Life in thin air

At an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level the air pressure, and the amount of oxygen in every lungful of air you take in, is a little less than half of what you have at sea level. The amount of water available also decreases as you go up. The thin air and lack of water make for high deserts. Until you get to the edge of the snow line. Here, where melt water is abundant in summer, life thrives. As we approached the high pass of Khardung La in Ladakh we entered such an altitudinal oasis.

Vegetation was sparse right at the top. But just a little way down was the village of Khardung, sitting on a stream that flowed from the meltwater around the pass. But even before we reached the village, we could see meadows where cattle were at a leisurely breakfast. I looked carefully at the black shapes: all were cows or dzos, crosses between cows and yak. But not a single one had the muscular shoulders of the yak.

Sitting quite apart from the cattle were a few donkeys. This was the first pack animal I’d seen in Ladakh. In many parts of the Himalayas and trans-Himalayas, motorized vehicles have replaced the mules and donkeys which were common a lifetime ago. But perhaps in these remote villages, where life can be snowbound for half the year, donkeys are still useful.

Right at the top of the pass I’d seen flocks of yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus, also called Alpine chough) do the aerial acrobatics they are so fond of. The air was full of their deep musical tones. I looked carefully but saw none of their red-billed cousins. Both are creatures of heights; you won’t see them in Leh. On the chorten where the chough sits (in the featured photo) I could see sprigs of juniper. There were no trees that I could see. Do people bring juniper branches with them when they cross? Lower down, just above the 4.8 Kms mark, we stopped for a chai. Flocks of pigeons wheeled in the air. Most were common pigeons (Columba livia), but I saw a few Hill pigeons (Columba rupestris). The one in the photo above was a lifer; the white band on the tail, and the white under the wing are characteristic of this species. Later I saw many more in Leh.

While we had chai there was time to look at the vegetation in this altitudinal oasis. There were stunted bushes of something that could be a tulsi or mint. The nearest bushes lay up-slope, and I wasn’t up to a climb to examine them closely. So I had to pass up the chance at a better identification and satisfied myself with the possibility that this belonged to family Lamiaceae. Of course, this is a large family, with over seven thousand species, but there cannot be many that grow so high up.

I’d been seeing bright orange patches on stone as we came down from the pass. They were to bright to be the mineral colours that we’d seen in rocks in this low-oxygen environment. Now that I could take a closer look, I found that it was the common orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina). This is a leafy lichen, a hybrid of fungi and algae. I find the symbiosis of different organisms making up lichens to be very interesting. For the first time on this trip I missed by dedicated camera for macros.

I’d put down the green cover for grass, but just before getting back into the car, I took a photo of some of the spreading cover nearby. I was not correct. There was grass, of course, but quite a bit of the green was due to a spreading succulent. I should have thought of it, deserts are usually full of succulents. It’s one way plants have of conserving water in a dry environment. Now that I know there’s such a variety of life at this altitude, I’ll have to stop and look carefully in future: perhaps I’ll even get to see the insects and small mammals which live up here.

Midweek Mobile 1

Night time is the worst time for photography if you have a tiny lens. Anticipating crowds and rain on the eve of Independence Day, I went out to get some street photos, but only took my mobile phone. It does a lot of computation to deduce the shapes and colours of what is recorded. With all that computation that goes on between the light hitting the sensor and an image being saved in memory, newer and faster computational hardware has an advantage.

But did these results actually improve over the physical limitations of the small lens? In one sense they did. If and when the sensor and imaging involve chemistry, a small lens exposes less of the chemical on the film. The result was that photos look dim. We are used to saying under-exposed for such photos. The only way to make the image brighter would then be to expose the photo for longer. But that creates a problem we call motion blur. With computation sandwiched between the sensor and image, there is a third way: the brightness can be amplified. I saw that The Family gets a much brighter image with her phone than I do, because her camera software is set to amplify more. So the problem of under exposure is replaced by that of digital noise: when you amplify, both signal and noise are usually amplified together. Motion blur can still be seen though, in the featured photo, for instance.

In another sense, the limitations of a small camera remain. A lens which is half a centimeter across cannot see details smaller than a couple of millimeters at a distance of ten meters. But this fundamental limit of resolution is reached only when the sensor collects light forever. With limited exposure the resolution drops by a factor of ten or hundred. So the image always has to balance motion blur against lens resolution. You can see this at work (at least on a large screen) in the photo above. The scene was well lit, the camera was not in motion, but the image is not awfully sharp. The computational hardware has prioritized freezing the movement of people by sacrificing the light needed for better resolution.

I suppose these photos look sharp and bright enough on phones and tablets to gather likes on instagram and tiktok. Perhaps you are in a minority if you view them on larger screens. As it turned out, it didn’t rain, so I could have taken a better camera with me. But technique is what you develop when you have limitations. A mobile phone is less obtrusive when you want to take street photos, so it is a good idea to start using it more widely for serious photography.


Likir was a slog. Even after the previous day’s walk to Hemis gompa, my body had not fully adjusted to the low oxygen levels in Ladakh. I saw the long flight of stair leading to the Likir Gompa and told The Family that I would not go inside with her. Instead I tried to find my way down to the little mountain stream below. Gompas are named after villages, but streams and rivers have different names. A close look at the map later never gave me a name for the stream. So I’ll call it Likir, after the village. Nasir Khan saw me negotiating slopes slowly so he decided to drive me to the river, promising to pick me up on his way down again.

The river was a wonderful sight in the parched land. I shakily crossed a few boulders to touch its cold water and feel the spray it threw up as it gushed over rocks. The pleasant sound of the river seemed alien in this high desert where I’d only heard the wind carrying tiny human voices earlier. I usually like to photograph streams like this at different exposures to either freeze the motion (as I’ve done in the featured photo) or to use a long exposure to convert it into a smoky fluid gliding over rocks. Unfortunately I could not try out a long exposure that day. I hadn’t brought a tripod or monopod with me, and my hands were too shaky from the lack of oxygen in the thin air.

A movement on the opposite bank caught my eye. A lizard had moved up a rock, into a sunnier spot. Was it really the Montane toad-headed Agama (Phrynocephalus theobaldi)? It’s eyes certainly did bulge. Was it’s head big enough? I was at an altitude of 3.7 Kms, which should be high enough for this species. But I’m not good at identifying lizards, so I’m open to correction. The thin air at these heights let in much larger amounts of UV than my eyes (and camera) is used to, causing a lot of glare. I’m not really sure that the colour has come out properly. Is it really that sooty? Or did it have a bit of brown in it? Look at the close up and decide whether it could be one of the more common Himalayan Agama (Paralaudakia himalayana), but without its colourful throat patch.

Although it was only mid-morning, I felt much better with my glares on. In this light it was easy to imagine that I saw the Kluukhyil, water spirits, swimming along the river. But it was only a Cabbage white (Pieris canida). It is a strong enough flyer, but it floated lazily right now, perking up only when it lit on a flower. I’m sure this was a thistle, but I can’t figure out which. Butterflies are very active at mid-morning, and my hands were still a little shaky in this thin air, so I was glad that the light was bright enough to get in a couple of sharp photos.

What I didn’t get a single shot of were the birds. There were two flitting about. One was a mountain chiffchaff, but I’d already seen that the previous evening. The other seemed to be a crow. There are no house crows or jungle crows here. The only crow you can see in this sliver of Ladakh is a carrion crow (Corvus corone), which would have been a lifer, if I’d seen it properly. At this time, unfortunately, its quick movements and its tendency to keep in the shade made it impossible for me to put it on my list of birds seen. Soon, Nasir Khan was back, and The Family was seemed to have liked what she saw in the gompa. We were ready to push on to Alchi.

Events around the 15th of August, 1947

Puducherry 2006

Partition, W. H. Auden

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

The Independence of India came with its partition. The maps were drawn up by the colonial power in 7 weeks. The new frontiers mainly passed through the former provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Kings of nominally independent states within the former colonially governed India were given a choice of which country to join, a process that was not yet completed by independence day. The colonial administration withdrew 75 years ago on August 15, leaving the yet unformed governments of the two countries to oversee the process of division.

The Dawn of Freedom
Faiz Ahmad Faiz

(translated from Urdu)

This light, smeared and spotted, this night‐bitten dawn
This is not that dawn we waited for so eagerly
This is not that dawn whose desire we held in our hearts
 When we set out together, friends all, hoping
That we would find the final destination
Of the stars in the forests of heaven,
That the slow‐rolling night had an end
That the boat of our afflicted heart’s grief would drop anchor somewhere.

When, from the mysterious paths of hot blooded youth,
We sought that world,
Many were the hands that rose to clutch our garments,
Open arms called, bodies distracted us
From the impatient bedchambers of beauty—
But the yearning for the dawn’s face was too dear
The hem of our radiant beauty’s garment was very close.
The load of desire was not too heavy,
Exhaustion lay somewhere on the margin.
It is said that light has removed the darkness now
It is said that journeying feet have found their destination
The pain in our hearts have gone now
Joy of freedom—yes; agony of separation—forbidden!
But the fire of our blood, the eagerness of our eyes, the grief of our heart
Remain unquenched by this cure for disunion’s pain;
From where did the morning breeze come?
Where did it go?
The street‐lamp at the edge of the road has no notion yet
That the weight of the night has not lifted
The moment for the freedom of our heart has not come yet
Let us go on, we have not reached the destination yet.

Swathes of the country had been depopulated when indentured labourers were transported to European colonies across the world in the 19th century after slavery was abolished. Freedom came a century later, after 74,000 Indian troops died WWI and 87,000 in WWII to protect the interests of its colonizing power. During WWII, the war-time prime minister of the colonizer reserved grains in India for troops, precipitating a deadly famine. Counts of civilian deaths due to famine were first placed at 1.5 million, but by 1947 had crept up to about 2.5 million. Attempts at more accurate counting later found significantly more deaths, not a negligible fraction of civilian deaths in Russia in the same war, or the number of Jewish people killed in the “Final Solution”.

I speak to Waris Shah today, Amrita Pritam

(translated from Punjabi; Waris Shah wrote a Punjabi poem about star-crossed lovers Heer and Ranjha)

I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love

Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;
Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:

Arise, friend of the afflicted; rise and see the state of Punjab,
Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenaab flowing with blood.

Someone filled the five rivers with poison,
And this water now irrigates our soil.

Where was lost the flute, where the songs of love sounded?
And all Ranjha’s brothers have forgotten to play the flute.

Blood rained on the soil, graves ooze with blood,
The princesses of love cry their hearts out in graveyards.

Today all the Quaido’ns have become thieves of love and beauty,
Where can we find another one like Waris Shah?

Waris Shah! I say to you, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love.

75 years is a lifetime. The only living survivor of the partition in my extended family is an old aunt who remembers herself at 17 years of age, staying to finish her school exams before leaving home by a train out of a country which was now no longer hers.

Old children and daughters, Annadashankar Roy

(translated from Bengali)

You scold your daughter
Because she broke a bottle of oil
But you overgrown children
Break and divide India!

Break provinces, break districts
Land, home,
Bedstead, rice heaps,
Factories, railways!

Tea estates, coal mines,
Colleges, police stations, offices,
Chairs, tables, wall clocks,
Peons, police, professors!

Warships, tanks,
Cannons, planes, horses, camels,
Breaking and dividing
A festival of loot!

You scold your daughter
Because she broke a bottle of oil
But you old children
Break and divide India!

Tingmo: steamed bread from Tibet

Steaming is not exactly a common technique when it comes to raising a yeasty bread. So when we decided to sample a Tibetan kitchen in Leh, I was happy to go with tingmo (or Tenga momo). I discovered later that recipes were easy to find on the net (here, there, and everywhere), and it was the lead item in a Tibetan cookbook that was gathering dusty bytes in my e-reader. What do you have with it? There were many choices, but we went with the mutton shapta. Shapta (or Sha btra) has a thick sauce that goes well with the fluffy tingmo. Our server later told us that it can be had for breakfast with butter and honey. I can imagine that! Some Tibetan food is easily available in the plains, but traveling to the mountains helps you to find the breadth of this culinary culture.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 3

A two-storeyed building runs around two sides of the inner courtyard of the Hemis Gompa. It is built in the traditional style. The supporting walls start as a sturdy wooden frame, and are then filled in with unfired clay blocks, plastered and painted. The roof rests on an elaborate carved wooden section which stands on this. The plastered panels contain paintings which tell stories.

These exposed panels probably weather fast at this altitude, with its high UV flux and annual extremes of temperature, and are probably repainted. I saw different panels are in different states of weathering. Even in a heavily weathered state, the iconography of Gautama Buddha in the panel on the right above is clear from the elongated ears. He is shown with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, which indicates that he is shown teaching.

The Hemis gompa perhaps first became famous in the west after Nicholas Notovich, a Russian journalist, wrote a book in 1894 (titled La Vie inconnue de Jesus-Christ, The Hidden Life of Jesus Christ) claiming that he had visited this monastery in 1887 and studied two scrolls which gave an account of Jesus’ missing years. According to Notovich, the lost gospel was named “”Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men”, and described how Jesus spent time learning about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, before returning to Galilee. In complete disbelief, Max Mueller wrote to the chief Lama of the monastery, who wrote back saying that no foreigner had visited in 15 years. This was corroborated by J. Archibald Douglas of Agra, who traveled to Hemis and spoke to the Lamas. Nevertheless, Notovich’s book sold very well, and went through eight impressions in one year.

Public religious art is always meant to instruct, and is an open book to those who grow up in the culture. When I see paintings of the Ramayana in south east Asia, I have no difficulty following the story, even though they seem to emphasize what are sometimes considered obscure bits of the epic in India. But when it comes to the stories of Vajrayana Buddhism I’m a little lost. The myth of the Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, is unfamiliar to me, even if you start with the story that the Buddha predicted “After my parinirvana, after ten and two years, in the land of Udiyana, a man called Padmasambhava, will come who will be better than me.” The stories of the Guru preaching to Dakinis, purifying the Himalayas, and his return in his various lives are not stories I know well enough to follow the story told in these panels. However, panels of his receiving alms and flying to the mountains are recognizable.

The colours in these paintings may have faded but they remain extremely attractive. They are painted on a dry wall, but there are several layers to the colours. The underpainting serves to intensify the colour of the outer layer, an effect that is easily visible in the paintings one sees inside shrines. As the outermost layer weathers, its effect on the underpainting gives a wonderful luminosity which one does not see otherwise.

Looking at the moon

There’s an old and widespread story of how Chukar partridges (Alectoric chukar) keep gazing at the moon, in a case of unrequited love. The sighting of a pair of Chukar gave me a lifer as we came down from the 5.5 Kms high pass of Khardung La towards Leh, two kilometers below. The male held this moon-gazer’s pose as long as we stopped to watch, while the female foraged. My guess is that he was on the lookout for other males. During the summer’s breeding season the birds, which are otherwise gregarious, have been seen to turn territorial. Once the incubation of eggs start, the male is said to leave (although there could be a conflicting report). You can see from the photos here that the male and female are very similar in size and shape. This lack of sexual dimorphism in birds usually happens when the parents take turns in the rearing of young. So I guess there is more dependable knowledge of the breeding behaviour of Chukar which I haven’t come across.

I was sure that there were pheasants and partridges to be seen around Khardung La, so I’d kept a keen eye on the passing slopes. As a result, I saw my first pair of Chukar at an altitude of slightly less than 4.5 kms. They are not birds of extremes. In fact their natural range seems to extend in a wide band stretching from the east of the Bosphorus to the the Pacific coast of China, with a finger reaching down to the Sinai peninsula in Africa. Breeding populations have been established in Europe (where they corrupted the gene pool of closely related species) and North America. It’s actually quite a feat of bad luck to have missed then around Dehra Dun, Haridwar, and Naini Tal, where they are easily visible. But this sighting at least moderated my disappointment at not seeing snowcocks in Leh. It also puzzled me to see a pair this late in summer. Hatching an egg takes less than a month, but I would have expected fledging the chicks to take a couple of months at least. By then it would be mid-October, and cold enough to make foraging hard at these heights.

Because of their wide availability they have been widely hunted in the past. So I was surprised to see that there are continuing studies of the histology of these birds with new discoveries being reported even now. There have been studies of the population genetics of Chukar from China, and of climatic effects on their size from Israel. But the oddest study I came across was of their electrocardiograms (ECGs) from birds which were awake. What I could see from this was that their heartbeats would be considered unthinkably abnormal for humans. But in the absence of data from other birds, I wonder what one can conclude from such a study. Still, knowledge is knowledge I suppose. Who knows how it could be used in the future.

Leh Palace

One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.

The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.

You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.

The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.

On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.

There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.

The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.

Hunder sunset

Hunder had one of the most relaxing hotels we’d ever been in. The Family said “Lucky we decided to stay two nights here.” Most people were passing through in one night. A few, old hands, had decided to stay longer. We resolved to come back later just to relax here. But in the meanwhile, there was a garden to relax in, and a sunset to watch.

After that, on the other side of the valley we waited for the moon to clear the line of mountains. Rather than jumping over the ridge, as I might have done, it seemed to creep up the slope. It was a futile attempt, because the clouds rolled in before it could top the ridge line. We decided to go for dinner. Later we saw that the moon was full. Good to have these ancient calendars; on holidays I lose track of days and dates.

Probable, possible

We’d been driving through the desert highway which ran parallel to, and high above, the course of the Indus. The undulating landscape around the highway was carved out of a soft but rocky soil. I found later that the river has been moving soil around the plateau for 10-20 million years, and this aspic made of soil and rock is called the Indus molasse basin. The phrase “lunar landscape” was invented by an unknown hack as an utterly wrong description for this riverine landscape. Millions of tourists now repeat it unthinkingly, because the land does not look green and fertile. But the word for a desert is desert.

Like in any desert there are plants which grow here. There are insect communities which they sustain. There are lizards and spiders which prey on the insects. And there are, very visibly, birds which prey on the predators. During the drive my eye adapted quickly to spotting clumps of grass or plants huddled low to avoid the wind. The altitude means that the air is thin, and the UV levels are high. The resulting glare plays games with your sight, and distinguishing green from the khaki landscape may be hard, unless you have grown up in the hot dusty plains of northern India.

As a result I managed to spot these flowers as we sped by. Nassir Khan, our guide and driver for the day, stepped on the brakes immediately, and I had only a short walk up a slope to where the plant was growing out of a clod of earth. This was a globe thistle for sure. We were at a height of above 3000 m, and considering that we were in Ladakh, this was almost certainly the Himalayan blue globe thistle (Echinops cornigerus). The appearance of the bracts, the flowers, the stems, and the leaves are all consistent with this identification.

But the literature is rife with confusion between E. cornigerus and the snow-white globe thistle (Echinops niveus), perhaps half of it due to amateurs like me. Typically the confusion occurs at lower altitudes, where E. niveus (or even the low-altitude, Indian globe thistle, Echinops echinatus) is mistaken for its high altitude cousin. It is often said that E. niveus is found to a height of 1700 meters in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Nepal. But that altitudinal ceiling was only reported in the early 1980s from sites in western Nepal. With warming weathers, and ever increasing traffic, it is not impossible that it has spread its range along this road, the Srinagar-Leh highway. Instead of adding to the confusion, let me keep the issue open until clinching evidence emerges, with the proviso that this is more likely to be Echinops cornigerus.