Guangzhou from the air

Looking for easy credits in college I came to a course called Photogrammetry. After this I was hooked to aerial photography. Many years later, I walked into an exhibition of photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the Luxembourg gardens of Paris called “The Earth from the Sky”. This was a science made into art. With camera drones this has become easy today, when it is allowed. But for an amateur like me, the only way is still to take a window seat on a plane or to climb a high tower.

Coming in to Guangzhou, I looked past The Family, out of the cramped aircraft’s window, and saw a city where land and water mingled together. The first impression was of low houses in the baked-earth colours of southern Spain, but with flat roofs. The feel of Guangzhou on the ground is nothing like sparsely-populated Spain. This is, after all, one of the earth’s most crowded regions. Atmospheric haze is a major problem in tropical air. Even the cleanest of air will have so much water vapour that the saturated colours of Arthus-Bertrand’s photos are not visible to the eye. One can edit one’s photos to get a similar effect, at the cost of the reality of the tropics. Over a city the air is never clean. Although Guangzhou is not the most polluted city in the world, not even among the top 100, there is a definite haze visible from the air.

The views of central Guangzhou come from the top of Canton Tower. We managed to make it to the viewing platform of the tower in the golden hour before sunset. Looking east you can see the many bridges which connect the Huangpu and Panyu districts. We never managed to explore these two regions, although there are many historically important things to see in these parts of Guangzhou. The modern city is enormous, and includes many districts which historically were separate towns. Panyu was one of these. As evening fell we sat in a cafe in the Canton Tower and watched the enormous traffic jam centered on the nearest of these bridges. I was happy that we had elected to travel mostly by the metro. Looking west (featured photo) towards the posh district of Haizhu, taking a photo against the setting sun was a bit of a challenge. Later we would walk through this area, but for now one of things which intrigued me was the long island with the huge park which takes up much of the foreground of the featured photo.

The photo above is of the Tianhe district in the last light of the day. This is the new town, with all the swanky high-rises and the signature buildings by the world’s major architects. They lie in the shadows at the base of the tall towers. Beyond the high towers you can see the hills which are a special feature of Guangdong province. The Chinese word Tianhe translates into Sky River. The same translation works for the word, Akashganga, which describes the Milky Way in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Akashganga. Tianhe. Which way did the cultural influence run?

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Wild walnut cake

After lunch we wanted something sweet, and a box of walnut cake seemed to be just the thing. Between the two of us, The Family and I polished off a neat dozen of these little cakes. The machine which made them was quite as fascinating as the cakes themselves.

Was the machine as old as the shop? I couldn’t get that question across. If you took Hans Christian Andersen as a historical source, then you would believe that automation in China is very old. Blind faith in fairy tales may be dangerous, though. This robot looked like a Rube Goldberg device, but actually got the job done quite efficiently.

I also liked the sales patter from the man who attends to the machine, and the sing-song patter that you can hear on the soundtrack. That came from another worker in the same establishment.

India’s oldest sea bridge

The two kilometer long railway bridge which you see in the photo above is India’s longest sea bridge, and was completed in 1913. It spans the channel which separates the island of Pamban/Rameswaram from the mainland. I was lucky to be near it when one of the few daily trains from the island crossed the bridge. After seeing a photo in a post by a fellow blogger, I looked up its impressive story. When it was designed in 1911 by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, the design was very new. The central span of 88 meters (which you can see in the photos here) are designed to roll up in order to allow ships to sail below. In this century it has been expanded to take modern broad gauge rails, and strengthened to withstand the corrosive salty winds which blow across the Palk straits.

The cost of building a bridge like this a hundred years ago must have been considerable. The fact that it was completed in tandem with a port in the drowned town of Dhanushkodi points to commercial interests, all very well documented. At the tail end of the period of European imperialism, when the bridge was built, commerce between India and Sri Lanka was immense. The attempt to connect Dhanushkodi to Mannar in Sri Lanka by a 21 kilometer long causeway or bridge was slightly too ambitious for its time. The solution that was adopted was to have a high volume port in Dhanushkodi and a railway link from there, over this bridge, to Chennai. That solution lasted till the cyclone of 1964 destroyed Dhanushkodi. The Pamban bridge is no longer a vital economic link, but it remains as an interesting piece of engineering history, still beautiful, and in use.

Roopmati’s pavilion

When we first visited Mandu almost a decade ago, The Family and I had just read a book where the sultan Baz Bahadur of Mandu and his queen Roopmati make a fleeting appearance. Enchanted by the fable of a singer-shepherdess marrying a musician-prince, we decided to start our trip from the very end of the citadel, where a former guard post had been converted to the private quarters of the queen. Baz Bahadur was the last independent ruler of Mandu, and ruled in the middle of the 16th century CE.

Walking up to the pavilion, it was not hard to believe that this could have once held a garrison of soldiers. Looking out at the view, it was not hard to switch frames of mind and believe that it could have been a queen’s palace. Perhaps the most definitive evidence that a singer queen could have lived here are the two domed structures, one of which you see in the featured photo. I am no singer, but acoustics under this dome could almost make me sound like one.

Little seems to be known about the queen beyond the obviously embroidered love story. Comparing versions of her story from the early 20th and 21st centuries shows how the legend of Padmini has now been mixed up with the story of Roopmati. Even a cursory reading of a paper on her shows the degree of confusion amongst professional historians. Her story seems to have been first written down more than thirty years after her time, and copied from one manuscript to another until the middle of the 18th century CE. The painting of the couple which you can see in Delhi’s national museum was executed a century or so after their death. Some songs are ascribed to the queen, but they were first collected decades after her death, and may have been added to in the later manuscript which comes down to us.

We looked out on the enchanting green landscape, a photo of which you see above. The green land around the citadel is watered by low hanging monsoon clouds. It struck me that the weather in the time of Roopmati was very different. The monsoon was well below today’s levels in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading to widespread droughts. Even as late as the 16th century, monsoon rains continued to fail in central India. Roopmati, if indeed she stood in these pavilions, would have looked out on an arid land, with the glint of a distant stream providing the only water in view.

The concern with water management and harvesting is very clear in Mandu. The multiple tanks and step wells are just one sign of this concern. We descended to the basement of Roopmati’s pavilion to look at water cistern there. My personal trawl through those photos threw up forgotten images of The Family and me walking through the wonderful chiaroscuro of the basement. The photo which you see above is the only one which does not contain us.

The cistern is a terrific water harvesting system. Rain falling on the pavilion and around it drips into the cistern, presumably to be used by the garrison or the household of the queen. A paper on the water systems of Mandu says that the water was filtered through coal and sand; that’s the same principle as the charcoal and zeolite filter which gurgles away in a corner of our kitchen, five centuries on! In the brief two centuries since the little ice age the improved monsoon and irrigation systems have led to an amnesia about water harvesting. That period of plenty could come to an end soon, and the now-obscure methods could have a resurgence.

Golden Gate Bridge

I continued with image-archeology and discovered photos of the most photographed bridge in the world. You take a risk doing this, because there is little that you can do that hasn’t been done before. And that little would probably involve something possibly illegal like flying a microlight through the suspension cables. I wasn’t going to try any of that, so I tried to leave out the bridge and capture the blue water and the early summer sunlight on a June morning eight years ago. The building that you see in the shadow of the bridge is the Lime Point lighthouse.

That photo was taken from the north. I took a conventional full on view of the bridge from San Francisco as the fog began to roll in. At least, I thought it was conventional. Not so much, it seems. Most people today are aware of how very ordinary something like this looks, so it is more common today to seek a different viewpoint. As a result, if you search for images of the bridge on Oodles, you will find a googol images which look nothing like this. I like the idea of being superlatively ordinary!

Luggage lift

When you are walking on a mountain path you do not expect cylinders of cooking gas or other kitchen essentials to go sailing over your head (featured photo). But that is exactly what happens in Falachan valley. The whole valley is criss-crossed by overhead wires. I initially thought that there were a huge number of power lines here, but realized soon that most of the cables are luggage lifts.

Sitting a few hundred meters above the river at the turning point of a climb I saw pine cones around me. Once I noticed the cables they were resting on I hesitated to pick them up; the cables could be live, and this could be a fire hazard, I thought. Later it struck me that the most likely source of these cables were the luggage lifts. Usually cable faults of this kind are attended to reasonably quickly (which could be a day up at these heights).

Walking along the road we came across a family back from the market busy sending their stuff up to their home. I liked that loading station: at my head height, off the road. The cylinder of gas was already loaded into the cage which had come down from the village. Something must have been sent up already, and this cage was the counterweight. It was loaded with jerry cans of water. As we watched the young man poured the water down into the trees. The Family gasped. “Do they waste so much water?” she asked. Indeed, in many towns in hills water is scarce. But we saw lots of springs and glacier fed streams up here. Little villages are probably not short of water. Yet. The empty jerry cans go back up in the cage, along with heavy goods filling the rest of the cage.

We watched the two men load up the cage. They made sure that things were properly placed and would not fall off. Then this young lady sent a message on her phone. Soon the cage was winched up. We could see the counterweight descending. “Is there a road all the way to your village?” The Family asked the girl. “Yes, it is about half an hour’s walk away,” she replied. Then she added, “Maybe two hours for you.”

We weren’t the only spectators. An old man with a load on his back stood with us watching this family. These lifts are an innovation. Although this valley was dense with them, I didn’t see them much elsewhere. I guess the locals have figured out a way to string the lines between mountains, and that technique will take time to diffuse into the neighbouring valleys. It took me some time to puzzle through these thoughts. By the time I realized that there was something special about the Falachan valley, it was too late to ask someone how they string cables between hills.

Driving to the doors of the Himalayas

The drive from Chandigarh to the tunnel at Aut swings back and forth from near the Sutlej to the Beas: two of the five rivers which give rise to the name Punjab. This is an area of massive geo-engineering projects from two generations back. The city of Chandigarh can be considered to be one of these projects, since it was planned and built in roughly a decade. Our road up to Aut passed very close to the Bhakra-Nangal dams, one of the projects which was called a “temple of modern India” By Nehru, and which completely transformed Punjab’s agricultural economy. It turned out that the topography of the hills was such that we would not have a view of the dams. In fact, we seemed never to come very close to the Sutlej river; the featured photo is one of the closest views we had of the river.

Soni, who was driving our car, stopped just outside Chandigarh at a petrol station. This was the heart of rural Punjab, and I saw a tractor pull up to the pump to refuel. That’s not something I get to see often. This part of the highway was full of tractors and motorbikes. These thinned out as we began to climb up the slopes of the Sivaliks. These are the foothills of the Himalayas, never rising beyond 3 Kilometers above sea level, but carved up into twisted ranges by meandering rivers. There was an abrupt climb immediately after we fueled, and we left behind the unseen lakes formed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam.

We stopped for an early lunch. Across the road I could see a temple of contemporary India being built (photo above). We saw lots of them along the way. The older temples are off the main road, and require a bit of climbing to get to. The new temples are all built to be easily accessible by car. A little market was growing up in this narrow shelf around the road. I poked my camera into a little saloon and caught the photo you see below.

The road continued to stay close to the Sutlej. We would cross some of its larger tributaries every now and then, as the road jumped from one ridge to another slightly further north. Soni was one of the most uncommunicative persons I’d come across, but he realized that we were interested in rivers. So he stopped at a point where we had a grand view of a trickle of a river through a wide valley. A long bridge spanned the valley, but this was not the Sutlej. The far away glint of water which you can see in the photo below is the Sutlej.

The slopes were gentler now, but we were climbing continuously. The houses began to change character. The simple whites and greys of the lower slopes were giving way to different colours. I noticed that cheerful pink roofs were more common as we climbed. Sloping roofs with this colour of tiles was clearly a specialty of Himachal Pradesh. We would see more of these roofs as we went higher

The external paint on walls also began to take on the colours of advertisements for paints that you see on TV. Do advertisements follow life, or the other way around? In these days of viral culture seeping through cables, the difference between life and ads is probably inconsequential. We forged on.

I began to look for doors: not the metaphorical ones which we were headed for, but the honest-to-goodness doors which are the Norm. There was a profusion of windows, but precious little of doors. This roadside eatery, with its lovely rank of dekchis lined up on a counter is an example. There must be doors here, but they are lost in the gloom below the terrace. All I could see as we passed by were windows.

Then, as we passed over yet another stream, The Family shouted something that could be “Eureka” or “Rubicon”. She had the map app on her phone active all this while, and it told us that we were crossing the Sutlej. From here we were headed towards the Beas. Soon enough, we reached the little district town of Mandi.

Mandi looked like a typical hill town: precarious structures leaning on each other, cut through by narrow streets, hemmed in by slopes. They spread laterally along slopes, rather than in circles around a town center. I liked the cheerful pink colour of the town. We’d originally planned to stop here for lunch, but we’d eaten already. So we sped by the town.

We were almost a kilometer above sea level now, and the typical Himalayas houses began to show up along the road. Like in the photo above, you see a single story from the road. But if you walk up to the house, you would find another story or two below the road, snuggling into the slope. Often the level at the road is used as a shop or a garage. This one had its shutters down (doors at last!) but it was clearly neither.

In no time at all we reached the last of the major geo-engineering projects along this road: the barrage at Pandoh. This connects the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, and utilizes the difference in altitude between them to generate electricity. The gentle Pandoh lake stretches behind the dam, curving through the valley which the Beas had carved out ages ago. The road went along the river all the way to the 2.8 kilometer long tunnel to Aut. This is truly the doorway to the high Himalayas, one which we would not push through.

Abandoned!

Almost the first thing I saw in Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary was an abandoned railway station. I’ve already written about the railway line which fragments the sanctuary and still has heavy train traffic. Because of my new-found interest in abandoned colonial-era structures, I made a beeline for it even as my companions were stretching their legs. Tall trees rose behind it. Grass and little herbs had taken root on the roof, but the sturdy brick structure was reasonably intact from inside.

The paint was peeling and the doors had disappeared, but the plasterwork inside was relatively undamaged. I could only see two or three places where large chunks of plaster had fallen away. The floor was pretty undamaged, although it was strewn with trash. It was interesting to stand inside and look out at the rain forest and the single railway track which passed by. It is not hard to reel back time in your head to see a slow train come to a halt, while waiting passengers streamed out of the room to board it.

The long cement bench against the wall with windows was also pretty serviceable. At a pinch one could think of dusting it off and settling down for the night. One of the windows was missing its lattice work, but this would be hardly worse than the doorways without doors. The walls were typical Indian Railways dado: darker colour below shoulder height, and light paint above.

Even so far away from civilization, the wall has become a canvas, even a palimpsest, for Amit, Amar, Samrit, Deep, and a few other men. There are loves that dare not speak their names: B+B and D+S were par for the course. I was more intrigued by L+G+D and Amit+3. Something different is developing in these places clearly.

This was clearly the waiting room. The ticket office was next door: inside the massive prefab container. The counter was still open. The corrugated metal sheets still held their paint; there was no obvious sign of corrosion. Even the net over the window did not look badly rusted. There must have been a little platform of wood in front of the window. Part of the support is still there, but the plank above it has been taken away.

I peered in through the window into the large hollow space beyond. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a photographic exhibition on wildlife? I thought of hanging my photos here, with bright LEDs spotlighting each. I suppose the space still belongs to the Railways, and if I want to have an exhibition here, I’ll have to apply to them.

The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.

God’s own bungalows

A hyperbolic tag-line that Kerala’s tourism department used through the 90s was “God’s own country”. This makes sense for someone in love with small towns. When I travel through Kerala I’m surprised by how densely populated it is. You can drive a hundred kilometers and see one small town lapping up against another. Coastal Kerala seems to be a single Malabari Malgudi, only arbitrarily divided into municipalities. I did not see the apartment buildings which dot the north of India. Instead there are single family homes: each a neat bungalow with some surrounding gardens. The rain-forests and their immense bio-wealth which should have earned the place the tag-line of “God’s own workshop” have fragmented and retreated into little reserves.

Traditional architecture has evolved with the times. The wooden houses with their massive teak beams are no longer affordable, so brick and concrete have replaced them. It seems to me that this is a good thing to happen, because the decreased demand for wood is a force for conservation. At the same time, a well-maintained concrete house can have a very long lifetime, so slowing the demand for new construction. The walls are topped by the traditional style of overhanging sloped roofs which offer protection against the furious monsoon that still beats down on Kerala. The front verandah also seems like a cosy place in all weathers. I could imagine myself sitting on one of those, sipping a cup of coffee, staring into the rain which obscures the tame greenery around me.