Messengers to the Goddess
by Srinjay Chakravarti
It was a bright clear day in autumn and wisps of white fluffy clouds floated in a transparently blue sky, white like the kash flowers in the fields. It was the season of Durga Puja, the autumn festival of the Mother Goddess.

Mr Pal was painting a pair of model clay birds with blue paint. They were brilliantly plumaged, and beautiful works of art. Adrija came into his studio.

“Grandpa, what are you doing today?” The little girl loved to watch her grandfather work on his clay, terracotta and marble sculptures. He was an artist and his studio was right next to his house.

Adrija was seven years old and lived in New York with her parents. She had come to Kolkata for the Durga Puja festivities.

“These are clay models of Neelkantha birds. The organisers of our local Puja have requested me to make these birds and so I am making these models.”

“What are Neelkanthas?”

“They are a kind of beautiful blue birds called rollers. They are found in India’s forests and jungles—or, rather, I should say that they used to be found there.”

Adrija thought this over for a while. “Why are you making clay models of the birds?”

“Neelkanthas are used in the worship of the Mother Goddess. There are very few of them left in the wild now, which is why we have to use replicas made from the mud on the banks of rivers. Brahmin priests drop these clay models into rivers and lakes during the Pujas.”

“Why are there very few left in the wild, Grandpa?”

Mr Pal sighed. “They have been hunted through the centuries by kings and princes, and now they are almost extinct. The birds were snared and kept in cages by hunters. Now even fledglings can hardly be found. When taken from their nests, the chicks die very soon, and grown-up rollers have all but vanished from the hills and forests. It is forbidden by law to capture or sell rollers—if anyone catches these birds now, he will go to jail.”

He paused, then went on. “Earlier, just before the Durga Puja festival was about to end, priests used to release two of the Neelkantha birds into the freedom of the sky, within hours of each other. The first would carry the message on its wings to Lord Shiva that His consort had just left Her pandals and temples. The other was freed when the idols of Ma Parvati were immersed in rivers, ponds or lakes—to tell Lord Shiva to prepare for Her return to Mount Kailash. The Divine Mother of the Universe is returning from the plains of Bengal to the frozen mountain peaks of the Himalayas in Tibet.”

He picked up one of the lovely clay birds. “Now we have to make do with these models, and we drop these from boats in the water. And the Neelkanthas take their messages all the way to Lord Neelkantha Himself!”

“What does that mean? Who is Lord Neelkantha?”

“Neelkantha is another name for Lord Shiva, the immortal god whose throat turned blue after he drank a terrible poison to save the world.”

“Why did he drink poison?” Adrija was astounded. “And he didn’t die even after drinking it?”

Her grandfather smiled, stroking his white beard. “It’s a rather long story, a very old legend. Once all the gods and demons were churning the ocean to get the nectar which gives immortality. But first this poison, named kalkut, came out of the waters. No one could bear its heat! Only Lord Shiva could drink it all up, and even He passed out. His throat turned a deep shade of blue from the poison—that is why the name Neelkantha, which means He-with-the-Blue-Throat. These birds, too, have blue throats; that is why the rollers are called Neelkanthas as well.”

Adrija was listening wide-eyed to all this. She digested what her grandfather had said, then blurted out, “When the birds used to be released into the sky, did they fly all the way to the Himalayas?”

“That I don’t know!” Grandpa shook his head, smiling. “But nowadays, since there are very few blue rollers left, we have to immerse the clay models in water to tell Lord Shiva that Ma Uma is returning to Him. And that is why I’m painting these birds.”

“But these are not real birds. They are only make-believe!” exclaimed Adrija.

“No, it is not exactly like that. When your father is not at home, when he goes out on tours, you look at his photograph, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do that.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Because—because—I like doing it! It reminds me of him…”

“That is why we make clay models of Mother Durga and paint them and decorate them so beautifully. The images remind us of the real Goddess.” He went on, “In just the same way, the clay replicas represent the real birds!”

“But wouldn’t it be better to use actual birds, real living birds, instead of these blue models?” Adrija asked.

“Yes, of course,” her grandfather nodded. “But, as I said, the rate at which the forests are disappearing is alarming, and blue rollers can hardly be found any more. The survival of countless other birds and animals is also very much threatened.”

“What will happen if forests disappear altogether?” she asked, her eyes wide.

“Our very lives will be in danger. The whole planet will be at great risk.”

“When we can’t see Ma Durga, we make clay idols and worship them. When we can’t find live birds, we make clay models and use them,” she said, more to herself. “But—” she turned to her grandfather— “can we make models of forests and jungles? Would that be the same thing?”

“No, of course not. If trees are cut down they can’t be replaced at once, and it takes a long time for new trees to grow.”

“We grown-ups have been destroying the world around us, the forests, mountains, rivers and lakes—cutting down trees, polluting waters, dumping garbage all around. We have been taking away sand and stones from hills and river beds for building houses and factories. We are destroying the environment, damaging the planet’s ecology—”

“What is ecology?” asked Adrija.

Her grandfather paused for a moment. “It is—it is—the nature we have all around us. Trees, forests, jungles, birds and animals, mountains and rivers, fields and ponds. It is the environment we live in, our very world. And it is slowly being destroyed.”

“Can’t we do anything about it?’ Adrija asked, her voice tremulous. Then she asked, “Can’t I do something to help?”

“Well, you are too young right now. But I’m sure that when you grow up, you and your friends will certainly make our world a better place for us to live in—not just for human beings, but for trees and animals and birds as well. We can all make a difference, there are many things we can do to make Mother Earth happy. In the meantime, we can only pray to Ma Durga that our forests and rivers and mountains are not destroyed, that these don’t turn into deserts.”

Adrija looked downcast. Suddenly her face lit up. “I know what to do! When I pray during the Puja this time, I shall send a message to Ma Durga!”

“What message will you send Her, Adrija?”

“I will pray to Her so that once again forests can grow on earth and that more birds and animals live in the forests. Then there will be more Neelkantha birds and we will be able to send real blue rollers to Lord Shiva and Ma Durga with our prayers and messages, not these make-believe ones!”