With a wealth of animal lore and superb paintings of Himalayan flora, fauna and landscapes, this is a visual treat.

From time immemorial the Himalaya — that stupendous wall of rock soaring to 29,000 ft and spanning 3,488 km — has drawn adventurers, naturalists and sages like a magnet and moved men to poetry and prayer. “In a hundred ages of the Gods, I could not tell thee of the glories of Himachal where Siva lived,” exults the Skandapurana; Edwin Arnold sings of its snows and leaping cataracts, the call of pheasants, the panther’s cry and the scream of circling eagles.

At the other end of the poetic spectrum there is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a monkey: His hide was very mangy, and his face was very red,/And ever and anon he scratched with energy his head,/His manners were not always nice, but how my spirit cried,/To be an artless bandar loose upon the mountainside!

More for reference

This delightful Kipling poem is cited in the latest book issued by the Bombay Natural History Society, the fourth in their acclaimed wildlife series based on material drawn from its archives.

Unlike the earlier volumes consisting of hunting stories, vignettes of life in the wild during the Raj and allied subjects, this is largely a reference book on mammals of the Himalayan region with a sketch of each animal and a description under headings such as Size, Distribution, Habits, Distinctive Characters and so on.

Much of the material derives from the pioneering work of S.H. Prater, curator of the BNHS for 25 years, who makes an eloquent plea for the conservation of our extraordinarily rich biodiversity, particularly animals.

He recalls their unique status in religion, legend and folklore: the elephant beloved of Indra; the incarnations of Vishnu as a boar and a lion, Yudhishtra’s wise teacher the mongoose, and many more. The earliest conservation measures known to history are found in Ashoka’s Fifth Pillar Edict, (3rd century BCE), listing creatures to be protected and prohibiting the burning of forests for any reason whatever.

The book is exhaustive, covering a variety of species of all shapes and sizes; from the large, clumsy Takin, supposedly an antelope but built like an ox with a massive neck and a large convex face, to the tiny, loveable Pika, resembling a fluffy little rabbit just six inches in size.

The Chiru or Tibetan antelope, mercilessly poached for its fine soft wool was much in the news some years ago when Maneka Gandhi forced a ban on shatoosh shawls to save it from extinction. Students of medieval heraldry take it to be the prototype of the legendary unicorn although, except for its spiraling horns, there seems to be little resemblance.

To the uninitiated plains dweller a sheep is a sheep and a goat a goat, but here we discover a huge variety. The Himalayan Ibex is larger and more heavily built than its cousin the Nilgiri Tahr and has more threatening horns.

The most striking mountain goat is the Markhor standing tall at a shoulder height of 41inches. An old male is a true patriarch with magnificent horns sweeping upwards in a double spiral, a flowing beard, and a thick mane falling from his neck and shoulders to his knees. The sheep too have interesting horn formations. The Great Tibetan sheep has huge striated horns that are almost completely circular; and Afghanistan’s national animal, Marco Polo’s sheep so named because it is mentioned in his travels, has even more spectacular headgear. Its horns, measuring up to 75 inches in length, rise smoothly in an s-shaped curve and then zigzag sharply outwards ending in a point like a serpent’s tail.

The Gaur is the largest of existing bovines and the Yak most highly prized for its bushy tail, the Chaori used as a switch to swish away flies. Chaori bearers were associated with royalty, and no court scene or processional miniature painting is complete without them.

Many surprises

The non-specialist reader will come upon many surprises while trawling through the book. Among elephants the leader of a herd is always a female and not the majestic tusker. Ekai Kawaguchi, the Japanese Buddhist monk who travelled to Tibet in 1897, writes of the “very queer habits” of the Kyang or rotating horse that starts to turn round and round on seeing a man at a distance of a mile or more. After completing a few turns, it stops and looks back over its shoulder and then starts rotating again.

The rhinoceros, to its misfortune, has been the source of innumerable legends and beliefs through the centuries. That its horn has aphrodisiac properties is the best known. In Nepal it is particularly prized. Libations are poured from a cup hollowed out of its horn on holy days and its urine, supposedly antiseptic, is hung in a vessel over doorways to ward off ghosts, evil spirits and disease. Its hide when dried and polished resembles tortoise-shell and can be fashioned into handsome shields and trays.

Wild boars are the most courageous and feared of animals. Even tigers will not challenge them and elephants that face a tiger without flinching will bolt in panic at the mere sound of a hog’s squeal. A miniature member of this family is the pygmy hog just a foot in height; a ferocious little creature that makes up in pugnacity what it lacks in size.

Apart from the wealth of animal lore, superb paintings of Himalayan birds, flora and landscapes embellish the book. A pair of exquisite snow leopards painted by Kay Nixon graces the cover while a far more flamboyant animal, a bushy-tailed red panda, appears at the back against a green background. John Gould’s celebrated studies of birds appear in stunning double-page spreads ablaze with colour, while the landscapes are muted like photographs in soft focus. From Colonel G. Strahan we have a panoramic view of the Lidar Valley, with a thin cloud cover streaking the sky and the distant peaks with light.

All this comes at a price that will make you blink in astonishment, for you get 200 full-page colour plates and many smaller ones at less than half the price of any publication of comparable quality. How has this miracle been achieved? Each colour page is sponsored by a corporate or well-wisher with due acknowledgement; a unique form of advertising which benefits the buyer, the publisher and the donor. Some pages are heart-touching memorials to a friend or family member, a lovely thought.

So gather around all nature lovers and bibliophiles and grab a copy of the latest BNHS offering before it becomes a collector’s item like its predecessors!

Wildlife of the Himalayas and the Terai Region; Eds. Ashok Kothari and Boman Chapgar, Bombay Natural History Society and Oxford University Press, Rs.1250

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