Where leopards live

Bera is known for its leopard sightings. I wondered why. The reason turned out to be simple. There are large numbers of leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi) around this small village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It doesn’t matter how secretive and stealthy these animals are. They are still visible just because of their numbers. But I was curious about why there are so many of them here. After all, the land is not highly forested. This may be only the edge of the Thar desert, but it is largely scrubland, and well populated by humans.

Our jeep reversed up a steep slope of a granite monolith for a view of the landscape. From a height of about 40 meters, I took the panorama that you see above. At this time, soon after the monsoon, water still pools in hollows in the rocky terrain. In a couple of months they will begin to dry. Storage and irrigation have distributed water through this dry land in the last thirty years, enabling farming. The herders of earlier years also remain. The land was surprisingly green. The largest trees were stunted acacia (babul in Hindi), but thickets of succulents, thor and aak thor, could be seen. Aak (milkweed) was also common. About fifty years ago Prosopsis juliflora, an exotic mesquite, was seeded through large tracts of land. They proliferate. The caves in the ancient rock, and these dryland forests provide enough cover for leopards.

You can see another reason for the surprisingly easy visibility of these animals in the photo above. Much of the flat land between the rocky domes of granite have been plowed into farmland. As a result, the cave dwellings of the leopards are isolated places, and a dedicated watcher can park herself near one and wait for a sighting. A leopard is nocturnal, and most sightings are in the early morning or late night. The increasing popularity of Bera as a weekend tourist destination has resulted in some of the hotels employing “trackers”. During the day these men on motorbikes keep a constant vigil for leopards. They are connected to jeeps by mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and a sighting immediately attracts a few jeeps..

Another thing that puzzled me first was the availability of food. From the loud alarm calls of monkeys and peacocks when they saw a leopard moving, it was clear that leopards hunt them. But a peacock is a small bite for a leopard, and a monkey is not much larger. There are wild boars here (although we didn’t see any) and other small animals, but the terrain does not hold a leopard’s preferred food: deer. The answer is again simple. These leopards feed on livestock.

Elsewhere I’ve heard of cattle being attacked by leopards, even seen such a kill in Kumaon. Here the complaints were of leopards taking goats and sheep. Smaller animals are easier to kill. A leopard is incredibly strong; I’ve seen one take a full grown sambar up a tree after killing it. Making a killing of a cow or buffalo would not be too hard for a leopard, but then it would have to cache the remains after a feed. A goat or sheep would be a complete meal, and easier to catch. A leopard would have to kill one such every two or three days. I suspect it is less often, otherwise the conflict with humans would be uncontrollable.

One morning we’d heard alarm calls tracking a leopard as it walked across a patch of scrub land. It was walking away from rocks on the far side. We waited, because it would probably cross the road. The alarm calls stopped. Clearly the animal had hunkered down to survey the road for danger before crossing. Then, as we waited, a bunch of sheep came along the road. Then a couple from a village on a motor bike, talking loudly on a phone. Then a bunch of goats and another herder came along. A train passed the tracks whistling loudly (here they are required to whistle in order to alert wildlife about its coming). The sun was climbing higher. It was getting hotter. The leopard would not cross the road for a while, and it was time for our breakfast. We left. We asked trackers later about the leopard. It had not been spotted, nor had it made a kill.

Another time, this man came along with a bunch of goats. One had just birthed while grazing. He was carrying the kid in a sling around his neck. It was not completely free of blood. But the blood did not attract a leopard. Perhaps food is so plentiful here that the predators abhor the risk involved in confronting humans.

Evening. Once it was too dark for the camera to capture any wildlife, we drove up a rock. This granite is ancient, perhaps 750 million years old. It was laid down as the ancient super-continent of Rodinia broke up. As the colour faded from the sky we watched the stars appear. It was new moon, the beginning of Navaratri. Venus appeared close to the moon. Overhead Jupiter and Saturn appeared. I looked out at the land as lights appeared across the vast plain. This region of full of villages and hamlets. In the caves and crannies of this ancient granite, older than the first animals, one of the most recently evolved predators have found a home. I took a panorama of this strange land at the edge of the desert as the last light faded from the sky.

An equinoctal moon

Luna glided overhead as we looked for nightjars. It was easier to spot the triad of lunar seas, serenity, tranquility, fertility, than a savanna nightjar in flight. Certainly photographing them at night with my equipment was out of the question, even with the moon waxing to nearly three quarters. I turned my camera up to the moon.

Top to bottom: Seas of Serenity, Tranquility, and Fertility (detail)

The lunar seas of showers and of clouds had become visible a couple of days ago. These fancifully named seas are actually basalt shields, the frozen remnants of lava flows which were caused by an extensive bombardment by meteors around four billion years ago. The earth was also shaped by this shower, and very few fragments of continental crusts are older. Life began on earth soon after that. On the moon the lava seas in these enormous craters had solidified more than three billion years ago. By that time photosynthesis had begun on earth. Our atmosphere was changing even as the splotchy appearance of the moon took shape. The new photosynthetic life made the earth unlivable for most anaerobic bacteria and caused the first age of extinction.

Plato crater at lunar dawn, just north of the Sea of Showers (detail)

Near the northern end of the terminator, my camera could pick out the far edge of Plato crater catching the morning sunlight. This crater is as old as the sea of showers (Mare Imbrium) just south of it. If you were to stand inside that crater then and looked up at the cliffs on the far edge, what a sight the morning sunlight must be! At the southern end of the terminator you can see a jumble of craters. Just inside it, at roughly mid-morning, is the bright young Tycho crater, only a 108 million years old. The dinosaurs may have seen it forming. In a few days, the whole of the visible half of the moon would have day. That lunar day is what we call a harvest moon. It was still more than a week away.

In the next two days we were to cross the Tropic of Cancer several times, as we scouted for more of the winter’s birds passing through the Rann of Kutch. It was a funny astronomical coincidence. The Tropic of Cancer marks the furthest point north where the sun can be at the zenith. And we were near that at the time the sun was crossing the equator! As I took photos of the signboard someone remarked that it had seen better days. True enough. So had the moon, by my reckoning.

A desert landscape

Was I looking at the great Rann of Kutch or a microsoft windows display? The Family’s sister had made a film in this area. When she saw the shot that you see above, she said she couldn’t believe it. The peak is an ancient Cretaceous volcanic plug called the Dhinodhar Hill. The area is supposed to be more wet than many parts of the Rann, but the scene before us was definitely an effect of the monsoon. Sharad ritu, the fourth of the six seasons, is a beautiful time in the desert. Blue skies, fluffy white clouds, green fields, and the sight of migratory birds arriving.

I stood on the embankment of the Bhuki dam and took this photo. On one side was a small cliff created by past quarrying. The stone looked like shale,. If one had time one could look for fossils in there. The sedimentary rocks here come mostly from the Triassic period, after the breakup of ancient continent of Gondwanaland. The volcanic plug in the distance came from the time when the Deccan traps were laid down. These two times bracket the era of the dinosaurs. We had arrived here to see the last shrunken but diversified remnants of the dinosaurs: birds. Weird!

Lights. Camera.

Mornings are dark and blue now, at the end of the monsoon. We spotted the colour in the sky as we walked towards the small turboprop which was to fly us to Bhuj. The tarmac was lit up by bright lights as we entered the plane. The Rann of Kutch was our destination. This is a vast swamp formed in historical times by the geology of India. As the Indian plate continues to sweep north-east at the grand pace of five centimeters a year, it raises the plain of the Indus and the vast desert around it fast enough that historical records tell us of the Rann being cut off from the sea to form first a vast inland lake, and then a salty marsh. Rivers come into being and disappear, the weather changes, wealthy civilizations rise, fall, and are forgotten. This is a marvel of geology that few think of as such.

The town of Bhuj was the starting point of our trip. The Kutch was the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2001, as two geological plates released the stresses due to their movement. Since then Bhuj has not had any buildings more than three stories high. Standing at the edge of the Thar desert, it has had its share of the monsoon rain this season. The place was hot, already 26 degrees as we landed early in the morning. The day gradually became a sultry steam bath. Walking through the crowded lanes of the old town outside the palace walls, we were happy to pass under the shade of huge sheets of cloth hung up overhead to provide shade. The desert sun filtered through them. The vast geographical variety of India spawns varied lifestyles and sub-cultures, more than are dreamed of in some philosophies. We moved from one shade to another, eyes adjusting to new colours at every transition.

The palace complex turned out to be quite fascinating. I had forgotten that this was a rather important kingdom until a hundred years ago. Even sixty years ago it was so rich that the former king bailed India out of crises. My attention was caught by a collection of ancient glass plate photographs. They come from the very earliest days of photography, and are among the first attempts to capture the light of old days and preserve them artificially. I took a photo of the negative on the glass plate. One button on Gimp creates a positive out of it. This image is almost a hundred and twenty years old. The Maharaja, possibly Khemgarji III the Progressive, is seated in the center, flanked by his sons, while his diwan and other ministers stand behind him.

This was planned as a bird-watching trip. We had to leave the city and travel into the desert. This strange land provides a niche for several specialized species. Also, at this time of the year it is a stop-over for several species on their biannual migration. To get there we had to drive. The land is full of nomadic animal herders. Late in the evening flocks of animals, sheep and goats, or cows and buffaloes, or herds of camels would use the road, leaving only a narrow gap for motorized traffic. I tried to catch a photo of such a flock in the scatter of light from our car’s headlights.

The desert is the preferred habitat of scorpions. Most are tiny. All fluoresce under UV lamps. It is easy to walk through the rocky desert at night with an LED torch light set to UV. As you swing it around, any scorpion in the area will immediately fluoresce. Seasoned naturalists will tell you that they even glow in moonlight, but that glow is something I can’t recognize. The UV torch lights that are available in the market are bright enough that you can photograph a scorpion by one.

The scorpion was relatively benign. But the saw-scaled viper, Echis carina, that we nearly ran over on the road later was not. They are among the four deadliest snakes in the country; some say deadlier than the cobra. Our driver, another birder, gently urged it away from the road with a stick. I took a photo in the penumbra of the car’s headlights. You can see the pattern which gives this genus its name. Hopefully this individual won’t be roadkill. It had been a long day. The bird sightings would come the next day.

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

Relax County Drive

Vaitarna lake is four hours from Mumbai. We started at about eight on Sunday morning because we wanted to reach by lunch. Most of the drive was along the Mumbai-Agra highway: National Highway 3. It takes us more than an hour to leave the city behind. Then it takes another hour to drive through the old industrial belt north of the city. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that it has now turned into a logistics hub. This early in the morning, the trucks were parked in large bays visible from the highway. In two hours we were at our first stop.

Hurry was behind the wheels. He’s wonderful at driving. By that he means negotiating traffic and potholes smoothly and fast. So the navigation was my job. Fortunately, there is good connectivity on the highway, and our stop was well rated. A quick chai, a dosa, and we were off again. The next hour would be take us through the part of the road which is most full of history.

It is also tremendously picturesque, especially in the monsoon. You point your camera anywhere, and you get a beautiful photo of the lush green growth. Structures look weather-beaten. Human effort pales against the force of nature called the monsoon. The best way to live here is to work with it: sow when the weather calls for it, reap when it tells you to. Sell corn cobs by the road, and let the rain and millipedes convert the husk to humus. Hotel Paradise looked like you could meet Norman Bates there. We hurried past.

Soon we were in the part of the road with the steepest grade: the famous Thal Ghat. This was an almost impassable barrier in the medieval times. The ancient town of Thane to the south barely features in history because of it. The barrier also gave the Portuguese and British a safe space to establish the port of Mumbai. The tunnels and viaducts of this section of the roads and rails were built in the second half of the 19th century CE. These marvelous pieces of engineering connected Mumbai to the rest of the country. The advertisement by the road caught my mood perfectly. We were now in Relax County.

The steep grade is negotiated through many curves. I leaned out to look for Ehegaon Viaduct, a historical marvel when it was completed in 1865. It is 55 meters high and 220 meters long. Too bad I couldn’t see it. But soon we were near Igatpuri railway station. I remembered the times when I would wake in the morning up just before a train pulls into this busy station. The loco changes here to something powerful enough to control the steep drop in to Mumbai. That usually gave me enough time to follow the crowd and grab one of the vada pavs that the station is famous for. We stopped on the single lane north-bound section of the road to take a photo of the famous railway track. The electric pylons on the track also make a pretty picture I think. Late that evening the monsoon dislodged boulders which blocked the road and the trains. It was several hours before traffic started again.

Soon we reached the last toll booth we were to see. We’d climbed about 1500 meters from sea level. We were on a high plateau now. Kalsubai peak (1636 meters) dominated the landscape as we turned into a side road. This flat land is the last of the lavascape left over from the breakup of Gondwanaland and the extinction of the dinosaurs. We were nearly at the end of the journey. Four hours in a car, and we had traveled a hundred and fifty million years into the past!

Wish you were here

Monsoon rains collect in little pools, overflow into streams rushing through gullies in the ancient basalt and gneiss, ferrying the mud that a hundred and fifty million years of life and weathering have produced in the ancient lava beds of the Deccan. This is one of my favourite places: the stormy waterworld of the Sahyadris in the monsoon. It is an ephemeral other world, which only appears for three months every year. It has done so for the last eight million years or so. And it may disappear forever before the end of this century

This year we spent a few days in the highlands, close to the dammed Vaitarna river. Storms lash this plateau about two kilometers above the sea. I’d just got a new toy: a little camera which is water resistant to a reasonable depth. Camera, shorts, tees, and flip-flops. Perfect for leisurely walks through this dark landscape brimming with life. Every bit of life here is thirsty for these few months which bring more than two meters of rain. Mumbai gets its waters from the lake formed over these dammed rivers. Rice is planted around village ponds. Snails, moths, butterflies, land crabs, centipedes, spiders, millipedes, bettles and bugs, skitter through the grasses and wild flowers which burst with flower and fruit.

The Family and I stopped to look at the grass, suddenly lit by a break in the crowds. The meadow looked made. A group of large bushes stood in a solemn circle around a small one struggling upright in the middle of an empty space. I fiddled with my camera, trying to get the settings right for a landscape. It was my first outing with this new piece of equipment. Before I could take a photo, the weather changed, and a sheet of rain came down over us and the gathering of the entlets. That’s the photo you see here.

The farmers here are friendly, but they have odd ways. We sat on berms of fields watching them plow, plant and transplant paddy, create dams and ponds for the season. It looked at first like a really poor place. Then we began to notice satellite dishes on the roofs of small huts, some SUVs and fancy cars, reasonable schools, very clean vaccination and covid-care centers, and groceries with all the little things that you might want. In other parts of the country farmers plant vegetables in small patches around their homes. This is produce for the family. Strangely, there were no such vegetable patches here. All vegetables are trucked in from the nearby town of Nashik. This lack of local produce must have something to do with the geology and weather.

The electric green of the grass glows even in this subdued light. By October the colours will fade into browns and golds. By next spring there will only be patches of dry straw covering the ancient stone. But now, I pull my camera out of the soaked pockets of my shorts, splash through a little stream of rain water to clear the grit off my flip-flops, and take a stand. There is a photo to be taken, another postcard to be sent.

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.