Chapter 1

Return of the Bulbul

At the edge of the Mysore Plateau, in the interior of rural Andhra Pradesh, a rugged plain surrounded by ancient rock formations is known for a legendary sage who lived atop one of the surrounding hills. That hill is Rishi Konda, and the lowlands beneath it are known as Rishi Valley.

The broken hills of the region have a sculptured look; the earth is parched by long periods of drought. Although the average rainfall is nearly sixty centimetres each year, it is concentrated in a few monsoon torrents which pour down in force, rending the earth and washing away the topsoil. This is Rayalaseema — once a prosperous kingdom, now a field of stones.

Three kilometres inland from the Anantapur highway is the campus of a small residential school that was established sixty years ago to carry forward the educational work of J. Krishnamurti, a philosopher whose vision of life gave prominence to awareness, beauty, and concern for nature. This is Rishi Valley School, whose academic work has for some years been co-ordinated with a network of active conservation programmes.

Behind the school, the South Hills loom starkly with little green cover over their rocky base. Patches of low scrub, the kind that even goats find distasteful eke out a sparse existence through bare rock and pebbled earth. The soil is hard and dry. Tiny, scattered groundnut farms fringe the hillsides. At one time the campus was so barren that, standing at its centre, a complete panorama of hills had been visible, all the way from Cave Rock to Rishi Konda.


This is a region that had once been classified as ‘Reserved Forest’ on Government of India maps. The Gazetteer of 1910 described the area as ‘rich in natural springs’. Old maps marked the sites of these long-lost water sources. Folk memories provide a tantalizing glimpse of a time when the nearby Horsley Hills were known as Yenuga-Mallammakonda. A saintly lady Mallamma lived there, attended by friendly yenugu — large wild creatures that might have been elephants or bears.

Over the years since the Gazetteer of 1910 was written, the Reserve Forest has been reduced to scattered shrubs, the natural springs have ceased to flow, and the yenugu no longer roam Mallamakonda. The needs of the growing human opu1ation of the valley and of the nearby towns are taking their toll on the remaining forest cover. Though shepherding is a very ancient and natural way of life in the valley, and local villagers’ grazing rights over the hills go back centuries, the present populations of sheep, goats and cows are too large for the hills to support. Their growth in recent times reflects economic realities — the growing hunger of the nearby prosperous town.

The oldest presence in the Valley is the granite rock base of the surrounding hills. One of the most ancient rock formations on the surface of the Earth, it is a silent presence from a time before life began.

Over long passages of time, rocks weathered into soil whose minerals nourished plant growth. Forests grew upon the bouldered hills to provide a haven for large wildlife. Remnants of this once dense forest are now confined to the western and north-western hills, occasionally interspersed with thorny trees and hardy scrub. With the loss of their habitats, the deer, the bears, and the panthers fled long ago. Now only jackals make themselves heard at night.

Though barren, the ancient hills retain a rugged beauty. Weathered into every shade of brown, purple and gold, they have traditionally commanded the respect of the villagers, for whom they are infused with a spiritual presence. A majestic ‘Lion Rock’ guards the entrance to the Valley, and other striking shapes astride the hilltops have been named and are identified as part of the local lore.

In 1980, one hundred and fifty acres of adjoining hillside were leased to Rishi Valley School by the Government of Andhra Pradesh for reforestation. It is a formidable task to grow trees on slopes where there is no shade, where the soil lacks moisture, where the rains are unpredictable and no close water source exists. As a first step, a stone fence was constructed around the South Hills to keep away grazing sheep and cattle. The enclosed hills contained within their boundaries an artificial lake (‘Last Lake’) that has been constructed to collect rain-water running off their sides.

An arrangement was worked for the villagers to take fodder from the hills. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that the area had never been divided into private plots, the wall provoked instant resistance. Villagers were angered to find their ancient grazing rights violated. When a watchman was stationed to prevent grazing, resistance turned to open hostility. Relations between the villages and the school remained tense for several years after that, during which time efforts to plant trees on the South Hills began in earnest.

Everyone in the school took part. Armed with digging sticks and bags full of seeds, younger children climbed up a path to plant seeds into the hard soil. Older students dug pits for saplings. Large drums of water were transported by tractor from the well to the foothills. From there, the children filled buckets with water and relayed them up through a long line snaking over the hillside.

Mr Naidu, the Rishi Valley Estate Manager, had a separate plantation programme. With support from the local Forest Department, he terraced the hillside with check-dams to conserve rain-water by arresting its downward flow. Nurseries with thousands of trees were developed. Students and workers joined hands in filling polythene bags with earth and watering the newly sown seeds until they were ready to be transplanted. In this way, almost twenty thousand trees and shrubs were planted on the South Hills each year.

These efforts were to some extent thwarted by a prolonged drought in the eighties. The artificial lake on the South Hill came to be known as ‘Lost Lake’ because it contained so little water. Planting schedules went awry. There was never any guarantee that the soil would be moist by the date set for the saplings to be planted; and when we were able to keep the initial planting date, it would often be followed by a long dry spell. The attrition rate was high more than half the trees perished. It.seemed as though shade and leaf would never cover all the bald patches on the South Hills.

The prolonged drought, however, had an unexpected bonus. The villagers’ anger seemed to dissolve as they became aware of the value of an assured supply of fodde,r from an undisturbed hillside source. Since then the grass on the walled-hills has been freely used by local families as fodder for their sheep, goats and cows.
In 1988 the State Government of Andhra Pradesh helped us to finance a percolation tank on twenty acres of low-lying lands on our campus. The large basin was to collect rain-water from the surrounding hills and service, through underground channels, the dry wells throughout our valley and beyond. Once the tank was built, the thirsty earth absorbed all of the water which collected in the basin. It thus took several years for it to fill. The cycle of drought finally ended in November 1991 when an unprecedented deluge of rain filled the Last Lake, rushed through old stream-beds and even produced a temporary waterfall on campus. We now have two artificial lakes, one on the hills and one in the Valley.

All this time, unknown to us, nature was silently working her ghostly purposes on the South Hills. Moisture, algae, fungi, bushes and trees were creating hospitable spaces for the return of earthworms, frogs, turtles and birds. Birds dropping seeds set in motion new cycles of life begetting life.

The two lakes we had built and the trees we had planted became independent agents of regeneration. Four occurrences suddenly brought the mysterious and independent power of nature home to us. One morning a wild cat wandered through a half open door in the Old Guest House. Finding itself in a closed room, it thrashed around in a frantic effort to jump out through the glazed windows. In the process of finding its way out, back to the hills, the frightened creature clawed out several pages from a mathematics book left on the table.

Shortly thereafter a turtle was found crossing the path between two hostels, Jacaranda House and Allamanda House. Next, a family of dabchicks — mother, father and three offspring — moved into the large percolation tank. By the end of the season the family members numbered two dozen. Finally, the call of a Yellowthroated Bulbul was heard in the hills — an auspicious event mentioned in the chapter ‘Birth of a Bird Preserve’ and described in more detail in the chapter entitled ‘Scrublands’ (see 2.18). Here were signs of life surging forward on its own.

This book, and the network of activities underlying its production, were initiated and pursued by Mr Rangaswami with characteristic enthusiasm and dedication to the highest standards. Mr Rangaswami had been Bursar of Rishi Valley School in the 1970’s. When he returned in 1990, after a twelve year absence, he noted a striking increase in the variety of birds that were resident or visiting here. He assembled a group of associates to help prepare an up-to-date field guide to the birds of the valley, which would contain the most recent observations made in the field by his circle of eminent birdwatchers. The circle included Mr S. Sridhar, a celebrated photographer; Mr Theodore Baskaran, an ardent naturalist; and Mr Santharam, Mr Praveen Karanth, and the late Mr Papanna, all experienced in the field study of birds.

This book was planned as an adjunct to the Rishi Valley Bird Preserve, a sanctuary established to protect and attract a wide variety of birds, with students sharing responsibility for its activities. Mr Rangaswami envisioned far-reaching educational implications for the project. We learnt from direct observation about the behaviour patterns of birds, about the patterns and functions of bird-song — used to claim territory and to attract a mate, about dominance and competition between individuals, and symbiosis between species. While learning through observation, students also contributed to a large census project. With the students’ active participation it was possible to fully catalogue our flora and fauna in interaction, so as to enhance our understanding of this living environment.

Students also learnt to be quietly watchful and observant. To be quietly attentive and to observe in stillness both the outer world and the inward movement of thought is at the centre of Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education. His journals and his books attempt to restore the link that modern man has sundered between himself and nature. In order to convey the underlying spirit of what Krishnamurti was after, we decided to include extracts from his diaries. With Krishnamurti we also feel that the experience of beauty and the rich sympathy to be gained from contemplation of nature sinks into consciousness, regenerates both mind and heart, and brings sanity and grace to human life.

Birds of Rishi Valley is part of a series of publications which aim to bring into focus a particular view of education. At the end of the twentieth century, living in an ancient culture to which many different religions and races have contributed, in an over-populated country with shrinking resources and exploding communal discords, how should we Indians educate our children? This was our question.

It was at this time that K.N.Dave’s Birds In Sanskrit Literature came to our notice. Written by a great scholar who was also a practising ornithologist, it is a historical and literary study of the Sanskrit nomenclature for Indian birds. According to ancient Sanskrit grammarians, names are given to individuals on the basis of a quality which belongs to them. Were bird names given on the basis of observed behaviour and observed character, or were the names mere poetic conceits, products of an overburdened imagination? This question was of particular interest because there is a sense that in India nothing is defined; like Professor Godbole’s songs and his God in A Passage to India, India drowns out all distinctions. Naming is a form of defining, and Dave’s book amply demonstrates that birds were defined in terms of their observed qualities and well-defined patterns of behaviour which provide a basis for name-giving. Thus a drongo is a dhumyaa or bird ‘which wanders amid smoke’; the name records the drongo’s habit of flying along the smoke-filled fringes of forest fires, devouring escaping insects. The Golden Oriole is a pipilaka, a name given on the basis of the bird’s cry (pi-pi-la).

At another and more subtle level, through the example of birds, Dave’s book unexpectedly helps correct the fragmented vision that is a legacy of our colonial past. A person’s response to birds is interwoven with traditions of poetry and songs, transmitted through the mother tongue. Despite this background, the modern Indian birdwatcher’s experience has inescapably been refracted through books written in English by Anglo-Indian writers, with sensibilities nurtured in a different climate. To some of these early writers, the East was ‘topsy turvy’: the familiar little Robin was red under the vent rather than on the breast; the Hawk Cuckoo’s incessant calls, which heralded the season of love for Sanskrit writers, annoyed the Europeans, who called it the Brainfever Bird; and the pabai (Brahminy Myna) whose appearance and habits were connected in traditional Indian culture with a female mendicant, found no corresponding echo in European consciousness. Dave’s Sanskrit names focus our attention on this hidden penumbra of feeling.

Traditional thought endows nature with extraordinary powers; trees are interchangeable with nymphs; birds herald the presence of gods; animals talk. In the western world also, at one time, the sacred had been associated with forest mysteries; local gods and goddesses had their groves to which human beings sometimes dreamed of escaping:

Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding, In the hill-tops where the sun scarce trod,
Or a cloud make the home of mine abiding
As a bird among the bird-droves of God.
(HARRISON, p. 215)

So sang the mourning chorus in Greek tragedy. Traditional Indian thought did not posit a gap between human beings and other natural forms; the Buddha himself assumed various animal forms in his past incarnations, and preached his doctrine among the birds. According to many modern scholars, concern for the sanctity of nature is a value that animated Indian thought generally:

For thousands of years the sense that nature was a living presence, ethical in quality, timeless in its vitality, all-knowing in its wisdom, profoundly influenced the inhabitants of the South Asian sub-continent. What was originally a primitive animism evolved there into a magnificent code by which mortal man could live with his mortality and return again and again over the millennia to a reasonable relationship with himself and with nature.

In the past two hundred years science has begun to unravel some of the mysteries of nature. It teaches that animals and plants are not endowed with human consciousness, that our mythic explanations are fanciful creations of the strictly human mind. Europeans along with Asians have falsely concluded from this that the preservation of nature is secondary to human welfare, and that nature can be endlessly exploited for human need and human greed. These conclusions have led to devastation of the landscape and to a further fragmentation of vision.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we are beginning to realize the finiteness of this Earth, whose resources cannot endlessly support insatiable human projects; and to realize that the fabric of life which covers this Earth is fragile. If human beings are to survive, it will have to be on new terms. And to bring about changes in human behaviour, our educational system will have to adjust to the new ecological realities.

We hope that Birds of Rishi Valley may contribute to a wider movement in this direction. Its catalogue of birds is placed within the larger context of a conservationist outlook. Its simple explanations of the basic concepts of ecology are designed to promote ecological values based on observation, knowledge and practice. Its photographs and paintings record aspects of a beautiful and delicate world in peril — a world that small-scale efforts have helped to sustain by renewing the habitats of this parched and rugged landscape.