Scaly Breasted Munia

There are grown up Ficus Shrubs with thick canopy of branches and leaves at the top in the small park outside our house. In the morning usually I sit up in the balcony and watch birds and green fields away.

There are common birds to be seen dominated by the rock pigeons which are multiplying here at an abnormal speed and breeding in the niches of buildings.  Residents scatter seeds for them so that there is no scarcity of the food to them. Then there are mynas which have arrived here after the end of winter season. Similarly there are a few crows and nightingales. A falcon also is to be seen sometimes.

But some days back in the early morning noticed the small beautiful pair of birds. They were sitting on the metallic net wires near the ficus shrub. Then they inspected all the ficus trees. Since these trees have thick foliage bigger predator birds cannot enter inside.

Then everyday they were darting into fields near by and bringing the straws to make nest inside the shrub. Usually they were seen in the morning. During this activity they take turns to bring the material for construction of the nest. The other of the pair will sit on the fence near the ficus. I peered into the foliage and found a nest which was surprising given the small size of the bird.

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Then I photographed them and searched the internet for indetifying the birds. It turned out that these are the birds called “Scaly Breasted Munia”. Their scientific name is Lonchura punctulata. these are also known as nutmeg mannikin or spice finch.

it is a small bird with a very distinctive appearance. It has a bright cinnamon head and neck, with duller brown plumage on the back and wings. The underside of the scaly-breasted munia is mainly white, although each feather on the breast. it is merely 11 to 12 centimeters long.

They are described as social animals which means they live in small groups but here i found only two pairs. The diet of the scaly-breasted munia comprises mainly seeds, and this species spends much of its time foraging off the ground. It also takes seeds directly from plants such as rice during the harvest season, when the kernels are maturing.

The birds are native to south asia ranging from Indonesia in the east to Afghanistan in the west. These birds are also found as far north as Nepal.

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Professor Yasmin Saikia

One day a program on Ahoms-the kings who ruled the state of Assam for almost 700 years-was telecast on Doordarshan TV. It talked about how Tai Ahoms came to Assam from Yunnan province and settled here bewitched by the natural beauty of the land. I have been to the place and stayed there for 3 years and I can vouch for the fact.

Although they ruled the state for such a long period, adopted the language of the region, married into the local inhabitants, the truth about the history is not all that clear. I searched on Google and the name of a book “Fragmented Memories” by Yasmin Saikia popped up. I followed the links and was awed by the ladies achievement specially against the background of the backwardness and partial isolation of the Region of North East India.

Professor Yasmin Saikia is the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and a Professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. Her research and teaching interests invoke a dynamic transnational and interdisciplinary dialogue situated at the intersection of history, culture and religion. With a specific focus on contestations and accommodations in South Asia between local, national and religious identities, she examines the Muslim experience in India, Pakistan, and Bangaldesh, and the discourse of nonviolence alongside the practice of violence against women and vulnerable groups.

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Assamese herself, Saikia lived in several different Tai-Ahom villages between 1994 and 1996. She spoke with political activists, intellectuals, militant leaders, shamans, and students and observed and participated in Tai-Ahom religious, social, and political events. She read Tai-Ahom sacred texts and did archival research—looking at colonial documents and government reports—in Calcutta, New Delhi, and London. In Fragmented Memories, Saikia reveals the different narratives relating to the Tai-Ahom as told by the postcolonial Indian government, British colonists, and various texts reaching back to the thirteenth century. She shows how Tai-Ahom identity is practiced in Assam and also in Thailand. Revealing how the “dead” history of Tai-Ahom has been transformed into living memory to demand rights of citizenship, Fragmented Memories is a landmark history told from the periphery of the Indian nation.
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I have ordered one book by her and hope to read it and be enlightened about Assam. I am sure that no many Assamese people have heard about her.

Cotton: The fiber that covers us

When Adam, the first man and Eve, the first woman, ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of wisdom, they become conscious about their nudity. They became so embarrassed that when the Father God came to see them, they were hiding behind the trees and God understood that they have violated the condition which was laid down for them to live in the Eden Garden without ever to do anything for their needs. When God commanded them to come out of hiding before Him, they wrapped their sensitive organs with leaves. They were expelled from the Heaven condemned to toil for their food and covering their bodies for modesty and keeping themselves warm in winter.

The cotton plant came to the rescue. Fibers obtained from these plants are used to make cloths. Over 40% of the textiles make use of the cotton. India and Pakistan are two of the top producing countries. Its flowers and then Cotton comes from cultivated plants from the genus Gossypium. They have been cultivated since ancient times for their fibers which are used as textiles. Cotton has other, more surprising uses too from medicines and mattresses to seed oil and even sausage skins.

Cotton was cultivated first in South Asia and South America.

Four species of cotton have been domesticated, but cultivars of the New World species G. hirsutum and G. barbadense dominate todays world markets.

The two species used in ancient South Asia were G. herbaceum and G. arboreum. They originated in Africa and India and were developed as fiber crops at the same time the New World species were used for the same purposes.

Earliest written references in India to cotton are given in the Rig Veda dating from about 1500 BC. But there is evidence in the form of cotton fragments that people of Indus Valley were familiar with the cotton clothes.  The fragments are 3000 BC old showing that ancient civilisation of the region was skilled in spinning, weaving and dyeing cotton.

Paintings in the Ajanta Caves in Maharastra show that a variety of patterns and colours had been developed in India by 200 BC to 500 AD. These fabrics were in demand outside South Asia and they were probably exported to Greece before Alexander the Great established the trade routes between Asia and Europe.

South Asia became famous for its textiles, and fine cotton muslin cloth was exported to the Greeks and the Romans. Muslins from Dhaka in Bangladesh were particularly prized.

India continued to be the world’s main producer of cotton textiles. The growing export trade extended to the rest of Europe including Britain. Embroideries of silk on white cotton from Gujarat were the first textiles to reach Britain from India, but the most popular were dyed cotton wall hangings. In Europe textiles became known by their trade names. Calico fabrics were so named because they were exported from Calicut on the Malabar coast. The fabrics were shipped to the Arabian Gulf, taken by camel to the Nile River, and then shipped to the Mediterranean.

Cotton plant has even other uses. The seeds are full of oil. For headaches, a drink is made from powdered cotton seeds and mixed with milk. Dysentery is also treated with an infusion of seeds and leaves. Spots and other skin conditions are treated using cotton seed or extracts from the leaves. The leaf extract can also be made into a poultice to ease painful joints. For mild burns, the seeds are ground and mixed with ginger and water to form a paste which is smeared onto the affected area. Snake bites and scorpion stings can be treated using infusions or mixtures of the seeds and leaves, sometimes in combination with mustard seeds. Ayurvedic, Siddha and Unani physicians use cotton to treat blood circulation and ear problems, colds, diarrhoea and gout.

Oil from cotton seeds is made into an oil that can be used in salads and processed to make margarine. Cotton oil and cottonseed cake is used as an animal feed, particularly to fatten cattle in some parts of India.Cotton seed flour made from ground seeds is used in small amounts in South Asia. It is light in color with a nutty flavor and is used in some baked products.The short fibers covering the seed coat are called linters, and are used as a source of cellulose used to manufacture foods such as ice-cream. Cotton seed oil is used as an edible vegetable oil.

Coconut Plant: Kalpavriksha

Coconut grow in the coastal areas. In India, whole of the coast is dotted with coconut trees. Kerala tops the list in coconut plantations. Known as Coconut in English, Narikela in Sanskrit & Nariyal in Hindi, coconuts can grow to between 15 and 30 m tall in plantations. Their trunks are ringed with scars where old leaves have fallen. The top of the trunk is crowned with a rosette of leaves.

Fruits are called coconuts. They are oval and covered with a smooth skin which can be bright green, brilliant orange or ivory coloured. Below the skin is a thick fibrous layer which is used for coir. The next layer is the shell of the seed with the three characteristic ‘eyes’.

English: Ivory Coastian coconut. Suomi: Norsun...

The coconut finds so many uses. The shell may be used to make charcoal which is used in the water filters for absorbing the coloring contaminants.  The inside of the shell is lined with a white, edible layer called the meat. This is used to make chemicals, and medicinal products. The fluid inside the seed cavity is known as coconut water. This fluid contains many minerals and is taken as such to rejuvenate the body. It is recommended in case of dehydration caused by diarrhea. It has a cooling effect and removes the body heat in summers. When seeds germinate, the new shoot sprouts from one of the eyes. Due to so many uses, in India it has been called the ‘tree of heaven‘ or ‘kalpavriksha’.

In India, it has great spiritual value. The three ‘eyes’ of the coconut represent the three eyes of the great god Shiva. An earthen pot or pitcher, called a purnakumbha is filled with water and mango leaves and a coconut is placed on top. This purnakumbha is used in the ritual of worship and adoration of the gods, called puja. It is placed as a substitute for the deity or by the side of the deity. The purnakumbha literally means a ‘full pot’ in Sanskrit. It represents Mother Earth, the water the giver of life, the leaves life itself, and the coconut divine consciousness.

In South Asia, coconuts are named Sriphala or fruit of the Gods and symbolise complete usefulness, selfless service, prosperity and generosity. The palms are believed to be the embodiment of the ancient Indian concept of kalpavriksha, or the tree which grants all wishes. It plays an essential role in many religious and social functions in South Asia.

Coconut is an integral ingredient of South Indian cuisine. It is used in one form or another in the food. It is used to make chutneys, thickened with milk and sugar to make delicious sweets. It is milk is used in many fish preparations. Its oil is used for cooking and hair dressing.

English: Idli with Coconut chutney

Chinese Love this Delicacy

Soups made from bird nest seems to incredulous. Bird nests are usually made from twigs and other materials which are inedible by humans. But believe it that there are nests made by some birds called Swiftlets, which are used to make soups in China and this soup is amongst one of most expensive food items in the bird.

Swiftlets are very small birds belonging to Collocallini tribe. They are mostly the inhabitants of South Asia and Australia. They live in the seashore caves. Most of these caves in the limestone rocks. The birds use echolocation technique to navigate inside deep and dark caves. They made the nests which stick to the walls of the caves. These nests are cup shaped in which the bird just fits when it sits in the nest.

These nests are not made from ordinary material which other birds use. These are fabricated by the intertwining threads of thick saliva which the male birds secrete. There are multiple layers. The purest and most prized nests are white colored. Though these nest are built by birds for laying down the eggs and breeding, they become the curse for the birds. There are professionals who are engaged in removing the nests from walls of caves.

It is back breaking job. They use the bamboo scaffolding to reach to the ceiling. Secondly all the time, he has to hold the torch for dispelling the darkness. The demand for the nests is so high that the birds are made to work overtime. It is a cruelty really to the birds. When they make their first nest, it is scooped out in no time. The bird, helpless, builds the second nest at the same place immediately and it is also plucked before the birds lay their eggs in it. Third nest is generally spared and birds are allowed to lay egg and rear their children because otherwise there is danger of depletion of their population. But the greed is so much that many unscrupulous one’s do not bother about this and destroy their third nest also.

The nest when immersed in water yields a thick gummy substance. Chinese believe that the soup maintains the skin tone, and reinforces the immune system. It increases the virility. It helps in strengthening the lungs and prevent coughs.

100 gram of dry nest includes about 50 grams of water soluble proteins, roughly about 31 grams of carbohydrate, iron and inorganic salts. It is rich in Potassium and other trace elements which are required in trace amounts but are crucial to overall well being.

Authentic bird’s nest soup is quite popular throughout Asia. It is also extremely expensive; many western restaurants serve a less expensive version consisting of soup with noodles shaped to resemble a bird’s nest.

Oriental Magpie Robin

I have noticed this bird many a times. They are particularly active during the evening when the light is barely present. They make very sweet sounds. The color of the feathers is black with white on sides and at the bottom side. It is slightly bigger than a house sparrow. Particularly it is very active in the evening catching the flying insects. If I am not wrong, I have heard their sounds at about two or three o’clock in the morning.

Little did I knew that this is the national bird of Bangladesh where it is called “Doel” rhyming with “Koel” the nightingale. It has been adopted due to its sweet singing. In fact, the bird belongs to passerine family which are perching birds and most of them are songbirds. That most of us take many birds, animals and trees for granted, we never care to know their names. Visually we know that it is a such and such type of tree: size, color of leaves and flowers, color of coat, beak and telons such like traits. The peasant does not know the names of many birds and animals living in the fields. This problem is very serious in cities where there is no way to know the names of trees on the roads because generally the trees are not named. Only in Dadar Mumbai I noticed the small metallic tags fixed to trees with the names prescribed on them.

My curiosity arose when an incident happened. There was a small baby of this bird which was floundering and was caught by an crow which are so mean and ruthless in killing and eating the weak and ill and injured. They are the efficient agents of Darwin for sparing only the fittest of the living beings like the nature. The fledgling was about to torn to shreds when luckily it escaped the clutches and fell on the ground. My wife who was looking at this drama, immediately rescued it and brought it to home. It was wounded in one leg and was not able to stand properly. We were at loss how to feed her something for its survival. I dipped its beak in the water and it reacted positively. Then I opened its beak and my wife put some water with a spoon. Then I thought that it must get some food but what?. We broke one egg and were able to push small quantity into its mouth. First night we left it as such in our bathroom. In between, we noticed that it was answering calls of its parents who were outside in the trees where they are the regular visitors. But during night we were worried about its survival. Next morning, we again gave it some food and wet its beak with water. Then we put it in a cardboard box in which we made some holes and placed this box outside in our balcony. Our surprise knew no bounds when we saw the strangest thing happening. In general, it is believed that the baby birds which are touched by humans are shunned by the parents. It proved to be totally myth. The parents located the child and began feeding it through the holes with insects. Whole day this went on. In the evening we purchased a cage from the market. It was very good cage but it proved useless for feeding. This was because the baby bird was sitting inside out of the reach and it would not budge from where it was sitting. It kept opening its beak and as the feeding failed the sharp noise of desperation was visible. We again had to put it the cardboard box.

In the night we brought it inside putting it into the cage. It was sleeping peacefully even as the lights were on. Due to care and feeding by its parents it became strong and there was great action it made inside the box to break free. In the next morning, I put it outside in the balcony and its parent began bringing the insects. It was making so strong efforts that it was coming half out of the hole. I began becoming ready for morning walk, but when before leaving for walk, I noticed that the bird has flown out. We looked for it in the outside trees where the marauding crows usually sit. After sometime we were relieved immensely when we noticed that it has joined its parents and was flying freely.

The bird is found throughout the world but most commonly in South Asia. It is not in the endangered list of birds but in Singapore its number has greatly declined.

Green Pigeons

Assam is home to very different kinds of birds because it provides the rich floral habitat to the diverse fauna. In India, it is the state along with its neighbor states in North East that can still be called pollution free. Everywhere you see the greenery; though things are changing as the people are being infected by the afflictions called modern ways of living because of the mobility of people to and from this area to other parts of the country and increased contact with people outside. Public sector enterprises which recruit employees from all over India and transfers them from one place to another is one such factor which contributes to the knowledge of this kind.

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In summer season, I happen to saw some birds looking like pigeons into the thick boughs of a bird; when i tries to locate where they were sitting; I found that the birds were just like the pigeons but of the green color. I was surprised because in North and Western India, we always saw the pigeons of usually white, grey and mottled colors and generally they sit in the ledges of buildings and pick the food like seeds from the ground; not generally sitting the branches of trees. So these were the green colored pigeons who lived on the trees eating fruits and seeds on them.

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Then I searched the net and there were numerous places especially in Africa and South Asia which are abode of the green pigeons.