First lions, reprise

We’d seen two lionesses near a kill, and watched until one crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the thicket on one side, while the other disappeared into the low palm forest on the other. The show was over, we concluded. Several vehicles left. Anthony took us in a little circle, trying to spot whether there were any other members of the pride nearby. There weren’t. As we were trying to leave, FONT said “She’s back.” “What’s that in her mouth?” The Family asked. In moments it was clear: a cub. We spotted two more in the grass. The mother carried one in her mouth and urged the others along, to cross back to the kill.

“How old do you think the cubs are?” I asked Anthony. He said “Maybe two or three months old.” I didn’t know that cubs are not introduced to the pride till they are several months old. The two cubs which were following the mother lost confidence once they were out of the grass, and started mewling. The mother came back and carried them across the road one by one in her mouth. In the period before the cubs join the pride, the mother moves them frequently from one den to another so that predators do not get to locate them. This looked like part of such a move.

After crossing the road, the mother again picked up one of the cubs and then beckoned the others to follow her by many backward glances as she moved forward. The other two cubs followed for a while, mewling all the time. They hadn’t quite got back their confidence, so the mother had to rotate the cub that she carried. With much divided attention and cajoling, she managed to lead the cubs towards the kill. The other lioness had come back in the meanwhile. She’d clearly been to drink water, because her muzzle was no longer bloody.

The mother let go of the cubs just as she reached the hummock which guarded the kill from the road, and nudged all three cubs forward with her nose. If these cubs were indeed just two or three months old, then they were not yet weaned. While the family crossed the road I’d noticed that the mother was still lactating. The cubs did not seem to be interested in the kill as the two lionesses greeted each other, and then settled down to finish their meal. The kill was fresh; there was no smell. So these two lionesses, one pregnant, the other lactating, had eaten a whole zebra in a reasonably short while.

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First lions

Strangely, the first time I saw a lion there was no sense of excitement. Later, when I thought back to it, it wasn’t boredom as much as the sense that this had happened to me a hundred times. The trouble wasn’t with the scene, but my mental focus. After all, there are less than 40,000 lions left in the world, and the IUCN red list calls them vulnerable. This means that unless we are successful in protecting them, they will slide down to extinction soon enough. No, the problem is TV. You cannot escape the numerous documentaries showing lions chasing buffalos or antelope and bringing them down, thereby giving you the false impression that, first, lions are common, and second, that the most interesting thing about them is the chase and kill. Now, when I look at this photo of the first lion I ever saw, standing with a bloodied muzzle over the zebra it had killed, looking at the distance with cloudy yellow eyes, I wonder why I wasn’t as excited as The Family.

After skirting Lake Amboseli I was still looking at birds, but Anthony, and, very soon, The Family, realized that there was a cluster of vehicles looking at something up ahead. Father of Niece Tatu was suddenly animated. As we neared the area, The Family was already saying “Lion.” It took me a few moments to find where she was looking. FONT and MONT had already spotted the kill by the time I saw the red ribs of a partly eaten zebra sticking up behind a slight rise. Lion? It was hunkered down, and a little bit of looking was needed to see movement, and a tawny hide. Now and then it would shift its weight as it gnawed. A single lioness with a whole zebra? Slowly the oddness struck me. Doesn’t the pride usually hunt together? Where were the rest? When the lioness stood up Anthony pointed out that she was pregnant.

As I was thinking this, MONT suddenly said “Another one.” Indeed, out of the thicket of palms another lioness had emerged. She walked steadily across the little patch of grass which separated the vehicles from the kill, crossed the road near us, and disappeared into the thicket on the other side of the path. I read later that in the dry season very often a pair of lionesses will hunt together. Systematic observations showed that their intake of food was smaller when they hunted individually or in larger groups. So perhaps this pair of lionesses had hunted together because at least one of them needed a lot of food.

The Lions of Orissa

East of India every temple is guarded by fearsome giants carrying terrifying weapons. In Odisha, just two lions are enough. As you can see in the featured photo, these are no ordinary lions. They have a awesome black mustache in addition to the mane that you can see on any other lion. The bottle of water between their legs backs up the statement that the mustache makes. The dwarpala which you see above stands outside the Kedar Gauri temple in Bhubaneshwar. There’s a matched lion on the other side of the entrance gate, but at the time I took this photo, it wasn’t backed by a wise Brahmin who could give you the opportunity to earn merit.

Guardians of a roadside shrine near Rajnagar, Odisha

Driving through Odisha you see pairs of lions every now and then. In the photo above you see a pair of ferocious lions bristling at those who pass by the sacred spot between them. I saw this pair far to the east, near a small town called Rajnagar on the banks of the Brahman river. They lack the mustache that you see in the Bhubaneshwar-Cuttack-Puri region; maybe that is a regional speciality. I also saw horses and elephants guarding entrances to temples in this region, so the nature of dwarpalas changes across Odisha. I need to travel more widely in the state to find out how temple guardians change from place to place.

The Zoology of Dragons

Dragons figure very prominently in Chinese culture. They are clearly the champion amongst animals, and may even beat humans. Emperors liked to associate themselves with dragons to make it clear to lesser forms of humans that they are superior. Chinese dragons do not seem to have wings. They are said to be creatures of water, although they are also associated with fire, as in the image above (from the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City).

pisou

The Pisou is a different kind of a dragon. It eats money and gives out nothing. So if you believe in Fengshui then you would like to keep a couple of them in the house, but make sure that they face outwards. Then they will bring in money. Never make the mistake of having them facing inwards, because then they eat up your money. You can recognize them in temples because people stuff money into their mouths. The fine and well-fed specimen shown above comes from the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) near Yong He Gang.

bixi

The Bixi must be a gentle creature. A hybrid of a turtle and a dragon, it performs a turtle’s job of holding up pillars. But since it is also a dragon, it only holds up pillars with imperial edicts. This uncomplaining individual holds up a pillar inside the Kong Miao temple celebrating an emperor’s bloody victory in a war.

qiyin

Guardian lion in the forbidden cityHybridisation reaches an ultimate with the Kylin, which has a dragon’s head, a lion’s tail, the hooves of an ox, antlers of a deer and fish-scales all over its body. This magical animal is a powerful protector with its ability to repel evil and punish wickedness. The lion is an important beast, of course. A pair of them protects many of the gates in the Forbidden City, but it is a lesser creature. Low enough in the hierarchy that they can be seen alongside entrances to the fancier shops and restaurants all over the city.

Although the tiger is an important beast, it is hardly seen in decorations. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress, and although nearly as powerful as the dragon, is seen much less often. The heron figures prominently in imperial settings, symbolising patience and long life. The turtle, almost as important as the dragon, holds up pillars and heavy things, but also symbolises long life. So much so that turtle soup is supposed to be very good for you even today.