Dotiyal

Less than two hundred meters from the center of the little village called Dotiyal in Kumaon the view opened up. We had to stop to take it in: a clear morning’s view of the Great Himalayas. Nanda Devi (7816 m), once considered the world’s highest peak, is not clearly visible from here, but the grand view of Trisul (7120 m) made up for it. In this season the snow line was beginning to creep down. This meant that the peaks were often covered in clouds. But we were lucky with the views. After a long time trying to spot and name the peaks, from Nanda Kot (6861 m) on the west to five peaks of the Panchachuli (6334 to 6904 m) to the east, we turned back.

Most people think of Dotiyal as an insignificant village, perhaps a stop on the way from somewhere to elsewhere. But for the next two days we would think of it as a base from which to travel for bird watching. The area was rich in birds, precisely because the village was small. It is at a crossroads on the mountains, so the crossing had a cluster of stalls selling snacks and tea. A group of young people had converged here, perhaps stopping on a journey, going by the motorbikes parked around them. These motorbikes, cheaper than cars, easier than bicycles, are the main means of transport in these hills. Buses are few, although we would always see one or two people waiting for one.

Away from that junction was the life of the locals: a line of small shops, including a mithaiwala from whom we bought laddus later in the evening. It was Diwali after all, and we couldn’t possibly not have sweets at dinner, could we? Other shops for snacks lined the road: pani puri, samosa, and chaat. A couple of young girls were at the pani puri wala, perhaps immediately after breakfast. The samosawala, above, was tending to a fire. More than the possibility of samosas, I was struck by the wonderful shoes he had on.

Each small kiosk along the road was a place to stop and chat. I liked the doors: quick jobs of wood and metal. The shut doors would not make interesting photos. But the tailor’s shop was open, and there was a person outside it looking in and chatting. The strong shadows made photography difficult. I just couldn’t find an exposure which would make it possible to mellow the contrast. Eventually I settled for multiple exposures and combining the results in an editor. I think the result is an interesting view of the two, but you be the judge.

Bhimtal

The water of Bhimtal may have eutrophied, and the number of people may have exploded, but the area still reminds me of the charm that I saw when I was a child. We stood by the Tal one morning and The Family took a photo of a line of ducks as they glided past us. “We always land up here, don’t we?” she mused as we enjoyed what remained of the morning’s chill. We do. It is a convenient place to stop on the way up to the higher mountains. The place is no longer beautiful, but it is charming as a village. And this time we had forsaken Naukuchiatal for the neighbouring Bhimtal.

While walking about the previous evening we’d been greeted by a series of gates, firmly shut. When I stopped to take this photo, a dog came running to bark at us from inside. The fierce dwarpal told us not to set our evil eye on the place. I suppose that when half the places are owned by absentee landlords letting out their bungalows to tourists like us, it changes its character. The superficially friendly driver who took us from the airport to our place of stay told us of his bloodthirsty dreams of taking over all these places. That was not the only end of his dreams of blood. I was happy that our dealing with him was brief, since I had the distinct feeling that we were added to his list of the condemned because our hotel called us thrice to give us directions.

In the golden hour of the evening we looked down on Bhimtal and the other smaller villages around it from higher up in the mountains. The terraced fields shone green in the mellow light, rice in the process of being harvested, hay being dried for feed. In this area specially, I never want to miss the golden hour. My restlessness had infected The Family, and she enthusiastically took photos. It was interesting to compare our different eyes later.

Early in the morning, when there was still a chill in the air I’d stood in the garden of the small hotel we’d chosen and looked out over the valley from which we’d heard a mountain stream at night. I couldn’t see the stream at all through the trees and the sharp dips in the land. We could see a few houses, but our hotel seemed very secluded. The impression was broken at night when I looked out from the same spot and saw quite a few lights in the valley. It was interesting to merge the photos taken in the morning and night to locate the houses in this deceptive landscape. There is enough cover to hide a few leopards, families of wild hogs, a few deer, and the numerous birds that we could hear. This area is a bird-watcher’s paradise, but we were on a break.

Sudden horses

Horses do not play a big role in most people’s lives in India. You can tell that by the ludicrous tricks that a horse has to perform in a movie in order to attract attention. Although I am pretty indifferent to them, I was fortunately not traumatized as many children of tourists in the hill towns are. I see small children who are just learning to let go of a parent’s hand being plonked on to the back of a horse-for-hire while the proud parents take photos. The child usually begins to squall as soon as s/he is placed on the back of a large unfamiliar animal. This isn’t the horse’s fault, but I tend to avoid places where horse owners gather for the tourist trade.

That wasn’t possible in Mahabalehwar, since the horses stood in the middle of the market. While waiting for The Family to emerge from a shop, I stared at a horse which stood nearby. Was it the only one whose ears curled in? It looked up at me, and its ear tips nearly touched each other. Something clicked in my mind. I looked at it sleek muscles, the height, and the hocks and hooves, and realized that this must be a Marwari horse. That’s a rare breed. A hardy warhorse of legend, possibly the breed that Rana Pratap’s horse belonged to, it had been much degraded during colonial times. Since the 1990s the breed has made a comeback with Jodhpur’s support. Now bloodlines are recorded and an attempt is being made to popularize them.

I talked to the grooms. They all had Marwari horses, and were happy to find one person who admired their horses. The breed emerged in the desert kingdom of the Rathores in the 11th century CE, and needs little fodder but good care of the skin. That makes it ideal for this low-income trade. I saw that they have a smooth gait, again something ideal for first time riders like tourists and their children. The grooms buy horses in the annual Pandharpur horse fair. The breed is best known for pintos, palominos, bay, and chestnut. I saw several of them here. But there were more of the disfavoured whites. Perhaps they are cheaper. I was glad to see these legendary horses from history making a slow comeback in the hands of owners who care for them.

Two mountain roads

I did my first road drives in the Alps, between Geneva and Grenoble. So mountain roads do not intimidate me. But other factors can be stressful sometimes: heavy rains or snow, lack of oxygen, the condition of roads. There were two contrasting drives recently when I sat in the navigator’s seat.

One was in a heavy monsoon shower at an altitude of 750 meters, through the Sahyadris. These are the Igatpuri ghats, the first high pass you cross when you leave Mumbai. The road was quite good, except for small patches which would need repair after the monsoon. The traffic was light. The only complicating factor was visibility. As you can see, in spite of the wipers working at their fastest, it wasn’t the best.

The other was at an altitude of 5500 meters, in Ladakh. The Khardung Pass is the highest motorable road in India. This is a harsh place, and the road is under constant repair. The traffic was light, and the visibility was good. The oxygen level was a little challenging. Lack of oxygen slows you down. In spite of this there are people who take motorbikes through these roads. I even saw a few people bicycling across the pass. That’s a level of fitness I can only admire. The featured photo shows the remnant of an army truck that had slid off the road. Gravity is a remarkable sculptor.

To market

When evening falls in Mahabaleshwar there is only one place that you can head to: the bazaar. Somehow all of these charming hill towns are known for leather accessories, fudge and chocolate, and the crisp peanut praline known as chikki. There was no dearth of leather shops. I could see some selling backpacks, belts, handbags or wallets, but it was mostly shoes. The shoes were mostly for women. I loitered while The Family examined some shoes. As you can guess from these photos, selecting a pair is not such a easy job.

While measuring the length of the street, I came across several doors. The one in the featured photo was really interesting. I wish it was open. I would have like to take a portrait of the versatile salesman who ran a tour agency along with a shop for handbags. What was it with leather anyway? Could it be because the town, when it started, was a British town (the Indian villages were on the other side of the plateau) and the sahib and mems who spent their time there were interested in the leather craft of the region? Their preferences would certainly explain the fudge and perhaps the chikki as well.

The only clear remnant of the British past here was the church, founded in 1831. I walked in for a dekko. One man had been sitting on a pew. I decided to rest for a while too, as I took in my surroundings. Life-sized plaster figures of Mary and Jesus flanked the cross over the altar. The painting on the wall looked colourful, but the light was too dim to see it clearly. The church was constructed with blocks of red laterite from the plateau. It would have weathered to a dark brown in the near couple of centuries since its completion. The colour of the facade was due to paint.

The Family was done with shoes. We strolled along the road, stopping to look for chana (roasted Bengal gram). That’s another specialty of this plateau. We found it in sixteen flavours! Elsewhere a cart was selling boiled corn. I didn’t remember that from before. I’d only seen roasted ears of corn earlier. I also hadn’t seen the “Crazy Chinese Food Best Cuisine” truck earlier. The Family vetoed my suggestion to taste their food. So I took a last photo of an interesting kiosk before leaving.

Villages

For the last three years we’ve explored the Sahyadris in the monsoon more than we ever did before, and grown to love it. Newspapers are full of stories of how European embassies, and the US, are unable to handle the visa application loads that they used to handle routinely before the pandemic. We believe them, and we don’t even think of going further west than two hundred kilometers. As a result I discovered the rain gear that they use in rural Maharashtra: a framework of bamboo covered with plastic: a hands-free umbrella which sits on your head. That’s what the trio above are wearing as they go into the fields to work.

The landscape is spectacular of course, with the sculptured mountains completely covered with trees. But it is also the fields, which glow a fluorescent green in the watery sunlight of monsoon, the wildflowers of this season, and the tiny unnamed villages which are sprinkled among the rice paddies. You can tell each by its temple. We passed by the doors of many, and paused a while at each to take a photo. Some are surrounded by huts, others stand at a distance from the hamlet. They all look very interesting.

A ruin

Abandoned houses are strangely fascinating. They are places which people once called home. You can stand in front of it an imagine it full of light and life. And now the people are gone, and it is just home to entropy. What happened to those people? Why was this house not occupied? It was at a good location, right at the edge of the lake. How could anyone just walk out and leave? Or did they not leave?

The Family had strained her back and walking was an effort. We’d sat on a deck with a coffee and watched the lake through the afternoon’s rain. As the sun began to set I walked past the road up to the abandoned house to take a few photos. The grass in front of it clutched on to a very thin layer of soil over hard volcanic rock. Little hollows in the rock held rain water. It was slippery. One slip, and I would certainly damage the soil, and perhaps myself if I fell on the sharp edges of the rock. Sunset, the rain clouds, and the structure built a wonderful ambience. I tried hard to catch the sense of loss, the beauty of the landscape and the sky, the dilapidated building with a mat of grass on its roof.

I walked around the building. A slight breeze had set in and it was blowing waves over the water. The lake is large, and even this little breeze could excite fairly large waves. This is a hard place, with extremes of weather. It is not close to a town; on the other hand, it is close a major highway. In a few more monsoons the roof will cave in. Then the walls will become stumps, providing a windbreak for larger plants. Soon, the last signs of people who could have lived there will be gone.

Mustachioed guardians

Odisha has its own modern style in temple guardians. In other parts of India and south-east Asia you might find fearsome Yakshas, or the temple god’s familiar, perhaps a monkey warrior or a bull, perhaps a figure of a Garuda. In Odisha this diversity of guardians is visible in temples which are more than a century old. But now, the dwarapalas are almost always a pair of lions.

I walked through the lanes around the Jagannath temple in Puri taking photos of these lion guardians. Most of these secondary temples are small, and the lions are the smallest element in them. But large or small, they have heavy dark mustaches, turned upward and often stylishly curled. In fact I saw only one pair of lions which had a representation of whiskers. One of the pair is shown in the featured photo.

Here is the last guardian I saw. I advanced on it, with my phone held out towards it. Undaunted, it stood its ground, refusing me entry. It was guarding a plastic chair, not a temple.

Well-beaten paths

Some periods of history are turbulent enough that scholarly work is hidden under contending views. Our times are among them. As a result, the history of Puri and the Jagannath temple has become obscure again. What we do know is that it is one of the older towns in the area. The kingdom of Kalinga, was originally part of modern day Odisha, and has at times had an empire which covered large parts of peninular India. It is definitely as old as Magadha, the ancient kingdom which originated in present day Bihar, and grew to be one of the largest Indian empires, with a cultural reach which eventually included most of Asia as well as Greece and Rome. That culture carried Buddhism from Magadha, where Gautama preached his new religion before the time of Alexander of Macedonia, and the Pali language across the world. It is said that this outreach was catalyzed by the bloody battle in year 261 BCE between these two states which was fought close to Puri. What is known about the temple of Jagannath is that it was rebuilt by a king of the Ganga dynasty, perhaps in the 10th century BCE, so it must be older.

You need to enter the Singhadwar, the Lion gate, to see the temple complex. Little is visible from outside, and having visited once, I was not inclined to brave it again. Crowd management has definitely improved since my last visit to Puri, and it was hard to take a photo of the gate. I suspect, from its style, that the stone gate and wall was built during the Maratha occupation in the 18th century. In this region Jagannath is not an inaccessible deity, but one who is treated as part of the household, part of normal life. Walling off his temple seems to be part of a different view of the religion.

I left behind these knots where history gathers and walked on into the little spaces of daily life. The lanes around the temple are narrow, just wide enough for a rickshaw or an auto, after you subtract the space needed to park a motorbike (like in the featured photo). I passed the open doors to houses with little gardens and courtyards. In this part of Odisha a wedding in the family is often announced by a little wall painting. This one has a representation of Jagannath’s sister, Subhadra. Around here you need only paint the concentric circles representing eyes to invoke Jagannath and his family.

Temple towns contain unremarked layers of history. These old stone pillars frame a doorway into a hostel for pilgrims. The stone pillars are at least three centuries old. Looking at the carvings in the set in front, I thought they could be significantly older. Part of the construction is definitely from the early 20th century, and, as you can see, something is being built even now. I wonder which small Raja first endowed this home for pilgrims.

A few steps on, there was a grand gate. The inscription over the gate announced an ashram in Odiya and Bengali and Devanagari. The rotunda and its screens supported by a circle of pillars and topped by a tower seemed to be something from the 19th century, perhaps very early 20th century. The sect probably originated in Bengal, which makes it likely that it was funded by Bengali traders who began to become wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the most interesting sight was inside the wide open doors of this little music shop. The variety of percussion instruments is amazing. But what goes beyond and becomes astounding is the thing that has the pride of the place: the automated drummer. I hope I’m not around when it starts to play.

A drive in the Monsoon

Monsoon is a time when I like to travel in the Sahyadris. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, given how damp and wet the weather is, how badly road surfaces are damaged, and how poor the visibility often in. But the compensation is there for you to see. It is exactly what Kalidasa described in the 5th century Sanskrit poem called Meghdoot. The flanks of the mountains are wet with rain (like the flanks of elephants streaked with water, he said), and the grass and rice fields are a rich green (the young green of growth, he wrote).

I drove through countryside which may not have changed so much since Kalidasa’s time. Nashik is an old city, associated with the Ramayana. The Panchavati ashram, from where Ravana abducted Sita, is said to be here on the banks of the Godavari. In this season you may expect a general lack of sunshine, a gloomy light, like in the photos here. But not everything is dark. The rain feeds streams which cascade down these hills which are more ancient than mammals. It pours over trees and plants which evolved with dinosaurs, and changed with the weather. Fragile humans, so tied to the weather, came later, building temples on these ancient mountainsides.

The fences that farmers put up seem flimsy and puny on the scale of this landscape; in any case, every gate stood open. This 700 meter high plateau was just at the level of the last clouds of the monsoon. Farmhouses and apartment buildings were scattered across the green. Every now and then we passed under a cloud which was busy dumping rain over a square kilometer. The windshield wipers were hard put to clear the water cascading around them. And then in a minute or so, we would be out of it, and watching the beautiful landscape again.

These photos were taken on a twenty kilometer drive as we drove from the Someshwar waterfall on the Godavari river to its source at Trimbakeshwar. We stopped every couple of kilometers to take photos of the green hills, the green paddy fields, and the hardy wildflowers that come up to the edge of the highway. I’ve called this an electric green in the past, but I would gladly take up Kalidasa’s description of this as new green. If only those power lines would not interrupt every view!

I was tired of the limitations of mobile phone photos, so I was trying to take photos in the rain with my camera without getting out of the car. Unfortunately a big splash of water landed on it when I took one of the photos. I managed to dry my camera with a combination of towel and micropore. When I looked up, a strange formation of mountains was visible off to the side. The Deccan shield has been eroding for about 60 million years, ever since the sundering of Gondwanaland. The slow process of erosion creates these temporary shapes of great beauty. If our lifetimes were long as geology, we would see the shapes flow like the water of the monsoon which is its agent. But we are short-lived. We see the cause and forget the effect.