Sunrise or sunset?

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics dies,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

—Dylan Thomas

How can you tell the difference between a photo of a sunset and a sunrise. One of the most popular classes of photos on instagram are these, but we depend on the artist to tell us which is which. I began to wonder if there is something intrinsic in the quality of light by which we can tell. Is there something to the metaphors of rebirth and hope or death and melancholy which are associated with these two daily events, or is it just a fancy?

I went through my old photos, classifying them into bunches: so many minutes before sunset, so many after sunrise, looking in the direction of the sun, away from it, or at angles to it. Then I measured the colours and luminosity. There was no way to tell by these visual cues which was a sunrise and which a sunset.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

—T.S. Eliot

But it turns out that there is a subtle difference. It is not the sky that gives it away, but the earth. The temperature at dawn is lower than the temperature at dusk. This is most visible in winter, when the mist, if there is any, is thicker in the morning. In Mumbai, when it is seldom cold enough for the mist, the haze is worse at sunset, because the sea water has warmed through the day to saturate the air. If you know local conditions, you can usually use these other cues to figure out whether a particular photo you are looking at is from dawn or dusk. “Satisfactory,” as Nero Wolfe might say.

Arthur lake

For many year The Family had talked of Bhandardara lake. I’d pictured it as a smallish body of water, in the middle of meadows. In my mind I’d seen it as a place full of water birds in winter. Then I looked at the map and saw it was called Arthur Lake. That shattered these dreams. If it had such an English name, it must be the lake behind a colonial era dam, and like all lakes formed by dams, the ecology around it would not yet have adapted to the water. So it is. I found that the Wilson Dam was built across the Pravara river in 1910, less than hundred years after the British gained control of these hills by defeating the Marathas in the Battle of Khadki, and more than a hundred years from today.

The lake is immense, it can hold a little over 310 million cubic meters of water (11 TMC in the quaint old-fashioned units that hydraulic engineers still use). To see the entire lake you have to climb pretty high up on the surrounding hills, because the reservoir is a horseshoe shape which winds around a ridge that contains Bhandardara. During the day while I was at work, The Family had tried to walk down to the lake from the cottage, but had found the road closed. When we drove out later in the day, we found that epidemic-related restrictions forced us to travel completely outside the town, and up to the sluice gates in order to reach the lake. It was an empty spot, except for a shack selling tea, and a few locals who had set up about five boats for tourists. It was just too peaceful a scene to spoil with the putt-putting and exhaust of an outboard motor, so we declined a ride.

The monsoon had been good and the dam was full to the brim. The spillage beyond the barrier had created little still pools full of life. These water weeds and aquatic grasses were just a little bit of the scene that I had first imagined when I heard about this place from The Family. I stopped to take a photo.

The flowers were wonderful. I’m not very good at identifying wildflowers, and there are so many in these hills. I resolved to do better in future. We drove back to our cottage past the dam and its single hydroelectric turbine. This must be one of the oldest dams in this part of the world. I’ll have to do some reading about this in future.

To the mountains

We left Mumbai in the morning. Three months ago there would have been no traffic, but the city has partly reopened now. We went against the traffic, so our lane moved fast. We crossed the freeway, and then crossed over to the Eastern Express Highway to get out of town. In no time we were in the lower part of the Western Ghats. At Igatpuri (altitude 600 meters) we moved off the highway, and took a winding road past Bhavali Dam and the Kalsubai hills. The Kalsubai peak (altitude 1646 meters) is the highest in Maharashtra. We skirted them and descended into Bhandardara, where we would spend the next few days. Hope you enjoy the drive as much as we did.

I love this part of the country. The Deccan plateau is a thick volcanic shield laid down during the Cretaceous period, during the breakup of the super-continent of Gondwanaland. In the geological eras after that, the two kilometer thick layer of basalt has been worn down by the weather to create the fantastic shapes of the mountains that you see in this region. The eras of weathering mean that the higher you go in the Deccan plateau, the further back in time you reach. Mumbai, at sea level, is modern. In our cottage, at an altitude of about 1400 meters, we had traveled back to the geology we had traveled back in time to the era when mammals first appeared on earth. What a privilege it is to live where time travel is so easy.

A musical garden

You don’t need to look up from your work to know that there are purple sunbirds (Cinnyris asiaticus) around you. Their sound fills a garden. The Family spent a while trying to look for them, but it was useless. The males are small, dark, and have a handsome song. The females are drab and brown, but easier to photograph. Waiting pays off. After a day I saw two of them screaming songs at each other from the open. The dark plumage makes them one of the hardest of birds to take a good photo of, but I think the silhouettes you see here are reasonably interesting.

I’ve written about them before, and given you their songs, so I won’t do that again. I will just leave you to imagine the sunlit patch of garden, surrounded by tall trees, where these birds flit from branch to branch. Through the trees you can see the distant Kalsubai hills, and below that the enormous lake behind the Bhandardara dam. A restful place to work from.


Yesterday morning we said goodbye to our clifftop refuge. We woke before dawn, pulled ourselves out of the warm blanket, and walked out past the garden to the edge of the cliff. Far below us was Arthur Lake, with a huddle of houses around it. But we could see beyond it to the ranges which enclose the Kalsubai wildlife sanctuary. It was just the beginning of winter, but the valleys were enveloped in a morning fog. The sky was still dark. We were not warm in our shirts, but not too cold either.

We stood there for about twenty minutes, our heads pointing towards the far away stars, as the earth rolled on its axis, its horizon dropping towards the sun. The dark of the sky paled from a blue to white; the deep rose above the furthest hill brightened into a red, and then a blazing yellow, as the horizon slipped below the disk of our nearest star. The glowing ball of fusion flame seemed to rise above the hills. It is such an ordinary sight, but new and exciting each time!

In the measure of our own lifetimes, the cosmos is completely regular and predictable. The intersection of this regularity with the unpredictability of the atmosphere renews our experience of the sunrise every day. In hours the sun would burn away the mist. By the time we left for the drive back to our home, the valleys were clear.