Delhi's royal beehives...
IT WAS disclosed some time ago that a large number of women tourists are stung every year by the bees, which make their hives in historical buildings. This is perhaps true even now. Why do bees prefer to attack women, specially foreigners? Does the scent they use madden the honeybees? Or is it their clothing? The sari has an advantage in this respect because it can cover the whole body.
Be that as it may, hives are both a nuisance and a necessity. Even Parliament House boasts of several hives. And near the Willington Crescent there is a huge tree just outside the boundary wall of the President's Estate that has at least six hives on it, each as big as a waterskin - mashak. Since the tree has shed its leaves the hives are all the more prominent.
There was a time when contracts were given for the removal of hives to professional hive-breakers who were paid in kind by being allowed to carry most of the honey and wax. The tradition continues in many places. Perhaps the Archaeological Department still follows the practice as Humayun's Tomb and the Red Fort attract the bees just as much as Akbar's Tomb at Sikandra and even the Taj do.
Honey extracted from hives made in buildings has a different taste from that of hives made on trees. Both are just as sweet of course but honey from the garden pleases the connoisseur more. No wonder last week a man called Banwari was eying the tree near the Willington Crescent with the same feeling as children when they catch sight of an ice-cream seller.
He is one of those who can break a hive with apparent ease. Banwari had come to Delhi to take part in a rally and was resting with his friends on the roadside. He wondered who would get the contract for the hives when they were ripe for breaking. In the village where he lived one didn't need permission to break a hive.
It is after dusk that the hive-breaker gets into action. A blanket and a bidi is all he needs; old men man sometimes use a ladder to climb a tree, but the young can do without it. The bidi smoke binds the bees as though by a spell and then the hive can be broken.
One wonders if that's the way they still do it in Delhi. For the uninitiated it would be advisable not to try the trick, for not even the thickest of blankets might be able to save them from the wrath of the bees.
According to a local contemporary, most of the American tourists were stung in the city of the Taj some time ago. It went on to suggest that it was probably because of the scent they used. Though the explanation seems credible, it is unlikely that most of those attacked were American women. As far as one knows, there are no national scents; and for some cosmetics to cross frontiers is probably easier than for Indians. Or else, the perfumery world would not have been so universal. As for the bees' partiality for women, one can only quote a distraught British country-house resident, who complained recently that he could not even put up a letter-box on his garden gate as the bees were bound to get into it and sting him whenever he put in his hand. So you see there's no gender bias involved.
But all said and done, the presence of the bees in our historical monuments is adverse publicity. We know this problem is not peculiar to India. We also know that bees are not the only nuisance; bats and pigeons are equally notorious.
However, you cannot blame the authorities for not getting the beehives removed in their formative stage. It is better to let the hives grow for the sake of the honey and the wax. Once the bees decide to set up a hive, there is no stopping them, for it's at this stage that they are more likely to sting. The honey is sufficient reward for the discomfort, though Menaka Gandhi feels eating honey is cruelty to the bees.
It's interesting to note that the Moghuls didn't have to cope with problems like bees stinging visitors, for the simple reason that none were allowed to visit mausoleum built by them, and the forts were meant exclusively for the use of the royal family.
Nobody could enter the Taj Mahal. Only the khadims or caretakers, along with the gardeners and guards were the non-royals present. If repairs were necessary, then a foreman was issued by the emperor ordering a prince to supervise the work. Aurangzeb was sent twice by Shah Jahan to get a leak in the dome plugged. He supervised the work and then sent a report to the emperor.
The same sort of practice was followed for the tombs of Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Nur Jahan and her father, Itumad-ud-Daulah. So the bees and their hives were left undisturbed until an order was given for collecting the honey for use in the Moghul kitchen and harem. Since this was not sufficient, honey was also brought from the forests by those assigned the task.
Honey incidentally was part of the daily diet in the royal household. It was also used for making medicines and elixirs by the royal hakims. There was no bottled honey then. Special utensils were used for the purpose. It was applied to sore eyes, wounds and certain parts of the body before the nuptial night. Bee stings too were presented for the groom if he was underdeveloped. But for this you should blame Vatsyayan and not the bees.
In our own times honey is not used so much as in the past. Comparatively speaking, more was consumed keeping in mind the population in those days, which was a fraction of what it is now. Even during Bahadur Shah Zafar's time the beehives in the existing monuments and those in Mehrauli supplied honey, which was barely sufficient for the royal households.
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