Lights. Camera.

Mornings are dark and blue now, at the end of the monsoon. We spotted the colour in the sky as we walked towards the small turboprop which was to fly us to Bhuj. The tarmac was lit up by bright lights as we entered the plane. The Rann of Kutch was our destination. This is a vast swamp formed in historical times by the geology of India. As the Indian plate continues to sweep north-east at the grand pace of five centimeters a year, it raises the plain of the Indus and the vast desert around it fast enough that historical records tell us of the Rann being cut off from the sea to form first a vast inland lake, and then a salty marsh. Rivers come into being and disappear, the weather changes, wealthy civilizations rise, fall, and are forgotten. This is a marvel of geology that few think of as such.

The town of Bhuj was the starting point of our trip. The Kutch was the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2001, as two geological plates released the stresses due to their movement. Since then Bhuj has not had any buildings more than three stories high. Standing at the edge of the Thar desert, it has had its share of the monsoon rain this season. The place was hot, already 26 degrees as we landed early in the morning. The day gradually became a sultry steam bath. Walking through the crowded lanes of the old town outside the palace walls, we were happy to pass under the shade of huge sheets of cloth hung up overhead to provide shade. The desert sun filtered through them. The vast geographical variety of India spawns varied lifestyles and sub-cultures, more than are dreamed of in some philosophies. We moved from one shade to another, eyes adjusting to new colours at every transition.

The palace complex turned out to be quite fascinating. I had forgotten that this was a rather important kingdom until a hundred years ago. Even sixty years ago it was so rich that the former king bailed India out of crises. My attention was caught by a collection of ancient glass plate photographs. They come from the very earliest days of photography, and are among the first attempts to capture the light of old days and preserve them artificially. I took a photo of the negative on the glass plate. One button on Gimp creates a positive out of it. This image is almost a hundred and twenty years old. The Maharaja, possibly Khemgarji III the Progressive, is seated in the center, flanked by his sons, while his diwan and other ministers stand behind him.

This was planned as a bird-watching trip. We had to leave the city and travel into the desert. This strange land provides a niche for several specialized species. Also, at this time of the year it is a stop-over for several species on their biannual migration. To get there we had to drive. The land is full of nomadic animal herders. Late in the evening flocks of animals, sheep and goats, or cows and buffaloes, or herds of camels would use the road, leaving only a narrow gap for motorized traffic. I tried to catch a photo of such a flock in the scatter of light from our car’s headlights.

The desert is the preferred habitat of scorpions. Most are tiny. All fluoresce under UV lamps. It is easy to walk through the rocky desert at night with an LED torch light set to UV. As you swing it around, any scorpion in the area will immediately fluoresce. Seasoned naturalists will tell you that they even glow in moonlight, but that glow is something I can’t recognize. The UV torch lights that are available in the market are bright enough that you can photograph a scorpion by one.

The scorpion was relatively benign. But the saw-scaled viper, Echis carina, that we nearly ran over on the road later was not. They are among the four deadliest snakes in the country; some say deadlier than the cobra. Our driver, another birder, gently urged it away from the road with a stick. I took a photo in the penumbra of the car’s headlights. You can see the pattern which gives this genus its name. Hopefully this individual won’t be roadkill. It had been a long day. The bird sightings would come the next day.

Edible?

Yellow flowers are not very common in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. So when you scan a meadow, these flowers jump out at you. It has to do partly with the response of the human eye, which is most sensitive to yellows and greens in the spectrum. Many insects, on the other hand, are more sensitive to blues and the, to us invisible, ultraviolet. In any case, I’d spotted this tiny flower quite early, but took my time plodding up to it. The rain had stopped, and a little skipper had come out of hiding from under a leaf and headed for the same flower.

These creepers are quite common across the Sahyadris, but I’ve not yet got round to identifying it down to the species. It is clearly a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). This includes an incredibly large number of edible plants, pumpkins and squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Every part of the cucumber vine growing in our balcony is edible, leaves as well as flower. I wonder about this wild species.

Saturday’s spinner

There was only one tree on the sloping meadow in Khandala where I went trigger happy with my camera. The Family sat under it during the shower while I stood in the rain taking photos of raindrops on roses or anything else in sight. When I joined her in the shelter, I noticed a spider web right above us: a perfect spiral dewed with raindrops. Just the kind that my nieces loved during their goth phases.

A spider waited at the center of the web, perfectly still. Its eight legs were paired into feelers touching four quadrants of the web. I wonder why they are paired up. Does it give the legs better distance resolution? Like the way our paired eyes give us a sense of depth?

Marathon memories

The Mumbai Marathon usually takes place in January. Ten years ago I’d woken up in time to go stand by the road and watch it. All marathons are serious affairs, and the well-funded ones attract international attention. The Mumbai marathon attracted quite a few world class runners for years. That year the top ten were a mix of runners from Ethiopia and Kenya with timings that ranged from 2:09:54 to 2:12:47. Girma Assefa of Ethiopia, then at his personal peak, won that year. That run remains one of his best, although he bettered his time by about two minutes in Paris three months later.

It was already an hour into the main race when I arrived, and the serious runners were no longer bunched up. I saw the lead runners of the pack pass by. Most of them had the lean muscular build of runners, but it was still early enough that a few well-trained amateurs were in the pack. Apart from the main event, there was a half-marathon for beginners, and a short six kilometer course called the dream run.

The dream run was a fun party. Political statement and fancy dress were the order of the day. The Family had decided to join the dream run that year, running to raise money for the protection of tigers. It was a time of a hundred flowers blooming, before the approach of the cultural revolution. The stakes seemed low then, but the same problems have become harder today: the environment, health, and education.

Die Blaue Ratte

While taking photos of Khandala in the blue hour, the photo that you see above reminded me of old days. Finishing a beer with a friend at a pub near the university, we saw a group gather around the barkeeper without ordering beers. As he closed the bar, we thought they looked like they might be going to a late night place. We followed them and discovered what would be our favourite late late night hangout: a pub called Die Blaue Ratte (The Blue Rat). We never figured when it closed in the morning. Years later, when I dropped in to the university to meet a professor, he asked, “And how’s the Blue Rat doing?” I suppose when I was late to work, people guessed where I’d been the previous night.

So it is true that I’ve seen the blue hour of the morning. But I much prefer to take photos of the blue hour in the evening. It is much easier to take several photos of the blue fading into black than the other way around.

Epiphyte or parasite?

Mosses, fungi, orchids, ferns, lichen. I’ve seen many things growing on trees. Very often I cannot identify them. The photos that you see here were taken on a tree in the Sahyadris, at a low elevation. They are two different species. What are they? Orchids or ferns? Some day, when I’ve worked through the monsoon flowers, I’ll get to them.

I don’t even know whether they are epiphytes or parasites. Epiphytes would use the branch or trunk merely for support, without hurting the tree. Parasites would feed on the tree, and would harm its growth. In any case, there is an abundance of animal life inside this greenery. I could see strands of spider silk woven through them. Spiders imply insects which they can feed on. Insects and spiders would be prey for birds. Perhaps I can take an afternoon just to sit near a tree and observe these different kinds of animals.

Topli Karvi

One of the most recognizable of the many species in the genus Niloo sensu Janzen (Strobilanthes) is sadly missing from the handbook Flowers of Sahyadri. This is the species called Strobilanthes sessilis. They most easily recognizable as small bushes which look like an inverted basket (see photo below). This gives them the popular Marathi name of Topli Karvi (topli is the word for basket in Marathi). It is rather widespread, and recognizable also by the deeply grooved elliptical leaves, serrated at the edges and hairy. Even the stalks and buds are hairy, and the flower is the blue which gives Niloo its generic name. It is widespread enough and easy to recognize, and should be in handbooks.

I’d first seen it a few years ago on a trip to the Kaas inselberg. I was new to the flowers of the region, a tyro wildflower spotter, but it didn’t take me any time to learn to spot this plant. Over a couple of years I saw it flowering in late-September and October. This year I saw it in the region of Lonavala, flowering in mid-August. This agrees with the report of flowering times that I saw in eFloraIndia but disagrees entirely with the timings given in Indiabiodiversity and FlowersofIndia. The bushes are reported to be found in the northern end of the western ghats, a much more restricted range than given in the Kew plant list. The limited geographical range is not surprising, since other species of Niloo are reported also to be similarly rare.

One more thing that puzzled me are scattered reports of mass flowering at variously long intervals (called mast seeding). Not impossible at first sight, since about 50 species of the approximately 350 in the genus mass flower after many years. For example, eFloraIndia claims that there is mast seeding of S. sessilis every 9-13 years. There is a variant report in 2008 of its mast seeding in two successive years in Kaas. I saw it mast seeding in 2015 and 2016 in Chiklewadi and Kaas (the featured photo is from 2016). What I saw this year in Lonavala was not mast seeding. Puzzled, I looked at reports on the mast seeding of bamboo and Niloo.

It turns out that mast seeding may be an emergent property of populations and not determined genetically. An article by Janzen documented reports such historical reports for both bamboo and Niloo, and gave detailed observations which could support such a hypothesis. I found this article to be a wonderful read, as clearly written as the classic of natural history by Gilbert White. Another article reports genotyping of a different species of Niloo which mast seeds in one of three different locations. The close similarity of the three genomes led them to believe that the differences in flowering habit had to be sought at the population level instead of individual. Nevertheless, individuals from a mast seeding population continue to flower after many years even when propagated to a different location. What triggers mast seeding in individuals of one population but not in another? Unfortunately the answer is not yet known.

Wide open spaces

Cliffs, ridges, waterfalls. That’s Khandala for you. Speeding along the expressway, I’ve often looked longingly at the meadows around the Duke’s Nose (that cliff was said to resemble Wellington’s profile, and the name remains even when the association is forgotten). The Family is rather blasé about it. She’s spent weekend retreats in one of those villas every year. This year I followed her into some of those places and saw a view which was new to me. I realized that I have to go wider than wide to capture the sense of what I saw. I had to take a panorama.

The meaning of a wide angle is clear to anyone except a photographer. Fussy lenspeople will talk of focal lengths and film sizes, and try to translate it to digital in terms of ratios. By this definition, most smart phones have wide angle lenses. But that does not take into account the software which chops or adds to images. I wondered a little about this as I took a photo of clouds drifting across the slope and the cliff. But only a little, since I was busy trying to figure out whether I should cross the haha (you see it as the brown line beyond the rock in the photo above) and get closer to the lip of the cliff. I walked up a bit further, and found the slope too steep and slippery and decided not to.

I moved a little and took another photo. This time catching the turn in the expressway just before it gets to Lonavala. If you ever wondered how high the monsoon clouds are, go to Khandala. They drift along the roads here, and drop off into valleys. Since this place is half a kilometer above sea level, that tells you how low monsoon clouds get. The fluffy white cirrus clouds that you can see in other seasons are about six kilometers up in the sky. I love the feel of the monsoon in the Sahyadris, the drifting fog that hides and reveals, the strange light, the startling green of these meadows.

Indulgences

Three heavy snacks in as many days is a bit of an indulgence for us. We had an excuse. It was The Family’s birthday, and we spent a night in a nice hotel. Unfortunately we went to sleep a little early, and within minutes of falling into deep sleep we were woken up by a bell. Groggily I opened the door, and it was room service with a smile. “Happy birthday, Ma’am,” the man said, ignoring me completely. He placed a platter on a table, whisked away the dome, and said “Compliments of the house, ma’am.” Nice gesture, but we decided to wait till the morning to taste it. The light foam of whipped cream incorporated fresh strawberries. The alternate layers of a light cake and the same cream melted in our mouths. The bakery at the hotel was justly well known.

After checking in late that afternoon, we had sat on the terrace with a view and had a plate of mixed pakodas to accompany our drinks. Crisp and hot, the pakodas were made of onions, potato, and a couple of chilis. The accompanying coriander chutney was fragrant and had a nice bite of chili. It was good, but pretty heavy. Later The Family said “Good that we don’t have this very often.”

The previous day I’d roasted these small potatoes for dinner. I’ve been trying many different flavours this year, but the one I tried that day was oil from a chili pickle mixed with chat masala and amchur. Our guests liked it. One of them remarked on the combination of crisp crust and soft interior. I was very happy to hear that, because I’ve been tweaking the temperatures and times to get that combination of textures right. I thought the sharp and sour taste goes well with the mild starchy interior of the potato.

Rare but popular

On a walk in a sloping meadow in Khandala, in the middle of a rainy day in August, I came across a bush full of small white flowers which seemed to be very popular with a variety of insects. I’d not noticed this plant ever before, but it was not hard to identify it as Pinda concanensis (pinda in Konkani, pand in Marathi). The genus Pinda contains only a single species, concanensis. The plant is found only in the northern part of the Sahyadris, which means the part of the western ghats around Mumbai.

I was quite taken aback by the number of different kinds of insects which visited it. There were blow flies, a couple of different species of ants, a skipper, and at least one kind of beetle, all visiting one plant at the same time. I wonder whether a rare plant has to make itself popular with pollinators. If it is not, then its rarity could mean that few, if any, insects would visit it by chance. That could lead to an ever decreasing population and eventual extinction.

I spent some time admiring the beautiful compound flowers. They had not opened completely yet. The outer petals were much larger, about a centimeter in size, the inner flowers in the compound had not yet opened, but clearly would be smaller. Like many of these rarer plants of the Sahyadris, this one is likely to be under threat due to extensive loss of habitat. Unfortunately there are not enough field studies to establish the extent of the population and whether it is decreasing. A few generations of botanists in the area are spread thin still trying to identify and classify the immense number of plants in this highly biodiverse region.

Since the plant is rare and I’m unlikely to see them in a different place soon, I end this post with a photo of the stem. The three-lobed serrated leaves are pinnate. The bushes that I saw were about half a meter tall, and stood in open ground which would have been sunny on a clear day. You can see the dense growth around the plant. I did not feel like disturbing them to look at the roots of the bushes to look at the edible tubers which, as a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), they have.