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?


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.

Show and tell: the geology of Kaas

The region of the Western ghats around Satara and Pune are full of large plateaus and oddly shaped peaks. When you travel through them, the first impression you have of the mountains is that they look like a layered cake. I stood at the Thosegarh waterfall (featured photo) and found that even the monsoon-fed vegetation could not hide this appearance. The layers are a succession of lava flows, laid down in a massive burst of volcanism 60 to 100 million years ago. These successive layers of lava are called the Deccan traps. I found it hard to estimate the thickness of the layers by eye, but going by the heights of trees, perhaps they are between 50 and 100 feet thick. Since each layer of lava covers a considerable area, this means that each burst of volcanism would have lasted long and spewed out immense amounts of rock and ash. Not only would this have killed all life where it flowed, it would have dimmed the sunlight reaching the earth, and contributed to a mass dying of vegetation around the world.

Satara valley

In the 60 million years since it contributed to killing off dinosaurs, the traps have weathered. Today we see them as flat topped hills, cut through by deeply eroded valleys. Some of the waterfalls lead down to rapids extremely suitable for white water rafting. In other places there are very wide valleys. The town of Satara, which you see in the photo above, lies in the extreme western end of the rain-shadowed region of the Deccan. As a result it gets sporadic monsoon rains, enough to keep it green. The urban sprawl gets its drinking water from the river Umboli, which arises in the Kaas plateau, about 25 kilometers away. Traveling in this area, I saw many high plateaus. At one point each of them must have been home to the variety of flowering herbs and bushes whose diversity is now mainly visible in Kaas.

The surface of Kaas plateau

When you reach the top of one of these plateaus you see exposed rock everywhere. This is the volcanic rock called laterite, formed by weathering of the traps. You can see the dark porous rock peeping out from the low cover in the photo of the Kaas plateau above. There is hardly any soil. What little there is forms in little depressions in the rock. This area is covered by tiny herbs: mainly the carnivorous bladderwort (Utricularia) and sundew (Drosera) species, and tiny coexisting herbs. Between such rocky outcrops, there are deeper fissures where a little more soil can collect. There are higher bushes such as the Topli Karvi and arrowroot. There are very few trees on the plateau. What little soil forms is constantly removed by rain and wind. It is a marginal environment where extremely specialized plants grow. Twenty meters below the top, soil can accumulate, and the vegetation changes quite dramatically. It becomes characteristic of the rest of the Sahyadris. As a result, these high plateaus are like islands: the flora of each plateau is isolated from those of its neighbours.

When you walk through the Kaas plateau your eyes take in the evidence that geology determines ecology, that life is shaped by the land.

Plateau of flowers

I’ve written about the world heritage Kaas plateau before. I went back there over the weekend. The volcanic rock barely holds any soil, and what little is there has little nutrient. The plants that one can see here have evolved in this hard environment. As a result, this 10 square kilometer area at an altitude of about 1.2 kilometers is an island mountain: the flora here is isolated from flora in other plateaus in the region. There’s a brief but glorious flowering at the end of the monsoon. By all accounts the flowers change almost every week.

Kaas plateau: landscape

The most famous plant here is the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) which blooms in mass once every seven years. Last year this was in bloom. This year the general view (see photo above) did not show any of the bright blue flowers of this bush. One had to search hard for the few isolated and idiosyncratic bushes of S. sessilis which flowered this year. Instead the landscape was full of patches of white globular pipewort (Eriocaulon sedgewickii) mixed in with the vivid colours of the carnivorous purple bladderwort (Utricularia purpurascens). In other places we patches of the yellow sonkadi (Pentanema indicum) mixed in with the violet rosemary balsam (Impatients oppositifolia). You can see all four species in the featured photo.

This week the balsam outnumbered everything. Most green patches had highlights of violet. Maybe by next week the sonkadi will dominate.

Stone street

A little cobbled lane leads off from Hanover Square in downtown New York. No vehicle can pass through it, because the bars and restaurants lining the road have placed benches across it. It is a cheerful place. You wouldn’t look at it a second time, unless you wanted to sit down and relax.

It is hard to figure that it was once called High Street. In 1658 it was the pride of New Amsterdam because it was the first paved road on the continent. A few years before that the continent’s first brewery was founded in a building on the road. I don’t think any of the buildings survive. The exit of the Dutch and then of the English gave rise to much rebuilding. After that, the fire of 1835 wiped out a large part of lower Manhattan.

The look of the street is recent. It is possible, but unlikely, that the cobble stones are historic. After all, the road was redone in 1996. I walked through and peered at

A walk in the monsoon

Monsoon stream in KoladMumbai has been hot and humid, but relatively free of rain this monsoon. Disgusted with this state of affairs, The Family and I left one weekend for the a resort in the ghats outside the city. For some reason I’d imagined a natural paradise of stony ground covered with wild plants and streams cutting their way through it. I’d completely forgotten that the region between Mumbai and Pune is full of weekenders who would like to get away from the high rises of the city into a concrete paved paradise of air-conditioned cottages.

I’m happy to have these. But they come with manicured lawns and gardens. All “weeds” are removed systematically, “wild trees” uprooted and the usual garden flowers planted around landscaped lawns dotted with fruit trees. I had to escape this stifling suburban paradise. But the weather conspired to keep me bottled in, with heavy rains through the day.

During a break in the rain I walked out of the resort and followed the road until I got to fallow ground. Here finally was the landscape that I was looking for. The stony ground of the western ghats do not easily absorb the rains. So streams cut through it, merge and become fast flowing rivulets like the one on the right. Trees hang over them.

Common balsam

The banks of these seasonal streams are held together by a dense mat of wild plants. Insects and spiders abound. Water was dripping from the leaves slowly into the ground. It is this slowed rain that recharges aquifers. At this time of the year there are few flowers. The featured photo shows one of the exceptions: the madar or Calotropis gigantea. The other is common balsam, Impatiens balsamica (photo above).

Common grass yellow

There are spider webs everywhere, which means there are insects in plenty. Just after the rain they were hard to spot, because they would probably be hiding under leaves to stay out of the rain. Luckily I got a couple of really tiny ones in the photo of the madar. Other than that all I saw were a few common grass yellow butterflies, one of which you can see in the photo above. It was my first walk of the season in the ghats.

Driving the Prado

Prado is a blank in my camera. With its ban on photography, one of the world’s greatest museums of European art is that enigmatic. The Museo del Prado was the first stop in our visit to Spain, and the five hours we spent there was barely sufficient to get an overview of their collection of Spanish art.

If the Mona Lisa is the most visited painting in the Louvre, Las Meninas by Velazquez (below) is the single most visited painting in the Prado. I was with the majority. When The Family picked up a floor plan, I looked for the quickest route to Las Meninas. The huge painting dominates the gallery it is in, and has an enormous crowd which moves around it. The audio guide at the Prado is very informative, and a large number of people here were using it. One interesting fact, not mentioned by the guide, but visible in the statue of Velazquez outside the Prado (featured photo), is that Velazquez used special long-handled brushes for such large paintings. This made it possible for him to gauge the effect the painting would have for a viewer standing at a distance. Another wonderful painting by Velazquez in the Prado is The Fable of Arachne, perhaps one of his last paintings.

The Prado holds the Royal Collection of Spain. Although this is the nucleus, much has been added over the years. The original building, designed by Juan de Villanueva, has long been insufficient. New wings and galleries were added over the years, three independent buildings now hold gallery space for the Prado, and new space is currently being added. A day or two is not enough to see it all. It is best to buy a ticket on-line fairly far in advance. You are given a 15 minute slot for entry, but you can use the ticket for the full day, and even leave and come back in the same day. The cafeteria is very good and you do not need to leave if you don’t want to. We had a quick lunch in the museum’s cafeteria after taking in the extensive collection of paintings by Goya.

The paintings on display change, some come out of the holdings on to the walls, others circulate around the world. There is a limit to how much art you can absorb in a day. The Prado is immense, and one needs to visit it several times in order to take in all that it has.

The enormous collection

A walk with Carmens

We walked up and down the world heritage district of Albaycin in Granada on a hot day. Narrow paths wound between closed doors framed with tiles. Dazzling white walls of Carmens struggled to hold back flowering trees and creepers. It took me some time to figure out that although carmen means a garden in Spanish, in the Albaycin it has the added meaning of a house surrounded by a garden. Through gaps in the walls one could get a view of the Alhambra. I’d not paid much attention to descriptions of walks through this old Moorish part of the town, but it is one of my most pleasant memories of Spain.

The old houses were made with bricks and limestone mortar. Although there is a tremendous amount of study of the old materials in order to restore the most important buildings, the results are mainly applied to public property. Most of these carmens are private property, with their doors firmly shut. I could see more modern materials used in various places. As we walked between these white walls, The Family and I talked about the name of this area.

Albaycin or Albayzin apparently comes from an Arabic root which means the (place of) falconers. Baaz is a word that we knew. It is the Hindi word for a falcon, a loan word from Persian. That was intriguing. Were there really Persian influences in al-Andalus? I found later that in al-Andalus other words related to falconry, for example, dastaban for a falconer’s gloves, also come from Persian. How did the Moorish kingdoms of the far west carry the influence of Persian?

Temple of Isis in Madrid

The Ptolemic pharaohs of Egypt walked under the two arches that you see in the featured photo and into the temple of Isis (photo below). So did the Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Legend had that the goddess Isis gave birth to the god Horus in this temple. This structure was originally built over the site of a thousand year older temple dedicated to the god Amon. For over two thousand years, until 1968 this temple stood near the first cataract of the Nile. Now you can see it in Madrid, but the story is not the usual one of colonial plunder.

In 1960 when the Aswan high dam was being built in Egypt, the UNESCO made an international call to save many temples and cultural artifacts which would have drowned under the new reservoir. Spain was one of the countries which responded and lent a hand in saving the temples of Abu Simbel. As a sign of gratitude, the government of Egypt presented the temple of Debod, which was one of the smaller temples in this region, to Spain. It now stands in the Parc del Oeste near the royal palace in Madrid.

Reading that it would close at sunset, we reached the park early on a hot evening. For some reason the temple was closed. The guards could only speak Spanish, so we never understood why it was not open. Ancient and recent historical graffiti inside the temple has been studied extensively in recent years, and there are apparently augmented reality tools available to tourists who are interested in learning about them. Since the temple was closed, we could not take a look at these. We walked around the temple, took photos, and then went and sat in the shade along with the many Madrilenos who were trying to cool down.

This was our first afternoon in Spain and our Indian instincts were totally wrong. On a very hot day in India you would spend the afternoon indoors and venture out after five or so, when the sun begins to dip towards the horizon and the air begins to cool. Not so in Spain, as we discovered. It is so far to the north that the sun sets after nine. Five or six in the evening could well be the hottest part of the day!

Mudejar towers

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mudejar as a Muslim living under Christian kings especially during the 8th to 11th centuries. It also says that the first known use of the word is from 1829. Soon afterwards it was applied to a style of Spanish architecture in the sense that it still carries. The style is seen in all the photos here.

The main characteristics of the style are brickwork, decoration with tiles, intricate carpentry, and the use of geometrical motifs in decoration. The featured photo is of the grand mosque in Granada, and shows all these features. The mosque was closed because I went there in the afternoon of the last day of Ramzan, so I did not manage to see the interior. Still, the exterior gave a good indication of what the interior would have been like.

In Granada, near one end of Plaza Nueva is the church of San Gil and Santa Ana (photo above), an exemplary piece of Mudejar architecture. Look at the beautiful azulejos (tiles) at the top, above the bells, the woodwork just below it, the beautiful tiles above each of the romanesque arches, and the ornate pillar just below the bells. Again, because I was always there at the wrong time, I could not see the interior.

Notice the beautiful woodwork in these three photos. The one on the left is the exterior of the church of San Nicholas. I climbed up to it on a really hot day, and was too dehydrated to walk in. I sat in the shade outside and drank a lot of water. The other two photos above show the church of San Pedro and San Pablo. Typical Mudejar elements are visible outside. Inside, the ceiling is covered in incredibly beautiful woodwork. A friend told me about his perception of the difference between Islamic and Christian architecture in the Alhambra: that they embody different philosophies of what make something grand. These churches combine these two world views: the high interiors are grand in the manner of churches you see all over Europe, and the beautiful intricate workmanship brings to it the Asian love of detail. One wonders about the missed paths of history; if only the Jews had not been expelled in 1492, and the Muslims had been allowed to stay on after the 25 more years that they did, what kind of new architectural styles would have evolved as engineering improved.

In my mind the Giralda of Seville (photo above) is the grandest of these towers. Technically it does not belong to the Mudejar style, because it was built before the Christian reconquest, and was only converted from a minaret to a bell tower afterwards. However, it has all the elements of this style: brickwork to build up a really high tower and incredibly detailed external ornamentation.

Finally, a moment of duh-ness or serendipity, whatever you may call it. I looked back at the photos I took a year ago inside the Royal Palace of Sintra and realized that I had seen the Mudejar style before. The chapel inside the palace, which you see in the photo above, is an example of this style. And a particularly fine example, one must say.