Wednesday 31 March 2021

With a new comic book, an ecologist has stepped up his efforts to save the elusive Madras Hedgehog

 Brawin Kumar was introduced to the tiny creature because locals were worried about it often ending up as roadkill.

Hedgehogs seem to be the stuff of picture books from Britain or characters from American animation films, but they are living, breathing mammals and three different species of hedgehogs inhabit the Indian subcontinent alone. Of these, the Madras Hedgehog (Paraechinus nudiventris) is very poorly studied, said Brawin Kumar, ecologist and conservationist, who is working to save this endemic species from obscurity, even possible oblivion. The Kanyakumari-born researcher recalled his first sighting of the spiny animal, resembling “a small bunch of twigs arranged with utmost care”, as it ambled about in the scrub looking for food.

Brawin Kumar examining a Madras Hedgehog during a day-time field survey. | Jude

Kumar, who earned his PhD from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing (2015-2019), is now a National Postdoctoral Fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Tirupati.

The ecologist studies the Elvira Rat (Cremnomys elvira), a rodent of the Eastern Ghats. As part of his efforts to save the Madras Hedgehog, the conservationist has brought out a comic book in the local dialect for children in Tamil Nadu, who live in and around the hedgehog’s habitat.

When did you begin to study the Madras Hedgehog?
In 2010, soon after I graduated with a master’s degree in biotechnology, I joined the ZOO Outreach Organization in Coimbatore to work in conservation biology. I worked on small mammal surveys. A year later, on World Environment Day, I went to Tirunelveli for a celebration.

There, the locals asked me about the mull-eli (thorny rat), a tiny creature that often ends up as roadkill. This was my first introduction to the Madras Hedgehog. I read up everything I could about them. These mammals, endemic to South India, were recorded in scientific literature way back in 1851.

Even today so little is known about the behaviour of these, solitary, nocturnal and elusive animals. Perhaps, the hedgehogs in Tirunelveli come out to sun themselves on tar roads. The hedgehogs cannot scurry away to avoid the traffic.

An adult Madras Hedgehog sighted in Sankaran Kovil drylands in 2020 by Brawin Kumar, who measured the morphometry and weighed the animal and safely returned it to the field. Photo credit: Jude

Soon, I began gathering data about the distribution of hedgehogs in Tamil Nadu. The work which was formally launched in 2012 covered 16 districts in the state. We did fieldwork in areas where they have been historically documented.

Local newspapers that reported sightings turned out to be a surprisingly good resource. We networked with local conservation groups like the Nellai Nature Club, and people reported sightings from camera traps.

I drew up a questionnaire to document people’s perceptions about hedgehogs across their known range and had nearly a thousand respondents. At the end of the five-year-long study, my fellow researchers and I got a clearer picture of the distribution of these hedgehogs and about the threats to their survival. In 2018, we published a detailed paper in Mammalia, based on our findings.

What were some of the findings that came out of your study?
Hedgehogs were not confined only to arid landscapes in Tamil Nadu and have a wider distribution than previously thought. The habitats include pasture lands, edges of agricultural fields, shrublands, grasslands, urban areas, sand dunes, and foothills of small hillocks.

Madras Hedgehogs live in burrows and come out in search of insects. You can see them in cattle-grazing fields, behind houses and under palmyra tree leaves. In the late evenings, you could see them near lampposts, hoping to feast on insects that fall to the ground.

We also pooled together confirmed locations and sighting records and used an algorithm to predict the potential distribution range of hedgehogs in southern India. We have to conduct more field-based research to make sure these mammals are living safely in those locations.

Ninety per cent of the hedgehog population in the state lives outside protected areas, where, unlike megafaunas like elephants and tigers, small mammals have no safeguards under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. Photo credit: Jude

The fact is 90% of the hedgehog population in the state lives outside protected areas, where, unlike megafaunas like elephants and tigers, small mammals have no safeguards under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. Hedgehogs are not vermin, but their local name is mull-eli (thorny rat), so people do not think twice about killing them. This is truly unfortunate. Being insectivores, hedgehogs are natural allies of farmers, a fact we need to emphasise during outreach.

Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature places Madras Hedgehog in the “least concern” category, you have seen worrisome things on the ground.

Worldwide, wildlife has had to contend with habitat loss and the threats of climate change. But the Madras Hedgehog is also a victim of local superstitions. The dried skin of the hedgehog is considered a status symbol and hung outside people’s homes. Hedgehog spines are dried and used as medicine for whooping cough and other ailments.

When hedgehogs sense a physical threat, they curl up into a spiny ball. Hunters then pick them up easily and sell them in the marketplace. Hedgehog meat is also consumed as a delicacy.

Hedgehogs that end up as pets die soon because they are fed vegetables instead of insects. They are not mini porcupines. Even zoos which get rescues do much the same thing. There is simply not enough scientific awareness about the animal.

Speaking to village elders, I learned that, in the past, they would see dainty pugmarks made by these spiny animals in the fine sand, but such sightings are rarer now. Speaking to the children, I learned that if they found a hedgehog near, say, a termite mound, they’d make it curl up, and use it as a ball in their games. I was horrified!

Is that why you decided to bring out a Tamil comic book on Madras Hedgehogs?
As an ecologist, it shocked me to see that the children in the hedgehog’s homeland were growing up ignorant of this tiny mammal. I worked to create a 20-page Tamil comic book Mullikkaattu Ithigaasam (Legend of Scrub Forest).

Brawin Kumar, along with Venkatesh Babu, created ‘Mullikkaattu Ithigaasam’, a 20-page comic book about two school kids who rescue a young hedgehog.

The plot is like this: two schoolchildren rescue a little hedgehog from an unlicensed, misinformed practitioner of medicine. Most of its siblings have already ended up as roadkill and the mother is delighted to be reunited with her little one. (On average, the Madras Hedgehog has a lifespan of five years and gives birth to two to three young ones in each reproductive cycle.)

In the academic year 2018-’19, I started distributing the [comic] books in a few schools in southern Tamil Nadu, near the habitats of Madras Hedgehogs. The response was heartening. When schools reopen after the pandemic, I will start my outreach efforts once again.

In Tamil Nadu, there are more than 150 locations where hedgehogs live. Researchers and local NGOs in these areas have to work together to save these little creatures before they go locally extinct. The endemic hedgehog is in need of a mention in local school textbooks.

Tell us about your stint in China and your plans for hedgehog outreach.
In 2014, I attended the week-long International Training Course on Frontiers in Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The following year, I was offered a fellowship to pursue doctoral research at the institute.

My research was on the evolutionary history of the Yarkand Hare (Lepus yarkandensis), which is endemic to China’s Takla Makan Desert. At first, it was tough for me, without knowing the language, but when I completed my degree in 2019, I received the Excellent International Graduate Award, with a certificate and cash prize from the director of the institute.

Now that I am back in Tamil Nadu (where language is not an issue for me), my goal is to conduct a mass outreach programme for the conservation of the Madras Hedgehog and its habitat. We need to get corporates, wildlife enthusiasts, forest officials, students of zoology and celebrities involved.

I would also like to explore linking with community radio stations to try and save the last remaining few pockets of hedgehog habitats. It is hard to find grant money for small mammal research, but we need to do the research to conserve any animal in the best possible manner.

The Madras Hedgehog is found in the other southern states as well. Besides, there are two other species of hedgehogs in our country: the Long-eared Hedgehog and the Indian Hedgehog. The government could nominate a Hedgehog Day to shine a spotlight on these creatures and make them a part of the nation’s biodiversity conservation mission.

The birthday of M Krishnan (June 30, 1912), a pioneering Indian naturalist and nature writer, would be an ideal date. 

While these mammals are known to resist a range of toxins, M Krishnan was the first person to document that the Madras Hedgehog can even survive snakebites. It would be great to research the science behind this surprising ability.

This article first appeared in Nature In Focus and has been republished with the permission of the author.

(Source: Scroll)

Tuesday 30 March 2021

One of India’s largest Adivasi groups has dropped its ancient cremation ritual to save trees

The Gond community has decided to bury their dead instead.

For the Gond community, one of India’s largest Adivasi people, cremation is a part of the final rites when someone dies – the dead body is put atop a pile of wood and burnt to ash. But realising that they were faced with a choice between holding on to an ancient ritual and protecting their environment, which they consider sacred, the Gond people of Chhattisgarh have decided to bury their dead instead of cremating them, to save trees.

Representational image. | Chandan Khanna/AFP

“We [Gonds] have an integral relationship with nature and every feature of the forest has a spiritual significance for us,” Siddh Ram Meravi, a Gond Adivasi and general secretary of Jila Gond Sewa Samiti of Kabirdham district in India’s eastern state Chhattisgarh, told Mongabay-India. “So, we have decided to save nature in every form and save trees for mankind. We are not going to put bodies on a massive pile of wood allowing the insatiable fire churning out ash.”

“The practice of cutting trees and using them for making pyres can be stopped if we bury the dead instead of cremating them. Hence the community decided to include burying in our constitution,” Meravi said, referring to the collective decision taken during the two-day community conference, Gond Mahasammelan, held on March 6 and March 7 in Kabirdham district. The event was attended by more than 2,000 delegates.

Gond tribes depend on the forest for survival. The forest and its trees provide shelter, medicines, water, food and fuel, notes the study Livelihood sources of Gond Tribes: A study of village Mangalnaar, Bhairamgarh block, Chhattisgarh conducted by Srabani Sanyal, Associate Professor at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Ramyash, Assistant Professor at Government Naveen College Bhairamgarh, Chhattisgarh.

Gond farmers in their fields. Photo credit: Alina/Flickr

The Gonds are mentioned in the Ramayana, and four of their kingdoms are dated between 1300 and 1600. With more than 1.2 crore Gonds in the country, the major concentration of the ethnic group is in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana and Jharkhand. Notably, many of these states have reported a drop in their carbon stock over the past two years, says a detailed analysis of the Indian State of Forest Report 2019.

‘Mitti sanskaar’ tradition

“The decision to bury our dear ones instead of cremating them is welcomed by the Gonds,” said Chait Ram Raj Dhurvey, a member of the tribal community, as he walked out from the Chuyya forest range in Kabirdham district, with a large crop of grass in one hand and a dried bottle gourd which he uses as a vessel for water.

The Chuyya and neighbouring Banamhaida and Chingldai forest range near his village are rich in biodiversity and home to leopards, wild boar and sloth bears.

A resident of Buchipara, Dhurvey, talks about efforts to revive their age-old Mitti Sanskaar (burial) tradition. Mitti Sanskaar was the common practice earlier, among the Gonds. It is believed in the community that through this ritual, the body mixes with five basic elements of nature: earth, air, water, fire and space.

Women at a local market in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Photo credit: Inside me Journey/Wikimedia Commons

There are several references in ancient Sanskrit texts about cremation as an ancient ritual in Hinduism. However, it is not known when Gonds started following the tradition of cremation. Some members of the tribal group believe that the Hindu ritual of cremation was adopted by the group during the medieval period when Gond kingdoms had assimilated several religious and cultural influences living alongside Hindu communities.

Environmental cost

While life has changed over the past century or so, the traditional Hindu funeral pyre where the fire burns for hours, churning out ashes is still very common.

According to estimates, funeral pyres consume 6 crore trees annually, producing 80 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions and 5,00,000 tonnes of ash which is later thrown into rivers.

Over the years, several governments and environmental groups have also promoted the use of electric systems as an alternate way of cremation.

Mokshda, a Delhi-based NGO working to reduce the environmental impact of funeral pyres, describes its creation of an alternate energy efficient “green cremation system” by maintaining that a body can burn completely in lesser time and with lesser wood than usual.

“A traditional pyre takes six hours and requires 500 kg to 600 kg of wood to burn a body completely, while the benefit of our alternate system is that it takes up to two hours and 150 kg to 200 kg of wood to burn a body,” explains Anshul Garg, executive officer of Mokshda said.

Not only the cost of fuel is reduced, but even the emissions are also cut by up to 60%, he added. Mokshda’s green cremation system consists of a human-sized grate beneath a roof and a chimney which reduces heat loss. Here the wood is placed on the metal slats, which enables better air circulation around the flames.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.

(Source: Scroll)

Monday 29 March 2021

Adivasis are not Hindus. Lazy colonial census gave them the label

 There is a reason Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren's statement at Harvard's India Conference that Adivasis were never Hindus rattled the BJP and RSS.

Recently, the chief minister of Jharkhand and leader of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Hemant Soren admitted that Adivasis were never Hindus and neither are they now. This was in response to his attempt to get Sarna Code approved by the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. The Sarna Code establishes a distinct, honourable identity for the Adivasis away from the Hindu identity — which is usually assumed as such for the Tribals. The dominant caste savarna Hindus have taken for granted the status of Adivasi and Dalits as being Hindu. It is used to construct a false notion of Hindu majority and thereby establish Bharat nation as Hindus’ land – Hindustan.

After Soren’s statement, the entire Hindu consensus, and especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), got rattled. 

They were shaken to the core. The mouthpiece of the RSS, Organiser, immediately released a statement accusing Soren of “parroting evangelical propaganda”. The RSS’ political offshoot, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), followed with accusations at Soren that he was benefiting from Christian missionaries.

A sitting, democratically elected chief minister and arguably the tallest leader of Adivasis in the country was put to test by caste denialists. The Constitution of India gives the responsibility to the State and society to protect and preserve Adivasi tradition as unique to India’s history. But the savarna advocates of the Hindu mission insist on Hinduising the Adivasis.

Representational image | Ministry of Tribal Affairs

The idea of Hindustan is enveloped as majoritarian nationalism. It is used by liberals, radicals, nationalists alike. When one declares the national Indian identity as one tied to the Hindu past, it brushes aside the glorious histories of independent, autonomous, anti-Brahminical legacy of the native people. The natives of India can be broadly classified into Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC) in constitutional terms. These natives were relegated to the lower status by the advent of Brahminism. Pushyamitra Shunga was one of the important Brahmin actors to have ironed the definition of political varna, which gave rise to the clean distinction of varna-based political economy. This meant extermination of Sramana traditions — those that gave rise to Jainism and Buddhism.

Almost everyone in the country falsely promotes the idea of Hindu majoritarianism. The defender and opponents alike use this historically incorrect and sociologically impossible definition of Hindu majoritarianism. The liberals get a piece of cake for framing the recent identity of Hindu-Muslim binarism. I have repeatedly opposed such limiting binaries. These binaries obviate Adivasis and Dalits as non-existing, useless, and irrelevant categories of people without any history of their own. Turns out, these binaries are the relic of the census data that have classified majority (Hindu) and minority (Muslim). Thus, the majoritarian consensus doesn’t need rationalisation. It can be qualified based on assumptions and beliefs — it becomes a matter of faith.

Fraudulent Census of India

Hindu majority is a faulty idea on many counts. It is a fraud committed by census takers from the time of British colonialism. The construction of Hindu is ahistorical. There is no prevalence of Hindu or Hinduism before the British census started putting Hindu as an identity in its census in 1881. Although the census was to take off in 1861 but the 1857 rebellion quashed those efforts. In 1872, it finally started to take shape but did not cover all of India.

Though British census was faulty, it gave the administration enough to regulate laws and decide for the ruled mass. Better governance was the primary objective of the State and knowing more about this extremely diverse nation was pursued by curious anthropologists. As census started to formalise over the years, Hindu began to become a more known identity. The Brahmins, as usual, jumped on this proposition to claim ownership over recently manufactured pan-India Hindu identity. Initially, the census covered disparate provinces.

The census chart of religion later classified into groups such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Jewish, and Animist. Animist meant the aboriginal tribes who had not yet come under the influence of Hinduism, argues census scholar Bhagat

When Hindu was introduced in the census, there arose enormous problems. How to define a Hindu? There were two broad classifications of Shaivites and Vaishanvities, who were bitterly divided over the common belief. Then there are those who classify as Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj. Add to it the enormous divisions of caste and independent religious practices. Nevertheless, it had to be defined.

Hindu is anyone who is not “European, Armenian, Moghul, Persian or other foreign descent, who is a member of a recognised caste, who acknowledges the spiritual authority of Brahmans (priestly caste), who venerates or at least refuses to kill or harm kine, and does not profess any creed or religion which the Brahman forbids him to profess” [sic].

This gave a push for Brahmin interpreters like Arya Samaj, who merrily accepted this adjustment and promoted a common Indian identity as being Hindu. Social reformers at the time and the Congress party embraced this fallacious identity by setting a political agenda of mythical Hindu supremacist past. This worked in two ways. The first was to establish a historical sense of sovereignty in the past, and the second was to counter the European colonisers as ahistorical barbarous.

In 1911 census, Hindus were separated as genuine and non-genuine. The latter were those who denied Vedas, authority of Brahmins, did not have Brahmins into the fold, ate beef and did not revere cows.

This intervention by the British officials led many in the postcolonial scholarship to believe that caste was highlighted and incoherently promoted by the British. Thus, the controversial argument of caste becoming sharper during British period prevailed in the thesis of Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks. Many in the Right-wing interpreted this to say that the British imported caste from Europe by giving it an anglicised taste.

Census of 21st Century

The 2001 census found 1,700 religious categories apart from the dominant ones. They were clubbed into the ‘Other’ column. Adivasis are also clubbed into this. However, it is now being taken out in 2021 census, which indirectly puts them in the column of Hindu or other religious groups, Hemant Soren gestured.

The Indian State has issued the Socio-Economic Caste Census separate from the rest of the nation. The report is disturbing because it shows the marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis on each level. The purpose of post-independence Indian census was to record the lives and stories of those on the margins in order to protect them.

Thus, the celebration of postcolonial nationalism does not only mean changing of colonial-era names and laws but getting rid of colonial-era laws and ignorant identities. India is an extremely complicated country. Each region, caste, sect, religion has its own history, and they are a nation in themselves. We cannot afford to combine them under a pretence of British-given identity. To rescue Adivasis from the stranglehold of Hindu is the real work of Birsa Munda, Sidhu, Kanhu Murmu, and Narayan Singh among scores of heroes and heroines.

The Brahmin and other Savarna castes only seem to care about Adivasis when the Christian missionaries are taking the word of equality propounded in their religion. Tribals like Dalits on the coastal regions and in Southern India immediately converted to Christianity in the colonial era as they did during the colonial Mughals to Islam. Brahmins, through organisations like the RSS, have started to convert Tribals to the Hindu fold. This is not very different from what Christian missions do.

Everyone who is indigenous to the land and worship their ancestral gods should be allowed to register as a non-Hindu with separate identity. As the Census of India 2001 report on religion stated, India is host to “indigenous faiths tribal religions which have survived the influence of major religions for centuries and are holding the ground firmly”. The Census of India is an ideal way to establish yourself without relying on the patronage of the oppressive majority. By forcing Dalits, Adivasis and many backward classes into the Hindu fold, the savarnas assume an undemocratic, unelected majority. The Adivasis and Dalits should be allowed to have a separate column in the religious census. This will be a tribute to their contribution to India’s freedom struggle and the nation as a whole.

Dr Suraj Yengde is Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of Caste Matters. He hosted Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren at the 18th edition of India Conference at Harvard. Views are personal.

(Source: The Print)

Sunday 28 March 2021

The missing continent it took 375 years to find

 It took scientists 375 years to discover the eighth continent of the world, which has been hiding in plain sight all along. But mysteries still remain.

It was 1642 and Abel Tasman was on a mission. The experienced Dutch sailor, who sported a flamboyant moustache, bushy goatee and penchant for rough justice – he later tried to hang some of his crew on a drunken whim – was confident of the existence of a vast continent in the southern hemisphere, and determined to find it.

At the time, this portion of the globe was still largely mysterious to Europeans, but they had an unshakeable belief that there must be a large land mass there – pre-emptively named Terra Australis – to balance out their own continent in the North. The fixation dated back to Ancient Roman times, but only now was it going to be tested.

And so, on 14 August, Tasman set sail from his company's base in Jakarta, Indonesia, with two small ships and headed west, then south, then east, eventually ending up at the South Island of New Zealand. His first encounter with the local Māori people did not go well: on day two, several paddled out on a canoe, and rammed a small boat that was passing messages between the Dutch ships. Four Europeans died. Later, the Europeans fired a cannon at 11 more canoes – it’s not known what happened to their targets. 

And that was the end of his mission – Tasman named the fateful location Moordenaers (Murderers) Bay, with little sense of irony, and sailed home several weeks later without even having set foot on this new land. While he believed that he had indeed discovered the great southern continent, evidently, it was hardly the commercial utopia he had envisaged. He did not return.

(By this time, Australia was already known about, but the Europeans thought it was not the legendary continent they were looking for. Later, it was named after Terra Australis when they changed their minds).

Little did Tasman know, he was right all along. There was a missing continent.

Abel Tasman arguably did find the great southern continent, though he didn’t realise 94% of it is underwater (Credit: Alamy)

In 2017, a group of geologists hit the headlines when they announced their discovery of ZealandiaTe Riu-a-Māui in the Māori language. A vast continent of 1.89 million sq miles (4.9 million sq km) it is around six times the size of Madagascar.

Though the world's encyclopaedias, maps and search engines had been adamant that there are just seven continents for some time, the team confidently informed the world that this was wrong. There are eight after all – and the latest addition breaks all the records, as the smallest, thinnest, and youngest in the world. The catch is that 94% of it is underwater, with just a handful of islands, such as New Zealand, thrusting out from its oceanic depths. It had been hiding in plain sight all along.

"This is an example of how something very obvious can take a while to uncover," says Andy Tulloch, a geologist at the New Zealand Crown Research Institute GNS Science, who was part of the team that discovered Zealandia.

But this is just the beginning. Four years on and the continent is as enigmatic as ever, its secrets jealously guarded beneath 6,560 ft (2km) of water. How was it formed? What used to live there? And how long has it been underwater?

A laborious discovery

In fact, Zealandia has always been difficult to study.

More than a century after Tasman discovered New Zealand in 1642, the British map-maker James Cook was sent on a scientific voyage to the southern hemisphere. His official instructions were to observe the passing of Venus between the Earth and the Sun, in order to calculate how far away the Sun is.

Possibly due to a quirk of geology, the enigmatic kiwi bird’s closest relative hails from Madagascar (Credit: Alamy)

But he also carried with him a sealed envelope, which he was instructed to open when he had completed the first task. This contained a top-secret mission to discover the southern continent – which he arguably sailed straight over, before reaching New Zealand.

The first real clues of Zealandia's existence were gathered by the Scottish naturalist Sir James Hector, who attended a voyage to survey a series of islands off the southern coast of New Zealand in 1895. After studying their geology, he concluded that New Zealand is "the remnant of a mountain-chain that formed the crest of a great continental area that stretched far to the south and east, and which is now submerged…". 

Despite this early breakthrough, the knowledge of a possible Zealandia remained obscure, and very little happened until the 1960s. "Things happen pretty slowly in this field," says Nick Mortimer, a geologist at GNS Science who led the 2017 study.

Then in the 1960s, geologists finally agreed on a definition of what a continent is – broadly, a geological area with a high elevation, wide variety of rocks, and a thick crust. It also has to be big. "You just can't be a tiny piece," says Mortimer. This gave geologists something to work with – if they could collect the evidence, they could prove that the eighth continent was real.

Tasman’s ships left New Zealand after a bloody encounter with the Māori people – but he believed that he had found the legendary southern continent (Credit: Alamy)

Still, the mission stalled – discovering a continent is tricky and expensive, and Mortimer points out that there was no urgency. Then in 1995, the American geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk again described the region as a continent and suggested calling it Zealandia. From there, Tulloch describes its discovery as an exponential curve.

Around the same time, the "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea" came into force, and finally provided some serious motivation. It states that countries can extend their legal territories beyond their Exclusive Economic Zone, which reaches 200 nautical miles (370km) out from their coastlines, to claim their "extended continental shelf" – with all the mineral riches and oil this encompasses.

If New Zealand could prove that it was part of a larger continent, it could increase its territory by six times. Suddenly there was an abundance of funding for trips to survey the area, and the evidence gradually built up. With every rock sample that was collected, the case for Zealandia improved.

The final flourish came from satellite data, which can be used to track tiny variations in the Earth's gravity across different parts of the crust to map the seafloor. With this technology, Zealandia is clearly visible as a misshapen mass almost as large as Australia. 

Satellite data can be used to visualise the continent of Zealandia, which appears as a pale blue upside-down triangle to the east of Australia (Credit: GNS Science)

When the continent was finally unveiled to the world, it unlocked one of the most sizeable maritime territories in the world. "It is kind of cool," says Mortimer, "If you think about it, every continent on the planet has different countries on it, [but] there are only three territories on Zealandia."

In addition to New Zealand, the continent encompasses the island of New Caledonia – a French colony famous for its dazzling lagoons – and the tiny Australian territories of Lord Howe Island and Ball's Pyramid. The latter was described by one 18th-Century explorer as appearing "not to be larger than a boat."

A mysterious stretching

Zealandia was originally part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, which was formed about 550 million years ago and essentially lumped together all the land in the southern hemisphere. It occupied a corner on the eastern side, where it bordered several others, including half of West Antarctica and all of eastern Australia.

Then around 105 million years ago, "due to a process which we don't completely understand yet, Zealandia started to be pulled away", says Tulloch.

Continental crust is usually around 40km deep – significantly thicker than oceanic crust, which tends to be around 10km. As it was strained, Zealandia ended up being stretched so much that its crust now only extends 20km (12.4 miles) down. Eventually, the wafter-thin continent sank – though not quite to the level of normal oceanic crust – and disappeared under the sea.

Despite being thin and submerged, geologists know that Zealandia is a continent because of the kinds of rocks found there. Continental crust tends to be made up of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks – like granite, schist and limestone, while the ocean floor is usually just made of igneous ones such as basalt.

When the supercontinent of Gondwana broke up, fragments drifted all across the globe. Many of its ancient plants still live in the Australian Dorrigo forest (Credit: Getty Images)

But there are still many unknowns. The unusual origins of the eighth continent make it particularly intriguing to geologists, and more than a little baffling. For example, it's still not clear how Zealandia managed to stay together when it's so thin and not disintegrate into tiny micro-continents.

Another mystery is exactly when Zealandia ended up underwater – and whether it has ever, in fact, consisted of dry land. The parts that are currently above sea level are ridges that formed as the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates crumpled together. Tulloch says opinion is split as to whether it was always submerged apart from a few small islands, or once entirely dry land.

This also raises the question of what lived there.

With its mild climate and 39 million-sq-mile (101 million-sq-km) range, Gondwana itself was home to a vast array of flora and fauna, including the first four-limbed land animals and later, an abundance of the largest to ever live – the titanosaurs. So, could the rocks of Zealandia be studded with their preserved remains?

A debate about dinosaurs

Fossilised land animals are rare in the southern hemisphere, but the remains of several were found in New Zealand in the 1990s, including the rib bone of a giant, long-tailed, long-necked dinosaur (a sauropod), a beaky herbivorous dinosaur (a hypsilophodont) and an armoured dinosaur (an ankylosaur). Then in 2006, the foot bone of a large carnivore, possibly a kind of allosaur, was discovered in the Chatham Islands, about 500 miles (800km) east of the South Island. Crucially, the fossils all date to after the continent of Zealandia split from Gondwana.

The elephant bird stood 3 m (9.8 ft) tall and fragments of its eggshells still litter beaches to this day (Credit: Alamy)

However, this doesn't necessarily mean there were dinosaurs roaming over the majority of Zealandia – these islands may have been sanctuaries while the rest was drowned, as it is now. "There's a long debate about this, about whether it's possible to have land animals without continuous land – and whether without it, they would have been snuffed out," says Sutherland.

The plot thickens with one of New Zealand's weirdest and most beloved inhabitants, the kiwi – a dumpy, flightless bird with whiskers and hair-like feathers. Oddly, its closest relative is not thought to be the Moa, which is part of the same group – the ratites – and lived on the same island until its extinction 500 years ago, but the even-more giant elephant bird, which stalked the forests of Madagascar until as recently as 800 years ago.

The finding has led scientists to believe that both birds evolved from a common ancestor that lived on Gondwana. It took 130 million years to fully break up, but when it did, it left behind fragments which have since been scattered all across the globe, forming South America, Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica, Australia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent, and Zealandia.

This, in turn, suggests that at least part of now-submerged Zealandia has remained above sea level the whole time. Except around 25 million years ago the entire continent – even possibly the entirety of New Zealand – is thought to have been plunged underwater. "It was thought that all the plants and animals must have colonised afterwards," says Sutherland. So what happened?

New Zealand is one of the highest points of Zealandia, after being pushed up by the movement of tectonic plates (Credit: Alamy)

Though it's not possible to collect fossils from the seafloor of Zealandia directly, scientists have been plumbing its depths by drilling. "Actually the most helpful and distinctive fossils are the ones which form in the very shallow seas," says Sutherland. "Because they leave a record – there are zillions and zillions of tiny, tiny little fossils that are very distinctive."

In 2017, a team undertook the most extensive surveys of the region so far, and drilled more than 4,101ft (1,250m) into the seabed at six different sites. The cores that they collected contained pollen from land plants, as well as spores and the shells of organisms that lived in warm, shallow seas. 

"If you have water, which is only you know, 10m (33ft) deep or something like this, then there's a good chance that there was land around as well," says Sutherland, who explains that the pollen and spores also hint at the possibility that Zealandia was not quite as submerged as was thought.

A (literal) twist

Another lingering mystery can be found in Zealandia's shape.

"If you look at a geological map of New Zealand, there are two things that really stand out," says Sutherland. One of these is Alpine Fault, a plate boundary that runs along the South Island and is so significant, it can be seen from space.

The red band of rock – the Median Batholith – should travel all the way down Zealandia in a diagonal line, but instead it has been twisted out of shape (Credit: GNS Science)

The second is that the geology of New Zealand – as well as that of the wider continent – is oddly bent. Both are split in two by a horizontal line, which is where the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates meet. At this exact point, it looks like someone has taken the lower half and twisted it away, so that not only do the previously-continuous ribbons of rock no longer line up, but they are almost at right angles.

An easy explanation for this is that the tectonic plates moved, and somehow deformed them out of shape. But exactly how or when this happened is still totally unresolved.

"There are various interpretations, but this is quite a large unknown thing," says Tulloch.

Sutherland explains that the continent is unlikely to give up all its secrets anytime soon. "It's quite hard to make discoveries, when everything is 2km (1.2 miles) underwater, and the layers that you need to sample are 500m (1,640ft) beneath the seabed as well," he says. "It's really challenging to go out and explore a continent like that. So, it just takes a lot of time, money and effort to go out and ships and survey regions."

If nothing else, the world's eighth continent surely shows that – nearly 400 years after Tasman's quest – there is still plenty to be discovered.

(Source: BBC)

Saturday 27 March 2021

Was Nur Jahan a scheming temptress or just an independent woman who historians couldn’t fathom?

 Whatever the truth, the impact this Persian refugee had on emperor Jahangir cannot be denied.

She was the 35-year-old widow of a man who had fallen out of favour with the Mughal emperor when she caught the eye of Jahangir. Within years, Mehr-un-Nisa, or Nur Jahan as she is known in history, rose to become the most powerful woman in the Mughal empire – coins were minted in her name, she enacted legislation, issued edicts, interacted with foreign traders and determined the empire’s policy.

But that is not the reason why I want to talk about her today, on Women’s Day. Nur Jahan saved the life and dignity of her husband – it is her bravery in this context that makes her my woman of the day.

Born in Kandahar to impoverished Persian parents fleeing Tehran in search for better opportunity in the Mughal empire, Mehr-un-Nisa grew up to be an extraordinarily beautiful and accomplished young girl. She was married at the age of 16 to Ali Quli Istajlu, who too was a refugee from Persia who had joined Khan-i-Khanan Abdur Rahim – a senior nobleman and poet popularly known as Rahim – in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Ali Quli later fought for Prince Salim (the future Jahangir) in a campaign against the Kingdom of Mewar and was awarded the title of Sher Afghan for his bravery. However, he fell out of favour with the prince after Salim rebelled against Akbar (the falling out had nothing to do with Mehr-un-Nisa). In 1605, after Akbar died, and Jahangir became emperor, he pardoned Ali Quli but transferred him far away, to Burdwan, in Bengal. Two years later, Ali Quli was killed in a fracas with Qutbuddin Khan, the Governor of Bengal.

The many romantic stories we hear of how the young Salim fell in love with Mehr-un-Nisa and eventually got Sher Afghan murdered, like many of its genre, are latter day fabrications that medieval Indian history expert Satish Chandra said serious historians do not accept.

Nur Jahan and Emperor Jahangir. Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper. Los Angles County Museum of Art | Photo courtesy: LCMA

Star of the harem

After Sher Afghan’s death, the young widow, and her daughter Ladli, were brought to Agra. Mehr-un-Nisa was made an attendant to Salima Sultana Begum, Akbar’s wife, and Jahangir’s stepmother. She lived in the Mughal harem for four years during which time she used her skill in embroidery and stitching to become a very popular designer for the Mughal ladies. She dressed very simply herself – mainly in whites – but fashioned brightly coloured brocades, tissues and silks for the ladies of the harem. Her designs were much sought after and often set the fashion trends. To her goes the credit for inventing the Dudámí (flowered muslin) for peshwáz (gowns open in the front), pánchtoliah for oṛhnís (a new design for veils), bádlah (embroidery with metal strips), kinárí (lace), and farsh-i-chandaní (white cloth for floor covering). She is also credited with designing gold ornaments with elegant new patterns.

In 1611, Jahangir happened to meet her at Meena Bazar – a new year fair started by Akbar in which the emperor was the only male present while noblewomen, princesses and other female members of the royal harem exhibited brocades, exquisite silks, fine muslins, bejeweled turbans and the like. Jahangir fell in love with her, proposed immediately, and they were married on May 25 of the same year. She was his 18th and last wife. Jahangir gave her the title of Nur Mahal or light of the palace and later Nur Jahan or light of the world. She was also given the title of Badshah Begum.

Poet and hunter

Mughal ladies were highly accomplished and studied art, literature, philosophy, and religious studies with learned tutors. 

Nur Jahan was no exception, but she was a brilliant conversationalist too. She composed Persian poems occasionally under the pen name of Makhfí, or the concealed one, a pseudonym also used by other female writers in the Mughal court like Salima Sultana Begum and Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunnisá Begum.

Mughal women were trained in basic warfare and knew how to use swords and other weapons. Nur Jahan was a crack shot, and often accompanied Jahangir on tiger hunts. In his memoirs, Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, the emperor described one such occasion in 1619:

My huntsmen reported to me that there was in the neighbourhood (of Mathurá) a tiger, which greatly distressed the inhabitants. I ordered his retreat to be closely surrounded with a number of elephants. Towards evening I and my attendants mounted and went out. As I had made a vow not to kill any animal with my own hands, I told Núr Jahán to fire my musket. The smell of the tiger made the elephant very restless, and he would not stand still, and to take good aim from a howda is a very difficult feat. Mírza Rustam, who after me has no equal as a marksman, has fired three or four shots from an elephant's back without effect. Núr Jahán, however, killed this tiger with the first shot.

He described another occasion in which she killed four tigers with six shots:

She shot two tigers with one shot each and knocked over the two others with four shots. In the twinkling of an eye she deprived of life the bodies of these four tigers. As a reward for this good shooting I gave her a pair of bracelets of diamonds worth 100,000 rupees and scattered 1,000 ashrafis over her. 

Nur Jahan had a refined cultural taste and ably assisted Jahangir in his pursuit of art and painting. Her mother, Asmat Begum, had discovered attar or essence of roses, but the credit of distilling and popularising it goes to her. Apart from this, she took care of orphans, especially girls, and is estimated to have arranged the marriages of, or provided for, five hundred such girls.

She was a great patron of architecture too, and built many beautiful palaces, gardens and mosques. The tomb she built for her father Mirza Ghias Beg (who was later given the title Itimad-ud-Daula or pillar of the state by the emperor) in Agra is one of the most exquisite examples of Indo-Persian architecture, and provided inspiration for the Taj Mahal. She also built the Pathhar Masjid mosque at Srinagar.

An emperor besotted

It has been implied that Nur Jahan’s dominant role during Jahangir’s reign led to rebellion and disaffection amongst nobles especially with his third son Prince Khurram or Shah Jahan. While some historians have painted her as an ambitious, scheming temptress who took advantage of Jahangir’s love for wine and opium to take over the reins of the empire, others like professor Satish Chandra have argued that the prejudice against Nur Jahan possibly reflected “the deep-seated anti-feminist bias of many contemporary historians which has often been repeated uncritically” by others.

However, her impact on Jahangir’s life can’t be denied. In his memoirs, the emperor said:

“Before I married her, I never knew what marriage really meant… She gradually reduced the quantity of wine I took, and guarded me against unsuitable food and improper things".

When Jahangir fell sick, which he did often in the latter part of his reign, Nur Jahan monitored his health and took over the reins of government with his permission. Except for the khuṭbah (prayer for the reigning monarch), she possessed all the privileges of a ruler. Farmans or edicts were issued in her name and grants were conferred under her seal. From 1623-27 AD coins were also struck in her name bearing the words:

Ba hukm Shah e Jahangir yaft sad zewar (front)

By order of the King Jahángír, gold has a hundred splendours added to it

Za naam e Nur Jahan Badshah Begum zar (on reverse)

By receiving the impression of the name of Núr Jahán, the Queen Begum.

She is the only Mughal woman in whose name coins were struck. She would even appear with Jahangir for jharokha darshan, a tradition that Akbar started in which the emperor would show himself at the window after dawn prayers every day to give the common people an audience.

Her father and brother rose to be important nobles during the reign of Jahangir but it was primarily because of their own abilities. As Jahangir said in his memoirs:

"… On the basis of seniority in service, extent of sincerity and experience in the affairs of government, I exalted Itimad-ud-Daula to the high post of Wizarat of the Dominion". 

Indian historian Prof Nurul Hasan pointed out that the rise of Itimad-ud-Daula and his family took place after 1616 when Nur Jahan was not so active in politics. She only stepped into the limelight in 1622 when Jahangir’s health was failing, his son Shah Jahan was in open rebellion, and her father was no longer alive to guide affairs. Ambitious nobles tried to take advantage of this situation but they underestimated her grit.

Woman in battle

In 1626, the emperor was weakened by ill health and Nur Jahan appointed as prime minister, her brother Asaf Khan. An important courtier and Mughal general Mahabat Khan felt slighted. He was considered a potential threat by some sections. Perhaps to put him in his place, Mahabat Khan was asked to render accounts, and to surrender war elephants he had captured during a campaign. A troop of soldiers was sent to escort him to court. But instead of meekly accompanying them, he came with a trusted body of Rajput warriors and seized the emperor as the royal camp was crossing the river Jhelum on its way to Kabul.

Mutamad Khan, the author of Iqbalnama-e-Jahangiri, who was present there, wrote:

After Núr Jahán had crossed the river, and reached the house of her brother, she summoned all the chief nobles, and addressed them in reproachful terms. “This,” she said, “has all happened through your neglect and stupid arrangements. What never entered into the imagination of any one has come to pass, and now you stand stricken with shame for your conduct before God and man. You must do your best to repair this evil, and advise what course to pursue.”

Nur Jahan joined the battle that ensued to release Jahangir from Mahabat Khan’s clutches. Despite a tactical disadvantage, the superior force of the enemy, the deep gushing water and severe injuries to her elephant, she kept shooting arrows at the enemy. But though she fought bravely, attempts to rescue the emperor proved fruitless.

She returned to Lahore and thought of other ways to rescue Jahangir. She had realised by then that she was powerless while separated from the emperor as both their lives were in danger. On Jahangir’s invitation, she joined him in Kabul. Mahabat Khan was now at ease as the emperor was reconciled with him, but Nur Jahan was planning their escape.

Said Mutamad Khan, in the Iqbalnama-e-Jahangiri:

Núr Jahán Begam worked against him both in private and in public. She maintained a number of followers, and attached them to herself by money and promises.

Within six months, taking advantage of Mahabat Khan’s weaknesses, Nur Jahan was able to wean away most of the nobles from his side. Realising that his position was precarious, Mahabat Khan fled from the court and later joined Shah Jahan who was biding his time till he ascended the throne. Nur Jahan’s sharp intellect, cool head and courage led her to her greatest victory, the defeat of Mahabat Khan. However, her triumph was short-lived as Jahangir died soon after in Lahore. The year was 1627.

Nur Jahan gracefully retired from public life once Shah Jahan became emperor, and died in Lahore in 1645. She was 72. She was buried in a red sandstone tomb she had built for herself in Shahadra Bagh, Lahore, a short walk away from her husband's last resting place.

(Source: Scroll)