Essay: Titahri Tales - Hindustan Times
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Essay: Titahri Tales

Aug 04, 2023 10:12 PM IST

The discovery of a red-wattled lapwing’s nest provokes a rumination on the many folk beliefs about this high strung bird with a hysterical shriek

“Not again!” I shake my head.

A red-wattled lapwing(Prerna Jain) PREMIUM
A red-wattled lapwing(Prerna Jain)

The elderly gardener working nearby is surprised to hear the exasperation in my voice. I am frustrated to see the nest of a red-wattled lapwing on the ground, in the same spot as last year. That nest had drowned and the eggs had perished in the National Capital Region’s heavy rains. Year after year, red-wattled lapwings nest in the ground around that same spot. It is common knowledge that birds nest in safe areas; why is this one so stupid, I wondered.

A red-wattled lapwing on the ground. (Prerna Jain)
A red-wattled lapwing on the ground. (Prerna Jain)

“I can see so many trees of different sizes here, why can’t this bird lay eggs on one of them?” I murmured.

“There would be massive earthquakes, the day a titahri decides to perch on the branch of a tree,” the gardener said. “Titahri” is the Hindi term for the red-wattled lapwing. “It always sleeps on its back with its legs towards the sky,’’ he added.

“Why?”

“Titahri is worried that a cloud or branch falling on its nest might destroy its eggs. It sleeps like that because it believes it is holding the sky on its legs, and won’t let it fall on its nest.”

“How do you know?”

“My grandfather was a farmer; he told me. Titahris used to nest in his farm every year. Everyone in my village knows that,” he said with great conviction.

The conversation reminded me of my grandmother, who, when someone promised to undertake a task much beyond his or her ability, would jokingly say, “Titahri aasman thaam legi (The lapwing will hold up the sky)”.

The titahri pondering about holding up the sky!(Prerna Jain)
The titahri pondering about holding up the sky!(Prerna Jain)

On the internet, I found a beautiful story from the Panchatantra about the lapwing laying eggs on the ground: a titahri couple living on a beautiful beach decided to start a family. Before laying eggs, the female tells her partner to search for a safe nesting place. Let’s call the male lapwing “Titahra”. He arrogantly told her that, for his children, any place would be safe and that she should feel free to lay eggs anywhere on the seashore. Titahri was not sure that laying eggs near the beach was a good idea; the waves might take her nest away. Titahra bragged that the sea wouldn’t dare hurt his eggs. The sea was already irritated at Titahra’s claim of holding up the sky while sleeping and decided to teach him a lesson. When Titahri saw her eggs floating on the waves, she was filled with rage and screamed at her partner. Unfazed, Titahra bragged that he would dry up the sea with his beak and get his eggs back. Titahri scolded him again. The embarrassed Titahra then asked other birds for help. They took pity on him and turned to mighty Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, for help. Vishnuji threatened to dry up the sea with Agneyastra (fire weapon) and helped the titahri couple get back their eggs.

There are many other stories related to this beautiful bird. Some tribes believe a red-wattled lapwing laying eggs in the dry bed of a stream is a forewarning of delayed rains or droughts. If the bird lays eggs on the banks, however, it is an indication of normal rains. The bird is believed to be a natural weather forecaster. It is also considered sacred in many parts of India. A few years ago, a five-year-old child, who accidentally stepped on the eggs of a red-wattled lapwing, was compelled to live outside her village in Rajasthan by superstitious villagers. She could only return after authorities of the local administration intervened.

“I am relieved that the lapwing babies have a fair chance of survival this year.”(Prerna Jain)
“I am relieved that the lapwing babies have a fair chance of survival this year.”(Prerna Jain)

Red-wattled lapwings are not ready to change with the times. Fortune favours the brave they say. This year, the red-wattled lapwings, who frequent my garden in Noida, are lucky. Their eggs are safe and have hatched. I counted four cute little chicks running around the garden. The couple has joint custody of their brood. Whatever the Panchatantra says about Titahra’s arrogance, he seems to be a responsible parent who shares duties equally with his missus. The parents let out loud shrieks when they sense a threat to their chicks. Like a crow flying too close or an unknown human nearby. The chicks camouflage themselves in the grass or hide in the plumage of the parent until all is clear. The titahri couple seems to have realised that I love birds and have no intention of hurting their family. They let me click pictures of the chicks. The elderly gardener too is allowed to work near the young ones without any fuss.

I am relieved that the lapwing babies have a fair chance of survival this year. Apparently, the egg mortality rate is high due to predators like crows, kites and mongooses. The chicks, however, have a higher survival rate. This batch will soon fly away.

I am already waiting for next year’s edition of Titahri Tales. It should “drop” sometime between spring and summer. Perhaps I shall welcome it with a lapwing-like shriek of joy.

Prerna Jain is an artist and photographer based in New Delhi. An extensive collection of her work can be found at her website www.prernasphotographs.com and at facebook.com/prernasphotographs. She is the author of My Feathered Friends and a collection of short stories, Stories Usual, Yet Unusual.

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