Thursday, March 23, 2006

18th century empire builder's pet tortoise dies in India zoo.

Adwaitya, believed to the world's oldest tortoise and a mute witness to the dawn as well as the twilight of the British Empire, died yesterday at the reputed age of 255 at a zoo in Calcutta. Adwaitya was born in the Seychelles Islands and brought to India in 1775 with three other tortoises as a gift to Robert Clive, the British statesman who laid the foundations of British dominion over India. Clive (the subject of an excellent paper my sister wrote in high school) actually died in 1774 and thus never saw the tortoise, but since news traveled fairly slowly in the 18th century it seems likely that the British sailors who brought him to India had no idea that the intended recipient of their gift was deceased. Though his four companions died soon after their arrival in India, Adwaitya (whose name means "The Only One" in Bengali) resided at the Clive estate for a full century before moving to Calcutta's Alipore Zoo in 1875. Adwaitya was 125 at the time of the move and was thought to be in the twilight of his years. Instead, the taciturn tortoise survived for well over a century, living to see an independent India and winning the hearts of generations of zoo visitors.

Learning of Adwaitya's death, I instantly recalled the story of Charlie, a parrot alleged to have been the wartime pet of Winston Churchill and reported in January 2004 to be alive and well at the age of 104. Churchill daughter Mary Soames quickly denied that Charlie had belonged to her father, but as far as I know the bird's age has never been questioned. Officials at the Alipore Zoo claim they have documentation that establishes Adwaitya's age, so I suppose the old gent had a much firmer claim to fame than poor Charlie did. With Adwaitya's death, an important if unusual link to a vanished world has been lost. Adwaitya's devoted caretakers and his many fans will miss him. Even though I never heard of Adwaitya before I learned of his death, as one who loves animals and ancient things I'll miss him too. AMDG.


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