The richest kingdom in the medieval world?

The profusion of reliefs in Hampi showing horse traders seems to bear out a factoid that I’d heard repeatedly: that the Vijayanagar empire was the richest in the medieval world during its century of dominance, from the mid 15th to the 16th century CE. This probably has to be qualified slightly, since this was also the heydays of the Ming dynasty in China. But comtemporary records seem to indicate that the medieval city of Vijayanagara was not much smaller than its contemporary Beijing. It exported diamonds and imported horses. Its capital was a market which attracted Arab traders, and eventually Portuguese and Dutch travellers.

From various sources we know today that the most productive diamond mines were owned by the king. Workers were paid wages, but no other incentives. Based on the recorded wages paid to workers in the diamond mines, Pande and Raviteja wrote “Thus it may be constructed that the labourers in the mines probably led a miserable life.” The incredible difference in the quality of life of kings and commoners was noted by several travellers. It is likely that horse traders were far better off than the masses.

Iron, bronze and copper were mined and used. Iron was smelted in charcoal furnaces to make steel. In his influential book on the Vijayanagara empire, Robert Sewell wrote in 1900 that irons and steel was largely used to make weapons, but there was sufficient surplus to be turned into common household objects. The construction industry was dominated by temples and palaces, and employed a large number of masons, master builders, sculptors and various other artisans. Records of donations to temples show that artisans were well-off. Stone walls in temples (see photo on top) are dressed with precision, blocks sized and matched perfectly to sit on top of each other. So the lack of precision in the dressing of stone blocks in public works like the aqueduct of Anegondi (photo above), or the Mahanavami Dibba, cannot be attributed either to the lack of metals, or the lack of trained artisans. If this has not already been investigated by historians, then here is a mystery to be solved.

Perihelion photoshow

The year should rightly begin on Perihelion Day, tomorrow, January 4, when the earth is closest to the sun. On the Perihelion Eve of the end of the fourth century of the Keplerian Era (Why do I feel like Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch?), I thought of examining the ghosts of Perihelia past. One year ago I was in the Little Rann of Kutch. As the sun set after a full day of photography, the batteries on my camera ran out soon after I took the featured photo. That was a spectacular way to end Perihelion Day.

I haven’t been consistent about taking photos on Perihelion Day. I had to go back five more years, to 2014, before I found a set of photos I’d taken on Perihelion Day. It was a Saturday, The Family was at work in the morning, and I was at a loose end. I took a series of photos of a cape gooseberry. I liked the difference in texture between the fruit and the leaves which enclose it.

Two years before, in 2012, that Perihelion Day was on a Wednesday. I was in Mahabaleshwar for a meeting, and had the morning off. Somewhere near the edge of the plateau I could see the hills marching off into the distance. The layer cake of the Deccan traps turns from red to hazy blue as you look away towards the horizon. The Sahyadri mountains are spectacular, and it is a pity we seldom go out there in winter any more. Perhaps that’s something we should start doing again.

The previous set of photos that I took on a Perihelion Day was in 2009. That year Perihelion Day was on a Sunday, and I walked out into the garden with my new camera to take test shots of flowers. Looking at this photo brings back memories of a warm winter morning, and a camera I really enjoyed working with for the next few years.

My digital photo album goes back a few more years, but there are no photos taken on Perihelion Day. Four photos at the end of a century is rather careless. I should track Perihelion Days better in future.

Bush Air

On our way out of the Maasai Mara National Reserve we passed through a little airstrip in the bush. The land here was so flat that the two striped windsocks mounted on poles were visible for half an hour as we looked for secretary birds and lilac breasted rollers. When we pulled up to the airstrip I found that it was a busy place, full of planes landing and taking off every few minutes.

It would be a hard fate to go down in the memory of one’s friends as having been tripped up by a wandering zebra. “Tried to take off and hit a zebra!” It lacks even the dignity of crashing into an anthill.
—Beryl Markham in West with the Night

I was still reading Beryl Markham’s memoirs of flying in the early days of amateur flights in Kenya, when amateurs like her would sometimes be the only means of bringing dying adventurers from the bush to Nairobi. This strip was nothing like her descriptions of airstrips in the bush. No zebra or wildebeest would find anything to nibble on within a kilometer. I looked at the Landrovers lined up, glanced at the Maasai market in one corner, soaked up the chatter in French, Bengali, English, and Swahili, heard the continuous roar of engines, and realized that a hundred years had changed everything. There are several such airstrips in the reserve, and, if you fly in, then you land on the one closest to your hotel. It saves you a five hour trip if you come in from Nairobi, more from Mombasa.

I took a last few shots of the little hut that served as the control tower, and got into Stephen’s Landrover. There was a long trip ahead of us, and I was looking forward to it. I hadn’t had a good look at the trees in this patch of land on our way in. I was also looking forward to passing through the busy town of Narok again; it had looked charmless, but I love roadside towns.

Failing light, vultures’ delight

There is a legend that elephant dispose of their dead in secret burial grounds and that none of them has ever been discovered.
— Beryl Markham in West with the Night

A thin layer of clouds crept over the sun, and I cursed my luck. It was just before the golden hour, and the light, instead of turning a brilliant gold, had turned watery and hellish. But then, as the wind turned, and a stench of rotten flesh hit my nose, I looked around and saw this tree full of vultures. What a moody and atmospheric shot this was, I thought, perhaps just right for the cover of a book on the Mongol invasion of the world, or perhaps the Black Death. But what we saw, as Stephen turned the Landrover upwind towards the source of the stench, was something totally unexpected.

The story of Tarzan of the Apes involves an elephant graveyard and its treasure of ivory. We know today that stories of elephant graveyards were just myths. But even the scale of a single dead elephant boggles the mind if you ever come across it. Every species of scavenging bird we’d seen in the Mara triangle seemed to be here in large numbers. As we watched a large white-backed vulture emerged from under the skin of the cadaver. It was clear that we had arrived very late. The mammal scavengers had already come and gone. The stench told us that bacteria had started breaking down the flesh. After the birds, insects would arrive to clear the little that remained. The elephant had almost completed the cycle of nature, returning its flesh to the rest of the ecosystem.

Istiklal Caddesi and its art

Istiklal Caddesi. This was the name which I would always think of as essential to Istanbul before I came here. Topkapi palace, Hagia Sophia, the Sulemaniye Mosque, were also-rans in my imagination. My imagination was full of what Nerval, Gautier, and Pamuk had written about Freedom Street. When I first climbed up from the Cihangir district to Istiklal Caddesi, it was everything that I’d hoped for: elegant shops and cafes as well as the charming decay of one of the world’s oldest global cities.

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The street is full of elegant buildings slowly decaying, brought alive today by the vibrant street art that you see in the slideshow above. It was dead at noon on a Monday, and came alive slowly as the day progressed. Istanbul is a party town, and this area is not a bad place to be in.

Taking stock

The Family and I had breakfast on a narrow terrace on the top floor of our hotel in Kusadasi, looking out towards the harbour. We talked about what we’d seen in Turkey. It seemed to me that it had been months, but it was less than a week since we’d landed in Istanbul! The incredible sights of Cappadocia: fairy chimneys, balloons filling the sky, underground cities, now seemed so far removed. Trudging through the ruins of famous Greek cities, looking at the remnants of what used to be the wonders of the ancient world, had driven those older experiences into some far corner of the brain.

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We looked at our phones together, swiping through the galleries of the last few days. Did we really see that? Remember the wonderful wine there. And that great Turkish coffee! Can you get me another glassful of that superb lemonade? Too soon it was time to leave for a drive to Pamukkale.

Slipstream

Still in light sleep, I registered the fact that The Family had opened the door on to the balcony of our room in Göreme. It was just past sunrise, and the room was full of light in spite of drawn curtains. Then my muzziness was gone when The Family’s excited voice called to me to get up and get my camera. I rushed out with my phone in hand and saw a marvelous sight. There were silent presences hovering in the air above us. It was as if we were inside a story by Franz Kafka, and a tenth of the town’s inhabitants had been turned into delicate teardrops which floated above us.

After some discussion we’d decided against taking a balloon in the morning. It would have been a wonderful sight from up there, but the spectacle from down here was stunning. All the movies about alien invasions, where spaceships come screaming down from the sky, fail to imagine what a stunning sight it is to have a hundred huge things silently floating above you. I went back to sleep, and when I woke later, this was like a strange dream. Only my photo remained to prove to me that what I’d seen was real.

Pangshura

In my earlier visit to Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park, I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of birds that I’d not registered how many other animals find a home in this wetland reserve. I don’t know much about turtles at all, and the variety here is a good place to start figuring out how to identify fresh-water turtles. The Indian Roofed Turtle (Pangshura tecta) is one of the easiest. I’ve seen them being sold as pets, but the individual you see in the photo was larger than the ones I’ve seen in shops.

I had to learn two technical words in order to start identifying turtles: the carapace is the hard shell on top, and the plastron is the hard underside of the shell. The plastron of the Indian Roofed Turtle is a yellow-orange in colour with the irregular black spots which you see in the photo. An additional identifier is that the neck has longitudinal yellow streaks, which you can see in spite of the fact that the neck is not fully extended. Since females grow to be larger in this species, this individual is likely to have been one.

A turtle’s life is slow and measured: slow maturity, taking 10-10 years, long and modestly fecund life, so that enough offspring are produced to fit into what were historically stable ecosystems. I’m not sure what the lifespan of this species is, but it is unlikely to be much longer or shorter than the usual lifespans of Indian turtles, which is about 60 years.

The Grand Axis of Paris

One evening, almost a decade ago, I looked up the sunset time and made my way to the carousel of the Louvre just before. I wanted to take a photo of the pyramid designed by I. M. Pei. The week had been overcast, and the evening was no exception. I hadn’t expected a large number of photographers there, but clearly this had become a photo spot de rigeur. Most of the people there had big lenses, tripods, light meters. I felt like a joker with my bridge camera in my back pack.

With some time to go before it became dark enough, I looked around for other shots. The dark clouds had taken on a golden colour as the horizon moved up to meet the sun. Through the Arc de Triomphe at the carousel I could look down the grand axis of this imperial city, to the Obelisk, and the Arc de Triomphe at Charles de Gaulle Etoile. In principle the Grand Arch of La Defense also lies on the same axis, but you have to go to one of the upper floors of the Louvre to get a view of all these four things lined up.

I’d passed by this spot the previous day as I’d walked up Rue de Rivoli from the Bastille and then decided to cut across the Seine to the left bank somewhere here. The sky was overcast, but the light on the quadriga was very good. I like the story of this sculptural group. As you probably know, Napoleon brought the original from San Marco in Venice and mounted it here. After Waterloo, it was returned to Venice by Austria. The present statue was put here to commemorate the restoration of the Bourbons after the fall of Napoleon. As the light faded I moved back to the scrum of photographers at the pyramid, and got the featured photo.

Camera or phone camera?

I made the trip to Shillong by an airline which charges high and behaves like a cheap airline. The baggage rules were so awful that if it hadn’t given the fastest routing to my destination I wouldn’t have taken it. How could I cut down my baggage? I cut down much, and, after much thought I decided to sacrifice my camera. I’d used both my camera and phone extensively during my trip to China and realized that a smartphone camera is pretty good.

On my phone the sensor which captures the image is about the same size as that in my camera. Phone cameras use CMOS chips, which are more noisy and somewhat less sensitive than the CCD sensors common in cameras. My phone has a fixed wide angle f2.0 lens. The relatively wide aperture means that it focuses a large fraction of the light that it receives on to the sensor. However the lens is tiny, so the amount of light it captures is very much smaller than what the camera gets. The combination of small lens and CMOS sensor means that low-light or strong contrasts should come out badly, if everything else were the same.

But other things are not equal. Phone manufacturers have paid more attention to modern computational imaging than almost every camera manufacturer. As a result, I often find that the out-of-box image from my phone is better than that from my camera. Even image stabilization on my phone seems to be better than in my camera. For those who care, I could pull RAW image out of my phone if I wanted. (Why would I, when phones have more versatile software than commercial image processors?) In defense of cameras, I must say that my camera was launched almost three years before my phone. Phones and cameras launched in the same year may compare differently. Of course, my images are only shared with friends or posted on blogs. If you are a professional photographer your standards will be very different.

So, with much second thoughts, I decided that on a trip with the clan I would probably not do the extreme photography that I might otherwise. So maybe I could leave my camera behind. Here are two photos that I took with my phone camera on this trip. The panorama in the featured photo is no better or worse than what I’d expected to get. It has no details in the shadows, and the telephone tower in the distance is definitely blurred. On the other hand, the butterfly has come out significantly better than I’d expected. Although the contrast is high, but the phone has captured texture both on the lit and dark sides of the stone. The image is sharp, and there is no difficulty in recognizing the Large Yeoman.

If only my phone camera had not been broken by the latest software update from the vendor, I would have ditched my camera for it more often, at least when I travel on work.