Around Kanpur

I did a little bit of research on things to see in Kanpur since I planned to be there on work. Unfortunately work expanded to fill up my time, and I never used my research. So, in the hope that you will be luckier than me, here are the three places which I short-listed.

Bithoor is the center of the universe, according to some. The Brahmavart Ghat on the Ganga is believed to be the place where mankind was created by Brahma. When the British defeated the Marathas in the early part of the 19th century, the last Peshwa was banished to Bithoor. His adoptive son, Nana Saheb, was involved in the First War of Independence, in 1857. In retaliation, his palace and the temples of Bithoor were razed by the British general Havelock in July of that year. I am told that the ruins have been bought recently by someone who plans to build a resort there. If this happens, the forlorn but peaceful atmosphere of the ghats will definitely change.

Bhitargaon temple is usually dated to around 450 CE. The dating makes it the earliest known brick temple in the country, and the largest temple from the Gupta period. It was first listed by Alexander Cunningham, India’s first Archaeological Surveyor, in 1877, and the first photographs were taken in 1878. The structure is said to have collapsed in 1894 after being struck by lightning. An early 20th century restoration is now believed to be largely fanciful. It changed the shape of the entrance arch, did not use many of the bricks of the original structure, and there is a controversy about the shape of the shikhara in the reconstruction. As a result of these controversies, there has never been a complete restoration of the restoration. Although it is a bit far from Kanpur, it would be really interesting to visit this structure.

Jajmau is an important archaeological site. Recent finds in this region include some of the oldest pottery in the country. Having been to similar sites in the past, I would bet even money that the digs would not be interesting to ordinary people like me. Apparently the Kanpur museum has some of the artefacts which were found here. I could have visited the museum, if I had the time. But since the days were very nice, and the open air more inviting, I could have visited the mazar of Hazrat Makhdoom Shah Ala in Jajmau. This is supposed to have been built in 1358 by Feroze Shah Tughlaq. One reads that it is a protected monument, but the relevant section from the Archaeological Survey of India’s website is currently under construction.

wetlands

What I did see, by forcing my taxi to stop at the roadside, were beautiful bird-watching sites by the Ganga. Immediately after crossing the new Ganga bridge across the Kanpur bypass, at the edge of Unnao district, the road cuts through wetlands (picture above). There is the beginning of “development” at places along the road. This is still too little to impact the environment. In the ten minutes or so, which the impatient driver gave me, I saw a flock of cormorants, some coots, and a fast-moving pair of ducks taking off from a pond. Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary is about an hour’s drive away, but it seems that in winter one need not go that far for good birding.

Monpa food

Some of the food that the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh eat is pretty well known in the plains, but others are completely unknown. Momos are found across the Himalayas, and I’m no longer sure where they originated. Traditional Monpa cooking used barley to make the covering, and the filling could be yak, pork or vegetables. I think I’ve never eaten this variety; every momo I ate on this trip was made with maida.

Similarly, variants of the thukpa are found across the Himalayas. The one I ate in Dirang was clearly “cleaned up” for tourists: the meat was chicken instead of pork, but it had a variety of local herbs and definitely had yak cheese. When I asked the cook about the herbs, he just said they are local. I could not even get the local names of the herbs from him.

thenthuk

In Tawang I came across the thenthuk. The meat was chicken, and it seems to be like a thukpa in spirit, but uses broad noodles. These look like the hand-pulled noodles I ate in Bejing. When I asked about it, I ran up against the Monpa unwillingness to talk about food with “outsiders”. I asked whether the noodles are hand made, and I got a nod in answer. When I asked whether they are hand made in the kitchen of the restaurant, I was told that it was not. That’s about all the information I got. Again, I could not get the names of the herbs from the cook. When I asked abut the difference between a thukpa and a thenthuk all I was told is that the latter hs broad noodles. If you are Mon, can you please leave an explanation in the comments? I assure you it will be highly appreciated.

zan

I asked about zan and chhurra in the hotel in Tawang which we stayed in, and my questions were greeted with delight. How did I know about these? I said that I’d read it on the net. They were surprised. The cook said that zan is not made very often these days, people prefer rice. There was general consensus that zan tastes really good. I was told that they would try to get someone to make these two things for me. I got a vessel full of steaming hot, bready, zan: by far too much for me. I liked the taste, but it was heavy, and I could not eat too much (that’s the dark bread-like thing on the plate). The chhurra was clearly something special: it was like a very cheesy stew full of local herbs. I loved it (disclosure: I love ripe cheeses). This was an amazing meal: simple, in that it was just two things, but so complex in taste. Yet again I could not get a description of how these things are made and what the ingredients are.

Arunachal Pradesh is a biodiversity hot spot. Markets are full of diverse fruits and vegetables. I’m sure that the little that I ate is just the tip of a culinary iceberg. Inside India there are cuisines which are still hidden away from most of us!

The Sessa Orchidarium

orc2The Sessa Orchidarium is not hard to spot. On our way up from Bhalukpong we’d seen it on the right flank of the highway just after passing through Tipi, and marked it down as something for later. On the way down we saw again the gate above which is a large board which says "Sessa Orchidarium". Although we were fairly sure that November is not a time when orchids flower, we visited it because it was so easy to spot.

We drove in. There was a ticket booth, but it was not manned. The gate was open, and we drove through to the parking lot. The person selling the ticket arrived when we were about to leave. Near the parking lot was a map of the Orchidarium.

The place is large. There are many sections with naturally growing orchids. In the wild we had seen orchids growing on large trees. One part of the grounds was full of these trees. When I walked among them I saw orchids growing; very few of them were flowering. It would have been nice to know more about them, and I wished this section was labelled and had more information.

orc3The locations of greenhouses were marked on the site map. We walked on to one. It was standing open. Until now we had seen no one. Now we spotted someone walking past. He stopped when we asked him where we could go, and he indicated the open door. Inside were the usual spectacular hybrid varieties. We saw many Cattleya. This was a little bit of a surprise, because the genus Cattleya is not found in the wild in these regions.

orc1Orchids are special enough that we spent a while walking slowly through the aisles. Few flowers were in bloom, but the ones which were looked lovely. It seemed to me that we had seen most of them before. At this time of the year the greenhouse was pleasant but not spectacular. I think it will be a riot of blooms in April or May. Unfortunately, even in the hothouse, labelling was minimal. If each plant had been labelled, we could have looked up information on it with our phone as we walked through.

When we emerged, the place was still deserted. We could have walked into other fields and other greenhouses, but the story would have been similar. It was hard to be enthusiastic about the Orchidarium in winter, especially as there was no information on what we were seeing. Clearly there is a laudable effort to cultivate and preserve. Since this place calls itself a research centre, one has the feeling that this part of the work is being done with some enthusiasm. But it also invites public participation, always a good thing for scientists to do. A little more thought given to educating the public about orchids would have been very welcome. The Family and I are determined to go back, and the next time we will try to go in the company of a botanist who knows about the local orchids.

Buy local?

One of the central tenets of sustainability is to buy local. This has multiple effects. First, by eliminating the carbon overhead of transporting goods, it directly impacts the long-term health of the global ecology. Second, by buying local varieties of food one ensures that biodiversity in agriculture is maintained, and local varieties of crops do not die out. But more importantly, by giving business to local artisans and farmers, it prevents their migration to ecologically unsustainable megapolis. When the slopes of lower Arunachal Pradesh are full of wild bananas, we thought it would be possible to eat local varieties of bananas. No such luck. The only bananas we could find in the market had been trucked up from the plains. Every fruit vendor had a different explanation of why there were no local bananas on the market. This led us to believe that there is a social dynamics at work. The same dynamics determined that there would be kiwi farms in the hills, and not oranges, musambi or ananas.

teapple

On the way up, I’d noticed apples being sold in Nechiphu La. I’d naively assumed that these would be local varieties. Not true. We asked one of the vendors about the provenance of the apples, and she said that they came from Himachal Pradesh. I saw packets of Golden Delicious, and they are bound to come from much further away. Even here our attempt to buy local failed miserably.

The shop which sold the apples also had packets of some dried berries hanging at the back. The Family asked what they were and the shop girl said that they were "junglee" spices. The prejudice against local produce was out in the open. We bought a packet and asked how to use them. The girl became animated and explained what to throw away and what part to use, and how to use it. So it seems that the prejudice against local produce is absorbed from tourists coming to this region and becomes an instinct. A cryptic commerce in locally gathered food continues. I’d seen similar attitudes in the Bhalukpong bazaar on the way up, and thought that it is a pity.

It is a pity not only because the lack of development makes the people of this region feel inferior to richer visitors, but also because visitors miss out on a variety of things which might be interestingly different. I hope that by repeatedly trying to buy local we made some difference to these attitudes.

The Despoliation of Sohra

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
–Ogden Nash

Some of the most beautiful sights in Meghalaya are to be seen in the Sohra region of the East Khasi Hills. The road between Shillong and the town of Sohra (aka Cherrapunji) skirts wonderful valleys and passes tall waterfalls tumbling over the limestone cliffs. There are times when you feel you could just sit there on one of the high meadows, among the wildflowers, and watch the play of light through the clouds. I sat on just such a meadow and recalled the descriptions of the forests of Sohra from the early 19th century. Now there are no trees. They were the first things to go. The hills are next.

The evening before we left for Sohra we’d got a little lost in Shillong. We wandered into some roads which turned out to belong to one of the more famous schools. As we tried to find our way, we ran into one of the senior teachers. When he found that we were from Mumbai, he invited us home for a tea and reminiscences of his days in Mumbai. He was a Telugu married to a Khasi. Eventually the conversation turned to Sohra. He seemed to speak with anger about the state of Sohra: how it was being destroyed by people who should have taken care of it. His wife was quiet, but jogged his memory with an occasional word. It seemed to me that they were in agreement, and perhaps some of his vehemence came from their shared experience. I learnt from him how the very hills which make up Meghalaya are disappearing.

The next two days gave us more and more evidence of this despoliation. We passed a place where two streams merged (photo on top). One had clear water, the other was white with the residue of crushed limestone. Near the merger of the streams another hill was being quarried, and trucks were carrying away the limestone. We saw hills being cut away, the residue looking like a half eaten apple (photo above). The limestone is crushed right there before being transported. There are also larger industrial units devoted to making cement using the limestone. It is a matter of time before the hills themselves go the way of the trees which once covered them.

I don’t know enough about Meghalaya to figure out how all this happened. I have no stake in Meghalaya, I was just a visitor. But it would be good to understand how land which is held by the tribe can be treated like this. Is it the tragedy of the commons, or a >subversion of tribal democracy?

Kaas: the plateau of flowers

Kaas is a highland plateau about 6 hours’ drive from Mumbai, famous for its monsoon flowering. Ever since it was declared a UNESCO biodiversity heritage area, the number of visitors has grown so much that maintaining the biodiversity has become even more difficult than it used to be. We’ve admired photos of the place, and have wanted to go there for many years. The Family was very keen on it this year, but I couldn’t go, having committed my weekends to learning Chinese. She went there last weekend with a wonderful nature group we have traveled with before.

kaasb

In a normal year, the monsoon would have receded by now; but this year the weather is a little mixed up. It rained very hard during the weekend, both in Mumbai and in Kaas. The plateau is part of the Deccan Traps, the largest volcanic feature in the world. 66 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions lasting perhaps 30,000 years, built the landscape which contains the plateau. The topsoil is less than an inch thick, and the low herbs and grasses form a dry mat holding it together over most of the year. But during the monsoon little pools of water gather in hollows, the ground turns marshy, and the plateau comes alive with glorious flowers. The Family did not gauge the weather properly, and got pretty wet several times a day. But she came back with great stories and photos.

kaasdThe strange ecology has bred strange flora. The soil lacks various nutrients, so a pretty impressive fraction of the plants feed on insects. The Family did not have photos of these. Instead she came back with this photo of the famous Ceropegia vincaefolia. The five petals of this flower (see photo on the left) form a trap to keep in flies which arrive to feed on the nectar. As the trap snaps close around it, the fly frantically buzzes around, so managing to pollinate the flower. Once the pollination is accomplished, the flower droops down so that the trap can open to let the fly out. You can see a drooping flower to the left in the photo.

kaascAnother famous plant is the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosus). Although the leaves are poisonous, they are crushed to treat inflammations by the locals. It flowers once every eight years (but some bushes are reported to flower even as infrequently as once in fourteen years). Fortunately different plants are not synchronised, so The Family saw a clump of plants which were all flowering together. Some distance away was another clump which had no flowers. It is claimed that the fruits may hang on the plant for a year, bursting to release seeds only with the arrival of the next monsoon. Elsewhere in the region these plants can grow taller than a man, but the ones she saw came no higher than her knees, and she had photos to prove it. I don’t know whether the thin soil of the Kaas plateau is responsible for this stunted growth.

kaaseThe Family was very impressed by the large number of wind-power devices. It is interesting in many ways, the chief reason being that local farmers are bothered to put these up. It probably means that there are subsidies involved. Moving from coal generated electricity to greener methods will involve subsidies (even if the WTO disagrees). A question which came to my mind when I saw the photos on The Family’s phone is whether the move to install these windmills also has an effect on the outlook of the farmers towards the environment. Do they become more conscious of the surroundings, more caring of the natural environment? I hope so, otherwise, as another blogger says, the flowers may be gone in a few years. I hope not, but I fear they will.

[All photos in this post taken by The Family on her phone]

Note added

I talked about the windmills with a couple of people who know the area, and they threw cold water on my suggestion. Apparently putting up these wind generators is big money in the locality. This drives people to put them up even in fairly eco-sensitive spots. The rush for short term gains trumps long term sustainability again. If only the sustainable was also profitable in every short run.