By Amy Lieberman
The proverbial chicken would have a hard time crossing the congested Chadni Chowk Road, the main, hectic central stretch of Old Delhi, clogged by a endless stream of cars, rickshaws, trucks and bicycles. But if it somehow did, it would find itself suddenly inside the most the Jain Bird Hospital – the most unlikely of sanctuaries.
The hospital – run entirely on outside donations, not patient fees – is home to thousands of birds, ranging from pigeons and doves to peacocks and cockatiels. Whether injured accidentally or abused, all birds receive medical care and a safe place to recuperate in this facility, tucked behind a prominent, white marble Jain temple in Delhi.
The hospital was founded in 1956 on the Jain religion’s principle of aversion to killing all animals – the occasional family of rabbits can be found here as well, but the primary focus is on animals that take flight, which the religion deems “demi-gods.”
“Our birds should be healthy and free of diseases, they should keep flying freely in the sky,” reads a mural painted on the bright walls of this three-story hospital.
Indeed, the hospital’s commitment to birds appears remarkable, as they admit anywhere from 30 to 60 birds to the facility on a given day – most often, people bring in injured birds, confident that they will be given remarkable levels of care, and detailed attention.
“People all the time are bringing birds, all kinds of birds to us here, because they know that we will treat them right, that we will keep them for as long as required, and that in the end, when they are ready, we will let them fly again and be free,” explained Vijay Kumar, DVM. “We have an intensive care unit here and are able to treat all birds, or provide them with a home, for as long as necessary.”
In a given year, the hospital can treat up to 30,000 birds – the one condition it maintains is the segregation of vegetarian birds from non-vegetarian birds. So while falcons, hawks, eagles and other prey birds reside on the first floor of the hospital, birds that feed only on non-animal products – in this case, lots of grains, fresh fruits and vegetables – take up the two top stories of the facility. Birds are also kept in mass on the roof, where each week hospital administrators go to release the birds that are well enough to fly off into the wild again.
“There are all kinds of obstacles that these animals are facing every day,” Kumar said. “We can’t prevent those from happening, but we can work hard here and make sure that they are given all of the care that they need.”
Jains are one of India’s smallest religious communities, constituting just one percent of the country’s billion-plus population. A peaceful religion, Jainism is first and foremost about the preservation of all life. Some religious Jains avoid eating rooted vegetables, such as onions or garlic, to avoid tearing them from the ground and killing them. Most Jains, however, are simply vegetarians.
Birds in particular hold a demi-god status in the religion, as a mural on the hospital’s wall details in a colorful portrait: “Brave and merciful king put pieces of his own flesh and finally his whole life in exchange to save a pigeon (demi-god) for prey of hawk (demi-god). Both demi-gods bowed, assuming their original divine and blessed the king for his attempt to alleviate pain.”
People can visit the facility to monitor not just the patients’ medical progress, but also to see some of the most beautiful, exotic birds of the country that have found their way, for better or for worse, into these cages.
The Jain Bird Hospital is located behind the Digambar Jain Temple in Old Delhi, right across the street for the Red Fort, a major tourist and historic site in the city. It is open seven days a week to visitors, and asks that people pay a small donation to keep operations afloat.
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