Ancient Rock Art

The rock shelters of Bhimbetka are less than 50 Kms from Bhopal: an easy drive on a good road. In less than an hour we traveled from the city to this magical world. The paintings were discovered in 1957 by Vishnu Wakankar, a historian involved in studies of rock art in France and Spain, when he was beginning his work in India. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal and noticed rock formations similar to ones he had worked on abroad. He went there and discovered the paintings.

bhimbetkaWork is still going on in this area, but some of the shelters are open to the public. These are not closed caves with little openings. The picture on the right shows what they are: overhangs, some low, some high enough that we could stand upright. It rained quite heavily while we were there, and we could find shelter under some of the rocks, more or less like our prehistoric cousins would have. But the fact that the shelters are exposed also means that there has been more weathering here than in closed caves. In spite of this, many of the paintings are spectacular.

These shelters were inhabited till the medieval period. The earliest paintings are made with a single pigment, either red, which is the oldest, or white. Art from later times used multiple colours: yellows and greens appear. I wanted to know how old the earliest paintings are. There is no clear answer yet. Excavations have yielded stone tools, the oldest from the late Acheulian period. Some are in display in the museums in Bhopal. Acheulian tools in India were dated recently as more than 1 million years old. This is the deep Paleolithic, from long before Homo Sapiens arrived. However, the oldest paintings are thought to be more recent, and estimates quoted in plaques in Bhimbetka say they are probably from the Mesolithic period. That means they were painted by humans.

petroglyph

Near the entrance to the complex we saw this outline of a human hand. Apparently these are common in rock art, and it is believed that they were made by putting an actual hand on the rock face, and painting around it. I put my hand over it, the outline was substantially smaller. The Family compared her hand with it; it was smaller than hers. This fits with our understanding that early humans were relatively small compared to us. I have seen Ashoka’s stone inscriptions, the Rosetta stone, Hammurabi’s code etched on a stone. They are barely a few thousand years old. This connection of our hands was with another human who lived tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps even a good fraction of a hundred thousand years ago. The sense of deep time overwhelmed us for a while. Walking the streets of Rome, Patna and Xi’an, you are aware of the history of a couple of thousand years. The people who lived here would have been walking on ground familiar to other people tens of thousands of years before them!

holesinstone

We saw enigmatic holes in the rock face, like in the photo above. They are associated with rock paintings across the world and are called cupules. There are no experts on these. There is a consensus that they are deliberate, and that they are not functional, but served some artistic or symbolic need. They are older than rock paintings, and some people date them to a hundred thousand years before the paintings. Could this be the art of Homo Habilis, the art of an alien species?

We spent several hours at the site. Some caves were like zoos: full of wild animal figures, sometimes layers painted over previous layers. Elsewhere, you would come to an exposed rock face and see maybe a line of faded red colour, the whole painting would appear slowly to your eye as you stood and followed the faint lines. In some paintings, like in the boar in the featured photo, the pigment would be bright and eye-catching. We left, but we are not finished with Bhimbetka. We plan to return. And now that we have seen this, and read about rock paintings in India, we plan to explore many other sites across the country.

So much to do, so little time!

The distance between Guwahati and Tawang is supposed to be about 570 Km. Not much, you would think, but we are informed that even in good weather it would take us at least 14 to 15 hours to do this trip. Clearly, this is not something that we should try to do in one day in November. We need to break this journey up, so that we do interesting things on the way, and still have enough time at Tawang.

My friend, The Victor, is great at planning road trips. He figured that Nameri National Park, which is almost halfway, 220 Km from Guwahati, should be a 5 hour drive. We reach Guwahati at around 11; so we should be in Nameri at five in the afternoon, allowing an hour’s stop for lunch on the way. Since sunset is just after 6 in this region in November, we might get in an hour of birdwatching in Nameri on our first evening, provided we do not dawdle over lunch. If we are a little delayed, then we might do our birdwatching on the way, and reach Nameri after sundown.

We plan to spend two nights in Nameri, so we should get one morning and one evening of birdwatching for certain. Then we leave for Dirang, where we plan to spend the night. This is a 165 Km stretch which begins to climb, and should take us 5 hours to do. Since a check for permits is involved as we leave Assam and cross to Arunachal Pradesh in Bhalukpong, there might be queues which eat up time. Still, it would be safe to give ourselves 6 hours of driving. It should be enough to leave by 10 in the morning, which means we might be able to get in another quick morning of birdwatching in Nameri.

There may not be spectacular things to see in Dirang. It is supposed to be good for birdwatching, probably also in November. Although a dzong (monastic fort) is mentioned, the descriptions do not sound great. There is a mention of a gompa (temple) and great views on the way to the dzong, Since this is very close to Dirang village, we might do it in the morning before we leave for Tawang. The road distance is about 200 Kms, although the straight line distance is about a fourth of this. The road is full of switchbacks, so we should expect to take around 6 hours if the weather is good. This is reputedly the most unpredictable part of the journey.

We plan to spend three nights in Tawang. Half a day will go to see the monastery, which is the largest Gelugpa monastery after the Potala palace in Lhasa. I wonder how much it has changed since the Dalai Lama was welcomed here in 1959 when he finally left Tibet. We’ll take a day’s trip to Bum La and the Shangetser Tso (lake). I’ve read about a Takhtsang Gompa in this region, if this is anything like the Dzong which goes by the same name in Bhutan, then we must try to find it. We could try to find the Nuranang waterfall on the way, although it seems to lie a little away from the main road. I’ve seen some lovely photos of the Pangateng Tso, so that is another place we could try to visit. But really, the place The Family and I would like to go to is the Eagle’s Nest wildlife sanctuary. Our three nights in Tawang may not give us time to do everything in this list. We’ve heard much of Monpa food, especially the thuppa and the fish. We should be able to find this kind of food once we start climbing.

We return by the same route. The first day we plan to spend seven to eight hours on the road and halt at night in Bomdi La. The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary near Bomdila is supposed to be wonderful; in November we may not see too many orchids, but we might spot a red panda or two. Bomdila is the gateway to the rest of India, as the Indian public learnt when this town fell to the Chinese in November 1962. From Bomdila the drive to the Brahmaputra is short. Unlike the Chinese army, which pulled back from this town after declaring an unilateral cease-fire, we will press on southwards. We’ll probably take a look at the Bomdila monastery before we start on the drive back. We’re planning to stay in a small tea estate for a night before getting back to Guwahati to catch our flight.

The great unknown in all of these plans is the state of the road. We don’t drive very hard on most of the days. In spite of that, mountain roads are unpredictable. There’s only so much planning that you can do. Once you are on the road, things tend to change. That’s part of the fun.

Puzzled by passes

All mountain passes are the same: you climb along a road with mountains sloping up on both sides, the engine whines and grumbles so that you have to downshift, and then the road levels off. You are at the pass. Tall mountains flank the road, but now the road falls. The lowest line between the mountains is the road, and the highest point on the road is the pass. The geometry of the pass funnels winds along it. If there is snow, then the wind can pile it into huge drifts. If the mountainside is unstable, then boulders will fall down as far as they can, which means they block the road. High mountain passes are hard to cross in bad weather. I anticipate trouble like this when we cross the Se La (Se pass) on the way to Tawang in early November.

Himalayan passes I know go by names like Chele La (near Paro in Bhutan), Thorong La (in the Annapurna in Nepal), Khardung La (in the Ladakh plateau of India), and Se La (the pass between Bomdi La and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh). The word La probably comes from the Tibetan word Lam, meaning road or path. The thing that puzzles me is the fact that in Nepal, whose language is very different, the word used comes from Tibetan.

An aside: a romanticised Indian story about the naming of Se Pass seems to be gaining currency recently. According to this story, during the 1962 India-China war, an Indian soldier held off the Chinese singlehandedly at the pass. He was brought food and water by a tribal woman called Sela. When the soldier was killed, she committed suicide. According to the story, this is the origin of the name of the pass (the soldier is said to have got a posthumous medal for bravery). For this story to be believable, at the very minimum, the woman should have been called Se and not Sela. If you look at a list of Param Vir Chakra awardees you’ll find one for holding off enemy troops till death in the nearby Bum La. The new story does not do justice to the true story of Subedar Joginder Singh, which you can read by following the link above.

Hornbills in Nameri

I was reminded of Nameri and the Pakke Tiger Reserve since we began to discuss a trip to Tawang. One of my best memories from Nameri comes from February 3, 2009. Walking by the banks of the Jia Bhoroloi river just before sunset, we were transfixed by the sight of a huge flock of hornbills coming in to roost for the night. The beating of their enormous wings is a bass sound that you will not forget once you hear it. We stood in silence listening to the flock approach and settle on to trees. Every tree along the river that we could see had hornbills roosting on them. Here is a photo I took that evening: twenty-five hornbills in one tree.

At that time we had put them down as Oriental pied hornbills. But now looking at the photo I think they are all Wreathed Hornbills (Rhyticeros undulatus): the neck of the male is white in front, except for a yellow band just below the bill, and the back has some red; the chest is black, and there is no casque on the bill. Male Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) would have had a white chest, black neck, and the males would have a casque on the bill.

Interestingly, all the birds on this tree are male. My photos do show some trees which have both sexes. But this raises another question. A little reading shows that there are usually equal numbers of males and females in a population. During the breeding season (March to July) the female seals herself into a nest, in a hole in a tree, using her saliva and droppings. As a result, during the breeding season one sees more males than females. This photo was taken in early February, which is not the breeding season, so one should have seen equal numbers of the sexes. In trees with two sexes, the males and females sit paired up. Maybe I should have photographed several more trees to check whether there are also segregated roosts of males and females. I’m sure some scientist knows the answer to this question.

Note added

In the Wreathed hornbill, the juveniles all look like
males, and the females do not start changing their
coloration till after the 1st year. In the non-breeding
season, one sees these large flocks of young birds
which all look like males.
–Aparajita Datta (Nature Conservation Foundation)

Asking a scientist does work surprisingly often. I sent a link to this blog and photo to a leading
expert on hornbills, and received the reply alongside. So there are no gangs of juvenile males and females, the sex ratio is even, and my photo just includes many juveniles of both sexes, some adult females, and, possibly, the same number of adult males. I’d missed the adult females, until the expert pointed them out to me.

A time to plan and a time to travel

Arunachal

The October holidays are in November this year! Every year during the Diwali break, The Family and I try to go somewhere interesting for about a week. Diwali is often in October, but occasionally, it is in early November. This is one such year. We started discussing plans with friends, and quite suddenly decided to go to Arunachal Pradesh.

This is a huge state, as I realized when I opened up the map above. We need to fly in to Guwahati in the neighbouring state of Assam, and then take the road. We could go east to the border of Myanmar or north to the border of China. The road east would take us to Namdapha national park, which is supposed to be great for wildlife, birds and insects. This sounded good. But our friends suggested going north towards Tawang, the second largest monastery of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan buddhism, and the largest outside of Tibet. We have had a trip to Tawang on our minds for a long time, so this was an easy decision.

Now the details. Tawang is disputed territory, the 1962 war with China was essentially about Tawang. So it turns out that we need permits. This may be the least of our worries. Tawang is at a height of roughly 3 Km above sea level, and it begins to get cold in November. We have to cross Se La; at an altitude of more than 4 Km above sea level, this is one of the highest passes you can drive across. It could well be snow-bound in November, although we hear that it is never closed for very long. We might have to wait an extra night in Bomdila or Tawang if the pass is closed.

The Pakke tiger reserve lies just off the Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang route. The Pakke river descends to meet the Jia Bhoreli (what a lovely name) near Nameri. It is tempting to make a halt in Nameri or Bhalukpong to make a couple of trips into the jungle. I have a wonderful memory from Nameri: a sky full of hornbills at sunset, the deep bass of their powerful wings the only sound as we stood transfixed and watched hundreds of these birds settle on to treetops to roost. But that was in May, not November. It should take 5 to 6 hours to get to Nameri from Guwahati. After a night or two at Nameri we could make the 5 hour drive past Bomdila to Dirang. The next morning we would drive on to Tawang: another 5 or so hours away. The distances are small, but the roads are slow.

We’ve been thinking about Tawang for years. Now suddenly we have only months to plan this!

Mumbai: all the cliches

mumbai

Sometimes you don’t need to travel. I stepped out for a short walk to clear my head, and saw a tourist’s Mumbai spread out before me. Beyond the haze of Backbay were the high rises on Malabar hill. In the foreground, children from the slums had walked out on to the stones exposed by the tide. There are no parks or public spaces for some people; they exist only on what the city cannot take. This is a view of Mumbai which the tourist cannot help but notice, but it is a view one can lose track of in the middle of the daily routine.

Awadhi Vegetarian Food

During last week’s visit to Lucknow we tried out the two kababs which are special to Awadhi food: the Kakori kabab, named after the village of Kakori a few kilometers from Lucknow, and the Galawati kabab, whose name suggests that it is melted so that you don’t have to chew on it. We tried these two and the shami kabab in all the places which we ate in. After this extensive comparative tasting, we came to the conclusion that street food can be quite nice, but for the subtle craft of spicing one needs to go to some of the more refined kitchens in the city. These were the expected flavourful delights.

What was quite unexpected were two excellent vegetarian dishes we found. One was a kofta with khubani (apricots). Khubani is an important part of Hyderabadi food, and it is not hard to imagine that it entered modern Indian cooking through Hyderabad and Awadh borrowing it from Mughal food. The aromatic gravy with nuts and spices which came with the kofta was clearly related to the spicing of the galawati kabab. So it was not hard to imagine that this was a reasonably authentic dish, or an invention by a cook who was well-versed in the style and technique of Awadhi food.

The other vegetarian dish gives me more to think about. This was a dish with paneer and a paste of figs cooked in a rich curry with aromatic spices and nuts. The curry was again something one could well accept in any Awadhi food. The spare use of the fig paste could have been derived from a Mughal kitchen, and I’m willing to think of it as genuinely Awadhi ingredient. It is the paneer which I am conflicted about. Awadhi food contains a lot of hung yogurt, cream and ghee. Is paneer an authentic ingredient in this kitchen? By the 19th century paneer and chhana had definitely entered the Indian kitchen.

Wikipedia asserts that paneer was known in India in the first century AD on the basis of the following sentences from this paper “People during the Kusana and Saka Satavahana periods (AD 75–300) used to consume a solid mass, whose description seems to the [sic] earliest reference to the present day paneer. The solid mass was obtained from an admixture of heated milk and curd”. This description fits the process for making yogurt. Harold McGee’s famous book describes yogurt, buttermilk and soured creams as being recorded during this historical period in large parts of the world, but gives a later date to the emergence of various kinds of cheese. I think the last word has not been said about the widespread introduction of paneer into Indian kitchens. It is possible that the Mughal kitchen had access to it, and the Awadhi cooks inherited paneer as an ingredient; but the dish that I ate felt more modern.

One of the important components of Awadhi food are the rotis. The layered shirmal roti was hard to find, but the one which we eventually found was lovely and soft, although more infused with ghee than we would tolerate every day. We never managed to find a baqar khani roti, apparently you have to order these in advance. But we found a couple of parathas which seemed to be made in the same style as the shirmal roti. While the roomali roti of Delhi has become common fare even in the heart of Awadh, the art of Awadhi roti is alive.

The late Mughal and early Company years are very intensely studied by historians. I hope someone, somewhere, is thinking of writing a history of food during this time.

The forlorn Chhattar Manzil

chhattarmanzil

I read in a little brochure put out by the Archaelogical Survey of India that the Chhattar Manzil complex grew around the nucleus of a palace built by General Claude Martin for himself. This was sold to Nawab Saadat Ali Khan, who and whose successors built more around it to house themselves and their families. The same brochure tells me that the two connected buildings I see before me when I walk in through the gate marked CDRI are Chhattar Manzil and Farhat Bakhsh. The building with the minaret and round dome above it is the Chhattar Manzil, and to its left, as you face north, is Kothi Farhat Bakhsh. It was not clear to us whether we were trespassing, so we did not explore further.

In 1951 this complex was given to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which established the Central Drug Research Institute in this building. This prestigious institute outgrew the premises and moved out in 2012 when its new campus was ready. When we strolled in through one gate and out through another, the building seems to have been lying neglected for years. A rusty sign over a door proclaims a toilet. We see broken windows which clearly let in the rain. The derelict garden is host to a large number of butterflies. As we watch them, we hear a band of babblers quarrelling in the trees. It is a quiet Sunday morning in the busy heart of Lucknow.

cm-front

The imposing complex needs care. It served as a residence of the Nawabs until Wazir Ali Shah moved to his new palace in Qaiserbagh. The building still looks imposing, and it is clear that it can be renovated. A little work on the web led me to this feel-good news item about the state government’s plans to restore the complex and set up a museum and a library on the premises. The intention is good, and one hopes that the work begins soon.

The Lucknow Residency

A palace complex which may have belonged to the sons of the Nawab of Lucknow was given over for the use of the British Resident of Lucknow in 1800. The buildings are made of lakhauri brick and lime mortar, and still show signs of external decoration. In 1856 the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was deposed by the British East India Company and exiled to Kolkata. The next year, the residency came under siege during the War of Independence. Although the siege was eventually lifted, Lucknow was abandoned until the end of the War.

r-b1

The Residency was left as a memorial to the war, and never reoccupied. Even today one can see the marks of cannonball and shot in the brick and plaster. The Archaeological Survey of India has had the complex in its care since 1920. In recent years there have been archaeological digs at one end of the site. Some of the artifacts which have been recovered are on display in the museum on the grounds. The extensive grounds are now well-manicured gardens. There are more lovers than tourists in the gardens: history has a way of forgetting wars.

The architecture of Awadh

Most of the great heritage structures in India are made of stone and some of them have an iron frame within. But in Avadhi architecture, brick and mortar has been shaped into impressive structures. —Vipul Varshney

Lucknow is full of grand architecture: the Rumi darwaza, once the entrance to the city, Chhattar Manzil, initially built for the Wazir, but eventually the residence of the Nawab, Sikandar Bagh, once Wazir Ali Shah’s summer residence, but now remembered as the spot where the Company massacred 2200 Indian soldiers, the immense Qaiser bagh complex, still impressive. However, the defining piece of architecture from Nawabi Lucknow is the Bara Imambara. It was built during the time of Asaf-ud-Daulah, the Nawab who moved the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775.

bi-naubatkhana

The Bara Imambara impresses. As I entered through the Naubatkhana with its huge fish symbols, I was prepared for marvels. They are there, but they reveal themselves slowly. You enter a gate, skirt a large garden and enter a second gate. After this there is a long walk to the Imambara.

baraimambara

From a distance the Imambara looks beaten down by rain. As you approach you can make out a line of windows across the top. These are the external windows in the famous maze: the bhool bhulaiya. On the right is the Asafi mosque: its grand minarets and domes the colour of the surkhi which is the mortar binding the lakhauri bricks together.

bi-baoli

Off to the left is the Shahi Baoli: a three story structure above the well which was dry on the day we saw it. We heard a guide telling his group that the well fills up when the Gomti river overflows. Since the baoli is within a few hundred meters of the river, it is possible that the level of the river water has something to do with the well. From the entrance about 50 steps leads down to a gate to the well, locked against visitors. We skirt the steps and walk straight into the second level above the well. This baoli is impressive in the abstract geometry of the repeated arches, and its interaction with the light, not in architectural decorations.

bi-asafimosque

As we turn to go we see the Asafi masjid framed in the entranceway to the baoli. This is a mellow view: the stark lines of the mosque filtered through intervening greenery. It strikes me then that the Bara Imambara is a statement about state power: the architect, Kifayatullah, is conscious of the distances that one would have to walk from one part of the complex to the other. Only worshippers are allowed into the mosque, so we walk up to the main attraction.

bi-bhoolbhulaiya

The characteristics of Awadhi architecture are the absence of iron and beams, the use of vaulted ceilings, multiple entrances on facades, parapets on roofs. All of these are present in front of us. Below the impressive facade is a kiosk selling water, other bottled drinks, and packets of snacks. It has been a very humid day, and we have used up all our water. We stock up, and as The Family drinks her cola, I look up at the blank arches of the bhool bhulayia right above us. The maze is supposed to have 489 identical doorways, and utilizes the differences in the heights of various rooms below it for part of its effect.

bi-mainhall

The Bada Imambara is as impressive as I’d expected. The roof of the central hall is entirely without any support. This is even more impressive when you realize that there is no iron in the cantilevered roof: the 49.7 m by 16.6 m span is made entirely of lakhauri bricks, held together with mortar. A little search led to a paper on the material used written by some members of the Civil Engineering department of the nearby Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula lies under this impressive roof. This is flanked by two halls: the China hall is square at ground level, becomes octagonal higher up, then is sixteen sided at top, the roof of the India hall is segmented like an orange (although the word watermelon is used in various writings).

All that remained was a guided tour of the maze, and a demonstration of the impressive acoustics of the whispering gallery above the India room.