Monsoon is made of such things

The Indian Ocean monsoon is a massive planetary scale circulatory system which we are just beginning to understand. Much more easy to see are the things that happen at our scale. In the last decade or slightly more, there have been longer dry spells between heavier showers. Thirty centimeters of rain or more in a few hours is no longer rare. There’s an emergency of this kind every couple of years in Mumbai.

Storm coming in

If you face the open sea on the west of Mumbai you will see very often a storm coming in. You can take a photo, and then look at the satellite map to marvel at the scale of the storm cloud. Sometimes it covers hundred of kilometers. The new views that a phone can add enhance the sense of wonder that one feels about the monsoon. You are not alone. Across the country a million others are seeing this storm coming.

Roads full of water

When the storm passes and the sun comes out, there are pools of water which evaporate slowly. Above the clouds it is astronomical summer: the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. The humidity and heat can be hard. You long for the rain to cool you down.

Clouds rolling in

In the poem Meghdoot, an epic about love in the time of the monsoon, written one and a half thousand years ago, Kalidasa described the monsoon rain on these mountains as “painted streaks on a elephant’s hide”. Watching the clouds roll in over the hills, you understand that he wasn’t talking about water streaks, but the green that suddenly sprouts between rocks.

Clouds invade a dance floor

Low clouds roll relentlessly over the Sahyadris. When it invades a dance floor, it becomes a light which hangs over everything and at the same time hides everything. The dance floor is all music and light and warm moisture. I peer at The Family; we are walking on a cloud. What message does it bring?

Everything is bleak and gray

Sometimes, you think the monsoon is bleak. Roads are washed away. Dark clouds rob the world of colour. But it is warm rain that beats down on you. The hills are alive, really, and growing. When the sun comes out you see the electric green that will fade between the end of monsoon and the beginning of winter. That will be the season of festivals all over India.

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Pool of Mercury

Mercury is a liquid metal, and you could fill bowls with it. But to see a pool of Mercury, the size of a swimming pool, glistening in the sun is a little beyond one’s imagination. “Isn’t there a danger of poisoning the water supply?” I asked when I first heard of the pool of Mercury. Can their safety inspection processes really be so dependable?

The Family was having none of it. She laughed hard, and said Mercury was a god before he was a metal. The pool was not of quick silver, but of the god after all. Such a pleasant sight after all my fevered imagining.

Pool of Mercury, Alcazar of Seville

Late in the burning hot morning it was nice to stand here in the Alcazar of Seville and feel the breeze cooling as it played over the water of the pool.

A Renaissance Design

Entering the unfinished palace which Charles V wanted built next to the Alcazar of Alhambra, I had to consciously wipe my mind free of all the beauty I’d seen around it. Only then can you enter the vision of Pedro Machuca, the architect. The design is a simple geometric concept of the kind that the Renaissance ascribed to classical Greece: a circle inscribed into a square. Seen from above the outer walls form a square. Inside it is a circular patio.

Palace of CharlesV in Granada

The building is two-storied. You can see in the photo above that the columns on the lower floor are Doric and the upper are Ionic. The windows on the facade mirror this: Ionian above, and Tuscan below. Unfortunately I never took a photo of the facade. It was June, and the place was full of people. Every frame looked cluttered. In retrospect, I should have taken a photo even if it wasn’t going to look perfect.

Palace of Charles V: stairs

The Renaissance seems to have invented the modern staircase, with its even rise, so easy on the knees. Every bit of the structure drips with an unified sense of elementary geometry: see the photo above. Even the precision of the tiles on the floor gives you a sense of how the rediscovery of Greek geometry and measurements was transforming European design.

No emperor ever lived in the palace. It never even had a roof until the middle of the 20th century. As a result decorations are sparse. The medallion you see in the featured photo adorns the otherwise severe facade. Inside there are empty niches on the wall with scallop-shell designs on them. The incomplete palace is a magnificent idea, never seen again in its contemporaries. It is as startling as it would be if the Barcelona Pavilion built by Mies van der Rohe never influenced his generation.

Flowers of the Sahyadris

Kaas plateau is a seven hour drive from Mumbai. The herbs flower in the closing weeks of the monsoon: between September and early October. Many of the flowers you see here are also found in the nearby Mahabaleshwar plateau and in Lonavala, closer to Mumbai. Expect lots of small herbs, few bushes and trees only rarely. Be prepared for long walks in rain and mud, with no food and water except what you carry with you.

Flowers and herbs of the Western Ghats, especially of the Sahyadris, are now well documented. There are many guides for amateur naturalists like me. I was introduced to the pleasures of flowers by Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khadilkar; google them if you wish. There is nothing available yet for an amateur explorer of the fascinating tiny world of mosses and lichens (see the featured photo).

Mean Streets

Negotiating the mean streets of Delhi you see sometimes the car “which is not itself mean, which is neither tarnished nor afraid.” That’s a rare sight. Significantly less rare are less-than-new luxury cars. If fleeting glimpses are anything to go by, then the Mercedes E class is becoming very popular on the roads. A quick search tells me that right now there are 270 used Mercedes E classes on sale in the Delhi region. Wonder if the car which I took a photo of has been put out to pasture yet.

Purple bladderwort

The bladderwort (called Utricularia by botanists) is the biggest family of carnivorous plants. In the Kaas plateau we saw large fields of purple bladderwort. The plant is aquatic: it floats on the thin film of water trapped above the stone of the plateau. The long stalks of the plants grow leaves at intervals. The bladders, which give the family its name, grow along the leaves and usually stay below the surface of water. Bladderworts are widely known to be carnivorous plants. Their bladders trap tiny invertebrates. I later found that this two hundred year old picture of carnivory may be wrong.

Plants turn to carnivory when the soil is poor in nutrients. However, they do not give up photosynthesis; their leaves are still green with chlorophyll. Carnivory gives the plant nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen which are in short supply in the soil. The first blow to the idea of purple bladderwort being carnivorous came from careful measurements of the animals found in the bladders. These showed that at most 1% of the nitrogen and phosphorus that the plants need can come from the animals.

Purple bladderwort

Yet more amazing is that each of the bladders seemed to contain a whole live ecosystem of the small invertebrates which were trapped. New bladders did not have them, and older bladders had more animals. So it seems that the purple bladderwort is not a carnivore. It must gain something else by sustaining this ecosystem inside itself. Unfortunately no one knows yet what the plant gains from this. But it seems that the purple bladderwort (named for the purple flowers you see in these photos) may not be a carnivore.

Behind the scenes

This is a season of festivals in India. It started with Ganapati a couple of weeks back. Now the festival of Durga just got over. In one form or another Durga’s is a pan-Indian festival. A few more smaller festivals, and the season will end with Diwali. The Bengali version of Durga puja is a grand party. Like all grand events, it requires many hands to make sure it goes off satisfactorily. Drums and drummers are an important part of the ceremonies. The featured photo shows a couple of drummers waiting for their cue.

Durga puja food

Food is a large part of a festival. Crowds which come to see the puja and the associated amateur singing and plays stay on to eat. The crew in the photo above are making the rolls and wraps which are an important part of the meal.

Durga puja toys

Cheap little toys have been associated with these festivals for as long as I can remember. I used to beg uncles and aunts to buy me tops at such places when I was a pre-school child. I wonder if children still want these things. You see little families hawking them late into the night, so there must be buyers.

Durga puja ride

Fairground rides have become popular over the last decade or so. It must have become easier to hire out or assemble some of these rides. This one was waiting for customers even after midnight.

Durga puja balloons

You see sleepy children drifting in the wake of their parents at these pujas till the early hours of the morning. This balloon seller hopes to snare the attention of a few who are awake enough to buy one.

The Karvi does not bloom any more

The purple blue flowers of topli karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) blanketed the plateaus of Kaas and Chilkewadi in September and October of 2015 and 2016.Windmills in the middle of fields A photo I had taken in the windmill-infested plateau of Chilkewadi last year shows the flowering bushes. Last year the weekend I spent in these high plateaus near Satara was rained out; we did not see the sun at all. This year the threatening skies remained dry, but the topli karvi was not in bloom. It blooms every eight years. The next blooming is expected in 2023. Botanists give the name “mast seeding” to synchronous flowering of many plants of the same species after intervals of several years. The Western Ghats have several species of Strobilanthes which do mast seeding.

Topli karvi bushes in Chilkewadi

You can see one of the round bushes of topli karvi in the foreground of the photo above. I looked closely at it. It was healthy, free of parasites and seemed to be vigorous. As far as I know, these bushes do not die after a flowering, unlike bamboo, which dies out after a mass flowering. Botanists would call the bamboo monocarpic, and the topli karvi polycarpic. Around these bushes you can see other flowers. This patch was full of flowering shoots of the common balsam (Impatiens balsamica). I’ve seen other flowering shoots poking out of the karvi bushes. But it is easy to pick them out. The topli karvi is a low round bush with dark green hairy leaves with serrated edges (see the featured photo for a closer look at the leaves).

I’ve never seen the fruit of the topli karvi, although I was told that it remains on the bush for most of a year. I’m not sure whether this information is correct. This behaviour is attributed to a different species of mast seeding Strobilanthes in a Wikipedia article: the hill karvi or the Strobilanthes callosus. I’d also seen the hill karvi flowering last year, and did not see it this year.

Topli karvi flowering in 2015

Two years ago The Family had taken the photo of flowers of topli karvi which you can see above. I saw a few scattered bushes in flower this year. The featured photo shows a flower bud developing. If you really want to see karvi flowers, it seems quite possible that you should be able to do this every year. It is mast flowering that you must wait for.

Why did Strobilanthes take to mast seeding, whereas other plants in the same plateaus flower each and every year? Some people say it is because of variable rainfall and heat; some years are just not conducive to flowering. Maybe so, but then other nearby plants flower every year. Some say that these plants could be responding to the weather quickly by flowering, but then the eight-year cycle would not hold, because the monsoon does not have such a predictable cycle. A third set of people say that the karvi has this long cycle because it is synchronized to the long cycle of a pollinator. I haven’t seen a study of the pollinators of the karvi, and in any case this just shifts the problem on to another species. Why would the pollinating species have a long cycle? Since I have not seen the fruit of karvi, I do not know whether this has such large seeds that it is inefficient for the plant to seed every year. Could it be, as some believe, that synchronized seeding serves to produce such a large amount of fruit or seed that animals which eat these cannot possibly eat all the fruits or seeds produced in a mast seeding year? I guess someone has to study the animals which feed on karvi to find out.

Although the topli karvi grows widely, it is a mysterious plant. This is a mystery which I will not be able to solve. The solution will come from a younger person who can see it go through several cycles of bloom and fruit.

Sundews

The carnivorous sundew which you see in the featured photo is properly called the Drosera burmanii or Burman’s sundew. It is mistakenly called Burmese sundew sometimes. The story behind the name took me back to the origins of modern biology. It was described in detail in a book by the Dutch physician Johannes Burman, who spent a few years in Sri Lanka. His assistant in the production of this book, called Thesaurus Zeylanicus, was Carl Linnaeus. This was 1735, and Linnaeus had just published his own book, the Systema Naturae, which was to change the world by inventing a new way of naming all living creatures. Linnaeus’ naming system is the one all biologists and amateur naturalists follow. Darwin, in his book Insectivoruous Plants, remarked on the common trapping mechanism through the sticky “dew” which you can see in the photo, and classified all sundews into one family, which is still called the Droceraceae.

Darwin was a wonderful naturalist and asked most of the questions which keep drocerologists busy till today. Are the sundews selective about their prey? In the nearly three centuries that have passed since the first descriptions of sundews, all evidence indicates that they are generalized carnivores. They feed on whatever gets stuck in their dewy glue. How large can their prey be? Darwin believed that they feed on fairly small animals. Strangely, there have been no measurements of their prey since 1925; and that was the first one since Darwin himself.Drosera burmanii So, if you happen to take photos of any sundew with its prey, you will add substantially to the sum total of human knowledge. I scanned about 20 plants quickly, and if they had captured prey, then they were too small for me to see with my unaided eye (the photo here shows a small insect stuck to the plant). Are all carnivorous plants related? Fossils and genetic data seem to say that carnivorous plants evolved six times independently from completely different origins; so the bladderworts and sundews that I saw were not related.

A question that Darwin never asked is why a plant would turn from photosynthesis to carnivory. The general observation that these plants grow in nutrient-poor soil was taken as enough of an answer. However, there are other entirely photosynthetic plants which grow all around the sundew, so this is not a complete answer. Studies show that carnivorous plants grow and spread better once they get enough prey. Notice the bits of green on the leaves of the D. burmanii? These contain the usual chlorophyll that allow plants to use sunlight to make sugar. The density of spiny hairs is much smaller on this portion than in the red part of the leaves. So they also do photosynthesis, but they are less efficient at it. The complete story of carnivory versus photosynthesis is not yet known.

Drosera indica flowering

In the same patch of ground where I took the other photos, I also saw several flowering specimens of Drosera indica (one example in the photo above). This was first named by Linnaeus in 1753 based on a drawing of a plant collected in Sri Lanka. A field study in 2013 by Allen Lawrie found that there are actually 11 different species which were conflated into the single species D. indica. Are there several unrecognized species hiding behind this one label in India? I do not know the answer.

While we talk about names, you will notice that I have called these plants carnivorous instead of following Darwin and calling them insectivorous. This is because detailed counts of prey species indicate that sundews feed on anything the right size, without specializing in insects. I’ll not say much more about D. indica because I’ve already written about it in another post.

Are D. burmanii and D. indica in competition when they grow in the same patch of ground? Studies of prey captured by other carnivorous plants which grow together show that they capture the same species, and so may be considered as competing. I know of no studies of prey species among the sundews of the Sahyadris, but there is no reason to believe that they are exceptions. In that case the spreading stalks of the indica with their larger numbers of leaves possibly give it a photosynthetic edge. Maybe that is why they are more common. I wish I knew a professional ecologist who could answer these questions.

The Moorish Alcazar of Seville

We were very naive about access to monuments in Spain. We should have bought tickets on-line a while before our visit, instead of arriving and standing in queue. The queue moved fast, but the tour of the upper part of the palace was sold out. We were restricted (if that is the correct word) to the vast ground level of the complex. This gallery covers only a small part of the enclosure.

The construction of the Moorish part of the complex was started in the 10th century, and continued till the 13th century. During the 12th century, the Almohades caliphate built the parts that are shown in the gallery above. I lost myself in the intricate work in stone and wood, and the interplay of wind and water for cooling. Along with the calligraphy that you see in the photos, these are characteristic of the Mudejar architecture of this part of the world.