Chandigarh: One of the riddles I’ve spent years trying to unravel is the precision with which Punjabi describes different types of animal feces. Compared to its general description in English as just “shit” or “crap” or “poop”, Punjabi offers a thesaurus of tatti.
My fascination with such a quirk arose in Pakistan some time ago when a colleague casually (but aptly) defined the nature of American aid to her country. She concluded her speech on the quicksilver nature of Washington’s so-called generosity towards Islamabad, delivering the defining line: “Oh yes. Jaapda hai ki tuhade desh da imdaad dudh vich mingniyan vangar hai’. Her translation to me was, “It seems that your country’s aid to us is like rat turds in milk.”
It was genius to apply the rat poop equation to describe America’s aid-related efforts. Simply put, she said that since rat turds don’t float in a glass of milk but sink to the bottom, you won’t encounter them until you’ve drunk the milk. That’s why US aid to Pakistan consisted of odious rodent excrement, cunningly camouflaged in milk.
The episode took me on an enlightening journey into the esoteric nomenclature of different types of animal poop in Punjabi. First, while mingniyan in Pakistan it was a reference to rat poo, in India it usually refers to goat droppings. So how did the taxonomy of turds really work?
Ultimately, it took a lengthy interview with the chief veterinarian at Chandigarh’s Chatbir Zoo and all my intellectual gumshoe skills to unravel what might be called a shit-done-it.
To begin with, I presented the unsuspecting director of the zoo with my list of animals and what their droppings were called in the vernacular. But we both quickly realized that the naming system was complex and that more research was needed on the subject
In the end I managed to narrow it down to six types of animal poo classified in Punjabi, each with its own particular details and specificity. This included vitth (ਵਿੱਠ); mingniyan (ਮੀਂਗਣ); lidd (ਲਿੱਦ); goha (ਗੋਹਾ); tattoo (ਟੱਟੀ); and laini (ਲੇਣੀ). In some cases, the appropriate noun is derived from the specific biology of the animals in question and the resulting internal processes of fecal production.
vitth is perhaps the most fascinating of animal excrement, as it relates to the leaves of all birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Unlike the other five categories of mammalian stools, vitth does not just describe the waste produced by the creature’s digestive tract. The characteristic feature of vitth is that it contains a mixture of both stool from the digestive tract and excretion from the urinary tract. Unlike other animals whose feces is described in Punjabi by one of the other five terms, and which have separate openings to eliminate different forms of waste (the anus and urethra), vitth-oriented creatures extrude their combined waste through a single orifice. This is because all such animals have a ‘cloaca’, in which both forms of waste are combined before being evacuated.
The second type of stool is: mingniyan. This is produced by all rodents, but also by ungulates such as deer, elk, moose, various goat species and sheep. While the organization of their digestive tracts differs significantly, they all share common features resulting in largely similar scatological morphologies. Their colons form their stools into small balls (or golian) or tapered cylindrical particles of approximately the same size extruded rhythmically through the anus. These animals usually have extremely long intestines that allow their food to travel slowly through a process known as peristalsis. Along the way, their guts absorb most of the water, making the droppings granular and desiccated.
The next category is lidd, which is expelled by elephants and animals of the equine family, such as donkeys, horses, mules and zebras, through their one stomach. In healthy animals lidd is typically solid or semi-solid and spherical in shape, but it secretes numerous properties and spin-offs that we would do well to be aware of. Elephant lidd, for example, has many properties and the fibers can be extracted and easily turned into high-quality craft paper and notebooks. But one of the more exotic byproducts of the elephant’s digestion is a special type of coffee bean, which can also be harvested from their dung after the animal has consumed Arabica coffee beans in the wild. These beans are said to make great coffee and are widely available in Thailand, understandably at a price.
Elephant poop can also be burned to repel mosquitoes and other insects. Due to the absence of bacteria, the manure can be a source of water in extreme situations. Just wring out and drink. And while this may seem distasteful, it is known to prevent death from dehydration.
The fourth type of animal poop is: gosh, which is deposited by multi-virgin herbivores such as cows, buffalo, oxen, rhinoceroses, hippos, and all three species of camels. Typical, goha is soft and aggregates into flat, circular piles. After drying and solidification, these can be reused as fuel or as organic fertilizer for crops. Millions of rural Indians also use cow dung to ‘clean’ their homes, wrongly credited goha with therapeutic and antiseptic properties, in addition to its use in rituals, as the animal is sacred to Indian Hindus. In addition, locals in Assam also extracted fiber from rhinoceros droppings to make luxury custom paper products.
The fifth category of animal feces is one that almost all of us are familiar with because it resonates in the human world: tatti, or more prosaically, shit. This includes the poo of dogs, wolves and foxes, as well as bears and primates, including monkeys, chimpanzees, langurs and of course humans. The shape is determined by the casing of the producer and tends to be cylindrical in shape. It has limited practical value, except in rare cases, as a composted fertilizer for non-consumable plants.
However, bear droppings hold a myriad of secrets, the most compelling of which is its incredible ability to be literally “planted.” Bears normally consume a variety of fruits and berries, and the seeds that pass through their digestive tract remain intact, and so those who know who actually ‘sown’ bear poo, accidentally or otherwise, are pleasantly surprised at the plants that sprouted. then. In Rocky Mountain National Park, naturalists have planted a pile of bear dung, which then sprouted 1,200 seedlings. This, in turn, had led some naturalists to label bear feces as “magic shit,” or simply “reproductive quality shit.”
Finally there is laini, excreted by domesticated felines, tigers, lions, panthers, jaguars, leopards and other members of the feline family. It is also cylindrical in shape, though compact, but with well-defined segments tapering at one end. As is the case with tattoo, laini also has relatively few applications.
In conclusion, some students of Punjabi literature and linguistics may find this detailed taxonomy off-putting. The more catalog-inclined – which most Punjabis are, in my experience – will find it endlessly amusing, fodder for their vaunted bawdy humor.
Once such a joke was about a man in a circus whose job was to clean up buckets of elephants lidd. A passerby saw him knee-deep in excrement and asked him if he had ever thought of any other work. To which the offended man replied, “What? And give up show business?!”
Or as an incredulous Punjabi visiting the US once wisely noted, if aliens viewed America or any other Western country through telescopes, they would automatically assume that dogs dominated the planet, not humans. After all, dogs make the tattoowhile man goes after him.
Christine Fair is a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in the US and is currently taking a Punjabi language course in Chandigarh.