Mughal recreations

The Family popped her head round the door to whisper, “I’m off. I’ll be back for lunch. The mutton’s thawing. Do make that and something else.” I nodded and went back to my meeting. It wasn’t till rather late that I remembered her instructions. The mutton had thawed, and I had no idea how I wanted to cook it. As I washed it I realized I did not want to use the usual masala.

Why don’t I try something aromatic? Maybe middle eastern or central Asian? Hardly any herbs at home. Maybe then something closer in spirit to Mughal food than most dishes which have the adjective mughlai added to them? Their food originated in central Asia after all, but accumulated Indian touches within a generation. I’d written about the food of the Mughal court earlier. My phone contains a translation of Abu’l Fazal’s Ain-I-Akbari. Although it has no recipes, it does have a list of what the kitchen needs to stock, as well as a list of dishes which could be made, each with a little gourmand’s comment on it.

I assembled the listed ingredients which my kitchen had: ghee, fresh ginger, onions, lime, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, pepper corns, and asafoetida. Chop the onions fine. Grate and rub ginger into the mutton. Heat a heavy pan with ghee in it, and temper it with small amounts of the spices. Drop half the onion into it and cook till it is transparent. Drop the cubes of meat into it and let them cook well on each side. I could be almost done. I saw a message from The Family saying that she’d left work and would be home soon.

Then I remembered that she’d wanted me to make a whole lunch, not just the mutton. Quick thinking was called for. The Mughals were rice eaters, and brought the fried and baked rices of central Asia into India. I didn’t have time for that. Instead I took out the red rice poha (parboiled flattened rice) that we keep for breakfasts and soaked some in water with Himalayan salt. I also soaked some raisins and almonds separately. Abu’l Fazal writes that these two ingredients were also used by the Mughals. Five minutes, and everything was ready. I strained the water out of them and dropped them into the ghee in which I’d cooked the mutton. I can never follow instructions, even when it comes from the emperor’s diwan. I had to run out to the balcony and get a few curry leaves to drop into the pan.

Cook and layer. I thought there was still something missing. Perhaps a final layer? In the film of ghee remaining in the pan, fry the rest of the onions till they are crisp and brown, and layer this over poha. I declared this was it. What did I have? I cross between Kashk and Dupiayazah? There is now a small community of historian-chefs who try to recreate the methods of the Mughals: from the kitchen and utensils to the authentic ingredients and recipes. They would laugh at this pretension. I wasn’t trying for their level of authenticity. All I wanted was something which, to my untrained palate, would be closer to the tastes they create than to the ones passed off in restaurants.

I’d finished dressing a salad to accompany this when The Family entered. I was ready with an answer when she asked “What did you make?” But I certainly wasn’t ready when she asked “Did you take photos?” I hadn’t. Which is why this long post has only one photo: that of the finished bowl.

White bark acacia

The forest department is meant to conserve ecology. Unfortunately, they interpret their job to mean they are supposed to grow forests. As a result, they are changing the desert scrub ecology of the Rann of Kutch by planting white bark acacia (Vachellia leucophloea). These plants have nitrogen fixing nodules in their roots, which are useful when you want to green a desert. That may be part of the reason why the forest department likes it. This acacia also grows naturally in other parts of the Thar desert. So, maybe, this experiment is not as bad as the one carried out in the 1970s, when the desert was seeded by the exotic mesquite Prosopsis juliflora. But the Rann of Kutch is a special habitat, and reduing the space for its distinctive flora and fauna creates a sudden change in ecology which will have effects that we cannot predict. But then, maybe none of this matters. Maybe the rising seas will reclaim the Rann very soon.

On our last evening’s attempt to spot birds in the Rann, I found myself quite distracted by the greenery. We walked gingerly between the trees, but there was little to see. You see a typical stand of white bark acacias here: spindly trunks with white bark spreading out a little above your head. The older bark turns rough and dark as the tree ages. The canopy is full of the typical feathery mimosa leaves. The flowers are very interesting, as you can see in the slideshow above. The dense round collection of white flowers are called glomerules, and they grow in a multiply branched stem called a panicle. That picture does a good job of explaining the words.

But there were too many trees, and the birds were avoiding this place. We moved away into the open land and were immediately rewarded by multiple sightings: silverbills, larks, warblers, robins, flycatchers. A single bird came and sat on a branch of a tree right at the edge of the open scrub. It was the grey-necked bunting (Emberiza buchanani) that you see in the photo above. In the setting sun and against the bright green background its drab brown plumage looks red.

Comfort

We spent the morning scanning a set of hills which was said to be fairly crowded with leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi). Apparently two females had their ranges in these mounds. One of them delivered twins recently, another had triplets a little more than a year ago. Leopards become adults and move away from the mother at about a year and a half, until which time they may still share food. In addition, a male was said to visit the place often. So there could be up to eight leopards in this little range. We had been pretty unsuccessful for about two hours.

Then The Family asked “Isn’t there something on that large rock?” At the same time our driver declared “A leopard has just come out of its cave.” We’d been looking at the hill that you see in the photo above. The Family and the driver had been scanning it with their binoculars while I’d been looking through my camera. Binoculars have their uses. Indeed a sub-adult, one of the cubs which was getting to the point where it would seek its own place in the world, had just walked out to a little hollow in a rock and sat down. Look at the slide show for a zoom into the lazily reclining adolescent.

When you watch an animal in the wild there are long periods when nothing happens. Then all the action gets over in a jiffy. By not seeing it come out of the cave with my camera, I’d missed the initial action. There was a long wait as we watched the leopard. The sun climbed in the sky and shone into the hollow that it had flopped down on. It must have got warm, because it sat up and fidgeted (see the featured photo). If I’d known more about leopards I would have realized it was ready to move. When it did, it quickly bounded up to the top of the rock and I thought I lost it in the thor bush. No, it had moved to the shady side and prepared to find a comfortable spot.

It sat there for an hour longer. The sun was hot, but behind the bush it had a comfortable spot. We kept a close watch on it. Eventually it must have got hot again. It crossed to the sunny side of the rock, inspected the hollow it had sat in first, and then finding it unsuitable, padded down the slope of the rock, turned and was lost in the shadows of its lair.

A heritage hotel

Would you stay in a 350 years old house? We looked at what other travelers had written, and decided it wasn’t risky. The owner explained that it was not a palace, “We are not royals.” He was very clear about the distinction. “There were only two kings in Marwar,” he explained to The Family, “Jodhpur and Udaipur.” The explanation of the differences between royals and jagirdars, land-holding princes, was a page out of history books. He cannot call the house a haveli either. Those belonged to merchants. He gets around it by repurposing a word which is never used in this context. He calls his place a castle.

We parked in the forecourt of the property and walked in through a grand door. It was probably built to the proportions of an elephant with a howdah. Royals did visit this place in those early days. Like most such old houses, the building was somewhat haphazard. Different wings had been added on at different times. Photos had shown this place as white with red trim. Now it was a dazzling white. There was a complex explanation. The old man, the owner, was full of stories. It was interesting to sit with him over a drink before dinner.

We had a choice of rooms. The manager walked us through the place. The oldest wing was very interesting. A bathroom had part of an ancient painting on the roof. I was told that it was 300 years old. I’m not a student of art history, so I can’t tell. Perhaps you can tell from the featured photo whether this appears to be a Marwari painting from three centuries ago. Apparently maintenance had been planned for early 2020, but then the lockdown happened. During that time a small tremor shook down some of the plaster, carrying part of the painting into history. The owner was quite crestfallen when I asked him about it. “I am told they can use our photos to restore it. But I can’t lie about its age. I have to tell people that parts are modern.”

The rooms in the oldest wing are charming, but small. We chose to stay in a wing which was two hundred years younger. This part of the building has interesting painted terra cotta panels embedded into the external walls. They seemed to have served some ritual purpose, because they flank niches with place for lamps.

Was there room service? “No,” one of the men said, “but I will be outside your room. Call me if you need something.” He stayed out of sight but available, behind a wooden screen with champa flowers peeping over it. We didn’t need much. The room was good, very clean, and the food was excellent Marwari fare. I discovered that the approved traditional way to eat bati and churma is not with dal, but with laal maas.

There was no wifi. Bera has good mobile connectivity. We could live without free broadband for a weekend. The rooms were otherwise wonderful, each a little suite. The furniture was what The Family called antique, but the owner said was just little things which had been in the family. He had stories about how he had to pull them out of storage and have them polished and repaired.

Our room had photos of horses and polo players on the walls. I thought I recognized one of the former kings of Jaipur in a photo taken after a fall during a polo match. When I mentioned this to the owner he said that the team mate next to him was his grandfather’s younger brother. I was treated to a walk through the bar, and a view of treasured photos of his grandfather, a polo champion, winning matches and hob-nobbing with the likes of Prince Philip and other famous polo players. Those times are past, but family stories live on. Although we enjoyed the weekend, he did not manage to make royalists of us.

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.

Camouflage

You may think that leopards (Panthera pardus) are brilliantly coloured, and the rosettes on their fur make them look cheerful and pretty. But these two cubs were hard to find as they sat still on an exposed rock. The spotted skin blended into the spotted appearance of the granite in their natural habitat. Quite apart from the bit of natural camouflage, they usually evade the eye by their perfect stillness when they don’t want to be seen. These three months olds were frisky, for leopards. It was their movement which gave them away. You can see in the featured photo that one of the cubs was playing with its sibling’s tail. At this age, a leopard’s skin has little gold on it. That develops with age, perhaps because the spotted gray pelt is better camouflage when the cubs are still.

In order to show how hard spotting a leopard can be, I took the series of photos which you can see in the slideshow above. It is actually even harder than it may seem from the slideshow, since you already suspect that the leopards are more or less in the center of the frames. In the wild you could keep scanning a wall of granite for many minutes before you can see them. In this case the light made the amber skin glow, and there was a little movement, so it wasn’t very hard. It took me most of the weekend to learn to look for them, to recognize the shapes of lines in the rocks which cannot be the result of natural weather.

Desert flowers

Aak (Calotropis procera), named rubber bush, is the typical dry area plant. You won’t find it deeper in the Thar desert, but the bushes were visible around rocks everywhere we went. In the Rann of Kutch they seem to be usually less than two meters high. Usually they attract ants, so I keep a watch on the small purple five-petalled flowers to see what kinds of ants I can spot. In Kutch, as the featured photo shows, I didn’t manage to get the flowers with any ants at all.

The succulent called Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) is the commonest plant in this region. I spotted lots of birds sitting on a projecting stem of the bushes. You can see an Indian Robin in the photo on the left above. They can grow well above a man’s height, 3 meters often, taller sometimes. It flowers in late winter. If you want to see what the local insects are, keep a watch on its flowers at that time. They attract many of local insects wherever they grow.

Another succulent that is widely found in the desert is the Aak Thor (Cynanchum acidum). It has attractive tiny six-petalled white flowers (6 is not a Fibonacci number) which were budding from the ends of the stem; you can see them most of the year except in the winter months. It seems to be a climber. I saw stems trailing on the ground when there’s nothing else growing nearby.

The Rann of Kutch is full of many different kinds of grass or millets growing wild. I find myself completely unable to identify grasses. I’ll have to spend time learning more about this group. Many of them were in bloom at this time, immediately after the monsoon.

The low bushes of Kana (Commelina benghalensis) were very visible even from speeding cars, because of the attractive three-petalled blue flowers. There was a variant in purple which was also quite widespread. The flowers are large, petals can be half a centimeter in size. It seemed that a plant can either have blue or purple flowers, but they can grow quite close to each other. That makes me suspect that the colour is determined by genetics rather than soil.

Thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum), Kateli in Hindi, is again a plant that is common in most dry areas in India. I’ve seen it deep inside the Thar Desert as well. Here you see the five-petalled flower poking out from under a different bush. Kateli is a spreading herb, and this particular plant was spread along the ground below this other bush. You can see it flowering around the year, except in the monsoon months.

Perhaps the commonest tree that I saw was the Khair (Senegalia catechu). It happened to be in flower. It is a typical mimosa, with the feathery leaves (called pinnate by botanists), flowers with wire-like petals, and thin gnarly trunks. They grew up to a man’s height, and spread out thorny branches which were exactly at the wrong height for me. if you add the Kair (Capparis decidua, bare caper), which I’ve written about earlier, I think I’ve listed the most widespread plants which I noticed in this area.

A rose is a rose is a sweet

Gertrude, do visit Bhuj to correct your mistake. (You too William; a rose would taste as sweet.) I had heard much about the chain of sweet shops in Bhuj called Khavda. Not being a Kutchi speaker, I assumed that the name was the imperative case of the verb “eat”. So I was quite surprised later when I passed the village of the same name. Apparently the shops are called after the village, because the family which owns the chain comes from there.

My first reaction was “A typical sweet shop.” Their topmost shelf displayed something called roasted barfi (that’s the tray on the right in the photo above). I asked for a sampler. The Family looked at me quizzically. “I’m full. And in this heat I don’t want to taste any sweets,” she said. When it comes to sweets (rather, when I come to sweets) I set no conditions; the antique Greeks called it agape. The barfi was nice, but it couldn’t be what they are famous for.

The Family didn’t want me to do a systematic taste test to figure out what they are famous for. She short circuited the process by asking the friendly young owner of the franchise. He pointed out the rose sweets. Two of them lay in trays side by side, in an obscure shelf. Clearly you don’t need to make a fuss about displaying what everyone knows is your best. The one on the left was the regular rose, and the other was roasted. This time The Family joined me in the tasting. The roasted rose passed muster. We packed a box to share with the bird watching group which would assemble the next day. Watching birds makes you a little peckish, I find.

“Anything else?” I asked Siddharth, the young man. He pointed out the special rose sweet, each individually packed. How long would it last? A couple of days without refrigeration. We couldn’t take it with us on the trip but we would pass through Bhuj again on our way out. Except that we would arrive very late and leave early in the morning. “Not a problem,” Sid told us. “We’ll deliver a box to your hotel.” That was done then. He sealed the deal by offering us a sampler of salties. The Family added a couple of them. She feels peckish too after a morning’s birdwatching.

It was the week of Ganapati puja, the equinox, and the beginning of the festival season. So the countertop was laden with trays of modak. I sent a photo to friends as my way of wishing them. Some are purists. One wrote back “These aren’t modak. They are just pedha stamped out in modak-shaped molds.” That’s right. The true modak is a thin rice-flour shell filled with grated coconut sweetened with molasses, folded into that beautiful shape before steaming. And they are made at home.

Winds of time

Kutch is a flat land, a sea bottom raised in geologically recent times by the motion of the Indian continental plate. When Alexander’s army came to India, the Rann of Kutch was a vast inland lake. Now it is the southern end of the Thar desert. A plane so flat that large parts are covered in a millimeters thin sheet of water every monsoon, then baked dry the rest of the year, it is perfect for generating renewable power. For years, isolated families in this region have installed solar panels for their own use. Now they install wind turbines and pumping the output into the national grid.

The people I was traveling with laughed when I started taking photos of the pylons which criss cross this land. But I find that these impossibly tall towers have a poetry of their own. They are a first glimpse of our future. They are impressive when you stand near them. Low down on them falcons alight and scan the desert for prey. Buzzards build nests on the second rung of the towers. Ipomoea grows dense around the bases, taller than a man, but can’t climb beyond the first rung. The power lines which they support do not seem to pose a hazard to flying birds. Most fly well below them. Others fly far above.

But when you see lines of these columns disappearing over the horizon, you see what a light footprint they cast on this land. That tiptoeing through the landscape, like giraffes on the veldt, seems to be the only sustainable future for us. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously sang.

Little villages in the desert

Each village in the Rann of Kutch seems to have a craft that it is known for. Since we decided to skip lunch on our day of arrival, we decided to visit a nearby village that The Family had marked down as a place of interest. This was the village of Bhujoda, and it was known for its woven woolens. The craft is very traditional and utilizes hand looms. The looms are made in a different village.

Each family has its own “factory”. This is a large courtyard where women card and dye the yarn (see the featured photo). Traditionally only earth and vegetable colours were used. We were told that the bright colours that people prefer today started to be used about a generation ago. The Family was enchanted by the traditional weaves: whites, browns, earth reds, black. The men work at the looms. A painstaking job. At one end of the courtyard was the family’s residence. A young girl offered us tea, and we were glad to accept.

Some of the things on display had Kutchi mirrorwork. That is done is yet another village which specializes in it. The cloth from this village is sent there, and the two families involved share the profits. I’ve seen villages specialize in crafts before in other parts of the country. But I hadn’t had the time to ask whether they have the same level of specialization.

In a completely different part of Kutch, deep in the Rann, we came to a village called Bhirandiara. It’s speciality is mawa, made from milk obtained from nomadic herders. These herders are perhaps the oldest inhabitants of this desert. The colourful mirrored cloth which Kutch is known for is their normal dress. We stopped in this village for a chai after spotting the marbled duck, and tasted this famous mawa, surrounded by crowds of the herders. I wished I had the time to travel through the Rann. Perhaps we’ll do that some other time.