Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

The last lake

Drifting between lakes in Sat Tal, as we tried to extend our day in the area, we noticed some similarities between them. There seems to be little renewal of the waters, and the surrounding activity has made them eutrophic. The green waters of the lakes are a sure sign of increasing bacterial activity, and the lack of fish is apparent. At late as the 1943, I could trace a record of mahseer being fished from these lakes. It seems that the eutrophication of these waters started in the 1960s. These studies are in concordance with my memories of granduncles back from holidays discussing the changing quality of these lakes.

The area around the lakes seems to have been divided up between the state tourism department and something called the Sat Tal Christian Ashram. The latter seems to have been founded in the 1930s by a Methodist missionary from the USA called Eli Stanley Jones and two of his associates. Gandhi had spent some time in the ashram, and seems to have influenced Jones, who became a spokesperson for Indian independence at home. Since he was in regular touch with the US president Roosevelt in the lead up to Pearl Harbor and later, his opinion may have had some influence in Washington. I cannot see any study of the letters between him and Roosevelt, so it seems to me that here is an opportunity for a thesis.

This was Garur Tal, one of the smaller lakes in the area. I enjoy walking around these lakes, taking photos. Garur Tal was completely deserted in the early afternoon. The light had been gloomy all day, filtered as it was through smoke in the air. As a result the afternoon was not too bright for photography. I took a photo of a leaf floating a few meters away. The light on the water looked oddly like grains on wood. Closer to the edge I found a leaf which had begun to sink into the water, and would be consumed into mulch soon. The stones below it looked like quartz.

Closer to my feet I found stones which seemed to have folded layers. I think this is the stone called a phyllite. It is a slate which has metamorphed into this fine-grained form that you see in the large slab in the foreground of the photo above. I found bees hovering over the water around it, their shadows quite detached from them. In a stronger light the bees and their shadows would have made a nice photo, but then the photo would not have showed the striations in the rock. You gain some, you lose some. I was quite content at the edge of water, looking around, walking with The Family, delaying the start of the journey back home.

Watching continents flow

Going northwards from Almora to Munsiyari, we crossed at some point from the Siwaliks to the lower Himalayas. We halted at the Birthi waterfall for a cup of tea. Thick smoke enveloped the area, and I was glad to have my N95 mask on. The sunlight that filtered through was a strange yellow. I clambered up a small slope next to the road to look at the 80 meters high waterfall. The Ramganga river fell from the upper plateau down before me, pooled briefly, and then flowed on to my left. Goats grazed on the cliff opposite me, their tinkling bells the loudest sound around me.

The Himalayas are still growing upwards as the Indian and Asian continental plates push towards each other at a speed of about 50 to 60 mm every year. The lower Himalayas are created by the buckling and twisting of the Indian plate, and the upper Himalyas by the Asian plate being pushed up as the Indian plate plunges north. East and west of the Kumaon region there have been many huge earthquakes in the last century and a half, but the Kumaon region seems to be miraculously stable. Still, that high wall of rock just across the stream from me seemed like the result of an ancient earthquake. Was it? A little search led to me to a paper which related it to the flow of the rocks in this region. What I’d seen here was continental movement, the driver of earthquakes and landforms. I’m amazed in retrospect.

A cold murky morning

Had I heard heavy rain at night while I slept? I looked out of the picture window of the hotel and realized that I had. The previous day the view had been a screen of murky white beyond the town of Munsiyari below us. Today I could see mountains beyond the town. I shrugged a jacket on over my night’s clothes, picked up the camera and walked into the balcony. Cold! To my left I could see Chaudhara peak (altitude 6510 m, featured photo). Straight ahead should be the Panchachauli massif, with its five peaks, the highest being 6904 m. This was clearly further away, because the haze got worse in that direction. If I looked hard I could see a line of mountains there (see the last photo).

I’m not sure whether this rock is Augen Gneiss, but it does have two interesting varieties of lichen

Munsiyari has very special geology. It has some of the oldest rocks in the Himalayas, dating back to about 1.9 billion years ago, during the Paleoproterozoic Era. I didn’t look very hard for the characteristic eye-like bubbles in rocks (the famous Augen Gneiss), but I do wonder whether I saw it on the single walk that we squeezed in. But the place is better known as being on the boundary between the lesser and greater Himalayas. In fact, a structure called the Munsiyari thrust (part of something called the Main Central Thrust) is the remnant of an old geological event in which the Indian plate thrust under the Asian plate, and raised the greater Himalayas. The peaks that everyone comes here to see are the lower end of the greater Himalayas.

The Family had joined me on the balcony. We were disappointed at our luck with the view, but something could still be salvaged out of the morning. The air had cleared enough that the smell of smoke was gone. We could go for an hour’s walk before breakfast. I began to stow water and a packet of nuts and raisins into a small backpack as The Family made two cups of tea.

Unbalanced worlds

Sometimes I look at the map of the world etched on to a paperweight on my table. It is designed to sit with the southern hemisphere on top. The shift in perspective forces me to think in different ways. One odd thought popped into my mind in the morning. Why does the world look unbalanced, with most of the continents clustered around the north pole? Mars, on the other hand has its biggest concentration of mass, the Tharsis plateau and the solar system’s highest mountain, near its equator.

Both planets have a liquid core over which the crust can move (see a good explainer here). A spinning globe of this kind should spin the heavy parts off towards the equator (although this is called polar wandering, the true pole remains fixed; it is the magnetic pole which moves). Mars makes sense, but the earth does not seem to. But some searching assured me that others have looked deeply into this problem before me. The mobile elements of the earth are not just the features we see on the crust, but the crust and the deeper mantle together. When you take everything into account, the earth seems to be in balance. The past positions of the continents show that the same principle held. When supercontinents form, they tend to be at the equator. Present day Africa is just such a remnant of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland. (The video above plays out four possible futures of the earth’s continental movement; notice that most of them result in landmasses close to the equator.) It is a balanced world, but there is a lot going on below the surface.

Hot earth

After reading about mudskippers yesterday, I eventually connected them with a bit of information I’d forgotten. In the time that mangrove forests and mudskippers were beginning to evolve on the western shores of the Tethys Ocean 50 million years ago, the earth went through a climate catastrophe. Geological eras have names that I find fascinating. This was the beginning of the Eocene epoch, the name means the dawn of modern times. If you want to be more specific, you might call it the Ypresian age, a 8 million year blink of time starting 56 million years ago. What I remembered was that in the Ypresian age the earth went through a heating event that we call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum (PETM). Temperatures across the earth were between 5 and 8 degress Celsius higher than it is today.

At this time the continents had not yet reached where they are today, as you can see in the map above, but they are not completely unrecognizable. The deep oceans saw a tremendous extinction; between a third and a half of ocean species died out. The oceans became acidified and hot. Their levels rose, water saturated the air. The poles warmed more than the rest of the world. As a result, the Antartic was forested and ice free, and tropical rain forests covered southern Germany. Canada, as far north as what is today Baffin Bay, had swampy conifer forests regularly ravaged by forest fires. The part of India which is now the Thar desert seemed to have had extreme rains and weathering during that time, whereas northern Spain was a parched desert. It is hard to prevent a large body from heating up, so mammals became smaller. This may have had many consequences, but one that has been followed up is that it encouraged a rapid evolution in the ancestors of today’s horses.

Small boat in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Although the map of this world looks almost the same as ours, this hot and rain-drenched world is not suited for agriculture. Estimates of our carbon future showed that in “business as usual” scenario we will be there by the end of the century: in the time of the grandchildren of the millennials. There is a reason that projections stop at the year 2100: no climate simulation remained believable beyond that. Very recently though, a climate model was able to reproduce the PETM using reliable estimates of the amount of CO2 then present in the atmosphere, by following the small-scale dynamics of clouds more accurately. This simulation seems to say that the future temperature rise could be more extreme than had been predicted. We live in unsettled times.

Harrison’s folly

A little finger of a ridge juts out of the side of the road from Wai to Panchgani. A dusty flat top of a table land, surprising you with the fact that it has been left open. This is Harrison’s Folly; don’t ask who or why, there’s no answer. We saw cars pulling in, and drove in through the ramshackle gate that you see in the featured photo. We paid a small price for the entrance, it wasn’t clear whether it was municipal land or private. The light was good and it seemed like it would have a view of Dhom lake.

We walked to the north-eastern edge of the plateau. The road had curved around a hill, hiding Panchgani. The valley had a haze, probably a mist. Much of the valley would be protected from direct sunlight by the plateaus. But beyond a parallel ridge, I could see Dhom lake through the haze. This is the due to the second dam across the Krishna river. The source of the river is just beyond the ridge, and there is a first dam there. A trickle is let out, which flows into this lake, and beyond. I can never have enough of the horizontal bands of successive lava flows which erosion reveals as the building material for the Deccan shield.

We walked to the northern tip of the finger, down a tiny slope which would be the take-off point for the para-gliding enthusiasts who used to flock here once. The little town in the middle distance was Wai. The haze was light, but it blocked the view eventually. On a clear day, when the horizon is visible it would be nice to stand here and identify all the distant villages and towns that one can see.

So what if I can’t do para-gliding, I can still take ambush photos. A couple was having their photo taken while leaping. I missed the moment of the leap, but they were quite the cynosure of all eyes in the neighbourhood. As we left I saw my cousin drive in. Apparently a swarm of bees appeared on this tableland while they were there, causing everyone to dive to the ground. This, he was told, was a daily affair, and crouching low for a couple of minutes prevents accidents. I’ve never heard of such a phenomenon, and I’m sad to have missed it. The Family and I agreed to disagree on this point.

The source of the river Krishna

When you see the town of Mahabaleshwar, and squint a little, you can still see the colonial layout, the remains of the colonial buildings. A typical British era hill station, you might say. Yes, almost, it was the summer capital of Bombay Presidency, when the Grand Panjandrums would leave the hot and wet city for more pleasant surroundings. But drive a few kilometers and you are in Old Mahabaleshwar, otherwise known as the village of Jor, whose only claim to fame today is a group of temples. Stop at the car park, eat the strawberries with cream, and skulk off in a direction opposite to where the crowds are going, and you will see the true origin of this place: the temple to the river Krishna. Or perhaps not; Acheulian tools have been found in this region, so perhaps humans have been here for 100,000 years.

Decades ago, I’d chanced on this deserted old temple perched on the edge of a cliff, a quiet and peaceful place where nobody comes. It has not changed. I led The Family and three others to the Krishnadeva temple. Built of black basalt, this temple surrounds a spring which is traditionally considered to be the source of the Krishna river. The 1287 Km long river crosses the Deccan plateau, and, with its tributaries, has the largest drainage area in the Deccan. The temple must be ancient, and it is a wonder that the Marathas did not restore it.

I decided to walk around it and look at each of the external walls carefully. The external walls are fairly plain, but also look extremely weathered. There is a single statue on the northern facade. I’d thought it would be a digpala, perhaps Kubera, but I don’t think it is. Instead the figure is in a posture of prayer or supplication. I couldn’t place it.

The western facade was beautifully lit by the late afternoon sun, a shadow of a single tree falling across its bottom. The external stones which made up the wall were dressed perfectly and clearly needed no mortar, but they were weathered and cracked. The upper parts had been shaped once, but had broken and eroded. Moss had found its way into the cracks. I wondered how I could trace the history of this temple.

The carving on the western wall could have been of a digpala. Traditionally this should have been one of Varuna, identified by a noose (pasa) in his hand. This figure had a mace, indicating Kubera, or perhaps a fat staff (danda), which belongs to Agni, the guardian of the southeast. Strange.

The figure on the southern wall was too eroded for me to make out anything at all. I should have expected Yama to be guarding this wall, but the other figures did not make sense either. Perhaps the iconography was different from what I was used to, but is that possible? I don’t know enough art history to be able to figure this out.

I skirted the small tank outside the temple. This holds some of the water of the stream that I could hear rushing down the cliff. The Leafless came to see the tank, and I told her that she could take a walk around the temple to see it from outside. I could hear The Longlived and The Family having a discussion of whether the temple has sunk into the surrounding soil. The Divine Promise was busy taking photos of the surroundings. “Beautiful trees,” I remarked to him.

It is usually an amazing view from here. It was still spectacular for the others, but I’d seen it much clearer in the past. How can such a small stream become such a wide river as soon as it reaches the valley? It cannot. It is joined by four other streams within a few kilometers, but that wide water body down there is created by a dam. As far as I know it is just called the Krishna lake here. The Family and The Longlived joined me at the railing next to the cliff. “What a beautiful place,” The Longlived said, and asked me how I knew about it. I gave her the potted summary of my accidental discovery of the place, and wandered in with The Family.

We admired the large tank inside, where the water of the spring enters through the mouth of a cow carved from the basalt lying under the thin soil. Galleries run along three sides of the tank. The carvings are better preserved here than in the outer walls, so perhaps there was a shikhara above this till historically recent times. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is just the enclosure from three sides which protected them. The Longlived is the second of my nieces who is studying architecture, and she was busy taking photos. We were largely silent, talking softly, unwilling to break the pleasant silence. Eventually we pulled ourselves away towards more strawberries.

Four views of Panchgani

A series of connected plateaus in the Sahyadris hold the twin destinations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. The plateau rises to an altitude of about 1.4 kilometers above sea level. We have our holiday season travel all planned now, but unlike previous years we will be traveling in our backyard. These places are a six hour drive away, and one of the locations we targeted for a holiday with parts of the extended family. One evening The Family and I left my aunts and cousins and nieces behind and went out for a walk on a plateau south of Panchgani. We stopped at a view of the Panchgani ridge from between trees and over fields.

These are the kinds of unremarked views that the people who live in the villages up on the plateaus have every day. To me these glimpses of the further plateaus from paths between fields of rice and corn were lovely and new. In the middle of the 19th century CE when the town of Panchgani was first founded, sights like this may have been common. But now, the haphazard growth of the towns has taken over the little neighbouring villages. As a result, most tourists who come to spend a weekend here do not get to see them. They miss out a beautiful part of the experience of living up there.

The ancient village of Mahabaleshwar is considered sacred because the Krishna river arises from a spring there. During British colonial times it became the summer capital of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. The British administrators had the habit of moving their offices to cool high town, hill stations, in summer. Like most tourists now, we reverse the flow, visiting these plateaus in winter, when the temperature falls to a point where strawberries can grow. When I began visiting the area, forty years ago, the plateaus were still extensively forested, right outside the heart of the old towns. I was too callow to enjoy the wealth of wildflowers and birds you could see then.

Now the forest is in retreat, as hotels overwhelm the once peaceful towns of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. Every bungalow is rented out to short term visitors. We got away from the maddening crowds by choosing a lonely hotel in a forgotten village where I could get these unusual views of the plateaus. Bird calls fill the evening, and an immense diversity of winter wildflowers is visible. Passing villagers give you an appraising look, and then smile and nod at you. It made for a perfect retreat, giving us the opportunity for long and pleasant walks. But on the walks I realized that I was contributing to the eventual destruction of what I like about the place. Inevitably, the number of hotels will increase, the fields and flowers will give way to crowded and narrow roads, cars and tourists. As I took these photos I felt like the vanguard of an army intent on loot and pillage. A happy holiday to you too.

To the mountains

We left Mumbai in the morning. Three months ago there would have been no traffic, but the city has partly reopened now. We went against the traffic, so our lane moved fast. We crossed the freeway, and then crossed over to the Eastern Express Highway to get out of town. In no time we were in the lower part of the Western Ghats. At Igatpuri (altitude 600 meters) we moved off the highway, and took a winding road past Bhavali Dam and the Kalsubai hills. The Kalsubai peak (altitude 1646 meters) is the highest in Maharashtra. We skirted them and descended into Bhandardara, where we would spend the next few days. Hope you enjoy the drive as much as we did.

I love this part of the country. The Deccan plateau is a thick volcanic shield laid down during the Cretaceous period, during the breakup of the super-continent of Gondwanaland. In the geological eras after that, the two kilometer thick layer of basalt has been worn down by the weather to create the fantastic shapes of the mountains that you see in this region. The eras of weathering mean that the higher you go in the Deccan plateau, the further back in time you reach. Mumbai, at sea level, is modern. In our cottage, at an altitude of about 1400 meters, we had traveled back to the geology we had traveled back in time to the era when mammals first appeared on earth. What a privilege it is to live where time travel is so easy.