Sculpted mountainsides

People have lived on the Garhwal Himalayas for a long time. The mountainsides are terraced into fields up to a height of nearly three kilometers above sea level; perhaps even higher, although we did not travel so far. There are big farmhouses dotted about the hills. Villages are scattered collections of households. Perhaps the ease of being close to one’s fields overcomes the natural tendency to cluster into groups larger than families.

We stopped at various points along the road from Mussoorie (2 kilometers above sea level) to Kanatal (2.6 kilometers above sea level) to look out at the lower Himalayas, some slopes forested, others sculpted into agricultural land. The population density in this part of the country is similar to that in Sikkim. However, driving along roads in Sikkim gives you the feeling of being in forests, whereas Garhwal has the feel of a farming countryside.

Later, as we took a long afternoon walk through villages we saw an unexpected use of the terraces. A small game of cricket was in progress. The batsman did not have to pull back his shots. I managed to photograph a lusty shot, which would have carried the ball to a boundary even in an ordinary playing field. Here a fielder on a lower terrace gave chase. This region has a shortage of water. I wonder how hard farming must be at this height.

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Holi and the supermoon

We may sometimes forget that Holi, the festival of colours and spring, is actually defined as the day of the full moon closest to the spring equinox. Yesterday’s Holi was special: the full moon coincided with the equinox, and the moon’s closest approach to the earth happened at the same time. The moon looked spectacular, so I brought out my camera to take a photo. It’d been a long time since I turned a camera at the full moon, so I hadn’t realized how spectacular the result would be. You can see very clearly the dark patches which are lunar plains (fancifully called seas by ancient astronomers), the white spots of craters from which light-coloured lines radiate out, and the mountains and craters along part of the limb. In fact those mountains are high enough that the shape of the moon is not the perfectly round one we imagine.

People walked on the moon in my youth and I eagerly followed their paths in maps of the moon. This photo rekindled that interest. I put down the names of features I could remember: the large craters Tycho (so very visible), Copernicus, Kepler, and Aristarchus, the lowlands (mistakenly called seas and oceans) Tranquility, Serenity, Rains, and Storms, and the Apennines bordering the Sea of Rains. You can’t see the 4.7 Kilometers tall Mount Huygens, the highest visible point on the moon, in the Apennine highlands. You’ll need a better camera to see it.

I’d not kept track of what those Apollo missions of fifty years ago, and the exploration of the solar system by robots since then, taught us about the apocalyptic history of the solar system. A little reading brought me up to date. It seems that the lunar lowlands (seas) were formed by the cooling of magma created by a late heavy bombardment of asteroids around 3.9 billion years ago, when single celled life was beginning to take hold in the seas of the earth. All the inner planets contain scars from this era. Tycho crater, on the other hand, was formed a mere 108 million years ago, when dinosaurs flourished on earth. The astronomical origin of Tycho and the dinosaur-killer which hit earth about 65 million years ago are possibly connected. Spacecraft have opened a new golden age of solar-system astronomy. Discovering that was a wonderful way to close the day of the festival of spring. Happy Holi to you.

So bad it’s fun (XXXVII: Mussoorie Lake)

Our efforts to find the most artificial and unattractive, the most kitschy places, in India continues. I search high and low (mainly low) to bring you a list of places you might want to avoid. Unless, of course, you love tackiness and kitsch. Wouldn’t you love to spend Valentine’s Day taking a selfie with a ferocious dinosaur and your Valentine? If you do, then this series is for you.

Mussoorie Lake (number 33 out of 33 attractions on Tripadvisor) was on our must-miss list until we had an hour with nothing to do. Nitin stopped the car at the lake and said, in his garrulous way, “Lake.” The Family and I got out into a maze of little shops selling cheap things that nobody ever buys and found a ticket office with friendly signs saying things like “Entry 12 Rupees (including GST)” or “Persons found without ticket will be charged 10 times the entry price.” We bought a ticket and climbed down many stairs to find a glorified bathtub.

The periphery was full of exciting shops full of things nobody ever buys. There was a haunted house with a short loop of ghostly screams blaring from it. Next to it a food shop served “authentic South Indian dosa”. After that was a shop which rented out “traditional Garhwal wedding dresses” for you to take selfies in. Or you could go boating in the bathtub lake.

The Family and I walked around the shallow artificial pond slowly, taking notes. After three minutes we reached the high point: something under construction which said “Selfie Point”. Apart from the ferocious dinosaur in the featured photo it featured a tree full of multi-coloured flowers. “Plastic!”, The Family described in the tone of voice that Archimedes must have used when he jumped out of the lake bathtub shouting “Eureka.”

On the way back up the stairs, in one half-hidden corner I found a stand of Calla lilies. I don’t see them very often; Mumbai’s climate is not good for growing them. So every time I see these flowers I stop by and take photos. I like the delicate tones of the spathe, the modified leaf which surrounds the central yellow stem with the inflorescences. Twelve rupees is not much of a price to pay for such a wonderful discovery. Please remember Mussorie Lake the next time you feel you’ve been ripped off. It’s bound to make you feel better.

A Desolation of Salt

We sped into a desolation on the back of an open jeep. Behind us a lurid sunrise, in front a perfectly flat desert with the wind whipping up a cloud of salt. I settled a surgical mask over my face to filter out the salt. It wasn’t good enough. You need a better filter in this part of the Rann of Kutch.

Salt is part of everyday life in this desert. As we pulled off the highway we passed the production area of a government-owned company called Hindustan Salts Limited. From a distance it looked like a typical chemical industry, fenced off for your own good, different production areas connected by conveyor belts.

What you see from the road is incongruous. Immense pyramids of impure salt, with earth-movers trundling along between them, cutting the heaps into smaller piles. Other machinery moves these piles into sheds and from there into purification plants. This is machinery you normally associate with quarrying. I wondered why the impure salt is first piled up into mountains which require excavation.

But incongruities begin to pile up as you move far into the desert. This was the last day of our time in the Rann of Kutch, and this area was much more inhospitable than anything I’d seen till now. But there were more people living here. The Swedish countryside is dotted with farmholds, each well-separated from the next by fields. The landscape here was a desolate version of that: make-shift houses, well-separated from each other. Around every house were shallow ponds separated by low berms. Each rectangular pond held briny water, to be evaporated by the sun for a harvest of salt.

Everything was make-shift. Each family start work here late in the year, and try to harvest the salt before the beginning of the monsoon. The monsoon floods the area, so that you have no choice but to move out. My two-week long troubled breathing after half a day here cannot be singular. People who spend half a year here must be paying a price in poor health. It is not a life that one would choose freely. I keep returning to a wonderful movie which introduced me to the story of the people here.

Further on I saw a smaller establishment. Perhaps the family is more poorly off, but they had a couple of thorn bushes near their house. A considerable walk away they had set up an array of solar cells. This was common. There is a lot of pumping of water as part of their normal work. The old oil-fired motors have been phased out for solar power. A small luxury comes with it. In the other household I noticed that the makeshift toilet, walled off in green and white plastic, had a makeshift overhead tank of water.

Geologically, the Rann of Kutch is a rift basin, originally formed during the break-up of Gondwanaland, about 180 million years ago, but active today since it forms part of the continental boundary region of the Indian plate. It was inundated during the geologically recent Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago, and periodically later, as the sea level rose and fell during the Quaternary glaciation events during which humans crossed the globe and settled across the world. I suppose most of the salt here are evaporation residues from these events. Non-renewable removal of these salts should be the least of our concerns, given that another rise in sea levels is anticipated.

Old myths and histories are full of stories of armies destroying enemy nations by sowing salt into the soil. That is the normal landscape here. I suppose that the process of extraction of salt is not totally efficient. As a result a surface layer of free salt always remains, making this region even more inhospitable by blowing in the wind.

The Green Man

A couple of years ago I was so thrilled by the sight of a vertical garden that I would write a post about each one I saw. Since then this has become so common, that it tells me two things: how strong a need people have to connect to plants and growing things, and how quickly commerce can expand into niches. Two months ago I saw this clever use of a vertical garden while speeding past a construction site in the middle of south Mumbai. “How nice”, The Family said, “beats all the badly painted metal sheets that builders usually put up in places like this.” Then over the last two months I realized that this multimedia installation is now used extensively. Someone has caught on to the idea that it catches eyeballs. I have seen three construction sites which have the same image with a green wall used as the man’s hair.

It is still a clever design, and The Family’s amazement is right. Please stand up and introduce yourself if you designed this.

Desert luxury

How does a hotel announce to a visitor that it is special? I’m not talking about the service or the rooms, which is the core luxury that a hotel must provide, because this only becomes apparent over time. The announcement has to be instant. It is often something about the look: large lobbies in crowded cities, quietness in a noisy district, expensive art if you enter through a visually cluttered neighbourhood. I found that in a desert it is the suggestion of abundant water.

My trip to the Rann of Kutch was done on a pretty tight budget, but I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that prices in the Rann are bound to be much lower than in Mumbai. As a result, the hotel turned out to be luxurious by local standards. In terms of first appearances, it didn’t impress. There was a decorated door with rustic designs which opened into a garden. It was not one of the exquisitely carved, finely polished, and very well fitted doors which I have seen in this region. So this it left me a little apprehensive about the quality of the room.

Exotic animals roamed the grounds. I was in the desert with a bunch of bird watchers, so the sight of domesticated African guinea fowl did not exactly spell luxury to any of us. When I saw the room I was quite surprised by the size and the cleanliness. The food and service also turned out to be excellent. So I was sure that I’d missed some cues.

Then it struck me: greenery, flowers and lawns. In the parched surroundings of a desert, this was the declaration of wealth and luxury. It was not the garden door that I was supposed to notice, but the garden. Silly me. Not a single wilted leaf could be seen in the tall bushes here. The grass on the lawn was springy, and invited bare feet.

And, in case you still needed another hint, there was an enormous lily pond. I had been looking at everything with eyes jaded with the greenery and dampness of Meghalaya. This was the other side of the country in many ways: literally, in terms of geography, and metaphorically, a desert instead of the rainiest place on earth. I had to look at it through local eyes to see the signs of luxury and conspicuous consumption. I quailed at the thought of the ecological cost as I caught on.

What do you think of when you say food?

That’s a question that I’ve started asking people. The inevitable answer for an Indian is “dal chawal”. The featured photo shows a plateful of what The Family cooked up when we got back from a couple of weeks in China. If you’ve followed those posts you’ll know how much we enjoyed the duck and dumplings, and the custard and cakes. “But,” as The Family sighs after ten days, “I wish we had some simple food.” That first plateful of dal and rice is a wonderful back-home-again feeling.

So, to take my question on-line, what do you think of when you say food?

Off-road at the edge of a desert

We were on a long straight road to the weird desert of Kutch. The main highway was in very good repair, and allowed us to make good time. The dawn was still pink in the sky when we left Ahmedabad, and even after a leisurely breakfast and a detour through Nal Sarovar for Sociable Lapwings, it was well before noon when I noticed how dusty the surroundings were.

There were still cultivated fields by the road, but you only had to look at the sky to see the dust. Directly overhead the sky was a clear blue, but if you let your eyes fall towards the horizon you could make out the grey of suspended dust. I had brought along a packet of surgical masks to protect me against this desert dust, but eventually it turned out to be inadequate. The next time I come this way I will have to bring along a sturdier mask with a good filter.

The moment you go off-road, everything changes. The irrigated edge reveals itself as a tiny intrusion. This is the kingdom of dust. Clumps of woody bushes grow here and there, and get more sparse as you penetrate deeper into the desert. Here at the edge of the Rann of Kutch, there are ponds, but even at the edge of the pond there is no grass. Taming this desert will require finding a grass to hold the topsoil together.

In the last year I’ve begun to see the desert as an exercise for the future. This part of India does not get monsoon. The popular understanding is that this is because the monsoon winds are “depleted of moisture” by the time they reach Gujarat and Rajasthan. This is false. The desert is very close to the sea, and right in the path of direct monsoon winds. These are kept away by a high-pressure system which sits over West Asia. In future if the monsoon wind system slackens due to the warming of the oceans, then this high pressure zone will expand, and the desert will begin to move eastwards. Finding a way to keep the topsoil from crumbling into dust is therefore an insurance against the future.

We pass villages where dust has piled up against structures, a graveyard is in the process of being buried again. I wondered about this village, which seems to have been abandoned rather recently. I saw a large house, with the roof caved in, walls still standing. Behind it was a shady tree which brought back memories. When I was a child, growing up in north India, courtyards of each house would have one or two such trees. Learning to climb them was one of the rites of passage for youngsters. In north India the courtyards and trees are gone. Here the trees remain, but people are gone.

Shillong to Sohra: growth and decay

Five years ago The Lotus, The Family and I were in a car traveling between Shillong and Sohra. Raju assured us that it was not a long drive. So we took our time to stop and look at anything we found interesting. It was a nice day; sunny sometimes, but the mists which give Meghalaya its name kept creeping up on us.

Shillong seemed charming and picturesque. Jammed-up traffic filled most roads, but next to them plants seemed to take over everything. We wondered how long a bulldozer has to be left to itself before it is hidden by bushes. Megahalaya seemed so very laid back, in spite of traffic woes.

The road to Sohra was full of other charming sights, like this cabin with sagging walls. The sunlight which broke through the trees lit up some wonderful weathered wood. Raju did not mind stopping at every whim. I got quite a few interesting photos that day.

When we stopped for a chai, the shop fit exactly into my mental picture of what it should look like. Sloppily painted wood was showing its age. Inside the shop bright clothes hung on a line which passed over the open fire. Perhaps they were drying there. Stainless steel utensils gleamed in the light.

Elsewhere we found a newly built cabin. It had brick and mortar walls. The window was already broken and completely boarded up. The roof was made of thin metal sheets. It looked as if someone had started wrapping a box in foil and stopped before completing the job.

We stopped at the Mawkdok Dympep valley and climbed up a slope on one side of the road to find a nice meadow, full of flowers and sun. Beyond it we saw a pong, a newly constructed tank to hold water for irrigation (featured photo). We sat down on the meadow and enjoyed the sun for a while. When clouds rolled in, we got up to leave.

After detours to Dein Thlen and Nohkalikai waterfalls, we entered Sohra. The roads were even narrower than in Shillong, but the load of traffic was less. We saw a rusted hulk of a jeep by the road. We were in civilization again.

Monoliths and archers

The sacred forest of Mawphlong village, one of over a hundred such places sprinkled through this plateau, is said to be home to a deity called U Ryngkew U Basa. This 75 acre forest is governed by the clan of priests called the Lyngdoh. Since this was the closest to Shillong, we drove down there. A fair was being set up when we reached. There were lots of tents, some signs directed us to empty places which would presumably fill up later. We wandered about, unable to figure out anything. Some people helpfully told us to come back later. When The Family asked about the sacred forest, people pointed in some direction.

Raju had decided to take the car back to the designated parking area and wait there. Later I thought that maybe he was uncomfortable here. That was a time of violent and exclusionary identity politics. Being so obviously tourists, we were safe. But maybe Raju felt he wasn’t. We walked in the direction which was pointed out and came across a field of Khasi monoliths. Typically they are set up in a sacred forest or just outside them, and commemorate either events or ancestors. I wondered about the dating as we walked into the copse of trees under which these monoliths stand. The monoliths had no writing on them, and their purpose can only be explained by someone who knows about then. Having a guide with us would have been good.

We wandered back and watched some archery practice. The people involved were of all ages, but shared a certain squinty eyed gaze at the target. The main competition was much later in the day. The place had the unsettled air of people having arrived too early for what they wanted. The sacred forest was not very close to here, and the disruption of the fair blocked off our way. We walked to one end of the fair ground and looked down at the green fields of the Mawphlong village. The forest held its secrets. We would have to come back another time to walk through it.