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.

Pre-school blues

We decided to walk away from the dam and lake. The flat land rose gently towards Kalsubai peak. A road wound through the rolling countryside. We would follow the road, more or less, to avoid getting lost. This side of the plateau was less well off. Perhaps the land was not as productive as that closer to the dam. A thin soil covered the porous laterite rocks. The red mud of this area was a clear indication of the geology. Immediately after the mosoon the waters would drain away, leaving a dry parched land. It showed in the village.

Across the country, Anganwadis are essential nodes in primary health care and pre-school education for children. One essential service it provides is to track childhood nourishment, and give food to malnourished children. The pandemic has interrupted this service for the first time since it was set up by the central government in 1975. We saw a closed center. A few pre-school children hung around it, and ran away when they saw me. As I took photos, they came back slowly to stare.

Next to it was a primary school. The walls contained early-school material. Schools have been shut for almost two years now. Elementary schools provide a mid-day meal. In a poor village like this, the meal is an essential component of childhood nutrition. That is another source of food shut now. This is happening at the same time that incomes have fallen, because the few people in the village who worked in towns have lost their jobs.

It isn’t just this one Anganwadi which was closed. In the more prosperous part of the plateau, between the dam and the highway, we’d seen others also shut. Some educationists are lobbying to get governments to continue to provide children’s meals even during this pandemic. A shortfall in nutrition affects children very crucially. The effects on India’s rural population won’t be visible till the middle of the century.

Darkness in Matheran

Good legs and comfortable shoes are what you need to visit Matheran. No cars are allowed on the plateau. You could drive from Mumbai and park at the immense parking lot below the plateau, or take the train in. A century old toy train may run from the station up, but it is often out of order. So you either walk or take a horse. A dozen years ago, we walked up immediately after the end of the monsoons.

No ID for the moth, and I didn’t notice the insect with the long elegant legs until later

Matheran is only 800 meters above sea level, but it seems immensely high when you look up at it. The youngest among us was seven years old. Lewis Carroll’s description “All of us were out of breath, and some of us were fat” fitted us to the last trailing T. Clouds had gathered over the plateau as we drove in. True Mumbaikars that we are, our rain gear had been packed away after the monsoon. We confidently predicted no rain, and began the walk along the tourist route. The hour long walk turns lovely a little way up. We stopped frequently to take photos and prolonged it a little.

After checking into the hotel, we decided to have tea before going out for a walk. It can take a couple of days to stroll all the way around the plateau. Although we were keen to do it, we had to have tea first. It was already late afternoon. A very lucky decision, because the clouds burst into a hard rain. The rain became a storm. And in no time, a tree fell on the power lines up to the plateau. It would take a few hours for Matheran to get its electricity back. The tea became an elaborate affair. Darkness fell before we could go out.

We love to take isolated hotels. This one evening it did not seem like a good decision. The mall road was a smudge of light in the distance. We walked out into a dark and muddy path. You knew there was a puddle to be avoided only after your shoes were wet. The Family did not mind. It was a little adventure, and Matheran is famous for its footwear. Each shop in the market had emergency lights. Power outages are frequent, but commerce cannot stop. Handbags, fancy footwear

I knew it was time for me to leave The Family, The Leafless, and the nieces to their devices. My cousin and I slowly melted into the gloom. The thin red laterite soil overlying the porous rock would drain away the water within a couple of hours. That’s also the reason why this place is not really fit for human habitation. There would have been no people here if it wasn’t for the 19th century craze to take the mountain air. That drew the British, the Parsis, and the Bohras to build little sanatoria here. Their remains, now largely turned into hotels, now draw crowds from Mumbai. The locals turn up to make a living off the city folk.

Leaving the women to the handbags and chappals, we walked around looking at what else was on offer. Training horses for riding across the plateau was a major occupation. Although the darkness was not the best time for it, there were lines of hopefuls who eyed us. We stopped instead at one of the many people roasting bhutta. After all, you need to eat a couple of times between tea and dinner. It was either bhutta or chikki. Why not both, I suggested to my cousin. He is an agreeable sort when you make such suggestions.

The lights came back before we had finished inspecting all the food on offer. We decided to find the rest of the party before less adventurous tourists decided to leave the safety of their hotel rooms. A mall road is a magnet for moths and men after dark. I took a last photo of two men in animated conversation in a small eatery. It was time to go find how many shoes and handbags a woman needs.

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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