A long story

Memories of geography lessons from school that always stayed with me included some jumble about India’s Western and Eastern ghats. Walking on the high plateaus of the Western ghats I would vaguely ask myself where the Eastern ghats are, but no question was urgent enough to make me look at the universal classroom on my phone. Since its rain-swept heights became my habitat in monsoons, I learnt more about the Western ghats — its high inselbergs and the odd flora of the region, the extended volcanism, starting about 140 million years ago, that separated India from Gondwanaland and laid down the lava shield of the Deccan plateau, the subsequent weathering that leached most useful minerals from the rock leaving only the iron and aluminium rich laterite under a thin soil, the resulting ecology that caused plants to change wildly, producing plateaus with their coverings of seasonal grass and carnivorous plants. I loved peering at the centimeter-high ecology at my feet when I walked across the Mahabaleshwar meadow (where the featured photo was taken last October) or the Kaas and Chilkewadi plateaus.

When I went to Odisha for a month I found the same kind of soil and rocks around me. Laterite is easy to cut into blocks for construction. This is a common building material in the Sahyadris, and it is widespread in Odisha. The presence of laterite implied that the soil had started off as a lava shield. That’s when I recalled the Eastern ghats, and verified that I was indeed on it. Strangely, these ghats are highly eroded, and major rivers flow through them to the Bay of Bengal. The soil is several centimeters to several meters thick in most places. Why this extended weathering on the east and not in the west, I wondered. The answer lay in the deep history of the earth.

About a billion years ago, before complex life had colonized dry land, the drifting plates of the earth came together to form the supercontinent of Rodinia. When it broke up in extensive volcanic events about 600 million years ago, one of the pieces was a plate that included Australia, India and Madagascar. The eastern coast of present day India was formed at that time. The Eastern ghats are therefore several hundred million years older than the Western ghats. That explains the extensive weathering and the different ecology of the Eastern ghats. The land which was a month’s home to me was full of normal trees and grasses, and creatures like termites.

I could see these termites, great ecosystem engineers, begin to convert all fallen wood into soil in days. Sometimes they wouldn’t wait for the wood to fall, thereby giving me interesting photos like the one you see above. For termites to colonize an area, it would have to have large amounts of wood already. In other words, termites should follow the first forests. The sheer length of time since the breakup of Rodinia would have allowed the ecology of this part to evolve trees, forests, and termites. In fact, termites probably evolved in Africa, which was then continuous with what is today western India. They would have crossed Gondwanaland and reached here. It was sobering to realize that the ancestors of these termites were living in this land long before the first humans!

Daily doors

Exactly 22 years ago, on 26 January 2001, the continental plate of India stretched a bit, relaxing kinks that had formed during the breakup of Gondwanaland 140 million years ago. The resulting earthquake, around 8 on the Richter scale, flattened the town of Bhuj. When we visited two years ago, the town had built back. Signs of this were in the profusion of metal grilles that stood where wooden doors would earlier bar an entrance. Disasters can accelerate trends, as all of us see today.

Some have gone back to the old style panelled doors which were common across the edge of the Thar desert. More than taste, it was clear that practicality was important. Open metalwork was visible where privacy was not a concern, like blocking entrance to stairs that led up to a flat on an upper floor. In the villages that cluster around the town, doors usually stand open. A locked door, like the one in the featured photo, seems to be more a symbol than actual prevention. That seems to be a nice relaxed lifestyle. What are neighbours if they cannot be trusted?

Another slipper

One beautiful orchid may just be. Two set you thinking. The orchid house of Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling was filled with flowers of two species of Venus slippers, the genus Paphiodedilum. I showed photos of P. insigne some time ago. You can see here the similar shaped flowers of the Paphiopedilum villosum that grew cheek by jowl with it in the greenhouse. I was startled to find later that this genus has 70 to 80 known species. The genus seems to have originated between 5 and 7 million years ago in a geographical region called the Sundaland, which is the Indonesian and Philippine islands and the Malay peninsula. The present range of these slipper orchids extends southwards to New Guinea, and northwards to Southern China and eastern India.

The late Miocene was a time when the earth’s climate was changing rapidly. With a lot of the ocean’s waters locked into ice, the Sunda islands could have been joined by land bridges, allowing the earliest of these orchids to slip across the land. The great flowering, so to say, of species in this genus began about 5 million years ago, in the early Pliocene, when the waters rose again, splitting the land into islands. By then the increasing height of the Himalayas and the closing of the Tethys seaway had changed the global climate (incidentally causing large evolutionary changes among our ancestors) and the slippers evolved into humidity-loving species.

The climate and conditions in the core areas of Venus slipper diversity do not seem so different from each other; after all they have similar temperatures and humidity. But the many of these orchids have found extremely specialized niches in the ecology: some growing only on cliffs near the sea, others, like these Assamese species, in very humid rainforests high in mountains.

Interestingly, the actual process of evolution in these plants has also been studied. The genome of these orchids seems to be highly fragile, and repair mechanisms have created the variation needed for speciation. The evolution of these slippers is still ongoing in the wild. This could also explain why the slipper orchids are popular among orchid enthusiasts who love to create hybrids. That would be an interestingly complete story, if a geneticist actually bothers to study these hybrid varieties of slippers.

Two cacti

Some corners of the greenhouses in Lloyd Botanical Garden had a lot of light. As I knelt to take photos of cacti, between shots I wondered at the forms that these strange plants take: the eight-armed spiral of the one in the featured photo, and the symmetric radiation of the bush below. How did they come about?

The slow processes of geology, the breaking and joining of continents, the raising of mountains, the closing of seas, all change the earth’s climate. And these changes break open old ecologies and their dependencies, giving new spaces for change. About thirty million years ago, in the high noon of dinosaurs, the Andes mountains began to lift up. The warm wet winds from the Pacific were blocked, and on the continental side the land turned into a desert. It was here that the cacti evolved. Then, about 4 million years ago, when the isthmus of Panama formed, one group, the prickly pears took the opportunity to move northwards. But it was the formation of the rift valley in far away Africa which finally created the species that could give cacti a way to spread across the world, to the sunlight in front of me.

Sunrise over Kanchenjunga

Before the sun rises on you, high peaks would already see the sun above the horizon. The most ethereal light on mountain peaks comes at such times: when the rest of the world seems to be dark and fog bound, but one of the eight-thousanders looms over you with its snows painted red.

Kanchenjunga is perhaps the only one of these mountains which can be easily seen from several towns. We could see it many roads in Darjeeling. Still, the morning after our return from the Singalila trek, The Family wanted to follow the ancient tourist tradition of going to Tiger Hill for the sunrise. She had memories of seeing the sunrise from there. I only had memories of my mother talking about it. As it turned out, we had wonderful views. Even through my warm layers and cap, I was chilled by the wind. But I was glad to be there.

Viewed from Tiger Hill, the town of Darjeeling lies about half a kilometer below you. So after sunrise I could see the light creeping across the valley until it hit the town. It is a beautiful sight: the red sunlight on the town, and the gold and red sunlight on the 8586 m high peak of Kanchenjunga, with the rest of the landscape still swathed in the blue mist.

The morning I saw Chomolungma

When The Family decided that we have to start walking in the Himalayas, she had in mind the famous week-long treks like the Annapurna base camp, Har ki Dun, Phulara ridge, or Sandakphu-Phalut. But since I the job of arranging it came to me I immediately started thinking of day-long walks. After all, we’d hardly walked at a height before. The only trek that I knew which fitted the bill was one that a very experienced trekker friend had told me about a year before his death in the early days of the pandemic. He’d told me that it was a fairly level day’s walk, although you were 3 Kms above sea level, and that the real payoff was the view of four of the world’s five highest peaks from one point. In the photo above you can see the path winding up to Sandak Phu; it would have taken us four days more to walk up there for a better view. When we saw Chomolungma flanked by Lhotse and Makalu, the view was a coda to our friendship. I’m glad I finally did it. I’m glad I could show it to you.

The trek we were on was the Tumling-Tonglu trek, which is part of the Phalut-Sandakphu trek. I’d contacted a reputable company in Darjeeling to arrange the trek. We started from our hotel at 6 in the morning, and watched the sun rise over Kanchenjunga, as we drove to the busy border town of Manebhanjan. Treks along the protected bioreserve of the Singalila ridge start from here. The town was clearly involved with the football world cup. After a breakfast of paratha and alu dum, washed down with chai, we got into a Landrover and got off at Tumling. This Nepali village is at a height of 2970 m. We would then walk about two and a half kilometers, climbing a 100 meters to Tonglu village, where we would have lunch. Then in the afternoon we would walk another six kilometers to Chitre village (2500 m) just above Manebhanjan. Google told me that this was a two hour walk. Our guide assured us that it would be at least double that. I’ve noticed this problem with Google’s algorithms when you are walking in the mountains.

It doesn’t snow at this altitude in December, but there’s a brisk wind over the ridge. The temperature was around 7 Celsius, but the breeze made us zip our jackets tight. There are a few trees on the leeward slope, but they are stunted. There is grass, and many low bushes. Most of it was dry and unrecognizable now. When we come back here one April I’m sure there’ll be flowers. The temperature must have fallen below freezing at night, because we saw frost still remaining in the shadows. Sangay, our guide, looked at it and said “Winter may come early this year.”

There are few people here. The villages are tiny, and the number of trekkers is not large. There were some who’d stayed overnight in Tumling. We waved to a pair who were having tea outside the general store and restaurant made of corrugated metal, which you see in the photo above. We passed a little chorten, a stupa, surrounded by lungta, windhorses, things that we know better as prayer flags. The ridge line here is the open border between Nepal and India. The paved road is Indian territory. We were on the windward side of it, because of the gentler slope and that put us in Nepal.

The land never slopes entirely in one direction of course, so in the middle of a gentle climb you often climb down and then climb up again more steeply than you’d expected. I was enjoying this walk. After the experience in Leh in July, I’d not crossed the 3 Km mark till now. The walk was entirely pleasant. The breeze was moderate as log as we kept ten meters or so below the ridge. Soon I’d taken off my cap and unzipped my jacket. I stopped now and then to follow a raven’s flight, and once to marvel at a lone snow pigeon which banked in flight above us, its wings looking reddish brown in the sun. We’d seen a family of Kalij pheasants on our way up. I couldn’t see or hear any choughs.

The landscape was dappled with the shadows of clouds. The browns and blues of winter were a wonderful change from the dusty gray of the plains. I kept stopping to look at the rocks. Most of it seemed to be metamorphic schist or gneiss, with lichen growing on the surface. The Family had walked ahead, and she spotted the huts of Tonglu. Even without that it was clear that a village was nearby. A couple of mules munched on the dry grass. The spring water near us was draining into a large plastic tank. By 11:30 we had reached our lunchtime destination. With all the halts for views and photos, we had taken two hours to walk roughly as many kilometers!


There is no road to freedom; freedom is the road.

Mahatma Gandhi

Two plastic chairs were pulled up to the mild sun on the terrace of a farmhouse. The farmhouse was surrounded by trees. Beyond them were the fields. It was autumn, just after Diwali. The rice had ripened, and some fields were already harvested. Beyond the fields was a rocky bank which held the cold stream back even in a monsoon-heavy year like this. The farmland stood in a narrow valley shaped by the stream. I stood far away, atop a hill road looking down at it. I raised my eyes to see the surrounding hills. These are only the foothills, the Sivaliks, barely as tall as a kilometer. A number of streams flow down this range to merge into the Ganga, some kilometers away.

It was nice to be able to stand there above the valley with a good camera and a lens which could zoom down to the chairs (and more, if there was more to see) or take in wide angle views of the surrounding hills. No shooting a single wide angle view with a phone and then having to crop (Digital zoom! How language can be twisted!) down to smaller images. Here was freedom, and I took the road just because I wanted to.

Tales of the Tals of Kumaon

Glacial scouring and rainfall and stream accumulation formed the lakes of Kumaon at the foot of the Shivaliks. This area is just up-slope of where rice was first domesticated in India immediately after the retreat of the glaciers. The study of sediments in the lakes show the growth of agriculture around them only in the last thousand years or so, although the first settlements left their mark on sediments long ago. Since colonial times, population growth and slow urbanization has begun to degrade the waters. With concern growing, I hope the degradation ceases, and the beauty of the area remains more than just an appearance. We keep going back to the lakes every now and then; after all, they are a pleasant stop on the way to higher altitudes.

This year we spent a couple of days just before Diwali in this area. The anticipated hordes of post-Diwali tourists had not arrived, and we had the lakes to ourselves. The large Ram Tal (in the featured photo), the small and deserted Garuda Tal, the extremely tourist oriented Bhim Tal, and our favourite Naukuchia Tal were wonderful places to walk around. The silence was broken only by bird calls.

With new buildings sprouting in the area every time we visit, it is hard to say what the local style of architecture is. They are mostly quick concrete constructions, but they follow the forms of either the traditional Pahari style, or the nondescript boxy architecture of small towns. If I had to identify what sets this place apart architecturally, I would point to the kind of architecture that is meant to give access to the waters of the lakes. That could be either the traditional steps of ghats, or boat houses with doors that open into the lakes. Sometimes you find both, because the level of water can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, depending on the monsoon.

We walked, but it is clear that boating is the main leisure activity here. I’m always charmed by sails gliding over the lake. From Mall Road in Naini Tal I took the photos above. The foot-operated pedal boat in the second photo looked wonderful against the sparkle of the sun on the waters.

Well begun is half done

The train bringing our future comrades-in-binoculars to Kumaon was slightly late. But we still managed to have our breakfast before sunrise and set out for the drive to Dotiyal in reasonably good time. As the sun broke over us, we’d already started climbing. I had a wonderful view over the valley of the Ramganga river out of the car as we reached near the top of the first line of ridges on the Sivaliks.

It didn’t seem to take very long before we crossed a pass, and came to a long curve on the road. Off to our right we could see … Those are not clouds on the horizon, they are the Himalayas. Bright and unobscured! We stopped at the side of the road and our guide and driver, Arjun, pointed out the peaks. Two of the peaks of Trisul were clearly the highest we could see. Off the to west was Nanda Kot. Nanda Devi, was beyond the line that we could see, but was high enough that we would get glimpses of it once the mist burnt off. To the east were the five peaks of Panchachauli, still a little hazy.

A little higher and we’d left the oak forests behind. We entered the large expanse of Himalayan pine grasslands. When the English colonizers first came here, they had not yet understood that grasslands are a separate ecology. They declared them to be degraded forests, wasteland. This was a political decision, to start converting them to cash crops: fields of coffee and tea for export. It is only now that the ecology of this habitat is beginning to be recongnized and studied. Unfortunately it is still common for many, including some dedicated Greens, to declare the chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) as inferior to banj oak (Quercus leucotrichiphora) in some way.

As if to give the lie to such thoughts, we heard the first calls of a Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) almost as soon as we rolled to a stop. It was sitting on a stone in a patch of grass three meters above us. I ran around the small cliff to get photos. I could hear many small birds in the pines around me. A mixed hunting party of birds had arrived. These waves of birds are wonderful opportunities for bird watchers, and this set fed for quite a while.

We’d stopped to take photos of the mountains. They seemed much nearer from here. Those are two of the three peaks of Trisul (7120 m). The highest one visible was the first peak over 7000 meters which was scaled. This was done by an expedition organized by Thomas Longstaff in 1907. Apparently this was the first time that mountaineers carried oxygen with them. The air was cool and fresh. The sun was warm. It felt good to be standing there listening to the calls of birds and staring at the high Himalayas.

I’m often the only one in these mixed hunting parties of bird watchers who’s interested in the local vegetation and insects. Not this time. More than half the group was taking photos of plants and insects as well as birds. I spotted many growths of these foliose lichen on stone and wood. They are a biomarker for clean air, being killed very quickly by SO2 in the air. More than my sense of smell testified to the clean air of these heights. I was looking forward to the next two days.


Less than two hundred meters from the center of the little village called Dotiyal in Kumaon the view opened up. We had to stop to take it in: a clear morning’s view of the Great Himalayas. Nanda Devi (7816 m), once considered the world’s highest peak, is not clearly visible from here, but the grand view of Trisul (7120 m) made up for it. In this season the snow line was beginning to creep down. This meant that the peaks were often covered in clouds. But we were lucky with the views. After a long time trying to spot and name the peaks, from Nanda Kot (6861 m) on the west to five peaks of the Panchachuli (6334 to 6904 m) to the east, we turned back.

Most people think of Dotiyal as an insignificant village, perhaps a stop on the way from somewhere to elsewhere. But for the next two days we would think of it as a base from which to travel for bird watching. The area was rich in birds, precisely because the village was small. It is at a crossroads on the mountains, so the crossing had a cluster of stalls selling snacks and tea. A group of young people had converged here, perhaps stopping on a journey, going by the motorbikes parked around them. These motorbikes, cheaper than cars, easier than bicycles, are the main means of transport in these hills. Buses are few, although we would always see one or two people waiting for one.

Away from that junction was the life of the locals: a line of small shops, including a mithaiwala from whom we bought laddus later in the evening. It was Diwali after all, and we couldn’t possibly not have sweets at dinner, could we? Other shops for snacks lined the road: pani puri, samosa, and chaat. A couple of young girls were at the pani puri wala, perhaps immediately after breakfast. The samosawala, above, was tending to a fire. More than the possibility of samosas, I was struck by the wonderful shoes he had on.

Each small kiosk along the road was a place to stop and chat. I liked the doors: quick jobs of wood and metal. The shut doors would not make interesting photos. But the tailor’s shop was open, and there was a person outside it looking in and chatting. The strong shadows made photography difficult. I just couldn’t find an exposure which would make it possible to mellow the contrast. Eventually I settled for multiple exposures and combining the results in an editor. I think the result is an interesting view of the two, but you be the judge.