Tales told by a spider lily

In the garden behind Baz Bahadur’s palace someone had laid out beds of spider lilies. I wondered whether this was anachronistic. The genus Hymenocallis comes from South America. This particular flower belongs to the species Hymenocallis caribaea, from the Caribbean islands. Could it have reached Mandu by 1555 CE, when Baz Bahadur became the sultan? Perhaps. After all many wonders from the new world reached the Mughal court by Akbar’s time. On the other hand, Mandu was a relative backwater, not the capital of a large and rich empire. Unless someone discovers a manuscript or painting from that era showing spider lilies, “perhaps” is the best answer we will have.

The spider lily tells a much older tale. The genus is most closely related to the Agapanthus, flowers which are called Lilies of the Nile. This is a misnomer, because these flowers originate from the west coast of Africa. How is it possible that a west-African genus is the closest relative to a Caribbean and eastern South American genus? The answer is in continental drift. 550 million years ago, Africa, South America, India, Mozambique and Australia drifted together to form the super-continent called Gondwana. The ancestors of these two kinds of flowers would have developed in the center of this continent. 130 million years ago, a rift created the south Atlantic ocean, separating the common ancestors of these flowers. Their descendants in the now separated continents of Africa and South America are now these two genuses.

A macro that I took of a flower eight years ago is a reminder of the deep history of the earth.


The landscape of Malwa

The lush monsoon-watered landscape of Malwa unfolded before us as we traveled from Dhar to Mandu. This road was familiar to us from eight years ago. We came to a halt near a park-full of fibreglass dinosaurs. The area around the museum of fossils had been converted to a children’s park. There was a wall around it, and several food stalls. Quite a change from the emptiness I’d remembered. As I approached a turnstile, a young man appeared and said “Five rupees for entry and another twenty five for the camera.” The museum was locked, but a lot of people were taking selfies against the dramatic background.

The Malwa landscape is mostly flat, as you can see in the photo below. This is one place on the Malwa plateau where the landscape indulges in a bit of drama. A little stream has cut a deep gorge into the plateau, showing that this is part of the Deccan traps. You can see the characteristic layer-cake appearance of the gorge, created by a few lakh years of volcanism (that’s a few hundred thousand years) which killed off the dinosaurs and created some of the fossils which you can see in the museum. The layers are formed by clay trapped between successive flows of lava. Above the basalt you can see the last 65 million years of strata.

If the land is old, human civilization here is also old, as humans go. Archaeology has yielded up Paleolithic hand axes, Microlithic arrowheads, and Chalcolithic tools, leading up to the recorded history of the immediately pre-Buddhist era. The earliest records talk of large cities and vast trading networks which connected the known world, bringing Central Asian and Greek pilgrims to this region of the world, and surely sending some questing abroad. It is easy to forget the depth of this history when you talk to the locals who cater to tourists. The farmers who till this monsoon-lush, but otherwise dry, landscape will hardly believe that slightly deeper tools could turn up the remnants of soil laid down in the time of Vikramaditya. Increase the length of the tool a little more, and you could be exposing the soil that Buddha’s contemporaries walked on. But that you would have to dig twenty feet to get to Paleolithic remains. Deep history is so deep.

Forgotten by time

In trying to refresh my mind about what we had seen of Dhar on our visit in August, 2010, I found photos which reminded me of an interesting museum that I’d completely forgotten about. Driving from Dhar to Mandu we saw a fiberglass statue of a dinosaur in the middle of a barren landscape. As it came nearer, we found a track leading off the road towards a small building at the foot of the dinosaur. We turned off and approached what we realized was a little museum of fossils.

Outside the building were several slabs of stones bearing fossils. I’d never seen a fossil dinosaur’s egg, and this one embedded into the rock was a wonderful sight (photo above). I’d always thought of them as round, but this was distinctly egg-shaped. if you place an egg on the kitchen counter and push it, it will tend to turn in a circle. The shape keeps it from rolling too far. I guess the same evolutionary pressure acted on dinosaurs. In fact, now that we know that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, I should not be surprised by the shape of the egg. It turns out that theropod dinosaurs, which include the ancestors of modern birds, had eggs of this shape. If this was a theropod egg, it must have been less than 250 million years old.

The museum looked closed. But as we admired the fossils outside, a young man came along and said he could open the museum if we wanted to take a look. Inside we saw some more eggs embedded into a rock (photo above). These were more nearly round. I wonder whether that is because I was looking at it along its length, or whether it was genuinely more spherical. If it was spherical then it could belong to other groups of dinosaurs, and, possibly, be older. In any case, all this is mere speculation. Since the museum was a little short of documentation, you could let your imagination run wild.

The Family and I walked along the short aisle, looking at all the different fossils on display. Someone had made an effort to make an interesting display on geology and the history of the earth. The keeper (photo below) also had been trained, because he gave us a small lecture on the ages of the earth, and the different kinds of dinosaurs. The Narmada basin yields huge numbers of marine fossils. We saw an ammonite on display (featured photo). There were also beautifully patterned globular fossils which must have been the remains of marine animals.

There are infrequent reports in newspapers of fossil finds in this area, although it is known since the 18th century that this area is rich in fossils. Unfortunately, there is no agency to protect fossils in the field, so inevitably they are removed and lost. Even then it was clear that not much money was being spent on the museum; even the keeper’s salary was clearly not very good. Now, almost a decade later, I read that the museum is dysfunctional and uncared for. A pity, since fossils such as these could tell us much more about the geological history of India than is now known.

Beyond blue mountains

As you travel through the Sivaliks you see forests of pine slowly give way to oak as you climb higher into the Himalayas. At the Jalori pass, which is at an elevation of more than 3 Kilometers above sea level, you see mainly brown oaks towering above you. Then, once you are over the pass, a whole vista of the Himalayas open up: across the broken ranges of the forested middle ranges right up to the high Himalayas. The snow covered peaks that you see in the photo above were probably closer to us than Parvati Parvat (whose peak at an altitude of 6.6 Kilometers makes it the highest in the district of Kullu).

A closer zoom towards the peaks shows little more. The nearby forested ridges hide the higher mountains from view. The photo which you see above was taken from the Jalori Pass in Himachal Pradesh. At this height the forest around us was dominated by brown oak. As you climb higher, these are the last trees to die out. So the trees along the top of the ridge in the photo are probably brown oak. The distant snowy peaks are likely to be about 5 Kilometers above sea level.

Views of these peaks raise the travel-nerd in me. I see the next ridge, and I feel like exploring that. Then, of course, there will be the next ridge, and the next higher one, as you slowly climb. I have done that in the past, but this trip was a simple one, taking The Young Niece with us up to a height where she would still be comfortable. We looked at the meadows on the far ridges. The Family climbed up to a meadow on a near ridge while I walked with The Young Niece under the green trees of this middle earth, between the plains and the mountains.

The weather changes fast on the mountains. Storms raced across the hills during this week, bringing dust-storms to the plains. The next day, we walked to the edge of high cliffs and looked out again on the high Himalayas. The ice in the high valleys two Kilometers higher shone bright even in the diffused sunlight which filtered through the clouds. 50 million years ago, the Indian plate crashed into Asia, slithering into the magma below it, and pushing the Tibetan plateau into the sky. The Himalayas mark that catastrophic but slow collision. The Sivaliks, otherwise called the lower Himalayas, were made by crunching together the detritus left over from this collision, and were raised about 15 million years ago.

The Family never finished reading The Lord of the Rings, but it contains a verse, written in the Sindarin language which the old Don made up, which is appropriate for her. In English it goes “We still remember, we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees, the starlight …”. She cannot tear her eyes away from those distant peaks. We stood together, looking out at that harsh landscape of rock and ice. I was lost in matters of zoom and foreshortening, mulling the turbidity in the air, as she imagined herself walking up those rocks.

Our first view of the Himalayas on this trip was after an unproductive morning of bird watching. We were coming down from a drive up to Rohla. The Lotus had decided to walk down while the rest of us took our time piling into the car. We drove down to a turn in the road where we could look across the Great Himalayan National Park to the peaks where the Tirth river originates. The air was foul again, and the glacier could not be seen. The Lotus came down the mountain and all of us looked into the distance, knowing that it was a seven day walk to the mountains that we could see.

Two streams

We walked through the wonderfully restored center of Muenster, past the cathedral and came to the little stream called Aa which winds through the town. At this spot the banks were built up and planted with flowering bushes. Low brick houses lined the banks. The short path along the bank curved around the center of town and quickly reached a road full of traffic.

We turned back, and came again to an interesting building hanging over the river, probably an old mill. The timber frame was filled in with brick. That is not so common, I’ve mostly seen timber frame and plaster as the traditional building material around here. Perhaps this was a newly built house; I’d seen advertisements by builders who would build you a wood frame house.

The mild drizzle and the flat landscape threaded by this thin stream reminded me of a different time and place. A few months earlier we’d spent a weekend in the flat land between the Western Ghats and the sea, a little south of Mumbai. During the monsoon this area is criss-crossed by little streams (one in the photo above) which join up into seasonal rivers which flow fast enough for rafting. There are no towns around, so most of these small streams have no names. It is interesting how the same landforms arise again and again across the planet.

Seven views of the Elephant’s Head

The highest peak in India south of the Himalayas is called Anamudi. The Malayalam word means Elephant’s Head. The 2.7 Kms high peak is easily visible from a distance. When I saw it again, I was struck by how apt the description is. It does not take too much of imagination to see an elephant’s head in the shape of this peak.

The morning started sunny with a mild haze, but by midday clouds had started gathering around the peak. By early afternoon the peak was barely visible. The clouds did not lift before we left the neighbourhood. The changing weather gave me a chance to get a variety of views of the peak in half a day. Looking at these photos brings back memories of a nice walk.

The greening of a rock

At a place called Urulanthanni near Thattekad is a rock poking out of the surrounding rain forest. The area is a ecological hot spot. The dense canopy of the forest holds a very large variety of endemic birds, which are invisible from the ground. The rock provides a great vantage point from which to view the activity in the canopy. In fact, as you can see in the featured photo, the canopy itself is a grand view.

While walking in the forest I’d noticed basaltic rocks poking out of the ground at various places. So the whole rain forest here has been formed by sedimentation and erosion of the volcanic rock. This knoll that I stood on was a rougher rock. On the surface I could see a flowing texture created by weathering. You can see this in the photo below. But when I looked at a broken face in the rock, as in the photo above, I could see the grainy texture of the rock. It seems that the rock here is a mixture of two kinds called gabbro and syenite. Both have this texture, but are different in the minerals that they contain. So this giant rock must have been created by a separate upwelling of magma within the volcanic rocks underlying the land around us. The red insect is the nymph of a bug which I saw later.

How did inhospitable rock become the bed of a rain forest? Observations on Mount Saint Helens has given us a wonderful insight into how biology covers geology. Could I see the beginnings of the cycle on this dome? Almost certainly the bare rock was covered by bacteria. But the smallest things I could see were mosses. I regretted not bringing my macro attachment. I would have got wonderful photos here. At the next level of organization, I could see soil blown into little hollows in the rock, as in the photo above. Was this enough to support plants?

It seemed that it was. I could see clumps of bushes growing in these thin mats of soil. As they grow and shed leaves they add to the soil. They also present a barrier to winds which cause the air to drop soil around them. Right at the exposed top, the process of bootstrapping the creation of soil is slow. But just behind the flat top, it proceeds faster, accelerating even more as you go down the slope. In the photo above you can see the scant bushes at the flat top growing in a thin mat of soil, and the larger thickets of bush lower down. You can also see a few trees which have taken root in the upper slopes. Eventually, the bacteria, moss, bushes and trees will erode the stone into soil, and this dome will be covered in vegetation!


I had seen totally unexpected landscape in the Thar desert: dry riverbeds with piles of broken rock, and vast stretches of level ground. Although large parts of the desert landscape was of this kind, there was a significant area full of sand dunes. I saw many dunes which were stabilized by plants specialized to grow in the desert, but there was a stretch of the great shifting dunes that deserts are famous for.

Dunes are formed by wind-blown sand. Sure enough, the air was dusty enough here that it felt comfortable if I pulled my tube scarf up to my nose to form a mask. Three kinds of sand dunes are commonly seen: barchans have horns facing away from the wind, parabolic dunes have horns facing the wind, and transverse dunes are perpendicular to the wind. What was I looking at? The great dune in the featured photo was clearly a transverse dune. I could sometimes see sand coming over its slip face. We were camped leewards of it. The ripples behind it were parallel to the edge. Eddies and gusts had formed smaller dunes, still pretty large, at its base. The photo above shows one of these. This was probably a blowout, or a parabolic dune. The horns at its end were not very long. In the picture above you can see that at the foot of the slip face the wind has tried to form yet another (tertiary) blowout dune. I guess this kind of fractal structure of dunes must be fairly common.

I woke up one morning to try to take photos of the dunes before sunrise, and found clouds blowing in. This was the first time I felt a strong wind. From the direction of the clouds it seemed that my guess was wrong: the clouds were blowing parallel to the dunes. The kind of clouds that you see in the photo are a high layer of cumulus clouds (altocumulus stratiformis). They form when ground-level winds carry moisture up where they freeze and then are carried in a different direction by high-altitude winds. So the direction of the movement of the clouds had nothing to do with the movement of the ground wind. In fact, because the ground wind had to be perpendicular to the movement of the clouds, my guess about the dunes had become more likely to be correct!

I had the warm fuzzy feeling which comes of the conviction of being right.

The making of the Thar desert

As we drove through the Thar desert, I wondered about the mysterious landscape around me. India receives so much rainfall from the monsoon that it is hard to believe that it contains a desert. The popular belief that the monsoon winds are “depleted” of moisture by the time they reach the desert is false. The distance to the sea is rather small, and the air is generally moist. In just three winter months, when the rest of India is dry, the amount of water deposited by dew in the desert is between 30% and 40% of the total rainfall. Something prevents the western branch of the monsoon from penetrating into Gujarat and Rajasthan.

It is believed that this is the immense high-pressure anti-cyclone that exists over the Sahara and West-Asian desert. In fact, the claim is that the monsoon winds prevent the spread of this pattern to the rest of India. Evidence for competition between the two systems is what happens when a third factor occasionally intrudes. In the infrequent episodes when a Western disturbance hits India during the monsoon, causing immediate heavy rainfall and flooding over a wide area of the desert. This means that the monsoon winds are not depleted of moisture in this region, but are obstructed from flowing by the anti-cyclone. If this conjecture is true, then a weakening of the monsoon due to climate change could allow the anti-cyclone to extend across India, making it an arid habitat.

Our jeep had long wandered off the road. The flat landscape that I’d grown used to gradually gave way to undulations. There was still a strong wind blowing dust and sand into my face, so I had my mask on. But when I looked around, the ground had changed. Until a minute ago we were driving through hard packed sand (see the featured photo). Now, all around us I could see something different poking through the sand. The photo above shows the surface. The broken flat stones are made of a material called calcrete. This is formed by the action of water and atmospheric carbon dioxide on wet dust and sand (the word calcrete seems to be a portmanteau of calcium and concrete). The presence of calcrete means that wet lands turned to desert at some time in the past. Dating of calcrete in the Thar desert shows repeated cycles of wetness and desert starting from 1.5 million (15 lakh) years ago to 250,000 years ago.

I walked across this landscape in search of a wheatear, but my attention was on the landscape. A short walk through sand brought me to something that looked like a dry riverbed into which sand had trickled: calcrete was overlain with sand, as you can see in the photo above. Aerial and satellite photography shows evidence for a well-organized drainage system of interlinked rivers in the far past, disrupted by climate change. Successive surveys and dating showed brief re-emergence of local drainage systems over a period of a million years, which were disrupted within a few tens of thousands of years.

The wheatear perched briefly on a bush and I managed to take a photo. After it had flown off, I looked at the land behind the bush (photo above) and it became obvious that it had been shaped by flowing water. The surface was covered in calcrete, which it why it had not been reshaped by the wind. Studies of pollen around Didwana lake in the eastern part of the desert have established that about 6500 years ago the area was wet enough to support a large variety of grasses and flowering herbs and shrubs, of the kind which are usually pollinated by butterflies. This dried up around 4000 years ago. When these studies were first published, there was speculation in the press about the connection with the mythical river called Saraswati. More studies revealed a fluctuating boundary of the desert over human history and pre-history. Palaeolithic tools and sites have been found buried intact in the sand, showing that the desert shifts fairly abruptly. The gradual abandonment of Harappan cities could also have been partly due to such climate fluctuations.

The bird gone, I climbed a little bluff to join The Family, and saw immediately clear evidence that I had walked across the bottom of an ancient river. The photo above makes it very clear. How old was this? I’m sure it has been mapped out. The geological and climatic history of the Thar desert has been examined in great detail in the last 60 years by a large number of scientists working in India. There is a group in IIT Mumbai who examined the age of sand dunes, and found some as old as 160,000 years, and others as young as 11,000 years. In several of the photos above, you can see distant dunes. It gives me shivers to realize that they were being laid down at the same time as glaciers advanced across the north of Europe, Asia and the Americas. As water got locked up in ice, this part of the world turned dry.

Geology and climate sculpt the land over periods longer than our lives, even longer than our civilizations. As a result, it has been hard to see the forces which shape our societies. Walking across that river bed I thought that I had a tiny view of these forces. In the past our actions have been too weak to shape the planet. No longer. We need to understand the Thar desert to plan a way ahead as the climate changes.


I’m a city person. I seldom see the horizon. What I probably share with you, whether you are a city person or not, is the habit of looking at tall things. Trees, poles for street lights, even buildings, set a scale for my judgment of distance. I found myself completely lost in the desert. In the flat landscape which extends all the way to the horizon, I could not gauge distances. I saw a man striding towards me, and took the featured photo. I thought it might take him a quarter of an hour to get near us. It was more like five minutes.

Later I saw this cow sitting in the distance, chewing its cud. Far far away, I thought. It got up, ambled past us and was lost in the distance; all in the space of ten minutes. My eyes could not adjust to this completely flat landscape. If there was a line of electricity pole marching from horizon to horizon, I might have been able to use that to estimate distances. But without any vertical cues, I completely failed.

A little walk later I saw this tree sandwiched between two hills. Later I looked at the photo and thought, “Just a minute. Hills?” No, in this desert there are no hills. The tree is the usual stunted acacia tree. It gives us a scale for how large things are. The bumps around the tree are just two heaps of sand, not very high. Looking again at it, I realized that the picture also has two electricity poles which are higher than the “hills”. The poles here are not very high, so that limits how high these piles of sand and dust are.

I didn’t stay in the desert long enough to get used to gauging distances. Wherever I looked I was deceived.