Sunday lunch

As I began to think about Sunday’s lunch, inspiration was provided by delightful memories of our holiday in the Himalayas. In that wonderful hotel by the edge of glacier-fed Falachan river, Ram, the cook produced one lovely dessert after another. There were two each day. The high point of a day were these chocolate balls, lightly dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece complained that she didn’t like coconut. I suggested that she could have the previous evening’s Banoffee tart. She did have that, but after she finished the chocolate ball!


A water redstart

If there was one uncommon bird which I was sure of seeing in Himachal Pradesh, it was the Plumbeous water redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa). Sure enough, the first time The Young Niece and I walked down to see the Falachan, I saw this bird sitting on a boulder on the bank of the river. I pointed out to her the chestnut tail and the slate blue of the male, and the black-and-white tail and gray spotted breast of the female. She learnt that the up-and-down wagging of the tail is another way to recognize the female and the juvenile.

I’d first seen it hopping around from stone to bank and back near a roadside stream in Bhutan. Since then I’ve seen it on every trip to the Himalayas. It seems that this bird does not mind humans, and goes about hunting insects in the air and on the ground near a river even close to habitation. It is altitude bound, being usually found between 2 and 4 Kilometers above sea level, but is common in this habitat.

Green-backed tits

The Family and I decided to sit on a sunny deck above the river and read. After the long walk in the morning and the big lunch, I guessed I would read about a couple of pages before I fell asleep. But there was too much activity here for this. As soon as we sat down on the recliners we heard the chirps of a songbird just above us. The chir pine above us was a site of great activity. We sat up and watched for a while. A pair of tits was using the branches above us as a landing point for some repetitive activity. One would come sit at a particular spot on a branch, and then fly off. Then the other would come sit exactly there, and follow. This would repeat.

The wall of the dining area behind us was made of stone, and somewhere between the lounge and the kitchen this pair had found a gap to build a nest in. The activity seemed to center around some fledgelings, because we could hear them even when both parents were away. The featured photo is the only one I got. It is the green-back tit (Parus monticolus). The distinguishing features are the green back and the white bars on the wings, both easily visible in the photo. They spread eastwards from here through Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, all the way to Laos and Vietnam. India-Birds showed that we were right in the middle of a hot spot for these birds.

Tits are widespread songbirds, being found not only across the old world, but also in the Americas (where they are called chickadees). I’ve seen the closely related great tit at a bird feeder as far away as in Germany. Genetic studies and models of their migration indicate that they could have evolved in the area around here (the Himalayas and southern China) about 15 million years ago. This also fits with the sparse fossils of this group of birds. I couldn’t get a look at what these two were bringing into the nest. The green-backed tit eats insects as well as seeds and fruits, but since there were lots of insects around us, probably that’s what they were bringing home. Our afternoon’s nap was a non-starter.

Flowers of the middle heights

The middle heights of the Himalayas are particularly pleasant. The famous British occupation-era “hill stations” of Shimla, Darjeeling, Naini Tal, Dalhousie, Mussoorie, among others lie at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. These famous destinations are now monstrous scabs on the flanks of the Himalayas, where tourists still flock. But away from these madding crowds are nameless villages dotted across the mountains at similar heights. They lie nestled in little flat pieces of land accidentally created by opposing slopes coming together. These accidental valleys often have water, and look out on pleasant meadows full of wildflowers. You see one of these in the featured photo. It is the Himalayan baby’s breath (Gypsophilia cerastioides)

These bushes spread out from below rocks, as you can see in the photo above. In late spring the low bushes are full of the five-petaled white flowers. The Young Niece asked the obvious question, “Why are there five petals?”. Once I’d asked this to a practicing research biologist and got the uninformative answer, “In biology we ask what, not why.” If you ask the Oracle of Google “Why do flowers have five petals?” you remain baffled. The most useful answer turns out to be “Because they are descended from other five-petaled flowers.” I know that another niece would have said something like the number of petals is a number in the Fibonacci sequence, and is related to the Golden Ratio. That is as unhelpful as the answer by the biologist. When we ask why, we would like to have an answer which gives us a chain of causes and effect. Anything else is just resetting the question in a different context.

Further downslope, where the meadows grow less rocky one can find fields of balsam. I don’t think I’ve seen this species before, with its long serrated leaves and the cup-shaped purple-pink flowers with large white anthers full of pollen. I was unable to identify it better. Interestingly, balsam also has five petals. The best argument from causes that I have read about pentapetalism (to coin a new word) was developed by Yutaka Nishiyama at the Osaka University of Economics a few years ago. He argues from the observation that the tip of the growing bud has to be convex. A five-fold symmetry at the growing tip is the most stable way to achieve this, for the same reason that a soccer ball has some pentagonal panels. Since petals grow out the tip of the growing bud, they will have five petals. His argument does not rule out other numbers of petals, but explains why almost 50% of families of flowering plants have five petals.

I include the flowers which you can see in the photo above not because they are wild, but because they are green. I saw them in one of the fields terraced out of a slope for agriculture. If there is something I know less about than wildflowers, it is farming. I am totally unable to say what these plants are. I’m sure if I’d stopped a local and asked I would have had instant enlightenment. Around the edges of these fields we saw the bright red flowers of large-mouthed poppy (Papaver macrostomum). That’s another five-petaled flower!

Nightflyers of Falachan

I’ve written before about my frustration at not being able to identify moths in the field. There has been no change on that front in this month, except for the realization that one could try a different angle on it. The lights outside the rooms in Dilsher’s hotel attracted a very large number of moths. Some of these could still be seen early in the morning sitting on walls made of stone. I would be able to photograph them before they could fly away to wherever they spend the day. Looking at the photos I wondered whether I could tell anything about where they hide in the day.

The green moths probably hide in vegetation. I saw few of these, but the ones I did were very beautifully patterned. There are others whose wings mimic bark. If they sat on a tree trunk in full sight I would probably not notice them at all. Some are brown and yellow and probably spend the day hidden in leaf litter on forest floors. That leaves me guessing about one: the beautiful white one with red stripes.

A nameless village

Dilsher gave us driving directions. The route took us to Gushaini, where we crossed the Tirthan and took a road which wound high above the Falachan river. About a kilometer from the village which was our destination we found that the road was under repair. We parked the car and walked over the broken stones in the road bed. With the directions, and GPS, I know exactly where the village is; I can find it on maps and satellite photos; but I cannot find a name for it. It was definitely worth a trip, just to see what traditional houses and village layouts are in this area.

As you can see from the photo above (and detail in the featured photo), some of the houses are elaborate. This one had thick mud walls at the lowest level, and steep stairs to climb up two levels to the living space. The lowest level holds livestock, the next is space for feed, and the topmost level is for people. Wood is used extensively only in the area meant for people. I’d seen this kind of overhanging wooden box also in the divisional town of Banjar, where the lower floors were given over to shops. Now I saw where this construction comes from.

Not all houses are equally elaborate. You need space for livestock only if you own some; so the big house belonged to someone who was rich in this village economy. Other houses were smaller wattle-and-daub constructions, as you can see in the photo above. Mats are fixed on to wooden frames, and then covered with clay and painted. Interestingly, the house has two stories, and a balcony running across the front of the upper story. The two nearer structures are sheds to hold hay. Since this was lower, I could easily see the admirable slate roof. I was also quite impressed by the solar panel on top of the pole. Is the need for electricity small enough that a panel like this suffices?

I saw no signs of air conditioning; in this place you don’t really need it. Heating for winter would be an issue, but it wouldn’t be electrical heating. I didn’t see refrigerators, but satellite TV had arrived, as you can see from the dish in the photo above. All in all, the amount of electrical power needed per household would be small. I liked these two houses in completely different styles standing next to each other. The one with the upper floor box is unpainted; the one with the balcony is painted in bright colours. The man who you see here was friendly and curious about us. He gave us a little tour of his neighbourhood, trading question for question.

We did not go inside anyone’s house, so I never found out how the rooms are organized: is it one large living and bedroom? Or are these internal divisions separating kitchen, eating and sleeping spaces? The larger organization was clear. The center of the village was a large open square with an enigmatic temple which I have written about earlier. The village is laid out in a series of linked squares with houses around the open centers. The largest houses stand on the square with the temple; the further you go, the smaller the houses become. In a square adjoining the one with the temple I found a well and two children playing. In this photo they lean over the well.

You can see that the social organization is changing. There are new and fairly large houses at the periphery of the village; they climb up the surrounding slopes. The photo above shows one such house. The house itself looks different: the lower floor has windows, which means it is not used for cattle or feed. The roof is made of corrugated metal sheets, and the wood is painted. But perhaps the most striking non-traditional addition is the brick and mortar outhouse with a plastic tank full of water resting on its cast concrete slab of roof. This seemed like it was part of the government’s worthy push to add toilets to every house. The toilet blocks look identical everywhere in this country; they have been designed in Delhi. Fortunately availability of water is still not an issue here; I saw taps outside many of the houses.

The newer houses often use non-traditional materials. This one stood close to the entrance to the village. Again, I saw windows on the lower floor, indicating that all floors are used by people. This house was elaborate: it had balconies and a box just below the roof. I was struck by the use of corrugated metal sheets for the sides. They can’t possibly bear the load of the upper floors, so there must be another structural part of the wall. Is that a wooden frame or a thick mud wall? My reluctance to knock on the door of a stranger meant that I never found out. Of the many things which I did not know about this village, this was perhaps the least. The main thing that I should have asked the curious guide we picked up was the name of the village.

Luggage lift

When you are walking on a mountain path you do not expect cylinders of cooking gas or other kitchen essentials to go sailing over your head (featured photo). But that is exactly what happens in Falachan valley. The whole valley is criss-crossed by overhead wires. I initially thought that there were a huge number of power lines here, but realized soon that most of the cables are luggage lifts.

Sitting a few hundred meters above the river at the turning point of a climb I saw pine cones around me. Once I noticed the cables they were resting on I hesitated to pick them up; the cables could be live, and this could be a fire hazard, I thought. Later it struck me that the most likely source of these cables were the luggage lifts. Usually cable faults of this kind are attended to reasonably quickly (which could be a day up at these heights).

Walking along the road we came across a family back from the market busy sending their stuff up to their home. I liked that loading station: at my head height, off the road. The cylinder of gas was already loaded into the cage which had come down from the village. Something must have been sent up already, and this cage was the counterweight. It was loaded with jerry cans of water. As we watched the young man poured the water down into the trees. The Family gasped. “Do they waste so much water?” she asked. Indeed, in many towns in hills water is scarce. But we saw lots of springs and glacier fed streams up here. Little villages are probably not short of water. Yet. The empty jerry cans go back up in the cage, along with heavy goods filling the rest of the cage.

We watched the two men load up the cage. They made sure that things were properly placed and would not fall off. Then this young lady sent a message on her phone. Soon the cage was winched up. We could see the counterweight descending. “Is there a road all the way to your village?” The Family asked the girl. “Yes, it is about half an hour’s walk away,” she replied. Then she added, “Maybe two hours for you.”

We weren’t the only spectators. An old man with a load on his back stood with us watching this family. These lifts are an innovation. Although this valley was dense with them, I didn’t see them much elsewhere. I guess the locals have figured out a way to string the lines between mountains, and that technique will take time to diffuse into the neighbouring valleys. It took me some time to puzzle through these thoughts. By the time I realized that there was something special about the Falachan valley, it was too late to ask someone how they string cables between hills.

People of Himachal

On a visit to a traditional old village high above the Falachan river, The Family and The Young Niece skipped ahead of me. I walked behind them, feeling disgruntled as ever because I’d not got a good shot yet. A young woman walked ahead of me on the stony path leading two kids. She had a big woven basket slung over her back. Is that the equivalent of my backpack, I wondered. The kids dragged her off the road in their eagerness to crop at the grass. As I passed her, I stopped to take a photo. This was the definitive photo of the day: exactly like a shot from the Hindi movies of the sixties and seventies; village belle, sheep, grass and stone, terraced fields and mountains. I was happy by the time I reached the car.

One of the photos I already had in my card by then was this one of two children who seemed to be the only ones I saw in the village. I took a couple of photos before they were aware of me. Then when they saw me with my boots, backpack, and camera, they came running towards me. They posed, I took their photo and showed it to them. They were absolutely thrilled and went running and skipping away. I wondered for a while why they were not in a school; this part of the state has done very well in bringing all children to school. Then I realized that they were probably a bit younger than school-going children.

Old men in the hills freeze up when confronted with a camera. When I saw this old codger bent over a stick while walking between huts in the village, I knew that I had to try taking a photo without him noticing me. My problem was partly solved when two young men said something to him, and he turned towards them. Unfortunately his back was to me, and I couldn’t get a photo of him with his stick. I did get his very expressive face and that lovely Kullu cap. I wanted more, which is why I remained grumpy till I got the featured shot.

Now looking at these photos I wonder about the difference between the children and the old man. Is living so hard here that a lifetime robs people of their joy?

Peace, quiet, and hard labour

The Falachan river descends from the Zangsu glacier, falling rapidly from about 5 Kilometers above sea level to about 1.5 Kilometers, where it merges into the Tirthan river. We spent a quiet afternoon walking in the Falachan valley at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers. The Family is always magicked by heights. This was the first time The Young Niece had been in the Himalayas, and she was listening to The Lotus talk about the mountains. At one especially beautiful point in the road I took three photos: the featured photo and the two below.

A traditional wooden house with slate roof stood on the road, and below us the Falachan moved rapidly. We crossed a high bridge to a hill on the other side of the river. The untarred path from here moved down in a steep slope to nearly the level of the river. It was late afternoon. We’d eaten a large lunch, and one of Ram’s lovely desserts: chocolate balls dusted with coconut powder. The Young Niece protested about the coconut but ate twice as many as any of us. Now we were walking off the lethargy that usually follows such a lunch.

The glacier-melt of the Falachan was absolutely clear. In the golden sun I could see the bottom clearly. Since we were on a holiday I could take my time to gaze at the hypnotic sight of eddies over the stones at the bottom of the river. There is trout here, but I could not see them. The others walked on, leaving me to catch up. I was trying out long exposures on my camera, but I’d forgotten to bring a tripod on the trip. I would be able to capture a sense of the eddies, but not the silkiness of the water.

I followed the others, crossing a rickety little bridge over a rushing waterfall. It swayed as you walked, and some of the planks were better avoided. In one place a plank was missing and you had to skip over the gap. The stream was not far below. A fall could be nasty, but not fatal. We’d seen bridges like this before, but it was a novelty for The Young Niece. She was very excited and waiting for me on the other side. I stopped on the bridge to take a photo of the rushing water. Two outcrops channeled the water into a narrow stream, creating a very shallow rapid. A tripod would have come in handy here. With a really long exposure I could have got a sense of the silky smoothness of the film of water rushing over stone.

The photo that you see above is the longest exposure I could get standing on that swaying bridge. All this water eventually derives from glaciers. Nowadays I cannot help thinking of what climate change would do. The glaciers are melting faster than before, the shallow waters are still not too warm for trout. Not too far in the future, the last of the ice will melt, and the land will become dry. The evergreen forests will already have changed in composition, but as the hills die, the vegetation would no longer hold the soil, and it will start eroding faster. Life in the hills will certainly change. But the afternoon was too pretty to waste on morbid thoughts of a world only The Young Niece would see.

We decided to follow the path up. Was there a destination? We weren’t sure. There were some villages along the path, but we had no idea how far off. This whole area was full of flowing streams and mountain springs, so a high village would not have a major problem with water. Of course, villages tend to grow, and eventually to use up all the water available to them. We had decided to avoid coming through Shimla because it was completely without water. From the road we’d seen a forest of chir pines (Pinus roxburghii). They are the most abundant trees at these lower slopes of the Himalayas, and very little can grow below their canopy. However, chir pine needs sunlight. On this north-facing slope banj oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora, Himalayan white oak) arched over the path.

The Lotus is worse than me at slopes. He decided to rest under the oaks. The Family wanted to walk up a little further. I followed, and The Young Niece, who was still energized by the dessert, came along. There was a steep bit right at the beginning, but then the path levelled off after a turn around the hill. This southern slope was full of chir pines. In the massive trunk of one I saw that rusty iron trishuls had been planted, and they were festooned with the gauzy red scarves reserved for holy sites. Trishuls hold an ambiguous place; they are weapons, but they are also religious objects. I pointed out the rough bark of the chir pine to The Young Niece. The ground was strewn with the pine cones and needles. When the layer of needles is thick enough it deters other trees from growing through.

There was no sign of a village. I hadn’t really expected one closer than five Kilometers away. We could look down into a narrow gorge cut by the stream which later becomes the waterfall crossed by the rickety old bridge. There was a single house by the stream, at the bottom of a cascade of rhododendron trees. Unfortunately the flowering season was over. Looking up-slope we could see another single house at the top of a scarp. This single family had terraced the slope in front of their house and converted it to agricultural use. I thought of all that this must have involved. I don’t think that I will be able to do that kind of physical labour. We turned back from this point.

Himalayan griffon

“Take a photo of that,” The Family told me. I hate following a bird in flight, because my camera has bad shutter lag. If I try to take something in motion, it is usually gone by the time the shutter opens. But this vulture was soaring predictably on thermals in large circles. I got it roughly in focus and followed it as I released the shutter. It wasn’t such a bad picture, was it?

We looked at it later and it was definitely the Himalayan vulture (Gyps himalayensis), also called the Himalayan Griffon. It certainly did not have the streaks and rufous highlights that would have indicated the Eurasian Griffon. These two are the largest vultures in the Himalayas, with wingspans which can go up to 3 meters. Some of these birds can weigh over 10 Kilograms. I’m not sure how large this was: I could not judge how high it was, and there was nothing in the sky to set a scale. I’m pretty bad at this. We were very excited by this sighting, because in late spring one usually expects to see this bird much higher up in the Himalayas; we were barely 2 Kilometers above sea level. Their normal range includes the Tibetan plateau, and the Falachan valley must be at the southern end of its summer range.

Fortunately the Himalayan vulture has not had a population crash due to the use of diclofenac for treating inflammation in cattle. IUCN has changed the status of this bird to near-threatened anticipating mortalities due to this chemical. However, with stricter control over its use, other vulture populations are recovering, and it may be that the Himalayan Griffon remains largely untouched. I looked at this one circling lazily in the empty sky, and hoped for such a future.