Three butterflies

Long walks and close views of the high Himalayas are why you would visit Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). The thick smoke from forest fires meant that walks would be a health risk. Our chances of seeing the Pnachachauli massif close up also seemed to be shot. In addition, I was beginning to be concerned about the pandemic. By now it is well known that exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of contracting severe COVID-19. Very few people in Munsiyari were using masks, but we were glad to use them both as protection against pollution and against the disease.

Pieris canidia indica, Indian cabbage white (subspecies Himalayan)

A whole day’s drive had left me feeling like getting out under the sun, or what little filtered through the thick haze. The town of Munsiyari is strung along a winding mountain road. We stopped a little way past the crowded bazaar to look at the tribal heritage museum. My experience of such places in small towns is that they have an interesting collection which is usually displayed and labelled very haphazardly. I couldn’t stand the idea of being inside again. While The Family walked off to the museum with others, I slipped into a little path next to the road.

Aglais cashmiriensis, Indian tortoiseshell

Immediately, I saw an Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis) sunning itself on the path. Mid-morning is a wonderful time to do a little butterfly spotting. These things have woken from a night’s sleep, the late risers are still sluggish and want to warm themselves, and the early risers are busy at breakfast. I caught sight of a couple of Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia). Up here it would be the subspecies Himalayan, P. canidia indica. Around Mumbai it is the other subspecies that we see, the Sahayadri, P. canidia canis. They were extremely agile at this time, but I got off a couple of shots. On a mustard field on the side, I spotted a common copper (Lycaena phlaeas, featured photo).

I was happy, and remained so even when The Family told me that the museum had wonderful pieces, just that she wished there was some explanation. But before I go, let me show you an enlarged photo of the tortoiseshell. I like the fact that the colour and texture of the soil seems to be mirrored in its wings and abdomen. Has it had a dust bath, or are those the scales that give the order Lepidpotera its name? I find it interesting to look at my photos at different magnifications.

Butterflies of Kaziranga

Butterflies are my style: they get up late, spend the morning lazing in the sun until they feel awake enough to flutter round, then find a patch of flowers to sip on, find a mate or two, descend to the ground occasionally, and curl up below a leaf in the evening for a long rest. To the lazy eye Kaziranga was full of Indian cabbage whites fluttering around low in the bushes. Large numbers were visible on roadsides, feeding on the flowers which sprout perennially on low weeds. Cabbage whites are common, so I don’t photograph them unless they stop right in front of a camera. One did, so you can find it below.

This part of India is full of butterflies, but you have to stop to watch them. In Kaziranga we spent our time zooming around in jeeps, looking for larger things. It was only when we were parked that I could take a photo. The grey pansy is common here, as are sailers of all kinds. I managed to take a photo of the clear sailer through a gap in a bush while we had stopped to look at birds. The grey pansy came to sun itself on a leaf next to us as we were spotting otters; it was an opportunity too good to be missed. Grass yellows and grass blues are everywhere, but they are small and flighty. I spend time on them only when I have nothing much to do. The photo you see above was taken when I was waiting for my companions to finish breakfast. Kaziranga has much more, but you have to walk if you want to see them.

Garhmukteshwar to Haldwani

Cycle in a field

A fast drive through Uttar Pradesh is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sensual overload. You can drive for hours without seeing people. There are signs of humanity all around you: bicycles abandoned for a while, tilled fields, well laid out lines of trees marking land boundaries, but no people.

Line of trees

And then you come into a small town, where there will be a great bustle of cars and scooters, of people selling food, or just standing around and chatting. In the little time that I spent taking this panoramic shot of an unremarkable cross road, a small crowd gathered around me. Their pride in their town was reinforced by looking, over and over, at my photo on the tiny LCD screen of my camera. Or maybe I was misreading their interest, maybe they looked at the photo so intently because they wanted to see what a fresh eye found in this familiar chowk.

Dusty crossroads

The countryside is not wild at all. There are seldom many birds apart from the usual crows and magpie robins. One of the most remarkable exceptions was a skyful of pariah kites, cheel, as we passed the enormous garbage dump outside Rampur. There will be a few butterflies, like this Cabbage White. Uttar Pradesh is densely populated, contrary to what your eyes tell you. These are the subtle signs you need to read.

Indian cabbage white butterfly

Occassionally you might see someone selling fresh produce by the wayside. Perhaps cabbages, perhaps guavas. I always thought that guavas served out by roadside fruit sellers with rock salt was peculiarly Indian, until I bought exactly the same combination from an old lady in Vietnam.

Red guava

Restaurant kitsch Interestingly, there is not too much roadside commerce. Other states have many more fruit sellers by the road. But then they have many more people on the road. It is interesting to ask why. I have different answers from different people. Some say that people take buses between villages and towns, and these do not stop randomly at roadsides. Maybe. Another person put it down to lawlessness. That’s unlikely to be generally true. Relative lack of affluence is another theory. Maybe partly. Perhaps it is a combination of these and more.

So you will have to get into a town to eat. Even the tired, dusty, small towns often have a reasonable restaurant or two. We walked into one in Rampur and had pretty good dal, roti and tandoori chicken. And, of course, remarkable kitsch.