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.

Where will I be this weekend?


You will definitely not find me in Lonavala. Once upon a time, perhaps a century ago, this was a little town nestled in the Western Ghats. The train station and a market tell how the pleasant getaway began. It is still different from Mumbai: sunbirds can still be seen in trees. But now the best parts of it look like the crowded urban landscapes of India’s small towns. A highway runs through the heart of the town. You smell burnt diesel here, not flowers.

Mahabaleshwar is a little like Lonavala. Too much "development" has spoilt what people used to come here for. The charming little village is now a crowded bazaar where weekenders frantically shop for honey and jam. The farms which produced them in small quantities earlier are now large concerns; their products can be found in shops in Mumbai. It does not make sense to go all the way to this no-longer-beautiful hill town to buy the same bottles. The sole reason why I still go there now and then is that behind the crowded temples of old Mahabaleshwar one can gets a spectacular view of the Krishna river.

On the plateau called Matheran is the one little town near Mumbai which still retains some charm, perhaps because motorized traffic is forbidden. There are long walks across the wooded plateau. From the edges of the plateau you have views of the spectacular rock formations in the area. This weekend will be really crowded, but it is the one place in the neighbourhood of Mumbai where I might go.

Mumbai has mountains and the sea. One weekend many decades back we took a ferry from the harbour, and a bus on the other side to get to a pleasant little beach called Alibag. This has now grown to a massive destination, with a festival this weekend. Going there would be like dropping into your favourite bar: live music and friends. It is no longer a place where you can step out of Mumbai.

The double barrelled Murud-Janjira is similar. Murud was once a deserted beach where you could camp out. If you felt like it, you could take a fishing boat out to the spectacular Janjira fort. I haven’t been there for years, and as I write, I suddenly feel like looking at it again. But it is too late for this weekend.

If I leave Mumbai this weekend, at best I will be drifting off the coast in a fisherman’s boat, helping to haul the net back.