As we drove through Dhanachauli, we realized that we were extremely close to the Devasthal observatory, and decided to take a detour. This observatory, on top of a 2450 m tall peak, houses the largest telescope in India at this time. Visitors have to take an appointment from the Aryabhatta Institute in Naini Tal, a process I’d completely forgotten about. But scientists are usually an accommodating lot, happy to take you by the hand and walk you through the mysteries of the universe. A scientist whom I knew was willing to talk to the local administrator. The administrator was willing to let us in, but apologized that because we had not booked an appointment, there would be no one available to explain to us the working of the telescopes.

We could park at the gate, and walk up to the telescope, and we were not, under any circumstances, to take off our masks. We deposited our ID cards with the security at the gate, and before walking in, I took the photo that you see above. The place houses a 4 m diameter liquid mirror telescope. A container of mercury is spun at a constant speed, so that its reflective surface becomes a paraboloid. The liquid mirror was under construction, and the 3.6 m telescope was under maintenance. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to see these marvelous pieces of technology. If only I’d thought of making an appointment! Still, it was a nice walk through the campus, photographing beetles and laughing thrushes, far above the smoke in the valleys below.

The winter had been very dry, but even so, the observatory in Han Le in Ladakh (altitude 4500 m) would have had better viewing conditions. I would love to visit it once they start building the thirty meter telescope up there.


Like many others, I went through the usual art classes at school. But even before I took my first such class, someone may have told me that you mix yellow and blue pigments to make green. These joyful discoveries were made systematic in the art classes where we learnt how the primary colours of pigments are red, yellow, and blue. This was so ingrained in my thinking that I completely ignored the writings of Seurat even after I discovered his pointillist techniques later in school.

Spring leaves, Naukuchia Tal

I could have paid attention when my science teacher tried to tell us that the primary colours of light are different: red, blue, and green. When I did not, it was a steep learning curve for me as I grew interested in the stage during my years in college. I laboured at producing colours of light for plays using a completely wrong model for colours. I remembered the great surprise I had in producing a cold grey light for use in a play by mixing floods and spotlights. It was around then that I discarded the theory which worked for pigments.

Drying leaves in spring, Naini Tal

Now, of course, as we learn to use software for editing photos, the use of RGB colours has become so widespread that Seurat’s discoveries about colour seem commonplace. Still, when I discovered this spring that leaves use the same method I felt the pleasant tingling of discovery. The underlying colour of many leaves is red. The green colour is due to chloroplasts that the leaves produce to perform photosynthesis. When leaves die and the chloroplasts begin to decay, leaves turn yellow. If they don’t rot quickly you see them turning red as more and more chloroplasts die. In spring you see this in reverse. New leaves start out red, and grow chloroplasts, first turning yellow, and then green in a reversal of the changes that autumn brings. The first two photos in this post are of this transformation in new leaves. The photo above shows the changes in dying leaves.

Shikanji by the lake, Bhim Tal

An old friend, once an artist in his spare time, took a job which involved printers and the design of colours. As he worked with software and printers, trying to reproduce the colours produced in one domain in another, his interest in colour vision and reproduction grew. I listened to him talk about how subtractive schemes like CMY correspond to the print experience better, and what happens if you add on black ink. Now he spends much more of his time on his art, but spared some time to talk about what he found.

Fruits in a market stall, Bhowali

Colour vision is a property of human physiology and perception. So the fact that our eyes have receptors, the rods and cones, is part of the story. But behind this is a layer of computational nerves, a neural network, which combines the signals from these, and feeds it to yet other nerve cells which then transmit the information, through our optic nerves, to specialized areas in our brains. It is hard to believe how we see! Birds and insects see the world very differently. Photos of flowers or butterflies’ wings taken at wavelengths invisible to us show incredible patterns. This is an indication that in the ecology in which they exist, markers visible to non-humans are important. It is amazing how much detail the world shows once you zoom in to any part of it.

On the lake

Naukuchia Tal means the lake with nine corners. The odd shape of the lake gives rise to the story that you cannot see the whole lake from any point on the bank. This could well be true, but I did not walk around the lake, like The Family did one morning, to check out the story. She reports it as being correct, and I take her word for it. Instead I sat on the deck outside the lake and stared out at it. The jetty I could see on a nearby corner made me think that perhaps one could do a little bit of boating on the lake.

“Duh,” The Family said when I told her. “Look across. There are about five families out on the lake.” Sure enough, even down by the pier at our resort there was a canopied boat all set up for a ride. I’ve usually seen these hulls with an outboard motor fitted to it. But Naukuchiatal has finally put in place regulations which forbid motors. The water quality of these lakes have been deteriorating for a while, and this will at least slow the process until someone begins to implement a clean up.

Next to the restaurant I found a stack of these oars. The kayaks were pulled up on the banks of the lake. I considered trying it out. I’ve never done any Kayaking, and I’m sure the first attempt would result in me turning in circles until I capsized. It’s something I would like to try out sometime, but I was feeling lazy. I set off for a spot of bird watching in the woods behind the hotel instead.

Monsoon is coming

The golden hour becomes decidedly more golden just before the monsoon. The science behind this is simple; in such humidity, light is scattered by microscopic droplets of water in the air. When the suspended droplets are roughly of the size of the wavelength of visible light, we get this incredibly golden hour at sunset. Far from the coast of India, these golden hours will last through the monsoon. Unfortunately, here, at the coast, the months of monsoon will be mostly overcast and gloomy. If you are not living around the Indian Ocean and its monsoon, you might still get such incredibly golden light on extremely humid days. Let me know if you do, and also if you have a very humid day when you don’t have this golden light.

Old houses in Kumaon

A wooden box of an upper story rests on thick stone walls which make up the ground floor. That is a rather common older style of building from Uttarakhand. There are little variations. Sometimes the shutters on the upper floor look out on all four sides. At other times, as in the example above, there are one or two walls made of stone. I suspect that the older houses use more wood, and as wood became scarcer in this region, you could say that there was less of it to go around.

I could find little written about the traditional domestic architecture of the Kumaon region. Most accessible books and articles concentrate on the temple architecture of the region. Edwin T. Atkinson’s multi-volume tome, The Himalayan Gazetteer, the usual source of information on matters Kumaoni, is pretty silent about vernacular styles of architecture. In the true imperial manner, government buildings and new churches are deemed more worthy of comment. Nor did later official sources bother to record the variety of vernacular expressions. The state Tourism Department’s website references one rather ornate style, hard to see examples of, as the only one worth a comment. I suppose there are detailed studies locked away in architects’ theses, or in architectural journals, which I have no access to.

I have been unable to find articles or books which trace influences across the Himalayan region, or the development of building techniques. It should be a fascinating study. The neighbouring Garhwal region has been important to Hinduism for a long time. Pollen records show that agriculture started in the Kumaon region 500-600 years ago, when it was still part of a Nepali empire. There may have been travellers and pilgrim here before that, but not settlements. The region became independent about two hundred years ago, and was assimilated into British India about a hundred and fifty years ago. The connection with Nepal, and the trans-Himalayan cultural sphere which filtered through it would have created the vernacular style, which would later have been modified by contact with the plains-based cross-oceanic empire of Britain.

I stopped the car when I saw this old building outside of Kausani. The driver informed me that this is a style which used to be common once. A paper by a group of engineers at CSIR documents the style, but dismisses it as “lacking proper light and ventilation”. The Pestalozzis, a Swiss couple, who visited Kumaon a decade ago, became interested in the architecture and documented it, call this style a row house. To my eyes it resembled Mumbai’s chawls. The lower part of the house is given over to storage here, but in villages they were meant to hold cattle. The upper floor has a row of independent flats.

Which way did the influence go? From Kumaon to the rest of India, or the other way around? Notice that the doors to individual flats are not recessed and protected from the weather, unlike the doors of other traditional houses. Based on this, my guess is that the style is imported from the plains. But this is a guess, and direct work on dating these houses will be needed before the question can be settled. Such a wealth of questions exist here, and they connect to the deeper history of the region.

Colour or black and white?

On our first morning in Naukuchiatal I saw a butterfly sunning itself on the terrace next to the lake. This was the first butterfly I’d seen since our walk in Binsar. Presumably the forest fires in the northern parts of Kumaon were not too good for butterflies. From the markings this looked like either a sailer or a sergeant. These are two species complexes, a group of very similar looking butterflies. The sailers belong to the genus Neptis, and the sergeants to genus Athyma. The white scallops at the edge of the wing (called costal markings) and the shape of the club on the antenna led me to think that it was a Neptis. There are still 50 species of Neptis, and it is not so easy to drill down to species. Eventually I decided that it was probably from quite a different genus, a Neptis mimic, the Short-banded Sailer (Phaedyma columella). I could be wrong. Butterflies are not easy to identify, especially if they come from a species complex which has many mimics.

Within seconds a very colourful analogue of this butterfly settled near me. Simple, I thought, one of the yellow sailers. But now I don’t think I was right. You can see a little tail on the hindwing. This is not a Neptis. I don’t have an ID for this, not even tentative. Sad.

Note added: Not so sad any longer, since people responded to my request for help. Peter Smetacek of the Butterfly Museum in Bhimtal supplied the ID first. This is a Symbrenthia lilaea, more colloquially called a common Jester. Thanks also to Deb of Call of the Wild for supplying the same ID independently.

Through tamed land

Our retreat from Kausani marked an end to the main part of our trip. The smoke from forest fires drove us down to the lakes. They are a beautiful part of Kumaon, but they are not the Himalayas. We were all sad to leave. We passed briefly through a mixed pine oak forestland. This patchwork of dense groves of white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) and open grasslands stabilized by long-leaf chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) is the most ecodiverse part of this region. Under other circumstances, we could have had wonderful walks in such terrain, looking at birds and insects. The white flowers of kainth (Pyrus pashia, wild Himalayan pear) dotted the slopes. We drove past these forests quickly.

After this there is a part of Kumaon which gets little attention from visitors. It is a lush farmland. If you look at satellite photos, you see a patch of green slopes between hills which mark this region. But these high eyes do not show you what a pleasant land it is. The winter crop was a garden of green through the broad valleys.

Even here we could see fires in the pines on many of the slopes. Columns of smoke rose in the distance, and the air was saturated with it. Ironic that this trip, which we had thought of as a way of getting out into the clean air of the Himalayas, had exposed us to more smoke than we would have breathed at home. The N95 masks saved us during the day, but the strange light in our photos still remind me of the air that we passed through. The wheat had already begun to ripen in some of the fields. The lush green was dotted with gold. Trees were deliberately planted along berms.

Most houses were on slopes, with the fields down on the valley. But there were a few houses right by the road. They were typical plains houses: single story, a flat concrete slab for the roof, held up by concrete columns, steps leading up to the terrace on the roof. Many houses had a vegetable garden near it. We drove by too fast to see what vegetables they grew. We passed banana trees, and mango, exotic to Kumaon. There was no sign of buransh or kainth. This was not the Kumaon of Corbett.

In a couple of hours the road quickly climbed out of the valley. We were approaching Raniket. It was time for tea.

Another hill garden

We stopped for tea at a little restaurant outside Ranikhet. After a year of bad trade it was still neat, clean, and well-maintained, and looked out on a nice and ordinary garden. It is interesting that the gardens in these parts of the hills are so strongly influenced by cottage gardens in the colonial style. That’s so different from the gardens of the eastern Himalayas, where there is a totally different traditional style.

Perhaps that’s not surprising just outside Ranikhet, since it has been a major army enclave for a hundred and fifty two years, and served as the summer capital of colonial India for a few years. The garden held lilies, morning glories, and several gloriously proliferating rose bushes. An unremarkable collection, but they were growing well and well-tended. A nice place for tea, overall.


Driving through Uttarakhand we can see many of the hillsides terraced into fields. Where there were no terraces, there could still be houses straggling down hillsides. Several times I stopped to confirm that were no roads to many of these places. How were goods to be transported then? The few trucks we passed on these roads were the ones which carried a few tons. There were no industries up there which needed the multi-axle behemoths which ply on highways in the plains, not were there large dams and power stations which might require them now and then. But strangely, there were very few light trucks either.

In the hills of Bhutan I had seen people carrying logs of wood for construction up such slopes on their backs. I had the feeling that the extensive agriculture and construction that I saw here could not have been accomplished if human muscles were the only powered transport. The mystery was cleared up on our drive down from Kausani. When we began to pass packs of mules on the road I realized that these must be the backbone of the off-road transport network in these hills.

The botanist and spy, Frank Kingdon Ward, wrote some bestselling books about his journeys through the Himalayas. In the book In the Land of the Blue Poppies (1913) he wrote about a variety of pack saddles for mules, ranging from “a wooden frame, with such a multiplicity of bends and hitches that you feel it can never be undone again” to a Chinese “wooden pack-saddle made in two halves hinged like the covers of a book” and the “Indian Government mule harness [which] is provided with two iron hooks on each side, and the loads are attached by slings”. Perhaps the makeshift packs of re-purposed gunny bags, often splitting open at the seams and spilling loads on to roads, that I saw are a jugaadi innovation, created by an economy which takes all skilled workers out of villages and into towns, leaving the former empty of all skills except agriculture. If the pandemic reversal of this traffic lasts long enough, it could be of long-term gain to these communities, as trained people drift back and jugaad is replaced by genuine innovative skill. Long drives lead to new thoughts.

Anashakti Ashram

Gandhi changed Indian politics. He mobilized India between the non-cooperation movement, which ended in 1924 with his arrest, and the Salt March in 1930. In the five years between, he toured the country, constantly meeting and talking to ordinary people. Passing through Kausani in 1929, he decided to take a two week break. The place where he stayed is at the top of a low hill near the center of the town, and has come to be known as Anashakti Ashram.

Where did this name come from? I found that during these weeks he wrote his commentary on the Bhagwat Gita’s philosophy of judging the need for an action by its morality rather than consequence. The article is called Anashakti Yoga. He wanted to make this the core of his political method, satyagraha. He tried to live by it, and he died by it. In any case, the ashram is a quiet and beautiful place. Small panels of hand-carved woodwork decorate the otherwise simple pinewood buildings.

The day was overcast. The clouds and smoke from forest fires filtered out the sunlight. A brisk wind made the hilltop rather colder than the bazaar below. We walked around, but there was no feel of the political morality of the mahatma in the air. The main hall had a permanent exhibit of Gandhi’s life and work. We’d seen it before, but we wandered through it again, looking at pictures of people and meetings that influenced the early course of independent India’s history. They are familiar images.

Off at one end were the ashram offices. I decided not to peek in. The door to this block had an old-fashioned red post box. Was it in use? Once the next collection time used to be posted in that little window at the bottom. There was no time on it. The lock looked like it was in use. So perhaps the letters are collected on a regular schedule which the staff knows. The lack of visitors made the ashram a rather boring place, we thought, as we left. Gandhi strikes you as a man of action, not one who would shut himself away in a secluded ashram.