Maundy madness

The morning was a blur of movement as we sped through a deserted Mumbai to the airport. It seemed as if the city had already emptied out for the Easter weekend. There were some queues at the airport, but we breezed through to catch breakfast at the food court. The plane was delayed on the tarmac; due to “VVIP movement”, we were told. The flight was a little rough with bouncy pockets of clear air above a horizon-to-horizon sea of clouds. After landing in Coimbatore there was a minor wait for our luggage, before we were out in the stifling noontime heat and into a waiting car.


The Tamil villages we sped through were a blur of coconut and banana orchards surrounding brightly painted little houses. It has been almost a decade since we came for a holiday to these parts, and as before, I am struck by the bright and dark greens, reds and purples contrasting with pinks and yellows on buildings. These are colour schemes which I only see on silk saris otherwise. From Coimbatore airport we sped towards Pollachi, and then to the Aliyar dam.


We stopped for tea just outside the dam in a little shop selling tea, coffee and the inevitable “tiffin”. In the last decade there has been an important invention: there is a kind of oven which was in use to boil water for tea and coffee. You can see it in the photo above. The fuel seems to be coir, the waste product from coconuts. Of course, one can use anything which is handy. Neat invention.


Immediately after this we entered the Annamalai Tiger Reserve, and the road started climbing up the Nilgiris. This part of the land suddenly turns green because of the water. The scrubland gives way quickly to forest. The milkweed disappears, and soon lanata begins to appear. The air is full of butterflies.

There are 40 hairpin bends on the way to Valparai. Everyone stops at the ninth to take photos of the lake behind Aliyar dam. As we climbed, the jungle gave way to tea estates: bright green interspersed with the purple of Jacarandas. The air was full of the smell of Eucalyptus and Jacaranda. We turned the last bend and saw a signboard announcing we had arrived. The remaining 9 kilometers still took us half an hour.

Breakfast at Kosi Bazar

Just after the Almora-Gopeshwar road crosses the Kosi, a little road-side bazar has sprung up, invisible on maps and satellite photos available to you and me. For a couple of hundred meters, the road is lined on both sides by shops. The owners walk here from nearby villages early in the morning and leave late at night. The shops were just opening as we came by at 7 in the morning. We had passed a kill some distance down the road. The shop-keepers told us that the cow was prey to a leopard which had been seen in the area several times that week. In the animated conversation we were told the puzzling story that leopards drink blood. Could this be a misinterpretation of the reason the leopard hangs on to the neck of its prey? A leopard kills by holding the prey by its neck until it chokes to death.

A limited menu is painted on the wall. Below the trees at the back is a little herb garden

We found three eateries next to each other and checked out possibilities. If you read Hindi you can see in the photo above that the menu is limited. Breakfast is the most varied: pakodas, puri-chhole or alu parathas with tea or coffee. For lunch you can get rice with vegetables and kadhi or with rajma beans. Dinner is just roti and vegetables with yoghurt. This man was just starting up. He had tea on the boil, but the dough was still being kneaded by the old gentleman at the back. Another helper had finished peeling potatoes and was rapidly chopping up a kilo of onions. Large bowls of yogurt had set overnight, but the huge containers were still to be filled with the day’s vegetable curry.

A multipurpose room
A multipurpose room: gas cylinders, sacks of potatoes and onions, and a fridge surround the tables. The major local god is Golu dev, but it is Lakshmi who finds a place in shrines like these

Lesser yellow-naped woodpeckerThe process had reached further next door. The table by the road was already taken, but the inside room was empty. We sat down next to a Pepsi cooler full of an eclectic collection of things which need to be cooled. Those large clay bowls you can see next to the window are used to set yogurt. We opened out the window so that we could look out to the trees next to the river. We saw a lesser yellow-naped woodpecker just sitting here: a lifer for all of us.

A caption
Alu parathas with bowls of sabji ready to serve. The yogurt in the large bowls was set overnight. The yellow paste in the steel bowl is yogurt with haldi, a local speciality

Meanwhile our patron was busy making fresh parathas with thick layers of potatoes inside. The yogurt was thick and fresh, and the mixed sabji which came with the parathas was hot and spicy. If we had breakfast like that every day at home we would be spherical in no time. We’d asked for tea, and we found that our three cups were bottomless. It was a lovely roadside breakfast, and one that lasted longer than the time we had allotted. The morning’s birding here was the best we had that day.

We went on to Kausani, where we saw no birds. There was a cloud cover so we never saw Nanda Devi or any of the other peaks either. On the way back we stopped again at the same shops in Kosi Bazar and had our afternoon tea. The birds were still there.

Urban sprawl

Sunrise over Almora

We decided to go live outside Almora for a week last diwali. Childhood stories had primed me to expect long walks along forested hills. Even though I knew that things would have changed since, the reality was like being hit on the nose by a fish. Almora sprawls across a horse-shoe shaped mountain wall: all the way from the crest to the bottom, and laps up several lower hills in the surrounded valley. It can be picturesque from a little further away at sunrise (above) and sunset (below). The district is beautiful, and we had a lovely holiday living in a hotel 10 kilometers further down the highway towards Binsar.

Sunset in Almora

On diwali night our driver insisted on filling up the tank, and we drove around until he found a satisfactory petrol pump. We walked on to see the lit up town of Almora sprawled in front of us. As I took photos, a family running a shop nearby invited us to their balcony for the view. It was lovely, and became even more charming when the man pointed out that the humps on the ridge look like a dinosaur’s back. Indeed they do.

From Srinagar in the west to Dambuk in the east, the hills are alive with the sound of construction. But the mess is full of friendly people living out their lives like you and me.

Moula Ali Gutta


Hyderabad is large and chaotic, so I can’t usually get to see anything of interest to a traveller when I go there for work. This time round, before leaving I looked at the map carefully and found a place which I could go to if I had a couple of hours to myself. This was not a one of the famous sights: not the storied Charminar, not the unexpected charm of the Spanish Mosque, not the meandering Salar Jang museum, and not even the unfairly neglected zoo. It was a little hill called the Moula Ali Gutta. A description which I read before leaving was charming.

I did have a little break in the middle of the day, and I hopped into an auto with The Undefeated. It turned out that this was a great strategy: autos are faster than cars on the narrow and winding roads which we went through. Maybe this is the way to see Hyderabad in future.

I accepted the first price bid by the driver, so he was happy enough to stop whenever I wanted take a photo. The gate in this photo was a lovely gem of architecture surrounded by utilitarian dross. Perhaps it will disappear in a few years. Unfortunately there seems to be little we can do about this, except to record what we see. It was the middle of the afternoon. Shops were open and a constant stream of people went about their day’s work. In the short time I took to photograph this gate, I acquired a crowd of kibbitzers, one of whom wanted to know why I found this worth photographing. My sincere answer to such a question is that it is beautiful. This appeal to local pride usually works to stop further questions.


The hill lived up to its reputation. It was mid-afternoon, the sun was strong and the temperature was 38 degrees. When the auto stopped at the bottom of the hill, my heart quailed; climbing was not a pheasant thought. The Undefeated lived up to his name. He gave the stairs a critical look and said “We can climb part of the way up”. Once we started up the stairs, they turned out to be shallow and broad. Part of the way up we saw the granite slope of the hill bearing many smaller rocks. They seemed to be poised to roll down the slope, but they had been there long enough for people to have painted names on them. As we climbed we realized that the view would be wonderful at sunrise or sunset and at night. That’s one thing to keep in mind for another time.


Apparently, the Moula Ali who gave his name to this dargah was the son-in-law of the prophet. Strangely it is not his remains which the dargah contains, but a “miraculous” hand-print attributed to him. Whatever. The nearly 450 year old dargah was very peaceful. A family had climbed with us, the little boy running ahead, the parents and two sisters following. They went into a mosque attached to the dargah while I took photos outside. I wished the really tall ladder was not there. There were many little brown doves (Spilopelia senegalensis) in the trees around the mosque, and, ironically, none of the blue rock pigeons (Columba livia) which are so common in other cities. There were painted pots hanging from the trees outside the mosque (you can see them in the photo), whose significance was not clear to us.


We passed a massive gate on the way up. This serves as a place where the locals can sit and chat. On hot afternoons, like the one we were stuck in, it is also a place where visitors can rest for a while. There is a nice breeze, so once you are out of the sun it is cool, and quite pleasant. A Wikipedia article claims that Moula Ali is one of the eleven sites identified for protection by the city’s heritage conservation committee. When you go up there it is not hard to understand why. This recognition has brought state attention, in the form of money to repair the steps a couple of years ago, as a large plaque informed us.

We also saw another hill a little way off, with marks of what seemed like recent quarrying. I read later that this granite monolith is called the Qadam-e-Rasul, and has a mosque which supposedly holds some relics of the prophet. Apparently Moula Ali Gutta also has some temples; we did not see any, but then we did not climb all the way up.


We climbed down the hill, and our auto was waiting right at the bottom of the steps. Nearby two youngsters were deep in consultation over books which looked like exam keys. Both of them were dressed in black, even on that hot afternoon. They readily agreed to be photographed: no questions about who we were, and why we wanted the photos. If they had asked why, what would their reaction have been to the truth about the quality of light, the colour contrast between their shirts and the surrounding walls, and the paired contrast between their youth and the age of the street they stood in? The weird thing about photography is that only later does one actually look at the faces of people and wonder about their stories.

Mysterious Mitawali

The approach road to Mitawali temple, seen from the hill

Somewhere between Gwalior and the Chambal River, off National Highway 3, in the middle of nowhere, is the serene temple of Mitawali. Why do I say in the middle of nowhere? Because even 10 kilometers away, villagers give you blank looks when you ask about this place. We learnt to ask for Morena and Thekari, and drive slowly, keeping an eye out for the completely missable signs. Our attempt to find this place was not helped by the dense fog two winters ago, and the fact that the driver ignored the GPS and got lost inside an industrial area just outside Gwalior.

Eventually we saw an isolated hill with a flat structure on top. Preciousss, who was the only one who had bothered to look at the photos on the web was certain that we had found the place. We drove towards it, and found that we had to leave the tarred road at some point and go on to a dirt track. This track ends at the bottom of the hill. As you can see from the view above, the only road leading to the hill is a dirt track. At least the road was better than the reports we had read of it.

External view of the Mitawali temple

At the top is a strange temple: flat and round, unlike any temple we had seen before. There seems to be a family taking care of the structure. They keep it locked up and open the door for tourists. There is some speculation that the structure was copied in the architecture of the parliament building. There is no evidence for this, and it seems to be a traveller’s tale which joins up the circular shape of this temple with the only other famous Indian building which is circular. When you read that the temple originally had shikharas, the connection with the parliament does seem far-fetched.

The temple is almost bare of decorations, unlike most Indian temples. Around the middle of every major pillar on the outside is a small decorative carving (as you can see in the photo above). They are very nicely executed, but I did not see anything unique about them. The inside is also equally bare of carvings. Perhaps this started off as a reasonably normal-looking temple, but the interesting carvings were stolen over the centuries.

Internal view of the Mitawali temple

The inside looks even less like a temple. The outer circle contains cells: sixty four according to some; I’m afraid I did not count them. They look like bare cells of monks, but may (or may not) have contained idols earlier. Separated from this is an inner circle with what looks like a recognizable inner sanctum (garbhagriha) of a temple. The base of this inner circle is set with intersting carved stone grilles. Could they be meant for drainage? Since there is no other obvious drain, it seems likely.

According to an inscription found here, dated V.S. 1380 (A.D. 1323) the temple was constructed by Maharaja Devapala.
ASI Website

There was no ASI board at the site, so I do not even know how old the temples are (some sources say 9th century, others date it to the 14th century). Some members of the family which stays here claimed that the temple is a thousand years old, but then they also claimed that their family has been here since the temple was founded. The chances of both statements being correct are negligible.

[Note added: The 14th century dating is borne out by the ASI]

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

Wonderful as the temple is, a discovery on the climb up to it turned out to be as spectacular. The path has been carved into steps, faced with stone blocks which seem to be quarried from the surrounding stone. I saw lovely fossils in these stones. Many of the steps have patterns of ferns and branching leaves. You could be fooled for a moment into thinking that they have been carved there. But then a careful look is enough to convince you that they are really fossils.

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

There is no way to find out how old the steps are, although the workmanship and wear suggests a recent origin. If the stone was quarried in the same hill, a very likely supposition, unfortunately, then perhaps the hill is full of fossils. The exposed stone on the climb is clearly not igneous, consisting instead of almost perfectly horizontal strata. So perhaps the hill is full of fossils. There are so many mysteries about this place, and so little seems to be documented.

The general lawlessness around this area had allowed the nearby temples of Bateswar to be lost, until perhaps a decade ago. Is the family in residence in the Mitawali temple actually in legal residence, or have they occupied the place? Is this even a protected monument? If so, which part is protected?

[Note added: The ASI website suggests that this is a protected monument under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India]

The step well of Adalaj

Pigeon in a well

While in Ahmedabad on work, I find a gap of two hours between meetings. This is just long enough to make a quick trip to the closest step well. It is just past the middle of March, but the daytime temperature in Ahmedabad is already in the upper thirties. The sun is bright enough to burn out the delicate earth tones of the local architecture. My tired eyes catch only the splashes of Bougainvillea in bloom, and the bright shades of traditional clothes. As I descend into the step well, called a vav in Gujarati, there is a welcome cool gloom. The heat of the sun does not percolate far down.

Hanging out in a well

The place is bustling. There are the expected few tourists with cameras. But there is an unexpected crowd of young people hanging around, chatting and taking group selfies. Also, there is a constant stream of Ahmedabadi visitors, going up and down the stairs in family groups. In the shade near the upper steps a middle-aged lady sits quietly, occasionally talking to younger people who climb up and down past her. On my last visit here, more than 15 years ago, the surroundings were crowded, and the well was empty. The busy neighbourhood has been cleared away. Around the step well is open space and a park. I expect a ticket booth and an entrance fee, but there is none. A little signboard outside gives the history of the well: it was ordered to be constructed in 1499 by Mohammad Begda for the use of Rani Roopbai, the wife of the local chieftain.

Step wells are found around India, but mainly in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The welcome relief from the heat and sun that I found would have been always been a draw. In the wet plains of eastern India, village ponds are social spaces: places to sit or meet. I imagine that in the past these wells would have served an equal, and perhaps bigger, social function. This seems to be the pattern being re-established here.

A riot of decorations

From outside one sees a low parapet with a single storied “tower” near one end. There are three entrances to the well: from the east, west and north. These three flights of stairs meet in a central landing which is a riot of decorations, as you can see in the photo above. Interestingly the decorations mix recognizable Islamic motifs such as vines and geometric shapes with Hindu motifs such as elephants on the base of pillars and lintels. Most openings in the roof have been covered over with iron grills. A caretaker told me that’s for protection and against pigeons, and to prevent people from falling.

From this first landing, stairs descend southwards for another four stories. Earlier I had walked all the way to the water. Now there is a barrier two stories above the level of the water. You can look down the first octagonal shaft at the iron grill covering the surface of the water. The second well-shaft is no longer accessible, nor are the side niches which I remember as being beautifully decorated with carved stone.


The garden around the well is a startling green in the middle of sun-baked roads. Mud squelches under my feet as I step on to the grass. Large quantities of water must be needed to keep the thick layer of grass so fresh. The little park is surrounded by trees which provide shade for the few lovers I see, each pair sitting close. A gardener tells me that there has been a lot of water in the well in the last couple of years. Maybe that is why the park is so fresh. Perhaps if I come in the middle of a dry spell of years the lawn will look more parched.

I walk the short path around the lawn wondering about the odd changes. I could quibble about the aesthetics of the ironwork, but overall I like the changes: more people, a nice green park. But what happened to the crowded settlement which I seem to remember? Could I be mistaken? Am I confusing this for some other well? Later I call The Family. She does not remember the surroundings of the well. I talk to my brother, he confirms that the place was crowded earlier.

I get back in my air-conditioned car. The driver is talking into his mobile. He finishes his dispute and we leave.

Reading or writing?

“I’m coming as the president of a friend,
and I’m coming as a sportsman.”
–George W. Bush,
on his trip to the Olympics in China,
Washington, D.C., July 30, 2008

A few minutes with Google translate convinced me that I could speak Pǔtōnghuà (Mandarin), but others might not understand it. The world needs more than the few weeks remaining before I leave for China to come to grips with my Mandarin. Pinyin, which is Chinese written out in Roman characters, is apparently not going to help in China.

Could writing hànzi (Chinese characters) be easier? Having once learnt how to tell exit from entry and the men’s from the ladies’, I know that this is about what I could learn. I’m not interested in reading newspapers, just figuring out signboards. I need to know just enough to write the basic numbers and some important stuff like “Do you know English?”

There’s a great page on the Forbes’ website which gives me a basic eight character vocabulary. Look at it, it is definitely a confidence booster. Until you realize that you need to learn a few thousand characters to read newspapers.

Chinese numerals

Numbers don’t seem hard. The above table comes from this page, which also tells you how to combine these symbols into composite numbers. The Chinese system for writing numbers is simple and intuitive. I should be able to recognize a printed number. This website shows how to write these characters.

It turns out that you specify a month by writing a number between 1 and 12 and following it with the symbol for month: 月 (meaning moon, pronounced yuè). The first month is January. Days of the week are written by first writing 星期 (pronounced xīngqí) followed by the numbers 1 to 6 (Monday to Saturday). I rest on Sunday.

A tool called Skritter teaches you how to write various characters, and the rules for writing hanxi in general. It’s a great tool actually.

A quick weekend dash

Lonavala is not “real nature”. It is bungalows with gardens, but that is enough of a change from Mumbai that you might want to dash there now and then during busy times. Locked up old bungalows with imposing gates and no fences were common some years back. They are slowly giving way to weekend fortresses with high walls and closed gates which shut off concrete aprons. But there are few of these as yet. So the colourful birds and insects are still there. Bulbuls still scream in the trees, and purple sunbirds glitter in gardens.

Purple sunbird

We made a quick weekend dash to Lonavala with friends: just an evening and a morning really. The air is already beginning to get warm. It was not too crowded, you could go out to eat without having to wait for a really long time. What do you do in Lonavala? You wind down the tempo of life. You go for a long walk, debate where to eat, decide on one place and then go somewhere else. Then you go for other long walks. You laugh at the kilometer of shop frontages along the highway, all announcing that they are the original Maganlal Chikki shop. We went in once to the crowded market outside the railway station to the usual pilgrimage: Cooper’s Fudge. Not that we are really that fond of fudge, but is it really a trip to Lonavala if you have not been insulted or snubbed by the irascible Parsi owner of this institution? We spent half an hour looking for a place with an old fashioned espresso machine which can serve up frothed milk with a dash of instant coffee which they call espresso. The pace of life really is that slow.

Isn’t China like India?

Email to one of my hosts:

The hotels you suggest seem very nice. My wife will be with me for two weeks or so and during this time it would be nice if we had access to a little kitchen. If it not possible, then we will, of course, be very happy to choose one of the hotels.

Instant reply:

I will contact the program manager about your question. I’ll get back to you soon.

Several days later my host wrote back:

I have asked the staff and they told me there are no nearby hotels which have rooms with kitchen. I am sorry for that so you have to choose from the list.

I replied:

Thanks for trying. I’ve now marked my choice of hotels.

Instant reply:

Thank you for your information. There are really apartments with kitchen, but they are poorly equipped and mainly for junior people in China, not for senior foreigners like you.

Why didn’t he say this before? Why did he say it now?

I totally understood. This conversation was not lost in translation. South of the Himalayas we do things the same way. I love travelling in Asia because of these sudden cultural resonances. Sometimes you are in a country where you cannot speak the language, you are a little overwhelmed, and then there will be a conversation like this, which makes you feel you are home.

We are now looking forward to the trip even more. Of course, still with a little anxiety because neither The Family nor I know the language at all.

A cat that catches the mouse

As part of my education on China I’m trying to read something other than history and travel books. There is a lot of modern literature, and there are movies. And there is also interesting journalism. Several years back I’d read a book Pallavi Aiyar about her time as China bureau chief for the Chennai newspaper “The Hindu”. I must read it again.

Two books which I read recently talk of China from completely different perspectives, but are strangely similar. The first is “China Road”, a book by a reporter, Rob Gifford, who travels from Shanghai to Korgaz (a border crossing to Kazakhstan) a large part of it along the old silk route. The style is the modern western travel book: a little bit of a drifter, a little of the old orientalist adventurer, and very much the commentator from the first world. The second book is “China in Ten Words”, written by Yu Hua, a Chinese author still living in China. Again, this is a familiar voice, of an older person growing up within a culture which has changed unrecognizably within a lifetime: commenting on the changes and trying to identify the constants in the culture.

When China was going through the Cultural Revolution, India was not doing too well either. There was a shortage of food in both countries, but middle-class Indians generally thought they were better off. Now, two generations later, the question that the middle class asks is how we can do as well as China. There are hard facts behind this. In 1980 the average per capita income of a person in China was 30% less than in India; in 2013 it was 350% more. There is a throwaway discussion in Gifford’s book which says that the legitimacy of the Chinese political system depends on continuing improvements in people’s lifestyles, whereas India’s democratic system only means that non-functional governments get removed in an election, even if the alternative is no better. This is an explanation which I have read from Pallavi Aiyar too, so I wonder whether this is folk wisdom among foreign journaists in China.


India and China seem to have arrived at roughly similar circumstances in two completely different ways. In fact, many of the stories in these two books seem like they could have come from India. Yu Hua uses four words to anchor his discussion of modern China: disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. These are words that the Indian press could very well use to describe aspects of today’s India.

Did the cultural revolution destroy the old China? This is never stated, but implied in both books. I wonder. I was once taken to dinner by my Chinese colleagues at a restaurant built to impress. It was a space built like a hangar to hold a couple of Dreamliners. I saw two wedding dinners in progress. We were led deep into this space and into a private room for our banquet. Sometime during the dinner I asked one of my hosts about the calligraphy carved into one of the walls. There was consultation between several people before the words were translated. I was told that this was not easy to read because the characters were in an older style. It was a classical poem copied out by Mao Zedong.

A cat that catches the mouse is a good cat, no matter whether it is black or white. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Cultural Revolution certainly changed China enough that today’s nation could emerge. In some sense it was a fast track to modernity, but at the expense of one lost generation. The Indian experiment is certainly not on any kind of a fast track, but who knows where it will lead in a couple of generations? Will the Indians of the 2050s look back on the past four generations as lost? The answer may well determine the staying power of Bollywood: going by Kishore Kumar’s songs or the remakes of Amitabh Bachchan movies, the generations of the 1960s and 70s were not lost.