Light faded as we completed the climb to Naneghat. The monsoon clouds had gathered again. The pass was too narrow for a motorable road. We parked, and I took some of the slippery steps down. There were intriguing caves ahead, but with The Family’s back strain, I wasn’t going to risk them. The pass had narrowed to about two meters across, the high cliffs above me almost seeming to meet. In this bad light I looked at the wet cliff walls and noticed a tapestry of orchids!
Orchids could be the most numerous family of plants on earth, both in population, and the number of species. In fact, the number of species is twice that of birds. So I find it difficult to identify them. I just figured that with three petals, one elongated into a leaf, and with roots which only tap into the cliff lightly, this couldn’t be anything but a member of the family Orchidaceae. It’ll be great if you can help with the ID.
The next thing that I saw on the cliff walls were snails: many of them. There are even more species of snails than there are orchids, perhaps 50% more in numbers. Of course, when there are so many species, it is hard to count precisely. In any case, I’m worse at identifying snails than orchids (that is not to overstate my ability with orchids). There was so much variety of plants and mosses on this cliff that I was not at all surprised by the number of snails. They were all the same species, so if you can help me identify one, you’ve given a name to all of them.
After all this, I was happy to see a small flower which I was able to identify with some help and effort: the common Begonia (Begonia crenata). These are common in this kind of sheltered mossy rocks with plenty of water. Under such conditions it is hard to get good photos. Although it is dark, a flash would create terrible reflections. I didn’t have a good reflector at hand (even my clothes were dark). All in all, I’m happy with the photos I got. The close up shows a female flower; the five petals are not the same size. In the other bunch (the one in which the mosquito obligingly sat to gave a scale) you can see a few of the strange two-petalled male flowers.
For the last three years we’ve explored the Sahyadris in the monsoon more than we ever did before, and grown to love it. Newspapers are full of stories of how European embassies, and the US, are unable to handle the visa application loads that they used to handle routinely before the pandemic. We believe them, and we don’t even think of going further west than two hundred kilometers. As a result I discovered the rain gear that they use in rural Maharashtra: a framework of bamboo covered with plastic: a hands-free umbrella which sits on your head. That’s what the trio above are wearing as they go into the fields to work.
The landscape is spectacular of course, with the sculptured mountains completely covered with trees. But it is also the fields, which glow a fluorescent green in the watery sunlight of monsoon, the wildflowers of this season, and the tiny unnamed villages which are sprinkled among the rice paddies. You can tell each by its temple. We passed by the doors of many, and paused a while at each to take a photo. Some are surrounded by huts, others stand at a distance from the hamlet. They all look very interesting.
Abandoned houses are strangely fascinating. They are places which people once called home. You can stand in front of it an imagine it full of light and life. And now the people are gone, and it is just home to entropy. What happened to those people? Why was this house not occupied? It was at a good location, right at the edge of the lake. How could anyone just walk out and leave? Or did they not leave?
The Family had strained her back and walking was an effort. We’d sat on a deck with a coffee and watched the lake through the afternoon’s rain. As the sun began to set I walked past the road up to the abandoned house to take a few photos. The grass in front of it clutched on to a very thin layer of soil over hard volcanic rock. Little hollows in the rock held rain water. It was slippery. One slip, and I would certainly damage the soil, and perhaps myself if I fell on the sharp edges of the rock. Sunset, the rain clouds, and the structure built a wonderful ambience. I tried hard to catch the sense of loss, the beauty of the landscape and the sky, the dilapidated building with a mat of grass on its roof.
I walked around the building. A slight breeze had set in and it was blowing waves over the water. The lake is large, and even this little breeze could excite fairly large waves. This is a hard place, with extremes of weather. It is not close to a town; on the other hand, it is close a major highway. In a few more monsoons the roof will cave in. Then the walls will become stumps, providing a windbreak for larger plants. Soon, the last signs of people who could have lived there will be gone.
What lies over the hill? That’s a question that keeps us going, isn’t it? But sometimes what’s on this side of the hill is so beautiful that you don’t want to budge. Perpetual youth is the curse of never being curious about what lies over the hill. The rest of us, we love the view here, but we want to plow on and check out the view from the top as well.
Sometimes you get a glimpse of it from down at the bottom. Looks like someone’s made a good place for a selfie or two, a share on social media. This climb will be worthwhile, you think as you set off.
At other times you reach the top, exhausted. To your dismay you find that it’s not the end of the road. There’s the steep downhill bit. It looks quite scary, and the path is wet. Do you really want to do it? Are the distant plains quite as nice as they look from up here?
Sometimes you wish that someone had made a keyhole in that mountain, so that you can spy on the other side without needing to climb. It does happen, you know! These hills are full of tunnels.
But sometimes,the other side just falls on you. There’s no way you want that. You roll up the windows quickly and get away from it fast, before all that falling stuff drowns you, or washes you down the hillside. Driving in the Sahyadris during the monsoon will give you all these new perspectives on aging and geology. What you make of these lessons is up to you.
Monocots abound. They may be only a quarter of all flowering species of plants, but that’s still a huge number of species. The striking blue petals of this dayflower (Commelina clavata, Jalpipari, of the family Commelinaceae) was actually what attracted my attention when I ambled past the rice fields outside the village of Pargaon. not far from the Pimpalgaon Joge Dam in Pune district of Maharashtra. The centimeter sized flowers were trimerous: three petals, three stamens with yellow anthers, and three stamenoids (false stamens). The pistil was below the anthers. The leaves were smooth and lance shaped,
PoWO lists the range to be in Sri Lanka and India, stopping west of Assam, then jumping to Myanmar, skipping Thailand to appear in Malayasia and then on the islands of Java and Sumatra. These geographical gaps must arise because of inadequate reporting. I’m pretty sure that this plant grows on the berms of rice fields in Bangladesh, Assam, other states of the north-eastern India, as well as in Thailand. Many of the dayflowers have edible leaves, and I read reports that the leaves of Jalpipari are eaten in southern Africa (where it must also grow). I wish I knew that. I would have tried to get a few of these plants home to grow in our balcony herb garden.
This note is added later in the day. I took a look at photos that I took during a walk in Nameri national park on 5 November, 2015, and came across this photo. It is clearly a photo of Commelina clavata in flower. Nameri in in Assam, and rather far east of the West Bengal border, being right at the border with Arunachal Pradesh. The national park is part of a larger protected ecosphere as the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary of Arunachal. This observation therefore extends the range of C. clavata almost all the way to the eastern border of India. It may be just a matter of time before the gaps in PoWO’s range map are filled in.
You can tell the year is beginning to come to a close when Ganesh puja comes about. Soon enough there will be a wave of little festivals leading to the crescendo of Durga puja, and then a diminuendo of several others, until, with a final flourish, Diwali brings it all to an end. What will be left are strenuous exercises and diets to shed the extra kilos you put on. And it all starts with a little plate like this, given by friends: a home made modak redolent of rice and juicy when you bite into the jaggery and coconut filling, a laddu coloured with saffron and embellished with the usual silver foil, a piece of a nameless homemade sweet with nuts embedded in a paste of figs and other fruit, and some peda from a store.
Sadly, in the last two months of medically enforced inactivity, I’ve put on weight. My indulgences this year will be mild, as I begin to work at shedding the adipose. But then maybe this year I can indulge in the East Indian Christmas sweets which we go so easy on.
Sunset on Bhigwan’s lake was a quiet time. Fishermen and farmers were on the way home from work. Herdsmen had brought their cattle to water for a last time in the day. Distant sounds of traffic had quietened. We’d heard calls of birds all day. That was completely gone as the light turned to gold. This was a good time for bird photography on the water. An Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) stopped looking for fish as soon as I’d clicked the featured photo and stalked to the hollow of the trunk and laid its head on its shoulder, preparing to sleep.
We’d been on open water most of the afternoon. Now, as we drifted close to the shore, I started noticing a completely different set of birds. There was a common redshank (Tringa totanus), its mottled and streaky feathers quite distinctive. I didn’t want the Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) in the photo, but the boat was drifting slowly and there was no quick way of getting it out of the way, except by changing focus.
There were reeds near the shore. I’d seen Garganeys (Spatula querquedula) all day, dabbling in the open waters. The white streaks on the head are quite distinctive. But none had come close enough for a photo. I took one now through the reeds. Behind it were Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus, formerly known as the Indian subspecies of Purple swamphens). I would get photos of them later.
At this time of the day, the colour of the water depends very strongly on which direction you look at. As I turned my gaze westwards I saw a Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) seated atop a mooring post sunk into the water. Behind it you can see one of the small villages dotted along the edge of the lake.
And finally, looking due west, on a sea of gold, a Brown-headed gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) had stopped its incessant daily flights, patrolling the water to keep it free of fish. Now it rested gently in the shallows. Later it would paddle closer to the shore and go to sleep on a sandbank. It was time for us to turn back too.
Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.
Yet thought must see That eve of time when man no longer yearns, Grown deaf before Life’s Sphinx, whose lips are barred; When from the spaces of Eternity, Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns On the lost world the stress of her regard.
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
Locksley Hall by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
When we stopped to watch a yellow-wattled lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus), The Precious protested, “Such a common bird.” She’d started birding before us but had stopped for some years now. She didn’t know how rare a sighting this is now. It was almost three years since our last view of these birds. Their homes, the arid grasslands which once covered the country are becoming rarer as humans begin to build on what the forestry department calls “wastelands”. And as the habitat disappears, this species, still classified by IUCN as being of least concern for conservation, has become a rarer sight. The Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary that we were in may be the best place to see this lapwing around Pune.
This bird was quite uncharacteristically silent as it stood still and looked around. It looked around as if it was confused. Then strode off into a nearby acacia bush. This behaviour is common with the lapwing: sudden stops and starts, as if it is an absent-minded professor who suddenly recalls an urgent appointment. I gave it no special heed. From the other side of the bush another lapwing popped out, and then crouched. “Hmm. Unusual,” I thought. The first bird came out behind it, looked around as it approached and jumped on to the croucher. They were mating I realized, as soon as the eight-year old with us said “They are fighting.” Coitus last for ten seconds or so in this species, as I can confidently say from the time stamp on these photos.
We’d completely missed the long courtship display that precedes it. Descriptions that I’ve read (see an easy to reach account here) call to my mind the many elaborate ensemble courtship dances that you see in Bollywood movies: with the hero and his male friends displaying in front of the heroine. Except that for the dancing lapwing cohort there is no designated hero; the female chooses. This was the peak of the mating season. If the grassland refuge were larger then we could have just wandered around till we saw another dance. But the refuge is small and closely bordered by agricultural fields.
I can’t spot studies of the behaviour of the Indian lapwings, so to understand whether they do indeed mate for life, I have to fall back on a study of an European species, the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). This is the very same one that was described by Tennyson in a passing line in a long and closely observed poem on spring. It turns out that lapwings, long thought of as monogamous (except by Tennyson), are actually both polygamous and polyandrous. One male lapwing reportedly defended two nesting territories! I wonder if that is also true of these. Maybe when I retire I’ll supplement winter and spring travels by spending the long summer days reading old Sanskrit nature poetry. Maybe I’ll learn something new.
As evening fell the activity on Bhigwan lake changed. Work began to wind down. I noticed a boat low in the water with a couple in it, the man rowing. I waited until I could take a silhouette of the boat against the setting sun. They could be farmers returning from the field. This is Baramati district. The large farmers here grow sugarcane. So, if they are farmers at all, then perhaps they are small-holders, they could have been reaping the winter’s produce. All around the lake we’d seen small patches of various grains ripening.
Just a little earlier we’d seen herds of cows being driven home. They walked out into over a long finger of land into shallows on the lake to take a last drink of water in the evening. Around the muddy banks of the lake, in the shallows where no agriculture was done, we’d noticed grass growing. The lake in this season is a good place for cows and buffalos. It yields both grass and water in the commons, no need to buy expensive fodder.
But herding and agriculture are fringe activities, so to say. Fishing is the work that we’d watched all day. At lunch we’d eaten fresh tilapia from the lake. I was surprised; tilapia is not a native species. It seems to have been introduced to the lake after Ujani Dam was built. The presence of herons, gulls, terns, and flamingos on the lake was a clue that there were other fish, as well as crustaceans, here. The traps that the fishermen were laying were for shrimps. The catch of tilapia is so large that, in the day I spent there, I couldn’t figure what other fish is found in the river and lake.