Their names, the stories behind their origin, their interesting feeding habits, and their struggle to survive – Gangadharan Menon talks about butterflies, the most beautiful and fragile inhabitants of our planet.
There is an interesting story about how butterflies were born. Brahma, the creator, had a celestial garden and since he himself was the creator, he could handpick plants for it. So obviously he had the choicest flowering plants right in front of his unbelieving eyes. He had grown to like this private garden and used to spend several hours there.
Everything was going well until one day when he went off to sleep. A few millennia must have passed by that night because one wink by Brahma is equal to a thousand years. He woke up in the morning, did his ablutions as all humans do, and went for a stroll in the garden. To his dismay, he found that his celestial garden was completely defoliated and destroyed. Only skeletons of stems stood there in mute testimony.
His eyes scanned the length and breadth of the garden and finally settled on a caterpillar that was trying to hide its guilty face behind a bare stem.
Brahma knew instantly that the caterpillar, with its voracious appetite, had devoured his entire garden. Shivering with anger, he cursed the caterpillar that it would never be able to eat again, not even a tiny shoot. The caterpillar trembled like a leaf at the enormity of the curse. Won’t be able to eat ever again – what a terrible predicament! It went down on its hundred legs and asked for mercy. Brahma took pity but said, “Like words, curses can’t be taken back.” So he modified the curse and said that since the caterpillar could not eat anymore, it would become a pupa and live without eating. But when it emerged from the pupa, it would be transformed from an ugly caterpillar to the most beautiful creature on earth: a butterfly!
What an imaginative story about the amazing metamorphosis: egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly.
In other cultures too, the butterfly holds many mystical meanings. In Greek culture, the word for butterfly is psyche, which means soul. And it’s believed that butterflies are stunning incarnations of the souls of human beings. Mexicans too believe that butterflies are souls returning to visit the living because a butterfly called the Monarch migrates all the way to Mexico and manages to reach there just in time for the Day of the Dead.
But how was ‘butterfly, this peculiar name for the most symmetrically beautiful creature of all living things, coined? Butter that flies? Yes, that’s precisely how the name came about.
An Englishman looking lazily out of his English home one balmy afternoon, saw some delicate yellow things fluttering by his window. As he was yet to have his lunch, all he could think of was food. He exclaimed, “Look at those butter-like things flying past the window!” And his friends, equally unimaginative, said, “Yes, yes! Butter flies!” The species of yellow butterflies that he spotted are called Brimstone butterflies and they exist even today in the Himalayas.
The words for butterfly in various other languages are beautiful and even musical. Titli in Hindi, Chitrashalabham in Malayalam, Hutieh in Chinese, Psyche in Greek, and Dushichka in Russian.
If someone said to us that butterflies are also insects, we would shake our heads in sheer disbelief and say, “Can’t be, they’re so beautiful!” The moment one utters the word insect, one’s senses are filled with images of dark creatures of the night. Actually, this image is that of the quintessential moth. But the biological truth is that over a 100 million years, the moth has evolved into the exquisite butterfly. If I were to designate an animal to be at the pinnacle of evolution, I would displace man/woman from his/her pedestal, and replace him/her with the butterfly!
There are 20,000 species of this epitome of beauty in the world. Fifteen hundred of them flutter about in India and 150 of them in amchi Mumbai. They come in all shapes, designs and colours. The variations are as if God looked through a celestial kaleidoscope of a million colours and designs, and created one with every turn. But the interest in the observation of butterflies seems to be very nascent. The reason for my belief is that unlike the common names of plants and birds that have diversity and uniqueness, the common names for butterflies are very ad hoc, thought-of-in-a-hurry kind of names. And often borrowed from everyday life.
Sample this: there are butterflies with names like Sailor, Commander and Sergeant; Peacock and Common Crow; Leopard and Tiger; Baron, Nawab and Raja!
The credit for the observation and the recording of their features, lifestyle and habitats should surely go to those English gentlemen who descended from the one who saw ‘butter-like things fly’! My personal interest in these wonderful creatures was kindled by a book written by the well-known naturalist, Isaac Kehimkar. Armed with this book, I explored Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where I learned the rudimentary steps of what Isaac himself calls ‘butterflying’! And a few days after my first sojourn, I discovered that they exist in my own backyard, in my garden, and among the potted plants on my terrace.
I observed that they get attracted to certain plants – one set of plants when they are caterpillars and another set when they grow up into butterflies. Plants like lantana, periwinkle, marigold, petunia and primrose; and trees like custard apple, lime, cinnamon, banyan, gulmohar, laburnum and tamarind. In short, you can actually bring butterflies into your neighbourhood by planting these very plants and trees to attract them.
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I also learned about how one species of butterflies actually helps the entire butterfly fraternity.
There’s a species called Tiger butterflies. As a caterpillar, it feeds on a plant called calotropis that is so poisonous that its milky extract can kill a human being. But the caterpillar consumes this poison in such minute quantities that it is not killed in the bargain. On the contrary, it carries this poison into its next stage of pupa and into its life as a butterfly. This poison then becomes its first line of defence. So, when a bird, attracted by its vibrant colours, once preyed on the Tiger butterfly, it dropped down dead the very next instant. This information spread like wildfire across the avian species. Today, whenever a bird sees a butterfly with vibrant colours, it avoids it like the plague! This concept of ingesting poison in such a slow manner that it doesn’t affect the self but is lethal to others, is called Satmyam in the Indian ethos. It’s the way in which the Vishakanyas or Poison Damsels kill mortals with their lethal kisses!
Apart from the sheer visual threat of colours, there are other ways that fragile butterflies use to ward off their predators. As caterpillars, they take on the colours and shapes of deadly snakes and sometimes even strike serpent-like poses with their tiny bodies. Some butterflies have designs on their wings that look like evil eyes staring at their predators without batting an eyelid.
In spite of this, butterflies are chased by predators and often the two halves of perfection lose their balance as tips of their wings get bitten off. This probably explains the unpredictable paths of their flight. Whereas all birds fly in a straight line, a butterfly flies in a very flitting and haphazard manner – almost as if to disguise its flight path. Unlike birds, they are late risers too. They begin their day an hour after sunrise, in the most lethargic manner. As their engines get their quota of solar power, they gather momentum. And even their colours get their stunning hues only when lit up by the rays of the sun. The best time to stalk and photograph butterflies is in these hours of the morning. If you hold your breath, you may be lucky enough to get some breathtaking pictures.
Even if you don’t get actual photographs, you would have clicked those pictures mentally and stored them in the hard disk of your sub-conscious, only to be deleted at the time of your last breath.
The visions of the Southern Birdwing, the largest butterfly in India, as it flitted across the ever-green canopy of Silent Valley; the Tree Nymphs as they glided in the dark interiors of the Parambikulam forest; and the Atlas Moth, the largest moth in India, as it rested on a hot afternoon in the cool foliage of Sanjay Gandhi National Park – these are not images that I have captured for posterity on my camera. But they are personal visages etched in my memory that I will not trade for any treasure in the world.
The peak butterfly seasons are mainly two: the post-monsoon months from September to November and the summer months of March and April. Butterflies do exist all year long but the sightings are few and far between. And the most mysterious aspect about them is that you seldom get to see dead butterflies
This is probably what made the great poet Pablo Neruda ask, “Where do butterflies go to die?” And still searching for this answer, I move on.
The lifespan of a butterfly is a fleeting three months. And maybe because of this very reason, it takes its first confident flight as early as an hour after birth. Moths, the evolutionary cousins of the butterfly, have a similarly short lifespan. In fact, there are some moths, called the silk moths, which are born without a mouth and a stomach. The apparent reason is that their lifespan is only a fortnight and God didn’t want them to waste any time eating and drinking. Their only raison d’etre is to mate and reproduce, which they diligently do for a fortnight till they drop down and die.
Not all butterflies feed on nectar with their straw-like proboscis. They are permanently on a liquid diet; some feed on plant juices and some (believe it or not) even on animal juices. However, you will never find a butterfly in the vicinity of a rose plant because it doesn’t have even a droplet of nectar. Another interesting fact about their feeding habits is that they smell with their antennae and taste with their feet!
Butterflies often indulge in an activity called mud-puddling. That’s when you see the social side of butterflies.
They descend in groups on to a wet patch of soil and take in the moisture and the minerals in an animated harmony of colours. Another exquisite activity is their mating dance executed in mid-air, when they keep circling endlessly around each other.
Now to the sad part of the butterfly story. The human attraction to butterflies makes them the most poached of all fauna. As many as 50 crore butterflies are collected from all over Asia and exported from Taiwan to various parts of the world every year. Twenty five kilograms of butterflies were caught recently when they were being smuggled out by a Russian in Sikkim.
Yes, plans are afoot to save the tiger, which is on the top of the jungle food chain. But sadly, none whatsoever to save the Tiger butterfly, which, according to me, sits firmly on top of a parallel food chain.
Let’s ensure that these fluttering rainbows don’t land up as wall hangings of our vanity, ornaments of our aggression, and table mats of our greed. Let them flutter by, in celebration of our own fleeting life, in our gardens, in our meadows, and deep inside the mystery of our jungles, their gossamer wings lit up by their very own share of the sun.