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.

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.

Awn, glume, culm, rachis

It was winter when I first passed through the Sahyadris, many decades ago. I looked out of the window of a train at the amazing landscape: fantastic rock shapes covered with swathes of drying grass. Those expanses of drying yellow grass have drawn me out of the city year after year. From a distance you see hills covered by trees, but when the rock falls away too steeply for a tree to find stability, grasses cascade over the steep slopes, in shades of yellow, gold, or red. I’ve always wondered about the varieties of grass that one can see. Now, in the infrequent outings during the pandemic, I thought I would learn how to tell grasses apart.

Starting is never easy. I looked at books and guides, and wondered at why I never took to botany. I looked at the lovely words: rhizome, culm and spikelet, rachis, glume, awn and floret, bulb and crown, sheath, blade, ligule and auricle. I could hypnotize myself with words like this, fall in love with language. But in school, when I tried to study botany, I would open the books too late, and the words would become a wall I could never be able to climb. I never mastered the words, and never managed to look out at the vista of the subject from the top of that high wall. One learns a technical language to be able to read and understand others, not to create barriers for others. Now that I have all the time in the world, here are some notes to myself. In the analogy that I have drawn, the rest of this post is a set of spikes driven into the wall so that I can climb it quickly later. If you enjoy it, so much the better.

I am not about to become a late-flowering botanist, so I will not look at the structure below the ground: the root and the modified stem called the rhizome. All that I’ll need to know is that if the rhizome is present, then the grass is a perennial. The stem is what I start from, and that should be called a culm by people like us who want to know more about grass. The culm could have a part below the ground, called the rhizome, but I will learn about the stolon, which is the part above ground. Some stolons, like the ones in these photos, stand upright, but others, for example on the lawns outside my apartment, trail on the ground. Stolons have nodes, and leaves or roots can arise from these. These nodes are called crowns when leaves arise from them. If a grazer eats a culm, it is regenerated from a crown. The leaf is another thing to look at. Its sheath wraps around the culm; if the blade bends away from the culm, then you can see a little tongue near the bend. This is a ligule; and it prevents insects from crawling down the blade into the sheath to eat away at the culm.

The most interesting part of a plant is the flower, the floret is what you would call it if you are a grass gazer. Grasses are wind pollinated, and do not require the petals which other plants use to attract pollinators. The florets are held on a part of the stem called the rachis; it may be straight or branched. The flowers are contained in spikelets. At the base of the spikelet, close to the rachis, are two modified leaves called glumes, which hold the florets alternately along their length. The tips of the glumes are extended into the long pointed things called awns, which you can easily see in all the photos here.

I love awns; they are what made me take the photos.

Ghoti, population 30,000

On our drive back to Mumbai we stopped at the little town of Ghoti to buy vegetables. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai come from Nashik district, where the town lies. Ghoti is one of those places which has grown too large to be called a village, but has still not realized that it should really have a municipal corporation. The Indian bureaucracy has a name for such places, it is called a census town. We had expected the market place to be crowded. It wasn’t. Nashik district was pretty badly hit by the coronavirus, and people have learnt to stay at home and avoid crowds. Those who have the money to buy their groceries in bulk do it, and visit the market infrequently.

The market straggled along the main road to the highway, but there was a clear center. That was where the fresh vegetables were to be seen. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai comes from Nashik district. This was obvious from the freshness of the things on display. A variety of chili, many kinds of beans, huge bundles of greens and gourds, all at a price about a fourth of what you would be charged in Mumbai. The periphery of the market had grains and kitchen utensils (different vendors for metal and plastic!).

Less than a fourth of the people I could see were using masks, and many of them were not using it properly. Masking has become so common in cities that it is a little disconcerting to pass through small towns and see that masks are not yet in regular use. I suppose communication needs to improve. I don’t watch TV very often, and seldom in Marathi, so I don’t know whether it is just the frequency of messaging should be addressed, or something different needs to be done. Masks are such a simple and effective preventive that I really do think the message should be spread even better.

When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

Beasts of Kaas

Since this post is about creatures fairly high up on the food chain of the Kaas plateau, I could start with the top predator I saw: the funnel-weaving spider (family Agelindae) you see in the featured photo. This one had laid down a huge sheet of a web covering several Topli Karvi bushes, and was waiting for food to fall out of the sky. When an insect lands on the web, it usually runs very fast to it and engulfs it in silk. Now, with rain drops falling intermittently on the web, I’m sure this guy had his work cut out, trying to distinguish rain from food. Other insectivores on the plateau are plants: sundews and bladderworts. I’ve written about them elsewhere.

Snail on the Kaas plateauThis snail is about the largest animal I took a photo of on the plateau. There are birds; the Crested Lark (Galerida crestata) had put in a hazy appearance in the morning mist. After it started raining we saw no birds. The rain does not stop a snail, as it munches the roots of Topli Karvi bushes. This was on its way from one bush to another, when I saw it. It didn’t seem to move as I took the photo, meaning it would take an age and half to get to the next busg. The western ghats harbour a large variety of land snails; I’m not sure which species this is. Any expert comments?

Startled grasshopperOne of the more common animals which inhabit these parts are grasshoppers. Judging by where it was sitting, this one probably feeds on the leaves of Topli Karvi. It has a silly startled look, as it turns its head slightly to take a look at the relatively large camera lens looking at it. I couldn’t get a shot of the three eyes it has on top of its head. Again, I have no idea what species this is, and have to depend on the kindness of an expert to provide the answer.

A very strange animal was this leaf piercer. Plant borer seen in Kaas It stood on this leaf for a long while as people tried to photograph it. The early photos show a little spot of sap on its long snout. By the time the last photos had been taken the sap had disappeared: it had done its version of licking its chops. I have no further idea about the classification of this beautiful and strange beast.

Interestingly, none of these animals are pollinators. Tiny moth seen in Kaas This tiny moth which flew on to a Topli Karvi leaf while I watched is also unlikely to be a pollinator. It is quite likely to be another herbivore. Interestingly, the leaf it is sitting on already has been attacked. Usually true bugs (order Hemipteran) attack plants in this way. Unfortunately I didn’t see any.

Caterpillar munching grassI didn’t see a single butterfly in my few hours in the Kaas plateau. It was raining, and butterflies don’t like to get their wings wet. More likely, the butterflies had not pupated yet. I had evidence for this soon afterwards when we arrived at a grassy meadow full of caterpillars. I don’t know which butterfly they will metamorphose into, but the complete fearlessness with which they crawled across the ground, and the absence of predators, probably means that they are toxic.

I’m sure I missed a very large number of insects. It was raining hard, so most of them were probably hidden under leaves. Since it was muddy, I was not intent of kneeling or sitting to peer under the low leaves of the Karvi. So I’ll have to leave the job of talking about more beasts of the plateau to someone else.

The flower and the water

If only all visitors to the Kaas plateau were as subtle as Neruda’s lover, they could come and go among the flowers and the water, and no harm would come to anything. Unfortunately, some are not.

Sutil visitadora, llegas en la flor y en el agua.
(Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water)
[Pablo Neruda in
Twenty Poems of Love]

In the featured photo you can see, through raindrops which kept falling on my lens, hordes of people trampling bushes in order to take selfies among flowers. This, in spite of guards blowing their whistles and shouting at such deplorable behaviour. At one point I was standing on a path, using a zoom to take a close up of a flower which was about a body length away. A young woman walked right up to the flower, knelt on the bushes around it and used her mobile phone to take a close up. She left a long trampled swathe of greenery behind her. All this happens on the only protected plateau left in this region!

Gentle visitors to the Kaas plateauOf course, all visitors are not like that. Most are probably like the couple you see above. They stood next to me as I took a photo of a patch full of the purple flowers of bladderwort. Then they walked away along the path, hand in hand. Now as I look at this photo, I realize something that I missed as I followed them along this path: collectively, our lightest footprints change the ecology. One person’s passage may not cause damage. But a hundred careful couples, fifty conscientious photographers, or two deplorable persons, wear out these paths through the rock and prevent plants from growing where they pass.

Windmills in the middle of fields

Other, equally interesting, plateaus nearby are not protected. The Chilkewadi plateau, which you can see in the photo above, is full of windmills. Properly planned, these could be an ecologically low-impact alternative to other sources of energy. Unfortunately, they have been placed in one of the last few inselbergs which harbour many rare plants found only in the western ghats, a subset of which are found only near Satara. In the deep fog I’d stepped into a meadow and retreated immediately when I saw that it was full of Topli Karvi and bladderwort. Then I noticed that a work gang was in the same meadow, working on one of the giant windmills placed there.

On my next visit to this region I will try hard to argue with my companions that we should spare the Kaas plateau, and instead spend all our time on the Chilkewadi plateau. It has the same flowers as Kaas, and by not going there, may be we can help that ecology to repair itself. Can we adopt the slogan: Visit Kaas only once in your lifetime? We can start frequenting nearby plateaus. Many of the plants grow in other parts of the Sahyadris as well. I know that I can convince very few people alone. But if you help me out by doing this, and talking and writing about it, refusing to like photos of people standing among the flowers of Kaas, then maybe we can change the fate of the bladderwort, sundew, Karvi, Indian arrowroot, and other such strange and vulnerable species.

Maybe you have a different idea. I would love it if you put it in the comments below. It is important to get together and work on preserving Kaas.

Wandering around Kaas on a wet day

On the verge of the parking lot just below Kaas plateau I came across a chest high growth of Chinese knotwood, whose flowers are featured above. On reading a bit, I learnt that this kind of branched bush is characteristic of knotwoods (family Polygonaceae). Information on this species is hard to find because its Latin double-barrelled name has changed many times; it is known as Polygonum praetermissum, P. auriculata, P. chinense, Persicaria chinensis among others. I could figure out that the round berries are edible. Interestingly, it turns out that of the sixty known species in this family, most are found in the Tibetan plateau, and have diversified only in the last ten million years. The home ground of P. chinensis seems to lie along the arc of the Himalayas, and continuing down to Thailand, Indonesia and Malayasia. It is an invasive species, and is probably poised to take over the Kaas plateau, just as it is taking over parts of the US.

The Indian arrowroot, which I spotted growing cheek-to-jowl with the Topli Karvi, is a much more sedate plant.Indian arrowroot, Curcuma caulina, from Kaas plateau A member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, its name has recently changed from Hitchenia caulina to Curcuma caulina. Its Marathi name, chavar, seems to be well documented. Its tubers yield an edible starch. It grows mainly in high plateaus of the Western ghats, like Kaas, so it is vulnerable to a loss of habitat. Since it is economically important as well as endangered, there is an international effort on to cultivate it. I saw very few of these flowers, and came to the conclusion that it is not very common even in the Kaas plateau.

Justicia procumbens called karambal in Marathi is also known as water willow

I kept seeing the spikes of the karambal every now and then, with a few small purple-pink petals growing out of the cylinder. I kept postponing a photo, hoping to get one covered with petals. Then when one of my companions told me that this is all I was likely to see, I stopped and took the photo which you can see above. A member of the Acanthaceae family, this ankle-high plant, Justicia procumbens, is given the rather fanciful English common name of water willow. Maybe the name is given because the leaves of the plant, like those of the willow, are ground into a paste used to treat asthma and coughs. This plant is widely reported in the Deccan plateau, found in Kumaon, known in Japan and Korea and used in Chinese medicine, but is vulnerable to habitat loss.

Plants cannot run away from attack; their defensive mechanism is chemistry. Because of this, they have developed a strange armoury of subtle chemicals over their long evolutionary history. That’s the reason why we keep finding in plants new and useful molecular weapons to combat diseases. It will be a pity if the fruits, so to say, of megayears of evolution disappear in the next couple of decades. The fence around the Kaas plateau, and the effort of growing plants in the Kew gardens are last-ditch measures.

Two herbs

I saw a single stalk bearing these white flowers sticking out of a green meadow some distance away. It was foggy on the Kaas plateau. The rain had left little droplets of water suspended from the flowers. As I tried to take photos, I thought that they reminded me of lilies.Flowers of Dipcadi ursulae Later I wasn’t sure whether it was a lily or a confusingly similar orchid. I thought I would see it again elsewhere, but didn’t come across it later. As a result, this somewhat noisy photo is the only one I have.

When I eventually identified it as Dipcadi montanum (conflated with D. ursulae by Ingalhalikar), it turned out that its classification is contentious. It used to be placed in the family Liliaceae. By the time Ingalhalikar wrote his book it had been moved to family Asparagaceae. Recent papers split off the subfamily and class it as a separate family Hyacinthaceae. I’ll go with this. Classification of angiosperms is being transformed by molecular data, so the older classifications are never going to come back.

This herb is said to be widespread but rare and endangered. Its claimed rarity agrees with my personal observation. In India it has been reported from various parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Bihar, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh. Eflora India has photos which show bladderwort (Utricularia) growing nearby. Interestingly, my only photo of bladderwort came from the same patch where I saw these flowers. Is there really some connection between them?

At the other end of the scale of rarity were chest-high bushes of the common hill borage, with the double-barrelled name of Adelocaryum coelestinum. The pale blue flowers of this forget-me-not (family Boraginaceae) grow along long stalks, as in the featured photo. The tiny five-petalled white flowers have a beautiful blue center. They are widely spotted in Maharashtra and Goa, but probably also grow in neighbouring states, including arid Gujarat.

I lumped these two together because I couldn’t find any documented use for them, neither as remedies against disease, nor as food. As of now, it seems that they are just beautiful flowers which we can enjoy looking at.