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.


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.

Masai Market

Late in the afternoon Mother of Niece Tatu asked The Family whether we needed to take anything with us on the trip we planned the next day. We’d had very little sleep the previous night, and I was forcing myself to stay awake until the night to adjust to the local time. Walking about would be the perfect way to keep awake, so I hoped that the question would result in a long expedition to which I could tag along.

A large part of the expedition was a visit to a Masai market. We were to find later that it is a Nairobi staple. There are several of these markets; a large one travels to a different mall every day. We spent part of the evening in the Diamond Plaza shopping complex where a smaller one sits a few days a week. The sight of a large variety of semi-precious stones ensured that I wouldn’t feel drowsy for a while. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that the interesting and violent geology of the rift valley would be the source of a large variety of such stones.

I thought I would look for a kikoi or shuka. The kikoi is an extremely versatile tectangle of hand woven cloth which can be used as a lungi or a shawl, or folded over into a backpack or a turban. If you have seen photos of Masai wearing a red blanket, then you’ve seen a shuka. The Family instantly realized what a wonderful thing a kikoi could be, and supplanted me as the main customer.

I wandered off to look at the other handicrafts. These are all produced in little workshops at home, something that we would call a cottage industry in India. This very Gandhian model of economy now produces a huge variety of objects for the large tourist trade that Kenya has. I loved the polished wooden kitchenware with the beautiful zebra themed highlights. The prices that they go for are so small that you wonder about the cost of living in Kenya.

I’m sold on giraffes. When I looked at the painted wooden giraffes on display here I knew they could not be Rothschild’s giraffes, since they did not have the white socks characteristic of the species. Were they Masai giraffes then? I looked at the long ears and resolved to keep this feature in mind when I got to see them in the wild. Of course all these are stylized representations of the animals, so it was possible that certain features are exaggerated or removed.

The stalls were just a piece of cloth laid on the ground with the wares displayed on top of them, just as in street markets across Asia. The tourist trade is often drawn off into shops inside malls where exactly the same things are sold at a premium. We saw more tourists in those places than in these Masai markets. Economic theory fails to explain this. The result is that the primary producer, the people who make and sell these things at Masai markets, earns much less than the middleman who sells them in bigger shops at malls.

I wandered over to a vendor who was selling etched glass. The baobab and acacia trees, the lions, zebras, and buffaloes, were beautifully rendered. I asked the lady selling it whether she did it herself. “No,” she said, “this is done by a mzee.” MONT explained that mzee literally means an old man, but can be used as a respectful term for anyone. I promised the lady that I would be back later to buy something from her. This first expedition was just scouting the market. The Family had also decided to postpone the buying of kikoi. We moved on.

We will bury you

After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we walked across an open space towards the Sultanahmet mosque. Amazingly, this space has been open since the founding of the Roman city of Byzantium in 330 CE, when it was called the Augustaeum. Entrance to the mosque was temporarily barred to tourists because it was time for midday prayers. We decided to walk off to one side to see the remains of the ancient hippodrome. Standing just to the east of the now-buried grand palace of the emperors, and west of the Sultanahmet mosque, it is now simply an open space, as you can see from the featured photo.

This late-Ottoman style water fountain at the northern end of the hippodrome was intriguing. It turns out that it is called the German fountain for a good reason. It was financed by the German government to commemorate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898. This was the first thing we saw as we reached the area. We admired the beautiful mosaic work on the inside of the dome before moving on. This juxtaposition of new and old disturbed me, until I realized the tragic hubris behind it; Kaiser is cognate to Caesar, and the same hubris would fester for forty years in a dream of a doomed “thousand year empire”. Planting this fountain here in the center of Constantine’s city must have been a political statement.

At the founding of Constantine’s city, this was the stadium where the emperor watched chariot races along with the rest of the city. It was said to be decorated with statues of the Roman gods, wild animals, and creatures out of legends which were brought from across the empire. Interestingly, in medieval times, after the custom of chariot races had disappeared, this place was still a center of social life, and people began to attribute supernatural powers to these statues. The famous gilded bronze statues of the horses which once stood here were looted by Venetians in the 13th century, and now stand in St. Mark’s square in Venice. Interestingly, this was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and placed atop the arch of the carousel, before being returned after his defeat at Waterloo.

Only three decorations from the early centuries remains in the Hippodrome. One of them is the serpent column which you see in one of the photos above. It was first erected in Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory in 479 BCE over Persia in the Battle of Platea, and brought here around the end of the 4th century CE. It wasn’t erected in a sunken pit though. The pit is part of the normal process of building up a city over centuries. The bottom of the pit is the level of the chariot races of the 4th century CE. The past is always buried under a new layer. We got a better feel of this gradual burial of the past when we walked down a sloping road at the north-eastern end of this vast plaza and passed the curved south wall of the old hippodrome. The second decoration is an obelisk from the Theban temple of Amon, which is one of a pair. One was taken by Constantius in 357 CE to be erected in the Circus Maximum in Rome, the other was brought here by Theodosius in 390 CE (photo above). The third is called the Built Obelisk, and is the one in the foreground of the featured photo. An article by Sarah Guberti Bassett explains very lucidly the symbolism of political power expressed by these.