Essay: Titahri Tales
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.
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.
“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.
“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)”.
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. 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.