Ganesha And The Rats No One Knew
With an indisputable flair for language, Vivek Menon skillfully connects the lives of rats and elephants.
In the Ganesha Purana, the elephant god Gajanana rides Krauncha, a divine being who has been turned into a mouse due to a celestial dispute.
Krauncha was originally a celestial musician who, playing at Lord Indra’s festivities, enraged the sage Vamadeva by stepping on his toe. The sage turned him into a rodent, who then caused great havoc to humanity till Gajanana noosed him and took him on as his vahana (vehicle).
Over millennia, the elephant has turned into arguably the best loved of Hindu gods: the benevolent pot-bellied Ganesha, remover of obstacles, one who symbolises prosperity. Krauncha is forgotten, mythologically and literally. And yet the National Heritage Animal and the global vermin are bound together by more than just a Hindu myth.
Photo: Vivek Menon.
CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
At two ends of a measuring scale, these two grey beasts are fighting an inexorable struggle for existence in India. One, Elephas maximus, is the largest creature on Indian soil and the wild animal that kills the largest number of Indians every year. The other is a representative of a little-known tribe of more than a hundred species of small, furry creatures that inhabit grain stores and forests alike; the law allows us to kill many of them as vermin and popularly most of them are at the bottom of the scale of loveliness and charisma. One of them, the Kondana rat, may well be the most endangered mammal in India. But who is to know that?
Elephants and rats. The twain are chalk and cheese. Even their trademark buck-teeth are oh, so different. The male elephant’s incisors are massive showpieces curving outwards and upwards in a glorious dazzle of ivory that leaves its rivals envious, its females utterly besotted and the human race salivating in its lust for white gold. The rats have equally well-known incisors – plank-shaped, chiselled and toned against bark, nut and grain – but rarely, even in the hoary bamboo rat where they achieve their greatest eminence, more than a few inches in length.
I have been amongst elephants for nearly two score years. I have watched them, admired them, studied them, felt them, adored them and imbibed them. I have watched herds wander onto the bamboo-fringed grasslands of the western Nilgiris as summer sets in, kicking daintily at the carbon-rich karuka grass with their toes and curling bushelfuls into their cavernous mouths. I have seen massive makhnas, their swollen penis sheaths laden with desire, oozing black velvet musth from their temples, storm onto the backs of patient lasses in the swamps of Kaziranga. I have been chased by eight tuskers, one after the other, down the Himalayan foothills of Rajaji National Park, with the very last one, a true Ganesha with a broken tusk, driving me nearly two kilometres back to the rest house in a torrent of shrieks and atmospheric adrenalin.
‘Near persons’: thus can be described the living Ganeshas, nearly 30,000 of them living in highly-fragmented forests in four discontinuous tracts of India – the Shivalik foothills, the Western Ghats, south-central India and the Northeast. Another 3,000 are in captivity, shackled and brutally tortured. They are the modern-day devadasis of southern temples, the haulers of illegal timber in the Northeast, the bearers of forest guards and tourists alike in several Protected Areas, the gaudy ornamented hawkers of our celebrations in urban India.
Amidst all of my elephantine bliss, I have deviated only once to see the Kondana rat. Wearing white latex gloves and smelling the musty air that inhabits animal collections the world over, I saw one in a white enamel tray in the very bowels of the Bombay Natural History Society. It lay forgotten in its formalin fumes, as I teased its long claws, identification marks, apart with cold tweezers.
The Kondana, like others of its clan, lives in many-splendoured oblivion. Who knows that one in four mammals in India is a rat? Who cares that the Malabar spiny dormouse may vanish with the last forests of the Western Ghats? Who knows what endangered rodent species are fumigated out of existence when bamboo die-offs in the Northeast are responded to by mass poisonings of rodents to avoid a plague?
Krauncha is not deliberately endangered like the elephant. It is ignominiously ignored as a diverse family of beings and vindictively hunted out as unloved vermin. The elephant killed 450 Indians and destroyed crops worth 33 crore rupees last year. Indians in retaliation and greed killed a 100 elephants. Rats (most certainly not the Kondana but its brethren) destroy over 30 million tonnes of stored grain globally and cause pestilence. The last time rats killed people in India was during the 1995 plague in Surat when 56 humans died. There are no statistics for the number of rats we have killed either before or after.
Was Ganesha worshipped as the remover of obstacles or was he himself, the single-tusked elephant, the biggest obstacle that primitive man had to pray to before setting out on a journey? ‘Stay away from my path O tusker and I will pray to you.’ Was Krauncha the biggest agricultural pest to early farmers that needed divine retribution to stop crop damage? And thus the god was put atop it. Are both vermin?
Or are they just two mammals playing out their ecological narratives set in a cultural tapestry? Will the game of attrition between the elephant and the Indian leave the pachyderm with enough intact homeland to call elephantine? Will our insatiable appetite for the most stupendous incisors in the world leave enough tuskers alive to procreate and keep the tribe alive? Will we eschew cruelty in our dealings with elephants, or in the name of tradition will the beatings, the chainings, the starving continue? And while we debate the fate of our most glorious natural icon, will the Kondana rat slip into oblivion unheralded, unloved and unknown?
This, the riddle of the elephant and the rodent, of Ganesha and Krauncha, will in many ways mirror the fate of species in generations to come in our country.The author is a conservationist, writer, photographer and the Executive Director of the Wildlife Trust of India.
Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 2, February 2016.