The very first time I managed to take a portrait of a bird was this yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus). It was on my first trip with a camera to the wild, and it was the first time I learnt to tell a lapwing from other birds. I would later recognize that the sharp looks of this individual meant that it was the breeding season. The clean black cap takes on a more mottled look in non-breeding adults and juveniles. V. malabaricus is a South Asian bird, with a range that covers most of the plains of India, and bits of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangaldesh. In those early years I used to see these birds fairly often. But when I saw a group again in 2022 I realized that I hadn’t seen them for a while. I cannot verify my impression that they are becoming less common, because I haven’t been going back to the same place over the years. Although they are still classed as being of least concern, their nesting habitat of dry grasslands is being rapidly converted to plantations meant for carbon mitigation. Planting trees is not enough to reach net-zero carbon emission, but cost of even this effort seems to be the loss of ecosystems.
There aren’t many places on WordPress where bird watchers can share posts. If you post any photos of birds this week (starting today and up to next Monday), it would be great if you could leave a link in the comments, or a pingback, for others to follow. You don’t have to post a recent photo, nor do you have to post a photo of the same bird as mine. It would helpful to give as much information as you can: which bird it is, where and when you saw the bird, any behaviour you found interesting, for example. You might consider using the tag “Bird of the Week” to help other search for old posts. I hope you’ve had the time to look at what others have added this week and in the previous weeks.
Tarakasi. That’s what the traditional silver filigree work of Cuttack is called. The evening before we visited Cuttack The Family was ecstatic when she heard about this traditional craft of the city. I was ashamed to admit that I had no clear idea of what filigree was. I was to find out when we visited a series of jewelery shops in Cuttack. It was quite an eye opener for me.
As the family rapidly zoomed into the kind of pieces she was interested in, I looked at a box of “uninteresting” ear rings. I don’t know what they are called, but I think of them as danglers. These inexpensive silver danglers began to give me some idea of what filigree work was: you twist and knot and solver wires of copper to produce interesting shapes. I found later that filigree work was known in northern Asia in the 4th century BCE, and in northern Europe in the 5th century CE. This covers a millennium of unknown history. But more than another millennium before that, filigree work was buried in tombs in the eastern Mediterranean and present day Iraq. If there is a single origin to filigree, then perhaps it originated there. It may have come to India from Persia, since the craftsmen are mainly Muslim. This story is as obscure as that of the previous history of the art.
What we do know however, is that the traditional knowledge of filigree work has been passed down in an unbroken chain of master craftsmen in Cuttack. Englishmen in 18th century India adopted Indian customs including wearing locally produced jewellery, and Cuttack’s filigree work is mentioned by them. There is also a record of trained workmen from Cuttack moving to Dhaka at that time and starting workshops there. By the late Victorian time, the craftsmen of Cuttack were producing work which would be bought by English women. So I wasn’t sure if the floral ear studs that The Family examined so carefully were a pre-colonial design.
All that goes to show that if you stare at history, history stares back at you. I know that’s what Nietzche could have said, but was that what I meant to write? Maybe I wanted to ask what is authenticity? In the long term, humans copy and adapt. The Family decided on some dangler and some studs. I decided that on our next visit to Cuttack I’ll try to locate one of the Tarakasi workshops.
Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare. (Every body must persist in its state of rest or of moving uniformly in a straight direction, except in so far as it is forced to change that state by impressed forces.)
Mahaparinirvana. It’s hard to imagine a state of peace deeper than the one that is achieved when a person who has attained nirvana during his lifetime passes away. That is the theme of the sleeping Buddhas that you see so often in Buddhist iconography. The statue that you see in the photo is in Bangkok’s Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It was a very hot day when I arrived here and sat in the shade to cool off. So I was in a state of peace, albeit lesser, when I walked around the statue.
Another place, another golden day. An afternoon spent taking photos of birds in the shallows of Odisha’s Chilika lake, ended with a glorious sunset. As the light failed I was forced to stop taking photos of birds. I was quite satisfied, and as much at peace with the day as a birder can be. It was time to catch the light through the reeds. Does that photo say “peace” to you?
I spent a month in Frascati one summer a few years ago. An old friend and a colleague was also there with his partner. A weekend before the solstice there was a program of music in the open at every square in the town. We spent the evening at an enoteca in a small square. Like many of these extablishments, you could buy jugs of fresh wine and sit at a table outside. We’d brought our own olives and bread, cold cuts and olive oil and salad. We sat there with the food and wine and listened to the music as we talked. I only had an old phone to take photos with; it didn’t do well with low light. Six months later I heard that my friend had tested positive for cancer. I met him once again after that, but this is how I remember the couple, by that last peaceful summer.
So many of my most peaceful memories are near lakes and by the sea! This is a photo I took on a rainy day on Lake Inle in Myanmar. Some villages on the lake (they build their houses on stilts planted in the mud) farm lotus, and use the fiber from the stems to make cloth. I bought a shirt made from this fabric, and found it was very comfortable after a couple of washes. In that moment I went wild photographing water drops at rest on the leaves with my trusty old Panasonic Lumix. You can see the reflection of the gray sky in the large drop in the photo above. The people on the lake live a hard life, but, at that time at least, their lives seemed peaceful.
Nothing is impossible, declares the message on a barrel of drinking water mounted on a handcart. Impossible sentiments, echoed by advertisements for expensive shoes and worthless sugary drinks. The barrel, on the other hand, testifies to the seeming impossibility of getting clean drinking water from taps. The cart was parked on a lane behind Mumbai’s stock exchange.
A little further around the globe, in another city by the sea, an abandoned shop off one of Istanbul’s most visited streets speaks of three eras: the high noon of the Ottoman Empire is referred by the street sign whose edge enters the photo, the early years of the republic can be seen in the bollard, and the 21st century in the graffiti.
Kochi’s history as a major port in the thousand year history of Indian Ocean trade can still be seen in shops across the town. The Yehudi Kochinim had settled here at least 900 years ago. Their mark is subtle but visible everywhere in this ancient port city. It is part of the cosmopolitan air of the town.
The Art Deco frontage of banks in Wuhan’s Hankou district talks of another bit of history, the end of the Chinese empire as it collided with European powers and was forced to cede “Treaty ports” to foreign powers. Subsequent events gave rise to the Chinese nationalist movement which crystallized around Sūn Zhōngshān, aka Sun Yat Sen
From the shreds of one empire to the ruins of another. When we visited Hampi, the village which has grown around the remnants of the 16th century capital of the Vijayanagar empire, this design greeted us outside the gate of our homestay. The empire traded with Arabs and south east Asia, was counted among the most prosperous of its time, and then was utterly destroyed. This design, the kolam, is made fresh every day, to be walked on, blown by the wind, and its remnants washed away for a new design the next day. I thought it was a good metaphor for the rise and disappearance of empires.
Stuck in Nairobi’s traffic I watched the brightly painted trucks and buses that fill its streets. There is an energy in the city that I found very refreshing. These paintings are part of that energy. Our driver told us that there are artists who earn money doing them. All artists and artisans are referred to as mzee, a respectful term whose literal translation would be old man. But the artists are often young men, so appropriate for a continent whose time is to come.
The final message I selected for this post comes from the most ancient imperial capital that I know. Just after Alexander of Macedonia crossed the Indus, a young adventurer called Chandragupta took over the kingdom governed from Pataliputra, today’s Patna, and founded the empire that took Buddhism across Asia. Outside the airport of Patna I saw this mural in the style practiced by the women of Madhubani district. The style has evolved very rapidly in the last few years, and the content of this painting may have been impossible a few years ago. I found that it was done by a traditional painter. So, perhaps some things are not impossible after all.
The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.
The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.
We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.
In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.
In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.
We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.
The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.
We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.
In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.
We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.
[She said] “These cars don’t make any noise.” “Someday all cars won’t make noise,” he said.
Harold Robbins, in The Betsy
My cousin was a great car enthusiast even before he learnt his Ambassador, Buick, or Citroen. When he went missing from home once in early childhood, he was found standing by the nearest big road, looking at cars. Safely back home he reeled off a list of all the car makes he’d seen. A couple of years ago, driving on the highway, he said that we’d just passed another cousin’s car. There was a lot of skepticism in our car: “How could you recognize it? It is so dark”, “There are a hundred cars on the road like his, and we are going so fast”. But he was right. The other cousin reached the destination a few minutes after us. If I can’t recall from the hood ornament which car I’ve photographed, I just have to ask him. The featured photo is of the hood of a Dodge, from the late 1940s, if I remember right.
It’s just that when I die, I dont want to leave any enemies, and I figure the only way to do that is to outlive them all.
Harold Robbins, in The Carpetbaggers
The first internal combustion mechanism, fire pistons, may have been developed about 2000 years ago in Borneo or Sumatra, but it was only about two hundred years ago that it became a pillar on which trade and industry stood. Take the Pamban bridge. It was constructed in 1914 as part of an ambitious imperial scheme to connect India with erstwhile Ceylon. What drove it were dreams of trade: from Britain’s overseas factories in India to Sri Lanka, first, and then over the ocean to Singapore, Hong Kong, and east. Every phase of this dream involved internal combustion machines. A supercyclone ended the dream. But in the 21st century this dream of a world-girdling trade route has been recycled by China. And part of the route is exactly the same as the century-past-its-date-of-expiry dream of the British Empire.
Every man has his price. For some it’s money, for some it’s women, for others glory. But the honest man you don’t have to buy – he winds up costing you nothing.
Harold Robbins in The Carpetbaggers
Walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, I looked up to see an airplane coming in to land. I could quickly grab this photo where the two icons of the world’s 20th century superpower are juxtaposed (the tower was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is located at 330 North Wabash Av). The dream of world-spanning trade routes fulfilled. Another dream: an endless frontier. Alexander of Macedonia is said to have wept after he thought there was nothing in the world left to conquer, but his nightmare descendants of today want to place their cut-price mercenaries and miners on new worlds. I suppose rockets are also internal combustion devices, though they have to carry their own oxygen.
The reality of living was never greater than when you held death clutched tightly in your hands
Harold Robbins, in Stilletto
Trying to think of means of travel which do not involve burning fossil fuels, the first one that comes to mind is the bicycle (so green, in the middle of rice fields in the Sahyadris). That, roller skates, and pedi-scooters. Have I missed something? Yes, horse or bullock drawn vehicles (also dog, mule or rabbit drawn: thinking of Radagast in the movie version of Hobbit). Not electric vehicles, nor modern trains, because in those you just burn the fuel elsewhere. Unless you live in a country which generates electricity mostly in nuclear plants or through renewables (in other words, France) I doubt I have missed anything except walking.
People are not like a business.
Harold Robbins in Never Leave Me
Which is not to say that modern day trains are a disaster. The German experiment with the 9 Euro tickets is a success, I read, since it is beginning to wean people off driving and flying. I’ve always traveled in Germany by train; it was a quick and cheap way to travel, and it got you into the heart of a town with lots of public transport options at the destination (or bike-tours, if you were a tourist). The cheap worked once if you took the pain of traveling off-peak, and that is the threshold that the 9 Euro ticket lowers dramatically. It is a great way of subsidizing (relatively) clean travel instead of air pollution. Of course, there is something to the experience of driving on an autobahn, especially if you are driving a beat-up Volkswagen which stalls if you push the speed to 150 Km per hour. I never missed roller-coaster rides in the days when I did that.
We had to be free of the fear so that we could think of tomorrow
Harold Robbins, in A Stone for Danny Fisher
China was once the world’s bicycle capital. In making a transition to a middle-class economy, it decided to pursue a relatively cleaner path by subsidizing electric scooters and high-speed railways. They are more polluting than bikes of course, but they are less polluting than a car or two in every home, and frequent air travel. I loved those trains while traveling in China. I also love the new electric buses on Indian roads, and the idea of slowly replacing the two-stroke engines on three-wheeler taxis (auto-rickshaws or autos to us, tuktuk to tourists) by electric-autos. The road to cleaner travel is hard. We all know those terrifying moments when a dream turns into a nightmare, you want to wake up, but you find it so hard. Who says it only happens in dreams?
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
from The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll
Walks in the Sahyadris during the monsoon count high among my favourite things. This is perhaps the most difficult time of the year for climbers and trekkers, since the rocks are wet and slippery. But I am neither a climber nor a trekker. I walk with my camera and catch the seasonal burgeoning of flowers. Some, like the balsam in the photo (Impatiens balsamina), are common enough across the world, others flower only in special microclimates for a few weeks. It’s a different world, and one I’ve grown fond of visiting every year.
The jungles of the extreme northeast of India, the region caught between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is not one I’ve really explored. In a two week trip to Tripura many years back, I was lucky to find a clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) in a hidden spot below us in a ravine. It woke from a nap, gave us a glance and went back to sleep.
It took much planning to actually cross the border into Myanmar. Of the many things I enjoyed in that unfortunate country, one was the street food. Here is a photo of a street food stall in Yangon with people at lunch. Everyone has a large kettle full of tea on the table in front of them. I think it is refilled for free if you want. The tea habits are similar to those in China, you pay for the leaves, and get endless servings of hot water
Spring in Bhutan oscillates between warm and cool. In the courtyard of the storied temple of Kyichu Lhakhang in Bhutan a group of older women had gathered for a social prayer in the late morning. They gave us quizzical glances as we walked in. I was warm from a walk, but the women wore warms, and all of them had rosaries in their hands.
The sight of luggage being loaded on to aircrafts as I wait for my flight is perhaps my most favourite thing of all. The slight annoyance at the long time I will have to sit still in a chair, and the anticipation of what I might see as I step off the plane at the other end, are what drives this blog. And it all starts with the sight of baggage.
We flew in to Leh. In an hour we’d gone from sea level to an altitude of 3500 meters. As we stepped out of the pressurized cabin, The Family and I scanned ourselves for signs of trouble. None, as we retrieved our baggage and looked for our ride home. None, as we chatted with the driver about local food. None, as we checked into the hotel. None, as we admired the view from the balcony and took the featured photo. The Family was not surprised. She’d recovered from her flu faster than me, and had tested herself by climbing the stairs to our high-floor apartment twice a day. I had barely recovered, and was unable to tackle the stairs in Mumbai before leaving. She’d also started on a prophylactic course of Acetazolamide (Diamox) against mountain sickness, something I was unable to do. So I was a little surprised.
We’d set aside the first couple of days for acclimatization. We were not planning on stepping out of the hotel on the first day. We decided to go down for lunch. The restaurant was empty. It seemed that we were the only silly tourists taking these precautions. We ordered simple food. Eating multiple small meals and taking a lot of fluid is recommended. I was telling The Family that we were probably being over-cautious when a sudden headache hit me.
It became rapidly worse. I took the lift to our room, and by the time I hit the bed my fingers were tingling. The air at this height contain only about 65% of the oxygen you get at sea level. Lowered oxygen in your blood requires your heart to pump harder. If you are careless, this could lead to increased blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack. The tingling in your fingers and toes is a blaring alarm that tells you to lie down immediately. The Family took out our oxymeter, and found that I was in crisis. When you are flat on your back, the heart has a easier time pumping blood to your brain. I concentrated on yoga breathing: 4 counts in, hold for a count of 4, out till a count of 8. My pulse slowed. The tingling disappeared. A load eased off my chest. My oxygen reading crept up and my pulse rate dropped to the active workout level.
This was a wonderful hotel. Room service came in to set up bedside dining. The manager told The Family that he could set up oxygen for me any time we wanted. They contacted doctors, a couple, who were in our hotel. The owner came to talk to The Family; assured her that the hospital in Leh was fully equipped to deal with this problem, and he could get us there whenever needed. All this was in my peripheral consciousness. I kept on the yoga breathing until my oxygen and pulse were back to the extreme side of normal. Then I could sit up and eat.
I did not reach a crisis again; bodies adjust to heights. By late afternoon I could join The Family on the balcony for short periods. We had taken a full cardiac checkup before the trip. She’d been working on her blood iron levels, and it was paying off. Her vitals never went into danger. I had a slower time adjusting. The edema headache and the racing heart never happened again. It took three days before my resting oxygen level and pulse were back to the level I had at home. But once there, my body maintained that balance even at an altitude of 5500 meters. If we’d driven up from Srinagar or Manali, it would have taken as many days as it did, and I would have adjusted equally well. Also, the view would have been better. I did not save any time by flying in. Once it was clear that I was stable, The Family could explore Leh. So there was that.
Later, The Family said we should have come here thirty years ago. Perhaps we should have. Women’s bodies warn of time’s winged chariot drawing near, I don’t have that perspective. But I was immensely pleased a week later, when we crossed Khardung La a second time, and a group of young men watching us from the top of a slope we shuffled up said that we were an inspiration to them. I could have told them that though they cannot make their sun stand still, they can yet make him run. But I was grinning inside at their compliment. And I was out of breath.
Thank you guys, you made my day. I wish I’d had your grace when I was younger.
A voice on the PA told us that Everest was visible on the port side of the plane. The lady at the window was gracious enough to lean back to let me snake my phone past her to the thick slab of smudged plastic which passes for a porthole at these heights. Far away, peeking over the horizon, its peak a couple of kilometers below us, the snow glittered on the highest mountain in the world. Today there were no streaks of cirrostratus clouds over its peak; climbers would have a lovely view. Its always a pleasure to see its symmetric bulk from a plane, even though the sky above it is infinitely higher.
The flight had been getting a bit boring till then. I’d spent my time trying to figure out all the reasons why it might be dangerous to fly barefoot. Migratory birds pecking at your feet? Frostbite? Loss of aerodynamic viability? None of the above was more likely.
I looked out of the window again. Four of the world’s fourteen peaks taller than 8 Kms were clustered close along the flight path we were on. East to west they are Makalu, Lhotse, Everest/Sagarmatha, Cho Oyu. We were past all of them by now. The layer of clouds below us seemed like altocumulus; from the ground it would probably be a mackerel sky. Our path would veer south soon heading to lowlands, missing a view of Kanchenjunga. It’s not an accident that the eight-thousanders are clustered together: irregularities in the motions of continental plates guarantees it.
Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.