Break of journey

After a long drive from Chandigarh to Delhi, The Family and The Young Niece flew back to Mumbai. I had to take a flight to work. After reaching Lucknow, I had a three hour drive to Kanpur. A break for tea was very welcome. The fact that the tea came in a kulhar was a bonus. The hot tea released the aroma of damp earth, a memory of rain, of deserted railway stations at night.

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The original rose

I’ve seen the Himalayan wild rose all across the northern mountains. My hard drive has photos tagged “HWrose” taken over the last ten years in the eastern Himalayas (Bhutan, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), the middle Himalayas (Uttarakhand), and from the western Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh). One of this last group you see in the featured photo. The bushes range in size from a little less than my height to somewhat taller than me. When I pointed this out to The Young Niece, she said “Really?” and smelt one of them. I’d not thought of doing that ever before, so I took a little sniff, and, sure enough, there was a faint aroma. Now a quick search told me that I should properly call this the Himalayan musk rose (Rosa moschata).

This rainy weekend was the perfect time to sit down and read about the history of roses. It is a complicated history, with lots of characters, and many twists and turns. The first suspects are the Chinese roses, with wonderful names like Old Blush and Tea Roses. But I found that the evolution of scent in these roses have nothing to do with the musk rose. So I changed track and decided to focus on Damask roses. These have been used for centuries in the production of attar; rose water (gulkand) is used in food, and the petals are often used in sweets. It is said that this came to India with the Mughals. Indeed the Baburnama, reputed to be the first autobiography in Islamic literature, speaks of Ferghana with its roses and Tulips. In Europe this rose is called the Castilian rose, but its likely origin is Central Asia. Indeed there are stories of Romans taking this rose to Europe, and also of European religious crusaders taking it back from Damascus.

From here the search quickly led me to a paper on the triparental origin of Damask roses. Through a wonderful series of observations and deductions, the authors of this study find that the Damask rose was cultivated through at least two hybridizations. The first step was the pollination of the ovule of Rosa moschata with the pollen of Rosa gallica. As a result, the bush and the leaves retain the form of the musk rose. Soon after this, the ovule of this hybrid was pollinated with pollen taken from the Central Asian variety called Rosa fedschenkoana.

The mountain rose which The Young Niece taught me to smell is truly the mother of roses: the rose of Babur, the roses of York and Lancaster, the roses which by any other name would smell as sweet.

Luggage lift

When you are walking on a mountain path you do not expect cylinders of cooking gas or other kitchen essentials to go sailing over your head (featured photo). But that is exactly what happens in Falachan valley. The whole valley is criss-crossed by overhead wires. I initially thought that there were a huge number of power lines here, but realized soon that most of the cables are luggage lifts.

Sitting a few hundred meters above the river at the turning point of a climb I saw pine cones around me. Once I noticed the cables they were resting on I hesitated to pick them up; the cables could be live, and this could be a fire hazard, I thought. Later it struck me that the most likely source of these cables were the luggage lifts. Usually cable faults of this kind are attended to reasonably quickly (which could be a day up at these heights).

Walking along the road we came across a family back from the market busy sending their stuff up to their home. I liked that loading station: at my head height, off the road. The cylinder of gas was already loaded into the cage which had come down from the village. Something must have been sent up already, and this cage was the counterweight. It was loaded with jerry cans of water. As we watched the young man poured the water down into the trees. The Family gasped. “Do they waste so much water?” she asked. Indeed, in many towns in hills water is scarce. But we saw lots of springs and glacier fed streams up here. Little villages are probably not short of water. Yet. The empty jerry cans go back up in the cage, along with heavy goods filling the rest of the cage.

We watched the two men load up the cage. They made sure that things were properly placed and would not fall off. Then this young lady sent a message on her phone. Soon the cage was winched up. We could see the counterweight descending. “Is there a road all the way to your village?” The Family asked the girl. “Yes, it is about half an hour’s walk away,” she replied. Then she added, “Maybe two hours for you.”

We weren’t the only spectators. An old man with a load on his back stood with us watching this family. These lifts are an innovation. Although this valley was dense with them, I didn’t see them much elsewhere. I guess the locals have figured out a way to string the lines between mountains, and that technique will take time to diffuse into the neighbouring valleys. It took me some time to puzzle through these thoughts. By the time I realized that there was something special about the Falachan valley, it was too late to ask someone how they string cables between hills.

A decade of midsummer

Where have I been during midsummer in the last decade? I thought I would look at my photos to jog my memory. I don’t have photos from the solstice on every year. For example, the last photo I took this year was a week ago in Mumbai; that’s the featured photo. So I just put together a photo selected from June each year, as close as I could get to the solstice.

2017: Granada (Alhambra)

2016: Frascati

2015: Beijing (Lama temple)

2014: the stratosphere

2013: Mumbai

2012: Thane (railway station)

2011: Paris (the Eiffel tower)

2010: Germany (countryside)

2009: Mumbai

Indore plans

Some years ago, The Family and I went for a very short holiday to Mandu. The way lies through Indore. We spent only a couple of hours in the town on the way back. I remember seeing some cenotaphs (chhatris) of the 19th century Holkar rulers (photo below). We walked through a place called the Sarafa Bazar and found it interesting but less than spotlessly clean. Today Indore is ranked the cleanest city in India. There’s an interesting story behind this transformation. It is also something that made us think of going back to see the city.

Perhaps as a result of this clean up, the street food scene in Indore is something that gets lots of attention on blogs. I saw blogs by Selcouth Explorer, the former Dilliwali Taste Memory, the local expert Megha and the wonderfully named Follow the Eaten Path rave about street food, but naming very different things to eat. There is clearly a lot of variety when it comes to street food of Indore. Two places which crop up over and over again in stories about food in Indore are Sarafa bazar, which is apparently open till two in the morning, and Chhappan dukan in New Palasia, which has 56 different food stalls. I guess the question of where to eat will become an issue in Indore.

Historically, Indore rose with the Maratha empire. In the first third of the 18th century the Nizam granted rights to the Malwa kindom over to the Peshwa, who then handed the town of Indore and the district of Malwa to the Holkar chieftains. Indore remained the main garrison town although Ahilyabai moved the capital to nearby Maheshwar thirty years later. The palace complex of Rajwada was built in 1866, after this move. I discovered some photos from our visit (the door above, and the featured photo) which turn out to be of Rajwada. The Family and I have no independent memory of having been here: so I guess we will go back to see it. The Lalbagh Palace, which also seems to be one of the major sights, was built by a Holkar well after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. We have certainly not seen this. Nor have we seen the Jain temple made of glass, the nearby Jama Masjid, the three century old Khajrana temple, or the less well-known British era red and white churches.

Indore is the gateway to several interesting places nearby. The Family and I have already been to Mandu and Maheshwar. I visited Omkareshwar a while back. So there are few other places to see nearby. Is Dhar interesting enough to make a one and a half hour drive? If we have to take one trip out of Indore, would we rather go to Ujjain, which has been continuously inhabited since 700 BCE? This means that I have to read a lot more.

Trees of the Himalayas

I had little time to prepare for our trip to the Himalayas. I worried about whether I should pack Pradip Krishen’s field guide to the trees of Delhi, but then decided against it; after all most of this book dealt with trees of the plains. There are excellent guides to the birds of India, one for butterflies, ancient ones for other animal orders, and certainly nothing for the trees of the Himalayas. One of the few useful resources I came across was an excellent blog post on the trees of Shimla.

The quick field guide which I made for myself can be useful on future trips. There is such an incredible variety of trees across the Himalayas that anyone could spend a lifetime studying them. The little part which is captured in this small list served me as landmarks to orient myself by.

Name altitude characteristics
Deodar
(Cedrus deodara)
Himalayan cedar
1700-2750 meters
across Himalayas
conifer, 40-50 meters tall, 10 meters girth, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Rai
(Picea smithiana)
spruce
2250-2750 meters
Western Himalayas
conifer, 40-55 meters tall, 3 meters girth, higher branches are upward pointing, really long needles, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Rau
(Abies pindrow)
silver fir
2500-3700 meters
Western Himalayas
40-60 meters tall, 7 meters girth, gray-brown furrowed bark, overall conical shape with level branches, needles have a white streak on the underside, dark purple erect cones, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Chir
(Pinus roxburghii)
Himalayan pine
500-2000 meters
across Himalayas
heavy cone, 40-50 meters tall, 6 meters girth, rough bark, needles are arranged in bundles of three, prefers southern slopes
search
Kail
(Pinus wallachiana)
blue pine
1800-4300 meters
across Himalayas
long cone, 30-50 meters tall, needles are arranged in bundles of five, bluish in colour, generally grows on northern slopes
search
Banj
(Quercus leucotrichophora)
Himalayan white oak
1500-2400 meters
Western and central Himalayas
15-25 meters tall, twisted gnarled trunk, rounded canopy, underside of leaves is white and hairy, acorns edible
search
Moru
(Quercus floribunda)
(also Quercus dilatata)
Himalayan green oak
1700-2700 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 6-9 meters girth, straight trunk with dark reddish brown bark, leaves 4-6 cms long and green on both sides
search
Kharsu
(Quercus semiscarpifolia)
Himalayan brown oak
2800-3250 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 4.5 meters girth, straight trunk with domed crown, dark grey bark broken into small plates, 2.5-10 cm long leaves, with brown underside
search
Phaliyant
(Quercus glauca)
ring-cupped oak
also Japanese oak
widespread 15-20 meters tall, straight trunk with domed crown, dark brown furrowed bark, leaves purple red when new, powdery blue-green underside when older
search
Bras
diverse genus
rhododendron
1500-3000 meters
across Himalayas
shrubs and small trees, glossy leaves, sometimes with a scaly underside, bright flowers
search

First stop in Tirthan Valley

Instead of going through the tunnel to Aut, we crossed the Beas at the Larji barrage, and turned into the valley of the river Tirthan. The traffic eased off instantly. We passed a point where the road was under repair, and decided to stop for tea. There was little roadside shop. As is usual in these parts, behind the shop front was a terrace where you could sit, and below that, tucked into the slope, was the owner’s house, looking towards the river. From the terrace I saw some butterflies hovering around fruits on a parapet at a lower level. When I climbed down the butterflies were gone, but the peaches remained. Two beetles and many ants were busy eating the peach. This looked like a holiday where I would meet many unknown insects; I was happy.

I could see more interesting things at this level. The peaches were placed near a little shrine made out of a shiny cloth draped over a curtain rod and weighed down by stone idols. I could not recognize the idol. I found later that stone craft in this region is still is alive, and people carve local deities for use in homes. This could have been such a piece. The silvery idol of Durga on her lion seemed to be a mass-market piece made in a distant workshop. The niche and the shrine had an aesthetic which I’d not seen in a temple in the plains. This looked closer to Himalayan Buddhist sensibilities. Perhaps they have a common origin.

I turned around and saw an idol of Ganesha tacked up on a tree. Ganesha comes in a variety of forms; in the last couple of decades I’ve seen a lot of experimentation with the form of this idol. This one seemed to be quite mainstream, except for the belly. What was more unexpected was the XXL sign stuck on the same tree above the idol. I looked around to see whether there was any explanation for this. If there was, it did not leap out at me.

I climbed a set of stairs back up to the road, and I noticed another object which was completely unfamiliar to me. A tree by the road, next to the shop, had been turned into some kind of a shrine. The red cloth and the garlands are typically seen at religious spots. But what were the other things doing there: hub caps, locks, a hammer and a jack do not usually go together with religious flags. There was something deeply different here. I found later that every village has a traditional diety, and its own special festival. Spiritual beliefs in these isolated villages are different from the mainstream. I never got to ask questions here and find any answers. I suppose The Family would tell me “Another reason to go back.”

People of Himachal

On a visit to a traditional old village high above the Falachan river, The Family and The Young Niece skipped ahead of me. I walked behind them, feeling disgruntled as ever because I’d not got a good shot yet. A young woman walked ahead of me on the stony path leading two kids. She had a big woven basket slung over her back. Is that the equivalent of my backpack, I wondered. The kids dragged her off the road in their eagerness to crop at the grass. As I passed her, I stopped to take a photo. This was the definitive photo of the day: exactly like a shot from the Hindi movies of the sixties and seventies; village belle, sheep, grass and stone, terraced fields and mountains. I was happy by the time I reached the car.

One of the photos I already had in my card by then was this one of two children who seemed to be the only ones I saw in the village. I took a couple of photos before they were aware of me. Then when they saw me with my boots, backpack, and camera, they came running towards me. They posed, I took their photo and showed it to them. They were absolutely thrilled and went running and skipping away. I wondered for a while why they were not in a school; this part of the state has done very well in bringing all children to school. Then I realized that they were probably a bit younger than school-going children.

Old men in the hills freeze up when confronted with a camera. When I saw this old codger bent over a stick while walking between huts in the village, I knew that I had to try taking a photo without him noticing me. My problem was partly solved when two young men said something to him, and he turned towards them. Unfortunately his back was to me, and I couldn’t get a photo of him with his stick. I did get his very expressive face and that lovely Kullu cap. I wanted more, which is why I remained grumpy till I got the featured shot.

Now looking at these photos I wonder about the difference between the children and the old man. Is living so hard here that a lifetime robs people of their joy?

Peace, quiet, and hard labour

The Falachan river descends from the Zangsu glacier, falling rapidly from about 5 Kilometers above sea level to about 1.5 Kilometers, where it merges into the Tirthan river. We spent a quiet afternoon walking in the Falachan valley at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers. The Family is always magicked by heights. This was the first time The Young Niece had been in the Himalayas, and she was listening to The Lotus talk about the mountains. At one especially beautiful point in the road I took three photos: the featured photo and the two below.

A traditional wooden house with slate roof stood on the road, and below us the Falachan moved rapidly. We crossed a high bridge to a hill on the other side of the river. The untarred path from here moved down in a steep slope to nearly the level of the river. It was late afternoon. We’d eaten a large lunch, and one of Ram’s lovely desserts: chocolate balls dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece protested about the coconut but ate twice as many as any of us. Now we were walking off the lethargy that usually follows such a lunch.

The glacier-melt of the Falachan was absolutely clear. In the golden sun I could see the bottom clearly. Since we were on a holiday I could take my time to gaze at the hypnotic sight of eddies over the stones at the bottom of the river. There is trout here, but I could not see them. The others walked on, leaving me to catch up. I was trying out long exposures on my camera, but I’d forgotten to bring a tripod on the trip. I would be able to capture a sense of the eddies, but not the silkiness of the water.

I followed the others, crossing a rickety little bridge over a rushing waterfall. It swayed as you walked, and some of the planks were better avoided. In one place a plank was missing and you had to skip over the gap. The stream was not far below. A fall could be nasty, but not fatal. We’d seen bridges like this before, but it was a novelty for The Young Niece. She was very excited and waiting for me on the other side. I stopped on the bridge to take a photo of the rushing water. Two outcrops channeled the water into a narrow stream, creating a very shallow rapid. A tripod would have come in handy here. With a really long exposure I could have got a sense of the silky smoothness of the film of water rushing over stone.

The photo that you see above is the longest exposure I could get standing on that swaying bridge. All this water eventually derives from glaciers. Nowadays I cannot help thinking of what climate change would do. The glaciers are melting faster than before, the shallow waters are still not too warm for trout. Not too far in the future, the last of the ice will melt, and the land will become dry. The evergreen forests will already have changed in composition, but as the hills die, the vegetation would no longer hold the soil, and it will start eroding faster. Life in the hills will certainly change. But the afternoon was too pretty to waste on morbid thoughts of a world only The Young Niece would see.

We decided to follow the path up. Was there a destination? We weren’t sure. There were some villages along the path, but we had no idea how far off. This whole area was full of flowing streams and mountain springs, so a high village would not have a major problem with water. Of course, villages tend to grow, and eventually to use up all the water available to them. We had decided to avoid coming through Shimla because it was completely without water. From the road we’d seen a forest of chir pines (Pinus roxburghii). They are the most abundant trees at these lower slopes of the Himalayas, and very little can grow below their canopy. However, chir pine needs sunlight. On this north-facing slope banj oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora, Himalayan white oak) arched over the path.

The Lotus is worse than me at slopes. He decided to rest under the oaks. The Family wanted to walk up a little further. I followed, and The Young Niece, who was still energized by the dessert, came along. There was a steep bit right at the beginning, but then the path levelled off after a turn around the hill. This southern slope was full of chir pines. In the massive trunk of one I saw that rusty iron trishuls had been planted, and they were festooned with the gauzy red scarves reserved for holy sites. Trishuls hold an ambiguous place; they are weapons, but they are also religious objects. I pointed out the rough bark of the chir pine to The Young Niece. The ground was strewn with the pine cones and needles. When the layer of needles is thick enough it deters other trees from growing through.

There was no sign of a village. I hadn’t really expected one closer than five Kilometers away. We could look down into a narrow gorge cut by the stream which later becomes the waterfall crossed by the rickety old bridge. There was a single house by the stream, at the bottom of a cascade of rhododendron trees. Unfortunately the flowering season was over. Looking up-slope we could see another single house at the top of a scarp. This single family had terraced the slope in front of their house and converted it to agricultural use. I thought of all that this must have involved. I don’t think that I will be able to do that kind of physical labour. We turned back from this point.

Street food heaven

The new moon was sighted last night, so today is the Id that ends the month of Ramazan. I thought this might be a good time to bring out this year’s collection of photos which show the food available at nights during the month of religious remembrance in Islam. As always, click on any of the photos to start on the slide show. For the practicing Muslim, Ramazan is a month of daytime fasts; food is allowed only between sunset and sunrise. The food streets around Muhammad Ali Road in Mumbai are brightly lit and dense with people during this time.

I missed most of the month due to travel, but made sure that in the last week I tried out my favourite places. The food street is surrounded by shops selling shoes, clothes, jewelery and perfume: all of which are de rigeur for the Id lunch. Id-ul-fitr, as you might guess, is a major festival with a daytime feast being a focus. Id mubarak to all.