In some parts of India the options for a quick meal-stop on a highway are changing. What once used to be a market aimed solely at long-distance truckers has diversified. Now one also sees some clean restaurants and rest rooms, an occasional potted plant on the table, interesting wall paper, places to charge your mobile phones. We stopped at one such and looked at the menu.
Choosing was hard. Would we prefer four peas of batter tost to veg sendvich with the same number of peas? What was veg matelish? Would you like to order a side of fingal chips? The matter paneer or the shani kofta would be too heavy, we thought. The Family absolutely didn’t want a stafed pen batter nan. When the waiter appeared, we chickened out and just asked for a chai each. The chai was good.
Walking through Jodhpur, I saw this striking doorway with two goats tied up outside it. The door brought to my mind the story that V. S. Naipaul reports about his father, Seepersad. The father was the first journalist of Indian origin who worked for the Trinidad Guardian. As a confirmed rationalist, in one of his articles he questioned his compatriots’ belief in animal sacrifice. This incensed members of his community who forced him to sacrifice a goat. According to Vidia Naipaul, his father did not recover from this humiliation.
What form did my father’s madness take?
He looked in the mirror one day and he couldn’t see himself.
–Conversation between V. S. Naipaul and his mother
(in Finding the Center)
I’m sure that a clever writer like Naipaul meant something more with this reported conversation than just what one reads. I’m pretty certain that Naipaul the son presents this conversation as a metaphor for Seepersad’s inability to comprehend those in his island who believed in animal sacrifice. I wondered as I took this photo what I did not see here. How strange to find a resonance with Naipaul’s Trinidad in this distant town!
When The Family said “Let’s go birdwatching in the desert”, I gulped. The only birds I associated with the deep desert were vultures (circling overhead as you drag yourself towards a mirage across dunes after your jeep has run out of petrol). So it was a wonderful adventure to find beautiful birds like trumpeter finches, sandgrouse, common kestrels and the last stand of the great Indian bustard. My biggest discovery was that the desert is alive with a completely different kind of vegetation and animal life.
Green sandpiper: a wonderful find in an oasis
A gray wagtail, an old friend met in a strange place
A variable wheatear, all puffed up
The female of the Isabelline wheatear
Flocks of bimaculated lark soared everywhere
A subspecies of the house sparrow: Passer domesticus parkinii
A tawny pippit
A desert wheatear
A desert lark perches on the golden stone of Jaisalmer
Greater hoopoe lark, photographed with difficulty
A black-crowned sparrow lark
The striking little ringed plover
Black redstarts can be seen around oases
I’ve completely forgotten which warbler this is
The male of the Isabelline wheatear
The short trip with Adesh, Mandar and the rest of the small group of friends turned out to be full of surprises. Here is a gallery of new birds that I saw, and a few old friends. Click on any of the pictures to go to the gallery. Tiny seeds and insects can keep a huge population of birds alive. I didn’t have the time and the lenses to capture the insects of the desert. That will be another wonderful trip.
Even if you have memorized the map of a new city, you have no feel for its life until you have walked through the streets. I’d left all the planning for Jodhpur to The Family, so I was constantly surprised. It began with my surprise that she chose a hotel right inside the old city, nearly at the base of Mehrangarh. After that the city laid out surprises one after another. We arrived, had lunch and decided to go for a walk. The temperature was twenty five degrees below Mumbai.
Elephant on the wall
What lies beyond?
Girl on a motorbike
Beauty Parlour, Only for women
A blue niche
A nice stool
I guess someone has to sell bamboo
A tangle of wires
Bylanes of the old town
Road in the old town
Just a simple door
Mehrangarh from Gulab Sagar
Jodhpur horse (note the ears)
The roads of the old city are narrow. Cars will not be able to reach most places, so the default mode of transport is a motorbike or a scooter. Buildings are beautifully decorated. The traditional blue of the “blue city” is a mild colour obtained by adding natural indigo to lime wash. The bright blue of some walls is always a modern chemical paint, and the brightest are those on the walls of cheaper hotels. A surprisingly large fraction of buildings are faced with the local red rock which is often called Jodhpur sandstone. Quite a few use the golden stone of Jaisalmer. The light was wonderful. People and horses were doing their own things. There was something new around every corner. The Family and I were happy to lose ourselves in an unguided walk, occasionally peeping through open doors.
Today is the 68th Republic Day. So I thought I would post pictures of some citizens of the country. These are not faces which appear on TV or in newspapers. They lead ordinary lives like you or me. My life intersected very briefly with theirs. I cannot imagine a thousand different lives, but there are almost one and a half billion different ones in this one country. Can you imagine yourself into the shoes of these few?
The photos were taken within a few days in Rajasthan. But for all you and I know, they could be a fairly representative cross section of the whole country.
We were trundling along a dusty semi-desert countryside when suddenly two birds flew across the road. The Family and I said simultaneously “Black-headed Ibis.” We stopped the auto and saw that behind the rocky wall on the left was a large but shallow lake. This was full of birds. Northern India, even the arid region of Jodhpur, is full of winter visitors. We got in an unexpected bit of bird watching, with multiple lifers.
A female purple sunbird
The lake was Devkund, a part of the Rao Jodha desert park. Later we had an interesting lifer elsewhere in the same park. My lifers are marked in bold-face in the list below. Amazing that we had two lifers in a place where we were not aware that there was birding! Our bird list would have been longer if we had binoculars with us.
I had seen totally unexpected landscape in the Thar desert: dry riverbeds with piles of broken rock, and vast stretches of level ground. Although large parts of the desert landscape was of this kind, there was a significant area full of sand dunes. I saw many dunes which were stabilized by plants specialized to grow in the desert, but there was a stretch of the great shifting dunes that deserts are famous for.
Dunes are formed by wind-blown sand. Sure enough, the air was dusty enough here that it felt comfortable if I pulled my tube scarf up to my nose to form a mask. Three kinds of sand dunes are commonly seen: barchans have horns facing away from the wind, parabolic dunes have horns facing the wind, and transverse dunes are perpendicular to the wind. What was I looking at? The great dune in the featured photo was clearly a transverse dune. I could sometimes see sand coming over its slip face. We were camped leewards of it. The ripples behind it were parallel to the edge. Eddies and gusts had formed smaller dunes, still pretty large, at its base. The photo above shows one of these. This was probably a blowout, or a parabolic dune. The horns at its end were not very long. In the picture above you can see that at the foot of the slip face the wind has tried to form yet another (tertiary) blowout dune. I guess this kind of fractal structure of dunes must be fairly common.
I woke up one morning to try to take photos of the dunes before sunrise, and found clouds blowing in. This was the first time I felt a strong wind. From the direction of the clouds it seemed that my guess was wrong: the clouds were blowing parallel to the dunes. The kind of clouds that you see in the photo are a high layer of cumulus clouds (altocumulus stratiformis). They form when ground-level winds carry moisture up where they freeze and then are carried in a different direction by high-altitude winds. So the direction of the movement of the clouds had nothing to do with the movement of the ground wind. In fact, because the ground wind had to be perpendicular to the movement of the clouds, my guess about the dunes had become more likely to be correct!
I had the warm fuzzy feeling which comes of the conviction of being right.
We hadn’t heard of the Rao Jodha Desert Park before we looked at a map of the area around Mehrangarh. Nor, it seems, had the auto driver. We had to coax him along the well-marked road to the visitor’s center. An enthusiastic young man called Denzil then marked out a short route for us on a map of the park and explained what was special about the place.
The 700 acres within the old city wall of Jodhpur was painstakingly freed of an invasive species of plant, and local species were planted into the holes left by the deep roots of the invader. Repairs to the city walls were completed in 2005, and the process of recovering the desert ecology was started the very next year. The unlikely banker behind this army of eco-warriors was the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.
Jodhpur hard rhyolite is a volcanic rock
Welded tuff is a relatively soft volcanic stone
Mehrangarh, the fort which Jodhpur grew around, stands on a hill of volcanic rock made of hard rhyolite, the mineral which also forms the volcanic plugs called the mesas of Arizona. Here, they stand in flat slabs which you see everywhere. Around this is a softer rhyolitic rock called welded tuff, which is made of volcanic ash pressed together while still hot. There is a red coloured welded tuff which is commonly known as Jodhpur sandstone. Our walk took us down an ancient aqueduct quarried out of the crack which formed between a face of the welded tuff and the hard rhyolite, so we got a good look at both (see the two photos above). You can easily see the difference in the photos here. The path led down to Ranisar lake (featured photo). Very logical for an aqueduct to drain into a lake, I thought. The blue city and the fort can share this water. Wonderful planning against sieges which seldom happened.
Flowers of meswak, Salvadora perisca
Unidentified common desert shrub
Verbascum chinense or geedar tambaku
Welded tuff with an unidentified desert herb
The ubiquitious Thhor, Euphorbia caducifolia
Sarcostemma acidum or kheer khimp
We passed many different kinds of trees and bushes. Over the next few days I learnt to recognize the cactus-like bush of thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia), the leafless spurge. This was also my first view of the tangle of leafless stalks called the kheer khimp (Sarcostemma acidum) or rambling milkweed. The kheer is added to the name because of the milky sap it exudes from a broken stalk. There were stands of geedar tambaku (Verbascum chinense) and many other shrubs and herbs which I still cannot recognize. You can see some of them in the photos (do let me know if you can help me identify them). Many of these can also be found deeper in the Thar desert.
Later on our walk we met Denzil again, when he showed us one of a pair of vagrant Eurasian Scops Owl which had nested in a thicket of trees. Walking back with him we learnt a little more about the effort involved in restoring the ecology of the area. That’s a story which newspapers have carried, so I won’t tell it here.
Jaswant Thada lies on the way from Jodhpur to Mehrangarh. This cenotaph for Jaswant Singh II, ruler of Jodhpur, was built in 1899 by his son, Sardar Singh. The white marble building with its profusion of domes stands above a tiered garden built with red stone walls. We passed the super-sized equestrian statue of Jaswant Singh II, and walked past Devkund before we saw the warm glow of the marble structure in the morning sun.
Beautiful marble jalis in the main mausoleum
Cenotaphs for three other rulers
Cenotaph for a peacock
A dome with Tekri Mata mandir in the background
Domes and turrets of the main cenotaph
A super-sized statue of Jaswant Singh II outside Jaswant Thada
Inside the mausoleum.
Chhatris and Mehrangarh seen from Jaswant Thada
Jaswant Thada and its tiered garden
We were early enough that there were very few other visitors. The place is full of whimsical touches. We passed a memorial to a peacock which is supposed to have flown into the funeral pyre of the king. We walked around the mausoleum and peered into its main hall. There is a silver throne in the middle of the hall, and portraits of the Rathore rulers hang on the walls. Pigeons roost everywhere, passing through the exquisitely carved marble jali. We descended into the small but well-maintained garden to see the three other memorials. There was a great view of Jodhpur from the far corner of the garden. As we walked back towards the entrance we had a great view of Mehrangarh.
It is a nice and peaceful place, and we got in a little unexpected birding in the lake behind the mausoleum. More about that in a future post.
Evening, the golden hour, seems to be the time to see Bucanetes githagineus. The name does not roll off the tongue very easily. I prefer to call it by its common name: the Trumpeter finch. I saw a bunch one evening in a hill of broken rock in the middle of the desert. They were hard to spot because their colours match the rock so closely. The best light was over when we spotted them. I would see them by their movement, and then lose them when I zoomed in. It was a very unsatisfactory lifer.
The Trumpeter finch is rarely seen in India, but is common over the arid zones to the west: the Arabian deserts and parts of the Sahara, where they breed. The thick triangular bill is tuned to feed on oilseeds, but this finch will not sneeze at insects and grasses. Usually birds which live on dry food like seeds will need water some time during the day. I wondered where they would find water in that rocky desert in which we spotted them.
The next day, at the same time, we were surprised to find a bunch of these finches in the open near a village. They were there for water. The sightings were almost a hundred kilometers apart, so there must be many Trumpeter finches in the Thar desert. As you can see, the birds are gregarious. The colourful bills distinguish the sexes: the females have yellow bills, and the bills of males are more red in colour. Interestingly, these colours are derived from carotenoids in their food. The difference in colours is due to metabolic processing of the chemicals, which differ between males and females. The light pink colour at the chest which also distinguishes the male is likewise derived from ingested carotenoids. I found it hard to believe that if the bird is restricted to food without these chemicals it would change colour. But apparently that is how it is.
Since the 1970s Trumpeter finches have begun to breed in southern Spain. There has been speculation that this northward creep of the breeding range makes it a bellwether for the range deformations that climate change is bringing. These finches are also found to have very low counts of parasites in them. The first instances ever were found in the Spanish population. It is not known whether the lack of parasites is due to the absence of naturally evolved parasites in their original range, innate resistance to parasites, or lack of vectors. Whether the extension in range introduces new parasitic challenges is also something that one should watch for. After all, with climate change, and the resultant migrations of animals, new diseases could easily sweep through populations. It is sobering to think back on these sightings and realize how these small birds could relate to some of the largest changes in the world around us.