Did you ever notice that the ten rupee note has three animals on it: rhino, elephant and tiger? Or that new species of flora and fauna continue to be discovered in India? Did you think about existence of varied ecosystems in India when you think about ‘unity in diversity’? How does one go about doing wildlife history? These are some of the questions and themes brought into focus during our book discussion on 7 August. Organised by the Delhi Heritage Walks’ Book Club, the work under consideration was India's Wildlife History: An Introduction written by Mahesh Rangarajan. This book captures the relationship between humans and nature over a vast time span and landscape of India's history. It discusses the understanding of wildlife in ancient, medieval and colonial times; questions of exploitation and conservation by drawing upon numerous sources such as official records, memoirs and mythology. Prof. Rangarajan who teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, was the discussant.
India is an extremely diverse country when it comes to its ecosystem, and we owe this to many factors including the varied landscape, its location in the tropics, the monsoons, the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas. It’s considered a meeting place for different habitats. The 1960s were the time of environmental awakening in India and the 1990s economic-political shift had a major impact on the environment. India's democratic structure helped in providing a system of checks and balances and the coming of newer scientific knowledge has greatly helped. In the past years, humans have played an important role in the shaping of environment, both consciously and unconsciously. A question about the lessons we learn from the past was raised and Prof. Rangarajan argued that history gives us insights, rather than solutions, and that we cannot deal with the question of nature without dealing with its history. It is difficult to separate the natural world and the cultural world. Conflict and harmony with nature have existed together, although the nature of conflict may change.
The discussion introduced the group to fascinating aspects of wildlife history such as animal cognition, use and symbolism of nature in literature like Abhijyanashakuntalam, Ramayana, Jataka tales and oral traditions, and religious and philosophical approaches to nature. We talked of historical figures like Mauryan Emperor Ashoka whose edicts reveal his policy towards conservation of wildlife. However, even the best of nature lovers can have devastating effects on mankind, as the example of Adolf Hitler tells us. He was a staunch vegetarian and a passionate conservator, yet had no qualms about killing fellow human beings!
Prof. Rangarajan also highlighted the complex relationship human being share with animals. We love some, fear others and treat some like our family. And, the difference remains between value of human life and value of animal life. No discussion of nature-human relationship would be complete without reflecting upon climate change, the cost of development, relationship with indigenous peoples and efforts towards conservation. Prof. Rangarajan urged us to look at crises as windows of opportunities to try new ideas and a time to think of possibilities.
Those who would like to read more about wildlife history, here are a few books which were recommended during the discussion: Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement; Thomas Trautmann’s Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History; Exotic Aliens: The Lion and the Cheetah in India, by Romila Thapar, Valmik Thapar and Yusuf Ansari; From Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast by Kartik Shanker.
Happy reading and thanks for joining us!
(posted by Medhavi Hassija, team member, Delhi Heritage Walks)