Lakshman Jhula

When I was a child I listened to my granduncle describe how he spent a vacation walking from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that he crossed the Ganga at Lakshman Jhula on a swaying bridge more than 20 meters above the water. In my mind the bridge he described was mixed up with a 19th century bridge here which was made of ropes, and crossing this bridge became my touchstone for adventure. I went to see the bridge a couple of times later. When you see the same thing again, it seems to become mundane. So it was good to see it with fresh eyes, those of The Family.

We drove up from Rishikesh along the right bank to the village of Tapovan and parked the car. The sun was still pretty high up, so we thought of sitting down for a coffee until the day was a little cooler. Two decades ago I’d found a nice German cafe near the bridge, serving warm rolls fresh out of an oven. We looked for it, but it had changed hands a long time ago, and looked very characterless now. It had a good view, so we took the time to take a few photos. We found a more interesting cafe in the large marketplace which has sprung up here in the twenty years since my last visit, and waited the sun out. What we didn’t know was that the ninety year old bridge is officially closed for almost two years. In early July of 2019 the state government closed the bridge and declared that they would build a new one a little way downstream.

When we walked up to the bridge there was sign saying DANGER, but crowds streamed past it. There was no sign saying that the bridge is officially closed or condemned. We crossed, stopping on the bridge that my granduncle had crossed a lifetime ago, to take photos upstream towards the mountains from which the Ganga descends, downstream where a raft was headed back to town from the white waters upstream. The sun was setting behind Tapovan village, giving it a nice halo. Jonk village, the east bank was bathed in a wonderful golden light. It was no longer possible to walk along the river, as I had done on an earlier trip here.

Hardly any of the locals wore a mask. Barely 5 kilometers away, in Rishikesh, areas of town were being sealed into quarantine as the pandemic struck, but the lives of the locals had not changed. The road was not too crowded, and we were masked, so I did not think we were particularly in danger that day. Most masked people seemed to be tourists. Of course, even among them there were those who were not masked, such as the white-water rafters in the Ganga. I chatted with the vegetable vendor, his vegetables here come from Haridwar. There were no takers for the chai or the chana. People seemed to prefer sugarcane juice. We took our photos and walked back the 140 meters to the village on the other bank, crossing the river 20 meters up in the air.

Two yellow flowers

Darkot village (altitude 2000 m?) near Munsiyari is known for the angora caps and shawls which the local women weave. But any place in the Himalayas is good for a look at its flora and fauna. I stood on the steep path which leads down to the village from the highway and looked at the sides covered with a large variety of plants. A raven and a monkey had just finished their mid-morning snack, and peace had descended on the village. I went back to examining wild plants.

These yellow flowers are a little confusing, but after some thought I figured they must be yellow flax (Reinwardtia indica). They are found at an altitude of 500 to 2300 meters. It has a large overlap with the range of the Himalayan flax (Reinwardtia cicanoba) which is supposed to inhabit a range up to 2000 meters, but can straggle up a little further, depending on local conditions. The yellow flax is smaller, and the flower tube formed by the five petals fusing at the base is shorter. The fine reddish lines near the throat of the tube, the honey guides, are characteristic of the yellow flax. But the telling detail was the month I saw the flowers; April is usually too late for flowers of the Himalayan flax.

I’m still a novice at identifying Himalayan wildflowers. Of the five or so species that I can see in this patch, I could figure out only the yellow flax, after looking at its flowers for a while. The striped fruit next to it should be easy to identify for an expert, but right now I’m flummoxed by it: is the fruit of the flax, or something else altogether? Similarly for the featured plant. The trifoliate leaves make me think it is clover, and the yellow flower could belong to a clover too, but which? I have no idea. This looks like a project that can keep me busy on holidays the rest of my life.

A tiny garden

Outside Kausani I found a shop selling rhododendron juice and a variety of beans. On my travels I like to collect beans to use in salads. I’d finished my shopping and sat in the sun outside the shop, waiting for The Family to tear herself away from her shopping across the road. I was enjoying sitting on this hillside full of deodars and pines when I realized that a patch of ground I’d been looking at was a garden.

It was all local wildflowers, which is why I had taken it to be untended, but soon a design was visible. The different flowers were segregated. The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, featured photo) were placed at the edge of a rise, the best place to catch a breeze and launch the seeds into the air. The carpet of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata) was restricted to its own patch. I love these flowers which grow at altitudes of about 500 to 3500 meters, unlike the dandelions, which seem to thrive in any weather. The mat of knotweed creates its own small ecology which allows other flowers and grasses to grow. I haven’t progressed to the point where I can identify the tiny anemones peeping out from under the knotweed.

A sunny patch held ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) common European flowers which have naturalized to these middle heights. The flower-hunting botanists of the 19th century are well known for trafficking flowers out of the Himalayas, but there were imports as well. I could not identify the stand of racemes that lay under the daisies. A clump of gazanias (Gazania rigens) grew right next to the door of the shop, another import which has naturalized. The urge to tame nature into gardens seems to spring as easily in the human heart as the flowers which we call weeds.

Looking for chai on the road

On road trips I’ve got used to stopping at road-side shacks for a tea now and then. The trip to Kumaon last month was the first time I found this to be difficult. As we travelled north of Almora, traffic thinned out and the little shacks by the road where you can normally stop for a chai or an omelette were hardly visible.

We peered with fading hope at little stores. Some had fresh food, but all had the shiny packets of trans-fats loaded with either salt or high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), liberally doused in sulfite containing preservatives, which are consumed in large quantities by travellers, after which the non-biodegradable packaging is dumped into the hillside. All of them also stocked highly sugared drinks in large plastic containers, which leak bisphenols into your body, and into the environment, when the empties are dumped out of cars. Very seldom did we find a place with a working kitchen. This was very specific to this part of Kumaon; closer to the lakes one could find the normal density of roadside eateries. Nor was it the mountain-hugging roads which made such shops difficult; even inside the small towns and villages we passed, a chai or a fresh snack was not so easy to find.

Our best finds were always close to a town. Outside Almora, on the Binsar road we found a wonderful bakery and cafe. Little terraces with potted plants overlooked a valley. Someone recommended the almond butter cake; we added a pie because the waiter told us it had just been baked. Both were superb with the steaming cups of tea they gave us. Uttarakhand has begun to produce an interesting variety of cheeses, and I selected a few from the counter to eat over the next few days.

Eventually, the most relaxed place that I found for chai was the dining area of our hotel in Munsiyari. The cook had a way with the chai and omelettes, and the pleasantly chatty waiter knew when to leave you alone with the view. The window looked over the town at the nearby Panchachauli massif. Even though the air was not clear enough for the wonderful views which gives Munsiyari its reputation as a place to visit, the place was wonderfully relaxed.

Raven and Monkey have a tiff

In spite of the heavy smoke in the air, I stood outside and photographed nothing in particular. I was glad that I had an N95 mask on, it was good at filtering the smoke. I’m not good at identifying flowers and plants, so I take photos at the least opportunity, hoping that when I get back home I’ll be able to figure out what they are. On one side of the path that The Family had taken I saw this very common weed with lovely flowers, the Himalayan Daisy fleabane (Erigeron emodi) as I found later. I find it hard to tell the fleabanes apart, so I take photos of several features: the stems, the leaves, and the flowers. As I was busy doing this I heard a raven call.

It takes me a while to figure out whether I’m seeing a raven, but its call is absolutely distinct from those of other corvids of India. This Northern Raven (Corvus corax) was calling insistently. When I looked up, I saw it flapping about a ficus tree with fruits. There were movements behind a branch; a Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta). The bird circled the monkey, calling furiously for a while, and then flew off. I’d not been able to take a photo, so I followed it with my camera as it sat on a distant pine, still calling. In minutes it was back on a different branch of the ficus, calling again. The monkey barked back at it, and they continued this tiff as they kept eating the fruits. Clearly a territorial disagreement. I hadn’t seen these two species in a conflict before. I was happy to be out even on such a horrible day.

Three butterflies

Long walks and close views of the high Himalayas are why you would visit Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). The thick smoke from forest fires meant that walks would be a health risk. Our chances of seeing the Pnachachauli massif close up also seemed to be shot. In addition, I was beginning to be concerned about the pandemic. By now it is well known that exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of contracting severe COVID-19. Very few people in Munsiyari were using masks, but we were glad to use them both as protection against pollution and against the disease.

Pieris canidia indica, Indian cabbage white (subspecies Himalayan)

A whole day’s drive had left me feeling like getting out under the sun, or what little filtered through the thick haze. The town of Munsiyari is strung along a winding mountain road. We stopped a little way past the crowded bazaar to look at the tribal heritage museum. My experience of such places in small towns is that they have an interesting collection which is usually displayed and labelled very haphazardly. I couldn’t stand the idea of being inside again. While The Family walked off to the museum with others, I slipped into a little path next to the road.

Aglais cashmiriensis, Indian tortoiseshell

Immediately, I saw an Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis) sunning itself on the path. Mid-morning is a wonderful time to do a little butterfly spotting. These things have woken from a night’s sleep, the late risers are still sluggish and want to warm themselves, and the early risers are busy at breakfast. I caught sight of a couple of Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia). Up here it would be the subspecies Himalayan, P. canidia indica. Around Mumbai it is the other subspecies that we see, the Sahayadri, P. canidia canis. They were extremely agile at this time, but I got off a couple of shots. On a mustard field on the side, I spotted a common copper (Lycaena phlaeas, featured photo).

I was happy, and remained so even when The Family told me that the museum had wonderful pieces, just that she wished there was some explanation. But before I go, let me show you an enlarged photo of the tortoiseshell. I like the fact that the colour and texture of the soil seems to be mirrored in its wings and abdomen. Has it had a dust bath, or are those the scales that give the order Lepidpotera its name? I find it interesting to look at my photos at different magnifications.

Reluctantly leaving heaven

Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.

There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.

These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.

Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.

A mountain garden

Gardens in the Himalayas always amaze me. Even in years when the rainfall has been scanty, there’s enough moisture in the soil to keep most garden plants happy. And, of course, the air is cool enough to keep flowers fresh for longer. But that’s not the main surprise. It is which sense the garden engages. In the mountains the brilliant colours, like in the gardens of the temperate regions, are meant to be seen. Perhaps a rose is the most fragrant of flowers in these gardens. In the plains of India, gardens are places which harbour fragrance, and many of the flowers are simply white. Even among Himalayan gardens, those of the western Himalayas are quite different from those in the east. In Sikkim, Bengal, and further east you see a lot of orchids in garden. Here in Kumaon, and in the rest of the west, orchids seldom appear. Instead, gardens have lilies, pansies, roses, and daffodils. These are flowers my mother struggled with. It is a wonder to see them growing in such profusion up here.

Roses are among flowers which I don’t like to photograph. I don’t really know what to do with them. Do they look good in colour? One moment the delicate rose shade is what you think you want to keep. The very next moment you think you would rather concentrate on the texture and the shape. I can’t make up my mind, so I give you both.

It is the same with any flower slightly past its prime. As a flower begins to dry up, the streaks of colour mature into something immensely complex and eye-catching. The texture is also so beautiful and complex that you can get a lot of pleasure looking at it even when the picture is drained of colour. Again, I leave you to play with these aspects of a photo.

On our long drive from Almora to Munsiyari we stopped for lunch at a deserted hotel outside a busy town. The tourism industry had collapsed the previous year, as it is bound to again. The restaurant next to the parking lot was open, but we were the only customers. The cook had not prepped anything because days go by before anyone pulls in. Since it would take a while for food to be ready, we climbed the stairs to the next level to marvel at the garden. We looked in through picture windows into the rooms: well furnished and large, everything in good shape in spite of a bad year. The garden was also very well kept, and kept us occupied until the food was ready. The cook did a marvelous job.

When it comes to pansies I have no doubt that I want to retain the colours. The wild combinations that nature and enthusiasts have collaborated to create are just too good to lose. The deep reds, the showy splashes of mauve and yellow, the exuberance of whites against a brilliant background, not something I can subtract from my photos very easily.

The day was getting warmer, and we still had almost four hours of drive left. So, let me get on with it. But before I go, I give you another rose, drain the picture of its delicate pink, leave the texture of the petals, and the shape of the spiral it is folded into.

Orchid trees

Our trip had been planned badly, so we spent really long hours on the road. There was little time for long walks, and in any case the pervasive smoke from forest fires made it impossible most of the time. As a result, the opportunity for bird watching was limited, and I decided to concentrate on something I’ve long put on the backburner: identifying trees. On the day-long drive from Almora to Munsiyari, I spotted a tree full of white flowers by the road, and stopped. A closer look told me that this was Bauhinia variegata.

The characteristic shape of the leaves of the genus Bauhinia has been called “camels’ hoofprints” by Pradip Krishen in his field guide Trees of Delhi. Less poetically, when you flatten out a leaf, it seems to have two lobes. The five-petalled flower has colours which can range from purple to white, hence the specific name variegata. You can find this tree across India up to an altitude of about 1500 m. As a result it has many names in different Indian languages. I think I’ll stick to the Kumaoni name, Kachnar for now, instead of the fancy English constructs like mountain ebony or orchid tree. After all, Corbett just calls it Bauhinia. In Kumaon I saw the flowers used in food, and read later that the flower as well as leaves are eaten in various parts of India. Apparently its uses in medicine have been documented for a long time. The full geographical range includes Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and southern China. It would be interesting to check whether it is used for cooking in Cantonese food, or, more accurately, in the kitchens of Guangdong.

In most of the flowers that I saw, three of the five petals stand close to each other, sometimes overlapping, and two are quite separate. As a result, from many angles a photo shows all five petals, and all five long stamens. One petal is always multicoloured, making it a very interesting subject for photography. As I read more about this genus, I saw that it contains species across the world’s tropics. Is this then a very ancient genus? Apparently not. Fossil and molecular evidence agree in placing its origins in Eastern Asia only around 60 million years ago, just about the time that India banged into Asia. So its dispersal across the world is not due to continental movement. Amazing that seeds and seedpods can travel such long distances!

Changes

Flowering of the Rhododendron arboreum, the tree Rhododendron, is said to be extremely temperature sensitive. My own experience also verifies this. Four years ago I found that the second week of March was too early for flowers at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (altitude 2500 m) in Sikkim. But when I was in Yuksom (altitude 1780 m) the previous day, the red Rhododendron had been in full bloom. I verified it this year again. At Kolakham (altitude 1980 m) in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal I could see Rhododendron buds in early March, but in Latpanchar (altitude 1500 m) they were already in full bloom when I went there the next day. When we reached our hotel outside Almora (altitude 1604 m) in early April, there was only one blossom left among all the trees on the grounds. But twenty kilometers away, just inside Binsar National Park, at an altitude of about 2200 m, hillsides were dotted with the red of flowering Rhododendron. These mountain roads are extremely slow, and you may take an hour to travel thirty kilometers. So when we plan trips to view Rhododendron flowers, we focus carefully on details like this.

Altitude causes another strange change. Over most of its range R. arboreum has deep red flowers, sometimes deeper than the red of blood and wine. But as you climb to over 2500 meters in altitude, the same species will produce flowers which can be any shade of pink, and even white. The red flower in the slide show here comes from Binsar National Park, from an altitude of perhaps about 2200 meters. The rest come from the highest point of the road above Munsiyari, perhaps at an altitude of just under 3000 meters. I don’t have words for the variety of pinks that you can see.

It pays off to look closely at the flowers with these lighter colours. Unlike their dark red siblings, they show characteristic spots and stippling. On my first trip to Sikkim I’d been entranced by these details on flowers I had seen in Yumthang valley (altitude 3500 m) late in the season, in early May. Are these a different subspecies? There is a recognized subspecies called the Rhododendron arboreum cinnamomeum, but this is easily identified by the bright cinnamon colour of the underside of the leaf. These variant plants were not of that subspecies. The colour changes were not due to soil conditions, either, since you could see differently coloured flowers on trees in the same slope, sometimes growing so close that their canopies touch. Each tree had flowers of a single colour. Someone would have to do more field work to check whether the colour remains the same from one year to the next, and whether it changes if the seed of a tree is planted at a lower altitude. It is quite possible that this has been studied in the last three hundred years, and a better scholar than me will able to dig out the details.