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Totems of Worship

Sumathi Sudhakar

By Nanditha Krishna
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2010, pp. 274, Rs. 299.00

By Kamala Mukunda
HarperCollins, Delhi, 2009, Rs. 199.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 11 November 2010

From the bumblebee to the snow leopard, the praying mantis to the rhinoceros, many animals are venerated as gods, demi-gods or sacred mounts in India. Different animals have been elevated to the status of divine animals at different times and for different reasons. For some, it was their ecological or social use that rendered them sacred to the people co-habiting their environment. For others, the animals symbolized qualities honoured, admired or reviled. Sometimes the totems of a defeated or victorious tribe got a social lift after a battle. Whatever the reasons for the deification, the process has helped to protect several animal species in India. These are some of the issues discussed in the informative introductory essay to Sacred Animals of India by Dr. Nanditha Krishna of C.P. Ramaswami Iyer Foundation, Chennai. Sacred Animals of India is a scholarly encyclopedic compilation of references to animals that are venerated or protected in India. Drawing from history, Indology, mythology, Indian religious traditions, ecology and an understanding of environment, the book successfully traces the course of the complex human-animal relationship in Indian history, from pre-historic times to the ineffective enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act in modern times. The book, written in simple, straightforward language, treats the complex subject with the confidence that is born out of meticulous and thorough research and strong convictions. The book moves through an introductory essay that traces the changing attitude of Indians towards the animals in their world and its manifestations in art, literature, folklore and religion. The introduction is followed by an impressive listing of every animal and bird that has found mention in the myths of the Indian religious traditions—Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. Every animal entry consists of its scientific name, common names in English, Hindi, Tamil and Sanskrit, its distribution, references to it in holy books and folklore, stories centred around it and its current status. The book ends by listing animals venerated in other ancient civilizations and a long and impressive bibliography. Tribal lore, folklore, ancient scriptures, traditional tales, history, scriptural texts, cave paintings—no source seems to have been left uncombed in the effort to chronicle the history and progress of the Indian’s attitude towards animals. Insightful and engaging to read, the book occasionally strikes a strident note and betrays the sympathies of the writer, by moving out of the realm of reference-based conclusions to simplistic opinion. Speaking of ...

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