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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 7, july 16-31, 2009
Birds in Tamil literature
By M. Amirthalingam

Tamil literature of the Sangam period (between 2300 C.E. and 700 C.E.) includes the Tolkaappiam and Padi­nenkil­kannakku (the eight Anthologies, ten long songs, the minor eighteen anthology series and the five great epics). During the period the poets were closely associated with nature and wildlife and described in their poems what they actually observed. The habits and habitats of wildlife during the Sangam period can be understood through this literature.

Tolkaappiam, recognising that human activities cannot take place in a vacuum and are constantly influenced by environmental factors, human experiences in general and subjective topics in particular, assigned specific habitats. Accordingly, land was classified into five divisions or thinai. These were: kurinji (mountainous regions), mullai (forests), maruthan (agricultural lands), neithal (coastal regions), and palai (wastelands).

The references to the descriptions of animals in Sangam literature given below will show that they are a mixture of observed facts, imagination, and poetic fancy, and not a serious study in natural history.

An Agam (271) describes the feeding behaviour of the Little brown dove. The poet states that the brown dove mainly eats grain, which it may swallow with some fine sand particles.

Birds like the Collared scops owl, Indian barn owl and Spotted owlet sleep during the day in their nest and feed during the night. These nocturnal birds build their nests in natural holes or niches in the ruins of buildings and in hollows of old trees. These characteristics accompanied by their description are explicitly illustrated in Agam 122 and Puram 364.

The Collared scops owl almost looks like the Indian barn owl, somewhat brownish in colour with a crest on its head. The poem describes how it sleeps during the day and how it comes out in the night from the hollows of old trees to feed.

Verses of Natrinai (356), Kurunthogai (384) and Purana­nooru (67) refer to the description and migration of the wild duck. The verses describe the Spot bill duck as one which has short, reddish legs and webbed feet. In one of the verses, the poet says “anna chaval after feeding on the minute prey over the water spread at Kanya­kumari, if you migrate to the Himalayas…”

The White stork, a migratory bird, flies to India from Europe and Siberia during the cooler seasons and it returns home by summer. The ancient Tamil poets called the bird a guest bird (vamba naarai). The poem written by Satthimuthar clearly reflects this behaviour of the migratory bird. There are other references found in verse 236 of Kurunthogai and verses 100 and 190 of Agananooru about vamba narai (migratory bird) where the punnai (Indian laurel) tree is mentioned in all the three verses.

Few passages can rival the description of the North Wind and its effects, and the interplay of human emotions and sentiments, as found in Netunalvaatai. It refers to the impact of vadai katru (chill northern wind) which affects animals in various ways: prevents cattle from grazing and cows from suckling their calves, makes monkeys shiver in the cold and birds fall from trees.

From verses 225 of Purana­nooru and 336 of Natri­nai we gather that the Baya weaver bird builds its nests shaped like a conical bottle in the leaves of the palmyra palms and branches of the bamboo plant. Depending on the season, the bird constructs the entrance for the nest. Birds like crane, peacock, parrot, rooster and dove also find a place in the verses of Kurun­thogai. The parrot is said to eat the neem fruit in the desert region, a habit common among crows. (Courtesy: Eco News – the journal of CPREEC.)


A squirrel in the house
By Javanthi

Barely six inches long, with a striped body, beady eyes, pointed nose and bushy tail is the squirrel, a fascinating animal to watch. Squirrel-watching can keep you amused for hours. I have seen old and young, keenly following their antics with chuckles and hoots of laughter. And if you have been as lucky as I have been to rear one for nearly two years, you will become a slave to its impish charm.

Every tree abounds with squirrels. Jumping, leaping, hanging upside down, spiralling madly up and down and sometimes startling you by landing at your feet – a missed jump? – their movements are a trapeze artiste’s envy.

Personal care is an important occupation. Every micro-inch of the body comes in for a thorough scratch­ing and licking. Parts beyond the reach of the tongue are cleaned by licking a paw and using it to wipe the elusive spot. It is pure entertainment to watch how the tiny little chest is cleaned. From trapeze artiste to clown, their transformation is complete. The toiletries end with a quick brush of the tail.

Squirrels build untidy nests (curtains and carpets being the preferred material), precariously balanced in the fork of a branch. Not surprisingly, they are knocked to the ground – with their squirming contents – when a strong wind or curious intruder nudges them. Finders generally attempt to raise the little ones using ink filters and cotton soaked in milk to feed them. Some squirrels are quite domesticated and are bold enough to enter homes and accept food from your fingers. But the slightest sound or movement sends them scurrying away.

My great grandmother had a great fondness for all animals. I have heard my grandmother recount how she had tied a string of beads around the neck of one of her frequent friends, for easy identification. How she managed to do it still remains a mystery to me.

My first encounter with baby squirrels happened a long time ago while still at school. My mother had rescued three of them and placed them in a shoebox, nestled in soft cotton. But, unfortunately, the milk we fed them did not agree with them and they died.

I continued to be captivated by these furry little creatures and watched them whenever and wherever I could. Those were the days when there were trees aplenty and enough time during holidays and after homework to just “stand and gaze”. Only much later, while in college, did I get another opportunity to raise a squirrel. Our college campus had a wealth of trees and baby squirrels falling out of trees was commonplace. Luckily my classmate Raji rescued one. Being in the hostel, Raji could not keep the squirrel and I offered to become the surrogate mother.

The new arrival was welcomed at home and my mother in her enthusiasm named the squirrel Rama – so carried away was she by the tales of Rama and his squirrel helpers. We kept Rama in a wire basket and watched him go round in dizzy circles until he fell asleep on the pile of cloth at the bottom. Rama was not a helpless infant but grown enough to feed on his own. Milk, which he sipped delicately from a plate with his tiny pink tongue, fruits and nuts were his favourite food.

I used to release him at first for short intervals and, later, for much longer periods from his cage. He was very happy running and leaping on the furniture and all over us as well. The trust with which he sat on my shoulder or nestled in my clothes was extremely touching. Rama kept us entertained and was the centre of attraction when visitors called. He would snatch tiny morsels of food, go and sit at a height and crunch his way through it.

Then, one day, Rama escaped into the trees and my world nearly came to an end. I thought I would never see him again. But I was more afraid for him, as he was not used to being on his own. That night I went to bed in a sad state of mind. Frantic scratching sounds woke me. I switched on the light to meet Rama’s beady-eyed stare from the top of the cupboard. Rama had come home for the night!

A new routine began for Rama. He went in and out of the house at will, returning home when hungry, sleepy or both. We got used to him jumping on us while asleep or reading. He would appear at the window of the room where he heard voices. During the day we would catch sight of him on one of our many trees, and would call out or whistle to him. Rama would promptly stop and stare. Sometimes he would come in on being called. But he never failed to return home at night. “Has Rama come home?” became the automatic question when any one of us came home late in the evening.

Rama was now expanding his taste for food. He wandered over the dining table, tasting scraps of food dropped by the plate. Much to our astonishment, scrambled eggs and fish became his favourite food. Sometimes he would make a quick snatch from the edge of the plate. Karaboondhi was another hit. He would pick up individual boondhis, hold it between his paws and munch it with relish.

The biggest surprise of all came when Rama was about six months old. He began to build a nest. It dawned on us that Ramya would have been a more appropriate name. But Rama came in for no name change. The nest-building progressed in a haphazard manner. The spot chosen was one where birds and other squirrels had nested earlier. It was in the living room, above the telephone where there was a niche created by our antique wiring. It could easily accommodate the nest and, being next to a window, it was easily accessible. Rama persevered in her task of bringing scraps of material and coir rolled up in a tight bundle held between her teeth. She then took it up to the nest and spent some time there. I presumed she must have been flattening it into a semblance of a bed. To save her so many trips up and down we began to offer her bits of cloth to take up.

This was the first of many such nests she was going to build in and around the house. Like clockwork, every three months she began her nest-building activity. It was a different spot each time: table drawers, electricity boxes, tops of cupboards were all made use of. She never built a nest in the trees. In course of time, we realised missing socks and my grandmother’s soft white blouses had found their way into her nest. We would eventually find them when the nest was abandoned.

Rama was not a very good parent when it came to protecting her babies. She would absent herself from the nest for hours. Once the young ones began to move, it was the combined duty of my grandparents, parents and myself to keep vigil. Despite our efforts they would stray out and get snatched by the ever watching crows. Hardly one and mostly none would survive from each litter. This is perhaps nature’s way of controlling the prolific squirrel population.

Rama endeared herself to us in many ways. She would open boxes with dexterity. She got her front teeth in the gap between the lid and the box and jerked the lid off. The din of a stainless steel lid hitting the floor alerted us that Rama was hunting for food.

My grandmother used to read a newspaper after lunch, seated in her favourite chair. As this chair was en route to Rama’s nest, she would urge my grandmother with a gentle nip to get up from there.

Only one of Rama’s countless offspring continued to live with her. He (we had got it right this time) was a bossy fellow who would snatch the food from his mother with a slap to her face. There was, however, one peculiarity of Rama (and other squirrels) which I could not quite fathom. It is the frenzied shrieking fits they get into. I heard it once after Rama lost an offspring. But I also witnessed it many times for no understandable reason. Loud noises like the cracking of a branch or a tyre burst would also seem to set it off!

Rama lived with us for nearly two years. It was at the time of my grandmother’s death that she went missing. We will never know how or why. The house was full of people and she was probably scared by the crowd. I was not always there when she came for her food. Besides, it was at the same time a cat moved in with us. For a long time afterwards, I used to look longingly at the many squirrels in our garden. I would call and whistle, hoping one would stop and listen. I even imagined some did. But Rama never came back. A tiny part of the wilderness had deigned to share her life with us for a brief period and we were the richer for it.

A few years ago a squirrel began to visit our dining room, picking up crumbs from the floor. We would sit absolutely still trying not to disturb it. It became bolder, jumping on to the chair and even taking food from our fingers. But it never ventured further and soon stopped coming.

I still enjoy the sight of a squirrel and the tamarind tree in front of my window is a haven for squirrels. Even as I type this, I can see a squirrel at its toilet with a twitch of its tail, while, another one has just vanished out of sight and one more is in hot chase of an intruder. (Courtesy: Eco News – the journal of CPREEC.)


Early mornings in Tambaram
By S. Theodore baskaran

I try not to miss an opportu-nity to stay overnight in the campus of Madras Christian College, Tambaram. It is not the mere prospect of a nostalgic visit to my alma mater but the early morning stroll in the wooded campus that is so full of possibilities.

A porcupine in MCC’s Tambaram campus.Dr. M.K. Krishna Menon

The Church of Scotland missionaries who founded the College soon realised that it had outgrown its premises in George Town. When the first sod was turned in 1932 at the new site in Tambaram, the 370-acre area was quite barren. Edward Barnes, who was supervising the construction, was keen on trees and plants. He did not merely oversee the construction but, with the active help of his wife Alice, made sure that a jungle came up in the campus. Even as he planted trees, he collected plant specimens for Kew Gardens, London. In 1937, Lord Erskine, the Governor, inaugurated the new building.

In a few undisturbed decades, a scrub jungle, with all its characteristic denizens, grew. Now it is home to a cross-section of the wildlife of this part of the country. Some exotic trees – tabebuia, copperpod and gulmohar – had also been planted along the avenues. In my student days, the carpet of yellow flowers under the copperpod trees in March was a grim reminder to me of impending examinations.

Staying at the guest house recently, I woke up to the song of a magpie robin that was holding a pre-dawn concert of varied, fluid notes. We set out quite early. After a downpour, a scrub jungle brims with activity. Winged termites were emerging and drongos and babblers were there ready to feast on them. Blood red velvet mites could be spotted on the ground inching their way along. Though we did not sight the bird, we heard the call of a distant peacock. This seems to be a recent addition. Soon koels started calling, with an occasional tree pie joining in. The small lake on the eastern corner of the campus, that attracts dabchicks, white-breasted waterhen and coots after the monsoon, was dry.

As the sun came up, we could spot a variety of butterflies. A few years ago, Ruth Paulraj, a school student from Kodaikanal, studying the butterflies of the campus, logged 85 species, including the Black Rajah. The rare Moon Moth has been recorded here. Two bushes of kaya flower were in bloom in brilliant heliotrope. Of the myriads of wildflowers here, the most striking is the glory lily or kaanthazh, the State flower of Tamil Nadu. It is a twiner, with deep orange flowers, having six narrow petals. Mentioned in Sangam poems, the flower has been compared to lanterns and broken bangles. One poet says that a woman’s fingers, by constant kneading of curd, were as soft as a kaanthazh flower.

One of the memories of my college days is walking behind Dr. Kibble on a bridle path through the bushes on a birding trip. Later Dr. Gift Siromoney, following in the footsteps of the eccentric Scot, studied the birds of the campus and published a checklist with more than 96 species, including the fabled paradise flycatcher. Siromoney has written quite a few scientific papers on the natural history of the campus.

This small patch of wilderness hosts an impressive list of mammals. The most visible are the chital, recent migrants from the adjacent reserve forest. But they already pose a problem by the pressure they exert on the plants. When the Air Force station bordering the College faced a similar problem, they organised a drive in 1997 and, through a specially erected corridor, flushed about 200 chital into the Vandalur Zoo compound.

Toddy cats have been sighted. They probably find shelter in the palmyra trees at the eastern end of the campus. The sightings of two animals recently have been noted with enthusiasm by wildlifers – the porcupine and the pangolin (the Scaly Ant-eater) – both endangered. In most of its home range, the pangolin is all but gone. The porcupine was spotted by Job Thomas, a professor visiting from the US. But when I went with him looking for them one night, the animals decided to remain hidden. There is even a record of sighting a leopard cat here in the 1950s.

Mongoose and monitor lizards show up easily. I recall how, one morning, when I was a resident in St.Thomas’ Hall, two monitors were engaged in a fight in front of the entrance and a small crowd had gathered around to cheer them. The lizards, rearing on their hind legs and trying to get a hold on each other like two Sumo wrestlers, were so engrossed in the bout that it took a while before they realised that they had drawn spectators and scurried into the undergrowth.

The students have now formed a group called the Scrub Society. It came into being quite accidentally. In 1989, the College was planning a national fair on water management. For this purpose, ironically, eleven acres of forest were cleared. A group of students, calling themselves the Green Freaks, protested vehemently and stopped further damage. The Scrub Society came into being. Run by students, the Society has a number of activities, such as turtle walks and an annual event, ‘Deep Woods’, to spread environmental awareness.

A few months ago, the Chennai-based NGO for trees ‘Nizhal’, organised a memorable walk around the campus, led by Dr. Narasimhan, professor of Botany. A vagai tree was pointed out to us. The kings of ancient days sported a garland of vagai flowers, much like the olive wreath of the Romans when they won a battle (hence the Tamil phrase vagai soodiya). There was an athondai creeper which has lent its name to Thondai Nadu, the medieval name for Chengalpattu area. We were shown the red sanders tree, an endemic and also a rare fern tree. The unusually tall banyan in front of the guest houses is so majestic that you understand why this tree often takes on a religious aura. There are quite a few peepul and neem trees, which are also associated with worship. The walk ended under a tree where a colony of fruit bats was roosting.

While forests are fast disappearing all over the country, there are these precious little patches in cities, like the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in Delhi, the Hydera­bad Central University and Madras IIT. The MCC campus is one such oasis in an urban desert and needs to be managed carefully. One thing that strikes a visitor is the ventilago creepers choking the smaller trees. This has to be addressed. The deer problem also needs to be tackled. Because there are too many of them, the deer keep the forest from regenerating.

This campus with its wildlife is a priceless heritage and has to be saved. It is an obligation the College has to the rest of the world.


Urban wildlife in peril
By Lalitha Ramadurai

Urban wildlife... What is the first thought that hits you? Stray dogs? Or, the cawing crows? Or does the word itself sound an oxymoron, as most of us tend to associate wildlife with tigers and lions roaming in reserved forests?

It is true that compared with the great diversity of life in the forests, there are relatively fewer species in the ‘concrete jungles’. But we have more non-anthropoid friends than we might think. Wildlife in the ­urban areas typically includes a variety of native and exotic plants, birds, squirrels, civet cats, monkeys, deer, mice and bats; the less conspicuous ­species include insects, spiders, earthworms and various types of amphibians and reptiles.

With increasing development, many of these species ­(especially the birds and mammals) have also evolved into city dwellers. They have ­become habituated to human presence and lost at least some of their natural characteristics. Such adaptation of animal populations to human-created urban areas is referred to as ‘synurbanisation’. Pigeons and crows scavenging on foodwaste, weeds growing in the cracks of pavements, rats sharing spaces with humans, and cockroaches that thrive in the nooks and crevices of homes are some prominent examples of synurbic wildlife. Indeed, a closer look at these animals that thrive in our cities reveals how similar they are to us, humans – just like us, they are highly adaptable, ­omnivorous and perfect opportunists!!

While the generalist and stress-tolerant species have fared really well with the expansion of urban civilisations, the rare and unique species have just faded away. Koels ­announcing the arrival of the vasantha ruthu (spring season), jackals howling at night, frogs croaking before the rains and even the dragon flies dancing over puddles are seen and heard less these days. Thus, the ecological crisis the world­over is ­affecting wildlife in cities too.


In the urban context too, the primary challenge facing biodiversity is the loss of ­habitats due to rapid development. Habitats are lost in cities in a number of ways. Direct damage occurs when natural habitats are physically altered, such as when wetlands are filled in or when forests are replaced with urban spaces.

Chennai (or should we say Madras?) was originally blessed with a range of natural habitats – scrub jungle, rivers, beach­fronts, backwaters, wetlands and an estuary. But, unfortunately, during the past 30-40 years we have vandalised the natural legacy of the city in the name of development and urbanisation. A classic example is the gradual disappearance of the Pallikaranai marsh. Palli­karanai was once a wetland spreading over 5000 hectare, extending from Velachery to Sholinganallur in the east and Jalladampet in the west. It was home to several hundred species of flora and fauna. Thanks to various developmental activities, including the MRTS, construction of institutional complexes, the setting up of the Perungudi Sewage Treatment Plant and the Chennai Corporation dumpyard, the marsh over the years has completely lost its value as an important wildlife refuge.

Habitat loss also occurs when old bungalows and houses with large gardens are converted into apartments and multi-storeyed buildings with paved surfaces. The conversion of houses with tiled roofs into high-raised buildings has contributed to the disappearance of the once ubiquitous house sparrows (Passer domesticus) from Chennai skies. The population of other garden birds, such as the bulbul, tailor bird and the spotted doves, has also come down drastically. In their place, highrise buildings are attracting the Blue Rock Pigeon (Columbia livia), which is now seen all over Chennai flourishing behind airconditioning units. Sadly, the loss of the sparrow as well as many other species has largely gone unnoticed in the buzzing city life.

Besides habitat loss, urbani­sation also causes habitat degradation and disturbance and this too leads to the elimination of several species. For example, recent studies have shown that the radiation from cell phones and signal towers is leading to the disappearance of many birds in Chennai. Similarly, artificial lighting in cities is believed to affect the behaviour of nocturnal animals such as owls, snakes and a number of insects.

Pollution/chemical contamination of ecosystems is also a common problem in urban and peri-urban areas. In extreme cases, this can lead to the complete wiping out of fauna, as was the case with the vulture – a common raptor in Indian cities and suburbs not so long ago. The bird experienced a mysterious decline in the 1990s and is currently endangered. The reason for its decline is now attributed to the anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, widely used for all types of hoofed livestock. When the vultures scavenge the dead livestock, diclofenac causes fatal renal failure in the bird.

Another factor triggering the loss of biodiversity in urban centres is the increase in the frequency of human-animal conflicts. In urban areas, due to the expanding human population and loss of natural habitats, people and animals are increasingly coming into conflict over living space and other resources. This not only endangers the wild animals, but also poses threats to the health and safety of human life. For example, urban wildlife causes automobile and aircraft accidents, often leading to the loss of human lives. People are also becoming increasingly affected by zoonotic diseases, such as avian and swine flu transmitted to human beings through wildlife. Zoonoses are especially widespread in urban areas because of the high population density, large numbers of homeless and slums, extensive international travel, and the lack of public health measures.

The current solution to many of these conflicts is extreme – involving the capture or killing of the problematic animal. Actually these issues can generally be tackled with simple precautions and some common sense. For instance, health risks posed by animals can be reduced to a great extent by basic hygiene, such as washing of hands before eating. Instead, lethal control efforts, such as toxic chemicals or traps, are used, which often pose much more dangerous risk to human life than does the wildlife.

Human-wildlife encounters are further aggravated by the fact that there is little awareness among city dwellers about wildlife. Most of us are unable to identify even common species in our cities. We also have many misconceptions about urban wildlife. Every year during the rains in Chennai, residents in areas like Velachery and Madipakkam often find unwelcome visitors in their homes in the form of snakes. Because of the popular belief that ‘all snakes are poisonous’, when even a harmless rat or water snake is encountered, most of us try to kill it. We fail to understand the crucial role these reptiles play in the urban ecosystems by controlling the rodent population.

Age-old beliefs and superstitions also take a toll of urban wildlife. Hooting owls (locally known as Chavu kuruvi), for instance, are believed to foretell death in the vicinity. Similarly, there is a widespread myth in South India that the green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) uses its pointed head to blind human victims. It is referred to as the kankutti pambu in Tamil, meaning ‘the snake that thrusts at the eyes’. Because of these myths, these animals are trapped, injured or killed whenever spotted in city neighbourhoods.


Urbanisation and the encroachment of humans into former natural areas are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The population shift from rural to urban areas is also likely to continue. India is likely to have 700 million rural poor moving to cities by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Survey, 2007. Though this expansion of cities and towns leads to the loss and degradation of biodiversity, the opportunities that urban areas offer in conserving biodiversity have to be understood.

Most of us have become increasingly appreciative of animals and plants in the forests. Ironically, we do not realise the importance of the ones in our own backyards. Urban wildlife helps maintain the overall quality of life in the cities. The biodiversity purifies air and water, controls pests, and pollinates our plants. It is aesthetically vital to urban landscape. Few people would deny that the sound of a songbird calling at dawn is one of the most pleasing sounds in a city. Urban wildlife, thus, provides city dwellers with a link to the natural world, which is of particular value while teaching the young about the natural world. This interaction with biodiversity may play an important role in halting the loss of global biodiversity, because people are more likely to take action for biodiversity if they have direct contact with nature.

Nature can survive without man and has done so for the most part of evolutionary history. As for the human race surviving without nature, we can’t be so sure. Human life bereft of wildlife would suffer an ‘emotional shock of loneliness,’ says socio-biologist E.O. Wilson in his book Biophilia. Thus, we have no choice but to make room for wildlife too. We need to learn to manage the problematic species instead of trying to eliminate them. After all, it is their habitats that we have changed into our living spaces!

A search for urban fauna

I am in the process of writing a book on the urban fauna of India. A major ­objective of this book is to educate people about the little-known and, more importantly, wrongly-known creatures of our urban areas. It is basically a tool to help the reader identify wildlife commonly seen in cities of India and is meant to be a visual guide with basic information on the subject which will aid identification. The book covers more than 400 species of fauna, both vertebrate and invertebrate, and while the textual matter is ready, some 116 or so illustrations are wanting. Can anyone help? (From: Madras Naturalists’ Society Bulletin)

Preston Ahimaz


Documenting the flora of
the Coromandel
(‘Pages from History’ by DR. A. RAMAN, Charles Sturt University, Orange,
New South Wales, Australia.)

Johann Peter Rottler (1749-1836) came to Tranquebar (Tarangampãdi), along with the Halle missionary, Christopher Samuel John, in 1776. Born in Strasbourg, Alsace (now in France), Rottler’s first name should comply with the Alsatian naming style and, therefore, Germanic. Most of the literature referring to his Tran­que­bar- and Madras-mission work published in India refer to him as either ‘John’ or ‘Johan’ (with one ‘n’), whereas it should be ‘Johann’ (‘J’ read as ‘Y’) – ‘Jonathan’ in English. A reference to his ‘English’ name, ‘Jonathan’, is found in Stephen Neill’s A History of Christianity in India, 1707-1858. Rottler is mentioned as a missionary passionate about education, but he was equally passionate about the plants of the Coromandel. He travelled around Tranquebar to collect books on Indian medicine, besides drugs of plant origin and, in the process, collected plants. He served the Tranquebar Mission till 1803, moved to Madras where he was to head the S.P.C.K. Mission from 1808, and died in 1836. Botanists and naturalists will ­recall that Rottler is immortalised in Chrozophora rottleri, a species of the spurge family (Euphor­biaceae), Çeru-pp-adai [Tamil] and Suryavarta ­[Sanskrit]), while non-biologists in Madras will remember him by ‘Rottler Street’, off Vepery High Road.

On a road trip from Taran­g­am­pãdi to Madras and back, in the late 18th Century, Rottler collected plants en route, which have been documented in a journal article titled ‘Botan­ische Bemerkungen auf der Hin- und Rückreise von Trank­en­bar nach Madras vom Herrn Missionair Rottler zu Tranken­bar mit anmerkungen von Professor C.L. Willdenow’ in der Gesellschaft Naturfor­schender Freunde zu Berlin [Neue Schriften] (The Naturalists Society Journal of Berlin [New Series]) in 1803. The article’s title in English would be ‘Botanical notes on the trip from Tranquebar to Madras and back by Missionary Rottler with remarks by Professor C. L. Willdenow’.

In the article, Willdenow provides detailed notes in German and descriptions of certain plants in Latin in three parts: (i) during travel from Tarang­ampãdi to Madras (24th ­September-7th October 1799), (ii) in Madras and its neigh­bour­hood (8th October-28th December 1799), and (iii) during his return to Tarangampãdi via Wandiwasi near Cudelur (28th December 1799-16th January 1800). Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812) was an eminent botanist and plant ­geographer who directed the Botanical Garden at the ­University of Berlin from 1801 to 1812. Biologists will ­remember Willdenow for his concepts on European plant ­geography and his theory on the mountain ­origin of plants. No mention ­occurs in any valid ­literature that he visited India.

I refer to this article as authored by Willdenow, where­as the late K. M. Mathew1
attri­butes the authorship to Rottler. Rottler, undeniably, collected plant specimens during his travels from Tarangampãdi to Madras and back, and shipped the dried specimens to Willdenow. Because the article is published in a professional journal in Berlin, Willdenow must have analysed the material sent by Rottler and drafted the article. Nevertheless, who – Willdenow or Rottler – identified the collected plants is unclear. Moreover, a few remarks by the botanist and medical doctor William Roxburgh are frequently referred to in the article. It is very likely that Rottler, while shipping plant specimens to Willdenow in Berlin, also shipped his field notes that included the remarks of William Roxburgh. The short paragraph quoted below is found at the beginning of the article.

Herrn Missionair Rottler enthalten viele nene und wenig bekannte Gewachse, und ich glaube, dasz es den Botanikern nicht unlieb seyn wird, wenn ich die wenigerbe­kannten Arten mit einigen Anmerkungen begleitet. Der Güte des Herrn Rottler verdanke ich die meinen Arten getrocknet, wofür ich Ihm hier öffentlich den verbind­­lichsten Dank abstatte.

[The material sent by Missionary Rottler contains many known and little-known plants, and I think if I do not provide some notes (remarks), botanical knowledge would be lost. I appreciate the kindness of Rottler for sending dried specimens.]

The paragraph indicates unequivocally that Rottler collected and sent the plants to Willdenow; Willdenow wrote the notes (anmerkungen) and drafted the manuscript for publication. Therefore, the article needs to be considered to have been written by Willdenow with the material supplied by Rottler. The title of the article makes this explicit.

The article, on the whole, includes fascinating information on the flora of the then Madras, which records mainly the annuals; a few tree species, such as mango, have been recorded in localities near Tarangampãdi. The part on the flora of Madras and its neighbourhood (Part 2) refers to 74 plant species. This part also includes a reference to Rottler’s meeting with D. Berry (Superintendent of the Botanical Garden in Marmelon (Mãmbalam) adjacent to kleinen Mount (the Little Mount). Most of the plant collection in Madras seems to have been in Marmelon (prope Madras, botanical garden) (page 195), Gallaburam ad Montes (Palla­varam near the Mount?), Little Mount, Redhill’s (used with an apostrophe), Guber­natoris horto Madras (the garden in the Governor’s house) and horto Andersoniano (Ander­son’s Garden in the present Saidapet). The plant collection localities from Tarangampãdi to Madras (Part 1) were Sadras (Saduranga­-p-pattinam), Mawu­libaram (Maha­­­­bali­puram), Tiru­poreiur (Tiruporur), and Tripa­lore (Tiruvallur?). The plant collection localities from Madras to Tarangampãdi (Part 3) were Uttiramallûr (Ootira­malore, Utiramerur?) Wengkôdu (?), Wandawasi (Vandavãsi), Wollimôdu (?), Tindiwanam, Perumbâkkam, Oreiûr, Tiruwâ­karei. The Nopalry (the cactus garden established by James Anderson md2 in the present Saidapet [in 1771]) is referred to variously in the article as horto Andersoniano, horto Ander­­sonians, and horto Anderson.

The Willdenow article impresses as the first scientifically documented flora of a part of the Coromandel and this was accomplished nearly 200 years ago. Subsequent attempts have been those of P.V. Mayura­nathan3 (+ a supplement to it by E. Barnes, 1938) and the doctoral thesis of C. Livingstone of Madras Christian College.

  1. Mathew, K.M. (1982) ‘Botany and its technologies in peninsular India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’. Indian Journal of History of Science, 17: 353-364.

  2. The present historians of colonial biology in India refer to James Anderson (the medical doctor, founder of the Nopalry in Saidapet) as James Anderson m.d., because another James Anderson, a solicitor, with an ‘ll.d.’, practised in Madras at the same time.

  3. Mayuranathan, P.V. (1929): The flowering plants of Madras City and its immediate neighbourhood. Government Press, Madras.

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