by Katie Fallon
Finalist : 2011 Nonfiction Contest
Until the mid-1990s Egyptian vultures were common throughout India, including this coastal region of Tamil Nadu, halfway between Chennai and Pondicherry. The vultures once nested here, on the rocky peaks above the town of Thirukalukundram, and each day at noon they would swoop down to be fed by the temple’s priests. According to the local legend several rishis, or Hindu sages, demanded to be reincarnated as gods. This request angered Shiva, who instead turned them into eagles; they could only be freed from this form by devoutly worshipping him. The Egyptian vultures that visited the temple daily were believed to be the eagles in the legend, coming down to pay homage to Shiva. When the town’s beloved vultures disappeared, the priests believed it was a bad omen.
Egyptian vultures fed by temple priests at Vdeagirlswarar,
Photo by Edgar Thurston, Ethnographic Notes in Southern India.
After lighting five clay diyacandles before a Ganesh murti—a black granite statue of the many-armed elephant-headed deity housed in a nook behind a locked gate—I left my hiking boots in the care of a round woman in a blue sari and began climbing the 565 stone stairs to Vedagiriswarar (as the Eagle Temple is officially known). The late-morning sun baked the slabs beneath my feet; I cuffed my jeans and aimed for patches of shade along the stone walls that bordered the wide staircase. In the center of each stair’s riser, a yellow swash of paint with nine red dots ran along the nosing. Gnarled trees and shrubs shouldered up to the walls, crows croaking from the leafy branches. After only a few steps my legs began to ache; I tried sidestepping, but then I took a hint from an orange-saried woman and zigzagged my way up the stairs.
Soon I reached a landing, complete with a bench under the shade of a square cement roof held aloft by white pillars. A crumpled form slouched against a wall; the elderly man wore a pale pink shirt and a short white dhoti, a wrap-around cloth skirt, tied at the waist. When I drew near, he reached one of his wrinkled hands towards me and with the other he gestured towards his bare, kindling-thin legs, which extended uselessly in front of him. I passed him a 10-rupee note and continued up the stairs, trying to wrest my eyes from his skeletal appendages. Polio has not been eradicated in India; in 2009, more 50,000 people contracted the crippling disease. As I climbed I felt guilty. I should have given him more.
A dozen steps later, I stopped to catch my breath and lifted my eyes to the hazy blue sky. Not surprisingly, no Egyptian vultures circled overhead. Neither did any long-billed vultures, slender-billed vultures, or red-headed vultures. The Oriental white-backed vulture—once the most abundant large bird of prey on the planet—was also conspicuously absent from the skies above Thirukalukundram. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included each of these vultures on its Red List of Threatened Species; the long-billed, slender-billed, red-headed, and white-backed are “critically endangered” while the Egyptian vulture is simply “endangered.”
Barefoot pilgrims climb the 565 stone stairs to
worship at Vdeagirlswarar, Thirukalukundram's
hilltop Shiva temple.
Photo by Katie Fallon.
In the mid-1990s naturalists in India began to notice an abundance of vulture carcasses along roadsides, hanging from trees, and below roosting sites. Indians rely on their vultures to clear the landscape of dead cattle; because the majority of Hindus do not eat cows, which are regarded as sacred, when the animals die their hides are taken but the rest is left. The Bombay Natural History Society claims that a flock of vultures could “reduce an adult cow carcass to bare bones within an hour.” But fewer and fewer vultures showed up at cattle dumpsites, creating a public health concern. Without the vultures, feral dogs descend on the carcasses, increasing the risk of rabies. The majority of the world’s rabies cases come from India (more than 20,000 per year) and more than 95 percent of those cases are caused by dog bites. By the early 2000s, mostof India’s vultures had disappeared. Oriental White-backed vultures suffered a 99 percent population decline. While the Egyptian vulture’s population collapse does not appear as drastic as the white-back’s, the IUCN estimates that “the species has undergone a catastrophic decline (greater than 35 percent per year) since 1999 in India,” and now “just a few thousand pairs” remain.
In 2004, researchers discovered the primary (and perhaps only) cause of India’s vulture declines: a widely used veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac. This effective drug is used to treat a variety of bovine ailments, from pain and swelling to fever. Unfortunately, when a vulture consumes a dead animal that has recently been treated with a standard veterinary dose of Diclofenac, the vulture suffers kidney failure and dies within a few days. The government of India acted quickly, banning the manufacture of the drug in 2006; however, it still remains on many veterinarians’ shelves. While Diclofenac has not yet been established as the smoking-gun cause of the decline in red-headed or Egyptian vultures (as it has been in white-backed, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures), researchers believe that “the geographic extent and rate of declines are very similar” to the declines in India’s other vulture species. There is, therefore, “a real and alarming possibility that Diclofenac is affecting populations of these species and other scavenging raptors across the Indian subcontinent.”
I took a deep breath and began climbing again. The temple, a red-and-white-striped base crowned with a flat-topped stone pyramid displaying three-dimensional deities, looms high above the staircase on a rocky outcrop. Beyond the temple rise dry, stone hills. According to the IUCN, Egyptian vultures preferred to nest “on ledges or in caves on low cliffs, crags and rocky outcrops.” The habitat here seemed ideal. There would be no shortage of domestic livestock to eat, either; agricultural fields and rice paddies surround Thirukalukundram, and untethered cattle, goats, and water buffalo wander everywhere.
Vedagiriswarar, Shiva's hilltop temple.
Photo by Katie Fallon.
In addition to the public health concerns caused by the decline of vultures at carcass dumpsites, there is spiritual significance to the conspicuous absence of the “eagles” at Thirukalukundram. According to some reports, the white birds disappeared in 1994; others state they were last sighted in 2000. A 2002 article in The Hindu, India’s oldest English-language newspaper, claims that Thirukalukundram “is one of the most celebrated places of religious importance in Tamil Nadu.” According to the article, “[t]he two sacred eagles appearing over the temple to worship the Lord every day are a major attraction [for] pilgrims and tourists from all parts of India and abroad.” The eagles, the article continues, “come down to a rock where sweet rice is offered as food. To watch these eagles taking the food is a rare experience.” After eating the rice (certainly not a typical food source for vultures) the birds “take off, circle around the tower again and fly off. This has been going on for centuries now.” The town’s name—Thirukalukundram—reflects this; translated to English, the name means “hill of the sacred eagles.”
While Egyptian vultures do live long lives, no individual bird survives for centuries. However, the phenomenon is mentioned in The South Indian Railway Illustrated Guide, published in 1926. The guide states (all sic):
A matter for conjecture indeed. Perhaps the birds that visited the temple were all successive generations of the same family; perhaps the fledglings observed their parents and learned the unusual behavior. Or perhaps a visit to the temple for a quick, albeit atypical, meal was easier than foraging. The temple could be the halfway point between the vultures’ roost in the hills and the agricultural fields where they searched for carcasses. Whatever the reason, the Egyptian vulture phenomenon at Thirukalukundram had been going on for a long, long time—until the birds disappeared.
A dog rests on a stone landing on the stairs to the
Photo by Katie Fallon.
As I approached the hill’s summit, I reached another landing. A skinny, tan dog with pointed ears and a sharp muzzle lounged across the top stair, in the shade provided by another concrete roof supported by white pillars. The dog watched me approach, calmly sniffing the air before resting his chin on his paws. In the center of the landing a wrinkled woman in a turquoise sari sat behind a blanket, on which she displayed small green bananas and bottles of water for sale. Two more tan dogs sprawled in the dusty shade nearby, one with a face and flank crisscrossed with grey scars. He slept deeply, eyes squeezed shut, front paw occasionally twitching.
I turned the corner and continued up the last set of stairs, which ended at the open door of Vedagiriswarar Temple. Just past the threshold, a gaunt elderly man sat on a folding chair, collecting the 5-rupee admission fee. My eyes adjusted to the low light as I stepped past him into the temple’s cool, stony darkness. Diya candles flickered on trays before deities, and plumes of incense curled toward the high ceiling. Two murtis flanked a short, brass-colored staircase that led to Shiva’s inner sanctuary.
I sat cross-legged in front of another black Ganesh idol; the cool marble floor soothed my aching leg muscles after the long climb up the stone stairs. Worshippers of all ages trickled in and out of the temple and the inner sanctuary: young men in jeans and polo shirts, grizzled women with grey hair dressed in ragged saris, girls with long black braids clutching infants, bald Gandhi lookalikes wearing ankle-length dhotis and carrying walking sticks. Most entered the temple, blinked against the darkness, and made their way to one of the idols. They paused before Ganesh, touched their palms together, and murmured prayers before climbing the brass stairs. I peered past them into the small sanctuary. A priest, wearing only a short white dhoti, attended to the handful of worshippers. The priest’s forehead was covered in a wide swash of white. Some worshippers sat on the floor of the sanctuary, and some stood along its walls. Several repeated the mantra, Om namah shivaya—“I bow to Shiva”—in unison.
I longed to rise and enter the sanctuary, but out of respect for a religion that isn’t my own, I didn’t. Instead, I bid farewell to Ganesh, stood, and continued through the temple. I passed a man sitting cross-legged in a tan dhoti, a newspaper spread on the marble floor before him. He glanced at me briefly and resumed reading, resting his chin in his palm. I followed the narrow hallway as it wound out of the temple, onto a concrete platform that looked out over all of Thirukalukundram and the surrounding pastures, rice paddies, and hills. I could see another well-known local site, Sangu Theertham, a 1,000-square-yard raised, rectangular pond with a temple in its center. From my vantage point, I had a clear view of the greenish water and concrete sides. The temple reportedly houses a collection of more than 1,000 conch shells which, according to another legend, “emerge” from this freshwater source once every 12 years. Other tall triangular temples with flat tops rose above the town, too; I counted at least six.
View of Sangu Theertham, a temple in the center of
a 1,000-square-yard raised pond, from
Photo by Katie Fallon.
I sat on a concrete ledge, breathed deeply, and tried to take in everything. Through my camera’s zoom lens I could see beyond the busy town below me to a few jagged mountains on the horizon. In other directions, fertile green fields, several heavily flooded, added a measure of calmness to the landscape. I had no doubt this was indeed a holy place; I felt life all around me, through me, in me.
I looked up. A few clouds wisped in the pale blue, but the sky was empty of birds, and in spite of my serenity I was reminded of the absence of the sacred vultures and considered the intersection of the biological and the divine. I accepted as truth that Diclofenac had killed these birds, the same way it killed most other vultures throughout India. But what if I am wrong: Can a pharmaceutical destroy even holy creatures? Has science finally killed God? The priests may be correct in their belief that the vultures’ disappearance predicts troubled times to come; in recent years India has had its share of tragedy, such as the 2004 tsunami and the 2008 attacks on two Mumbai hotels. Or, perhaps instead of a bad omen, the vultures’ departure show that the rishis have finally proven their sincerity to Shiva—after centuries of devout worship, they have achieved salvation?
My attention drifted to the bustling streets. Open-fronted stalls that line the main roads sold coffee, chai, bananas, sandals, bottles of soda and water, beaded necklaces, diya candles, tires, cell phones, and more. Hero Honda motorcycles zipped between rumbling, open-air buses filled with worshippers; gaunt cows with painted horns rummaged in trashcans; and a handful of rhesus macaques lounged on the roof of a shop that sold miniature Ganesh, Shiva, Vishnu, and Parvati murtis. Subcompact cars sounded their horns and did their best to avoid wandering goats and dogs and children. Thin men in dhotis and women in magenta, peach, teal, orange, and lime-green saris thronged near the entrance to Vedagiriswarar’s stone staircase.
As I began my descent, I glanced up again at the dry hills beyond the temple and imagined what the Egyptian vultures would look like on their approach: two angels, floating on eagle’s wings, coming to worship with the people.