Sudden horses

Horses do not play a big role in most people’s lives in India. You can tell that by the ludicrous tricks that a horse has to perform in a movie in order to attract attention. Although I am pretty indifferent to them, I was fortunately not traumatized as many children of tourists in the hill towns are. I see small children who are just learning to let go of a parent’s hand being plonked on to the back of a horse-for-hire while the proud parents take photos. The child usually begins to squall as soon as s/he is placed on the back of a large unfamiliar animal. This isn’t the horse’s fault, but I tend to avoid places where horse owners gather for the tourist trade.

That wasn’t possible in Mahabalehwar, since the horses stood in the middle of the market. While waiting for The Family to emerge from a shop, I stared at a horse which stood nearby. Was it the only one whose ears curled in? It looked up at me, and its ear tips nearly touched each other. Something clicked in my mind. I looked at it sleek muscles, the height, and the hocks and hooves, and realized that this must be a Marwari horse. That’s a rare breed. A hardy warhorse of legend, possibly the breed that Rana Pratap’s horse belonged to, it had been much degraded during colonial times. Since the 1990s the breed has made a comeback with Jodhpur’s support. Now bloodlines are recorded and an attempt is being made to popularize them.

I talked to the grooms. They all had Marwari horses, and were happy to find one person who admired their horses. The breed emerged in the desert kingdom of the Rathores in the 11th century CE, and needs little fodder but good care of the skin. That makes it ideal for this low-income trade. I saw that they have a smooth gait, again something ideal for first time riders like tourists and their children. The grooms buy horses in the annual Pandharpur horse fair. The breed is best known for pintos, palominos, bay, and chestnut. I saw several of them here. But there were more of the disfavoured whites. Perhaps they are cheaper. I was glad to see these legendary horses from history making a slow comeback in the hands of owners who care for them.

Midweek Mobile 11

The idiot-savant in your phone camera has got very good at teasing detail out of terrible images. That’s the reason that a toy lens and sensor gives you acceptable photos at all. This time around I wanted to see how it deals with mist and fog. As the featured photo shows, it does rather well with mist. There’s a wonderful layering of colour. The flowers in the foreground, the layer-cake appearance of the cliffs, and their fading into the distance is rendered well.

I didn’t have luck to run into fog, but a long vista in mist can tell you how the phone will deal with fog. As you might expect, it loses much of the detail. This is one place where human editing can actually help to bring out detail. I did the usual trick with layers, masks, and curves to get a little more detail in the middle distance than the AI gave me. I could also bring out a bit more of the colour in the foreground.

Getting better colour was a fortunate accident. Usually the AI does much better than human at getting the foreground colour. This photo is an example. It gives the impression of having obtained immense amount of detail in the foreground. When blowing up the view on my monitor, pixel for pixel, I saw that it hadn’t got more detail. It had largely played with contrast and saturation to fool the eye into thinking it had a lot of detail. In the middle distance, however, I could improve its output with minimal effort.

This picture shows the same effect better. The AI does great colours in the foreground, but loses a little in the valley and far-away cliff. I could bring a bit more out of those areas with a quick edit. With a little more care you could nudge the background into complete clarity, but why lose the beautiful effects that a light mist can give?

Here is another photo which looked wonderful just as it came out of the box. I could extract some of the detail in the background by the usual methods, but that didn’t look better. There we go again, distinguishing craft and art. That’s where this post has to stop. I don’t want to analyze the eye of the beholder.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

To market

When evening falls in Mahabaleshwar there is only one place that you can head to: the bazaar. Somehow all of these charming hill towns are known for leather accessories, fudge and chocolate, and the crisp peanut praline known as chikki. There was no dearth of leather shops. I could see some selling backpacks, belts, handbags or wallets, but it was mostly shoes. The shoes were mostly for women. I loitered while The Family examined some shoes. As you can guess from these photos, selecting a pair is not such a easy job.

While measuring the length of the street, I came across several doors. The one in the featured photo was really interesting. I wish it was open. I would have like to take a portrait of the versatile salesman who ran a tour agency along with a shop for handbags. What was it with leather anyway? Could it be because the town, when it started, was a British town (the Indian villages were on the other side of the plateau) and the sahib and mems who spent their time there were interested in the leather craft of the region? Their preferences would certainly explain the fudge and perhaps the chikki as well.

The only clear remnant of the British past here was the church, founded in 1831. I walked in for a dekko. One man had been sitting on a pew. I decided to rest for a while too, as I took in my surroundings. Life-sized plaster figures of Mary and Jesus flanked the cross over the altar. The painting on the wall looked colourful, but the light was too dim to see it clearly. The church was constructed with blocks of red laterite from the plateau. It would have weathered to a dark brown in the near couple of centuries since its completion. The colour of the facade was due to paint.

The Family was done with shoes. We strolled along the road, stopping to look for chana (roasted Bengal gram). That’s another specialty of this plateau. We found it in sixteen flavours! Elsewhere a cart was selling boiled corn. I didn’t remember that from before. I’d only seen roasted ears of corn earlier. I also hadn’t seen the “Crazy Chinese Food Best Cuisine” truck earlier. The Family vetoed my suggestion to taste their food. So I took a last photo of an interesting kiosk before leaving.

Walking on Elephant’s Head

A day in Mahabaleshwar can be fun. My last visit to this high plateau in the Sahyadris was in the December of the plague year, 2020. There is a big difference between winter, shishir ritu, and this time. Sharad ritu, this hot season immediately after the end of the monsoon, is what the British called an Indian summer. In this time the ground is still wet, and the western ghats are in full bloom. We spent the day walking on the 1800 meter high periphery of the plateau.

Sonki (Senecio bombayensis) is the most common flower of October

Mahabaleshwar is not a protected area, but has large expanses of forest. Between the forest and the edge of the cliffs are meadows which are carpeted in yellow flower of sonki. I spotted a few albinos on a bush, and paused to take a photo. In another season I would have had to examine the underside of the leaves of this shrub, white and hairy, to recognize it. In sharad there is no need for that.

Bushes of common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum) are also in flower

The beautiful flowers of the common hill borage are not as common, but the chest-high bushes cannot be missed. The flowers are small and white, with a beautiful cornflower-blue center. Sonki and this borage are the commonest flowers of sharad in these isolated plateaus, inselbergs, which the years have carved out of the lava deposited in the Deccan shield more than 60 million years ago. I have photos of them from every year in the last twenty.

Santapau (Asystasia dalzelliana) grows in shade under trees

Although they are common, the tiny foxgloves, santapau, are not as easily visible. You have to peer below other bushes to get a view of these small flowers. But once you see one you’ll begin to notice them everywhere. I like foxgloves, so plain on the outside, but so intricately patterned inside.

The heroes of this season in India are really the grasses. I find them flowering everywhere. On this plateau they are visible, but not the dominant plant group. The thin laterite soil of these plateaus in the Sahyadris is often too metallic for grasses. Still, there are places where grasses have taken root.

The invasive Chinese knotweed (Persicaria chinensis) has found a small niche

Tall bushes of the invasive Chinese knotweed are visible at the sides of paths. They seem to have reached an equilibrium in these places. They cannot invade the thin soil of the meadows, nor to they grow in the inner dense jungle. As long as the forest is not cut down to make hotels, the knotweed are under control.

Star violets (Neanotis lancifolia) straggle along the ground

I must have seen the star violets many times before, but until I started taking photos of tiny flowers, I hadn’t noticed their four-petalled perfection. I’ll have to find out why they grow in two colours. What I like about them is that they are the perfect rejoinder to pseudo-mathematicians who claim that the number of petals on a flowers is a Fibonnaci number. This sequence of numbers, {1,1,2,3,5,8,…}, is obtained by adding the previous two to get the next. Four is not a Fibonnaci number, so these flowers should not exist according to the false mathematicians of aesthetics.

Karambal (Justicia procumbens) is still flowering in this ultra-wet year

A flower which shouldn’t exist in this season is the Karambal. This year has been so wet (it is still raining now in the middle of October) that the plants are totally confused. I saw many of these flowers still taking advantage of the weather by continuing to bloom. My favourite flowers change with the seasons, but I’m glad this one is still around this year.

All these are among the wild flowers that I saw on a four kilometer walk along a ridge called Elephant’s Head. It juts out from one side of the plateau. Before the ridge narrows to a few meters, there is a dense canopy of trees. Inside this small limb of the forest I saw a few trees bearing these lovely clusters of white flowers. I think the trees belong to the cherry family, but I’m not sure.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.

The source of the river Krishna

When you see the town of Mahabaleshwar, and squint a little, you can still see the colonial layout, the remains of the colonial buildings. A typical British era hill station, you might say. Yes, almost, it was the summer capital of Bombay Presidency, when the Grand Panjandrums would leave the hot and wet city for more pleasant surroundings. But drive a few kilometers and you are in Old Mahabaleshwar, otherwise known as the village of Jor, whose only claim to fame today is a group of temples. Stop at the car park, eat the strawberries with cream, and skulk off in a direction opposite to where the crowds are going, and you will see the true origin of this place: the temple to the river Krishna. Or perhaps not; Acheulian tools have been found in this region, so perhaps humans have been here for 100,000 years.

Decades ago, I’d chanced on this deserted old temple perched on the edge of a cliff, a quiet and peaceful place where nobody comes. It has not changed. I led The Family and three others to the Krishnadeva temple. Built of black basalt, this temple surrounds a spring which is traditionally considered to be the source of the Krishna river. The 1287 Km long river crosses the Deccan plateau, and, with its tributaries, has the largest drainage area in the Deccan. The temple must be ancient, and it is a wonder that the Marathas did not restore it.

I decided to walk around it and look at each of the external walls carefully. The external walls are fairly plain, but also look extremely weathered. There is a single statue on the northern facade. I’d thought it would be a digpala, perhaps Kubera, but I don’t think it is. Instead the figure is in a posture of prayer or supplication. I couldn’t place it.

The western facade was beautifully lit by the late afternoon sun, a shadow of a single tree falling across its bottom. The external stones which made up the wall were dressed perfectly and clearly needed no mortar, but they were weathered and cracked. The upper parts had been shaped once, but had broken and eroded. Moss had found its way into the cracks. I wondered how I could trace the history of this temple.

The carving on the western wall could have been of a digpala. Traditionally this should have been one of Varuna, identified by a noose (pasa) in his hand. This figure had a mace, indicating Kubera, or perhaps a fat staff (danda), which belongs to Agni, the guardian of the southeast. Strange.

The figure on the southern wall was too eroded for me to make out anything at all. I should have expected Yama to be guarding this wall, but the other figures did not make sense either. Perhaps the iconography was different from what I was used to, but is that possible? I don’t know enough art history to be able to figure this out.

I skirted the small tank outside the temple. This holds some of the water of the stream that I could hear rushing down the cliff. The Leafless came to see the tank, and I told her that she could take a walk around the temple to see it from outside. I could hear The Longlived and The Family having a discussion of whether the temple has sunk into the surrounding soil. The Divine Promise was busy taking photos of the surroundings. “Beautiful trees,” I remarked to him.

It is usually an amazing view from here. It was still spectacular for the others, but I’d seen it much clearer in the past. How can such a small stream become such a wide river as soon as it reaches the valley? It cannot. It is joined by four other streams within a few kilometers, but that wide water body down there is created by a dam. As far as I know it is just called the Krishna lake here. The Family and The Longlived joined me at the railing next to the cliff. “What a beautiful place,” The Longlived said, and asked me how I knew about it. I gave her the potted summary of my accidental discovery of the place, and wandered in with The Family.

We admired the large tank inside, where the water of the spring enters through the mouth of a cow carved from the basalt lying under the thin soil. Galleries run along three sides of the tank. The carvings are better preserved here than in the outer walls, so perhaps there was a shikhara above this till historically recent times. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is just the enclosure from three sides which protected them. The Longlived is the second of my nieces who is studying architecture, and she was busy taking photos. We were largely silent, talking softly, unwilling to break the pleasant silence. Eventually we pulled ourselves away towards more strawberries.

Three wildflowers

When the known walks are crowded you just have to find new places to walk in. In the slight drowsiness of a post-lunch discussion, we did not really think this through. So we set off along deserted roads, looking for small paths into the forests of the Mahabaleshwar plateau. We found one, parked on the side of the road, and set off along what looked like a tunnel between trees trodden out by many feet. It was in use. We saw discarded bottles of alcohol and cans of beer in little clearings off the main path, and not too much plastic. One of the first things I saw were the purple heads of Indigofera cassioides (चिमनाती, pronounced chimnati) in flower. I have seen this flower before, but it took a little consultation with Ingalhalkar’s book and a cross check with IndiaBiodiversity to reach an ID. Some other day I’ll talk more about the indigo plants.

I misidentified the yellow flowers of Mysore thorn (Cesalpinia decapetala, also Biancaea decapetala) when the oldest niece asked for an ID. I have been set right by Ingalhalkar and CABI. This is a firm ID I think, it takes into account the flowers, the leaves, and the fact that the widespread plant was a climber. I have no ID for the white flowers. Can anyone help?

This is only a small sample of the flowers and plants we saw on the walk before we met a villager coming down the path. He warned us that leopards are seen here often. As we walked on, the chatter of the nieces decreased in volume. Then there was a crashing noise in the trees and everyone wanted to turn back. On the way back we heard more crashing noises and then saw a monkey leaping between branches. It was clearly not a leopard hunting. I argued that leopards are known to be very secretive stalkers, and monkeys are known to give alarm calls when they see predators, so we were quite likely to be safe. But the group had given up, and we were out near our car soon. Later I thought that if everyone who had come for a holiday up here had decided to take a walk in the woods for the next few months there would not be much of a forest left in a few years. In a way it was good that the villagers put us to flight.

An old favourite among walks

Mahabaleshwar does not seem crowded because the plateau is so large. You see the crowds only when you get to the popular places, like the bazaar or the old favourite among walks, the one from Wilson Point to Arthur’s Seat. On our first morning that’s exactly what we thought we would do. By the time we realized our mistake it was too late to change our plans.

It was past mid-morning but the valleys around us still held mist. It has been colder than usual, and I suppose the north-facing wooded slopes retain mist longer than the rest of the place. But it seemed a little excessive. I’ve been here over the decades, and never seen the view so obscured. The walk is through woods, fairly long, so the crowd does get dispersed. This year it was all family groups, like ours, masked properly. So although you are never out of sight of others, you do not feel unsafe. The monkeys have got aggressive in seeking food from walkers over the decade since I was last here, and at one point we were very happy to have the help of another group.

The general effect was very pleasant though. The path winds steeply down a wooded hill to a wonderful view over the surrounding ridges, the place called Arthur’s seat. During the monsoon springs flow and you can see waterfalls; all of them are dry or reduced to trickles now. My 87 year old aunt walked a little way down and sat on a bench overlooking a view, while we walked down the path. There was a little knot of people admiring the reduced flow of Tiger Spring. We walked past. When I am at Arthur’s seat I always look at the view of the snaky trail one can see on the ridge below and wonder how to get on to that walk. And then a decade passes, and I forget all about it.

Four views of Panchgani

A series of connected plateaus in the Sahyadris hold the twin destinations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. The plateau rises to an altitude of about 1.4 kilometers above sea level. We have our holiday season travel all planned now, but unlike previous years we will be traveling in our backyard. These places are a six hour drive away, and one of the locations we targeted for a holiday with parts of the extended family. One evening The Family and I left my aunts and cousins and nieces behind and went out for a walk on a plateau south of Panchgani. We stopped at a view of the Panchgani ridge from between trees and over fields.

These are the kinds of unremarked views that the people who live in the villages up on the plateaus have every day. To me these glimpses of the further plateaus from paths between fields of rice and corn were lovely and new. In the middle of the 19th century CE when the town of Panchgani was first founded, sights like this may have been common. But now, the haphazard growth of the towns has taken over the little neighbouring villages. As a result, most tourists who come to spend a weekend here do not get to see them. They miss out a beautiful part of the experience of living up there.

The ancient village of Mahabaleshwar is considered sacred because the Krishna river arises from a spring there. During British colonial times it became the summer capital of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. The British administrators had the habit of moving their offices to cool high town, hill stations, in summer. Like most tourists now, we reverse the flow, visiting these plateaus in winter, when the temperature falls to a point where strawberries can grow. When I began visiting the area, forty years ago, the plateaus were still extensively forested, right outside the heart of the old towns. I was too callow to enjoy the wealth of wildflowers and birds you could see then.

Now the forest is in retreat, as hotels overwhelm the once peaceful towns of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. Every bungalow is rented out to short term visitors. We got away from the maddening crowds by choosing a lonely hotel in a forgotten village where I could get these unusual views of the plateaus. Bird calls fill the evening, and an immense diversity of winter wildflowers is visible. Passing villagers give you an appraising look, and then smile and nod at you. It made for a perfect retreat, giving us the opportunity for long and pleasant walks. But on the walks I realized that I was contributing to the eventual destruction of what I like about the place. Inevitably, the number of hotels will increase, the fields and flowers will give way to crowded and narrow roads, cars and tourists. As I took these photos I felt like the vanguard of an army intent on loot and pillage. A happy holiday to you too.

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.