Landscape with dinosaurs and a shoe

On our last morning in Bera, we woke before sunrise again, and scoured the hills for the sight of a leopard. Alarm calls of peacocks echoed between the rocks as we waited patiently for the animals to appear. But one by one, the clusters of calls fell silent. The leopards had hunkered down to sleep out the day. We were close to the Jawai dam, and I thought a drive down to the lake might be interesting.

The landscape here is interesting. To my untrained eye there is a similarity between the look of this area and parts of Karnataka, for example, around Hampi. But the resemblance is superficial, nothing but the appearance of granite boulders. The rocks here are a respectable 750 million years (or so) old, having been created during the rifting of the ancient supercontinent of Rodinia. The Hampi region contains some of the oldest rocks in the world, perhaps as much as 3.5 billion years old. In parts that Dharwar craton is overlaid by the sprightly young Deccan shield, a slight 65 million year stripling. There is no geological resemblance between these rocks.

The dinosaurs have not given up on this land that they claimed at birth. They may have evolved into what we call birds, but they still range over the lands from under which people dig out the fossil remains of their ancestral eggs. I saw wagtails and open bills after almost two years. Do they regret the end of the anthropause as much as I loved seeing them again?

A shoe? How could you lose one in this flat land? Did it fall out of a careless jeep? Or did it break during a long walk across these flats? A mystery.

A desert landscape

Was I looking at the great Rann of Kutch or a microsoft windows display? The Family’s sister had made a film in this area. When she saw the shot that you see above, she said she couldn’t believe it. The peak is an ancient Cretaceous volcanic plug called the Dhinodhar Hill. The area is supposed to be more wet than many parts of the Rann, but the scene before us was definitely an effect of the monsoon. Sharad ritu, the fourth of the six seasons, is a beautiful time in the desert. Blue skies, fluffy white clouds, green fields, and the sight of migratory birds arriving.

I stood on the embankment of the Bhuki dam and took this photo. On one side was a small cliff created by past quarrying. The stone looked like shale,. If one had time one could look for fossils in there. The sedimentary rocks here come mostly from the Triassic period, after the breakup of ancient continent of Gondwanaland. The volcanic plug in the distance came from the time when the Deccan traps were laid down. These two times bracket the era of the dinosaurs. We had arrived here to see the last shrunken but diversified remnants of the dinosaurs: birds. Weird!

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

Harrison’s folly

A little finger of a ridge juts out of the side of the road from Wai to Panchgani. A dusty flat top of a table land, surprising you with the fact that it has been left open. This is Harrison’s Folly; don’t ask who or why, there’s no answer. We saw cars pulling in, and drove in through the ramshackle gate that you see in the featured photo. We paid a small price for the entrance, it wasn’t clear whether it was municipal land or private. The light was good and it seemed like it would have a view of Dhom lake.

We walked to the north-eastern edge of the plateau. The road had curved around a hill, hiding Panchgani. The valley had a haze, probably a mist. Much of the valley would be protected from direct sunlight by the plateaus. But beyond a parallel ridge, I could see Dhom lake through the haze. This is the due to the second dam across the Krishna river. The source of the river is just beyond the ridge, and there is a first dam there. A trickle is let out, which flows into this lake, and beyond. I can never have enough of the horizontal bands of successive lava flows which erosion reveals as the building material for the Deccan shield.

We walked to the northern tip of the finger, down a tiny slope which would be the take-off point for the para-gliding enthusiasts who used to flock here once. The little town in the middle distance was Wai. The haze was light, but it blocked the view eventually. On a clear day, when the horizon is visible it would be nice to stand here and identify all the distant villages and towns that one can see.

So what if I can’t do para-gliding, I can still take ambush photos. A couple was having their photo taken while leaping. I missed the moment of the leap, but they were quite the cynosure of all eyes in the neighbourhood. As we left I saw my cousin drive in. Apparently a swarm of bees appeared on this tableland while they were there, causing everyone to dive to the ground. This, he was told, was a daily affair, and crouching low for a couple of minutes prevents accidents. I’ve never heard of such a phenomenon, and I’m sad to have missed it. The Family and I agreed to disagree on this point.

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.

The landscape of Malwa

The lush monsoon-watered landscape of Malwa unfolded before us as we traveled from Dhar to Mandu. This road was familiar to us from eight years ago. We came to a halt near a park-full of fibreglass dinosaurs. The area around the museum of fossils had been converted to a children’s park. There was a wall around it, and several food stalls. Quite a change from the emptiness I’d remembered. As I approached a turnstile, a young man appeared and said “Five rupees for entry and another twenty five for the camera.” The museum was locked, but a lot of people were taking selfies against the dramatic background.

The Malwa landscape is mostly flat, as you can see in the photo below. This is one place on the Malwa plateau where the landscape indulges in a bit of drama. A little stream has cut a deep gorge into the plateau, showing that this is part of the Deccan traps. You can see the characteristic layer-cake appearance of the gorge, created by a few lakh years of volcanism (that’s a few hundred thousand years) which killed off the dinosaurs and created some of the fossils which you can see in the museum. The layers are formed by clay trapped between successive flows of lava. Above the basalt you can see the last 65 million years of strata.

If the land is old, human civilization here is also old, as humans go. Archaeology has yielded up Paleolithic hand axes, Microlithic arrowheads, and Chalcolithic tools, leading up to the recorded history of the immediately pre-Buddhist era. The earliest records talk of large cities and vast trading networks which connected the known world, bringing Central Asian and Greek pilgrims to this region of the world, and surely sending some questing abroad. It is easy to forget the depth of this history when you talk to the locals who cater to tourists. The farmers who till this monsoon-lush, but otherwise dry, landscape will hardly believe that slightly deeper tools could turn up the remnants of soil laid down in the time of Vikramaditya. Increase the length of the tool a little more, and you could be exposing the soil that Buddha’s contemporaries walked on. But that you would have to dig twenty feet to get to Paleolithic remains. Deep history is so deep.

Show and tell: the geology of Kaas

The region of the Western ghats around Satara and Pune are full of large plateaus and oddly shaped peaks. When you travel through them, the first impression you have of the mountains is that they look like a layered cake. I stood at the Thosegarh waterfall (featured photo) and found that even the monsoon-fed vegetation could not hide this appearance. The layers are a succession of lava flows, laid down in a massive burst of volcanism 60 to 100 million years ago. These successive layers of lava are called the Deccan traps. I found it hard to estimate the thickness of the layers by eye, but going by the heights of trees, perhaps they are between 50 and 100 feet thick. Since each layer of lava covers a considerable area, this means that each burst of volcanism would have lasted long and spewed out immense amounts of rock and ash. Not only would this have killed all life where it flowed, it would have dimmed the sunlight reaching the earth, and contributed to a mass dying of vegetation around the world.

Satara valley

In the 60 million years since it contributed to killing off dinosaurs, the traps have weathered. Today we see them as flat topped hills, cut through by deeply eroded valleys. Some of the waterfalls lead down to rapids extremely suitable for white water rafting. In other places there are very wide valleys. The town of Satara, which you see in the photo above, lies in the extreme western end of the rain-shadowed region of the Deccan. As a result it gets sporadic monsoon rains, enough to keep it green. The urban sprawl gets its drinking water from the river Umboli, which arises in the Kaas plateau, about 25 kilometers away. Traveling in this area, I saw many high plateaus. At one point each of them must have been home to the variety of flowering herbs and bushes whose diversity is now mainly visible in Kaas.

The surface of Kaas plateau

When you reach the top of one of these plateaus you see exposed rock everywhere. This is the volcanic rock called laterite, formed by weathering of the traps. You can see the dark porous rock peeping out from the low cover in the photo of the Kaas plateau above. There is hardly any soil. What little there is forms in little depressions in the rock. This area is covered by tiny herbs: mainly the carnivorous bladderwort (Utricularia) and sundew (Drosera) species, and tiny coexisting herbs. Between such rocky outcrops, there are deeper fissures where a little more soil can collect. There are higher bushes such as the Topli Karvi and arrowroot. There are very few trees on the plateau. What little soil forms is constantly removed by rain and wind. It is a marginal environment where extremely specialized plants grow. Twenty meters below the top, soil can accumulate, and the vegetation changes quite dramatically. It becomes characteristic of the rest of the Sahyadris. As a result, these high plateaus are like islands: the flora of each plateau is isolated from those of its neighbours.

When you walk through the Kaas plateau your eyes take in the evidence that geology determines ecology, that life is shaped by the land.

Deccan traps

We drove to Pune in the weekend, over a road blasted through the heart of the geological bomb which killed off the dinosaurs. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is probably the busiest road in India. Still, there are times when you can take your eyes off the road to stare at the incredible mountains around you.

During the monsoon the mountains are covered in a carpet of electric green. Yes, there is such a colour; you have to travel here to find out what it is. In this season, with the brief winter on its way out, the grasses have dried out, turning into layers of gold against the red rock of the Deccan traps. These mountains are the Sahyadris, and the red rock is the dinosaur killer.

Mahabaleshwar ghats

Go off the road. Stop when you can. Look again at the mountains. The most noticeable feature of the Sahyadris are the horizontal layers in the rock. Many years ago, sitting at a roadside dhaba, I asked a geologist friend about this. Between sips of tea he mentioned the phrase Deccan traps. These are successive waves of lava which flowed out of our planet’s largest volcanic event and killed off the dinosaurs.

A shiver goes through my spine even today when I sit and look at these six and a half crore (65 million) years old rocks. The continuous volcanism lasted for a few lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of years. The lava covered an area larger than that of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh put together. Ash, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide pumped out by the volcanos changed the climate, making it first cooler, then hotter, and turning the rain acid. The dinosaurs died out, along with most of the life on earth. The earth was barren for about half a million (5 lakhs) years.

When the volcanism ended and the skies began to clear, the mammalian takeover of the earth could begin. The next time you drive between Mumbai and Pune, look at the layer cake mountains around you: they are the reason you are here.

(Featured photo by S. R. Kiran, Mahabaleshwar ghats photo by Mark Richards, map from Princeton univ)

Kaas: a Deccan Plateau

On the road to Thosegarh

Head out of Mumbai, pass the Expressway and its food courts, and you soon come into impressive weathered hills. Strange shapes rise out of the land. Pass Pune, and head South, and you begin to see ranges of hills with a very characteristic feature: they seem to form gigantic layers or steps. If you look carefully at the far, mist covered, hills in the photo alongside you see these characteristic layers. They are volcanic features called “trappen” in Swedish, meaning steps. Successive volcanic eruptions created these layers.

One of the waterfalls at Thosegarh

A closer and clearer view of the steps is in this photo taken at the Thosegarh waterfalls south of the town of Satara. These layers are called the Deccan traps. It is thought that thirty thousand years of continuous volcanic eruptions laid down these layers of basalt over a huge part of the Indian plate. This happened while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Since then the volcanic rock has worn down to a half million square kilometres area in the Deccan plateau.

The soil of the Kaas Plateau is very poor in parts

This is the geology within which the Kaas and neighbouring kilometer-high plateaus stand. Over millennia, the basalt was weathered down by successive dry and wet seasons until it is a porous rock. You can see the weathered rock, called laterite, in the featured photo. Over this laterite is a thin layer of red iron-rich soil called lateritic soil. You can see in the photo alongside how poor the soil is. The grasses and the low herbs of these plateaus, including Kaas, barely manage to hold the soil together. Of all the things that damage this fragile ecosystem, tourists are the worst, although the construction of windmill farms and extraction of bauxite also harmful. Reading about this area, I discovered the word “inselberg”, meaning island mountain. It is a very apt description of these plateaus: each stands isolated from others. The flora of each of these inselbergs is different from that in the surrounding lowlands. Environmental degradation of a plateau is like killing off the ecology of an island. It seems that of the 850 odd species of herbs identified here (including genera found only here), more than 600 are on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

A monsoon pond in the Kaas plateau

The ministry of the environment lists many benefits that these ecosystems provide, including medicinal plants. Another ecosystem service provided by this fragile system is the recharging of the surrounding water table. As you can see in the photo here, the grasses and herbs trap water into little monsoon pools. This water is then absorbed by the spongy laterite rocks. In the absence of the flora, the water would run off too fast to be soaked up. The average annual rainfall here is between 2 and 2.5 meters, so this is quite a service!

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