A hot winter afternoon

Walking in the ruins that dot Hampi during a hot afternoon, I stopped to see an Indian bushlark (Mirafra erythroptera) putting on its spectacular aerial display. This consists of it flying up to a good height, and then diving with its wings and tails held out. This told me two things: first that it was a bushlark (generally I’m very confused about larks), and second that early winter is the mating season, at least in the middle of parched Karnataka. I managed to get a few photos of it as it paused between displays. The Family and others spotted the female that it was trying to impress while I was busy taking photos. Unlike a skylark, it didn’t pour on us a flood of harmony. Its call was melodious but simple.

On the other side of the path, three horses waited patiently under a tree, ready to be photographed. This looked almost like they were deliberately posed there with a motorbike. It wasn’t a shot that you could let go. Something nagged at me while I took the photo. As I reached into my backpack for a bottle of water, the spark connected. This looked like a scene from the sets of Sholay, the half-century old blockbuster. The incongruity of a motorbike and horses, and the parched landscape. That movie had been shot in Ramnagar, just a five hour drive away.

Upupa epops

I’ve only seen Hoopoes (Upupa epops, aka Eurasian Hoopoe) around human habitation. Apparently waste land around towns is an ideal ecology for this striking bird. It needs broken ground in which to forage for insects and small reptiles, and broken vertical spaces for nesting. One should be able to see it in the wild around broken cliffs, but I can’t say that I’ve ever spotted one near a cliff. I haven’t seen any Hoopoes nesting either, but that may just be because I haven’t looked. They are skittish, so to take a good photo you have to sneak softly and carry a big lens. I’d already practiced sneaky photography on yellow-wattled lapwings, so when I saw this Hoopoe in another part of the same field, I was ready. It turned its back to me, ready to fly, and kept two eyes on me. But I guess the ground it was on provided good food, so it didn’t quite take off.

I’ve never really seen anything else which is similar to a Hoopoe. As a child, I would lump it with woodpeckers, but a little observation tells you that it is totally different; it pecks on the ground and never drills into wood. There are three or four species of Hoopoes, largely in non-overlapping ranges across Africa, Asia, and Europe, but they are the only birds in the genus Upupa. There seems to be an emerging consensus that their closest relatives are the hornbills. Most hornbills evolved in Asia, but a dearth of fossil Hoopoes makes it hard to tell where they evolved. A first search led me to around 15,000 papers on this species, which I’ll try to skim before my next birding trip. I guess I’m not the only one who’s puzzled and fascinated by Hoopoes.

Two bulbuls

One of our targets in Hampi was the yellow-throated bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus). We had our sighting early one morning near a cliff face to the east of the ruins of the 16th century CE Krishna bazaar. The birds sat in the middle of heavy foliage, so that we could hear its melodious chatter long before we could see the crestless bulbul. There was one pair in the tree that we were looking at, and maybe a couple of pairs in the bushes near the top of the cliff.

This is possibly the westernmost population of this bird, which exists in fragmented habitats across the eastern part of the Deccan plateau. It has been suggested recently that range fragmentation makes it more susceptible to local extinctions than its IUCN label of vulnerable might lead us to believe. With the major climate variability that we are going through, I was happy that I have spotted them in a fairly accessible location.

The range of this species completely overlaps that of the more common white-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus). In the din that the yellow-throateds had set up, I was unable to distinguish the call of the white-browed. Fortunately, we were with a really experienced birder, who noticed the song, and pinpointed the bird. I could get off a bunch of shots in wonderful light. Although P. luteolus is said to be of least concern, I hadn’t seen one before. It has a touch of yellow near the base of its beak. Both this and the P. xantholaemus are said to have a yellow vent (I didn’t manage to see that), but otherwise they are easily distinguished. In particular, the P. lutelous has the characteristic bulbul’s crest, though a small one. It was a happy morning, with two lifers.

Lunar eclipses

A lunar eclipse will be seen from Mumbai starting at 10:37 PM Indian Standard Time today, and will last till 2:42 AM tomorrow. The maximum will occur at 40 minutes past midnight. The eclipse will be visible from most of India, and will occur at about the same times. The prediction of eclipses is a routine task today, done with high precision. But positional astronomy is an ancient subject, and was done accurately for millennia all over the world, even when the causes behind them was obscure. In India computations of eclipses involved two entities, which were named Rahu and Ketu, which moved in a cycle which is known as the saros. In modern day terminology of positional astronomy, Rahu and Ketu correspond to the points on the celestial sphere where the apparent paths of the sun and the moon coincide. As a result, these are the only places on the celestial sphere at which eclipses can take place.

In this wonderful low-relief sculpture at the entrance to the Sri Krishna temple in Hampi, Rahu and Ketu are represented as snakes, ready to swallow the moon. As for the rabbit, I looked again at a photo of the full moon I’d taken in March in Mumbai, and with a little squinting I could imagine that the dark patches of the lowlands on the disk look a bit like a leaping rabbit. You can take a look for yourself tomorrow and decide. In any case, I found the gate beautiful. How deeply astronomy is imbedded into all of world’s cultures!

Yellow-wattled lapwing

In an open field in Hampi, surrounded by buildings, we saw a flock of skittish yellow-wattled lapwings (Vanellus malabaricus). I hadn’t seen one for years, although the IUCN red list calls it a species of least concern. They are said to be common over the whole of India and Sri Lanka, but birders talk of it as having become harder to spot in the last decade. They were wary of us, and would not let us approach closer than about 50 meters. Photographing them was a sneaky affair: inching jeeps close, getting off from the far-side door, and shooting from behind cover.

Grounds such as the one we saw would be the usual breeding ground for the birds, which lay well-camouflaged eggs in nests scratched into the ground. It was half a year past breeding season. The flock held many juveniles. They can be told by the fact that they have a brown cap instead of black. I suppose that proximity to humans brings dangers to the breeding grounds. Cows or goats could accidentally trample eggs. Rubbish dumps attract crows which also aggressively seek out and eat eggs of other birds. Human-animal conflict can come well-disguised.

The richest kingdom in the medieval world?

The profusion of reliefs in Hampi showing horse traders seems to bear out a factoid that I’d heard repeatedly: that the Vijayanagar empire was the richest in the medieval world during its century of dominance, from the mid 15th to the 16th century CE. This probably has to be qualified slightly, since this was also the heydays of the Ming dynasty in China. But comtemporary records seem to indicate that the medieval city of Vijayanagara was not much smaller than its contemporary Beijing. It exported diamonds and imported horses. Its capital was a market which attracted Arab traders, and eventually Portuguese and Dutch travellers.

From various sources we know today that the most productive diamond mines were owned by the king. Workers were paid wages, but no other incentives. Based on the recorded wages paid to workers in the diamond mines, Pande and Raviteja wrote “Thus it may be constructed that the labourers in the mines probably led a miserable life.” The incredible difference in the quality of life of kings and commoners was noted by several travellers. It is likely that horse traders were far better off than the masses.

Iron, bronze and copper were mined and used. Iron was smelted in charcoal furnaces to make steel. In his influential book on the Vijayanagara empire, Robert Sewell wrote in 1900 that irons and steel was largely used to make weapons, but there was sufficient surplus to be turned into common household objects. The construction industry was dominated by temples and palaces, and employed a large number of masons, master builders, sculptors and various other artisans. Records of donations to temples show that artisans were well-off. Stone walls in temples (see photo on top) are dressed with precision, blocks sized and matched perfectly to sit on top of each other. So the lack of precision in the dressing of stone blocks in public works like the aqueduct of Anegondi (photo above), or the Mahanavami Dibba, cannot be attributed either to the lack of metals, or the lack of trained artisans. If this has not already been investigated by historians, then here is a mystery to be solved.

Victory celebrations

The Vijayanagara empire was one of the major medieval kingdoms of India, with its eastern boundary a source of friction with another major empire: the Kalinga or Odisha kingdom. Hampi, then called Vijayanagara, had been briefly occupied by an invading Kalinga army in the late 15th century CE. In that war the eastern part of the kingdom, west of the Krishna river, was annexed by Kalinga. The retaliation came a generation later, when Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara laid siege to the Kalinga fort of Udayagiri. The two-year siege ended in 1514 CE with the capture of the fort. After another five years of war, the Odisha kingdom, which was also busy fighting the Bengal kingdom to its east, agreed to a treaty marking the Krishna river as the border of the two kingdoms. Krishnadevaraya counted this as a major victory, having captured the son of the king of Kalinga, married his daughter, and brought back several famous temple idols from Kalinga as booty.

Some accounts say that the grandiose platform of Mahanavami Dibba was built in celebration of this grand victory, and from then on served as the focus for the imperial celebration of the ten days of Dasara. There is extensive research and writing about the history of Vijayanagara, so the lack of precise dating troubled me a little. If the platform was indeed made after the Kalinga war, or one of the battles during the war, then it could not have been seen by visitors before 1512 CE.

The high walls are extensively decorated with the low-relief sculptures that I found was characteristic of Hampi. Elsewhere they function as a narrative, like a medieval graphic novel. Here there are few stories (unless we have lost them, which is not impossible) but many illustrations of some parts of regular life. I spent time looking at the panels which showed horse trainers and traders, elephants and lions being used in war, women dancing, sometimes with sticks in hand, scenes of hunting. Hidden amongst these was the delightful chimera with the body of a horse, head of an elephant and the tail of a lion, which you see in the featured image. Like elsewhere in Hampi, the stone blocks were roughly shaped, as if care was needed to dress only the face on which the reliefs would be sculpted.

Why are the stone blocks so irregular? Does this say something about the lack of either tools, manpower, or funds? It is not clear to me from my reading whether the Kalinga war had renewed or drained the Vijayanagara exchequer, so I can’t tell whether the king had money to pay for a better wall. The capital was still expanding in the early 16th century, and the skills of builders would have been in demand; so lack of trained manpower seems unlikely. Perhaps the problem was with tools. But stone has been worked in India for millennia, and Indian steel was famous across Eurasia at this time. This lack of expertise in shaping stone blocks is intriguing enough to make me want to explore the literature in more detail.

Kalyani tank

Among the group of monuments in Hampi, I came across a step tank next to the so-called Mahanavami mound. A small aqueduct ends above it, clearly meant to top up the tank. The precise geometrical pattern of this structure gives very interesting photos when the sun is about halfway between the horizon and the zenith. The well has been shaped into a square, and four sets of stairs descend from the ground to the water. The sides are inclined, so the opening at the top is larger than the surface of the well. Each set of stairs is a square pyramid in five levels. The shadows brought out this simple geometry very nicely. The excavation in 1980 was followed by a loving reconstruction.

Beyond a name, Kalyani tank (Kalyani pushkarini), I couldn’t find anything about this well-preserved structure: neither the years of construction, nor the social use. Was it somehow related to the Mahanavami mound, in which case they two might have been built at the same time? Or were they built at different times, so they are just accidentally near each other? Or could they have been built at different times, but used together when the later of the two structures was completed? Hampi became Vijayanagara’s capital in the 14th century, and probably abandoned by the end of the 16th century, so there are at least broad limits on the time during which the tank was built. The Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas shows that the climate was quite variable in this period, with two or three year-long droughts happening more than once during a person’s lifetime in imperial Hampi. A stable empire would therefore have to pay attention to water works. Still, I’m surprised by the utter lack of material on the monuments at this site.

Eagle-owl

We drove slowly along a canal outside of Hampi. The cliff face across the canal is said to be home to several eagle-owls (Bubo bubo, or the Eurasian eagle-owl). They are the largest of owls, widespread across the world, but this spot is far south of a widely reproduced range map that you see on the web. Years ago, my first sighting of this species was only a little north of here, again outside the popularly represented range maps, but well-known, and well-marked, in field guides. Actually, the eagle-owl can be seen almost everywhere in India except in some of the north-eastern states.

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Left to myself, I think I would have driven straight past the spot where I saw this guy sitting out in the open. You can see from the slide show here how hard it is to spot unless you stand right here and look. Often there are white streaks of scat on rock which indicate that a bird frequents a place, but there was no such indicator here. If it wasn’t for our local guide, who’d seen the bird here before, we would easily have missed it. It was mid-afternoon. The bird opened one orange eye to look at us. As we stood there taking photos, it opened both eyes warily. But after a while it was convinced that we were no danger, and closed both eyes and went back to rest.

Shikra

Sitting on the steps of an old structure in Hampi, I saw a preening shikra (Accipiter badius). One way to tell the difference between the sexes is by the eye colour; this one, with its orange eyes, is a female. A male has a significantly more red eye. This is perhaps the smallest of Indian raptors, but I’m continually surprised by its weight. The leaf it sat on did not move up significantly when it flew away. Until then I was happy to see it preen, because that was one way of getting to see the details of its tail feathers.

I’m afraid this post will be short because I have to take a very inconvenient flight.