In November, I traveled through Kerala with my parents on a sightseeing trip, where I took them to all some of the ‘must-see’ places like Munnar, Alleppey and Fort Cochin. This trip was five days long, and we went at break-neck speed, sleeping at a different location every night, so it wasn’t in the plans to see any Jain mandir in Fort Cochin—until it actually just happened.
My dad had asked our local guide about temples in Kerala who mentioned that there was a small one in Fort Cochin. Before we saw the rest of the city, we went to the temple. I wasn’t expecting a large Jain community in Kerala and wasn’t surprised when I was told there are only about three hundred Jain families in and around Fort Cochin. These Jains migrated decades ago from Gujarat to set up businesses in Kerala. However, this community is vibrant and committed, and the temple has an interesting story. The priest told us that the statue of Dharmanatha, the fifteenth tirthankara, was lost during the reconstruction of the temple. Somehow, in the middle of the monsoons, the same statue found its way back to the temple.
When we arrived we met some of the trustees of the temple. They told us about Praful Shah, a stanthakvasi Jain, who is famous for coming to the temple every day for almost twenty five years for one purpose: to feed the pigeons who live at the temple. Praful Bhai’s dedication is a remarkable reflection of the Jain idea of parasparopagraho jivanam, which states that all beings are connected through the service they extend to each other.
The pigeons at the temple bring to mind some famous research by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner, which postulates that pigeons can exhibit ‘superstitious’ behaviour. In this temple, it seems that the pigeons recognize the sound of Praful ji’s motorcycle. When they see him, they know to circle the temple three times before they are made to listen to a prayer, after which they are fed.
Over the years, this feat has also become a tourist attraction. By the designated time of 12:30 PM, there was a large crowd who had gathered. I noticed that many people were interacting with the birds already, posing for pictures and feeding them. At one point, the temple volunteers asked the visitors (most of whom were Indian) to stop feeding the birds. This did not deter them, as they were determined to get their new Facebook profile pictures in first.
My parents were not happy about this. My mom commented, “No one is listening. They were asked not to go the area where the pigeons were waiting, and they’re still doing it.” I decided to ask Praful Bhai about it when we met.
At 12:30 PM exactly, he came in with his helpers. As promised, the pigeons really did circle the temple exactly three times, and then listened to a prayer, after which Praful Bhai and others fed them uncooked grains.
They go through thirty kilograms per day, and Praful Bhai has paid for most of it himself, or through his family and friends. “When I started doing this, there were ten birds, then it went to fifty, and now it’s in the hundreds.”
I spoke to him about why he’s been doing this, and how he feels about the tourists who come. He smiled and said, “I do this because I feel I have a duty to help these animals. However, we can’t speak in anger, it defeats our purpose here. If you are going to serve others, do it with a peaceful mind. Yes, it’d be nice if people listened, but maybe its because we weren’t able to communicate properly. In Jainism, the biggest thing is to try to live and let live.”
Text and photographs: Sweta Daga