Out of India: Sacred eagles are a flight of fancy

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MAMALLAPURAM - This is a story of how a village in southern India secretly kept the miracle of two white eagles going long after the miracle had ended. Calling it a miracle might be too strong. Let's say a natural phenomenon. But even as far as natural phenomema go, it was quite extraordinary.

I had read that every afternoon for the last thousand years or so, two white eagles spiral down from the clouds and land on a stony hill where they are fed rice out a large brass bowl by a Hindu priest or pundit. Once the birds have eaten and flown away, the leftover rice is distributed, grain by grain, to hordes of pilgrims gathered on the hill.

The hill is 16 miles from Mamallapuram, a coastal town in southern India famed for its stone-cutters and an eccentric US naturalist named Romulus Whittaker, who looks like Buffalo Bill Cody, with a droopy moustache and long, curly white hair. Cobras and crocodiles are his speciality (he eats crocodile egg custards) but I asked him where these eagles might come from and where they go after eating.

'They're not eagles. They're a shit-eating vulture known as the Pharaoh's chicken,' he replied. This was my first disappointment, but it explained why these eagles/vultures/chickens would bother turning up for plain rice.

The town was like scores of other southern Indian temple towns: a ceremonial pond under tall palmyras, an elephant restless in its chains, and scores of vendors squatting in the dusk selling the latest fashion accessories for the devout Hindu. Amid the brass incense burners, the astrological charts, coconuts, marigolds, and white sugary pebbles that were offerings to sweet-toothed gods, I found a ragged postcard of the birds. The pair certainly lacked majesty. They looked hunched and vulturish like two lab- coated morticians.

It was one of those pre- monsoon days in which you are mugged by the heat. The entire hill was considered sacred ground, and visitors to the eagle puja ceremony had to walk up barefoot. Two men approached me with a large bamboo basket slung on a long pole and asked me if I wanted to ride up. 'Don't,' hissed my friend. 'It's only for old women and cripples.' So, sadly I turned them down. The porters were relieved and threw themselves vigourously on the ground and began to snooze in the shade. There were more than 300 steps carved into the hillside, and every step was skillet-hot on my bare feet.

I reached the eagle boulder at the same time the priest did. He carried a book, the bowl of rice, a parasol and a wooden board. He squatted, feet flat, on the board. Then he opened his parasol, and began chanting from his book, glancing skywards for the missing eagles.

This lasted for more than two hours. A single Brahminy kite swooped low over the rice bowl, out of curiosity, but then went off in search of more carnivorous fare. A troop of monkeys swung on to the boulder, but the priest glared and rustled his umbrella and the monkeys withdrew. Then, his work shift done, the priest collected his belongings and the unpecked rice and was returning to his temple.

'What happened? Why didn't they appear?' I asked him. 'Ah. Tomorrow, maybe, eagles are coming,' said the old priest smiling. He nodded good- bye quickly. 'And when were the eagles last here?' I called after him. 'Yesterday. So sorry. Your bad luck today.'

A young man in his twenties approached introduced himself as a civil servant, an educated man.

'It's the pundit's fault, you know,' he said. 'That's why the eagles are not coming.' 'But they flew in yesterday,' I said. He threw his head back and laughed derisively. 'It is a big lie. For many years the eagles are not coming. It is because the pundit is all the time drunk. The eagles, they are knowing this, I think, by the smell.'

Four years ago, the 'eagles' flew away one day and disappeared. Nobody knows why they never returned, whether it was because the sozzled pundit lost his purity or because they were zapped by a high- voltage wire on their way to a low-calorie, rice lunch.

Many of the townfolks lived off the visiting pilgrims, and everyone had an interest in keeping the eagle myth alive. But isn't it wrong to lie? I asked my taxi driver.

He shrugged and answered: 'What harm does it do if they believe? Maybe one day the eagles will come back.' I didn't want to tell him they were only vultures, anyway.