Where leopards live

Bera is known for its leopard sightings. I wondered why. The reason turned out to be simple. There are large numbers of leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi) around this small village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It doesn’t matter how secretive and stealthy these animals are. They are still visible just because of their numbers. But I was curious about why there are so many of them here. After all, the land is not highly forested. This may be only the edge of the Thar desert, but it is largely scrubland, and well populated by humans.

Our jeep reversed up a steep slope of a granite monolith for a view of the landscape. From a height of about 40 meters, I took the panorama that you see above. At this time, soon after the monsoon, water still pools in hollows in the rocky terrain. In a couple of months they will begin to dry. Storage and irrigation have distributed water through this dry land in the last thirty years, enabling farming. The herders of earlier years also remain. The land was surprisingly green. The largest trees were stunted acacia (babul in Hindi), but thickets of succulents, thor and aak thor, could be seen. Aak (milkweed) was also common. About fifty years ago Prosopsis juliflora, an exotic mesquite, was seeded through large tracts of land. They proliferate. The caves in the ancient rock, and these dryland forests provide enough cover for leopards.

You can see another reason for the surprisingly easy visibility of these animals in the photo above. Much of the flat land between the rocky domes of granite have been plowed into farmland. As a result, the cave dwellings of the leopards are isolated places, and a dedicated watcher can park herself near one and wait for a sighting. A leopard is nocturnal, and most sightings are in the early morning or late night. The increasing popularity of Bera as a weekend tourist destination has resulted in some of the hotels employing “trackers”. During the day these men on motorbikes keep a constant vigil for leopards. They are connected to jeeps by mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and a sighting immediately attracts a few jeeps..

Another thing that puzzled me first was the availability of food. From the loud alarm calls of monkeys and peacocks when they saw a leopard moving, it was clear that leopards hunt them. But a peacock is a small bite for a leopard, and a monkey is not much larger. There are wild boars here (although we didn’t see any) and other small animals, but the terrain does not hold a leopard’s preferred food: deer. The answer is again simple. These leopards feed on livestock.

Elsewhere I’ve heard of cattle being attacked by leopards, even seen such a kill in Kumaon. Here the complaints were of leopards taking goats and sheep. Smaller animals are easier to kill. A leopard is incredibly strong; I’ve seen one take a full grown sambar up a tree after killing it. Making a killing of a cow or buffalo would not be too hard for a leopard, but then it would have to cache the remains after a feed. A goat or sheep would be a complete meal, and easier to catch. A leopard would have to kill one such every two or three days. I suspect it is less often, otherwise the conflict with humans would be uncontrollable.

One morning we’d heard alarm calls tracking a leopard as it walked across a patch of scrub land. It was walking away from rocks on the far side. We waited, because it would probably cross the road. The alarm calls stopped. Clearly the animal had hunkered down to survey the road for danger before crossing. Then, as we waited, a bunch of sheep came along the road. Then a couple from a village on a motor bike, talking loudly on a phone. Then a bunch of goats and another herder came along. A train passed the tracks whistling loudly (here they are required to whistle in order to alert wildlife about its coming). The sun was climbing higher. It was getting hotter. The leopard would not cross the road for a while, and it was time for our breakfast. We left. We asked trackers later about the leopard. It had not been spotted, nor had it made a kill.

Another time, this man came along with a bunch of goats. One had just birthed while grazing. He was carrying the kid in a sling around his neck. It was not completely free of blood. But the blood did not attract a leopard. Perhaps food is so plentiful here that the predators abhor the risk involved in confronting humans.

Evening. Once it was too dark for the camera to capture any wildlife, we drove up a rock. This granite is ancient, perhaps 750 million years old. It was laid down as the ancient super-continent of Rodinia broke up. As the colour faded from the sky we watched the stars appear. It was new moon, the beginning of Navaratri. Venus appeared close to the moon. Overhead Jupiter and Saturn appeared. I looked out at the land as lights appeared across the vast plain. This region of full of villages and hamlets. In the caves and crannies of this ancient granite, older than the first animals, one of the most recently evolved predators have found a home. I took a panorama of this strange land at the edge of the desert as the last light faded from the sky.

A rose is a rose is a sweet

Gertrude, do visit Bhuj to correct your mistake. (You too William; a rose would taste as sweet.) I had heard much about the chain of sweet shops in Bhuj called Khavda. Not being a Kutchi speaker, I assumed that the name was the imperative case of the verb “eat”. So I was quite surprised later when I passed the village of the same name. Apparently the shops are called after the village, because the family which owns the chain comes from there.

My first reaction was “A typical sweet shop.” Their topmost shelf displayed something called roasted barfi (that’s the tray on the right in the photo above). I asked for a sampler. The Family looked at me quizzically. “I’m full. And in this heat I don’t want to taste any sweets,” she said. When it comes to sweets (rather, when I come to sweets) I set no conditions; the antique Greeks called it agape. The barfi was nice, but it couldn’t be what they are famous for.

The Family didn’t want me to do a systematic taste test to figure out what they are famous for. She short circuited the process by asking the friendly young owner of the franchise. He pointed out the rose sweets. Two of them lay in trays side by side, in an obscure shelf. Clearly you don’t need to make a fuss about displaying what everyone knows is your best. The one on the left was the regular rose, and the other was roasted. This time The Family joined me in the tasting. The roasted rose passed muster. We packed a box to share with the bird watching group which would assemble the next day. Watching birds makes you a little peckish, I find.

“Anything else?” I asked Siddharth, the young man. He pointed out the special rose sweet, each individually packed. How long would it last? A couple of days without refrigeration. We couldn’t take it with us on the trip but we would pass through Bhuj again on our way out. Except that we would arrive very late and leave early in the morning. “Not a problem,” Sid told us. “We’ll deliver a box to your hotel.” That was done then. He sealed the deal by offering us a sampler of salties. The Family added a couple of them. She feels peckish too after a morning’s birdwatching.

It was the week of Ganapati puja, the equinox, and the beginning of the festival season. So the countertop was laden with trays of modak. I sent a photo to friends as my way of wishing them. Some are purists. One wrote back “These aren’t modak. They are just pedha stamped out in modak-shaped molds.” That’s right. The true modak is a thin rice-flour shell filled with grated coconut sweetened with molasses, folded into that beautiful shape before steaming. And they are made at home.

Little villages in the desert

Each village in the Rann of Kutch seems to have a craft that it is known for. Since we decided to skip lunch on our day of arrival, we decided to visit a nearby village that The Family had marked down as a place of interest. This was the village of Bhujoda, and it was known for its woven woolens. The craft is very traditional and utilizes hand looms. The looms are made in a different village.

Each family has its own “factory”. This is a large courtyard where women card and dye the yarn (see the featured photo). Traditionally only earth and vegetable colours were used. We were told that the bright colours that people prefer today started to be used about a generation ago. The Family was enchanted by the traditional weaves: whites, browns, earth reds, black. The men work at the looms. A painstaking job. At one end of the courtyard was the family’s residence. A young girl offered us tea, and we were glad to accept.

Some of the things on display had Kutchi mirrorwork. That is done is yet another village which specializes in it. The cloth from this village is sent there, and the two families involved share the profits. I’ve seen villages specialize in crafts before in other parts of the country. But I hadn’t had the time to ask whether they have the same level of specialization.

In a completely different part of Kutch, deep in the Rann, we came to a village called Bhirandiara. It’s speciality is mawa, made from milk obtained from nomadic herders. These herders are perhaps the oldest inhabitants of this desert. The colourful mirrored cloth which Kutch is known for is their normal dress. We stopped in this village for a chai after spotting the marbled duck, and tasted this famous mawa, surrounded by crowds of the herders. I wished I had the time to travel through the Rann. Perhaps we’ll do that some other time.

Marathon memories

The Mumbai Marathon usually takes place in January. Ten years ago I’d woken up in time to go stand by the road and watch it. All marathons are serious affairs, and the well-funded ones attract international attention. The Mumbai marathon attracted quite a few world class runners for years. That year the top ten were a mix of runners from Ethiopia and Kenya with timings that ranged from 2:09:54 to 2:12:47. Girma Assefa of Ethiopia, then at his personal peak, won that year. That run remains one of his best, although he bettered his time by about two minutes in Paris three months later.

It was already an hour into the main race when I arrived, and the serious runners were no longer bunched up. I saw the lead runners of the pack pass by. Most of them had the lean muscular build of runners, but it was still early enough that a few well-trained amateurs were in the pack. Apart from the main event, there was a half-marathon for beginners, and a short six kilometer course called the dream run.

The dream run was a fun party. Political statement and fancy dress were the order of the day. The Family had decided to join the dream run that year, running to raise money for the protection of tigers. It was a time of a hundred flowers blooming, before the approach of the cultural revolution. The stakes seemed low then, but the same problems have become harder today: the environment, health, and education.

Post and police

What role does the government play in the small villages of Maharashtra? Schools and health centers are important. So is the Gram Panchayat. The post office and the police station? Going by the looks of it, they are not much in use. We walked through Vaitarna village. The post office stood well away from the road. A muddy path led up to it. One person ran in as a sharp shower came down. Who visits a post office any longer? Messaging and emails are widespread. Courier services take parcels across the country. Even money is transferred with the phone. Still, there was a little traffic in and out of this place. Post will take some time to die.

The police outpost seemed even more deserted. It stood in a little rise next to the road. Slippery moss covered steps led up the slope. A muddy rut ran next to it. It seemed too slippery for walking. It is likely that people run motorbikes up it when they need to. Probably some of the policemen. The gate was implied by the posts, but any remnant of the gate or fence had disappeared. There were more steps inside the gate, as mossy as the ones nearer to me. The roof had its own ecology. It didn’t look like anyone was inside the slightly skew building. I like the way trees shade both these colonial-era structures.

Other homes

Hurry declared that the leak had not been repaired properly, and he needed to go to a car repair shop in Vaitarna village. We agreed to go along. Next to the repair shop was a grocery store. The Family decided to buy biscuits. You can’t really have tea without a Marie biscuit or two, can you? The thin crisp things, with scalloped edges, were apparently invented in 1874 to commemorate Marie Romanov’s wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh. Far from the pomp and circumstances of that time, we took our biscuits and found a place which could give us tea to go with it. It had started raining, and I got a nice photo of a quiet street in a village.

We walked around a bit, taking photos of people and houses. The unplastered wall that you see in the photo below stood out from the rest. The Family stopped to take a photo. Strangely, the paint was peeling from the doors and windows. It had the odd appearance of being simultaneously unfinished and old.

The contrast with other houses could not be greater. Even relatively poorer houses, like the one that you see in the featured photo, had a better finished look. And there were some really neat houses in the villages.

The boy you see in the photo above stood at the door of his house and inspected us carefully. When The Family waved out to him he ran in. Tin roofs seem to be common here. Is it because of the heavy rains? They may be easier to repair than concrete when they spring a leak.

This house was my personal favourite. Bright and cheerful, with some lovely hibiscus in the garden. I also liked the field raincoat propped against the front verandah. In the Himalayas you see shoes lined up outside the house. Here it is the rain gear. Stands to reason. You don’t want to get water all over the floor.

Motorbikes

Held up in the slow traffic behind a heavily loaded tractor trundling along a highway, you might believe that rural India travels on tractors. This is not true. Go off the highway and travel on country roads. You’ll find that India travels on motorbikes. They are cheaper than cars, and perform better on dirt tracks than pick-up trucks. I tried to make myself inconspicuous by the sides of roads as I took photos of passing bikers. A pair in water proofs whizzed by. Sacks of greens rode pillion. It looked like paddy being transported for transplanting.

Elsewhere I saw a lone biker carrying blankets bundled up in a piece of cloth. I was caught in a sudden downpour and sheltered under a thorn tree. He stopped ahead of me and adjusted the bundle. Taking it from the pillion, he held it to his rainward shoulder, and huddled behind it as he passed. No better protection than the sparse foliage of a thorn tree, I thought. He presented a better picture than me, though.

Wakee village

Quick glimpses from windows of a passing car confirm your beliefs about villages. Temple spires. Men sitting and chatting. Farmers with oxen yoked to ploughs. You have no time to take in details in those split seconds as your car passes through a village. Which is why we take photos as we drive through. When I study a photo later, details that I missed emerge, and they pose questions which I had not thought about. Sometimes they connect with things I see later.

The Family took the photo that you see above. We found the sight of a pair of oxen yoked to a plough driven on a metalled road to be unusual. But then, as we studied the photo, more incongruities emerged. There was a three storied house, complete with plastic water tanks on the roof and balconies. But right next to it was a simple shelter of bricks and plaster with a tin roof. Across the road another deceptively roofed house, but with walls made of dressed granite. That must have taken money or power tools for cutting and polishing. There is wealth in this village. We later confirmed that some farmers use tractors for ploughing, while others have oxen.

The temple in the featured photo declares that it was built in 2020. A contrast to the incomplete building you see above, with a sign faded to the point that you can only see the word “development” painted on it. I read the name of the village off the sign on the temple. The large memorial gate next to it was built in 2007. You can see a well-stocked vegetable stall at its foot. Across the road is a grocery store in a decent concrete structure. These are signs of prosperity. The district is known for rice and sugar cane. Both need a lot of water. The dams nearby must have created the prosperity we saw. Taking a lot of photos does help you to understand what you missed at first sight.

Tractors and rice

Half a year ago we’d stopped at the census town of Ghoti to buy vegetables and rice. Ghoti turns out to be the town closest to Vaitarna dam. So we were not surprised by the rice fields surrounding the villages here. On a very rainy morning we walked through these fields photographing every day life. People were hard at work. A light bamboo cage covered with thin plastic sheets was the rain-gear of choice. Umbrellas were less common.

I squatted on small boulders and waved at the people as they worked. They would wave back, and go back to their jobs. Some people have tractors. I watched as one plowed a field. On the margins a cow kept watch on this machine which had made its males redundant. The job was over in minutes, and the tractor drove off to another field. It seems that one or two people in a village own a tractor, and plow others’ fields for a fee. The hardest part of farming rice is the transplantation of paddy. The seedlings are grown in one field, and then transplanted to another, plowed and flooded, field later.

Rice (Oryza sativa) is one of mankind’s oldest technologies. The genus Oryza seems to have first arisen in the islands of the Sunda straits about 18 million years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of caches of wild O. sativa come from Vietnam. These remains in Xom Trai, are dated to about 11,600 years ago, at the very beginning of the retreat of glaciers. This was the end of the period called the Younger Dryas, the beginning of the Holocene.I call rice a technology because it is the product of a long process. Domestication completely transformed rice. Even the wild rice of today is actually feral rice, technological artifacts which have escaped our control. Our rice fields are attempts to recreate the conditions of the end of the Younger Dryas. The melting of the glaciers left sodden land which would flood often. It is amazing how many human technologies have been brought in to help. Everything helped: metal working, the domestication of oxen, the internal combustion engine.The long wall behind the flooded field in the photo above is part of the Vaitarna dam. Even that is ancillary to the technology of rice!

This is a job for the whole family. Every hand turns up to work in the field. Little breaks become family affairs, like this early lunch that this family enjoyed on the field. I did not go up close to talk to them, but I’m sure that the metal containers held rice and dal. Vegetables are not a constant part of the meal. Another family had recruited one of their youngsters, the guy with a pink umbrella in an earlier photo. While the rest of the family replanted paddy, he dug a drainage channel.

The ox-drawn plow has not disappeared. The next day in another part of the plateau I found a field being plowed by a team of oxen.The nearest village had a cart being pulled by oxen, the only such ancient transport I saw. Relative prosperity has reached this part of the country. The result is that internal combustion engines are replacing animals. Can batteries replace them? It may be a while before electric tractors take over the world.

A village school

The village was small, with maybe two hundred families. But it had two schools. The elementary school seemed to be closed, but the “English School” was working. The villages in this part of Maharashtra are reasonably prosperous. Still, on a rainy day we saw girls, some in uniforms, trudging to school along the main road. A village as small as this requires no school bus. Nor are bicycles needed to get from home to the school. There are a number of cars in the village, but they don’t drop the children to school.

From outside we could see a long shed, a string of class rooms set out one after another. We are fascinated by schools in small places, and retain faith in the ability of education to transform society. The Family talks often of helping out in schools like this, perhaps when we are retired and have the time to put in a month’s work, pro bono publico, at any time we choose. But for the public to put in work within the government’s educational system is hard, so perhaps this is just a pipe dream.

In any case, The Family slipped in through the gate and talked to someone inside. They are understandably suspicious of random strangers who walk in, but allowed her to take photos. At a different time of the year the large grounds could easily hold hockey matches, if they still play such games. She didn’t find any of the teachers to chat with. They are probably kept quite busy.

The classroom doors were ajar, and The Family reported on the subjects being taught. She walked around the building and took a photo of a mural of Saraswati painted on the wall (featured). The heavy rain had not damaged it, so it could have been repainted just before the monsoon. The picture has her holding the vina and a rosary, but the other half of the symbolism, a book and a water vessel are missing. Strange omission for a school, I thought. At least they remembered to show the sky at dawn behind her.