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Today we would like to say a special thank you to an extraordinary humanitarian whose heroic career has saved many innocent lives. Before we hand out the medals and the commendations though, it is worth looking back to one of Ferrebeekeeper’s most controversial posts. At the beginning of the Year of the Metal Rat (a year which, uhhhhh, frankly turned out to be pretty bad) we featured an article about rats and their social/emotional lives. Although people grasped the thread of the article, longstanding views about the grossness and dirtiness of rats intruded and caused some pretty painful cognitive dissonance.

This is relevant, because the humanitarian we are feting today is not a human but rather an African giant pouched rat. Meet Megawa, the most successful landmine-sniffing rat from the ranks of rats of APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling), a Belgian non-profit organization which seeks to find and remove unexploded land mines from nations once torn apart by war. For five years, Megawa has served in Cambodia on the front lines of this humane endeavor. Over the course of his career he discovered an astonishing 71 land mines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance. In acknowledgement of Megawa’s valorous service, a British organization devoted to recognizing animal heroism (since World War II!) presented the living land-mine detector with a rat-sized gold medal of valor.

People have a way of seeing past the truth of a thing, so maybe when you look at Megawa you could squint and turn the screen a bit. Perhaps that would help people who are squeamish of rats glimpse behind the large rodent to see 100 Cambodian children (or goodness knows who else) who have not been maimed or blown to bloody fragments by forgotten ordinances of a depraved era.

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Of course Megawa did not show up at the door of APOPO and volunteer. As is usually the case, the real hero is actually a team. Without animal trainers, sappers, donors, volunteers, liaisons, et cetera, Megawa would probably have never left his native Tanzania to travel to the killing fields and harvest their deadly fruit. Additionally, rats are preferred for this work because besides their sharp sense of smell and keen intelligence, they are generally too small to trigger the mines (although Megawa is certainly a mega-rat).

But whatever the case, it would be peevish to deny Megawa (and his team) a moment of well-deserved glory. African giant pouched rats can live for more than 8 years, but Megawa was born in 2014 (he trained for 2 years) and he is starting to slow down. With any luck other rats will follow in his (careful) footsteps and help us to undo some of the horrible things we have done. Imagine what would be possible if our two unstoppable species collaborated more!

Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

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