chakora is believed to bring good luck. The association of Chakora and Chandra, the moon god, has inspired a number of love stories in India.
The Chataka is a mythological cuckoo, who is unwilling to drink water found on earth, choosing to drink only fresh pure rain water as it falls from the sky. It has a shrill voice. The Chataka pleads with the clouds to bring in rain so that its thirst can be quenched. A black/yellow/white bird, smaller than the dove, it has a long tail. The long crest on its head is shaped like a bow with an arrow stretched tight on it. References to this bird are made in Kalidasa and Adi Shankaracharya.
The chataka and chakora depend on natural resources — rain water and moonlight, a lesson that nature needs to be preserved without destruction. These are only very few of our mythological birds, but you need to tell your children about them.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact
[email protected], www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)