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Madhurima Vidyarthi

  • Writer's pictureMadhurima Vidyarthi

Last Adjutant Standing

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

The last wetland had died.

A hundred years of muck and filth, of carrion, offal, rot and stench.

Cleared away.

A hundred years of marsh and swamp and fertile riparian living.

Filled in.

From his rotting mound he saw the little men, scurrying like ants, choking the living wetlands with sand. With earth stolen from another living site.

One hundred years - more? - of life, birth, flying away, coming back.

Of home.

They said his neck was too long, his legs like sticks, his presence ill-omened.

But this had been his home. And he would have this last look around.

With a cry of pain that pierced the skies, he spread his wings and soared.

The last wetland had died.

The last adjutant had flown.

-Madhurima Vidyarthi

(First published on Instagram on August 20, 2021)


The hargila (Leptoptilos dubius) gets its name from the local words “har” meaning bone and “gila” translating to swallow or swallower, thus becoming the “bone-swallower”. Up until the early 1900s, the hargila (Greater Adjutant Stork) was an unmissable part of the Calcutta skyline and its cultural fabric. With the disappearance of the wetlands, the birds are no longer seen, but some brave conservationists are working hard to get them off the endangered list. In history, the hargila has been inextricably linked with Calcutta, where they were considered efficient scavengers and protected by legislation. Till 1961, two majestic hargilas with serpents in their beaks and carrying a crown on their shoulders represented the Corporation of Calcutta. Human factors have also played their part in their history - one of the reasons for the decimation of the hargila population is the belief that it is dirty and inauspicious and lives only on rotten flesh and dead carcasses.

This piece was written to bring to light the impact of human development on the hargilas and the conservation efforts led by the Hargila Army to preserve the habitats of the endangered Great Adjutant Stork. Often overlooked and perhaps near extinction at one point, but for the efforts of Purnima Devi Barman, better known as “Stork Sister” and her Hargila Army. Her journey of conservation involving the Great Adjutant Stork is awe-inspiring; and a bold testament to the power of women-led movements. Barman has been involved in the conservation of the Great Adjutant Stork for the last fourteen years. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened species, only 800 to 1200 mature birds survive today and a majority of this population is concentrated in Assam. Her efforts, along with her Hargila Army, has led to an increase in the population of these birds, an extension of their nesting and feeding grounds and conservation of wild habitats.

Research for my ongoing historical novel led me to the hargila. Here is how it makes its appearance in the novel.

He let the river pour its thoughts over him. The river, his steadfast friend. Four years, it had been four years. He had gone from boy to man and would soon become a father.

With a great flap and rustle, the bird flew down, jerking Jadu out of his musings. A hargila, he looked up quickly, scanning the treetops. Were there any nests above his head? He didn’t mind the birds themselves, but their droppings were a different matter. As were the stinking pieces of carrion they loved to eat, carrying them about in those ugly beaks like sweets stolen from a wedding. He stared at the bird, hunched, still in the pouring rain. It reminded him of Taraknath Pandit, the shrivelled priest who had presided at their wedding. His head had been bald and wrinkled too, his legs as spindly, and his neck as thin and stringy. Pandit moshai didn’t have a pouch along his neck like the bird did, but their voices were similar. Grunting and gobbling in their throats all the time.

He shook his head and got up. The rain had died down but the clouds were still gathered overhead. He should go.

He took one last look at the hargila, motionless on its mound of rotting waste and pushed his way through the mud. A snake slithered by, whispering. Madhukaka said the hargilas were protected by the souls of dead brahmins, but who could tell? And why brahmins? Why always brahmins?....

Painting of the hargila by my wonderful husband @sanjoybasupictures

I hope you enjoyed reading this.


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