Indians are an insular lot. They do not know much about the world beyond South Asia. When it comes to literature, history or culture, they are literally frogs in the well. If you ask the average Hindu a few questions about Gautama Buddha, Vardhamana Mahavira, Guru Nanak, Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammad, they would draw blank faces. For the vast majority, history, mythology and folklore are no more than what was compiled by Brahmin priests in the Vedas, Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Often, there is no distinction between the three. On the other hand, religious minorities (Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs) are exposed to a great deal of Hindu literature (in textbooks, serials, news, films) and have a superior grasp of South Asian culture.

The same principle applies to awareness of the British contribution to India’s heritage. The British did a lot of unpleasant things like all conquerors. But they also changed the land and its people in more ways than one. The best example would be the tireless efforts of British archaeologists to dig up and record for posterity, the ancient ruins of Harappan civilization and Buddhist culture (which were either unknown to Brahmin scholars or had been all but forgotten). Another aspect I would cite, solely on the basis of my analysis, is the British appreciation for South Asia’s wildlife. Indian jungles and European hunting parties were standard tropes in the literature of the Raj (one of whose greatest exponents was Rudyard Kipling).

Wildlife does figure in the Jataka Tales, Hindu epics, and Mughal paintings. But not in the way it does in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’, Kenneth Anderson’s ‘Tales from the Indian Jungle’ or Jim Corbett’s ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’. Only the Adivasis of South Asia have jungle lore exceeding the British output. Unfortunately, it has either been lost or lies ignored. I grew up watching ‘The Jungle Book’ (a Japanese anime version broadcast on India’s public service network – Doordarshan). Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan are names that will linger in my imagination forever, irrespective of the passage of time. Only a few days back, while surfing the internet, I ran into a piece of information that brought those childhood memories rushing back.

The news was about a most unusual spider from Central America, the only one known to scientists till date, that feeds on the Beltian bodies (buds rich in protein and sugar) of a species of acacia. This makes them herbivores (instead of obligate carnivores like their cousins). But it is the name that the discoverers (the American couple, George and Elizabeth Peckham, who specialized in entomology) gave to the critter that stands out – Bagheera kiplingi. It doesn’t take much to realize that the genus (Bagheera) and species (kiplingi) names are inspired by ‘The Jungle Book’. As if to dismiss any lingering doubts with regard to the etymology, they named another three genera of the family Salticidae after characters from Kipling’s masterpiece. Here’s the roll call:

  1. Bagheera (after the black leopard, Bagheera)
  2. Akela (after the solitary wolf, Akela)
  3. Messua (after the village woman, Messua)
  4. Nagaina (after the female cobra, Nagaina)

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and depicts a stamp issued by Russia in 2012, commemorating the animated Soviet feature length series ‘Maugli’ (between 1967-1971), based on ‘The Jungle Book’.

Reference:

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. Live Science