The Bird Hospital
The story of Delhi’s Jain Bird Hospital begins, as all fairytales should, with a king in his palace in the East. The king, a follower of the Jain religion, is a pigeon fancier with a thousand birds, but one in particular has his heart: it is the most beautiful and most clever of all his pigeons. One day when the king is flying this favoured pigeon it is attacked by a hawk. The king is beside himself, distraught at the thought of losing his friend, and begs the hawk to take a piece of his own flesh in exchange for the life of the bird.
The story now moves inside the palace. The courtiers wait with baited breath as the king places his pigeon on one end of golden scales and then prepares to cut off his hand to balance the weight of the bird. Engrossed by the scene everyone watches on as the severed hand is laid on the scales, hoping that will be the end of the king’s ordeal, but the end is not yet in sight: the pigeon is too heavy and the scales do not balance.
Panicked and fearing he will lose both his hand and his pigeon, the king looks around for his sword. Unease ripples through the spectators: what will happen next? Gritting his teeth the king raises his sword above his head and, with a single swipe, takes off his own leg. Bleeding profusely and suffering from excruciating pain he leans forwards and places his leg beside the hand on the scales. Still the scales do not balance. Determined, the king raises his sword again and, as the onlookers gasp in horror, plunges it into his chest, falling forward onto the scales. Finally, they balance and the bird is saved.
Saving (vegetarian) birds since 1956
The Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk was founded in 1956 and today has a capacity of 10,000 birds. 60-70 new patients are brought into the hospital each day by Jains and non-Jains alike and each bird is assessed by the hospital’s doctor before being given a designated cage. There are separate ‘wards’ for different types of birds and different illnesses, with separate areas for birds awaiting or recovering from surgery. The commonest patients are pigeons, doves, parrots and budgies but the hospital also cares for some peacocks and crows. The occasional golden eagle is even to be seen on the wards though due to their tendency to eat other patients they must be kept in solitary confinement.
Patients at the bird hospital can be loosely divided into three categories: those suffering from diseases (notably cancer, paralysis or blindness), accidents (in particular collisions with cars, ceiling fans and glass window panes) or malnutrition. Depending on their condition the birds can be given surgery, have broken wings and bones set and bandaged, or be administered antibiotics and other drugs. All of the patients are given a high-nutrient diet during their hospital stay and each Saturday birds that have sufficiently recovered are released from the hospital roof. The hospital boasts an admirable 75% recovery rate and also ensures that those birds that are not so fortunate are respectively cremated on the banks of the nearby Jamuna River.
Entirely funded by donations
The Jain Bird Hospital is funded entirely by private donations; it has such a dedicated following that, unlike other hospitals in India, it never goes short of money. The hospital is open to the pubic and so people do come regularly to visit ‘their bird’ once it has been admitted, contributing what they can towards its care and saying a prayer for its swift recovery in the neighbouring temple. The hospital is also open to visitors and the staff are keen to show off their work, drawing attention to interesting cases and charismatic patients alike. Their dedication, be it religiously inspired or a simple belief in the importance of helping the birds to a swift recovery, is admirable. The birds of India are lucky birds indeed.
(Written by Sophie Ibbotson.)