Get me out of here

It is believed that there are cold as well as hot hells. The least of the cold hells is called Arbuda naraka. Blizzards blow across this frozen cold plain through which lonely naked people walk for a few trillion years. There is also a belief that the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha tries to bring help to those who live here. It is said that his method is to convince people who live on earth to transfer a bit of the merit of their good deeds to those who live in hells. I suppose the idea is that kindness and caring works.

The good news is that social changes are working. Six months into the pandemic, 20 million out of 8 billion people have been infected; that is one fourth of a percent. I guess wearing masks counts as part of this transfer of merit.

The first spell of monsoon

We had the first long spell of monsoon rain in the last four days. It is a beautiful time. Heavy showers, like the one you see in the featured photo, come and go during these days. You can see the sun dimming, the gusty winds setting in. You rush to close windows and doors, take in things, and usually do not succeed in preventing the first gust of rain from wetting a few things. I finished closing the windows and looked at the world outside disappear behind the cascading water. I had to capture this! My current phone camera is up to it. It shows what the human eye sees. The Family’s is too intelligent for its own good; it cleared up the blurring sheets of rain and brightened the photo until it lost its particularity: the shape of what she sees.

These stormy gusts do not last long; ten minutes to half an hour, and they are gone. When I looked at satellite photos of this mass of clouds I could see it covering about a thousand square kilometers, moving slowly, passing over Mumbai in about four days. But within this mass there were eddies and collections of more or less dry clouds. The less dry are the things which keep dripping for days. This early in the season they are a joy to walk out in. I went out to get photos of flowers getting wet in the rain. Unfortunately, as the ground beneath the bushes gets flooded, the bluebottle flies which feed on the rotting mulch get flushed out. I saw them on these leaves. By tomorrow they will be invading my home. It is little things like this which make you eventually tire of varsha.

Masks would have got wet and turned useless at their job if I’d taken an umbrella. So I dug out a poncho with a long overhanging hood. It prevents me from seeing anything (I remember a walk in Acadia National Park wearing this), but it keeps my face very dry. It is the perfect attire for close-in monsoon photography. Monsoon in the COVID-19 season is bad, it will prevent droplets from drying fast, and will help to spread the disease faster. But outdoors, during the rain, it makes things safer, by flushing virus laden droplets out of the air into the ground, where the salts and acid can destroy them. Every season has its dangers and delights.

Just before the monsoon

This week the monsoon arrived in Mumbai, with two days of gloomy skies and frequent rains. You can feel its arrival: the unsettled weather before it, the thunder showers at night, then the persistent westerlies and a choppy sea. I went for a walk in the garden in the early afternoon. That’s when most people are at home, and the overhead light is usually terrible for photos. But I had spots in mind, where the sun would filter down through trees, and throw a beautiful dappled light on the handiwork of the gardeners. I was not disappointed. These days full of warmth and light will decrease over the next couple of months, so I was happy to catch the photo that you see here.

The six seasons: 3

The season which I love, the season which I hate. The rainy season, varsha, the monsoon. This is when peninsular India, including Mumbai, is so different from the northern plains. Summer winds down slowly in the plains, the towns turning warmer and warmer, emptying slowly as schools let off, people traveling up to the cooler Himalayas. But on the west coast of the peninsula, monsoon strikes hard even before summer can bake the earth dry. In my first years with digital cameras, I tried very hard to capture a sense of this spectacular season: the lack of sunlight, the continuous rain. I look back at those photos now and I find that I could have taken my own style of photos in a different direction, more misty, atmosphere, less concrete. I might want to do down that route again.

The outside world disappears for days on end, and you are thrown into your own internal world. Classical poetry called this the season of love. Perhaps the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, wrote a whole travelogue about the monsoon clouds carrying a lonely person’s message to his love across the whole of India. I followed that route, and saw that the description of the country is still true, even after nearly one and a half thousand years. Then there is the music of varsha, raga Malhar in all its variety. Another form that fits this season is more modern, the claustrophobic film noir, so wonderfully used by a few talented directors in the last decades. This is the exasperating season, when nothing ever dries, everything gets moldy. This is the season for the phone camera, a much handier replacement for the compact I used once for monsoon photos.

Classical Sanskrit poetry observed nature so beautifully: frogs and insects, grass and trees, rain-streaked stone and wet crows; the weft and warp of our daily lives. Every time I think of the monsoon, those wonderful stanzas from Kalidasa’s Meghdoot pop into my head: so evocative, but so hard to translate into verse without clumsiness. How do you translate “snighdhachhayatarushu”? The calm shadow under a tree? But that is only one word, less than half of the last line of an early stanza. Most translations into English that I’ve seen published, gloss over this word in an attempt to catch the meaning of the whole sentence. But that seasonal reference is then lost, the sense of grishma ending and varsha about to come.

The dance of the cranes

It was quite dark when we started climbing the observation tower in Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary. I could hear a lot of quarreling and squawking from behind the line of trees next to the road to the tower. As I climbed above the line of the trees a biting north wind hit me. The previous afternoon had been hot, and I’d neglected to bring my jacket with me. In an hour it would begin to warm up, but now, before dawn, the wind cut through my tee like knives. Still, there was this immense commotion which sounded like it was something to see. And it was.

As I reached the top of the tower I saw a very large flock of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) had gathered together. In the dim pre-dawn light the wet land seemed to be a charcoal drawing, all shades of grey. Sarus are the tallest of cranes, reaching up to a man’s chest or shoulders. And some of them were dancing. Early February is not breeding season, so this was not a courtship dance. I’ve never seen anything like this before, nor read about it. Was it aggression? Unlikely, since there was no food or sex involved. Was it exuberance? Perhaps, but one would have to eliminate many other reasons to establish that as a reason. I was happy to watch and take photos.

In a matter of minutes they began to take to the sky. Wave after wave of them passed overhead. There must have been an enormous number of birds roosting in this place. A lifetime ago, when cities were less crowded, you could see them in the middle of fields. Now they are excluded from many more places. The result is that IUCN now classifies them as vulnerable.

They passed north of the tower and headed over to their feeding grounds to the east. Now the sky was beginning to turn from gray to pink. I had been hoping that I could take a photo of them flying into the sunrise, but missed that by a minute or so. The sun came up just after they had vanished into the distance. Too bad. It would have been such a wonderfully cliched image!

The sun was yet to make a difference. If anything, the wind seemed to be stronger. I turned back to look at the wet lands to the west. With the cranes gone, and the sun above the horizon, the place looked different. Not worse, just different.

Some common birds in Hampi

This is a day when I need to keep my cool as I do some intense traveling to meetings. Just think of all the nice times spent in Hampi watching birds. Don’t dwell on the strenuous spotting, just recall the old familiars who appear when you least expect them. Some of them are dear to my heart because they are the first ones whose names I learnt, or ones which I have slowly got to be able to identify at a glance. That’s what my experiences friends call the jizz of the bird.

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In the gallery above you see a white-browed wagtail aka large pied wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), which wags its tail as it feeds, but runs quite fast when it thinks a human is close by. The spotted owlet (Athena brama), which you also see in the featured photo, is a familiar across most of India, although it seems to be unknown in the north-east and north-west. The laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is a familiar across the villages and small towns of India, but sadly invisible in the cities. The red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), seen here hanging upside down to eat molasses, is a true survivor, being found even in large cities. The little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is my familiar; crowds of these spectacularly coloured birds hang about in wires around my flat, making short forays to grab an insect out of the air. They give me a lot of practice with my camera and binoculars when I’m home, and I’m always glad to see a familiar swoop when I’m away. The Southern grey shrike aka Iberian grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis) is the odd one out. It should be a familiar, but it is not. I hope that I will be able to recognize it in the field more often now that I’ve spent so much time with it in Hampi.

Anegundi

Across the river Tungabhadra from the archaeological digs of Hampi is Anegundi, the oldest capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Harihara the first of the Sangama kings had his base here as he carved his kingdom out of the disintegrating Hoysala empire in the early 14th century CE. His successor Bukka Raya moved the capital to the more easily defended south bank of the river in the 1360s. We crossed the river in the northwards to see something of the remains of the early years of the kingdom.

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There is little that remains. Part of an aqueduct is all that is visible of the hydraulic engineering of the kingdom. A few temples remain as places of pilgrimage: the Anjaneya temple which perches on top of a cliff (featured photo), is the biggest draw, followed by Pampa Sarovar and the Durga temple. One of the spots worth visiting is an iron age remnant, some dolmens and cave paintings. Unfortunately the road was not driveable, and the afternoon had got pretty hot. The rest of the capital city has disappeared, and the area has reverted to modern village life. We found a little place to stop and have a chai, drove past ripening fields, crept at a petty pace behind a large flock of goats, marvelled at stacks of bananas left on the roadside to be picked up by a delivery truck. As The Family looked at some local jewellery being hawked to tourists next to the Pampa Sarovar, I took some photos of the lady who was both modelling and selling them.

Red Adavadats

I thought this was a lifer, since I would have remembered seeing such a colourful bird before. But apparently it wasn’t. The name red avadavat (Amandava amandava) or red munia rang a bell, and it turned out that we’d first seen it almost a decade ago. It is very common after all. Still, having forgotten it completely, I will consider this sighting of one resting on a cactus at least partly a lifer. For purposes of identification, one has to remember that the bill can change colour, and turns from an orange yellow to a bright red to a dark brown or black according to season. I wondered whether this is due to a changing diet. But then birds which are bright red often are sexually dimorphic, with the female a bright yellow. That is certainly true of this bird. So the change in colour could also be due to the activation or disactivation of a gene. By the time I took a photo of the male, the female had hidden itself, and came out in the open only fleetingly.

This one inspected the surroundings from its perch high up on the cactus, and then, only after figuring out that the coast was clear, did it descend to the ground. It feeds on grass seeds, and was not attracted to the grains that had been left outside the hide I sat on. I mentally cheered, because its behaviour cannot be manipulated simply by leaving grains out in the open. Why did it visit then? Random chance, or because the company of many other feeding birds can help to warn it against preddators even when it is not looking?

Perihelion photoshow

The year should rightly begin on Perihelion Day, tomorrow, January 4, when the earth is closest to the sun. On the Perihelion Eve of the end of the fourth century of the Keplerian Era (Why do I feel like Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch?), I thought of examining the ghosts of Perihelia past. One year ago I was in the Little Rann of Kutch. As the sun set after a full day of photography, the batteries on my camera ran out soon after I took the featured photo. That was a spectacular way to end Perihelion Day.

I haven’t been consistent about taking photos on Perihelion Day. I had to go back five more years, to 2014, before I found a set of photos I’d taken on Perihelion Day. It was a Saturday, The Family was at work in the morning, and I was at a loose end. I took a series of photos of a cape gooseberry. I liked the difference in texture between the fruit and the leaves which enclose it.

Two years before, in 2012, that Perihelion Day was on a Wednesday. I was in Mahabaleshwar for a meeting, and had the morning off. Somewhere near the edge of the plateau I could see the hills marching off into the distance. The layer cake of the Deccan traps turns from red to hazy blue as you look away towards the horizon. The Sahyadri mountains are spectacular, and it is a pity we seldom go out there in winter any more. Perhaps that’s something we should start doing again.

The previous set of photos that I took on a Perihelion Day was in 2009. That year Perihelion Day was on a Sunday, and I walked out into the garden with my new camera to take test shots of flowers. Looking at this photo brings back memories of a warm winter morning, and a camera I really enjoyed working with for the next few years.

My digital photo album goes back a few more years, but there are no photos taken on Perihelion Day. Four photos at the end of a century is rather careless. I should track Perihelion Days better in future.