The Secret Garden of Nek Chand

We had an evening in Chandigarh before we left for the Falachan valley. On the road from Delhi we talked of what we could see. Although I’d been to the city on work before, I’d seen nothing of it. So, when The Family said she wanted to see Nek Chand’s rock garden, I was happy to go along with the idea. The Young Niece had been there, done that, on a school trip earlier in the year, and she agreed that it was a wonderful place to go back to.

Nek Chand’s story is fascinating. An untaught artist, he atarted creating a dream world exactly sixty years ago, illegally on land which belonged to the city. About fifteen years later, it was discovered, and the works would have been destroyed, had it not caught the imagination of the residents of the city. It remained as a project caught in a limbo between official acceptance and resentment, until the mid 1990s, when a trust was formed to take care of this art project.

“Rock garden” is an inadequate description of this sprawling open art work. I thought of it as an imagined land. Partly landscaped waters and pavilions, partly peopled with fantastic beasts and people made from broken tiles, bangles and other scavenged materials. There were parts of this land which seemed completely abstract, for example the wall made with broken electrical fittings from the 50s. I thought that the nearest thing to this that I’d seen before were Gaudi’s works. This was partly accidental, because Nek Chand’s artistic vision was shaped by nature. But it was also partly because of the medium used: the use of trencadis, for example. The short time we spent here seemed inadequate, and we plan to be back on a longer trip to Chandigarh.

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The last lap

The road from Chandigarh to Kullu passes through the Aut tunnel. We didn’t need to do that. At Aut, we turned left instead, and passed over the barrage on the Beas, just downstream of the junction with the river Sainj, with the famous Larji barrage. We’s climbed steadily since we passed Mandi, and we were already at an altitude of 1 Kilometer above sea level. At these places the roads are not always open. You can come to a halt while an earth-mover pushes a fallen boulder away from the road. I took the featured photo at just such a stop.

A few tens of kilometers before we had passed a section of the road which was being widened and relaid. The look of an industrial wasteland created by a combination of earth-movers, road rollers and sundry other equipment can be impressive, but does not stop the traffic. I’d taken a photo as we whizzed past. To travel to a time table is to miss opportunities to take photos. This was one such place. I could have easily spent fifteen minutes at this point taking photos.

I got an opportunity as we moved into the Tirthan valley. The Tirthan river falls into the Sainj just beyond the Larji barrage. As soon as we entered this stretch of the road, we passed an earth-mover at rest. I got the photo which you see above as we passed by. At the forced stop a few kilometers on, where I got the featured photo, one of these machines was at work clearing the road. I suppose that these things are parked at various points along the road, so that they can quickly reach where they are needed.

The photo which you see above illustrates one of the confusing points about the topography of these rivers. This is the junction of the Sainj and Beas. I would normally have expected that the straight channel is the Beas, and its tributary, the Sainj, comes more or less at a right angle to fall into it. Here, it seems that the Beas takes almost a right angle turn. I suppose this is due to a convention by which the bigger of the two streams which join at a confluence gives its name to the river downstream of the join.

Once we had passed an altitude of a Kilometer, the lifestyle of people clearly changed. I began to see structures similar to those in the photo above. The shed on the roof of the house stores hay and cut grass for cattle in winter. I’d earlier seen these sorts of structures in the eastern Himalayas. I took it to mean that there can be some snowfall in this region, so that storing cattle feed becomes important in winter.

You can see another specialty of houses in this region in the photo above: the roofs tiled with thin sheets of slate. I looked around and began seeing slate in the rocks surrounding us. The other main rocks here seemed to be quartzite and gneiss. I guess that the presence of so much metamorphic rock should have told me something about the geology of the Sivaliks range of mountains that we were in. But I’m a dud at that; I just enjoy the view.

As we climbed up the Tirthan river valley, the vegetation changed. We stopped to admire a Jacaranda tree in bloom. The Family and I were reminded of our trips through Bhutan a decade ago. The Young Niece had not seen Jacaranda before, and was quite thrilled with the bright purple flowers. The Lotus said that he hadn’t expected the area to be as beautiful as it looked. I could agree with that. Once off the Kullu highway, there were few other people on the road. We seemed to have left the haphazard growth of villages behind. There was a sense of peace that descended on us, in spite of the fact that all our phones were running out of charge. But there were few junctions on the road, and the GPS was not really needed.

The road rose and fell. At one point, when the road had come down almost to the level of the river, I saw this beautiful house near the road. In the golden light of the setting sun, it looked perfectly peaceful. We could have stopped and looked for a place to stay the night. But Dilsher from our hotel sent us a message saying that they were waiting for us. So we went on.

We stopped briefly for tea. It was our first halt since lunch, more than four hours before. The temperature had changed completely. We were now at an altitude of 1.5 Kilometers above sea level. The heat of the plains had vanished from my memory. I put on a sweater as I got off the car. We sat on a terrace at the level of the road and had our nice warm tea with some biscuits. As you can see from the photo above, this was just the upper floor of a house. You could climb down from stairs from the road, and the main part of the house was downslope, with a nice vegetable garden opening out in front of it, above the river. Dilsher called, and I said that the GPS showed we were less than half an hour from the hotel.

We climbed higher. Eventually I found that the road would climb to an altitude of almost 2 Kilometers, and our hotel would be in a valley whose bottom was 1.8 Kilometers above sea level. The terrain had changed again. We went past Gushaini, a village which straddled the confluence of the Falachan and Tirthan rivers, crossed the Tirthan river, and branched off along the Falachan valley. The surroundings looked quite different again. We were still in the Shivaliks, of course, but in its upper reaches. The vegetation was a mixture of middle altitude trees.

As we climbed, the vegetation changed. I took a photo of the hillside covered with a single variety of trees, with electrical lines threading through them. The only trees which I have seen before outgrowing its competition at similar altitude are Chir pine. So I thought that’s what I was looking at. But now, looking at the photo above, it is clear that these are not chir pine. Pines, firs, spruce and oak are among the main trees which grow at this altitude. I’m almost as bad at identifying trees as I’m at geology, so I have absolutely no idea what these trees are.

We were almost there. Just before the batteries of my phone drained out, I took a photo of the sun setting into the Falachan valley. Fortunately, we reached our destination before sunset. We marveled at the 100 meter slope we had to climb down. Dilsher in person was quite as welcoming as he had been on the phone. I congratulated The Family for finding a wonderful place. It took us a day to realize that the distance from Chandigarh to the hotel, which we had taken about 11 hours to cover, could be done in around 7 hours. Soni had driven very carefully, and we were happy with that. But as we sat next to the river and drank a tea, I couldn’t help feeling that if he had kept to the average time on these roads, I might have had time to stop for better photos.

Driving to the doors of the Himalayas

The drive from Chandigarh to the tunnel at Aut swings back and forth from near the Sutlej to the Beas: two of the five rivers which give rise to the name Punjab. This is an area of massive geo-engineering projects from two generations back. The city of Chandigarh can be considered to be one of these projects, since it was planned and built in roughly a decade. Our road up to Aut passed very close to the Bhakra-Nangal dams, one of the projects which was called a “temple of modern India” By Nehru, and which completely transformed Punjab’s agricultural economy. It turned out that the topography of the hills was such that we would not have a view of the dams. In fact, we seemed never to come very close to the Sutlej river; the featured photo is one of the closest views we had of the river.

Soni, who was driving our car, stopped just outside Chandigarh at a petrol station. This was the heart of rural Punjab, and I saw a tractor pull up to the pump to refuel. That’s not something I get to see often. This part of the highway was full of tractors and motorbikes. These thinned out as we began to climb up the slopes of the Sivaliks. These are the foothills of the Himalayas, never rising beyond 3 Kilometers above sea level, but carved up into twisted ranges by meandering rivers. There was an abrupt climb immediately after we fueled, and we left behind the unseen lakes formed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam.

We stopped for an early lunch. Across the road I could see a temple of contemporary India being built (photo above). We saw lots of them along the way. The older temples are off the main road, and require a bit of climbing to get to. The new temples are all built to be easily accessible by car. A little market was growing up in this narrow shelf around the road. I poked my camera into a little saloon and caught the photo you see below.

The road continued to stay close to the Sutlej. We would cross some of its larger tributaries every now and then, as the road jumped from one ridge to another slightly further north. Soni was one of the most uncommunicative persons I’d come across, but he realized that we were interested in rivers. So he stopped at a point where we had a grand view of a trickle of a river through a wide valley. A long bridge spanned the valley, but this was not the Sutlej. The far away glint of water which you can see in the photo below is the Sutlej.

The slopes were gentler now, but we were climbing continuously. The houses began to change character. The simple whites and greys of the lower slopes were giving way to different colours. I noticed that cheerful pink roofs were more common as we climbed. Sloping roofs with this colour of tiles was clearly a specialty of Himachal Pradesh. We would see more of these roofs as we went higher

The external paint on walls also began to take on the colours of advertisements for paints that you see on TV. Do advertisements follow life, or the other way around? In these days of viral culture seeping through cables, the difference between life and ads is probably inconsequential. We forged on.

I began to look for doors: not the metaphorical ones which we were headed for, but the honest-to-goodness doors which are the Norm. There was a profusion of windows, but precious little of doors. This roadside eatery, with its lovely rank of dekchis lined up on a counter is an example. There must be doors here, but they are lost in the gloom below the terrace. All I could see as we passed by were windows.

Then, as we passed over yet another stream, The Family shouted something that could be “Eureka” or “Rubicon”. She had the map app on her phone active all this while, and it told us that we were crossing the Sutlej. From here we were headed towards the Beas. Soon enough, we reached the little district town of Mandi.

Mandi looked like a typical hill town: precarious structures leaning on each other, cut through by narrow streets, hemmed in by slopes. They spread laterally along slopes, rather than in circles around a town center. I liked the cheerful pink colour of the town. We’d originally planned to stop here for lunch, but we’d eaten already. So we sped by the town.

We were almost a kilometer above sea level now, and the typical Himalayas houses began to show up along the road. Like in the photo above, you see a single story from the road. But if you walk up to the house, you would find another story or two below the road, snuggling into the slope. Often the level at the road is used as a shop or a garage. This one had its shutters down (doors at last!) but it was clearly neither.

In no time at all we reached the last of the major geo-engineering projects along this road: the barrage at Pandoh. This connects the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, and utilizes the difference in altitude between them to generate electricity. The gentle Pandoh lake stretches behind the dam, curving through the valley which the Beas had carved out ages ago. The road went along the river all the way to the 2.8 kilometer long tunnel to Aut. This is truly the doorway to the high Himalayas, one which we would not push through.

Delhi to Chandigarh: highway kitsch

For most of the distance between Delhi and Chandigarh, you would follow National Highway 44. It turns out that this is the highway of kitsch. Finding a three-headed dragon in a parking lot, I asked The Young Niece whether it was from Harry Potter. The answer was definitely “No. Harry Potter only has a three headed dog.” This was a friendly dragon, and probably not called Fluffy. She posed under the dragon with an ice cream cone in her hand (which did not melt under its breath).

Much before that, before we had left the gravitational attraction of Delhi, we passed this wonderfully kitschy temple. The dwarapala of classic temple architecture have been replaced by giant statues of Ram and Hanuman. I took the photo as our car flew down the highway. Later, looking at the picture I was not sure whether the structure just behind the dwarapala is a dhaba or a temple. The triple spired structure behind the cube is definitely a temple, but, going by the signboards, the cube is probably a dhaba.

Our flight had landed in Delhi just after ten, and now it was getting to be time for lunch. The distance between the airport in Delhi and the center of Chandigarh can be covered in about four and a half hours, not counting a halt for food. The road is lined with dhabas, but most are empty of clients. It seems that opening a roadside eatery is a popular business, but not one which is highly remunerative. All the crowds seem to stop at places which are full of kitsch like the three-headed dragon.

That dhaba also had toilets which were guarded by these statues in armour: another touch which was right out of an alternate world Harry Potter. “Of course,” I told The Family, “in this part of the world it has to be Hari Puttar.” Reassured, I walked into the clean loo. The Lotus tried to put forward a different theory of the origins of these statues, but I think the Hari Puttar story is too colourful to be wrong.

Even the divider between the states of Haryana and Punjab is kitschy. Just after Amabala (or before, if you are coming from Chandigarh) is this amazing state border. The highway passed below a complicated arch with the name of the state written on it in large friendly letters. On the divider was a tall pole holding up something which looked like a conch shell disguised as a submarine. Some day in the future all this might look like classic art. I wonder what the kitsch of that time might be.

Views of a river valley

Up in the foothills of the Himalayas, rivers come down rapidly from the heights. It is said that it takes a week’s hiking to reach the snout of the Tirth glacier, from which the Falachan river flows, but the water takes only half an hour to reach the village which we stayed in. The valleys are deep, narrow and twisted. We climbed about a 100 meters every time we went up to the road from the resort, and then climbed that same steep route back down on our return. From the road I took this photo of the sunset over the valley. In a narrow platform along the road, villagers cultivate wheat in this season. The further hills are the cliffs on the other side of the valley. Our resort takes up all 200 meters of the valley floor.

The climb is too steep to do with baggage, so there is this ingenious rope-way to winch baggage up and down. The counterweight to a loaded basket is one with jerry cans of water. That’s really clever. Our first climb down was hair-raising. There was a narrow and steep path down the cliff, with eight switchbacks. This was the first time The Young Niece was outside a city, and I had to hold her hand all the way down. Children learn fast. By the time we left, she could do it by herself while carrying her own backpack.

It was a wrench to leave this secluded valley. Before we walked up that path for the last time, I stood near the middle of the valley and took two photos to remember the place by. The Family talked of going back next year. But the world is full of wonderful places, and I’m sure that next year we will find somewhere else to go to.

Going with the Flow

Visa delays made us cancel our trip to Milan and Venice. While I was busy canceling flights, hotel bookings, advance tickets for various shows and viewings, The Family was also busy. She planned an alternate trip in a couple of days: with all the hotels, cars, and flights booked in the twinkling of an eye. The trip involved a flight to Delhi, a really long road trip through Chandigarh, Mandi, Aut, then up the valley of the glacier-fed river of Tirthan, and finally branching into the valley of the river Falachan (also fed by the same glacier, Tirth). All I had to do was sit in the car and then, after arriving at our resort, take photos of the fast-flowing river.

Idle holidays are full of deeply trite thoughts. As I played with exposure to capture the flow of water over stone, I thought to myself that water is the unbeatable strategy in a game of paper-scissors-stone. Water dissolves paper, rusts scissors, and covers stone. When your thoughts run so shallow you realize that you are shutting your mind down for a good restful holiday.

Archdukes, Counts and Popinjays

The late 19th century British military men who had the leisure to turn into naturalists seemed to spend their days assigning “common names” to butterflies which had been described in the preceding centuries. As a result, the plains and hills of India are populated by exotic British nobles and their hangers on. We know these names from Charles Bingham’s monographs on the butterflies of India, but I wonder whether the idiosyncracies are his alone. The Dark Archduke (Lexias dirtea) was far from rare in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. I kept noticing the brightly spotted females (see the featured photo) in clearings and along tracks in the jungle, as they came briefly to rest on the ground.

I had a harder time spotting the male. The one time I was certain was when I saw the specimen in the photo above. The brown spotted one is the male L. dirtea. The brightly striped one is a Common Lascar (another example of the idiosyncratic British naming system). I saw several butterflies perched just above head height on bushes around the tracks that I followed, which could be the male.

The photo that you see above is of a Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea). The archaic 19th century word describes a vain and colourfully dressed person from a middle English word for parrot, descended from Arabic through Spanish and French. This name also comes to us from Charles Bingham’s famous monographs on the butterflies of India. There were a couple of times when I was not sure that a similar looking butterfly was really the Popinjay; it could have been the male Dark Archduke. The spots at the wing edges of a Popinjay extend over both fore and hind wings, but on the male Dark Archduke similar decorations occur only on the hindwing. Information on the Popinjay is scarce; all I could find were descriptions. Nothing seems to be recorded about its caterpillars, and what they feed on, nor about its caterpillar and pupa.

The pupa that someone found on a dry leaf (photo above) was very likely to be of a Dark Archduke. I wish I’d managed to see one of its caterpillars. The photos that I saw of the later moults of the Dark Archduke’s caterpillars are spectacular.

So many archdukes and only one count! I saw this single Grey Count (Tanaecia lepidea) basking in the last light of the day. Interestingly, this is more widespread in India, being found all along the foothills of the Himalayas east of Uttarakhand, and in the Western Ghats. I may have seen this before in the nearby reserve forest of Nameri, north of the Brahmaputra, but I don’t recall seeing it in other parts of India. I did not see the caterpillars of this species, nor the pupa. Descriptions and photos of these earlier stages of its life-cycle make me believe that I’m missing something spectacular.

Grass

When you think of Kaziranga, the picture that comes to mind is of rhinos grazing peacefully in open grasslands. This is true. But many other things are also true. There is a lot of water, which hides rare otters and turtles. There are trees and forests. In fact, the silk cotton tree is a pest which is threatening to take over the grassland. There are elephants, swamp deer, tigers, wild pigs, and hog deer.

The gallery which you see here is a little kaleidoscope of images from Kaziranga, each featuring grass. Click on one and scroll through for a larger format, if you wish.

An orange oakleaf

While walking through the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, I kept seeing a bright orange, blue and black butterfly flitting just under the lower canopy. It was a good flyer, and kept disappearing into the darkness beyond the paths we were following. Mandar claims that he doesn’t know butterflies, but he manages to give a good imitation of an expert. He said immediately that this was an Orange Oakleaf (Kallima inachus).

This was my first sighting of this widespread flyer. Its range extends from Jammu and Kashmir east to Arunachal Pradesh and the other states of north-eastern India along the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also found in central India and the Western Ghats. Mandar was keeping a close look at one while it flew, and so noticed when it came to rest on the trunk of a tree. At rest it is perfectly camouflaged as a leaf. A bird had clearly taken a bite out of the wings of this one.

Very few things can fly with half of its wings gone. If you look at a butterfly carefully, you’ll see that its muscles drive only the front wings; the back wings are usually just loosely attached to the pair in front. The larger surface area of the paired wings allows the maneuverability needed to evade predators. Laboratory studies have shown that butterflies can continue to fly without their hindwings; they just become a little slower. This study also has an interesting bit of speculation about why day-flying butterflies and moths are often brightly coloured.

I haven’t seen a butterfly which is missing bits out of its front wings. I suppose they just can’t fly without them. If a bird gets a bite out of the forewing, then the butterfly just falls out of the air and the bird can just pick it up. It would be interesting to keep watch for a photo of a butterfly with part of its forewings gone.

Malkohas, Coucals and Cuckoos

The featured photo is not spectacular, but I’m really fond of it. Until now it’s the only time I’ve seen a Malkoha sitting in the open. All my previous sightings have been of these birds skulking in deep shadows, or breaking out momentarily as it flits from one hide to another. This is the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis), a lifer for me. The photo does not show the patch of bright colour around its eyes. The Wikipedia page on this bird contains a wonderful photo, so I have hope that one day I will be able to get a better photo.

A day before I took that shot, we stopped as one of my companions thought that she had seen a Malkoha. I took a few shots of the bird hunkered down behind a lot of criss-crossing branches. After looking at it carefully, we concluded that it was really an Indian cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus). This is not an unusual error. Malkohas (genus Phaenicophaeus) belong to the family Cuculidae, which also includes cuckoos. Many of them are skulkers and hard to photograph.

Earlier in the second day I’d had a hard time trying to photograph another member of this family: the Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis). This is widespread, seen even in Mumbai, but I’ve only managed a couple of good photos of it. This time around I got the rust coloured wings and the long tail which gives it the alternate name crow pheasant, but not its dark coat and bright red eyes. The Lotos had stopped us to photograph this bird because she’d never managed to get a good photo; I hope she got something better than mine.

These birds can drive you cuckoo.