The most spectacular of these orchids are also the most endangered. Take the endangered Lost Lady's Slipper (Paphiopedilum fairrieanum), for instance, which also goes by the appellation Thousand Pound orchid. According to orchidology lore, it was a soldier in the British Indian army who first spied its purple-streaked hood—reminiscent of a Dutch milkmaid's cap—while on a foray in Arunachal in the late 19th century. A £1,000 reward was offered to anyone who managed to track it down by Sander's orchid nursery, in England.
The Red and the Blue Vanda are two other rare orchids that are close to extinct in their natural habitat, from where they have been uprooted by those intent on commercially cultivating and exporting them. You can often see their hothouse-reared descendants in private gardens in the Northeast. Only a few, very intrepid Indian orchidologists have been rewarded with a single, tantalising glimpse of the Snow orchid (Diplomeris hirsuta) after a tough three-day trek in the Eastern Himalayas. The tantalising first glimpse that hooked orchidologist Sadanand N. Hegde was of the purple foxtail-shaped Rhynchostylis retusa, also known as the 'Sithale'. "I'm born and brought up in the Western Ghat forest area, where I became fascinated by this orchid species, which lady Sita was believed to have twisted into her hair during her exile. It's also mentioned as a medical cure in the Charaka Samhita, the ancient Ayurvedic text."Ancient pharmacologists' belief that every orchid was a medicine chest unto itself is also behind the etymology of its name, which is derived from 'orchis', Greek for testicle. Adds Dr Hegde, "In Europe, 600 years ago, any plant resembling a human organ was considered useful in treating that organ. They found the orchid testicular-like in appearance, and hence thought it would be useful to enhance virility." That explains why they were a favourite snackfood for the libidinous satyrs of Greek mythology.
Hairy lady's slipper, painting by H. Pradhan
While some of India's orchid species are found in the Deccan plateau, Northeast India is where 900 of its rarest, most exquisite forms are found. Orchidologist K. Haridasan explains that the reason for the enormous profusion and variety of orchids in the Northeast is the wide range of agro-climatic conditions here, the heavy humidity and rainfall, and the transmigration of neighbouring Sino-Burmese species, which also find the Northeast an ideal habitat.Commercial exploitation is only one of the threats to wild orchids. "Forest clearance for road-building and hydel projects, indiscriminate tree-felling for jhum (shifting) cultivation, calamities like flash floods and landslides, all of these contribute to orchid destruction," says A.N. Rao, of the State Forest Research Institute in Itanagar. "But habitat destruction is the main cause." Orchids are also sensitive to small variations in humidity, temperature and rainfall. The littlest changes in the forest ecosystem make them dwindle and disappear. This delicate existence is rendered more precarious by the fact of their being difficult to propagate naturally. Many orchids are so shaped that they are accessible to just one kind of insect, and though each orchid pod bears a million seeds, few, if any, germinate because they require the presence of specific 'mychorrizal fungi' to provide them nourishment. That's why, as Dr Rao puts it, orchids are "indicators of primary, virgin, undisturbed forests".Hemlata Pradhan, a Kalimpong-based botanical artist and third-generation orchid obsessive, laments that there are hardly any such 'virgin' forests left. "All over the Northeast, forests have been cleared for building houses, growing food crops, building roads and dams. It's been heart-rending to see many orchid habitats irreversibly damaged by the Teesta Dam project in North Bengal, so close to the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Thousands of orchids, including the Snow Orchid and the Venus Lady's Slipper (Paphiopedilum venustum), were eliminated without a single thought."Dr Haridasan, however, sees hope, thanks to conservation efforts like the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary in Arunachal's West Kameng district. "Such protected areas enable in situ conservation," he says, "but it's also important to have awareness camps for local people. People in the Northeast love orchids, and have ritual uses for them—if we don't exploit these cultural linkages and involve locals in conservation efforts, orchids will very shortly become extinct."
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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