Our train arrived in Jamnagar in time for breakfast. This is a big affair anywhere in Gujarat. Before we could get to the food I needed chai. Lots of it. There had been precious little of it on the train. It wasn’t a problem here at all. These guys were set up to serve the perfect Gujarati tea: milky, boiled with dust tea, lots of sugar and ginger, a perfect early morning drink really: the sweetness of fruit juice with a kick of caffeine.
A cup in hand, I was ready to look at the legendary cook who makes the best breakfast in the neighbourhood. He sat surrounded by his parapharnelia, kneading a twist of besan mixed with ajwain. In a short while he’d rolled out strips of fafra and thrown them into a kadhai full of hot oil. Thin strips of gathia followed. The fat chilis were already fried and waiting on a thali in front of him.
Jalebi and dhokla appeared from jars next to him. Unlike the north, where jalebi is eaten hot, Gujaratis eat jalebi cold. This cook is a specialist; he makes his living selling breakfast in this tiny but extremely popular stall. Our table was soon piled with plates full of all these things. “The chilis make this a high fibre breakfast compared to what we had in Hampi,” I remarked to The Family. It was going to be hard not to put on weight if our breakfasts continued to be like this.
I had emails from colleagues in Wuhan. The city was isolated around the time of the Chinese new year, when some families had left on their annual holiday, and others were preparing to leave. Those who had not left have now been confined to their flats for weeks. I remembered several months ago when I was in Wuhan, perhaps not long before the novel virus crossed over to humans. I’d gone for an afternoon’s walk along the Yangtze. This is a place where mothers and grandparents bring their toddlers, and retirees come to chat or fish.
The path was hazarded by children running and stumbling. Several of them had bubble makers with them and were busy spinning out long bubbles. I wondered if it is possible to make a toy which blows bubbled shaped like doughnuts. I don’t think the little girl in the photo had anything on her mind apart from blowing longer and longer bubbles.
It was a pleasant and sunny winter afternoon. Novembers can be rather cold in this part of the world, but this was an unusually mild November, with the winter sun warming my jacket very pleasantly. Boats glided past on the river, its banks loaded with tall grass at points. I love the sight of this kind of grass: it reminds me of a scene in a movie by Satyajit Ray where a boy and his elder sister run through such a field to see a train.
But what really attracts me here is the variety of kites on display. Often they are the standard rectangles and triangles, some with long tail streamers. But they are wonderfully decorated. A lot of them have pop culture theme: dragons from one of the most popular movies of 2010, angry birds, Tweety, as well as anime characters which I don’t recognize. They are clearly aimed at the younger end of the crowd.
I watched several in flight. Some of them were being flown by a single person, but several involved a whole family. A child, grandparents, mother. It struck me that like in India, kite flying is more a boy’s and men’s sport in China. Women are involved, but the boy or grandfather take on leading roles. Why is that?
Among all this was a delightfully more complex kite: the box kite that you see in the photos above. I’d never seen a box kite when I was young, and what I read of them never led me to successfully build one. So now if I see one I’m entranced. I stood and watched as the kite seller and the customer handled the kite on the ground. As it soared up I stood to watch. I suppose afternoons are not so pleasant in Wuhan in these months.
This is a day when I need to keep my cool as I do some intense traveling to meetings. Just think of all the nice times spent in Hampi watching birds. Don’t dwell on the strenuous spotting, just recall the old familiars who appear when you least expect them. Some of them are dear to my heart because they are the first ones whose names I learnt, or ones which I have slowly got to be able to identify at a glance. That’s what my experiences friends call the jizz of the bird.
In the gallery above you see a white-browed wagtail aka large pied wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), which wags its tail as it feeds, but runs quite fast when it thinks a human is close by. The spotted owlet (Athena brama), which you also see in the featured photo, is a familiar across most of India, although it seems to be unknown in the north-east and north-west. The laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is a familiar across the villages and small towns of India, but sadly invisible in the cities. The red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), seen here hanging upside down to eat molasses, is a true survivor, being found even in large cities. The little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is my familiar; crowds of these spectacularly coloured birds hang about in wires around my flat, making short forays to grab an insect out of the air. They give me a lot of practice with my camera and binoculars when I’m home, and I’m always glad to see a familiar swoop when I’m away. The Southern grey shrike aka Iberian grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis) is the odd one out. It should be a familiar, but it is not. I hope that I will be able to recognize it in the field more often now that I’ve spent so much time with it in Hampi.
It took me too long to figure out what this dilapidated, but once grand, structure was. That it was situated in the middle of the old town of Jamnagar should have been a clue. The part of this clue that you may not possess is that Jamnagar was the capital of one of the old princely states which merged into Gujarat after independence. That the area this stood in was called Darbar Garh should have been the final clue.
Instead I stood cluelessly in front of the enormous gate which is now a backdrop to a little vegetable market, and gawped. As I took a few photos I began to wonder whether this was the ancient palace. That gate would have taken an elephant with a large howdah on top of it. I looked at it for a while. On one side of it were exuberantly decorative scalloped arches, the other side had severe lines of lancet arches. Just above the enormous doors of the main entrance was a carved wooden balcony.
As I moved closer to take another photo of the door, an inset door opened and a man stepped out. I’d finally come to the conclusion that this must have been the palace of the Jam Sahib of Jamnagar. Memories of the cricketer Ranjitsinhji swirled in my mind and congealed around this idea. I had vague memories of Ranji playing Test cricket for England at the end of the 19th century CE (he was in the English Test team from 1896 to 1903). Didn’t he also represent India at the League of Nations? How old was this palace?
The city is supposed to have been founded in 1540 CE, perhaps with the original fortified palace somewhere in this place. The Gujarat sultanate had been annexed by the Mughal empire by Akbar five years before this. The Jamsahibs were allies of the Mughals. The current look of the town is attributed largely to a rebuilding by Ranjitsinhji in the 1920s. I suppose the European influenced wing of the palace was added in his time.
There seemed to be no ticket booth. Indeed, the whole place looked derelict. I read later that the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 had damaged the palace. No attempt has been made to restore this wonderful structure which, even at a superficial glance, contains wings built over a long period of history. I moved back to take photos of the fresh vegetables, which are the main reasons why people stop by this relic of history today.
A common rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae) flew round a patch of flowers in the sunlight. I find them maddenning. They fly fast, settle very briefly and seem to move so randomly that it is hard to get a bearing on them. At least I got this one in the frame. Identifying this one can be a little tricky, since the female of a common mormon (Papilio polytes) mimics it. The only way to tell them apart is to note that the rose has a red body, whereas the mormon is black-bodied. The rose is common in South and South-east Asia, and I’ve seen it everywhere in India. It seems to reach peak activity late in the morning, around the time I’ve finished a morning’s birding on an empty stomach. Just about when I would like nothing better than to settle down with some chai and large breakfast, one or more of these will put in an appearance. At such a time would you really feel up to chasing them from flower to flower? I do it reluctantly, which is perhaps why I don’t have a single fabulous photo of this butterfly.
We walked through the brightly lit and festive streets of Kochi on Christmas Eve. We’d had a big lunch and were looking forward to a wonderful dinner, so this long walk was really necessary. About the time that the sun went down we tried to look into St. Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was buried for a while, but it had already closed. We walked down the road to order the special bread called the breudher from a bakery which I’d located after some searching. The last part of this walk took us out of touristy parts of Kochi and into roads lined with houses which were lit up for the festival.
Almost a third of Kerala’s population is Christian, and most of them follow an Orthodox church. Some are counted as the oldest churches in the world, perhaps older than the church of Rome. The Indian church was represented in the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first organized gathering of the Christian religion. What we see today, however, is also strongly influenced by later contact with Europe. The Indian Orthodox church celebrates Christmas, but I always wonder which part of people’s celebrations at home come through the original eastern line of traditions, and which were adopted later from the western traditions.
The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica was gearing up for its midnight mass. The lighting scheme for Christmas was interesting. The Portuguese were allowed to build a church at this spot and its foundation stone was laid in 1505 CE. This was reputedly the first mortar and stone building in Kochi which was not a royal palace. It was declared a Cathedral in 1558, converted into an armoury by the Dutch in 1663, and destroyed by the British in 1793. The tall column in the foreground of the photo above seems to be mostly a modern structure, but the base could be part of a granite column from this old building.
Construction of a new church on the same site was started in 1887 by the Bishop of Kochi, but the building took some time to complete. It was finally consecrated in 1905 and declared to be a Basilica in 1984. A look inside showed it to be an exuberantly early 20th century construction: full of cast iron. If we ever go back at a less busy time I would take the time to look at the frescoes and paintings inside, but also a close look at this construction. One sees very few large churches from this era.
While I waited for bears inside a hide in the Daroji Bear Sanctuary, a ruddy mongoose (Herpestes smithii) put in an appearance. I’ve only had fleeting glimpses of this furtive creature before: I can tell its colour from that of the more common grey mongoose, and I know that failing everything, one can tell it by its black-tipped tail. It is one of several species of mongoose which are found in the forests of India. IUCN classes it as being of least concern for conservation action because of “presumed large population, and because it is unlikely to be declining at nearly the rate required to qualify for listing in a threatened category. The impacts of habitat loss and degradation and hunting on populations are not precisely known…” (the emphases are mine). Given the great boom in wildlife tourism in India, I’m surprised that there is so little support for wildlife science. There is neither money nor manpower to make estimates of the number of these animals left in our shrinking jungles. In general, small carnivores of India are barely studied.
This was the best opportunity that I’ve had to look at the behaviour of the ruddy mongoose in the wild. It seems to forage with its attention close to the ground in front of it, as you can see in the little video clip here. It spent a long time in hiding under a large boulder before it stepped into the open. I could not see it, and do not know whether it scanned a large area before setting out on a foraging trip. It has good vision and hearing, and perhaps a good sense of smell too. It dug between boulders and found things to eat. Going by the places it picked food from, it was eating small things, perhaps insects, perhaps organic matter trapped in little fissures in the granite. I wish I knew.
A ten year old phylogenetic study by six scientists from France and New Zealand concluded that mongooses differentiated about 22 million years ago, and the Asian species diverged from the rest about 15 million years ago. Genetic studies can be carried out from a very few specimens. Field studies require money and manpower. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the life expectancy of a ruddy mongoose in the wild, no study of breeding seasons and litter size (the IUCN site claims that sexual maturity is reached between the ages of 4 and 5 years), no consensus about whether it is diurnal or nocturnal (I’ve only ever seen it during the day), its diet is unknown, its main predators are not known. It is a cipher.
“Get it over with,” was The Family’s verdict. “Let’s go to the beach and sea the fishing nets.” The fishing nets were much less impressive than icons of tourism have any right to be, but just before you reach them is heaven. At least a cat’s version of heaven: a sea food market with all the wonderful catch from boats pulled up between the shore nets. Everything you want is there: lobsters, squid in its own ink, octopus, shark, shrimp, shark!
A large fraction of the people at the beach were examining the fish with interest, but it didn’t look like much was being sold. There was much I couldn’t recognize, so I sent off the album to my family, large parts of which have dedicated their lives to fish. After the clamour died down there were IDs for four varieties of fish: small pomfret, rays, blue runner and the pearl spot. The many varieties of edible marine arthropods that you see in these photos remain unidentified down to the species. Sea food fans, if you have any further IDs, please leave them in the comments to the photo. Otherwise just enjoy, like the cat in the chair.
Our last walk in Hampi was along the Tungabhadra river. The previous afternoon in the museum I’d looked at a scale model of the capital city of Vijayanagara and noted some structures which we hadn’t seen. Now, looking carefully at the map I found a walking route to them along the river. The heat of the day had dissipated when we reached the calm river. There were people about, but it wasn’t crowded, and the walk was pleasant.
In this part of the old capital, the only things still standing seem to be some temples. The first one as we turned in towards the ruins of the Sulai bazaar was one dedicated to Lakshmi. Next to the entrance was a lovely carving of her consort, Vishnu, lying down with the Seshanaga coiled protectively above him. The temple interior was too dark for a good photo of the main idol. In any case parts of it had been chiselled off by thieves a century or more ago.
Still at the foot of the bazaar was another temple, blocky and square. I peeped in. I had had my fill of temples for the day. We’d started with the Hajaramu temple, gone on to see the remains of Anegundi north of the river, with its temples, and now we were back for more. On another day I would have walked in.
This is called the Varaha temple, because of the boar carved on the walls next to the entrance. The usual relief sculptures of Ganga and Jamuna flanked the door with water cascading down on them in picturesque whorls. The woman who you see in the photo above represents Ganga. I turned back and walked through Sulai bazaar and into the grand temple at the other end. That’s a story I’ve written about earlier.
On our way back we saw two people on a haragolu in the river. This is a coracle made of woven reeds with a tarred cloth stretched over the bottom to make it waterproof. They resemble the Vietnamese coracles in shape and design so much that I wonder whether there is some cultural exchange here. The Champa kingdoms of Vietnam were intermediaries in the trade between India and China in the 10th and 11th centuries. So it is not unlikely that the Hoysala empire, which held this area before Vijayanagara, and Champa had cultural exchange. I’d seen coracles in the area around Da Nang, which is the region where the Champa capital of Indrapuri was in those days. Are these haragolu that old? And if they are, then which way did the coracle technology go?
It was getting dark, and the path had no lights. A crowd was now streaming past me, going back towards Hampi. I wondered where they had been all this time. During the evening I’d seen few people. I took a last couple of photos of the river and rocks. It was time to go. Our train back to Bengaluru would leave in a few hours.
Fort Kochi has been home to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a very large art exhibition, for almost a decade now. This was a deliberate attempt by the state government to renew historic Fort Kochi, with the help of some of Kerala’s best known contemporary artists. The four month long event in the winter of every even year draws several hundred thousand visitors. We visited in an off-Biennale year when hotels rates have not gone into orbit.
The Biennale leaves a residue of interesting art on the streets of Kochi, and we had great fun spotting these commissioned works. There were pieces executed in 2018, and the remnants of works made in earlier years. Art is ephemeral, and street art is an urgent reminder to enjoy it while it lasts. The enormous wrinkled faces and the protraits of ordinary people seemed to be no more than a year old. The birds soaring over bare concrete was older and will be gone in a few more months. On other walls we saw guerilla art, unlicensed work. That will take another post.