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.

Corbett’s gift

Jim Corbett. Like many other children of my age, I’d devoured his books about the man-eaters of Kumaon. Boy’s adventure stories, as I recalled later. In my twenties when I reread them, I found that the stories are about his hunts, but they do not revel in the kill. More, I found loving descriptions of his native Kumaon, and realized why he is now feted more as a conservationist than a hunter. So, staying in a homestay just outside the walled village of Chhoti Haldwani, I was intrigued to see the inscription by a gate that you can see in the photo above.

Corbett owned a tract of land at the point where the wonderful hill road from Nainital through Pangot and Kilbury joins State Highway 41. He gave it to several families who still farm this land. A low stone wall, nine kilometers long, surrounds this land. A century ago this land was full of wild boars, which would destroy crops. Corbett was unwilling to hunt them down, and had the wall built at his own expense. In the short run it was a wonderful conservation measure. But in the long run, human expansion has urbanized the jungle and, by depriving the boars of space, driven them to extinction. Still, one is advised not to walk around this wall alone at night. You see stray deer, and there is a slight danger of running into a leopard or a tiger. I wonder how this land will fare in another fifty years.

Corbett’s old house sits just outside the walled fields. I wandered through the small museum that this has now been turned into, and came across letters which bear on the transfer of this land. I was amused to find the phrase “manufacture of red tape”. He used it again in his story about the man-eating tiger of Mukteshwar.

I wandered through the museum, looking at the photos and paintings which show Jim Corbett at various ages. I’d never seen a photo of the man before, and was struck by how ordinary he looked. Wandering about the grounds of the museum I saw a little memorial to his dog, Robin. If you’ve read Man-eaters of Kumaon, you might remember that one of the stories is about Robin.

After the visit to the museum we cut through the walled village to get to our homestay. The path wound between houses and then through fields and orchards. I wondered about Corbett, a person who seemed to be completely at home in India. But his India was very different from now. The forests of Corbett National Park, originally set up through Corbett’s efforts, and the adjoining areas perhaps are the last we see of it. Fortunately, these are preserved as a transnational biosphere reserve which might give our wildlife a chance to adapt to climate changes.

Sudden horses

Horses do not play a big role in most people’s lives in India. You can tell that by the ludicrous tricks that a horse has to perform in a movie in order to attract attention. Although I am pretty indifferent to them, I was fortunately not traumatized as many children of tourists in the hill towns are. I see small children who are just learning to let go of a parent’s hand being plonked on to the back of a horse-for-hire while the proud parents take photos. The child usually begins to squall as soon as s/he is placed on the back of a large unfamiliar animal. This isn’t the horse’s fault, but I tend to avoid places where horse owners gather for the tourist trade.

That wasn’t possible in Mahabalehwar, since the horses stood in the middle of the market. While waiting for The Family to emerge from a shop, I stared at a horse which stood nearby. Was it the only one whose ears curled in? It looked up at me, and its ear tips nearly touched each other. Something clicked in my mind. I looked at it sleek muscles, the height, and the hocks and hooves, and realized that this must be a Marwari horse. That’s a rare breed. A hardy warhorse of legend, possibly the breed that Rana Pratap’s horse belonged to, it had been much degraded during colonial times. Since the 1990s the breed has made a comeback with Jodhpur’s support. Now bloodlines are recorded and an attempt is being made to popularize them.

I talked to the grooms. They all had Marwari horses, and were happy to find one person who admired their horses. The breed emerged in the desert kingdom of the Rathores in the 11th century CE, and needs little fodder but good care of the skin. That makes it ideal for this low-income trade. I saw that they have a smooth gait, again something ideal for first time riders like tourists and their children. The grooms buy horses in the annual Pandharpur horse fair. The breed is best known for pintos, palominos, bay, and chestnut. I saw several of them here. But there were more of the disfavoured whites. Perhaps they are cheaper. I was glad to see these legendary horses from history making a slow comeback in the hands of owners who care for them.


Pandemic changes are still rearranging my life. The Family asked “Why do you need so many small holidays?” Every few months a hale and hearty colleague or friend dies suddenly. Most are male, between the ages of 50 and 70. They include diverse people like Himalayan trekkers and yoga enthusiasts. What they share is the manner of their sudden death, a matter of seconds when their heart stops beating in the middle of a mundane day. One sitting at a beach with his family, one in the middle of a presentation, one at dinner with wife and two young daughters. Such incidents, all in the last two years, can change your perspective on what is important. Watching the sunlight filter through sal and pine into a grassland, in the coolness of autumn, two kilometers above sea level, seems as important as the work that I continue to love. In my travels now I meet a lot of people, often in their 30s and 40s, who have become more nomadic than me. I don’t doubt that people with other interests are also following them more passionately now. Pandemic and death, perhaps even the expectation of an imminent climate disaster, have changed our lives more deeply than we see yet.

Near these foothills the landscape changes within an hour’s drive. In the plains below I stood near a village where some partition refugees from Punjab settled a lifetime ago. Their children and grandchildren now till the land. Tractors and harvesters have set the bullocks and horses free, but they are still loved and tended. Another dream, of escaping the madness of the partition, of settling into a quiet slow life, of being untouched by history, is coming true.

Across the bund on which the horse stood was a huge reservoir created by the Haripura dam. We stood on the bund looking at water birds through our binoculars. This is the season when the winter visitors begin to arrive. We were not surprised by the water birds and small warblers which have come down from Tibet and central Asia. But I was happily surprised when a resident pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) dived into the water and came up with a catch.

Halcyon smyrnensis, white-breasted kingfishers, can be found everywhere in this landscape. They don’t require water, being able to catch lizards and frogs from the ripe rice fields they are poised over. The farmers watched us curiously: Who are these people with binoculars and cameras? I explained to one that we were watching birds. The young Sikh farmer took a look, then told me how one of the birds which used to nest under roofs here is disappearing. Everywhere you go, there are stories of slow extinctions. He invited us for a cup of tea. Very reluctantly, we refused. We had to be in the hills in a short time. He understood.

The berms are overgrown with Lantana. But among them are other plants which can beat them at the wild game of growth. There are vines of morning glory, pumpkin vines topping out the Lantana to spread their edible yellow flowers to the light. And there are these small white flowers with their incredible petals, like the wild dream of a botanist who tastes every leaf she sees. But for all its wild fantasy look, it is a real flower. I’ve seen it before, but haven’t identified it. Can anyone help? (It turns out to be parval, परवल, Trichosanthes dioicha. Now I’ll remember this flower every time I eat parval. Thanks for pointing to Cucurbitaceaea, Profundareflexion.)

Another dream is slowly emerging into reality. For years I would see the work of those wonderful wildlife photographers who post fantastic photos of predators with prey. In my own small way, I’m getting a chance to do the same thing. I saw a blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) on a wire. If you stand and watch for a while you see it sallying to catch an insect on the wing. I was lucky to get a shot of it with a wasp in its mouth. I remembered Lotte Eisner’s voice narrating the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth, in Werner Herzog’s movie called Fata Morgana. The paradise of the myth is a place where food flies into your mouth. That’s what the photo of the bee-eater with its prey looks like. So that’s my answer to The Family, it’s a way to change a nightmare into a halcyon dreamland.

To market

When evening falls in Mahabaleshwar there is only one place that you can head to: the bazaar. Somehow all of these charming hill towns are known for leather accessories, fudge and chocolate, and the crisp peanut praline known as chikki. There was no dearth of leather shops. I could see some selling backpacks, belts, handbags or wallets, but it was mostly shoes. The shoes were mostly for women. I loitered while The Family examined some shoes. As you can guess from these photos, selecting a pair is not such a easy job.

While measuring the length of the street, I came across several doors. The one in the featured photo was really interesting. I wish it was open. I would have like to take a portrait of the versatile salesman who ran a tour agency along with a shop for handbags. What was it with leather anyway? Could it be because the town, when it started, was a British town (the Indian villages were on the other side of the plateau) and the sahib and mems who spent their time there were interested in the leather craft of the region? Their preferences would certainly explain the fudge and perhaps the chikki as well.

The only clear remnant of the British past here was the church, founded in 1831. I walked in for a dekko. One man had been sitting on a pew. I decided to rest for a while too, as I took in my surroundings. Life-sized plaster figures of Mary and Jesus flanked the cross over the altar. The painting on the wall looked colourful, but the light was too dim to see it clearly. The church was constructed with blocks of red laterite from the plateau. It would have weathered to a dark brown in the near couple of centuries since its completion. The colour of the facade was due to paint.

The Family was done with shoes. We strolled along the road, stopping to look for chana (roasted Bengal gram). That’s another specialty of this plateau. We found it in sixteen flavours! Elsewhere a cart was selling boiled corn. I didn’t remember that from before. I’d only seen roasted ears of corn earlier. I also hadn’t seen the “Crazy Chinese Food Best Cuisine” truck earlier. The Family vetoed my suggestion to taste their food. So I took a last photo of an interesting kiosk before leaving.

Well-beaten paths

Some periods of history are turbulent enough that scholarly work is hidden under contending views. Our times are among them. As a result, the history of Puri and the Jagannath temple has become obscure again. What we do know is that it is one of the older towns in the area. The kingdom of Kalinga, was originally part of modern day Odisha, and has at times had an empire which covered large parts of peninular India. It is definitely as old as Magadha, the ancient kingdom which originated in present day Bihar, and grew to be one of the largest Indian empires, with a cultural reach which eventually included most of Asia as well as Greece and Rome. That culture carried Buddhism from Magadha, where Gautama preached his new religion before the time of Alexander of Macedonia, and the Pali language across the world. It is said that this outreach was catalyzed by the bloody battle in year 261 BCE between these two states which was fought close to Puri. What is known about the temple of Jagannath is that it was rebuilt by a king of the Ganga dynasty, perhaps in the 10th century BCE, so it must be older.

You need to enter the Singhadwar, the Lion gate, to see the temple complex. Little is visible from outside, and having visited once, I was not inclined to brave it again. Crowd management has definitely improved since my last visit to Puri, and it was hard to take a photo of the gate. I suspect, from its style, that the stone gate and wall was built during the Maratha occupation in the 18th century. In this region Jagannath is not an inaccessible deity, but one who is treated as part of the household, part of normal life. Walling off his temple seems to be part of a different view of the religion.

I left behind these knots where history gathers and walked on into the little spaces of daily life. The lanes around the temple are narrow, just wide enough for a rickshaw or an auto, after you subtract the space needed to park a motorbike (like in the featured photo). I passed the open doors to houses with little gardens and courtyards. In this part of Odisha a wedding in the family is often announced by a little wall painting. This one has a representation of Jagannath’s sister, Subhadra. Around here you need only paint the concentric circles representing eyes to invoke Jagannath and his family.

Temple towns contain unremarked layers of history. These old stone pillars frame a doorway into a hostel for pilgrims. The stone pillars are at least three centuries old. Looking at the carvings in the set in front, I thought they could be significantly older. Part of the construction is definitely from the early 20th century, and, as you can see, something is being built even now. I wonder which small Raja first endowed this home for pilgrims.

A few steps on, there was a grand gate. The inscription over the gate announced an ashram in Odiya and Bengali and Devanagari. The rotunda and its screens supported by a circle of pillars and topped by a tower seemed to be something from the 19th century, perhaps very early 20th century. The sect probably originated in Bengal, which makes it likely that it was funded by Bengali traders who began to become wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the most interesting sight was inside the wide open doors of this little music shop. The variety of percussion instruments is amazing. But what goes beyond and becomes astounding is the thing that has the pride of the place: the automated drummer. I hope I’m not around when it starts to play.

Entering Mumbai

We came within sight of Mumbai on a beautiful golden afternoon. The rain clouds had been wafted away, revealing a beautiful soft blue sky with high cirrus clouds. We entered from Thane. This was once was the main harbour in this region, then a sister city to Mumbai, and now, effectively, a suburb. The distant mountains looked much as they would have to the Malabari and Arab traders who used to sail past this coast a millennium ago. What they would not have recognized were the artificial cliffs of high-rises. I’ve never seen Thane looking so beautiful. All pollution and haze had been washed away by the rain, the afternoon light was just about to turn golden. I turned my attention back to the traffic.

Basgo: Necessity and Invention

Nasir Khan was the best driver-guide we found in Ladakh. Our spirit guide through Ladakh, Mr. Wangchuk, told us that he had the longest career of all drivers in Leh, and we were lucky to get him. An ethnic Ladakhi, he was a fount of knowledge. We’d passed a large number of mud-brick structures before we passed the Basgo Gompa (featured photo). As I wondered aloud about the strength of unfired clay bricks, Nasir Khan asked me whether we wanted a closer look at some buildings. We were happy to.

He stopped in front of a lovely two-storeyed house made entirely of mud bricks. “More than a hundred years old”, he told us. I got out to take a photo. Wonderful location, I thought. The milestone in front of the house lets others find it if they want. The temperature around here varies between -10 Celcius in the worst of winter to 30 Celcius in high summer. Unfired mud brick is a wonderful insulator. Since the annual precipitation, counting both snow and rain, is less than 10 cms, unfired clay becomes a structurally sound building material.

Nasir Khan rolled slowly through the village which straggled along the Srinagar-Leh highway. A little further on I saw an unpainted house. It was built on a stone platform. Beaten earth on top of the stone retaining wall made a terrace. The house was built atop this. Was that a base of stone on which the mud bricks had been placed? The mild rain actually seals any cracks and holes which may develop in the walls. I could see long vertical cracks in the walls below the window slits. Filling them with mud cannot be very hard. I suppose repairs are common.

I’d been noticing the beautiful carved doors and windows in these houses. It is said that this is a Kashmiri influence. Certainly, elaborate wood carving is a traditional Kashmiri art. Ladakh is singularly devoid of trees, so it is possible that this artistry is an import. It must be fairly recent, perhaps starting after the Dogra invasion of the 19th century. The woodwork in the older Leh Palace was simpler.

Nasir Khan stopped to show us houses under construction. Unfired mud bricks continue to be the main structural material, along with a clay mortar. However, as you see in the photo on the left, a column between the windows is made of dressed stone. Both are locally available materials, and a perfect response to the weather. You can see the ironwork on top of the wall under construction. I think this is a concrete slab ready to be poured. This extra load is what the stone pillar is built to take. The flat roof on the completed building behind is also a good response to the very dry weather. When I commented on the smooth external wall on the building behind the one under construction, Nasir Khan showed me a building further on under construction. A thin cement plaster has been applied over the mud wall. I’m not sure this extra weather-proofing is needed, but it certainly seems to be the fashion in these newer houses. I’m quite intrigued by how the traditional and new are integrated in these houses in Ladakhi villages.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 4

On the last day of the Hemis festival, a large thangka was unfurled on the wall overlooking the courtyard. It had the portrait of a holy man in the red hat of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect. I suppose this is a portrait of one of the Rinpoches. The photos I have seen of thangkas unfurled in this place are different, and show the founder of the monastery, Gyalsras Rinpoche. I haven’t been to Hemis gompa on other days of the festival, so I don’t know whether there are different thangkas exhibited on different days. According to Kagyupa belief, all the succeeding Rinpoches are the reincarnations of Gyalsras, so this would perhaps also show him, but in a different body.

In this detail you can see that the portrait is an applique work over a brocade background. Traditionally brocade came from China, but sometime in the 18th or 19th century brocade from Banaras became more common, and priced the Chinese brocade out of the market. I believe this piece is fairly recent, and made with Banarasi brocade.

Bactrian camels in Ladakh

First shock: Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) survive entirely as domestic animals, or in populations which have gone feral. Wild Bactrian camels are a separate species, found in extremely small numbers across northern Asia. Second shock: Asian camelids diverged from the new world camelids only about 25 million years ago! Did founder populations walk across land bridges during the ice ages? Third shock: the two-humped Bactrian camels and our familiar one-humped Dromedary diverged less than 800,000 years ago. As a result they can still interbreed and produce fertile offspring. In a thought-provoking book called Otherlands, Thomas Halliday discusses exactly this process of speciation. He draws an analogy to a river which bifurcates into two streams, and asks at which point one can begin to say that a parcel of water belongs to one stream or the other. Near the beginning of the bifurcation it is not clear at all; a little parcel may flow towards one stream before an eddy sends if off in another direction. Similarly, as two species begin to diverge, two individuals of opposite sex from the two species will still produce an offspring. Only later, when the species have diverged fully, will they not be able to produce fertile offspring. Dromedaries and Bactrian camels seem to be at this stage.

But all this was background. I was trying to figure out why there are Bactrian camels in Ladakh. As with many Ladakhi puzzles, the answer is the Silk Route. It passed Leh, crossed Khardung La, traveled across the Valley of Death, now called the Shyok river valley, funneled north into Tajikistan, before bifurcating into two: the southern route went to Kabul and Peshawar, the northern to Samarkand and on. Tajikistan is at the eastern border of the ancient Persian province of Bactria, and it supplied camels to cross the high deserts of Ladakh and Tibet. When modern borders snapped into place in the 1950s, a small population of Bactrian camels were left in the Nubra valley. In this century they are being bred again to provide safaris for tourists. The Family walked among them in Hunder, where the largest herds are, and came back with these photos.