Thevangu (Slender Loris) – Forgotten Narratives


Translated by Rhoda Alex

What are the living organisms that are dependent on Palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer) was a question that occurred to me two years ago. Of course, a lifetime is not enough to find answers for that question. I have asked Palmyra palm climbers, entomologists, ornithologists, naturalists, enthusiasts, wildlife documentary makers and I have also tried to observe on my own. Each organism has a unique relationship with the Palmyra palm. Each deserve a separate research. However, my opinion is that in general, there has not been much research here on the palm and its relationship with the flora and fauna around it. I am unsure about whether there are enthusiastic and patient researchers who have looked into the ponnikuruvi (Asian Palm Swift) among us? Are there research scholars who are concerned about the maranaai (nocturnal toddy cat or Asian Palm Civet.)

Recently, I renewed by acquaintance with Bharathidasan with whom I had lost touch briefly. Our common friend Dr.Christropher was the reason for this renewal. Bharathidasan runs ‘Arulagam’ an NGO and he has worked with greater zeal than myself for the palm, many years ago. The logo of Arulagam had the Tamil alphabet ‘அ’ from which a branch arose on which rested a little panda bear like animal. A logo that greatly appealed to me. Bharathidasan introduced me to his friend Muthusamy who runs SEEDS an NGO. This NGO plants seeds, takes the saplings and plants them in forest areas and farmers lands.  It is in their office at Dindigul did I first saw a picture of the creature – Thevangu known as the Slender Loris in English! Its eyes looked at me, eyes that were looking at me for protection. Eyes that yearned for someone to reclaim that which was lost. Was it because they have been oppressed that their bodies are so emaciated. Lean hands and legs – baby-like tender fingers. The thevangu that was holding on the branch tightly gave me a new vision.

SL

Thevangu or the slender loris belongs to the higher order animal group – Primates – just like humans. In Tamil spoken tradition, children with a wide-eyed-lost look often get chastised as ‘looking like a thevangu’ or if they are extremely thin – they are referred to as “like a thevangu’. These animals are considered as ancestors to man. They live as couples. They have night vision and are active at night and hide away at daytime. Even crows are known to bother them during the day and therefore they do not move out of their hiding places.

Aiyalur near Dindigul has an abundant population of thevangu and nature enthusiasts report that their numbers are fast declining. Humans have hunted these animals just like they hunted all other animals. The superstitions surrounding the thevangu have also been a reason for its destruction.

I am a person who goes by the principle of a popular Tamil axiom – not to live in a place that does not have palm trees – and so the question, “does the thevangu live in palm trees?” occurred to me. I asked the same to Bharathidasan. He replied that surely thevangus would be found in palm trees. But we need evidence to confirm it, right? It is not that I would believe only if I witnessed personally, rather it would be good to get information from those with experience and expertise.

At this juncture, Muthusamy of SEEDS asked me whether I would be able to arrange Palmyra palm seeds. His requirement was for planting Palmyra palms in the Aiyalur region as a step towards protecting the thevangu – he believed that it would greatly help in the conservation of thevangu. This was a great opening for me and so I began the work of collecting Palmyra Palm seeds. I wanted to document this event and so I released a notice on these efforts. I designed an invitation with these details keeping the planting of 10000 Palmyra palm seeds at the core.

Slow Loris

An American friend responded as soon as she saw this invitation in social media saying that her friend is also working towards the conservation of thevangu. Since I requested more details she had gotten in touch with her friend and got back to me saying, “shedoesnt know the connection between palm trees and the Slender loris, are you really aware of what you are doing?” I responded saying that I have discussed with those in this field and wanted to know where this lady is located –“Bangalore”, she replied. Well, then she is justified in not knowing I said !

I could not rest after this conversation. Have I really got into something without knowing! How can someone work in the conservation of thevangu without knowing anything about its relationship with the Palmyra palm. Or is it I who have extended my imagination for the sake of the Palmyra palm? Why is my gut feeling strong about the link between the Palmyra palm and  thevangu. My hunches have been accurate till now, especially with decisions taken on the Palmyra palm and subsequent efforts have led me in the right direction. My belief in this aspect of thevangu was also strong. Yet I needed at least a few concrete evidences.

Aiyalur region has Palmyra palm trees, but not in abundance. And only if the palm supports the food habits of the thevangu in some way or the other, the chances of this animal depending on the palm is higher. The food of the thevangu comprises of insects, frogs, mice and other such small animals. In the palm, these are all surely present but I needed factual confirmation.

To collect palm seeds I had to stay with a palm tree climber in Azhagapuri. As the name suggests it was truly a beautiful place – close to a dam. The entire region was filled with palm trees. Though a few other trees were seen, palms were so abundant that one can say Azhagapuri was a region that had only Palmyra palm trees – therefore it was Azhagapuri (Azhaghu- beautiful, Puri- place). That evening at twilight, I heard a screeching call that I have never heard before. I wanted to know what it was. Thevangu he said. I had goose-bumps. I did not imagine that I would encounter the thevangu in palm trees so soon. It felt as though the call was directed at me. We left the hut with torches in our hands. It was a thorn-bush forest with a few trees standing as boundaries beyond which there was a ploughed piece of land and beyond which there were palms and more palms.

“Poisonous snakes are present here” he warned me and went ahead. We followed the direction of the sound of the thevangu. Even after searching on three or four trees with our torch lights we were unable to spot them. In the end we saw a pair of eyes shining like embers. Reminded me of the kollivaipisasu lore used to frighten children (similar to will-o-wisps folklore) – but these were shining like gold coins in the dark. After we went really close to the tree the thevangu was seen. Extremely thin body, it was longer than a cat but smaller in size. In total, it must have weighed not more than 275gm. It tried to move away to another place frightened by our presence. Slowly we retreated. Though I was a little sad that I did not see the thevangu on a Palmyra palm, I was joyful about my first encounter with it near a Palmyra palm forest.

While returning to his home, we talked about the thevangu and he said that they are always seen in two’s. I felt he would be the right person to talk about the connection between the Palmyra palm and thevangu as his livelihood surrounds the palm. I requested him to share his knowledge on the same. His observations are as follows:-

In the daytime, there are many enemies for the thevangu, therefore they find it convenient to hide in the palm leaf stalks. In particular, they prefer those Palmyra palms whose stalks have not been removed at all for the sake of climbing. It is in those Palmyra palm that many insects and small animals reside. Food and shelter are taken care of in this safe-haven. This was the same fact that Bharathidasan of Arulagam had mentioned earlier.

He also shared a disturbing and sad event that established rather poignantly the connection between the Palmyra palm and thevangu. Recently a palm tree whose leaves and stalks had not been cut had dried leaves in the bottom. In order to remove this dried leaves… someone had set fire to the Palmyra palm. After it had burned down, six thevangus fell from it – burnt and dead. Indeed a very sad sight. But it spelt out loud and clear the fact that the Palmyra palm is a protective shelter for the thevangu–  otherwise such a big family would not have been found there. I would remember the dead ones as martyrs who gave their lives to establish the relationship between the palm and thevangu as authentic.

Why environmentalists who are working in the conservation of thevangu do not give thought to the palm tree as a habitat of the thevangu is an important question. The reason is – many environmentalists are working hard for conservation without actually understanding the environment.  I believe that in Tamilnadu, it will be quite impossible to make a holistic contribution to the environment without an understanding of the Palmyra palm ecology.  But our environmentalists are sometimes convenience oriented, satisfied with a few evidences and at times fabricate much around the evidences.  Many shy away from intense field research and rest with easily available information. A multidisciplinary organised outlook is not understood. In particular, a basic understanding of the palm tree is completely missing.  Recognising the Palmyra palm as a crucial life-line in our environment conservation activities is a pre-requisite for a wholesome environmental approach.

SLP

Recently, during my visit to Pondicherry I met a friend, Snake Ram a field worker. In a single night we photographed many birds, insects, frogs, snakes and snails that were using the palm as their habitat. I questioned him regarding his thoughts on the thevangu and Palmyra palm – he replied – “Bring them annan (brother)! in one night, we will show them 40 thevangus on palm trees”. I felt I needed no more witnesses.   Later, when time allows, will visit in person to witness and document this. These ancient beings that have not left the Palmyra palm trees need to be lauded. The Palmyra palm will be with them always – as their fort.

Rev. Godson Samuel
MidallakkAdu, Kanyakumari District
9080250653
malargodson@gmail.com

Note: Ram’s friend Hari took the picture of Slender Loris hiding in Palmyra palm.

ஒரு பதில் to “Thevangu (Slender Loris) – Forgotten Narratives”

  1. இளங்குமரன் தா Says:

    அருமை ஐயா.

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