Malwa in Ancient History

I first saw the Malwa plateau in a monsoon eight years ago. Even in that flat leaden light, the area looked beautiful. In the lush green meadows nurtured by two months of rain, trees were in bloom. I was then visiting medieval ruins: just the perfect time of the year if atmosphere is what you are interested in. Now, as we plan to go back to the area to visit much older places, I began to wonder what is the earliest reference to this area that I could find. The nearby temple town of Omkareshwar was certainly recorded in the 8th century CE. Ujjain is older, and temples there are recorded in the Skanda Purana, and so must be older than the 7th century CE.

But Ujjain was the capital of the Avanti republic during the lifetime of the Buddha, and is well recorded in the literature from that time, preserved by Buddhist monks. Nothing seems to remain of the mud ramparts of the city which were recorded in the 7th century BCE. Malwa enters into the larger history of the world through Ashoka, who was sent as governor by his father, the Maurya emperor Bimbisara, to Ujjain in the middle of the 3rd century BCE. There is extensive documentation of his marriage to Devi, a daughter of a merchant from nearby Vidisha, and the birth of his first two children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, in Ujjain. The two children were emissaries who carried Buddhism to Sri Lanka, from where it spread eastwards to Myanmar and beyond.

There are records of a Buddhist stupa built in Ujjain soon after the death of Gautama, so sometime in the 6th century BCE. I can find no record of it today. The only mention I can find of stupas here is from a recent newspaper article discussing archaeological digs exploring Mauryan era remains in the nearby Vaishya Thekri. I wonder whether I will be able to visit that. If the dating is correct, then it is three centuries older than the stupas at Sanchi.

But humans have inhabited this land for longer. There are nearby digs which are beginning to yield objects from the Chalcolithic period, not older than the 10th century BCE. This begins to bridge the incredible gap between Avanti and the age of ancient dinosaurs and marine fossils. Interestingly, a fairly complete hominin skeleton was found under this dramatic landscape. The so-called “Narmada hominin” was long thought to be the remains of Homo erectus, but has begun to reignite debates about the evolution of Homo sapiens. There must be also be artifacts from much later prehistory buried in these hills.

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Dharwad special

I spent a day and a half in a meeting held in a beautifully restored old building in Dharwad. The only thing I knew of the town was that its pedas were a specialty. When I wrote about my trip back, a fellow blogger pointed out that I should also have tried other local sweets called kardant and kunda. Too bad I didn’t know of those; the kardant seems especially intersting.

At the end of the meeting, I traveled back with a box of the famous pedas. Each piece seems to be an unique hexagonal shape. But there was more; the pedas were similar to the north-Indian variety, except that the milk was caramelized. The story behind these sweets is interesting. As I suspected, the pedas were brought here a couple of centuries ago by a family from Uttar Pradesh who fled the plague that was then raging in that sub-Himalayan state. The recipe remained a closely guarded family secret until recently, when it must have been reverse engineered by others. The next time I’m in Dharwad time I wouldn’t mind comparison tasting to figure out which shop makes the most interesting varieties.

Forgotten by time

In trying to refresh my mind about what we had seen of Dhar on our visit in August, 2010, I found photos which reminded me of an interesting museum that I’d completely forgotten about. Driving from Dhar to Mandu we saw a fiberglass statue of a dinosaur in the middle of a barren landscape. As it came nearer, we found a track leading off the road towards a small building at the foot of the dinosaur. We turned off and approached what we realized was a little museum of fossils.

Outside the building were several slabs of stones bearing fossils. I’d never seen a fossil dinosaur’s egg, and this one embedded into the rock was a wonderful sight (photo above). I’d always thought of them as round, but this was distinctly egg-shaped. if you place an egg on the kitchen counter and push it, it will tend to turn in a circle. The shape keeps it from rolling too far. I guess the same evolutionary pressure acted on dinosaurs. In fact, now that we know that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, I should not be surprised by the shape of the egg. It turns out that theropod dinosaurs, which include the ancestors of modern birds, had eggs of this shape. If this was a theropod egg, it must have been less than 250 million years old.

The museum looked closed. But as we admired the fossils outside, a young man came along and said he could open the museum if we wanted to take a look. Inside we saw some more eggs embedded into a rock (photo above). These were more nearly round. I wonder whether that is because I was looking at it along its length, or whether it was genuinely more spherical. If it was spherical then it could belong to other groups of dinosaurs, and, possibly, be older. In any case, all this is mere speculation. Since the museum was a little short of documentation, you could let your imagination run wild.

The Family and I walked along the short aisle, looking at all the different fossils on display. Someone had made an effort to make an interesting display on geology and the history of the earth. The keeper (photo below) also had been trained, because he gave us a small lecture on the ages of the earth, and the different kinds of dinosaurs. The Narmada basin yields huge numbers of marine fossils. We saw an ammonite on display (featured photo). There were also beautifully patterned globular fossils which must have been the remains of marine animals.

There are infrequent reports in newspapers of fossil finds in this area, although it is known since the 18th century that this area is rich in fossils. Unfortunately, there is no agency to protect fossils in the field, so inevitably they are removed and lost. Even then it was clear that not much money was being spent on the museum; even the keeper’s salary was clearly not very good. Now, almost a decade later, I read that the museum is dysfunctional and uncared for. A pity, since fossils such as these could tell us much more about the geological history of India than is now known.

A water redstart

If there was one uncommon bird which I was sure of seeing in Himachal Pradesh, it was the Plumbeous water redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa). Sure enough, the first time The Young Niece and I walked down to see the Falachan, I saw this bird sitting on a boulder on the bank of the river. I pointed out to her the chestnut tail and the slate blue of the male, and the black-and-white tail and gray spotted breast of the female. She learnt that the up-and-down wagging of the tail is another way to recognize the female and the juvenile.

I’d first seen it hopping around from stone to bank and back near a roadside stream in Bhutan. Since then I’ve seen it on every trip to the Himalayas. It seems that this bird does not mind humans, and goes about hunting insects in the air and on the ground near a river even close to habitation. It is altitude bound, being usually found between 2 and 4 Kilometers above sea level, but is common in this habitat.

Closing time

I had dinner in a small town in Odisha. The restaurant was very full when we walked in, but emptied out before we finished. One of my colleagues had to catch a train later. So we took a short walk through the town. It was about nine, and most shops were shutting down. The wide street was lit by dim lights placed along the divider. This meant that most of the illumination came from shops, and once they started closing, the street began to get much darker. It was enchanting in its own way. We saw a line of bright yellow doors separated by blue walls; little kiosks which had closed.

Further along the row one kiosk was open for business. The vegetables on display were extremely fresh. A long cold chain is not needed to bring these to the town. The chopping boards are big and solid pieces of wood; seemingly cross sections of the trunk of a small tree. Banana flowers and jackfruit are two of the things that I would not normally find in a shop in Mumbai. There were also some long beans which I’d not seen before.

Next to the fresh vegetable stall was this tiny “supermarket”. Any grocery store with open access to the merchandise now calls itself a supermarket no matter how small it is. This was an interesting contrast to the vegetables. While that only stocked food which was fresh and had to be cooked, this had nothing which was fresh. Everything came inside a plastic package and was ready to eat. This was also much costlier per helping than fresh food, but the very price makes them an aspirational thing in these small towns.

Nearby a roadside eatery had served its last customers and was busy shutting down. The helper was carting the last chairs from the pavement into the shop. The counter was definitely closed. As I took this photo, I heard the sound of running water from the kitchen. I suppose the cookware and plates were being cleaned. There was much animated consersation between the cook and the helper, as I quietly took this photo and moved off.

I don’t know what this interesting looking stall was for. The man you see in the photo looked at us curiously as I took the photo. He spoke only Odiya, and none of us counted that as a language we could express ourselves in. My best guess is that this stall serves ready-made food of some kind. Perhaps things that supplement the food made in the home kitchen, but maybe largely aimed at labourers and other immigrants who have been drawn to this region by the large amount of construction under way. If this were so I think the stall would also have some of the wonderful local sweets.

This was the second of the odd juxtapositions. Right next to that temporary stall was this more permanent structure with ice cream and cakes. Even as the town wound up for the night there were customers here. A savvy sweet shop does not miss a trick. There was also a counter with the local Odiya sweets; that’s what the lady in the sari is looking at. The cold drinks and the toffees in bottles in the front counter would have attracted children a couple of hours before I took the photo. I liked the expectant look of this shop.

This junction of two major local roads was more typical of the time in this town. Once the lights went off, the town was generally dark. A couple of open shops provide the only light in the place. Everyone hasn’t gone to sleep yet. Parked motorbikes show that there are some people who still come to the shops at this hour. After all a major railway station is less than ten minutes away. We went there to drop my colleague, and that place was brightly lit and bustling with traffic.

The Romance of Travel

Is there a romance of travel? I’m old enough to have spent my youth traveling in trains and buses across the country when it could take a full day to get from Bengaluru to Mumbai, or two from Mumbai to Kolkata. Was that romantic? In hindsight, maybe. Most of the actual travel time was bothersome or boring. Bothersome when you ran out of water, or were trying to find a reasonable lunch; boring when you would stare out of the window at the passing countryside for two hours, framed by power cables in catenary motion.

Later, The Family and I took our backpacks on to state transport buses across the country, getting from one remote temple to another far-away ruin. This was also romantic only in memory. At that time we would cover our faces against the dust, and attempt to make desultory conversation with the couple sitting across us with a basket of squawking chicken on their lap.

On the other hand, when I look out of the window after boarding a flight and see other aircrafts lined up at the gates next to us, my heart still lurches. I forget my papers and meetings for a moment. The possibilities of travel seem limitless. Where are those others going? Indore, Imphal, Incheon? Jodhpur, Jakarta? Khartoum?

Green-backed tits

The Family and I decided to sit on a sunny deck above the river and read. After the long walk in the morning and the big lunch, I guessed I would read about a couple of pages before I fell asleep. But there was too much activity here for this. As soon as we sat down on the recliners we heard the chirps of a songbird just above us. The chir pine above us was a site of great activity. We sat up and watched for a while. A pair of tits was using the branches above us as a landing point for some repetitive activity. One would come sit at a particular spot on a branch, and then fly off. Then the other would come sit exactly there, and follow. This would repeat.

The wall of the dining area behind us was made of stone, and somewhere between the lounge and the kitchen this pair had found a gap to build a nest in. The activity seemed to center around some fledgelings, because we could hear them even when both parents were away. The featured photo is the only one I got. It is the green-back tit (Parus monticolus). The distinguishing features are the green back and the white bars on the wings, both easily visible in the photo. They spread eastwards from here through Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, all the way to Laos and Vietnam. India-Birds showed that we were right in the middle of a hot spot for these birds.

Tits are widespread songbirds, being found not only across the old world, but also in the Americas (where they are called chickadees). I’ve seen the closely related great tit at a bird feeder as far away as in Germany. Genetic studies and models of their migration indicate that they could have evolved in the area around here (the Himalayas and southern China) about 15 million years ago. This also fits with the sparse fossils of this group of birds. I couldn’t get a look at what these two were bringing into the nest. The green-backed tit eats insects as well as seeds and fruits, but since there were lots of insects around us, probably that’s what they were bringing home. Our afternoon’s nap was a non-starter.

A midmorning snack

We didn’t manage to get much birding done on our aborted walk from Gushaini to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park at Ropa. It was a bit too late in the morning, and I, for one, was too busy panting during the steep uphill sections to do much looking. So we climbed back down, on a “shortcut” which locals take. This is essentially just short of rolling downhill, until we came to a bridge under construction across the Tirthan river. We clambered across this, and climbed up to a motorable road on the other side. Why? Sanjay, our guide for the day, said that we could possibly see some birds about a kilometer higher up. By the time we decided that it was too late for birdwatching, it was midmorning.

Sanjay said there was a tea shop nearby. I didn’t mind some tea, so we walked down there. The pleasant young person running the shop (featured photo) was happy to make us some. In one corner of his shop was a kadhai full of oil and another full of sugar syrup. Sanjay took a look at these and decided that he wanted jalebis. The mix was ready, but the shop owner did not know how to make them. “Another person comes here and makes them in the morning,” he said. Sanjay decided that he was an expert. We sipped our tea while the stove was lit, and the oil warmed up. Experimental jalebis were made. The Young Niece started laughing when she saw the plate (photo above). They looked nothing like jalebis, but I notice that she ate them all right. They were crisp and sweet and tasted like jalebis.

Some Assamese Butterflies

I have posted earlier about some of the butterflies and moths which I saw in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. There were many more which I saw. Here are some of the others. I recognize several of them, but I’ve not managed to identify two. They are also thrown in here, in case you feel up to helping me out.

Slaty-headed parakeet

When we mentioned the Great Himalayan National Park, birders would reflexively say Himalayan Monal. That’s a shy bird we have seen before, always running away startled, and this time was no exception. The slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana) was seldom mentioned. It is a spectacularly coloured bird, and you have to climb into the Himalayas to see it, so it has a claim to being the signature bird of the park. The parakeet can be seen across the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. We saw raucous groups of these parakeets on our aborted walk from Gushaini to Ropa.

In flight, when their wings and tails open up you can see the scarlet patch on the wings, and the blue and yellow tail feathers. The distinctive feature is the slaty head. This individual had a faded slaty colour, but there were others in the group with a darker gray head. This lighter head-colour marks out this bird as a juvenile, meaning it is less than three years old. We saw them towards the end of the breeding season, and perhaps the heavy activity was partly due to the necessity of feeding fledgelings.

We saw these birds as we climbed up towards Ropa, on slopes at an altitude of over 2 Kilometers, and saw more them as we climbed. They would descend to lower valleys in winter. Since these are the only parakeets which live at such heights, they are also the only parakeet which are forced to migrate with the seasons. The squaking calls followed as we went back down the path. We must have seen these parakeets before, but I had no memory of it. Nor did our notebooks contain a mention of this birds. So this must have been a lifer.