Master Samsar Chand Koul: Kashmir’s Forgotten Ornithologist at his Home Ground

Master Samsar Chand Koul

By Bhushan Parimoo

Once again wounds got raw hard to bear the agonizing pain it gives. In a gathering of the cream of academicians, recognized Naturalists who had gathered in one of the functions to celebrate World Wildlife Day 3rd of March 2023 at    Tawi,  where this writer just casually broached upon  the contribution of the great  Ornithologist of the soil, Master Samsar Chand Koul.

Hardly anyone knew about him and his contribution in the field of . It was once again repetition as already observed many times over decades. The same wilful ignorance persists without any remorse among those who teach Wildlife the subject or deal with it. At the same time it was heartening a few around enticed interest and asked for details

Master Samsar Chand Koul (1883–1977) was the first Kashmir Ornithologist, an authority on birds of Kashmir. When subjects like bird watching and study of natural history was unknown in Kashmir.

Samsar Chand Koul was Member of the Society of World Watchers, England, Member of the Board of Studies in Geography, J&K University, and Member of the Geographic Society, Washington, DC and Member of Royal Geographical Society of Canada.

He started his career as a teacher at the CMS Central High School which later in the mid 60s of the last century was renamed merely as Central High School that eventually came to be known as CMS Tyndale Biscoe Memorial High School, Srinagar. He had acquired, with the passage of time, experience to imitate their chirping. For bird watching, he had selected a few places in the Valley where he invariably preferred to go in seasons. These places were Hokursar, Anchar Lake, Feroze Nalla (Tangmarg), vegetative strips of floating gardens in Dal Lake, islets of dense willows and poplar trees – where birds of all varieties, migratory and local, were conspicuous by their presence. He would spend hours there with a binocular to take close views of birds in their nests or on branches of trees and would immediately jot down his observations in a note-book. In mountain ranges, he came across Himalayan black bulbul, Himalayan whistling thrush, Woodpecker, hoopoes, kingfisher, jungle crow, sandpiper, turtle doves, red-browed finch, Himalayan brown dipper, Indian bush-chat, blue headed rock thrush, Stoliczka mountain finch and mountain pigeons. He was so specialized on Western Himalayan birds that he lectured many Ornithologist groups from England, Australia, New Zealand and America who visited Kashmir valley for the study of birds and their habits. He had the capacity to recognise and identify birds like Himalayan Whistling Thrush, Sandpiper, Red-bowed Pinch Tit, Ush Cat, Blue Headed Rock Thrush, Rufous Backed Shrike Tree Keeper, Kingfisher Hoppoo, Golden Oriole, Bulbul, Reed Warbler, Tickells,Thrush, Ring Dove etc.

Had a flair for studying wild flowers, plants and mountain herbs which he found during his trekking in meadows and pastures in the mountainous ranges of Kashmir. He made it a point to collect samples of these wild flowers, herbs and plants, and would carefully preserve them in between the leaves of his diary in a scientific manner till his return to his residence. These plants were later studied with the help of expert professors of Botany. This way he was able to identify many plants, flowers and herbs during his trekking and would inspire his students to explore and admire the floral beauty. His collections included flowers like Marino Longifolo, Morino Couterians, Dotentillo, Anemone Tetrascaple, Primula Reptans, Primula Rosea, Fund Aquilegia Jueunda, Corydalis Cashemirians, Astra Falconeri and herbs like Indigoffera Lereantha, Sassurealappa, Artemisia, Salviashien which were located in clusters on the high mountain ridges. These herbal plants were preserved by him in grass-made baskets at his home and were gradually used for curing of joint pains, skin diseases, cold and cough, etc. An Ardent Star-Gazer during the cover of darkness appears like a vast umbrella studded with countless glittering diamonds. On such starry nights, he used to point out various stars like the Great Bear, Polar Star, Milky Way and other galaxies to his students while camping at Gangabal, Sonamarg or Gulmarg and would narrate details about these planets to students. The then British Principal of the School, Mr. C.E. Tyndale Biscoe, who, while writing a foreword to Master Samsar Chand's book “Beautiful Valley of Kashmir & ”, wrote as under: “I am most grateful to Samsar Chand for having taught his boys to love birds through his teaching of natural history”.

A contemporary of the famous Indian Bird Watcher Salim Ali, also came to be called as Salim Ali of Kashmir for his acclaim for bird watching in Kashmir that led him to publish his famous book Birds of Kashmir in 1938. The first edition was published by Normal Press, Srinagar. It remained in circulation for nearly two decades before the book became quite celebrated and was reprinted in 1956.

The new edition of the book was published with many new illustrations of Kashmir birds drawn by the native artist Mohan Lal Raina. Samsar Chand Koul was helped by one Colonel Phillips in this task.

The third Edition of the book came out in 1968. This time it was published by Wesley Press, Mysore through the endorsement of Miss Anne V. Fuller, a member of the Round the World Ornithological Tour. The revised edition had many added descriptions of several more birds for which Samsar Chand Koul engaged a new artist, Prithvi Nath Raina who drew many pictures and also reproduced those which appeared in the work of famous Ornithologist B. B. Osmaston.

However, it needs to be mentioned that Koul's first attempt to make the book was not all his own, had he not been greatly guided by great European experts and many native friends in this field. Among the Europeans included G. B. Sanford, C. E. Tyndale Biscoe, F.E. Lucey, R.D. Thompson, F. Jacob, K.J. Hopman and B.B. Osmaston. Among the Indian friends who helped Samsar Chand Koul, the names of Govind Koul, Shanker Koul and Shridhar Koul deserve mention.

However, what makes Koul's great book on the birds of Kashmir unique is his skills and professional attitude in tracking migratory birds with the help of his English collaborators like Colonel Phillips when he recorded that the Arctic Tern travels 11000 miles at the speed of 300 miles per day to reach the Antartica Circle. Once a bird was ringed in Manchar Lake in Sindh on June 25, 1929 which was later located in Tobolsk, Sierra 246 days later after covering a distance of 2300 miles.