In the vulture temple

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  12. 01. 2019


After climbing 565 stairs in the Indian town of Tirukalukundram, we reached the top of the mountain, which features a Hindu temple complex known as the Eagle or Vulture Temple. This has gained fame outside of the state of Tamil Nadu because it was on these cliffs, with a broad view of the surrounding countryside, that the priests offered rice, ghee or sugar to two Egyptian Vultures. Apparently, the carrion-eating couple flew in at the same time each day – unless there was a sinner among the pilgrims.

The entrance to the temple complex on the mountain in Tirukalukundram. The word eagle or vulture is also part of the ancient name of this site. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Zoo Praha The entrance to the temple complex on the mountain in Tirukalukundram. The word eagle or vulture is also part of the ancient name of this site. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Zoo Praha

This time it was worse climbing those 565 stairs to the top of the mountain, to the temple dedicated to Shiva, than twenty years ago, when I was here for the first time. But nothing has changed. Unfortunately, not even the fact that the vultures no longer fly to the temple for the oblations put there by the priests. Only two or three images recall them, which could easily be interpreted as though they captured a random event. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Egyptian Vulture pair were part of the temple from time immemorial. The 1926 edition of The South Indian Railway Illustrated Guide stated that official records show the “eagles” had been visiting the cliffs at the temple for at least two hundred years. Later sources also document that the Egyptian Vultures were nesting directly at the temple building on the top of the mountain.

The photo, by ethnographer Edgar Thurston, is the first to show the sacred vultures in the temple in Tirukalukundram. It was published in his book in 1906. The photo, by ethnographer Edgar Thurston, is the first to show the sacred vultures in the temple in Tirukalukundram. It was published in his book in 1906.

The last time the Egyptian Vultures turned up to “their” temple was probably in 1994; just a few years before I visited it for the first time. That date has led to the conclusion that even the vultures associated with the temple in Tirukalukundram fell afoul of the huge crisis that has led to the almost complete extinction of vultures in India. This is mainly associated with the introduction of diclofenac for the treatment of cattle, as this is highly toxic for vultures. Unlike other vulture species, however, Egyptian Vultures, as well as Red-headed Vultures, started dying off slightly later in India, so diclofenac may not be entirely to blame. The unfortunate fact is that the number of Egyptian Vultures in India is now just a tiny fraction of what it once was – and there is not even an estimate of how many of them remain to this day.

Did the vultures really fly in for vegetarian offerings? Why not. Based on our zoo’s experiences they are very curious and, for example, will eat mixes of ducks or Chinese cabbage. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Zoo PrahaDid the vultures really fly in for vegetarian offerings? Why not. Based on our zoo’s experiences they are very curious and, for example, will eat mixes of ducks or Chinese cabbage. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Zoo Praha

The situation is further complicated by the fact that most of India is inhabited by a local subspecies of the Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus ginginianus. Does this Indian scavenger have a chance of survival? Will the vultures ever return to “their” temple? I have serious misgivings, unless they have human help. The basis for a conservation programme might perhaps be keeping individuals of this sub-species in captivity. However, there are only 22 in European zoos, and, by all accounts, even less in Indian ones. It would be a huge task, with an uncertain outcome. But it would be worthwhile for someone to give it a go. Who knows, maybe it could happen in our lifetime. Perhaps the return of the Egyptian Vultures could even begin at the temple in Tirukalukundram. For that I would even try to ascend those 565 stairs twenty years from now!