The Village That Went Dark and Was Proud of It

Sivaganga is a district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu; it’s the red-shaded region on the map here. With a population density of about 710 people per square mile (275/km2), there are plenty of very rural areas. The small village of Potthakudi is one of those places. Encompassing only about 100 homes, Potthakudi has only 35 street lights to keep the village illuminated overnight. Those lights are controlled through a central switch box that is manually operated, as seen above. (That picture is a screenshot I took from a video on Yahoo, available here.) Every evening, the person in charge of the lights turns them on, and every morning, he turns them off.

But in June of 2020, the lights went out in Potthakudi —  and didn’t come back on for over a month. The blackout wasn’t caused by a power grid failure, nor by the switch box operator simply forgetting to do his job. Rather, the culprit was a village-wide case of kindness.

It started with a bird.

Karuppu Raja, the person who is in charge of operating Potthakudi’s street lights, explained what happened to The Better India:

My house is located at the end of a street where the main switch for 35 street lights is installed. I have been turning them on at 6 p.m and switching them off at 5 a.m since childhood. When I stepped out of my house one afternoon, I noticed a small blue bird flying in and out of the switchboard. Being curious, I went closer and saw that it was gathering sticks and straws. I did not know what bird it was, but it was building a nest.

And a few days later, three eggs appeared, as seen below. If you look closely at the bottom-left of the image above, you can see one of them — it’s that little light-blue sphere tucked in the corner.

Raja, unsure what to do, took to WhatsApp and asked his community to weigh in. As he told The Better India, “I explained how I wished to provide a safe place for this bird to lay its eggs and asked for their support to cut the power line. Most villagers thought of this as an opportunity to give back to mother nature and agreed. But, some people thought this was an extreme step for a little bird.” 

But ultimately, as another villager told the Times of India, the rest of the village was persuadable: “we managed to convince everyone and the entire village has gone without streetlight.” Raja, for his part, gave the village updates on their visitors; according to the Deccan Herald, he “clicked pictures and videos of the Indian Robin and its hatchlings every day and posted them on the WhatsApp group to apprise people on the condition of the bird.” The village had rallied around a common cause and her three birds-to-be.

It took about a month, but the eggs ultimately hatched, and a week or two later, the hatchlings left the nest and ventured out into the world on their own. And then, 45 days after they went off, the lights came back on. 

Bonus fact: It’s a good thing for Potthakudi that the bird that visited was a robin, not an eagle. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eagle nests are typically “about 5-9 feet in diameter [and] 3-5 feet deep.” And they can be incredibly heavy, too — according to Guinness World Records, in 1963, an eagle’s nest set the record for the world’s largest, weighing an estimated 4,409 pounds. (Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos of the huge nest.)

From the Archives: The Birds that Sing for Their Supper: Another story about a bird’s nest.