The call of the Hornbill

Yesterday I heard the call of the hornbill again. In the last few years a pair has nested in one of the tall trees in the garden. The nesting season is before March, and the birds are gone by April. The featured photo was taken in early March this year. Mid-October seemed a little too early for these birds to nest.

I was discussing this with The Family when she floored me with a bit of nature lore. Apparently hornbills prey on small birds, and have been spotted raiding the chicks of rose-ringed parakeets. Our garden is full of flocks of these raucous bright green pests. The parakeets nest from September to December. So this is a time when the first chicks have hatched. Maybe these Hornbills were here early to hunt. If so, we should thank them for keeping the population of the parakeet pests in check.

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Sunset glow

For a few evenings there was a beautiful yellow light which would bathe the world around us after sunset. As the red glow on the clouds faded, moments before it turned dark, the world would become a magical yellow. If you mentioned this to someone on the streets of Mumbai, they would smile and agree. The featured photo was taken quite a while after sunset; you can see that the camera, while trying to compensate for the light, makes a blur of the birds.

Land beneath the trees

This is not a light we see every year. After the monsoon the skies are generally clear of dust. If there is the normal pollution of the city, it just creates a haze and reddens the sunset. This colour came with a clear view of the horizon. It wasn’t even as humid as it could have been. It was a mystery until people started mentioning a raging fire on Butcher Island, off the coast. The fuel that is stored for ships on this outer island had caught fire and it took days to bring the blaze under control.

Light effects at sunrise and sunset depend so much on what the air contains. Moisture, dust and smoke are all things that produced beautiful sunsets. What was this due to?

Butterflies before breakfast

I was trying to trace a persistent error message in my camera and eventually found that it was due to a lost set of photos taken two years ago. I’d taken them during an early morning walk to look for birds inside Nameri national park, on the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. On the way back we saw a large number of butterflies in a space of about 15 minutes. I managed to photograph a few of them. This is what biodiversity means!

The Gothic Palace in the Alcazar of Seville

Almost 900 years ago, in 1248 CE, the Moorish rule over Seville came to an end when Fernando III captured the town. His son, Alfonso X, razed a large part of the Almohad palace and built a Gothic palace in its place. Parts of the garden also re-purposed the walls of the old palace. This gallery shows parts of the Gothic palace and the garden behind it.

After monsoon

After the monsoon ends the weather turns unbearably hot again; that’s what an Indian summer is. In the sweltering heat of October it is a minor disaster if you forget to water plants. The rose bush has been putting out flowers through the monsoon, because the rains keep it from drying up. Today I saw that two days of not watering it has begun to affect it.

Methi, fenugreek

Many plants are beginning to bud. I look at the methi (fenugreek) shrub. Every stalk is budding new leaves. The hairy surfaces of the leaves catch every piece of lint which floats by. You have to carefully wash the leaves before you use them in the kitchen.

Hibiscus bud

But really this is the time of the year for insects. The hibiscus bush is beginning to push out flower buds. As soon as one opens, ants swarm over it. Soon they will bring their aphid cows up the stalks. The vegetation below the spectacular flower will be thick with aphids, as ants run up and down their farm milking them.

Dotted moth

Moths have pupated too. I saw this lovely October visitor on the wall today, sitting out in full sight. The lore about bright and visible butterflies and moths is that they are poisonous. Many birds would see this yellow on the wings of the moth more brightly than we do, so it is definitely signaling that it is inedible.

Green lacewing

Well back on the wall I found a few green lacewings. They are nocturnal and have probably come here to eat the aphids from the ant farms. Lacewings are not poisonous: birds and bats will happily eat them. That’s the reason this one was sitting far back on the wall, under an overhang. In another month all these showy insects will be gone. That’s when migratory birds begin to arrive.

Behind closed doors

Our first day in Madrid was long. The last place we walked into was the Almudena cathedral. One set of doors was shut. As I fiddled with my camera in front of the doors, The Family made a sensible suggestion, “Do it later.” So I followed her into the cool interior.

Nave of Almudena cathedral

As we stood in the nave and looked up, I told The Family “Something tells me we are not in Kansas anymore.” Indeed we were not. The Gothic exterior gave way to something totally different inside: colourful, modern, and almost playful.

Vaulting of the Almudena cathedral

I sat down on one of the pews, and peered up at the wooden vaulting, beautifully painted. Later I would come to recognize this as typical of Mudejar architecture. Later still I would realize that this particular example was special: it was the Mudejar style adapted to the twentieth century. Wikipedia tells us that after the Spanish court moved to Madrid, the empire was so busy building cities abroad that it had no money left to build a cathedral in its capital. The main cathedral remained in Toledo. Only in the 19th century was this structure finally started. Construction continued through the 20th century, and was consecrated less than 25 years ago.

Transept of the Almudena cathedral

We moved up an aisle towards the transept. The pews there were blocked off and people were coming in to sit. A service would begin soon. I leaned over and looked down the transept to the other end. The stained glass looked bright and modern, as did the paintings below the windows. The apse was at the western end of this church, another non-traditional touch.

Painted vault in front of the apse of Almudena cathedral

I leant in and back and twisted my arms over to take a photo of the painting on the vault in front of the apse. It was another modern piece. I wished we had come earlier, so that we could take a closer look at the paintings and the radiating chapels. Spain was going to be interesting and strange: behind its unsmiling and traditional facade it is contemporary in a idiosyncratic way. I walked back out to take a photo of the door.

Fire and smoke

One of the biggest festivals of India is the Durga Puja. One part of the festivities is a dance to the goddess performed with live coals in earthen pots. There was a time when only men were allowed to perform this. The times are changing. At least in one place in Mumbai this year the only dancers were women.

Monsoon is made of such things

The Indian Ocean monsoon is a massive planetary scale circulatory system which we are just beginning to understand. Much more easy to see are the things that happen at our scale. In the last decade or slightly more, there have been longer dry spells between heavier showers. Thirty centimeters of rain or more in a few hours is no longer rare. There’s an emergency of this kind every couple of years in Mumbai.

Storm coming in

If you face the open sea on the west of Mumbai you will see very often a storm coming in. You can take a photo, and then look at the satellite map to marvel at the scale of the storm cloud. Sometimes it covers hundred of kilometers. The new views that a phone can add enhance the sense of wonder that one feels about the monsoon. You are not alone. Across the country a million others are seeing this storm coming.

Roads full of water

When the storm passes and the sun comes out, there are pools of water which evaporate slowly. Above the clouds it is astronomical summer: the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. The humidity and heat can be hard. You long for the rain to cool you down.

Clouds rolling in

In the poem Meghdoot, an epic about love in the time of the monsoon, written one and a half thousand years ago, Kalidasa described the monsoon rain on these mountains as “painted streaks on a elephant’s hide”. Watching the clouds roll in over the hills, you understand that he wasn’t talking about water streaks, but the green that suddenly sprouts between rocks.

Clouds invade a dance floor

Low clouds roll relentlessly over the Sahyadris. When it invades a dance floor, it becomes a light which hangs over everything and at the same time hides everything. The dance floor is all music and light and warm moisture. I peer at The Family; we are walking on a cloud. What message does it bring?

Everything is bleak and gray

Sometimes, you think the monsoon is bleak. Roads are washed away. Dark clouds rob the world of colour. But it is warm rain that beats down on you. The hills are alive, really, and growing. When the sun comes out you see the electric green that will fade between the end of monsoon and the beginning of winter. That will be the season of festivals all over India.

Pool of Mercury

Mercury is a liquid metal, and you could fill bowls with it. But to see a pool of Mercury, the size of a swimming pool, glistening in the sun is a little beyond one’s imagination. “Isn’t there a danger of poisoning the water supply?” I asked when I first heard of the pool of Mercury. Can their safety inspection processes really be so dependable?

The Family was having none of it. She laughed hard, and said Mercury was a god before he was a metal. The pool was not of quick silver, but of the god after all. Such a pleasant sight after all my fevered imagining.

Pool of Mercury, Alcazar of Seville

Late in the burning hot morning it was nice to stand here in the Alcazar of Seville and feel the breeze cooling as it played over the water of the pool.

A Renaissance Design

Entering the unfinished palace which Charles V wanted built next to the Alcazar of Alhambra, I had to consciously wipe my mind free of all the beauty I’d seen around it. Only then can you enter the vision of Pedro Machuca, the architect. The design is a simple geometric concept of the kind that the Renaissance ascribed to classical Greece: a circle inscribed into a square. Seen from above the outer walls form a square. Inside it is a circular patio.

Palace of CharlesV in Granada

The building is two-storied. You can see in the photo above that the columns on the lower floor are Doric and the upper are Ionic. The windows on the facade mirror this: Ionian above, and Tuscan below. Unfortunately I never took a photo of the facade. It was June, and the place was full of people. Every frame looked cluttered. In retrospect, I should have taken a photo even if it wasn’t going to look perfect.

Palace of Charles V: stairs

The Renaissance seems to have invented the modern staircase, with its even rise, so easy on the knees. Every bit of the structure drips with an unified sense of elementary geometry: see the photo above. Even the precision of the tiles on the floor gives you a sense of how the rediscovery of Greek geometry and measurements was transforming European design.

No emperor ever lived in the palace. It never even had a roof until the middle of the 20th century. As a result decorations are sparse. The medallion you see in the featured photo adorns the otherwise severe facade. Inside there are empty niches on the wall with scallop-shell designs on them. The incomplete palace is a magnificent idea, never seen again in its contemporaries. It is as startling as it would be if the Barcelona Pavilion built by Mies van der Rohe never influenced his generation.