The Parrot’s Tale

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    While the peacock is the national bird of India and so gets the obvious pride of place, it is the more humble, but equally vibrant parrot that has played a pivotal role in Indian history and tradition. Through millennia, the Indian parrot has been revered in texts, myths, legends and art. From the Vedas and Puranas to the popular epics and literary classics, parrots have been celebrated as messengers, storytellers and teachers. The tradition goes back to 2500 years ago.

    The first written reference to the parrot (in the world) is found in the Rigveda, the earliest of four Vedas, dated to 1500-1200 BCE according to most estimates. Here, in the hymn 12 of Chapter 1, the bird is called Thiththi in Sanskrit and is credited with taking away a sage’s yellowness, interpreted by scholars as jaundice. By the time of the third Veda, the Yajurveda, dated to around 1200 – 900 BCE, there are ample references to parrots being kept as pets. In fact, there is even a reference in the Yajurveda to parrots ‘uttering human speech.

    The oldest reference to parrots in the West is in the book ‘Indica’’ written by a Greek physician Ctesias in the court of King Artaxerxes II of Persia around the 5th century BCE. In the book, he describes the exotic birds in Sindh which spoke the ‘Indian language’.

    Parrots were first introduced to the West by armies of the Macedonian Empire builder Alexander after their expedition to India in 327 BCE. Following his conquests of Punjab and Sindh, when Alexander returned home to Greece, his army took back many exotic Indian goods. Parrots were among them and even today the common English name for the species Pisstacula eupatria is ‘Alexandine Parakeets’.

    The parrot even finds a mention in the works of the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was Alexander's tutor and the first one to scientifically describe these birds in his work, History of Animals (around 320 BCE) where he writes:

    in general all the crook-taloned birds are short-necked and flat-tongued and given to mimicry. For such too is the Indian bird, the parrot, that is said to be human-tongued (and it becomes more outrageous after drinking wine). '

    Not surprisingly, for the longest time, right till the 15th century CE and the discovery of America, Europeans incorrectly believed that parrots were found only in India.

    The Greeks did a lot to popularize the parrot in the West. In fact, talking parrots were quite the rage among the royals during the days of the Roman Empire. Professional teachers were employed to teach the birds to speak Latin. Noted Roman author and commentator, Pliny the Elder (20 -79 CE) writes in his Natural History (77 CE):

    India sends us the bird, which the Indians call ‘siptacis’. Its head is as hard as its beak, and is beaten with an iron rod when one teaches the bird to speak, for it feels no other blows.’

    Another Roman author, Claudius Aelianus (175-235 CE) in his work On the Characteristics of Animals (200 CE) also associated parrots with religious veneration:

    ‘in the royal residences in India….Parrots are kept and crowd around the king. But no Indian eats a Parrot in spite of their great numbers, the reason being that the Brahmins regard them as sacred and even place them above all other birds.

    The parrot has always been considered sacred in India. One reason for this, experts believe, is its ability to mimic human speech. There are frequent references in numerous Sanskrit fictional works like Kathasaritsagar, to parrots who could recite the Vedas. According to the Vishnu Purana, the wife of sage Kashyap, one of the most revered of the sages, was the mother of parrots. In Padma Purana, a parrot named Kunjal is presented as an enlightened preacher of virtues like benevolence and meditation. This bird also enjoys a visible presence as subjects of satire and moral wisdom in Indian fables of the 3rd-4th centuries BCE such as Jataka tales and Panchatantra.

    But the most famed depiction of the parrot is as Suka, the vahana (mount) of Kamadev, the God of Desire, and his companion Rati. Its gift of the gab makes it a symbol of love and passion. Interestingly, the Kama Sutra, composed by Vatsyayana (c. 6th century CE), stated that one of the 64 requirements of a man was to train a parrot to talk.

    The parrot was also associated with mainstream Hindu goddesses such as Meenakshi of Madurai and Kamakshi of Kanchipuram as well as Tantrik goddesses such as Matangi, one of the ten Mahavidyas. It was believed that parrots taught the goddesses, the ‘bahyakalas’ or skills such as singing, painting, archery and cooking.

    Parrots were also believed to possess mystical or spiritual insight and so had the competency to predict the future. This belief persists even today as in many parts of India, you can find a local astrologer carrying tarot cards which his caged parrot picks out.

    Besides being tools for fortune-tellers, parrots were also known as master story-tellers, as observed in the 12th century CE collection of stories, Sukasaptati or the ‘Seventy Tales of the Parrot’. This Sanskrit work was adapted into a Persian version named Tutinama. The Mughal emperor Akbar, later commissioned an illustrated version of the same in the 16th century CE. Sukasaptati is a collection of stories narrated by a pet parrot to her mistress every night, to dissuade her from leaving the house for a romantic alliance while her merchant husband is away.

    Symbolising courtship, the bird has also become a marriage totem for Hindu ceremonies and rituals. For example, among the Kols and other communities of Uttar Pradesh, images of parrots made of cotton or clay are hung up in the decoration of Vedi (marriage mandap). Motifs of parrots can also be found in the bridal trousseau of West Bengal (Banarasi), Gujarat (Patan Patola) and Maharashtra (Paithani). In the Maithil culture of North Bihar, parrots are also a sign of fertility, thus a bride’s feet are often painted with designs representing the bird. In places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, newly married women are gifted parrots made of silver as a gift to bless them to bear children.

    With so much going for the parrot and its close link with Indian culture and history, one wonders why the parrot didn't make it as India's national bird.

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