Periyar river, the lifeline of Kerala. It was a name that fascinated me. A simple name, meaning big. That’s all that the people around it need to know. But the river rises in the biodiverse Western Ghats, and in the short 244 Kms from its source to its mouth in the Arabian sea it traverses a wide range of altitudes. So, almost exactly five years ago we took a short trip to the Periyar National Park. We landed at the Kochi airport and took a bus to our destination. The road passes through the intensely urbanized plains. But then, as we crossed a bridge over the river, the urban clutter fell off. We’d reached our homestay, a small two-storeyed house near the entrance to the park.
We dropped our bags and headed out for a walk. There is always a lot to see just outside a national park. We walked back to the bridge we’d crossed. Power lines ran next to it and we were sure to find kingfishers and bee eaters perched there, at eye level. I had my big lens with me, but I’ll show here only those photos I took with the fixed lens of my cell phone. The river branched crazily here, as it reached the plains. A boat was tied next to a little side stream that we crossed. A group of langurs chattered madly as they ate leaves in the canopy of trees around the path.
The phone was also good for close ups. Here in the undergrowth is one of the numerous species that you could call a daisy. I love their complex flowers, five white ray florets and numerous five-petalled yellow florets in the disk. The arrangement of the disk florets and their shape should be a very good guide to a more precise identification, but I’m intimidated by the size of the family Asteraceae, the asters. Full identification is a finicky and time-consuming job.
Which trees grow here? The answer is plain when you look around you. But it is equally plain when you look down at the small landscape around your feet. A large leaf from a teak tree was flaking into pieces as it dried. I pointed my phone at it. Bamboo too, as you can see. And the small leaves of, what was it, jamun? Quite a variety. It would be hard to keep the jamun from being eaten by birds and langurs. But then those trees fruit so abundantly that you can always get enough. We reached the bridge, and then it was time for the big zoom and the end of my fixed-lens adventure.
Behind Ujani Dam is a huge shallow lake, named after the biggest town on its shores: Bhigwan. It is a birder’s paradise, especially in winter, when migrants flock here. All year round there are cormorants, ospreys and fisherfolk. I kept one eye on the fisherfolk as we boated over the surface looking at the visiting birds. The lone man whom you see in the featured photo sits on a raft which is simply a large slab of styrofoam. His fishing line and his simple paddle, two steel dinner plates nailed to a pole, show that his is a small operation.
There are more elaborate operations. This boat is one of them. It was piled with fishing nets and three people were deploying them across the lake. The boat listed heavily to one side as two men played out the net, and a third laid it down. We’d seen the same trio the previous evening, laying down traps for shrimp and crabs (photo below). Theirs was a big operation. I suppose people claim parts of the lake for their own. I wonder whether this leads to conflict, and whether there are rules and adjudicators for these rights. The lake is a commons, and there must be some governance over it.
[Analytic philosophy explores a world in which] people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus, not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.
The Borders of Analytic Philosophy, Iris Murdoch
Then there are the operations in-between. I saw a few couples working together: a family at work feeding themselves and earning a living. Here the woman rows while the man plays out a net. We’d seen a farmer couple the previous evening returning home from a day in the field, the man rowing a boat loaded with fodder as the woman sat at the stern.
But, as Iris Murdoch says, not everything is so clear. I saw a man beating the water with a pole, while a boy sat at the horsehead bow that all these boats have. Why? There were coots swimming around him. Was it happenstance, or were the two connected?
Seven years ago we’d driven up from Delhi to the lake district of Kumaon. It was an October sunset when we stopped by Bhim Tal to stretch our legs. The hills around the lake were still dense with vegetation, green after the rains. The quiet serenity of the lake seemed to be enhanced by the one sailboat out on it. That is the image of the lake which the words Bhim Tal now bring to my mind.
Spring was not a good time this year. The winter had been dry, and the hills around the lake had turned brown. The still sheet of water looked as clear as ever, but I’d been reading the alarm calls sent out by those who monitor the health of these waters. It was quite evident why. The number of houses around the lake has increased tremendously. The lake itself was obscured by makeshift shacks selling knick-knacks to the very few tourists who had come here.
This is the beginning of the end for many such beautiful spots around the country. First a few city people retire to a beautiful spot, then their friends visit. Word of mouth opens a trickle of tourists. Then, when it becomes a constant stream, these shops come up. The once beautiful spot becomes obscured by a jumble of construction. Trash collects. Boat rides, and horse rides become the order of the day. Eventually there are busloads of tourists who come to buy souvenirs, get back on the bus, and go away. There is nothing else for them to do. The process is sad, because with a little tweak and nudge, the entrepreneurship of the locals can be used to increase the value, not degrade it.
The pandemic has interrupted this sad growth. I didn’t see any sails; they have been replaced by the row boats pulled up to the newly made steps down to the water. Their numbers were a testimony to the long slope down which Bhimtal’s tourism slide had gone. At this time barely two boats were in use. One group got off as I watched. Another family was out in the middle of the lake, being pulled along by the boatman. I consoled myself with the thought that the place had remained in public consciousness for a hundred and fifty years before it had reached the stage it was in now.
Naukuchia Tal means the lake with nine corners. The odd shape of the lake gives rise to the story that you cannot see the whole lake from any point on the bank. This could well be true, but I did not walk around the lake, like The Family did one morning, to check out the story. She reports it as being correct, and I take her word for it. Instead I sat on the deck outside the lake and stared out at it. The jetty I could see on a nearby corner made me think that perhaps one could do a little bit of boating on the lake.
“Duh,” The Family said when I told her. “Look across. There are about five families out on the lake.” Sure enough, even down by the pier at our resort there was a canopied boat all set up for a ride. I’ve usually seen these hulls with an outboard motor fitted to it. But Naukuchiatal has finally put in place regulations which forbid motors. The water quality of these lakes have been deteriorating for a while, and this will at least slow the process until someone begins to implement a clean up.
Next to the restaurant I found a stack of these oars. The kayaks were pulled up on the banks of the lake. I considered trying it out. I’ve never done any Kayaking, and I’m sure the first attempt would result in me turning in circles until I capsized. It’s something I would like to try out sometime, but I was feeling lazy. I set off for a spot of bird watching in the woods behind the hotel instead.
When I talked to people in Bhitarkanika and heard about boats I imagined little things like the one above. My imagination was influenced by photos of birders in Mangalajodi, which is the hot birding destination in Odisha. Imagining an open boat, I was little concerned about the weather. The temperature had started reaching record highs across the country even before Holi. As it turned out, it was only moderately hot when we reached Bhitarkanika. That, and the fact that bird-watching avoids the hot afternoon, meant that we had fairly comfortable weather.
Due to my preconceptions, the first sight of the boats of Bhitarkanika (photo above) was shocking. They are large, with a two person crew, and capable of carrying more than ten passengers. They have a passenger cabin and an upper deck. Interestingly, they also have a head. We decided that sitting in the cabin would restrict our view of the birds, so we climbed up to the deck and leaned on the cabin. The crew handed us cushions and told us to sit on the roof of the cabin. We did that, and can certify that it is a very comfortable way to navigate the tidal creeks of Bhitarkanika while looking out for birds.
Small boats like the one in the featured photo are used by the locals to travel short distances. Occasionally we saw a man standing in one of these boats, poling himself along a stream. We also saw, once, two men in such a boat, letting out a fishing net.
This part of Odisha is poor. While great strides have been made in the last decade or so in bringing schools and primary health care to the people in this region, their income levels have not risen much. Direct employees of the forest department, even temporary workers, are much better off than those who are not government employees. The crew of the boat we were on (one of them is in the photo above) spent time foraging at the edge of the forest, but our wildlife guide did not bother to. This low level of income results in poorly maintained boat engines. There must be expertise out in the wide world on cheap and easy to maintain boat engines with low emission. I would definitely love to hear about it.
There were lots of animals on beaches and in the sea around Neil Island, but Lepus timidus were not among them. So the sign in the featured photo had to be in error. Also, as one of my nieces pointed out, the buoy is too big for any known hare. We saw many interesting signs on Bharatpur beach, but this probably takes the award for the zaniest mistake.
You can take glass-bottomed boats out of Bharatpur beach to see corals. Since the cut on my leg prevented me from getting into the water, I took this more distant view of the sea bottom. The boats had terrific names; two of the best are in the photo above. I liked “O. B. Sea Prasad”, whose subtext every Indian will instantly follow. A gloss for others: affirmative action in India is mainly based on castes, and OBC stands for Other Backward Castes. This boat was probably bought using an affirmative action bank-loan. The name of the boat standing next to it is a really zany take on Santa Cruz. There may have been an effort at a pun: Santa Cruise, but it didn’t come out very well.
I arrived at Lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar expecting that the boats would be traditional. I’d heard stories of how the boatmen on this lake can row with oars held in hands as well as feet. I was surprised at my first view of the boats. They looked completely traditional: flat bottomed teak boats with elegant long prows. But each was kitted out with an outboard motor. They were fast and rode high, slapping the surface when the wind picked up a bit.
The half hour ride to the hotel was great fun. We cut through the lake at a very rapid clip. The sun had set just before we arrived at the jetty in Nyaung Shwe town. As we started out the light was fading from the sky. The golden hour was shading into the blue hour as we raced through the water. Soon the lights of the hotel rose out of the water ahead of us. We rushed through channels bordered by reeds. Then the motor cut out and we coasted in to the jetty. This was the coolest ride to a hotel that I’ve ever had.