Holi and the supermoon

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

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

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

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A Desolation of Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entering the desert

It is late afternoon. A short detour from the highway over a bumpy stretch of land, and suddenly we are in the desert. The Little Rann of Kutch seems to be a perfectly flat landscape. I’m lost instantly. There was no landmark that I can see, but the drivers of jeeps here seem to find their way as if on signposted highways.

There must be ways of seeing. This is not barren land, there is life here. Over the next two days I’ll begin to understand its signs. There are clumps of hardy bushes, sometimes even trees. There are insects, birds which eat the insects, and birds which eat the birds which eat insects. There are lizards, jackals, and wild ass. There are scorpions and snakes. Sometimes I can see water in the distance; I will have to learn the difference between a mirage and the water. This is not too hard, it turns out. It is much harder to understand how the drivers navigate.

Now and then there is a hillock. Man made? We come across one near sunset. An imperial eagle rests on top of it. There is dry grass at the base of the hillock, and a white patch, clearly visible even in this failing light. Salt left by evaporated water. The Rann of Kutch lies below sea level, and covered with a sheet of water when the tide is sufficiently high. When the sea level rises this land will be the first to drown.

After the sun goes down the jeep drives around to the east, where there is a thin sheet of water between us and the hillock. The ground must be wetter here than in other places, because there is almost a forest of bushes. I wonder whether the water is permanent. Probably not; there are tyre tracks pointing into the water. Those must have been made when this area was dry. This is a wonderful angle to take a photo from. I’ve never lost cell phone connectivity through the day, so I could share the journey with The Family. Now I send her the last photo of the day.

Off-road at the edge of a desert

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

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

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

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

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

Mawsmai caves

The southern part of the Shillong plateau is largely made of limestone. The intense rainfall in this region has carved huge cave systems into these rocks. The plateau of Meghalaya is full of these caves, from the 24 kilometer long monsters to the touristy maze of the caves we visited near Sohra.

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Half the clan was off on a long trek down to yet another living root bridge, while I and the other equally jaded people rode the Rath of the Clan to Mawsmai village. In the five years since I was here last, a veritable strip mall has sprung up outside the caves and the Khasi sacred grove. My new phone was much better at taking photos of the ill-lit interior than my top-of-the-line bridge camera of half a decade ago. These photos of the grotesque and tortured shapes of the rocks in ambient light are brought to you by the consumer electronics revolution.

In the last few years much has been written about the danger that illegal limestone quarrying poses to the caves, and the rapid dying off of life that is adapted to these caves. Part of the response has been to encourage more tourism to the caves. While this may put pressure on the illegal miners to stop, it is not clear that it helps the lifeforms in the caves. During our short walk in the Mawsmai caves we saw many tourists and no non-human animals.

Mawkdok Dympep Valley

I had wonderful memories of the Shillong Sohra road from our visit five years back, when we stopped wherever we wanted, and occasionally even took long detours to look at interesting things. I knew that on a trip with twenty people it would not be possible to do everything, but I did want to stop at what I remembered as the most beautiful sight of all: a view down the long Mawdok Dympep valley. It was still a superb view. I wouldn’t mind living in that house that someone is building there now, except that there will soon be a whole village around it, blocking the gorgeous view.

Five years ago we’d stopped here at a time when monsoon storms had not completely dissipated. I found this photo from that time: the valley was clear when we looked down it at first, but clouds came swirling through it in no time. In minutes the valley had filled with fog, giving me this wonderful shot. This time around I think I had an even better shot, with the golden sun slanting down through clouds in the late afternoon. It was different, and I was happy to have seen both views of the valley.

Now there is a bridge which spans the gorge and it is said that the view from the bridge is spectacular. We didn’t have time to do that. Near where we stopped a zip-line had started up, and several of the Clan tried it out. I didn’t, but I could believe that the view from the zip-line would be fabulous.

The Fall of the Python

On our earlier visit to Sohra we’d taken a detour from the Shillong-Sohra road to see the Dain Thlen waterfall. It was a few kilometers away from the main road on a black-top road which was not in perfect repair. There is a interesting story associated with this waterfall. The short version is that Thlen was an enormous snake which would eat every second person who passed this road. It was killed here and cut into pieces (dein is a Khasi word meaning cut) which were thrown over the cliff. The rocks that you see below the fall are supposed to look like pieces of the snake.

Raju drove along the narrow road. We couldn’t see a waterfall anywhere in that flat land, and wondered whether we’d taken a wrong turn. Then we came to the bridge which you see in the photo above, and crossed it. On the far side was a battered board which said “Dain Thlen waterfall”. There was no one in sight. The rocks were uneven and full of large hollows. We parked the car at the edge of the road and walked across the amazing rocks. Where was the waterfall? It struck us after a while that all we had to do was to follow the stream.

Sure enough, the stream tumbled over the edge of a cliff where these rocks ended. There was a safety fence across the edge. We peered over it to look at the stream disappear from view, and appear far away as a narrow river. Now I see from a map that we could have gone another few kilometers down the road, and maybe we could have walked upstream a bit to see the waterfall from below. At that time, without a map, we just followed the fence around to a curve in the tableland. From this other angle I could take the featured photo.

The rocks here were amazing, and I went a little mad taking photos. I guess smaller rocks driven by monsoon waters must have eroded these hollows on the rocks. They are distinctive enough that an alternate form of the story of Thlen refers to them. We left completely charmed by this place, which, at least five years ago, attracted no tourists.

Elephant Falls

A little way out of Shillong, on the Shillong-Sohra highway, you come to Elephant Falls. Among the many waterfalls of Meghalaya, this is the one which is most easily accessible from Shillong. As a result, when we reached the waterfall one morning, it was crowded. A board near the entrance told us that the Khasi name for the waterfall translates to Three Step Waterfall. This is a very apt description of this layered beauty. The English name referred to a stone which is said to have resembled an elephant. Since this rock was destroyed in the earthquake of 1897 CE, there is no telling what it may have looked like to modern eyes.

It was a short walk from the car park to the first stage of the waterfall. This is a considerable drop. The flow was pretty meager in winter, as you can see in the photo above. The channel is pretty wide, though. So I guess during, and just after, the monsoon, this will be a pretty impressive falls. The photo was taken from a big rock face around which the stream runs after the drop. Steps cut into the drop lead down to the second stage. Before taking the steps down, the clan gathered for a long round of taking photos of each other. Only when everyone was convinced that each of us had been photographed by everyone else (this takes a long time when there are almost twenty people involved), did we move towards the steps.

The second stage is the shortest fall. The photo that you see above was taken from a bridge which leads across the stream after the second stage of the fall. Both the times that I’ve been here, the pool was a deep green in colour because of the overhanging trees and other plants. There are pretty impressive ferns here, as you can see from the photo. The featured photo was made from the bridge looking down towards the third stage. The rock here is granite; you have to travel a little further south to get into the part of the Shillong plateau which is made of limestone.

This seems like the highest fall. Steps are cut into the rock face next to it, and some concrete has been poured recently over the stone to make smoother steps. It was very crowded on the day we were there, and I was happy with the stout guard rails on the side of the stairs. I stopped part of the way down to take the photo that you see above. Most of the action was below. The steps lead down to the pool at the bottom of the fall. The deepest part is off limits, as a rope across the area warns you. But the edge of the pool is full of people taking photos. This is not the most impressive fall that I’ve seen, but it has wonderful greenery around it in all seasons. The first time that I had gone to this place there were very few people, and the place had an air of soothing calmness. I thought it was worth stopping here on our way to Sohra.

Back at the car park we had time to explore the veritable mall that had sprung up in the years since I was here last. Chai and jalebi was welcome, but I was looking for something more substantial. Niece Mbili said a pork sandwich would be welcome. We explored nearby stalls and found one which said pork roll on the menu. We ordered two, and waited a long while for them to be prepared. That was a good sign, I thought. The Family came in to investigate what we were doing, and then others came by. Eventually we got piping hot, fresh and juicy, pork rolls. “Heaven”, said Niece Mbili and then we munched our paratha and meat in blissful silence.

Lookout point

The Rath of the Clan stopped at a place that the driver called a “viewpoint”. It was once a bend in the road overlooking a long valley. The view (featured photo) was very nice. The stop was now a jumble of shops and restaurants and a concrete structure enclosing the rock that you had to climb in order to get the best view. There was a ticket office and a minimal entry charge to see the view. The clan immediately dispersed, and a few of us went straight for the view. These rolling hills covered with forests are what Meghalaya was famous for once. The big brown scab that you see in the middle of the photo looked like yet another tourist resort being built. Note how much larger it is than the open fields of the village behind it.

When I looked away from the valley, I could see something interesting. The hills did not jut out of the line of the horizon. Quite to the contrary, the horizon looked flat. The impression of folds, hills and valleys, is formed by a process quite different from that which formed the Himalayas. The Shillong plateau is a flat slab of stone pushed up by the collision of continental plates. The hills and valleys are carved by water flowing over this land for several million years. The volume of water is intense, since this is among the wettest places on the planet. But the land is still rising, so over the last ten million years or so, erosion has not managed to keep pace with the uplifting of the plateau. In fact, in the Shillong earthquake of 1897, the plateau is said to have risen by 11 meters.

Behind us this plateau was being systematically cut down. Someone had put out their washing to dry on a line just above the quarry, probably the workers. All along the route we had seen limestone hills being quarried. The British annexation of this land was driven by greed for this limestone, necessary to the then new building industry. Since then the construction boom has increased the demand for limestone, and the locals here are stuck in a vicious economic cycle which makes them cut away the ground beneath their feet. The picturesque south eastern part of the plateau is largely made of sedimentary limestone, and we would see more evidence of quarrying during our trip.

I gravitated to a restaurant which was serving tea and found part of the clan already inside. Between long queues at the toilet, finding the best place for selfies, and sitting down for a chat, the clan seemed to move at a geologically slow pace. Several cousins and nieces joined me for tea while I waited. I had time for many cups of strong and sweet tea, and also enough time to line up the cups so that I could take photos. By late morning we were done and on the move again.

Gobsmacked by extreme weather

As I read the news about the weak polar vortex which is responsible for the abnormal, and abnormally long, cold weather as far south as Mumbai, I was reminded of the time when the tail end of the world’s most extreme weather hit me in the face, and I didn’t recognize it till later. A few years ago we visited Meghalaya at the end of the monsoon and decided to drive down from Shillong to Mawsynram. The village of Mawsynram is known to every Indian from their school days, since it is supposed to be the rainiest place on earth. It usually receives between 11 and 12 meters (yes, that’s meters; 430 to 470 inches if you prefer) of rain a year In 1985 it received 26 meters of rain (over 1000 inches) of rain.

The monsoon was just over in the rest of the country, but we’d seen storms and heavy rain while flying in to Shillong. I asked The Family, “What’s there to see apart from the village?” We consulted Raju, who was driving us, the web, and the hotel, and found a couple of cave systems and waterfalls. Meghalaya is famous for caves and waterfalls; although they are everywhere, the more famous ones are worth seeing. The recommendations were enough to tip me over into going along with The Family’s plan.

A heavy mist descended as we drove along the Shillong-Mawsynram road. The surface was pretty bad too (at least then) so between the mist and the road, Raju had to slow down quite a bit. We stopped a bit at a Khasi sacred grove to look at monoliths raised to the memories of ancestors, but after that the mist began to get heavier. Usually we could see a little way beyond the edge of the road (that’s how we spotted the group of cows having their mid-morning snack). Now and then we would hit a pocket which was fairly clear, like the stream in the photo above.

By the time we got to the Mawjymbuin caves it was well past the normal time for lunch and we were enveloped in very thick mist. The caves are meant to be open all day, but the person who mans the gate and collects tickets was not at his place. We walked in hoping to see him on the way out and realized that the mist had cut off all light inside the cave. We could vaguely see exotic shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, but there definitely wasn’t enough light to negotiate the slippery rocks. We walked around the caves outside, looking at the pools of water large enough to serve as swimming pools. A light drizzle had begun, and we came out. There was only one restaurant nearby, and it could serve jadoh, Khasi for rice and meat, or ja with eggs.

I looked out of a window at the back of the hut, and saw that we were at the side of a small stream. The fog was too dense to make out clearly what was on the other side. It looked like a wooded slope. As I took the photo, The Family discovered a wonderful sight out of another window: a spider’s web on which the mist was condensing. We had our meal, and a good strong chai. The lady who served us food suggested another cave system which wasn’t too far. Raju knew of it, but said he preferred not to drive in this light. We paid up, thanked the lady, and left. It was a wasted day as far as tourism went, we thought as we left. Over the years The Family and I came to realize that it was not. In the rainiest place on earth getting heavy cloud cover and a drizzle when the rest of the country was bone dry was exactly what we should have recognized as a great experience. Fortunately, we had photos which could jog our memories.

I hadn’t worried about the rains in Megahalaya for years, but recently, while I tried to read some papers on the geology of the Himalayas, I came across an image which explains this well. You see that Meghalaya lies on the so-called Shillong plateau, a 1-2 kilometers high plateau that juts out of the surrounding lowlands. When moisture-bearing winds come off the Bay of Bengal and sweep up north, this is the first rise that they hit. The Bay of Bengal is a warm sea, so the air over it moist even outside the monsoon. Only during cold winters does the moisture content of the air over the bay drop to a point where the southern parts of Meghalaya (land of the clouds in Sanskrit) is not full of megh. Several places on this plateau are among the rainiest parts of the world for this simple reason.