Vultures continue to give a miss to TN temple

Vultures continue to give a miss to TN temple

Vultures continue to give a miss to TN temple

Some 14 years ago, newspapers published a report stating sick vultures were being taken by an Indian Airlines flight from Jaipur to Mumbai for finding out the reason, why most of the vultures in India, as much as 97 per cent, have become extinct.

In the famous Keoladeo sanctuary in Rajasthan, during breeding season, only 20 nests were found in 1999 compared to 350 nets the previous year! After all, they have a life span ranging from 50 to 60 years and they breed  every two years by laying a single egg at a time.

This scarcity of vultures has affected urban and rural life in various ways, and in Mumbai, the Parsi community with its hallowed Towers of Silence (where the dead are disposed off by being eaten by vultures), is thinking of starting an aviary for vultures! But, everybody forgot about the disappearance of the most famous vultures in Indian history--Pakshith­ee­r­tham Temple  in Chengalpat district in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil name of Pakshi­theertham is Thirukazhugundram, meaning the “Hill shrine of sacred vultures”.

Till 1998, exactly at 11.50 am, two vultures would circle around the hill shrine of Shiva and alight on a platform at the hill-shrine, where a priest would be waiting for them with the temple prasadam.

For hundreds of years as per tradition and at least for 328 years as noted by
historians, two vultures had been paying their respect/visit to the famous Vedagi­rishwarar temple at Thirukazhugundram. Dutch visitors to this shrine in 1670 had witnessed the two vultures descending from the skies to feed on the food provided by the temple priests and in 1998 many had photogra­phed the two vultures coming in for the daily meals, exactly at 12 noon, even as hundreds of tourists stayed a few yards away. Then on one day in 1998, the birds failed to appear and till about 15 years later, have not reappeared.

Much before the vultures arrived, the priest in charge of their feeding would come with buckets of prasadam and wait for the “guests”.

As the vultures were spotted, there would be a sudden burst of enthusiasm among the watching devotees, and everybody would become silent, lest the vultures refuse to land in midst of noise.

After a slow meal, they would take off in the direction of Sri Lanka and would soon vanish from view.

Local stala purana (or religious history) states that these two vultures were two famous holymen, Bhusha and Vidata, who in their arrogance, had not accepted the boon given by the God Shiva as a reward for their penance (or ta­p­a­s­) and were cursed to be vultures.
When the repentant sages begged for their salvation, they were told that they would have to be in vulture form for thousands of years and their deliverance will come from having eaten the prasadam of the temple at Pakshitheertham.

Mythology avers that the vultures take their bath in the Ganga at Benares, have their feed at Pakshi­th­ee­rtham and go to Rameshwaram for their evening food, returning to Benares in the night. A well nigh impossible feat! But the physical fact is unexplainable! How can only two vultures, come for centuries for their lunch and there is no record of more than two birds coming for the feed! The Shaivaite saints Tirugnana­sambandhar and Tirunavukkarasa ( of 9th century AD) had sung hymns in praise of the Thirukazhugundram, giving proof that the daily visit of the vulture was a part of the religious scene in Tamil Nadu.

Officers of the Dutch East India Company, who had visited the temple in 1670, have left record of the famous pair of vultures and the huge crowds that used to await them! It is well nigh impossible to make the locals to discuss the vanishing birds. Some senior citizens claimed that there were occasional absence of the vultures between 1990 and 1998.

The pious state that obviously the “delinquent” sages have completed their penance and have returned to heaven. The more worldly say that the (bribed) priests, anxious to make extra money, were delaying the food for a very long time after the vultures arrived, so that all and sundry can take photographs and movies, out of this unbelievable phenomenon. Finally it appears that the vultures felt that it was not worthwhile and decided to skip their afternoon lunch!

Some ornithologists feel that, other than temple prasadam, the vultures would be feeding on other food in the shape of carrions.

The high extent of pesticides consumed by the cattle now a days, especially in rural areas, due to the modern agricultural practices, would affect the reproduction of vultu­res gorging on them, making the shell of the eggs laid too fragile to see through the incubation period, and killing the birds. As such, there would have been no descendant vultures to replace the particular “devout vultu­res” and gradually the legend had to die down.

One famous Murrya Guide to India (1898 edition), the bible of world travell­ers in the 19th century,wrote about the famous vultures of Pakshitheertham. But the “Lonely Planet” guide , today’s lexicon of tourism, tells the tourists, not to bother looking for the vultures, “ for they do not come”.

Whatever it be, today, the saga of the “Holy Vultures” of Tirukazhugundram is a tale of the past, and one more bastion of unexplainable mythology, has fallen.