Door after door

Finally, we walked through endless empty corridors in Bikaner’s old fort, Junagarh. We’d seen the royal apartments and audience halls already; they make up the core of the complex. But every king added wings according to the needs of the moment. I suppose bureaucracy always multiplies (until it disappears), so new wings and rooms always come in handy. These empty rooms were beautifully painted over in later developments of the same styles of frescoes that we had seen earlier.

We exited Phool Mahal, and, instead of taking the stairs, took a turn into a narrow corridor overlooking the open courtyard below. That led us into a train of empty, but beautifully decorated, rooms. The frescoes were in good repair here. Probably tourists just take the quickest way out, preferring the outer corridors instead of wandering through the rooms. But we were not disappointed. The sonakin style frescoes in the first few rooms were very similar in style to Phool Mahal: the same golds and greens, for pictures of vases of flowers or bowls of fruit. The doors were painted in the same alternation of dark greens and reds, with gold highlights that we recognized as the Jangali Sunthari style.

But this colour scheme of the Sonakin style changed as we progressed. The golds and green disappeared and reds, yellows and blues took over. The lack of gold perhaps signified that these rooms were given over to officials and courtiers rather than the royal family. The reds and the blues began to look like western influence. The ceiling that you see here was a clear evolution of the Manovat style, looking quite English in its colour scheme.

This adaptation was also visible in the pictures on the walls. The unlabelled portrait is full face, quite unlike the early modern style, in which royal portraits were always in profile. The modelling of the face, the shadows, also shows a western influence. Of course, the appearance of photos mounted on the walls was the best clue to the increasing European influence.

We came to the end of the corridors and had to climb down a flight of stairs. These were more modern than the set we’d taken up from the innermost courtyard: wider and better spaced. Defending the staircase against enemies was not on the mind of the architect. Crossing an inner courtyard, we came to the armoury. I’ve never looked at the evolution of swords, daggers, axes, and various other cutting edge weapon designs from the Mughal era. But this armoury had some fascinating early firearms, mostly unrifled muzzle loaders. There was this fascinating piece, about three meters long. I suppose three men were needed to charge, steady and fire it. Was it ever a decisive piece in battle? But then Bikaner seldom entered battle, preferring to work its diplomatic corps more than its army.

The armoury was part of the Ganga Mahal, completed in 1937 CE by Ganga Singh. This was quite different in style from the remainder of the fort: being built almost entirely from the local red sandtone, and elaborately carved, rather than plastered and painted. The main hall was enormous, and we felt quite dwarfed in there. I walked along it admiring the beautifully reliefs of local fauna, birds as well as deer. This was the beginning of the style of stone-masonry that we saw in the other palaces in Bikaner. We’d reached the end of our walk. It was time for the museums. But that is a story I’ve already told.

Out of the blue

A bonus! That’s what the sight of a reconstructed model of the World War 1 biplane, the De Haviland DH9, sitting in Bikaner’s Junagarh palace museum is. This shell of the war’s most widely produced, but problematically under-powered, bombers is said to have been put together from parts of two planes shot down in combat (but they could have been unused war surplus). The information board in front of this exhibit does not mention the reconstruction as ever having flown; nor is there any record that the aircraft bodies that were shipped here came with engines or armament. These disabled planes were what was called the Imperial Gift of 1920, in return for the 500 Bikaneri troops who served Britain on the western front in the World War 1.

Even so, it was an instructive display. The planes of that era had very little thrust. The DH9 engine developed only 170 kW of power. As a result, stable flight required a relatively large wing surface. The wingspan was almost 13 meters, giving a total wing area of for an empty weight of just over 1000 Kgs. Half a century later, the popular Cessna 210 had a wing surface which was about two and a half times smaller for almost the same weight, flying on an engine which gave 230 kW of power. Unlike the model on display, the real DH9 had wings covered in fabric, and the rigging required a special wire with an aerodynamic profile.

It is interesting that the Imperial War Museum and the Historic Aircraft Collection in UK own two working models of the DH9 which have links to this war gift. The full story is told at the website of the HAC by Guy Black, the person who did the restoration. In brief, the remnants of the aircrafts were found in a dump yard behind Junagarh, and several rarer parts of the aircraft could be salvaged for use in the two models. I learnt that flight-worthy reconstructions of historical planes have tremendous amount of replacements due to flight safety concerns. So the amount of salvageable material from the Bikaneri relics is considered substantial. I am well aware of the problem that museums of computers and information technology face in sourcing important historical equipment, since we all treat old equipment as disposable. It was fascinating to see this same story play out in another domain of engineering.

In the jungle

Millimeters high jungles sprout in a tub where The Family had scattered a pinch of methi seeds. The monsoon is good for microgreens. These methi leaves (Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek) will add flavour to our salad. And I can see evidence of animals in this jungle. We’ll have to harvest the leaves before these tiny herbivores eat up our salad.

An uncertain place

Watson’s Hotel, later called the Esplanade Building, was built between 1867 and 1869. It is the world’s oldest cast iron building. For years it looked like it would fall down at the slightest touch. Something is happening to it now, behind high barriers. I can see a scaffolding above the blue metal sheets. I hope it is repairs and renovation rather than demolition. It’s been a Grade II heritage structure for decades, but that did not apparently force anyone to keep repairing it.

An odd nest for a lapwing?

While driving along a track in the grassland of the Dhikala range in Corbett NP, we spotted a pair of Red-wattled lapwings (Vanellus indicus) at a nest. They usually nest in scrapes on the ground, but I’d never seen one before. Still, the location in the middle of a track seemed oddly exposed (featured photo). The pair had chosen the grassy part where the wheels of jeeps would seldom reach, so that the danger of accidental crushing of the eggs by passing vehicles was minimized. Lapwings are known to keep guard around the nest and mob larger animals to protect their nests. I supposed that this is the way they ensure that deer or elephants do not crush their eggs (I would dearly 🙂 love to watch two lapwings trying to budge an elephant from its intended path). The very next day I saw a lapwing determinedly stand its ground in front of our jeep, forcing us to skirt it (photo below). We looked for its nest, but it must have been hidden in the grass nearby. So at least with us this behaviour succeeded.

Ground-nesting birds lose eggs to predators, and this is no exception. A count in the grounds of the Delhi zoo showed that over 40% of their eggs are taken by predators, mainly mongoose, crows and kites. It is now known that crows can discover nests by watching humans, so the extreme hands-on process of counting, as described in the article, may have caused more loss of eggs than is normal. Still, even inside Corbett NP there must be a significant number of predators on the watch for eggs. One response from the bird is camouflage: the eggs are the colour of the dust you see here, with splotches of black, which make them hard to spot among leaf litter and grass.

Like many others, I make it a principle not to go to a nest and take photos of the eggs, so that we don’t lead predators like corvids to one. But I kept worrying about the selection of such an exposed site. I later found a report of a pair nesting on the open roof of a bungalow. There was an even older report of a pair nesting between the tracks of a frequently used railroad. I wonder whether V. indicus protects its eggs by active deterrence rather than subterfuge. The very presence of two adults would alert egg-stealers of the location of a nest, even if it is hidden. So it is possible that these sightings of relatively visible nesting sites is no accident. Clearly there is much still to be understood about even such a common species of bird.

First shower

Petrichor is the smell of rain hitting parched ground. Equally wonderful is the sight of raindrops on petals and leaves in that first monsoon rain. That’s the photo. The monsoon is on schedule. More than a week on, I woke on the day some places in the high latitudes will celebrate La Fete de la Musique, or, later in the week, Midsommar, and looked out at a welcome dreary drizzle and completely overcast skies. Just the day to walk out in a tee and shorts, in flipflops, to walk through the rain on Marine Drive, munching a cone of fresh roasted peanuts. Too bad it is a working day.

Steamy Sunday

Some days are set aside for inspection and invention. First the fruits on the table. They had all shriveled up. What a waste of plums and jamun. If I had some liver or bheja I would have added these nearly dry fruits to them. But all I had was big steaks of rawas. We’d harvested some intensely flavourful ajwain leaves a few days ago. We have the Plectranthus amboinicus plant in the balcony. It grows very fast, and every now and then has to be pruned back. I’d put some of the leaves in a salad, converted a large part into an ajwain-and-olive chutney/tapenade, and left the remainder for flavouring other food with.

Coat the rawas steaks with a garlic and ginger paste. Let it stand for a while. Then sprinkle it with Himalayan salt and crushed pepper. Slather the steaming trays with sesame oil. Lay out the steaks on the trays. I wanted only one layer of fish on each tray, so I had to use two of the stackable trays. On a last minute whim I crushed some walnuts over them to give a crunchy added texture. Finally I covered them with ajwain leaves, closed the steamer, and steamed them for seven minutes. It turned out that we ate the fish a day later. The day in the fridge had intensified the flavour. The Family decided to warm it on a tawa. The slight roast gave the surface a crisper texture, and made an interesting contrast between the crisp surface layer and the juicy inner flesh.

Elephant moods

Watching elephants is a pleasure. There are the tuskers, large and lonely, sometimes aggressive, but generally walking about the jungle doing his own thing. Then there are the matriarchal herds, incredibly social, but completely focused on bringing up the young. It’s a completely different social grouping than that of the apes and monkeys, but it works well enough.

The baby that you see in the featured photo caught my eye because of the grassy mud on its back. I’d not seen grass on an elephant’s back before. I looked at the others in the group. They all seemed to have it. I’m sure it helps to keep them cool, but will this innovation stick? It’ll take several visits to Dhikala range in Corbett to see the fate of this invention.

Early in the morning, a couple of days before, I’d seen a group of elephants suddenly tense. They immediately assume a protective stance around the youngest. It turned out that there was a tiger in the grass nearby. When it passed, they went back to grazing. Notice the opportunistic myna hunting the insects displaced by the elephants.

When I first came to this family group I was surprised to see a bull tusker with them. It turned out to be a chance meeting. As you can see, the group had dropped into a protective formation around the cub. In formation, they crossed the road in front of us. The bull moved away from them. Only when the bull was far enough did some signal pass between them, and the cub was allowed to move away from protection.

The bull was headed for water. We saw it move in a straight line. These lords of the jungle do not change their line of travel for any lesser creature. I watched it as it crossed the vast landscape towards a tiny pond which was invisible for us. It knew its territory very well, probably carried a map inside its head.

Once it reached the small pond in the middle of the wide open expanse, it got all the fun that it could. It drank water, squirted jets all around it, rested its trunk on its tusks, and then just lay down on the wet grass. For more than an hour I kept turning around to watch what it was doing. Eventually, as the morning got warmer it moved away.

The previous evening we’d been bullied by another tusker. We’d driven on to a path when we saw a tusker coming down it. It moved at a steady pace. There were no warning calls, no displays of threat. But the pace was relentless. The message was clear. We had to back up until a crossing, and then move to the side. In these grasslands tigers and elephants are co-equal. They give each other a a wary respect, and do not meddle.

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