A hard day’s drive

When our flight was canceled we took a taxi as quickly as possible. The day’s drive was through the plains just before the land rises into the Himalayas, the hottest part of the country. The heat was already bad enough that the air conditioning in the car laboured to keep the temperature bearable. From Dehra Dun it is just a short while to Haridwar.

Haridwar was hosting the Kumbh Mela during this time. If I’d passed so close to it in a normal year I would have spent time photographing pilgrims, but this year I thought it prudent to avoid it. As our car sped past Haridwar we saw the tent cities that had been erected on both sides of the Ganga to accommodate pilgrims. It wasn’t a particularly holy day, so they were mostly empty. But there were people coming for a dip in the holy river anyway. Farmers had come here with their tractors, family in open trailers with mattresses and changes of clothes. Other groups had elected to come in minibuses, which normally hold about 15-25 people. Some walked. Others looked for taxis and autos. It was a hot day, notice how that family trying to flag down an auto stands in the shade of an enormous gate which welcomes travelers to the Mela. As our car sped by I had a pang that any photographer will feel at missing a wonderful opportunity for people watching.

Soon after we moved off into narrow country roads. The continuous stream of traffic sped past many little villages, each with its little market square. Now and then we would pass a large walled off property. In these plains fired brick was the building material of choice. The heat hid the fact that it was still just around the middle of astronomical spring, so trees were still flowering and putting out new leaf buds. For a large part of the day we drove through the state of UP, where the local body elections were about to happen: the evidence was posters on walls, and large hoardings lining the roads. But most of the time we just drove past agricultural fields. This is India’s heartland, mostly farming.

Then, in the golden hours of the day, we passed a country market. If we had more time I would certainly have stopped the car and walked along the margins of the market with my camera (the crowd without masks was too daunting to wade into). But I got a few shots with my phone as we speeded past this enormous, but completely unremarkable, market. So many human stories there, I thought, it only I could have stopped. India’s plains are like that: more stories per square kilometer than almost any other rural part of the planet.

Then the landscape began to change. The plain had segued into broken land, the mountains closer. We’d crossed from Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand: UP to UK. Before I knew it I realized that we had gained more than half a kilometer in altitude. We began to pass mixed forests of sal and pine, and rivers which originate in the mountains. I was glad to catch the story that you see above: ephemeral, but repeated endlessly across the globe. Even in a non-stop six hour journey in a taxi I was able to take an ambush photo! I call something an ambush photo if it is a photo of someone taking a selfie, or a photo of a photographer taking a portrait. Soon we were in Haldwani and had exchanged our airport-to-airport taxi for the car that we were to take for the next few days.

Our hotel in Almora had agreed to keep a late dinner for us, but we hadn’t eaten since we left the airport munching a couple of wraps. We stopped in Haldwani for a quick snack, and drove on. A climb, a brief stop next to Bhim Tal to take photos of the lights at night. “Crystal clear,” The Family said, a phrase I would remember in the next week of smoky air higher up. I love these night drives in the mountains, and now sitting in the seat next to the driver I could get to take shots which tell you something of the charm of passing through this liminal space: well-lit towns empty of people, streams of trucks beached next to the road for the night, cars parked outside houses blazing with light. I was dog-tired when we reached the hotel after 11 at night. The charming staff brought us hot food in our room, and I must have eaten something before sleeping, because when I woke the next morning there were used plates on the balcony.

Watching the Ganga

A mere twenty years ago, I’d stood near Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh at dusk, enchanted by the lovely sight of diyas floated by devotees down the river on little boats made of leaves. As the twinkling flames floated into the dusk and disappeared, I watched and wished that I had a camera with me. They reminded me of a time in my childhood when the crowds were even smaller, and people sang their own hymns as they floated their offering to the river. When crowds increase you have to change your ways, but the orchestrated spectacle of the modern Ganga arti does not appeal to me.

The Family decided to join an arti arranged by the hotel. Six people joined in. I stood by the banks of the Ganga at this uncrowded spot outside the main town. Flowing water is hypnotic. I wished I’d brought a tripod with me to do some long-exposure photos of the water, but restrictions on baggage are killing. I’d happened on an interesting spot. A region of choppy flows merged into a smooth undisturbed sheet of water which broke into cascades as it passed through a series of rocks.

On a reef in the middle of the river I saw some birds. The Family had noticed them a while ago. “They haven’t moved at all for a while. They could be logs.” Photos are free; I zoomed and clicked. They were grey herons (Ardea cinerea). They remained perfectly still through the evening, as long as we were there.

The arti progressed. More diyas were lit as the evening grew darker. The two priests officiating had marvelous voices, and their hymns and chants filled up the silence. Then, with the offerings of a few petals to the river, the ceremony was over. There was still light enough in the sky to go back to the deck above the river, and have a quiet evening’s chai.

The late evening had suddenly brought tremendous colour to the forest covering the slopes across the river. We sipped our tea and watched the light fade, until mosquitos drove us indoor. It was a wonderful beginning to our holiday.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

The romance of the railways

Railways of my childhood were more raw: raucous, unruly, and colourful. Under the influence of Kim, I would try to memorize things happening on platforms outside my window in one glance. It never worked. If only we had camera phones then. But the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway retains its more genteel romance: tea gardens, holidays, and the mountains. I got to see it again this month.

The tracks run parallel to the road, and I walked along it. I remembered my aunt talking of people who would step off the train for a tea, and then run after it and catch up at the next station. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Watch the clip of the most famous song ever shot on this route (not so far from the photo you see above), and you can see two boys chasing Rajesh Khanna’s jeep as it paces Sharmila Tagore on the train.

Interestingly, Sharmila Tagore’s character is reading an Alistair Maclean called “When Eight Bells Toll”. I’d completely forgotten that book until I saw this clip again.

Walking an ancient route

Spiritually and physically, the high point of my visits to Neora Valley national park has been the walk to Zero Point. The road is an ancient trade route which connected the plains of Bengal to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. The region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Himalayas, and historically a dangerous border between warring states. The European orchid hunters of the 19th century had to step delicately through the hostilities between Tibet and Sikkim, Nepal and Sikkim, and between everyone and British India. Today some parts of the region see an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between India and China. Fortunately, Neora Valley has been well outside a zone of conflict since 1835. The old conflicts have left a mix of ethnicity in the region, the old Lepcha inhabitants share space with Nepali speaking Gurkha, Tibetans, and Bengali.

The day started overcast and cold. At an altitude of 2.4 Kms, the early spring weather was as cold as the depth of winter in the plains. I was glad to be walking. Our group of 10 (all tested COVID negative before coming together) was joined by a young Lepcha guide, Santosh. I stop for photos so often that I was soon at the back, with Santosh and Jatin. This was nice, because of the conversation that I could then have about local conditions. Santosh told me about his grandfather being in mule trains which carried trade through this route. Was he talking about a time in the 1940s or the 50s? He mentioned trade with Tibet, so this must have been before 1949.

The weather was going to be extremely variable here, I realized. The sky cleared briefly, and the morning sun shone on the tall trees around the path. The forest here is a mixture of deciduous and evergreens, bamboo, oak and chestnut, along with Deodar and spruce. But a list like this misses the sheer profusion of vegetation here: mosses, ferns, orchids, lichen growing over everything, the silent wars of the vegetable kingdom.

Walking through these forests you realize what brought the plant hunters here. The sheer profusion of flowering shrubs brings me back to this region again and again, and I am no botanist. Kenneth Cox writes of the early 19th century, “It soon became apparent that many of the plants from the mountainous regions from above approximately 3000 meters were ideally suited for cultivation outdoors in Britain , much of norther Europe and favourable parts of North America.” He goes on to say that one person, Jean-Marie Delavay, alone collected more than 20,000 species of plants for herbaria in Europe. This period of history completely transformed gardens across Europe. Many of the garden plants of that continent are natives you find peeking out from the dappled undergrowth in these parts.

We would climb about 400 meters in the morning at a very gentle slope. I could tell by ruts that the path was used by vehicles. Bamboo groves clumped along the roadside, their stalks drooping over us. I’d turned around a ridge and the sun had disappeared. Mist condensed on all the surfaces around me. This region gets a fierce monsoon rainfall, and also this constant mist. No wonder there is a rain forest at this height.

One of the reasons I like these long easy walks is that it gives me time to think aimlessly. The day’s chautauqua was on geometry. I love the changes that the 19th century brought to the subject, branching and burrowing, finding the tools and the language to expand it in a way that allows it to really describe the world. The first astounding application was by Einstein, who realized that gravity was not so much a force, as Newton had thought, but more, the geometry of the world, the way time warps around space. Riemann, Weierstrass, and Bolzano had actually set up much more than Einstein used, and reorganized geometry into a language with which to describe the broken shapes, the hidden delicacies, of the natural world. A rude popularization of this is the notion of fractals, but there is so much more to it. No more sterile Greek shapes: the circle, the square, and straight lines, the tyranny of triangles. I walked through a delightful geometry: my walk, like the subject, is unchanging in its objective, but renewed by every new traveler.

A vista opened up to the northwest as we reached Chaudapheri camp. The ethereal peak of Kanchenjunga was visible in the distance. What an imposing mountain, even at this distance it looks massive. The Tibetan name means the five great treasures of snow and I think it should be clear that it refers to the five peaks that make up this mountain. My trips to this region have skirted the mountain, looking at it from the east and west, from far below to on its table land, far, and once from so near that I could no longer see the peak. The 8586 meter high mountain is the center of gravity around which my orbit seems to revolve.

After breakfast we started walking again. We were looking at birds, and I was a novice in the company of a few masters. It was more fruitful for me concentrate on finding vegetation. I noticed orchids and magnolias. I recalled a description by Frank Kingdon Ward “looking down on them from above, one saw as it were thousands of white water-lilies, floating on a rough green sea.” They are equally delightful seen overhead against the sun. In Kingdon Ward’s days they talked of discovering new species, a problematic statement since the species were often known and in use locally. Today one says collected or described. More was collected than has ever been described.

This is the home range of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). I have yet to see one in the wild. I had to tease information out of Santosh. The tall branching tree that you see here is called bhup in Lepcha, a name that has been borrowed now into Nepali. It is the preferred home of red pandas. They will climb down from it to feed on the bamboo around them. Red pandas have not come to the state of laziness of their more endangered cousins, and will also bother to hunt and chew meat. What is the bhup tree? Understanding is naming, a method that we ascribe to Linnaeus, but is actually much older. From the fallen seed pods around the tree, it seemed like it could be a chestnut. The leaves were long and broad like the Himalayan chestnut (Aesculus indica), but serrated, unlike it. I think it is closely related, but I am no botanist.

Spring was evident. Leaf buds were opening up on bare branches. In one of the rare moments of light, I managed to take a photo of these leaves are bursting out at the same time. Chloroplasts will start their work when the leaves have grown for another day or two. It will then take a week or more for all the chloroplasts to start pumping out chlorophyll. It is an interesting bootstrapping problem. It takes energy to create these chemicals, but they are the source of energy. Each leaf is a chemical factory starting up!

You may have heard the story of Hanuman and Gandhamadan mountain. Asked by Ram to go fetch the Sanjivani herb to treat his injured brother, Lakshman, Hanuman brings the whole mountain because he could not recognize the particular herb which was needed. The story can be read in many ways. But when I see the abundance of plants on these mountainside, I cannot help a completely straightforward interpretation. These mountains are alive. They are a source of unknown chemical riches. They harbour a biodiversity which must be preserved for our future, and for constant study.

I bend down to look at the little blue flowers. Some kind of Gentian? I’ve been seeing them for two decades and I still don’t know what they are. It is not only hard to describe the peculiar shade of blue, but it always bothers me how hard it is to capture the colour. I try it with my camera and phone separately. I ask The Family to use her phone. Jatin tries his camera. All give different results. Not a single on actually succeeds in capuring the delicacy of this tiny flower. I wonder why I come on these trips without a ring flash and macro lenses. They wouldn’t make the sensor better, but they would give better definition to these tiny flowers.

We’ve spent six hours walking. In this weather it is not a great stress. As the day progresses, the sun is hidden, a cold wind sets in. Fog banks blow up the mountainsides. The weather has been like this for three days. By two the sunlight is nearly gone because of the fog, and sunset is at five this far east. The day is almost over, and we have a wonderful lunch planned ahead of us.

The locals are friendly

We stopped outside a small village on our way down from the heights. We could hear an Asian barred owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides). We spotted it on a bare tree and saw it being mobbed by a few racket-tailed drongos, a mix of Dicrurus paradiseus and D. remifer. The show was over soon and we decided to walk on through the village.

All of these villages straggle down a fairly steep slope, so the road switches back several times to pass through them. We passed a house which seemed to be very busy, with lots of men coming and going. A few waved to us. We waved back and walked on. We passed the back of the house down-slope, and looked up to find a bunch of people at a window, looking at us. They broke into smiles for the camera. People were friendly, not like those racket-tailed drongos.

Lava bazar

My memory of Lava Bazar was quite different from what I saw this time. When I was there last, during Christmas almost a decade ago, we had walked through the town on Christmas eve after a bad day of bird watching. The little hamlet was full of lights and cheer, with wandering bands of carol singers roaming through its few roads. That sight could not fail to lift our spirit. Now it looked bigger, and more decidedly a town.

Up here it is easy to decide what is a village and what is not. Houses in a village each have their vegetable patch, and a few of them cluster together between fields terraced for agriculture, cleared from a forest which not only grows beyond the fields but straggles through the village. Houses in a town stand cheek-by-jowl, doors closed, no space for vegetable patches, no groves of trees. On these steep hillsides space seems to be at a premium even in such small towns.

The expansion was clear from this one space: a combination taxi stand and stop for regional buses. Three roads led out from this junction full of shops, restaurants, and a wall which contained an outpouring of local art (above and the featured photo). My camera batteries had run out in the morning, so I had to sit in a restaurant which allowed me to recharge it. The Family was unencumbered, and spent the wait walking around town taking photos. All photos in this post are hers.

I had the time to contemplate on how the great game in Asia had caused this change. After the disaster of the Himalayan war in the early 1960s, India fell into a policy of letting roads in the mountains deteriorate to slow future advance by China. Twenty years ago I noticed that the policy was changing, and the BRO was busy constructing roads again. The changes were imperceptible at first: more leisure activities up here, trekking, bird watching, weekenders. Local prosperity followed; the Eastern Himalayas have a variety of homestays, which we liked more than the regular hotels and resorts of the Western Himalayas. The result of this different model of development was a direct infusion of money into the local economy.

One result has been the rise of democratic politics. Now, just when a state election had been announced, certain well-used walls seemed to have received new attention. If we had come to Lava Bazar a month later, at the beginning of April, say, then many more walls would probably have had a new coat of paint. The multiple ethnicities in the hills will only be tamed with prosperity and self-determination, provided some generosity and good will is thrown into the mix.

The generational romance of the 19th and 20th century politics still shows on the walls here (Bob Dylan’s songs are anthems that local boys learn when they first start strumming a guitar). But a churn is quite clearly in the making. The locals who had the time to chat with us were quite aware of their place in the larger events of the era. Most of them were aware of the importance of conservation in the ever-expanding tourism industry. I had an illuminating discussion of the performance of electric cars on hill roads. How had he come by this information? Someone he knew, part of an extended family, had driven electric cars in Uttarakhand.

That day we were being driven by an older man. He seemed to know everyone on the road. He stopped briefly to ask a middle-aged couple whether their new house was to their liking, asked a young couple where they were off to, said hello to a couple of kids when he slowed at a turn, received replies from all, acknowledged waves from others. After a while I asked him to stop when he met someone he didn’t know so that I could take a photo of that person. He stopped at this wall, where two people were waiting for a bus. But no, he chatted with them. So I took a photo of the wall.

Human landscapes

Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.

When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!

On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.

Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.

The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.

The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).

Village Kolakham

Kolakham village had the charming look of the villages up in this corner of the Himalayas, in the part of Bengal which nudges up on Sikkim and Bhutan. It is not just the Nepali language that distinguishes people of this region from the rest of Bengal. I walked into the kitchen in the morning to hear a song on the radio playing softly. It wasn’t in Nepali. The Tibetan song was a religious tune which the cook, a Buddhist, was listening to. None of these are the essential distinction between people in these villages, 2 kilometers above sea level, and those down at the foothills. Our driver put it neatly, “The people down there speak the same Nepali as us, but they don’t smile and help.”

Every house is built on two levels. This log cabin has an upper level which faces directly on to the road, and serves as a combination shop and roadside restaurant. The lower level, partly log covered over with metal sheets (perhaps as protection against wind) is where the family lives. This opens out into a garden with a gate which leads up from the road below. You can always build multiple views when you make a house on a slope.

Not all houses are made of logs. More common are these timber-frame houses. Woven cane mats are nailed to the frame, and daubed over with a thin layer of plaster. It is a mixed technique: wattle-and-daub meets timber-frame. In these forests of oak, pine, and bamboo, these are easily available material. Also, when there is an earthquake, as there is once or twice in a person’s lifetime, you will not be buried under heavy building material.

The simplicity of construction means that most people try their hand at building their own houses. This beautifully constructed door was clearly built by an amateur. It is slightly out of true, the frame not quite a rectangle. The elements of the door have been joined together by an amateur carpenter. I loved this. When you travel through the country you see a lot of naive folk art. It is wonderful to see the same naive aesthetics in architecture.

I am over-simplifying, of course. There were at least three concrete houses in the village. These are built by specialists. But these are mountain villages, after all. Even the workers and their employers have a pleasant relationship. In a different village, at a house under construction, I saw three workers take a break as the lady of the house brought them cups of tea and some snacks. Life is hard up here, but, by and large, people pitch in together. The most visible part of life up here are the flowers that you find in the garden and porches of each brightly coloured house. You could not miss the fact that it was early in spring.

The village has a little movie theater. Not as old-fashioned as the hand-cranked movie projectors that you could see in villages in the last century; this movie theater probably shows videos. 4G connectivity was easy, but I guess there is a market for things you cannot stream. I also liked the physical distancing marks on the road, in a village which hasn’t had a single recorded case of COVID-19.

Ornate is a matter of choice

A mental lament that I’ve got used to calling on when walking through narrow streets in small towns and villages is about the doors. In modern buildings they are so often drab and plain. There is hardly any effort spent on customizing them. If they are wooden, then so often they are just machined pieces joined together with minimum fuss. More often they are metal frames with plain board and glass fitted into slots. But now and then you find a street where each house is carefully distinguished from the next.

Tamil Nadu is a place where every house is a different bright colour. Some of the colourful aesthetics you can extrapolate from the Kanjeevaram silk sarees you may have been. Others, like this wonderful purple, you will have to experience to understand. This example comes from a potters’ village outside Madurai. Embedded into these colourful walls are industrially produced doors and windows, which carry some individuality. You can weld decorations on to the grilles, and you can paint them as you wish. Drab or bright? The choice is yours, after all.