A better botanist?

Speeding through the jungle of Kanha NP, my eyes were caught by the many flowering trees. At one point I called a halt and took some photos. Our driver and guide were feeling bad for us because this was our last drive, and we hadn’t seen a tiger. They take it pretty personally. After the surfeit of tigers in Corbett, I wasn’t down in the dumps about it. So I started a conversation about trees and flowers, thinking it would cheer them up. It does usually, because they know many more of the plants than city people like us do.

In passing I wasn’t sure whether the tree was flowering or had berries. When we stopped and backed up I saw that they were buds. The yellow-orange colour was quite eye catching, but most of the buds were still not open. So I could not really see the shape of the flowers. I think these will become five-petaled flowers when they open up, but not seeing an open flower got rid of my main method of identifying the tree. The driver and the guide conferred and came to the conclusion that this was a tree whose leaves could be used on a wound. But that was all the information they had.

To a better botanist the leaf shape might be enough to yield an identification. I remembered to take a photo of the leaves: palmate, entire, emarginate. I know the words, but they are just words to me, not keys to understanding the world. It could be a bauhinia, but this genus has spectacular orchid-like five-petaled flowers. Could these buds open up into something like that? A better botanist would be able to give an answer.

On second thoughts, I might have been confused by the way the trees grew cheek to jowl. If I look at the leaves on the flowering branch, they are pinnate (also entire, acute, and possibly emarginate). On looking at the photos, it seems possible that the flowering branches were poking through a bauhinia towards the sun, but belonged to a different tree altogether. It would make sense, since the guide and the driver knew about bauhinias and their many uses, but were a little unsure about the flowering tree.


Harsh cries ring through the jungles of central India in summer: the call of the peacock. I normally ignore the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus). They are commoner than crows and pigeons when you enter the open jungles of this region. But as the monsoon’s breeding season approaches I keep a watch for the mating display of the male. If you are lucky enough, you can get a photo that is worth the halt. Sometimes you see a lek: a group of males all displaying together, for the benefit of a seemingly uninterested female. This is perhaps its core behaviour. The female selects a mate based on the size and colour of the train. Growing a large train takes energy, in terms of health and food, and the ability to escape predators. There’s no faking it. At the same time, the female’s preferences selects the biggest trains, and therefore the offspring are likelier to have big trains. Repeated for generations this pushes the species into the direction of males with more spectacular trains. Since the genus could be recognized in 18 or 19 million years old fossils, most species in the genus have evolved towards bigger trains.

Unfortunately the only peacock I’ve seen is Pavo cristatus, the Indian peafowl. Native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, breeding populations have been introduced in Singapore, Taipei, the UK, and the USA, largely in Florida. I’ve yet to see its larger cousin, the Green peafowl (Pavo muticus). It is disappearing fast in Myanmar, but I suppose on a trip to Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, or even in the extreme east of India, I could plan to visit its habitats. It is a little astounding that viable hybridization between P. cristatus and P. muticus can be established. It seems that the reason is that in birds cellular evolution is slow, and two species like this, which have separated only three million years ago have not changed sufficiently for their crosses to be unviable. I wonder whether anyone has tried crossing the Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis) with either of the Pavo.

An interesting thing about the feathers is that they never fade. That is a clue that the colours are not due to pigments; pigments would oxidize over the years and change. The iridescent colours are due to, well, iridescent diffraction of light. Microstructures in the feathers produce the specific wavelengths that are seen, and a little change in the shape and size is enough to change colour. I’m surprised that a comparative study of the feathers of the peafowls has not been done. It seems that feathers don’t fossilize well, otherwise it would have been possible to examine the feathers of the extinct European peafowl (Pavo bravardi in the south and Pavo aesculapi in the north) and tell their colours. It is strsnge that so little is known about birds as spectacular as these.

Which hawk-eagle?

One species that I find most confusing in the field is the Changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). The least confusing aspect is that there are two morphs. The one you see in these photos is called the light morph. The dark morph does not have the streaked white chest, and is much darker uniformly. But more than that, the field identification is rendered more confusing because of controversies about subspecies and cryptic species. This has left a legacy of birders looking at multiple characteristics and distinguishing between features which could perhaps be widely variable without distinguishing species or subspecies. I will not enter that controversy (you can read a condensed version in its Wikipedia article) but will go with the Linnaean wisdom: if two things have the same binomial, they are one species.

It’s a common enough bird, easily spotted across India, south of Jammu, below the Tibetan plateau, and eastward across Asia right up to Banda Sea, in central and South Vietnam and the Philippines. What was uncommon about this sighting in Kanha NP was that I found it in a little muddy pool drinking water in great gulps. It looked up as we stopped, but after that it didn’t pay us much attention. It is the apex predator in its own niche, after all. I’d never seen it drinking water before, so I didn’t know whether it was extra thirsty because of the heat or what looked like an orgy of drinking was normal. But then, just a week before, I’d seen a small but feisty Jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) drive one away by flying directly at it. I wouldn’t have thought that was normal either, except that a much more experienced birder said that he’d seen smaller raptors shooing away bigger ones before. The longer you watch birds, the more interesting behaviour you see. I suppose all that it means is that, within their physical limits, creatures have more autonomy and adaptability than they were once supposed to have. Hawk-eagle, thy name is change.

The shapers of jungles

Kanha is one of the most beautiful national parks. The first thing you notice are the enormous sal trees (Shorea robusta) forming patches with closed canopies. Then you notice that they are actually stands of trees in a larger grassland. The stands are carpeted with fallen leaves. The sunny grasslands are full of herds of chital (Axis axis, spotted deer). At the edges between the open grasslands and the forest are the more cautious sambar (Rusa unicolor) and barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, swamp deer). But if you look closer you see the species that shapes the landscape by removing litter and tilling the ground: termites. Some are visible by their mounds dotted throughout the forest, others hide in living trees and dead logs.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how high the termite mounds were. It sounds silly, but then I was in a jeep which spent three days rushing through the forest in search of tigers. Most tourists holiday in nearby resorts, and spend their times in swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms, making a couple of forays into the jungle. Of those who come to the forest, most are interested in tigers. So tigers are a boon to the locals who make their living on tourism, and their behaviour is geared to such people. A very few visitors come to the forest to see more, and the guides and jeep drivers are happy to talk to them about their own experiences. But you just cannot get off jeeps to make measurements. So I had to improvise by taking photos of termite mounds with different things to give a scale. Everything simplified when I saw two people, forest workers, walking between two mounds. That photo clearly told me that the large mounds were about two meters high. I saw the Northern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus, hanuman) crouched behind a smaller mound. These langurs are about a meter tall. So that sort of verifies my estimate by eye that the larger mounds are twice as tall.

I’ve found termites (order Blattodea, infraorder Isoptera) fascinating for a while. They are cockroaches (order Blattodea) which adapted to eating wood by harbouring a microbiome of bacteria, protists, and fungi in their stomach. In fact, the study of termites gave the first clue that many animals could have flourishing ecosystems inside them, a discovery that is now increasingly used in treating human disorders like Type II diabetes. In a forest they munch up fallen logs and leaves and are important recyclers. But they bore into trees and wood, which makes them pests for us at home or in farms. This bunch of cockroaches also developed eusocial behaviour some time in the Triassic or Jurassic, becoming differentiated into castes of workers, queens, and kings. When I was young I would see yearly swarming of termites, as a queen and her retinue set off from their old palace in search of a new home. So I know that a termite is only a couple of millimeters in size. The mound is a thousand times larger. Calling it a palace is shortchanging the mound, because I know of no human queen who lives in a two-kilometer tall palace. Perhaps one should compare it to a medieval citadel, a city which houses the court and also all the industry which supports it.

I’d spent some time photographing termite mounds up close in the Bijrani range of Corbett NP. You can see from these photos that they have a contoured surface which is rather smooth. The material glitters in the sun, which makes me think that bits of minerals in the soil, or insect chitin could be incorporated into it. I found an interesting group of papers which studied the strength and engineering of these mounds in a non-destructive way. They found that two castes of termite workers continually build pellets of wet mud. Other castes of workers then cement these “bricks” into walls using liquids that they secrete from the body. The wetness of the mud allows the suspended granules of mud to settle into any cracks in the walls that need repair, and the termite-spit then makes it proof against the hard monsoon of this part of India. Another paper led me to believe that the two meter tall termite citadels could be several hundred years old.

But which termite made these mounds? I’m as sure as I can be, without a photo of a termite, that they are made by Odontotermes obesus. I wish this common forest termite in had an easier name. This is the species which builds these tall conical mounds with flutes which look like Gaudi could have dreamt them up. But I’d seen and photographed other shapes too. Not knowing enough about termites, I’d assumed that they were merely citadels in the early stages of construction. But apparently not. Very often, the shape of a mound tells you with certainty which species built it. But Chhotani, in his 45 year old gem of a paper on the termites of Kanha NP tells us of multiple species which can be found in the mounds and fungus gardens of O. obesus. And more interestingly, he describes four different shapes of mounds, all of which seem to be built by O. obesus. With this observation he speculates that when there are more detailed studies one would find that what we call a single species now will be resolved into multiple species, each one building a mound of a given shape. Unfortunately, the study of termites in India is in its infancy. Even a paper from five years ago, which claims that there are 286 species of termites in India, making up 10% of the world’s termite biodiversity, added six new species. I was not surprised that no one has performed a gene profile of O. obesus from Kanha to check Chhotani’s conjecture. So we don’t yet know whether we can really tell the species of a termite from the shape of its mound. There are so many angles to termite life, so many loose ends in their story, that one really has to look at several pictures to piece them into one view of these shapers of jungle landscapes.

Skimmers and Gharials

The one thing common between the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicolis) is that both eat only fish. That is if you don’t count the fact that both species are declining in numbers. The Skimmer is classed as vulnerable by IUCN, and the Gharial is said to be critically endangered. We took a boat ride on the Chambal river, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, through the National Chambal Sanctuary to see them.

This was my first good view of Skimmers. As you can see, they are so distinctive that you won’t forget them once you’ve seen one. The general black and white colour is in contrast to the bright orange bill, distinctly down-curved, with the upper bill shorter than the lower one. We saw a small flock skimming across the river, lower bill occasionally dipping into the water. I couldn’t see whether they caught any fish. Although they passed pretty close to the boat, a small boat riding high on waves is not a good perch from which to take photos. I pressed the shutter button down, but the boat yawed a bit and I got a shot of the blank sky. Some people think that skimmers could be largely nocturnal. From the fact that flocks of skimmers were mostly resting, they could be right. There are said to be between 6000 and 10000 of these birds left in the world. We probably saw about 1% to 2% of the world’s population of skimmers.

Gharials used to be common enough once that it takes an effort to understand how severe the crisis in their conservation is. A decade ago there were only about 250 mature individuals left in the wild, now the numbers are estimated to be up to between 300 and 900. The few individuals we saw were about 1% of the world’s population of gharials. The tri-state agency which is supposed to look after the conservation of these grand ancient animals perhaps has more employees than the total number of gharials across the world. Their long snout, and the tightly interlocking teeth used to give me a fright when I was a child, until I realized that they would much rather be left alone to fish. I don’t think any of my nieces or nephews has even seen a gharial. What an impoverished world we are leaving to the coming generations.


The only thing I remembered from a visit eight years ago to the Krishnapura chhatris in Indore was the sandstone figures. I wrote about the chhatris yesterday, and I wanted to show you these memorable figures today. The featured photo shows the beautiful contrast of the red sandstone figures and the dark slate on which they are placed.

The two panels above show the range of activities which is depicted in these figures. I’d remembered the soldiers around the base of the chhatris. Maybe I hadn’t looked up on my earlier visit, but this time I did not miss the figures of musicians, scribes and ascetics which decorate the upper parts of external pillars. You can see a musician and a soldier in the photos above.

A psychopomp is a person who guards you in afterlife. Typically one thinks of such a character as a spirit guide. Since scribes and scholars, musicians and ascetics can guard rulers against falling into error, the collection of figures here are psychopomps for the dead rulers. In the photo above they guard the steps which lead up to the platform where the pyres of the kings were lit.

The two figures in the photo above are clearly court functionaries. There were very few courtiers here. Although the lives of the royals would have been hemmed in by such people, their presence is measured. I liked the balance that the design has between different walks of life. These are memorials to rulers in settled times; this shows in the choice of professions and the weight given to each.

The figure in the photo above is clearly from the early 20th century CE. The musket with a bayonet and utility pouches in various belts are clearly modern. But there is an air of dressiness in the breeches and leggings, and the non-utilitarian headgear, which speaks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t know the exact date on which this chhatri was completed, although it could not have started before 1908, when Shivaji Rao Holkar, who is memorialized here, died. Very likely the chhatri was completed before the start of the first world war. This soldier would have been a contemporary figure.

Cenotaphs of Indore

On our earlier visit to Indore we’d hurried through the chhatris, but they left little impression on me; just a vague memory of small terracotta soldiers. I wonder whether it was the lack of time, or the fact that before their restoration they were not very easy to access that blanked out my memory. The chhatris stand close to the rajwada and right on the Saraswati river. The town and the river have been cleaned up, so the ambience may be closer to what it was when the funeral pyres of the old rulers were lit, and the chhatris erected over the ashes.

The oldest chhatri is the westernmost (photo above) and commemorates the death in 1849 of Krishanbai Holkar. The larger structure (featured photo) is a double chhatri, the western end in memory of Tukoji Rao Holkar II who died in 1886, and the eastern part of the cenotaph for his son and successor, Shivaji Rao Holkar who lived till 1908. It was pretty late in the day when we arrived, and the weak sun was close to setting. In spite of this, the spires of the chhatris looked very colourful: a dark slate, red sandstone, and white marble. There is also a smaller and more plain marble cenotaph raised on 1954 to the sister of the last king.

Funerals are traditionally performed next to a river, and this place close to Indore’s rajwada is an obvious location for the memorials. Unfortunately, that means that one has to look at the spires from very close, so foreshortening the view, or to walk across the river to get a perspective. Unfortunately, it was too long a walk, and it would be too dark by the time we got to the other side.

I climbed the steps up to the platform of Rani Krishnabai’s memorial. As you can see from the photo above, the elaborate roof and pillars are largely made of sandstone. I am certain that this is hard to maintain in the traffic fumes of the busy neighbourhood. On the base and pillars you can see the terracotta molded figures which I will describe in a later post.

The pillars on the platform are stunning in detail. There was a minor fashion shoot on even at this late hour, and I pirated their lights to get shots of the details of the stone work. This oldest memorial has the most elaborate carvings, and I wished I’d climbed into this first. The light was really low now, and I only had harsh artificial lights to work with.

There is a sense of calm here which many locals wander in to enjoy. Once you are inside it is easy to forget the mad traffic whirling past just outside the small compound. I seem to have startled such a person from his rest by trying to take a photo of the double cenotaph from inside the queen’s memorial.

The cores of the cenotaphs are guarded by doors. The remains of the queen’s pyre lay behind the finely carved marble screen which you see above. The other door, guarded by a Nandi and flanked by two statues, stands outside the remains of Shivaji Rao. One of the two statues is a representation of the king.

No large monument in a city is complete without blue rock pigeons. I spotted two of them here. The one half hidden in the darkness above the head of the statue seems to be a little bit of a giant.

Lalbagh Palace

Lalbagh must be one of the more common names a palace or garden, although perhaps not quite as popular as a Mahatma Gandhi Road. When I read about the late 19th century palace built by the Holkars of Indore the associations that popped into my mind were in Mumbai and Bengaluru. A search immediately threw up many more red gardens.

With a couple of hours to kill before our flight, I quickly looked at the small list of places we had not yet seen in Indore. The choice was between a 20th century temple, a mid-19th century mosque and this palace. We chose the palace; unfortunately. The Holkars have moved out of this sprawling building, leaving behind a few chandeliers and bulky pieces of furniture for tourists to gape at. You can pay 20 rupees for the pleasure of walking through nearly empty rooms. The mosaic floors and high ceilings are of some interest if you like late 19th century architecture, but the emptiness told on us. We escaped quickly to the desultorily maintained gardens. Clearly the locals make good use of the huge spaces. We came across lovers, cricket teams and people having a nap. We came to patches of lilies which were over-running their borders, but since they were all in bloom I guess the gardeners forgive them their audacity.

We were at the airport early.

Dusk in Sarafa Bazaar

We found ourselves walking between the chhatris and rajwada of Indore at dusk on a Saturday. I love markets at this time. The monsoon sky was a beautiful shade of blue, and the lights of the markets were coming on. For a few moments the earth and sky are nearly balanced in terms of light. Looking down a road I could see the Bhumija spires of the chhatris against the century old once-grand buildings of the bazaar. Some of these are in really dire need of repairs, but it is easier to replace them by prefab frontages which attract many shoppers. Some downtowns have escaped this fate, and reached a stage where renovated old buildings are newly fashionable. I hope this part of Indore is not entirely replaced by these cheap 21st century structures.

The mixed traffic was very heavy. The crowds made walking difficult. It was okay with me. I could pause and look at the mansions which may (or may not) become grand again. This lovely building from the early 20th century CE is something that I hope can be saved. I liked the clutter in the sky matching the crowds on the road. We walked slowly past to a rajwada closed for repairs.

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