A grand school

On a little walk through the old town of Jamnagar, I passed through a triple gate on an arterial road and then suddenly saw some wonderful old doors. Where was I? What was I seeing? The maps on my phone were of no help, and later I found that the famed world wide web was also of no help. All these doors belonged to a grand and ornate but delapidated structure. It was not marked on the map at all, although shops which were set inside some of these doors were mentioned.

The facade was perhaps less than half a kilometer long, but not too much less. I walked along it, bemused. A ceremonial gateway, fit for a four-horse coach was barred by a flimsy mild steel collapsible gate. Children passed through it, and there were scooters parked inside (and outside, of course). Mysterious. I was enchanted by the grand arches, the painted columns, and wished that the shops had harmonized better with the building. The building looked like it came from the last decade of the 19th century CE, or perhaps the first couple of decades of the 20th.

Some of the doors were shuttered, instead of being covered up for a shop. Expansive stairs led down from the level of the floor to the street. These regal stairs were no places for people to sit. I took a photo, trying to avoid the scooters. I lost the stairs (photo above) but not the scooters; a mirror jutting up from the handlebars reached up into the frame. A few more paces I came to the geometrical middle of the facade, and I had a name: Saifee Institution (see the featured photo). Now I could place it; it was a Dawoodi Bohra institution

I seemed to have come to the shop where The Family had told me she was going to spend quality time looking for the local tie-and-dye fabric. I was happy to leave the warm and humid winter atmosphere of the street and walk into a frigidly air conditioned shop. Surprise! The shop belonged to a Bohra. As The Family engaged an assistant in helping her to choose, I asked the owner what the Saifee Institution was. He told me that it used to be a big school, and even now it remains a school, although the number of pupils is much smaller. That explained the children walking in through the gateway.

I left my backpack with The Family and walked back out on the road to admire the building again. Those classrooms then! The corridors would have been wonderful places to run down. And the rooms! So many windows to look out of when you were bored. I could have liked studying in this building. The stucco work on the pediments was so wonderfully decorative. Unfortunately I could not find anything on the net about this building or its provenance.

I could really dive into the details here: admiring the repeating decagonal tiling on the jalis, or the execution of plaster flowers. This was one of my most pleasant discoveries in this town, and fortunately I had a long time to admire it. It’ll take me much longer to dig out its true and compleat history.

A webbed swisher

I’ve seen the common pochard (Aythya ferina) so many times that I should really know its name. But I always forget, and The Family or someone else has to remind me. There could be a little difficulty in telling it from an Eurasian wigeon from some angles, but the snow white back of the pochard is characteristic, just as the buffy crown of the wigeon is a clear distinction. As I stood near the Lakhota Lake of Jamnagar and watched the mellow sun of the morning light up the red iris of these birds, I realized that I’d not noticed their eyes before.

I took a close up (featured photo), and then zoomed back a bit to take another shot. Pochards are diving ducks (although they will also turn upside down sometimes to dabble just under the surface), and their heads are streamlined wedges, unlike the round heads of dabbling ducks. Their legs are placed a little further back in their body so that they can more easily propel themselves under water. The result is that as they swim, the wake opens up at a rather small angle, as you can see in the photo above. Whenever I look at water waves, I lose myself in the intricacies of the ripples. Does the wake look braided to you? It does to me, and I wondered whether this appearance had anything to do with the way the pochard paddles in the water.

I couldn’t get a photo of a pochard’s legs moving under water, so I took a photo of another duck with webs strung between three of its toes. This is how a pochard’s feet also look. When you look at the photo above, you see that the ripples are asymmetrical: on one side the crests are closer together. It would look the same for a pochard. So, as it swims, on every stroke of its feet, a pochard must be twisting its leg slightly away from its body on one half of the stroke, and then back towards itself on the return stroke. This is probably what gives that braided look to the wake. If you manage a careful look at a pochard swimming, could you please leave a comment here to tell me whether I’m correct or not?

These winter visitors to India breed in the northern parts of the continent. The female is very drab in colour, and I find it hard to identify. I scanned the lake and saw that male and female pochard were usually close together. Near a roosting male I spotted this drab coloured bird of about the same size, and head shape. This must be the female of the common pochard. As usual with roosting birds, half its brain is asleep. The eye that faces away from the body is connected to the hemisphere of its brain which is awake an alert to danger. How wonderfully different are bird brains from the mammalian organ!

Black-winged stilts

I recognize the black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) pretty easily by its long red legs and the black wings on an otherwise white bird. Its name is highly appropriate. Interestingly, it is found across the world in a belt around the equator between about 40 degrees north and about that far south. Nor are they rare. I see them in the tidal waters around Mumbai whenever I’ve let myself get pretty rusty about waterbirds recently, but when we made a trip to Jamnagar, this was still one of the birds I remembered.

You can easily tell the difference between a male and a female: the male has glossy black wings, but the female has dark brown wings, like in the photo above. The very minor difference between the sexes means that they share the job of rearing their young. They usually stride about pretty confidently in shallow waters, so when I saw a female extract her toes from the water and wiggle it around, I knew that she was stirring up the water in the hope of bringing some insects to the surface, in order to pick it up in its long and elegant bill. It does plunge its head into the water sometimes, but it does that so seldom that I guess it is not something it really wants to do.

Some time back I found that birds sleep with half their brain at a time. Also, waders like to sleep out in the water, and retract the leg connected to the sleeping hemisphere of their brains. Ever since then I’ve had a little thrill of recognition when I find a bird standing on one leg. This one looked around once; there is really no human equivalent of this, but I could imagine me dozing on a railway platform and looking up sleepily at an odd noise.

How to put on one kilo in three days

Now that the idea of a lockdown no longer seems remote, one needs many suggestions on what to do in those long hours you’ll have to spend at home. In order to help you out, I’ve put together this small post on how to gain weight. I cannot claim that this is a method I’ve invented, but it is certainly one I tested in a long weekend in Jamnagar.

Let’s start at the very beginning. The day starts with breakfast, You’ll certainly have jalebi at hand. If not, make some.

Then make gathia. Take besan, add ajwain, powdered pepper, red chili powder, and salt to taste. Knead till the ball is elastic, neither too soft, nor too hard. Then, with a smooth practiced motion, roll out ribbons of gathia. Fry them in hot oil.

The same dough gives you fafra too. You’ll need a flat-bladed knife for this. Also, remember to fry some of those delicious big chilis to go with the sweetness of the jalebi. Deep frying everything is important for your goal.

Remember, you don’t need to fill yourself till you are sick. Just eat enough that you feel you don’t need lunch. Of course you will have lunch, but this is just a measure of fullness. If you’ve overdone it, then just take an extra glassful of that lovely strong, sweet, and milky tea,

Western Reef Egret

There was only one kind of dark egret wading through the tidal waters in the Gulf of Kutch. That was the western reef egret (Egretta gularis), which would stir up the water delicately with its long toes, before becoming totally still and gazing down at at. The thing about traveling with expert bird watchers is that you get to learn little snippets like the fact that there is a “morph” of the bird with white feathers. I’d seen and read about birds changing colours around their breeding season, so I didn’t pay it much attention. It was only later that I read a report which made it clear that the different “morphs” of E. gularis are like human skin colour, fixed at birth and unchanging. So it makes sense that someone would write a long article about how to tell the difference between the white morph of E. gularis and the little egret (Egretta garzetta). So next time I see a small white egret I’ll carefully look to see whether the beak and the forehead are in a line, and whether the back of the head is blunt. If it is, then I know it must be E. gularis. But if the head is more rounded then it has to be E. garzetta.

I watched one hold its body quite still as it gazed intently into the water. Occasionally it would move its head forward a little, and I would wait for it to strike. But it didn’t. I was surprised later to see a paper which had studied these motions of the head to determine how the bird corrected for refraction of the image of its prey in the water. Apparently, this slow forward motion of its head scans a range of angles, allowing it to determine the true position of the prey. At the moment it decides to strike, its beak moves in a straight line towards the prey, piercing through the water to catch it with slightly parted beaks. I wish I had managed to catch it in action.

The scooters of Jamnagar

I spent a couple of hours walking through the old center of Jamnagar, a part called either Chandni Bazaar or Darbar Gadh. I expect old towns to be full of narrow lanes, but this had reasonably wide streets with rows of shops. I realized later that the present look of the town must be due to the rebuilding by Ranjitsinghji in the 1920s (the very same Jamsaheb of Jamnagar who captained the English test team around the turn of the 20th century).

The roads were jammed with scooters. In trying to dodge the ones in motion, I had to duck behind those which were parked along the sides. I passed a group of Jain temples, dazzling in the mid day sun reflected off the white marble. But the nicest thing about them were the painted walls. I took a photo of the beautiful facade. There was no way to avoid the scooters parked outside, or the security guards parked on them. Across the road was a colourful building, all locked up for the day. The doors were quite pretty, and again there was no way to take a photo of the door without getting a scooter in the shot. If you are in Jamnagar, concentrate on taking photos of scooters, you’ll get a few nice doors in the background.

A Maratha woodpecker

I’d seen the Maratha woodpecker for the first time a couple of years ago in Munnar, and never managed to get a good photo. Now, in the Khichadia bird sanctuary outside Jamnagar, I got a clear view of it in good light.


The loud chirps that came from a thicket near the lake in Khijadiya bird sanctuary probably belonged to a chat. As I was wracking my brain for the names of various chats, a very experienced birder exclaimed “Bluethroat!” I hadn’t even heard of Bluethroats (Luscinia svecica). I was to find later that they are found across the old world and even in the extreme northwest of the Americas. The one we saw had likely come down to winter from its breeding grounds in the northwestern Himalyas. It flew up from the thicket to sit in good light on an upper branch of a thorn tree. Its blue throat with a rufous band looked wonderful to me, but apparently it is much brighter in the breeding season. Isn’t that a great reason to make a summer trip to the western Himalayas?

The migration of some populations of the Bluethroat has been studied quite intensively during recent years, mainly by ringing birds. It seems that all birds from a certain breeding ground may not travel together in winter. However, the birds which winter in a certain area return to that place again in following years. Perhaps there is some competition between individuals to return to the breeding grounds earlier. These studies have been done in Spain and Africa. I wonder whether such fine differences also occur in the Indian population. I’m sure someone is even now writing a grant proposal to study such questions. I was happy to add one more bird to my life list.

Breakfast in Jamnagar

Our train arrived in Jamnagar in time for breakfast. This is a big affair anywhere in Gujarat. Before we could get to the food I needed chai. Lots of it. There had been precious little of it on the train. It wasn’t a problem here at all. These guys were set up to serve the perfect Gujarati tea: milky, boiled with dust tea, lots of sugar and ginger, a perfect early morning drink really: the sweetness of fruit juice with a kick of caffeine.

A cup in hand, I was ready to look at the legendary cook who makes the best breakfast in the neighbourhood. He sat surrounded by his parapharnelia, kneading a twist of besan mixed with ajwain. In a short while he’d rolled out strips of fafra and thrown them into a kadhai full of hot oil. Thin strips of gathia followed. The fat chilis were already fried and waiting on a thali in front of him.

Jalebi and dhokla appeared from jars next to him. Unlike the north, where jalebi is eaten hot, Gujaratis eat jalebi cold. This cook is a specialist; he makes his living selling breakfast in this tiny but extremely popular stall. Our table was soon piled with plates full of all these things. “The chilis make this a high fibre breakfast compared to what we had in Hampi,” I remarked to The Family. It was going to be hard not to put on weight if our breakfasts continued to be like this.

In the middle of Jamnagar

It took me too long to figure out what this dilapidated, but once grand, structure was. That it was situated in the middle of the old town of Jamnagar should have been a clue. The part of this clue that you may not possess is that Jamnagar was the capital of one of the old princely states which merged into Gujarat after independence. That the area this stood in was called Darbar Garh should have been the final clue.

Instead I stood cluelessly in front of the enormous gate which is now a backdrop to a little vegetable market, and gawped. As I took a few photos I began to wonder whether this was the ancient palace. That gate would have taken an elephant with a large howdah on top of it. I looked at it for a while. On one side of it were exuberantly decorative scalloped arches, the other side had severe lines of lancet arches. Just above the enormous doors of the main entrance was a carved wooden balcony.

As I moved closer to take another photo of the door, an inset door opened and a man stepped out. I’d finally come to the conclusion that this must have been the palace of the Jam Sahib of Jamnagar. Memories of the cricketer Ranjitsinhji swirled in my mind and congealed around this idea. I had vague memories of Ranji playing Test cricket for England at the end of the 19th century CE (he was in the English Test team from 1896 to 1903). Didn’t he also represent India at the League of Nations? How old was this palace?

The city is supposed to have been founded in 1540 CE, perhaps with the original fortified palace somewhere in this place. The Gujarat sultanate had been annexed by the Mughal empire by Akbar five years before this. The Jamsahibs were allies of the Mughals. The current look of the town is attributed largely to a rebuilding by Ranjitsinhji in the 1920s. I suppose the European influenced wing of the palace was added in his time.

There seemed to be no ticket booth. Indeed, the whole place looked derelict. I read later that the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 had damaged the palace. No attempt has been made to restore this wonderful structure which, even at a superficial glance, contains wings built over a long period of history. I moved back to take photos of the fresh vegetables, which are the main reasons why people stop by this relic of history today.