Sudha madhuri dash is a published author of many novels. Along with photography she loves horse riding and practices odissi dance.
Aqua...WHAT LIES BENEATH THE OCEANS
Sometimes, truth is deceptively wrapped in the cloak of lies...hidden behind moth-ridden theories and rules that defy what we see...what we feel...and what we believe. I believe that there are certain unexplainable things and events that exist, which we have been conditioned not to believe. My tryst with the mermaids is an enduring tribute on my part to write about that experience which has remained with me for so many years-that which is true, yet uncanny and mysterious. Beyond the eyewitnesses and the sightings of mermaids in the past, in the present times with the advancements in science, we do have much recorded evidences; which of course has been dismissed as a hoax. Over the past centuries, there have been reports of many credible sightings. During the early times when man had no advanced machines or cameras, Pliny the Elder of a remote village by the sea first documented in written and drawn words about a strange species. He wrote about the Nereids-a tribe of human species who so very were like humans yet resembled fishes too. He described them as beings of the sea who hunted for fish and seals alongside his men at sea. The Nereids lived in caves along the sea. Though they had a long of their own they never spoke to man and always were shy and avoided us. This species of half man and fish lived in the cold climes in the far north, near the cold waters. The Nereid tribe had women who were ugly to look at, with masculine faces; the lower part of their body was covered with scales. They would often come to the shore and bask in the cold light of the northern sun. Extremely shy and elusive, they would flee upon approach. Pliny was among the first to be convinced about the existence of these creatures. Pliny also described the men of this species he said the men mermaids were larges and muscular often carried harpoons and bow arrows. The man would stand guard while women and children would bask in the sun. Pliny’s tribesmen never disturbed them and in return were not disturbed either. Our ancestors knew the meaning of peaceful co-existence.
The next hundred odd years was peaceful co-existence until in the turn of the century when science advanced and learnt to be more fluent in making recordings of any kind. Physiologus, a man of science and learning, recorded in his writings the sightings of a creature that had the upper body of a woman but the lower body was fishlike-with a powerful tail, having fins and covered with scales. He believed that these creatures would often venture onto the land in search of mates, he wrote that men would often venture out into the sea only to be caught and drowned...he often spoke off offspring from these unions, though there is no scientific evidence of the existence of offspring resulting from such unions, yet most often, the truth lies in fables. Could be that fable is not far from facts. Man has narrowed his heart and mind to the universe and often facts that may lie in plain view may be ignored.
The thirteenth century saw man advancing in science and knowledge, great ships were built and the sea become our play ground during this time an educationist, Bartholomew Angelicus wrote a book De Propietatibus Rerum. He described the mermaid as a beauteous and cunning creature, whose hunger was insatiable-for human flesh. Those sirens would often lure away sailors from the ships. Those who were lured away, never ever came back from the grips of death and passion. He spoke of siren songs that were magical and that mermaids sang in human voice.
Did man believe these tales or we left it as drunken sailors talks and tavern stories? But things were not so on a cold wintery day when the sun was playing hide and seek behind dark stormy cloud, Christopher Columbus recorded in his ship’s logs, “three of these creatures, one larger and darker. Upper bodies, human like but lower bodies like that of a fish.” He reported seeing them shrieking and jumping in and out of the water. He watched them for some time until they swam away into the depths.
During the time when trade flourished , Portuguese had already made an inroad into India. The rich shores of Goa, saw the advent of Bosquez, a Portuguese doctor an aide to the then viceroy of Goa, carried out an autopsy on seven mermaids that had been caught in the deep open seas, somewhere near Ceylon. The seven had not survived the ordeal. Sailors leaked out a story that Christopher Columbus kept them in a closed room in the ships belly. They died of starvation and lack of water.
River Nile had its own stories about the magical creatures. Egyptian worshipped them and they flourished. A foreign traveler made the first authenticated drawing of a mermaid. He spoke of Mermaids that were sighted in the river Nile; the females were seen swimming around with another of her kind-the male was bigger and darker in colour. They were seen mating and then disappearing into the great depths. Most probably they were not afraid of the Nile crocodiles and had developed a way to control these brute creatures and even learned to live in harmony with them.
Nova Jembla, Henry Hudson, the great explorer who had discovered the river Hudson, recorded of seeing mermaids. His description of the mermaids could be compared to their predominating images in art that existed in those days. Infact the mermaids were as prolific as us then where are they now? In the year 1718: a mermaid was captured off the island of Borneo; it survived only for four days and died uttering plaintive cries like a mouse. The sailors of the ship called Halifax captured several mermaids using nets and whaling harpoons. Later in the ship’s logs a mention of the meat of the mermaids was found, that i.e., tasted like veal. Man did not hesitate to cannibalize his cousins. In New York, Phineas T. Barnum displays the famous Feejee mermaid at his American Museum on Broadway. The museum burned down under mysterious conditions...no survivors. In 1975, Puri-the sea facing township of Orissa (now Odisha)-a little girl was seen pushing her red pram on the cobbled path, leading to the rolling and crashing waves of the deep blue. A tall Adivasi wearing a khaki uniform was watching her indulgently. He forgot his duty to keep an eye on her, caught as he was between friends and the lull of the warm afternoon. A fisherman, out on the deep sea, first noticed the pram and dragged it ashore. Frantic and helpless, an officer of the Indian police service could be seen standing, lamenting at his loss, trying to console his wife who clung to him. Even to this day, I have not forgotten those deep eyes and the gentle hands that had pushed me to the surface. Despite being then only all of five, a tender age when one is still trying to catch up with the adult world, I could not forget them. I still remember that I could breathe...I had clung desperately to that strong frame, who with a gentle hand upon my head, had calmed me down...I stood shivering on the shore, out of the clutches of those crashing waves that seemed to want to drag me down. I watched them keeping guard from the lap of the waves...the distant sound of the sirens and vehicles could be heard...still they waited. I clung to my mother...and when I turned around, they were gone. I tried to tell everyone that there were people living in the sea-but to no avail. An old fishwife, who would often come to our house with rich bounties from the sea, heard these murmurings of a little girl of five, and all that she said was that, “the sea gods have saved her...she has their blessings.” “There are gods in the sea.” She was very definite when my mother asked her. “I have seen them myself.” Such memories are often lost in the deep cobwebs of life. Watching Dr Paul Robertson on Animal Planet, the recordings and the photos taken in the deep depths of the blue oceans and seas around the world brought back a flood of remembrance...those deep eyes, and the comforting strong hands...I recollect with wonderment for this god given experience in my life. The strange shell that glows in the dark-my most treasured possession-now lies in my locker.
In 2004, the reports of mermaid sightings were being uploaded onto the YouTube-The reports of sightings from different parts of the world, most of which were dismissed as hoax. The latest news and the program on Animal Planet have changed our very perception about mermaids...is it really a fable? Or is it the truth that one refuses to believe? Ancient myths were probably truths, foretold and passed through generations. A very learned man had said long, long ago-‘out of sight is out of mind’. Until now, these creatures had stayed hidden from us for so many centuries, but now that we have mixed up the fine line of division between truth and imagination, the truth is too hard to digest. Billions of years ago, when the Earth was still in its nascent stage of evolution, our ancestors had chosen their path of survival. The rich sources of food had attracted many to embrace an aquatic way of life. The mineral-rich food led to the development of an evolving brain and high intelligence. Those organisms shed their body hair and acquired a thick layer of fat like blubber that kept them warm. They faced large prehistoric predators and like their cousins on land, they learnt to survive by fleeing and hiding. Oh yes, they were too good at that. They really could hide and have remained hidden from us for so long.
Just like us humans, they also lived in gregarious groups, each member with an assigned task of his/her own. Some are expert hunters and trackers, while others have developed expertise in the fields of war and defense. The tales of sea faring men often speak of mermaids singing out to them and dragging them down into the depths of the ocean; were it the females of a pod that did the hunting? I wonder. As time passed, they learnt our ways, some became so well adapted that they could lead an amphibious life-the story of the little mermaid marrying the prince-if there are threads of truth in these stories, then there are hybrids who are living among us, as educated and erudite people of the modern age. We humans are as diverse as can be-there are still tribes living in remote jungles, yet to be discovered. Primitive traditions run strong among these tribes; they are still going around naked and practicing cannibalism on the heads of their enemies. They too, who have remained hidden from us for so long, who are of pure breed still living in pods and hiding in the depths of the oceans, away from the prying eyes of ‘us’ humans. They are hunters and the laws of the jungle holds good; these laws are ancient, as old as civilization itself, and govern their lives, maintaining the balance of nature. The Medieval manuscripts contain such records; Old paintings and carvings in wood and stone, belonging to different unrelated cultures from different continents, speak of such creatures that were in existence, or should I say, still are? A sixteenth-century painting drawn by an unknown painter was at first, thought to be a depiction of a medical anomaly-but now, we know better. The raised crest of the skull, the hinged ribs, the abnormally large eye sockets, the webs between the fingers-all point out to the existence of such creatures. Christopher Columbus in his records, did leave many written hints that draw our attention towards their existence. Whaling vessels spoke of them, swimming along with pods of whales. Ancient manuscripts written by sages of India spoke of Matsya kanyas, or daughters of the fish. Fisher folk, even today, speak of finding arrows and stingray barbs impaled in the flesh of fishes and sharks caught in the open seas and the oceans. Who hunts in the open oceans with spears and arrows, crafted from the bones of whales and other marine mammals? Sometimes, the creatures of our fabled myths are caught in the nets of fishing vessels by mistake, but never for long. For, our friends of the deep, know the humans and their ways. Their harpoons are sharp enough to cut all the way through these nets. Modern-day scientists speak of sonar recordings taken in the deep and dark depths of the ocean; an analysis of these recordings has shown that these are not of any known marine mammals. The ‘Bloop' signature recorded thousands of signifiers, advanced and complex by nature-a language. It seemed as if large numbers of individuals were communicating with each other on that fateful day. Then came the sound of the priming of the sonar weapon followed by deathly silence-the calm before the storm-and then, came the frantic cries for help. A closer examination of the recordings showed the existence of a creature that was thought to be a myth. The creatures of the fables had resurfaced. They have survived because they had learnt to hide...hide from humans. From their experiences with man and his ways, they are afraid of us; one feels strongly that they do not want us to find them.
Our cousins....the mermaids
© 2022 sudha madhuri dash