In last week’s columns, I delved on the pride of the pedestal occupied by gyrfalcons in the statecraft of emperors and presidents. The most beautiful of predators roves the high Arctic, is the largest of the globe’s true falcons and the speediest among falcons when flying a straight line. Fighter and bomber pilots instinctively nurture a fascination for falcons, evolution’s emperors of the high skies. The global success of the aptly named F16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ of General Dynamics obliquely reflects that falcon mania.
Natural history and that of war finds a strange confluence in the guise of the ‘fair and lovely’ gyrfalcon. As the dark clouds of World War II engulfed Europe in the 1940s, the battling air chiefs of the Nazi Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, and the British RAF, Sir Charles Portal, shared a common trait: both were keen falconers. Goering, who was later daubed with the peerage of an exceptionally notorious personage of war history and a convicted war criminal, was besotted with Gyrfalcons in his heydays. In 1938, Goering dispatched the Herdemerten expedition to Greenland to procure white Gyrfalcons – befitting a supremacist Aryan race – for release in the German Alps.
Goering’s motives were insightfully explained by Scottish author Helen Macdonald in her book, Falcon: “He was convinced that this (gyrfalcon) must have had its ancestral home in Germany. The ideological underpinnings of this ecological introduction are, to say the least, uncomfortable, and Renz Waller’s portrait of Goering’s own white gyrfalcon bathed in mountain sunlight is disturbingly true of the artistic conventions of National Socialist portraiture.”
Cheetah, spot the difference
Hardly had the dust and ruffled feathers settled following the release of African cheetahs in India that confusion just got confounded. I received a query from Lt Gen Konsam Himalay Singh (retd), a distinguished soldier and ex-chairperson, Manipur Public Service Commission. The good and learned soldier wondered aloud: it was boring, what was new – he had seen numerous big cats, described by locals as ‘cheetahs’, during his tenures in the LoC jungles!
The roots of the misnomer lay in the description of a leopard as a ‘cheetah’ in certain vernacular regions. Apart from being known distinctly as tendua or baghera, the leopard is more accurately and vividly named ‘guldar’ or ‘phooldar’ in some vernaculars, deriving from its rosette-shaped markings in contrast to the cheetah’s rather plain spots. A Muslim tradition even named the Cheetah as ‘laggar’ owing to the cheetah’s extraordinary speed simulative of raptors such as the laggar falcon. British India stirred the melting pot of cultural mixes and confusions by naming the cheetah as a ‘hunting-leopard’ or ‘dog-leopard’ to distinguish it from the leopard for the benefit of European readers. A parallel misnomer – illustrative of different vernaculars branding different species with the same name – is the leopard being called a standalone, ‘baagh’, while it is actually a tiger-fit.
The common English and vernacular name, cheetah, is rooted in Sanskrit. “The name chītā / chittā is a derivative of the Sanskrit name, chītrak, and denotes a spot, speck, mark, stain, blotch, freckle etc. Thus, literally speaking, cheetah means someone with spots (and this north Indian name is preferred globally for the fast cat). A spotted deer is known as chītal / cheetal. Chitrāng or just chitti refers to a speckled species of snake. Spotted dove is chitrokha / chittidar fakhta, chitra-paksh kapot in Hindi, chhite ghughu in Bengali and chitli ghuggi (Punjabi). Spotted Owlet is chittidar chugad in Hindi and chitra ullu (Punjabi). Chitla kilkila is the name for a pied kingfisher from Madhya Pradesh and chitla machhi-khaṇa (Punjabi). Yellow-crowned woodpecker, with white spots on a black back, is called chitla katkola in central India while the heart-spotted woodpecker is chittidar kathfoda in Hindi,” explained Mohali-based Prof. Gurpartap Singh.