Knock knock, knocking on Kochi’s doors

Another week, and it is time again for a guest post in spirit by The Family. This time it is about the doors which she saw while walking about Kochi trying to spot its street art. The featured photo is an icredible chrysanthemum door: a work of art in wood. We stood in front of it, and as we admired it I couldn’t help thinking about how spice wealth must have flowed through this community even as little as a century back. This wealth would have nourished a school of craftsmen, builders and the wood workers who put these doors in place. Kochi is an art destination now, and was an unremarked art destination even then.

Doors within doors! That’s a specialty of Kochi. The decorative ceremonial doors sometimes get too large for comfort. For a person or two, why make the effort to open the big door? Cut another door into it, the size of a human, and you are done. This door wasn’t as immense as some of the doors that we saw; hardly big enough to admit a horse-drawn coach. What caught The Family’s eye here were the bright colours and the semi-pillars flanking the door.

There’s more than houses in the spice bazaar. There are also warehouses behind which boats could dock. Some of these business premises have moved down-market into construction spaces. If you cut openings into the wall near the roof for ventilation, then the vast interiors of spice warehouses can easily be turned into spaces for fabrication. Here was a gate to one of these places, inviting us to walk down a short road to look at the harbour. We hesitated, but then found that the place was busy, and decided not to ask for permission to walk in.

But there are warehouses which have turned to tourist trade. Some of them are now art galleries and cafes, just right for tourist who want to spend a day or four doing nothing useful. We thought that this brightly painted structure with lovely wooden doors would lead to something like this. It turned out to be a hotel. The landing stage for boats had been converted to a breakfast space; a peaceful way to begin the day. The large entrance to the warehouse had been converted into a grand lobby, with a vintage car gleaming as a centerpiece. I wondered about the rooms. If they were done well, those facing the harbour would be quite good. “We should keep this in mind for the future,” The Family said. I agreed and we resumed our hunt for more street art.

Painted Spurfowls

When a pair of painted spurfowl (Galloperdix lunulata) emerged warily at the edge of the clearing in front of my hide, it was a lifer. I’d never seen these gamebirds before. The brightly coloured male with its spotted plumage, and the somewhat muted colours of the female were completely new to me. I noticed the wicked spurs on the legs. What are they used for? To battle other males for territory and breeding rights? Typically species with sexual dimorphism of this kind are not monogamous, although an authoritative book from 1928 is often quoted in evidence of monogamy. The pair advanced to the middle of the open area in front of my hide, pecking constantly at the ground. They eat seeds, grains, berries, tubers, and insects.

Another pair slunk through the grass and bushes behind, and the male jumped on to a big rock, (featured photo) leaving the female behind. That was a remarkable leap, and I wondered why it didn’t flap its wings at all to get some lift. Other jungle fowls do an ungainly flutter now and then, but apparently not the painted spurfowl. It would rather run fast than fly. A lone female ran about in the dust ahead of me, stopping to peck every now and then.

The painted spurfowl is found everywhere on the plains of India, and breeds from late winter to the beginning of the monsoon. The male shares in the rearing of the chicks, again unusual given the flamboyant colouring of the male. Given that it’s so widespread, I wonder why I haven’t seen it before. I asked The Family, and it turned out that she has seen it before, on a trip on which I didn’t go. So have I seen it earlier, or not?

Anegundi

Across the river Tungabhadra from the archaeological digs of Hampi is Anegundi, the oldest capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Harihara the first of the Sangama kings had his base here as he carved his kingdom out of the disintegrating Hoysala empire in the early 14th century CE. His successor Bukka Raya moved the capital to the more easily defended south bank of the river in the 1360s. We crossed the river in the northwards to see something of the remains of the early years of the kingdom.

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There is little that remains. Part of an aqueduct is all that is visible of the hydraulic engineering of the kingdom. A few temples remain as places of pilgrimage: the Anjaneya temple which perches on top of a cliff (featured photo), is the biggest draw, followed by Pampa Sarovar and the Durga temple. One of the spots worth visiting is an iron age remnant, some dolmens and cave paintings. Unfortunately the road was not driveable, and the afternoon had got pretty hot. The rest of the capital city has disappeared, and the area has reverted to modern village life. We found a little place to stop and have a chai, drove past ripening fields, crept at a petty pace behind a large flock of goats, marvelled at stacks of bananas left on the roadside to be picked up by a delivery truck. As The Family looked at some local jewellery being hawked to tourists next to the Pampa Sarovar, I took some photos of the lady who was both modelling and selling them.

Harbour line

Another Monday! Another day to quietly nurse the hangover of a lovely Sunday spent in the open air; the pleasant drowsiness of waking in the morning after spending a day walking through air so polluted that you can cut it with a butter knife. My lungs feel more tired than my muscles, but it was a nice weekend.

This post is a guest post in spirit, with photos by The Family. She took them from a launch which puttered through Mumbai’s harbour. Strange creature! You can see the gulls craning their necks to look at it.

The weather’s been a little cooler than normal but does that mean it is winter? You wouldn’t know till the brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) arrive. They have spent the summer in the cooler altitudes of the Himalayas, and the cooler latitudes of Central Asia, China, and Mongolia, and in the last month they have arrived here ahead of the displaced polar vortex which is currently shedding snow across the Himalayas.

I like this lovely shot of Mumbai’s skyline at sunrise with a whole bunch of gulls following the boat in hopes of a snack. Why call these birds brown or black headed, when they clearly have clean white heads? That’s because they have brown or black heads in the summer breeding season, something that we’ll not get to see in Mumbai. In these waters they have black-tipped yellow beaks, white heads, and a small comma of black on the head behind the eyes. The patch of black on the head distinguishes these two from the slender-billed gull, which has sometimes been seen here. The beak of the brown-headed is distinctly stouter, but that may be hard to see when the bird is flying.

An easier way to tell the difference on the wing is to look at, er, the wings. Both have black-tipped wings, but the mature brown-headed gull has a patch of white inside the black. The wing colour of the immature black-headed gull is more brown than black. It is a pity that the harbour is not the center of Mumbai’s leisure life. The western shoreline: Backbay and Marine Drive, the Worli seaface, and Madh island get mentioned a lot. But to enjoy the sea you need to be in the water, and there is no place other than the harbour where you can do it.

Prawns and pumpkin in coconut milk

No special name, just a simple description, prawns and pumpkin in coconut milk. We’d tasted our ginger lime drink and finished our starter of grilled sardines at Fusion Bay and liked it. This dish sounded like the restaurant, no airs, a simple xeroxed menu in a plastic folder, but exquisite flavours. I wanted to risk it. The Family decided on a pollichathu, a fish slathered in spice, then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed until the leaf turns brown. It was Christmas eve, and we had set a record of coffee at five different places, a large lunch, and now a dinner we’d looked forward to ever since early December when we called to book a table.

I’d held out for a while in spite of the wonderful reviews because of a little phrase: “no alcohol”. Now I was glad that I’d gone with The Family’s insistence. We shared all the dishes we ordered, and after working through half a pollichathu, I cleared my palate with my ginger drink and water, and asked for a new plate. I dug into the prawns. An explosion of freshness in my mouth, none of of the fiery Kerala spices. Why did I leave this so late? Amazed, I asked about the provenance of the dish. “Kochi”, I was told. “Ernakulam district?” I asked. “No, no. Kochi. The recipe is from the cook’s grandmother.” What could be more authentic! I was bursting, but this was food heaven. The Family refused to help, so I scraped up every bit of it, wishing that I’d had a little less of lunch.

Teetar

When I was a child, door to door vendors would sometimes arrive at our house with Grey Francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus, तीतर) in large baskets. This was a very special treat, like quail. For a brief while these game birds were farmed. In the 80s there was a specialty shop near the Taj in Mumbai which stocked game birds including तीतर (teetar). With the increasing industrialization of food, and the homogenization of tastes that followed, these farms either shut down or turned to battery farming of chicken. As a result my memories of game birds had faded over the years.

Sitting in a hide inside Daroji Bear Sanctuary, one of the first things I saw was a bunch of these game birds pecking their way silently across the rocks. These birds are found right across the plains of India and Pakistan, and in the coastal areas of Iran, north of the Gulf of Oman. The IUCN red list classifies as of least concern for conservation. The plains of India are heavily urbanized, so this seemed a little odd to me, until I realized that their habitat are these rocky and barren scrublands, which are of least concern to developers, at least for now.

From another hide the next morning I saw more them pecking at grains left as lure. There are some species of birds and animals, which, although widespread, have extremely low genetic diverstiy. They need special conservation effort. Given the long history of domestication of तीतर, I wondered about this. I found later that the genetics of the Grey Francolin has been studied mainly in one population in central Pakistan. This population shows high genetic diversity. If this can be verified in other populations across the range of this bird, then it would be further reason to believe that the Grey Francolin is one of the lucky species not to need special protection from us.

I leave you with a video of these birds which were once a common sight in cities, but which you now have to travel far to see.

Folk Art Street Art

Every so often a wonderful sight slips through the net of this blog. One of the truly exciting things that technology has given us is a lightweight and high resolution camera that we carry in our pockets all the time. If there was something interesting that you took photos of, the chances are they will last longer. And if it lasts longer, there’s a better chance that you will eventually write about it. The great street art that I saw half a year ago in Patna is one of these things.

The glowing street art was visible as soon as one exited the airport, and continued throughout the city. Much of the area around the airport is occupied by government offices, so clearly the state government was involved in this effort to beautify the city. I recognized the Darbhanga district’s folk art style near the airport (most of the photos in the gallery above), but the more well-known style from Madhubani district also appeared in other places. I thought this was a good way to showcase the artistic heritage of the state.

Folk art remains dynamic, as you can see from the adoption of the modern style of wildlife photography in the mural above. A more subtle adaptation was in the clothes worn by the woman riding a croocodile in one of the photos included in the above gallery. The two-horned African rhino and giraffes also appeared in some of the panels; these are also modern adoptions.

In one spot I saw a trotally non-traditional style. The city has an art school. I wonder whether this work was commissioned from someone associated with the school. It was too elaborate to be guerrilla art. I wish I had had the time to take photos across the city. Perhaps, if I go back, this will give me something interesting to do.

From door to door

The Family has been very excited about street art ever since Berlin. When she saw the remarkable example of street art in Kochi it was a foregone conclusion that we would stalk the streets looking for more. A beautiful example which combined all the tropes about Kerala is the one you can see in the featured photo. I liked the way the door has been just let be, like a panel separator in a graphic novel.

Walking about the streets of the Spice bazaar, I could not help noticing the other thing I love to take photos of: doors. The beautifully weathered example that you see above, showed me the reason for the choice of colours in the big mural of the elephant. This shade of blue is a characteristic colour for doors in this part of Fort Kochi.

Some of the heritage bungalows on the island have been turned into hotels. Near the Bishop’s House we found a bungalow standing in the middle of a lawn so manicured that it could have belonged to the army. But the gates stood open, so we wandered in and found that it was a hotel. The door was lovely, and the tinted glass above it was the blue of Kochi.

Other colours are not neglected though. This giant black door with white trim was impressive. The red post box hanging next to it made a nice picture. I wished the smaller inset door had been open; that might have given me an interesting view into the courtyard beyond. I suppose that the courtyard is surrounded by warehouses.

Not all doors were large and imposing. This little house on the side of the road was unusual, in the sense that it took up harbour-side space which could have been used for a warehouse. Perhaps there was a warehouse here earlier, and it has now given way to the cluster of smaller buildings of which this was one. The cream coloured wood of the outer wall was cheerful, and the wooden door with grills was exactly like the doors I’ve seen elsewhere in Kerala. It was not hard to imagine the people of the house standing behind it, chatting with passing neighbours.

An unexpected find was this cupboard pushed out of a house into a small verandah by the side of the road. It was not a discard. It was certainly still in use. I stood there and waited for something interesting to pass by so that I could have a photo to remember this odd thing by.

First impressions of Kochi

I’d expected to be charmed by Kochi, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be. The fishing nets (featured photo) have been iconic tourist photographs for over half a century. A couple of decades back they began to be called Chinese fishing nets. Kochi’s brush with China came with the seven voyages of the Chinese Ming-dynasty admiral Zheng He. Did he bring the technology here? I couldn’t find any mention of these shore fixed nets which can dip into the water and back up as a fisherman walks along a suspension mast from any other part of the world. On the other hand, India excels at preserving ancient customs from the rest of the world. It will take a dedicated historian to find the full story of the nets. What I could see is that they are now only preserved as tourist attractions. The real fishing has moved off-shore as the coastal waters die. Two of our planned trips to Kochi had been cancelled before, once because of a strike, the other because of a flood. The third time everything worked.

We’d taken an early morning flight out of Mumbai, which involved getting up well before sunrise. Kochi’s airport is more than an hour outside the city. I nodded off in the prepaid taxi to our hotel, and woke as the driver was telling The Family that this being rush hour he would like to avoid passing through the center of Ernakulam. Good enough reason to veer north and take a ferry from Vypin to the tip of Fort Kochi. The ferry was crowded with office-goers on their motorbikes. The lanes of Kochi are so narrow that bicycles and scooters make more sense than the car we were in, as we would soon find.

The crossing was quick and the landing was smooth. We got out of the ferry stage quickly and lost ourselves in the little lanes of Fort Kochi. This was exactly what I’d expected: narrow roads, laid out in medieval times. But what I had not expected was the smell of spices everywhere, a reminder of the source of medieval wealth, and still a large component of the trade that passes through Kochi. I came back to the ferry stage a couple of days later and was surprised at how orderly it was. As soon as a ferry approaches the landing, people spontaneously clear the center of the road, and line up on the sides to board. There is no jostling; people and vehicles disembark first, boarding happens after this. The aggression and chaos of north India seem to be absent usually.

Driving on we passed interesting sights. The bright red facade of Los Angeles Cafe, with its white trim caught my eye. We spent a lot of time in Kochi’s cafes. The Family pointed out to me that one day we visited five cafes and two restaurants. “We can take it easy. We are on holiday,” was my wholly inadequate response. She wasn’t convinced, and the next day we exceeded this record by one. We never did enter Los Angeles cafe though. It was off on one side of the Spice bazaar, and although we passed that way more than once, it was always at an odd time.

The Spice bazaar was exactly what I’d expected it to be, only more so. Not only were there charming old buildings from which spice traders still operated, and large warehouses which were still in use, but there was also the smell of spices which filled the air. I could make out the warehouses which store cloves and cinnamon from those with dried ginger as I walked along the lanes here.

The one new turn that Kochi has taken is equally wonderful. In recent years it has been the home of India’s biggest art event, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. This was an off-Biennale year, but the signs of change were everywhere. There was the wonderful art on streets which we chased down while we walked between cafes, one striking example of which you see in the photo above. Street art is ephemeral, we found commissioned work like this, older fading works which will be gone by next year, guerrilla art stenciled on to walls, signs pasted on, the whole range. Some warehouses have been turned into galleries, and the art scene is becoming edgier. At the same time there is a whole range of food: from the many wonderful traditional Kerala cuisines to innovative restaurants which build on these. Kochi is a place to go back to.

A bad decision

As I was packing for a trip to Guwahati in early December, The Family asked me “Aren’t you packing your camera and binoculars?” I wasn’t planning to. I thought of this as a quick trip and wall-to-wall meetings, fly in for a couple of days of intense discussion and then get back home. No time to visit the wonderful birding spots around Guwahati. How was I to know that I would be living in a wonderful room overlooking a lake full of migratory birds?

Perhaps if I hadn’t spent all of November traveling from one meeting to another I would have paid it some thought. If you spend even a couple of hours outdoors in winter in India you can’t miss migratory birds. If you are fortunate enough to have breakfast at a window overlooking even a little waterhole, let alone a large pond, it’ll be like watching a documentary by a famous narrator. The naked eye and a phone camera are better than nothing, but certainly not adequate. Also, given that several of the birds were unfamiliar, I really wished I’d at least packed my field guide.

The days were pleasant and sunny, the air full of the squawks and trills of birds. My surroundings were beautifully manicured, but lacking the hectic life of Guwahati’s center. The birds which do these long migrations are usually larger creatures. Small songbirds seldom migrate long distances, although they often do local vertical migrations which are specially noticeable in Bihar, Bengal and Assam. No more traveling without all my optics in my backpack, I promised myself.