Bucket lists are now pins on a map, and Darjeeling railway station definitely had a pin on it. We planned our first walk through Darjeeling to take it in. The narrow gauge, 610 mm, “Toy Train” between Siliguri and Darjeeling was inaugurated in 1881, and was an immediate hit. It became possible to go from Kolkata to Darjeeling by train in a day. A hundred and forty years later, it has become a romantic thing, helped by the succession of Bollywood hits set around it. When I looked I found a fairly long list, from Jab pyaar kisi se hota hai (1961, Dev Anand and Asha Parekh), Aaradhna (1969, Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore), to more recent movies like Parineeta (2005, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan) and Barfi (2012, Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra). Not only is the station charming, it also has one of the best views of Kanchenjunga floating over the town. A tiny locomotive was working up a head of steam, and everyone on the platform queued up for selfies against it. A train came in while we were in the station, and we exited with the crowd. We worked up quite an appetite during the uphill walk back to Mall Road.
By all accounts the construction of the railway line from Siliguri to Darjeeling (80 Kms and a rise of 2048 meters) cost at least as many lives per kilometer as the infamous Burma Railway. When it was started, after the completion of a railway line joining Kolkata to Siliguri in 1878, deaths were so frequent that labourers left their jobs. The Bengal Government conscripted famine relief recipients to work on it, according to Mary H. Avery in her book on Darjeeling. Later, its upkeep required the use of a captive work force of sappers from the army. Unlike the 20th century Japanese wartime railway, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remains in use and has been inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list. It would be good if the various commemorative plaques mention its cost in human lives.
I tried to get photos of the train chugging along the road at various times. It moves only a little faster than walking pace, but often much faster than the traffic on Hill Cart Road. I finally succeeded in taking an uninterrupted video clip only as we drove out of Darjeeling: literally the last minute. We’d stopped for a last tea, a last look at the hills, and there it was, the train whistling its way past us.
One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.
The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.
You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.
The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.
On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.
There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.
The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.
July! A few hundred million people are passing around photos and videos of the Indian Ocean monsoon. Each of the big cities of India has a population of about twenty million, and maybe half of them are active on social media. Five big cities give about fifty million people sharing photos. The monsoon hits large part of Asia, including India and south China, and the northern part of Australia. I suppose a hundred million photo sharers is a bit of an underestimate, given how varied my social media feed of the monsoon is. Still, since I traveled to the rain-shadowed region of the trans-Himalayas, I can join the minuscule number of people across the world who share photos of summer in this month.
The featured photo is a view of July in Ladakh. The panorama shows the green Indus valley at an altitude of about 2800 meters in the foreground. Far at the back are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, which, in this photo, somewhat exceed 6000 meters. Between them are the barren heights, where the air pressure is less than two thirds of what it is at sea level. It is not just the lack of oxygen which has made a desert of Ladakh. After all, in other parts of the Himalayas trees straggle up to an altitude of 4500 meters, where the amount of oxygen in the air is about 60% of sea level. Here, north of the Himalayan range, it is the lack of moisture which kills vegetation. The photo above shows this desert a scant 400 meters above the Indus.
The next day we drove across the high pass called Khardung La. At an altitude of 5359 m, this used to be the highest motorable pass in the world. But in these days of international tension in this region, it is entirely possible that China is building a higher road, and escalating the engineering face-off in the Himalayas. Perhaps in a decade Khardung La would have lost its crown. Still, every Himalayan pass has a charm of its own, and this is special. In July the snow line straggles down to eye level as you drive here.
The road was jammed with tourist cars parked haphazardly as excited plains-people abandoned their cars to go stand in the snow in the middle of July. I could see melt-water cascading down the hill sides at places. Above us the snow was still melting. The water flows below the sheets of snow next to the road, carrying pebbles on to the road and across it as it tumbles into lower valleys. Perhaps by September the snow would have receded further. The continuous flow of melt-water means that maintaining a road here is a full-time job.
But this melting snow creates a strange ecological anomaly. As we climbed to the pass, we passed above the dead zone into an oasis in the desert. At an altitude of about 4500 meters, we began to see small bushes, tufts of grass, and wildflowers. We stopped once to take photos, and I saw near my feet a plant that I first mistook for ajwain. But it was actually upright hedge-parsley, Torilis japonica, a hardy plant that can be seen in a belt from western Europe to northern Japan, with a spillover into the Mediterranean coast of Africa. As we ascended there was a zone of tremendous flowering before it died away again a little above 5000 m. The number of insects on the flowers was amazing. They explained why I was seeing so many small birds at this height.
Although it was amazing to see this altitudinal island of life in the middle of Ladakh’s high desert I’m afraid we could be the last people to see it. This island of life has found a sweet spot between the lack of oxygen and moisture. As global temperatures rise and the snow vanishes, this oasis will disappear as certainly as island nations sink into the rising seas. The ten thousand years between the retreat of the ice age and the coming summer of the earth has been a springtime for these flowers.
Then abruptly, we were across the pass and descending again. The snow line receded above us, but the high peaks that were visible on this far side of the pass were not the Himalayas. They are the Karakoram. Our morning’s drive had taken us across one of the world’s most active geological regions: where the continental plate of India is prising the Asian plate upwards to create these highlands. The roads are impassable in winter. As we descended into occasional greenery, I was happy with the pleasantly cool and dry weather of July.
A bonus! That’s what the sight of a reconstructed model of the World War 1 biplane, the De Haviland DH9, sitting in Bikaner’s Junagarh palace museum is. This shell of the war’s most widely produced, but problematically under-powered, bombers is said to have been put together from parts of two planes shot down in combat (but they could have been unused war surplus). The information board in front of this exhibit does not mention the reconstruction as ever having flown; nor is there any record that the aircraft bodies that were shipped here came with engines or armament. These disabled planes were what was called the Imperial Gift of 1920, in return for the 500 Bikaneri troops who served Britain on the western front in the World War 1.
Even so, it was an instructive display. The planes of that era had very little thrust. The DH9 engine developed only 170 kW of power. As a result, stable flight required a relatively large wing surface. The wingspan was almost 13 meters, giving a total wing area of for an empty weight of just over 1000 Kgs. Half a century later, the popular Cessna 210 had a wing surface which was about two and a half times smaller for almost the same weight, flying on an engine which gave 230 kW of power. Unlike the model on display, the real DH9 had wings covered in fabric, and the rigging required a special wire with an aerodynamic profile.
It is interesting that the Imperial War Museum and the Historic Aircraft Collection in UK own two working models of the DH9 which have links to this war gift. The full story is told at the website of the HAC by Guy Black, the person who did the restoration. In brief, the remnants of the aircrafts were found in a dump yard behind Junagarh, and several rarer parts of the aircraft could be salvaged for use in the two models. I learnt that flight-worthy reconstructions of historical planes have tremendous amount of replacements due to flight safety concerns. So the amount of salvageable material from the Bikaneri relics is considered substantial. I am well aware of the problem that museums of computers and information technology face in sourcing important historical equipment, since we all treat old equipment as disposable. It was fascinating to see this same story play out in another domain of engineering.
Look out of your window and watch a bird take flight. You might see it push off from a perch and gain lift with hard strokes of its wings. Or you might see it drop, open its wings into a glide, and then begin to beat them for lift. On the surface of water neither method works. Water is too level to drop into a glide from, and too fluid to push against. So water birds have the ungainly take off that airplanes do. On Bhigwan lake we watched the long runs of coots (Fulica atra) as they scattered from approaching boats. They don’t flee from perceived danger; they take off in the direction that they face, sometimes towards the approaching boat. Perhaps it would take them longer to turn than to take off. I should time them.
The bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), those champion fliers, have even longer runs to take off. But the longest runs that we saw were those of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus). The flight of birds is quite different from that of an aircraft of course, but still, a greater weight would require a longer run for take off, unless the musculature and wings of two birds are very different. So a flamingo needs a longer runway than a coot, just as a Dreamliner needs a longer runway than a Cessna Skyhawk. A practical benefit of understanding this is that if you want to find coots and small ducks you could just drop by a small pond, but you need to find lakes if you want to watch geese and flamingos.
History is a long prelude. In 1820 CE the British East India Company set up an opium factory in Ghazipur in order to trade it for Chinese tea. The lucrative drug trade eventually devastated both China, the recipient country, and India, where farmers were forced to grow drugs, and attracted a series of young pushers to the “China trade” (as you can still see in Benedict Cumberbatch’s breakthrough role, it impacted Victorian Britain pretty badly too). Robert Mackenzie entered the China trade in 1836 when he set up a company in Ghazipur. Eleven years later he was joined by an old schoolfriend, William Mackinnon, who came out from Glasgow to be closer to the China trade.
They set up a business called Mackinnon Mackenzie and Company Limited in 1847, soon after the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanjing opened up China’s ports and Hong Kong to “the trade”. In 1853 Robert Mackenzie was lost at sea while sailing to Australia to seek a new market. The company kept expanding. In 1856, just before the start of the failed War of Indian Independence, it morphed into the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, and won an exclusive contract to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon, and later to Penang and Singapore. In 1862 it again morphed, this time into the British India Steam Navigation Company, which eventually controlled large parts of all shipping in the Indian Ocean, and connected it to the “home countries”. William Mackinnon died in 1893 in London. In 1913 the company was taken over by James Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, becoming soon the largest shipowner in history. It lost half of its fleet during World War II, and eventually transmuted into the car company Inchcape plc.
When James Mackay took over, the new Alexandra Docks (now Indira Docks) had been dug, and the seabed was being used to fill in a square kilometer reclamation next to it. When the first buildings came up in 1918, it became the new business district, Ballard Estate. The layout and many of the buildings were designed by George Wittet, who was by then a well-known name, having designed the Gateway of India, the imposing facade of the Institute of Science, and the impressive dome of what was soon to become the Museum.
So when I walked up to the Mackinnon Mackenzie building on Sunday, I knew I was looking at a place where the lives of four Scotsmen intersected. The grand building in a Edwardian neo-classical style, from which once the foundings of Mazagon Docks Company of Mumbai and Garden Reach Workshops of Kolkata were directed, had fallen on bad times. The Malad stone of which the building is constructed is fairly indestructible, and the details on the facade glowed crisply in the morning sun. But the roof of the turret is missing a large part of the tiles of fired Bombay clay which once covered it. These buildings were monumental, and can be restored and reused. The glass in the windows was intact. Even the penthouse gazebo seemed to be in a reasonable state of repair. There was clearly some work going on, and I wondered whether it was the work of repairs and restoration.
If you took a ship to Bombay in those years, then as you left the gates of the international passenger docks, the bearded Greek hero recoiling from you in front of this porch would have been the first thing you saw. I should have started my walk around Ballard Estate from here, but it was one of the last buildings I came to. When I walked around it I found that it was enormous, taking up the whole block. Something was going on in one of the courtyards. Some people were setting up a sunshade over the yard as another person took photos. Some youngsters chatted outside a side gate, looking trendy. Entertainment, media, or event management? The building is still clearly in use. A block away I met a man on a scooter looking for it. I directed him, and he rode away after thanking me. I looked back along the road to one of the last remnants of a storied company from the glory days of capitalistic imperialism.
The Parsi Lying-In Hospital had an architect whose name I had not come across before: Muncherjee Cowasjee Murzban. Not very strangely, it was hard to find anything about him. Even rather well-known architects, engineers, or scientists are not remembered long. It was a while before I found the full text of an out-of-print biography written by his son. Since there is not even a Wikipedia entry on a person who deserves to be remembered better, let me set out a brief bio here. He was born on 7 July, 1839 to Cowasjee Furdoonjee Murzban and Hambaiji Murzban (nee Chandaru). He was married to his cousin Gulbai when he was 14 years old, with whom had a daughter, Mithibai, in 1855, and a son, Murzban, in 1857.
Muncherjee’s family came to Mumbai from Surat and became very well known. The family name Murzban is an ancient Persian title given to governors of provinces in the empire. His grandfather, Fardunjee Murzban, moved to Mumbai in 1805, and became a book binder and printer, eventually starting a Gujarati newspaper called Mumbaina Samachar in 1822. The first editorial expressed strong opinions on the freedom of the press, and the newspaper was widely read during the Independence movement, since it reported speeches by Gandhi and other leaders of the movement. Interestingly for its time, women were employed to work in the press alongside men. The newspaper has been in continuous publication since, and now, two hundred years on, remains Asia’s oldest newspaper still in print.
A record of Muncherjee’s life reads like a case history of a brilliant engineer constantly butting up against the glass ceilings of colonial-era India. I give a bare-bones summary here, but his career became entwined in controversies about the rapid rise of a “native” Indian. His life became quite politicized, and newspapers on both sides of the political divide wrote about him. After studying engineering in the erstwhile Poona College, he joined the Public Works Department in 1857. At the personal request of the Governor, Bartle Frere, he was appointed to the Bombay Rampart removal committee in 1863. He was then seconded to the Bombay Harbour Defense in 1866. Murzban was eventually promoted to Assistant Engineer in 1872 after he took personal initiative in correcting major deficiencies in the engineering design of the General Post Office. He travelled to Europe in the next year (I found it interesting that the exchange rate was two shillings for every rupee; the rupee was not devalued until much later, under the advice of Keynes). Muncherjee visited the Tay Bridge on the Firth of Forth, then under construction, and (his son records) in his diary wrote about the likelihood of its failure. I hope the diaries are not lost, because they will be very interesting documents today.
His fame seems to have increased soon after. Murzban was elected an Associate-Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers of England in 1874, and a Fellow of the University of Bombay in 1875. In 1876 he was promoted to an Executive Engineer (he was only the second Indian to hold this position). The newly crowned Empress of India conferred the title of Khan Bahadur o Muncherjee in the Delhi Durbar of 1877. People who visit Mumbai will recognize some of his best work of this time: not only the General Post Office (1872), but the reclamation of Apollo Bunder, where the Gateway of India stands in front of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which he constructed, and the J.J. School of Arts (1878) in what was then the Esplanade.
He was elected to the Municipal Corporation of Bombay from Ward-H in 1880, moved into his own house Gulestan (on what is now Murzban Road) in 1884, and deposed before the Royal Commission on the admission of “natives” to the Civil Services in 1886. The accomplishments piled on. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1889, appointed president of the Municipal Council of Bombay in 1890, and made a Companion of the CIE in 1891. His election as Chief Engineer of the Municipal Corporation in 1892, the first Indian in this post, created quite a controversy. He voluntarily retired from the PWD in 1893, and was re-appointed for five years in 1898. Mumbai’s most eminent engineer of his time was appointed to the Board of the erstwhile Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in 1900, where he served for 12 years.
The buildings he constructed before retirement includes Alexandra School (1881), the Bombay High Court (1886), Cama Hospital (1886), Elphinstone College (1889), Wilson College (1889), Albless Hospital (1890), Wadia Hospital (1892), and the Anjuman-i-Islam Madrassa (1893). He is credited with changing the street lights to incandescent gas lamps, establishing municipal markets in Bhuleshwar and Colaba, installing sewage treatment pumps in Worli, and building many of the roads which now give shape to south Mumbai.
His output as an architect seems to have been more modest. I’d already seen the Parsi Lying-In Hospital (1895). The Murzban Parsi Colony in Lal Chimney, on Lamington Road was another which has been written about. This was a self-contained gated complex built for low-income Parsi families, owned by a charitable trust. I read about its recent restoration, and decided to put off visiting it until the Metro construction nearby is done.
Muncherjee Murzban died in 1916, the year after Gandhi’s return to India changed the politics of the nation forever. His career spanned precisely the years in which a prickly relationship, neither a partnership nor yet Gandhi’s non-cooperation, between “native” and colonisers created the skeleton of modern India.
Kutch is a flat land, a sea bottom raised in geologically recent times by the motion of the Indian continental plate. When Alexander’s army came to India, the Rann of Kutch was a vast inland lake. Now it is the southern end of the Thar desert. A plane so flat that large parts are covered in a millimeters thin sheet of water every monsoon, then baked dry the rest of the year, it is perfect for generating renewable power. For years, isolated families in this region have installed solar panels for their own use. Now they install wind turbines and pumping the output into the national grid.
The people I was traveling with laughed when I started taking photos of the pylons which criss cross this land. But I find that these impossibly tall towers have a poetry of their own. They are a first glimpse of our future. They are impressive when you stand near them. Low down on them falcons alight and scan the desert for prey. Buzzards build nests on the second rung of the towers. Ipomoea grows dense around the bases, taller than a man, but can’t climb beyond the first rung. The power lines which they support do not seem to pose a hazard to flying birds. Most fly well below them. Others fly far above.
But when you see lines of these columns disappearing over the horizon, you see what a light footprint they cast on this land. That tiptoeing through the landscape, like giraffes on the veldt, seems to be the only sustainable future for us. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously sang.
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.
Some weeks ago I noticed that junk calls from telemarketers was decreasing in frequency. I put this fortunate circumstance down to the pandemic. After all, these immense telemarketing operations are super-spreading venues, and must have been closed down. I suppose that meant that some of these jobs went into a gig economy. I guess that the extreme incoherence of some recent telemarketers, and the high levels of background noise in their calls could be due to this. Now the market has stabilized again, not due to vaccines, but because of automation. Today I was woken in the morning by an automated telemarketer.
I always fall into the bullshit. Why? Socks on in bed—the devil is a lie.
Travel agents were losing business for a while, and the pandemic has killed them off. Retailers have bounced back, but not exactly to where they used to be. Online marketing has taken on a larger share of the market, and the pandemic has moved a larger number of people into delivery gigs. A couple of times I opened the door for a delivery and saw a man older than me. I wonder what their stories are. Sudden loss of a job? Death of the main bread-earner in the family? While this low-paying job market seems poised for growth, how long will it be before delivery is further automated? The gig economy is a passing phase: it is the automation of shops and customer service counters. Now the automation is reaching deeper: right into the service being provided. The pandemic provides a window where accepting this change becomes easier.
Yet in a circle, pallid as it flow By this bright sun, with his light display, Rolled from the sands, and half the buds of snow, And calmly on him shall infold away.
Complicated jobs requiring simultaneously human judgement and manual work have been automated: for example, large cargo ships now run with crews of ten or so. My two cataract operations at the end of last year were performed, in about fifteen minutes each, by a robot which calmly intoned the purpose of each part of the process before beginning on it. I found it soothing. The doctor was in the operation theater and supervising, but it will not be many years before she is redundant. How long before the rest of the chain around her is also automated? Perhaps you will get your glasses from a vending machine in a few years. And instead of me, an artificial neural network will be writing these posts.