Mysore during this week has attracted thousands of awestruck visitors to watch the famous Dasara procession. A palanquin which is a litter of gold for the idol of the City’s deity is carried by elephants. Tribes in and around Mysore gather to celebrate folklore, a harvest festival and the fall of a demon King.
As a Mysore lad, I had the privilege of participating in this traditional, century old procession on two occasions. The joy of being a part of a gang in the midst of a victorious trance; a trance that can keep you performing all day long and across the length of this grand old city, basking under the attention of thousands. As I go back and sit amidst that rapt tourist gallery, and now watch another young performer in the great swarm of humans, just like an individual ant that is quite insignificant in the colonial processions that crawl by; looking like legion after legion of wonderment.
For an individual ant, it is indeed a participative trance, collectively as a social animal, the task is to make a successful procession. Living a thousand miles from Mysore in Satpura today, I haven’t missed a dab of the festive moment when I stumbled upon a procession that has a long history that stretches over millennia.
Our deity here is a golden coloured caterpillar of an uncommon butterfly on an Arjuna tree. The Large Oakblue (Arhopala amantes) butterfly is always exciting for a naturalist in any of its metamorphic stages. The peak of excitement however, is to find its caterpillar or even better its pupa! I bet it is much more sacred than the Goddess of Mysore, as very few have ever gotten a darshan of the elusive caterpillar!
These arboreal tree ants in their trance have an incredibly painful weapon that can even ward off an enthusiastic Sloth Bear. At times people taking a break under the ant’s host tree which are blissfully shaded can also invite an uncalled war. The Legions march down or drop from the canopy launching a guerrilla. How can they be this partial to a caterpillar that feeds on the leaves of their own host tree? That is a ridiculous bias. But then its Bribery! The caterpillar has several glands across its segments that offer a special secretion for the arboreal Weaver ant (Oecophylla sp).
The extent of devotion that these ants go to in their trance is this, they keep guard by holding the leaves while the caterpillar feeds. And take this palanquin back to their nest until it completes pupation and emerges as an adult Large Oakblue.
Coincidentally, I have observed Weaver ant nests on a few species of trees that the Large Oakblue considers hosts. Jamun, Arjuna, Saaj and Sal in Central India and Almonds in South India are often the guerrilla fortresses of the Weavers and the not-so-evident Oakblue caterpillar nibbles away in its palanquin. Who came up with this amazing natural association? Ants have given in to the treat that the caterpillar offers and the caterpillar in return enjoys a formidable infantry’s protection, but the tree? I looked up for what these trees have in common; if it is the leaf structure, it’s chemicals or is it their habitat? One paper says that trees related to Almonds and Jamun produce a metabolite called tannin all over the plant body to deter herbivorous mammals and insects. However a few insects have developed physiological defences to tolerate tannin that the trees kicks in. So will this metamorphic relationship of ants-caterpillars check the tannin levels through such a detox exercise?
Many lepidopterist are as awestruck as the tourists of Mysore Dasara to watch and observe what goes on when the Large Oakblue is out on its procession with the legions of the Weaver tribes-women who carry this ancient procession and ascend the caterpillar to the throne of the ant’s fort.
It is a wonder when humans, who are generally comfortable in large groups decide to leave the bustling cities and come to random remote corners of the world. Here at Forsyth, I have met an eclectic collection of people; people who I would normally never have met or interacted with in the “real” world. These people have over the course of just over 2 weeks, become my family, my anchors to the here and now, the intangible feeling that we all collectively and individually possess when we wake up and feel the warm humid breeze on our face, with the excitement we feel just to be here in this moment, under the blazing sun or the warm twilight, with the birds chirping, the critters that skitter across our paths, the dragonflies and butterflies that flutter around and around the tall trees, the beautiful flowers and the winding creepers. We all exist to feel this peace that we can find only when we are here in this collective solitude. Souls that have wandered, lost and found or fought their way back to their happy place.
The love that everyone has for different things is infectious, and it is here that I learnt to look closely at all the different tiny things that make up our big world. From Animesh I learnt the minute little differences in the colours, patters and markings that make each dragonfly species different from the other. Vineith taught me how to seamlessly weave stories that are engaging and exciting while still being completely based in facts and logic. He showed me that being kind is an art, that it is not always important to be right. Deepanker is the big bundle of joy who holds this entire place together and works like a horse to keep this show running while caring about this mix of people that somehow fit together. Then there is Krishna and his kitchen team who can make miracles out of the most basic and local ingredients. Raju and Jeethu are the wonderful smiling souls because of who our days are filled with smiles, they will answer whatever request however arbitrary or stupid with the politest of words and the humblest of smiles.
Despite all of the crazy that we are individually, we are also all crazy about the same things, like looking for the yellow footed green pigeons that Sidhanth and Asim hadn’t seen before, the excitement of showing what could be considered a very regular bird is the same as if it was the rarest of birds. The fact that someone wants to see something becomes a shared passion and even Krishna once stumbled upon a scorpion that he made sure that everyone got a good look at! It’s not just the naturalists here who have this all encompassing love for all things wild and beautiful. The locals here trust that even if a snake has bitten someone, it still has a right to live and the first instinct is to call people who can capture and relocate the snake. They trust that everything has its own place in the world.
The people here have unfailingly with each kind word and effort to improve me as a person, made sure that I feel loved and protected. With each wonderful constructive criticism, I have grown into a gentler version of myself I didn’t know could ever exist. There is a certain calmness in me now that I feel like I was searching for all my life. This place can be as easy or challenging as you want it to be. You can grow into your dreams and aspirations or settle into a calm and unruffled life. The thing I think makes this place feel like a home is that, each person here will unfailing and unselfishly try their best to bring you back to yourself if they think you are veering off. Even if one day you doubt your self worth, someone is there to remind you that you are amazing and to pull your head out of the dirt, shake it off and move on.
This place that was a complete blank for me as a landscape has made me feel welcome and invited. So much so that l can no longer quite feel the distinct blank that existed in my soul is as dark as it was earlier.