Pressing matters

Walking around Shaniwar Wada in Pune, I was impressed by this juicer. I’ve earlier seen this kind of a machine being used to extract juice from sugar cane. Here it has been put to use to extract juice from pineapples too. The man in the checked shirt got a large mug of pineapple juice. I guess a press of this kind can be used to extract juice from any hard fruit.

I liked the sight of that charm hanging over the machine: the lime and chilis on a string. The shopkeeper also has made the effort to put a garland of flowers around the press. That’s nice. The bells tied around the big wheel make a nice jingling sound while the press is running.

The area around Pune produces sugarcane as a primary crop. So I guess machines of this kind are fairly common. Then it stands to reason that the same machine will be put to other uses as well. Innovation!


Commoners take over the Court

Shaniwar Wada in Pune was the seat of the Peshwas in the declining years of the Maratha empire. The palace complex was built in the first third of the 18th century CE, and burnt down in 1828. A Peshwa was originally the prime minister of the Maratha king, but during these years became effectively the head of the empire, and the position became hereditary. Although the empire was not as strong as it was in the beginning of the 18th century, a large part of India’s politics was transacted in this complex. This former place of power is now effectively a walled garden for Puneris.

As we entered the main gate of the palace, I saw this middle aged man relaxing near the entrance. I wondered whether he was retired and found this a good place to get away from home and do some people watching, or whether he’d had a tiring day at work, and was just sitting here for a while before making his way home. It didn’t look like he was planning to stay here long.

From the ramparts I looked down at the front apron. Families were milling about, each trying to take a photo against the walls of the palace. As I watched, this girl positioned her family behind her and took a selfie. It took a couple of tries, but the one she’s examining in the photo above seemed to satisfy them all.

I positioned myself in front of this arch because the doorway and the stairs behind it made a nice picture. The photo would come to life when someone came down the stairs. I was lucky, the first people to descend were this young couple. I saw many couples like them in the complex. The seat of the Peshwas has now become a garden for couples to spend time in.

This lady was clearly determined to have a little time by herself. She was in a rather nice sari, sitting alone on the bench (it was very pleasant in the shade). She was quite relaxed while watching people around her. But she noticed me taking her photo and stiffened.

In 1818 the Maratha empire lost their final battle against the British forces in Khadki and Koregaon, not far from this palace. Just a short hundred years later, three or four generations, almost in living memory, the court of the Peshwas has become the playing ground of commoners. What could happen in another hundred?

Wrought Angles

After watching a little club cricket in India’s cricketing nursery of Oval Maidan, I crossed the road to take photos of the wonderful wrought iron railings that I’d noticed for years. Next to an elegant design in right angles set off by one wavy line, I spotted this young man lost in his phone. The right angles of his posture mirrored the railing. He didn’t notice me standing near him and taking photos. A passerby stopped to exchange a smile with me.


We came into Muenster on a rainy Sunday in November. Muenster is usually very lively, but Sunday is a bit of an exception. Many things are closed. When we came to the beautiful building called the Erbdrostenhof, we found that it was closed. This is the work of the master German baroque architect Johann Conrad Schlaun. The building was completed in 1757. My first reaction to it was that it was much smaller and cramped than I had imagined it to be.

The Family and I admired the three-winged building from outside the closed gates. The central facade is of sandstone, and the two side wings is faced with red clinker. These and the quartered windows are characteristic of the buildings that Schlaun designed. Unfortunately, since the building was closed, we could not go in to see the ballroom, which is supposed to be a marvel of restoration. We walked around to the back, but the walls there were high and did not let us have a good look. I guess we will have to go back to see this again.

Walking around a village

We drove a few hours from Kochi to Thattekad, and reached a home stay on the far side of the Periyar river. In the evening we crossed the river for a walk around Thattekad village. From the highway it looked like there was only a rain-forest nearby. Then I saw the little path worn away by regular use. As we followed the path, I realized that this was not a pristine rain-forest; it had been cleared for human use.

The word ecosystem comes to mind as you walk around the village. The network of species is not as dense as it would be inside the protected forest, but you can see it here very easily.

A speckled piculet pecked away at a bare tree: there were clearly insects running up the trunk. I’d never seen a piculet before.

Ants swarmed over tiny yellow flowers which I didn’t recognize. They pollinate the flowers even as they harvest nectar. Elsewhere, a deeper food chain: aphid colonies have taken over a patch of bushes, and ants run up and down them, clipping their wings and harvesting the honey dew which they secrete.

There were flowers which I did not recognize. The one thing which I did was the touch-me-not, familiar from my childhood. Its leaves curl up if you touch them. This was the plant whose name, Mimosa pudica, first introduced me to Latin binomials.

Above us a plum-headed parakeet hung upside down, feeding on tiny fruits. Parakeets disperse seeds widely, and are key players in keeping a forest alive.

As soon as you get away from a city you begin to see the web of life which covers our planet.

The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.

A doorway is just a place to wait in

On the best of days, the rest of Maharashtra thinks of the residents of Pune as thrifty. Stories abound of how a Puneri will buy a litre packet of milk, empty the packet, wash it, and sell it to the neighbourhood junk dealer. Walking around Shaniwar Wada, the seat of power in India until exactly two centuries ago, I came across this Puneri institution. The red sign board proclaimed that this establishment deals in junk of all kinds. The black chalk board set rates for old newspapers, and, yes, empty milk packets!

As I walked by, the owner came out to lean on the door. Puneris are supposed to be notoriously unfriendly, especially to people from Mumbai. So I didn’t ask for permission, but clicked away. He looked up, saw me, and walked back in. I could imagine him muttering to himself, “Tourist!”. So typically Puneri.

Sumer is icumen in

I’m suffering from a cough and cold even as the temperature climbs into the mid thirties (Celsius, in case you are confused). The humidity has already started creeping up, reminding me of how bad May will get. Right in front of the window I see a mango tree beginning to fruit. If these fruits stay on the branch, they would ripen by the middle of May. Mangos are the compensation for the discomfort of summer. But it is very likely that these mangos will have become panha well before they ripen.

This is also the season when you get the most colourful moths. Walking to the lift the other day I noticed many of these two kinds of moths sitting on the wall, basking in the morning sun. They are about two centimeter long, and extremely visible in the light. The fact that crows and other birds do not make a quick snack of them probably means that they are either poisonous or not very tasty.

It has become warm enough to remind me of the medieval English song: “Sumer is icumen in/ Lhude sing cuccu.” A Koel is a cuckoo, isn’t it? I did hear a Koel the other day, but I think that was a ring tone on someone’s phone and not the bird. It’s nor really summer yet.

Malabar Trogons

In Urulanthanni near Thattekad we had our first sighting of the Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus). The bright red male caused a commotion in the group, resulting in a bit of jostling. The one person who managed to take a clear photo of the bird was J. Multiflora, whose photos you see here. Soon after, the male left its perch and we could see it through gaps in the canopy sallying and diving, presumably to catch its prey. Trogons are known to eat all manners of insects; an enumeration found that it prefers stick insects and caterpillars. The feeding occurred too far away for us to see anything but the repeated flight of the bird.

The female (photo above) is less brightly coloured. We saw one nearby. Since Trogons are known to pair-bond, and January is in the nesting season, I assumed that these two were a pre-nesting pair. Since Trogons vigorously defent their territories, I would think that the chances are high that these two were a pair. The female did not move much as we watched the male hunting. Usually a visible difference between sexes of birds means that there is a difference in their roles while rearing chicks. In the H. fasciatus, both sexes share the task of making a hole in a dead tree for the nest, and they share the job of incubating the egg as well as brooding and feeding the young. So, is the colour of the male Trogon purely due to sexual selection?

There have been several detailed studies of Malabar Trogons. But clearly there are still questions to which answers are not known.

The Sri Lanka frogmouth

Frogmouths were in my bucket list. With their distinctive extra-wide mouths and pointed beak, they have to be on every bird watcher’s list of things to be seen. The Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) is the only one found in India. The nocturnal birds are hard to spot during the day because they are beautifully camouflaged as a mass of dry leaves, and usually sit in the shade under a canopy of a tall tree. As more birdwatchers become aware of it, it is being seen fairly far north in the Western Ghats; in 2012 it was even spotted in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. Fortunately, they are creatures of habit. If they aren’t disturbed then they could come back to the same tree year after year. A good local guide will usually lead you to a pair fairly quickly.

“Look around. Even if the trek is slow don’t worry. Record everything you see. Closely watch dry trees and dry leaves, the Frogmouth may be hiding there.” — Salim Ali (1976) to R. Sugathan, who rediscovered the Frogmouth in Silent Valley, Kerala in 1976.

In Thattekad, at the edge of the protected rain forest, we saw lots of insect eating birds during the day: drongos, woodpeckers, bee eaters, and so on. At night the air would become full of insects. So it made instant sense when Adesh began to talk of nightjars and frogmouths, nocturnal birds which feed on insects. I would have loved to see frogmouths flying about with their gaping mouths open, hoovering up swarms of insects. When I looked up family relations between these birds I found that DNA studies place frogmouths, nightjars, swifts, and hummingbirds together into a group called Strisores. Interestingly, these form a group of birds which diverged very early from the rest of birds, perhaps as far back as 70 million years ago! The night really calls strongly to this group.

I looked at the photos taken by J. multiflorum (one of which is the featured photo) and noticed the abundant facial bristles. What use are they? I could not find anything written about the function of these bristles. So little is still known about these birds! My last sighting of the day was of the legendary field biologist, R. Sugathan, who rediscovered the frogmouths in Kerala in 1976. He was sipping a coffee as we walked past, and pointed out an uncharacteristically silent racquet-tailed drongo.