Deccan traps

We drove to Pune in the weekend, over a road blasted through the heart of the geological bomb which killed off the dinosaurs. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is probably the busiest road in India. Still, there are times when you can take your eyes off the road to stare at the incredible mountains around you.

During the monsoon the mountains are covered in a carpet of electric green. Yes, there is such a colour; you have to travel here to find out what it is. In this season, with the brief winter on its way out, the grasses have dried out, turning into layers of gold against the red rock of the Deccan traps. These mountains are the Sahyadris, and the red rock is the dinosaur killer.

Go off the road. Stop when you can. Look again at the mountains. Mahabaleshwar ghats The most noticeable feature of the Sahyadris are the horizontal layers in the rock. Many years ago, sitting at a roadside dhaba, I asked a geologist friend about this. Between sips of tea he mentioned the phrase Deccan traps. These are successive waves of lava which flowed out of our planet’s largest volcanic event and killed off the dinosaurs.

A shiver goes through my spine even today when I sit and look at these six and a half crore (65 million) years old rocks. The continuous volcanism lasted for a few lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of years. The lava covered an area larger than that of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh put together. Ash, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide pumped out by the volcanos changed the climate, making it first cooler, then hotter, and turning the rain acid. The dinosaurs died out, along with most of the life on earth. The earth was barren for about half a million (5 lakhs) years.

When the volcanism ended and the skies began to clear, the mammalian takeover of the earth could begin. The next time you drive between Mumbai and Pune, look at the layer cake mountains around you: they are the reason you are here.

(Featured photo by S. R. Kiran, Mahabaleshwar ghats photo by Mark Richards, map from Princeton univ)

Memories of rain

The name of this post is the title of a book by Sunetra Gupta which I loved. The Family and I were still busy discovering each others’ tastes in books when she recommended it to me. After reading the book about a failing cross cultural marriage, I began to follow her advise about what to read. "But this is not that story", as Aragorn says at the gate of Barad Dur.

Early monsoon near Munnar in Kerala

This is a little post to commemorate the end of the monsoon for this year. We have travelled long distances during these four tedious months. The green that sprouts from the earth during this time is incredible. It seems that there is a twenty thousand year long climatic cycle [alternate link] during which the monsoons are good. During the peak of such times the Sinai desert and the Arabian peninsula bloom, and provide a path connecting Africa and the Eurasian continent. During two such long wet seasons humans migrated out of Africa. The first left only enigmatic traces in our DNA and the second wave colonized the world. This is not such a green period. We live in times when the Sinai and the Arabian peninsula are great deserts.

Late monsoon in the Sahyadris

You wouldn’t believe it if you drove in India in the last four months. Here are three views through the windshields of cars which I took in Kerala and Maharashtra during this monsoon. The interior of the car becomes humid and warm, and you need to turn on a blast of air to keep the windows from fogging up. And then you can look out into a world which has become strange and silent. Another year till we come back to this time again.

Monsoon flowers

The Sahyadris come alive with flowers in the late monsoon. As we get ready for a weekend in the Kaas plateau, I decided to look again at the wild flowers I’d photographed when we were lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara about a month ago. I took out my newly acquired three-volume set of the flowers of the Sahyadris and decided that I must identify all the photos I have.

The easiest to identify is the Silver Cockscomb, called kombda in Marathi, whose binomial is Celosia argentea. Many years ago, when I first started to take macro photos, I’d noticed this as a plant which attracts many kinds of butterflies. I could wait by a patch in any open piece of land, and I would definitely get a few satisfactory shots of butterflies. Unfortunately, mid-August is too early in the season for butterflies. There are lots of other pollinators around, but the colourful Lepidoptera of the Sahyadris emerge a month later. So this time I only have a photo of the blossom (featured image).

A patch of Murdannia pauciflorum
A patch of Murdannia pauciflora in an open field

The purple flowers in the background took me a while to identify. It was called Murdannia wightii in a checklist prepared in 1965, and gets into the field guide of the flowers of the Sahyadris under this name. But the website of the Botanical Survey of India says that it is more properly called by the name Murdannia pauciflorum since it was identified as such in 1892. No common name is recorded, not even in Marathi. There were so many of these in fallow fields that I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t have a local name.

Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)
Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)

The common Balsam was a flower that I knew well when I was a child. My gradparents’ garden always had a patch of these in some corner. Over the years I’d forgotten it. Then in August I saw whole hillsides covered with these lovely purple flowers. Bees buzzed among them. I knew I should have been able to name them. Eventually, I resorted to asking an aunt, and got an instant identification.

Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree
Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree

An identification which really bothered me was these tiny flowers which I saw growing in the shade of some trees in a rocky patch of land next to a rice field. I’m not certain yet that it is indeed Blumea mollis, but that’s the closest I have got. I’ll keep looking, and if I find a better identification I’ll come back and change it. But for the moment I let it stand.

Monsoon mela

Something weird has happened in the last decade. Very large numbers of people from Mumbai want to go and stand under a waterfall in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. The photo you see here is of the Ashoka waterfall about a 100 kilometers from Mumbai on a weekend.Ashoka waterfall in monsoon

The waterfall was steep, and the path to the crowded pool was down a steep rocky face. It seemed as crowded as a suburban railway station at rush hour. We had gone to get away from the city, and turned away at the sight of crowds as dense as any we see on a working day. Such a density of humans would be dangerous in almost any situation. We remembered many recent newspaper stories about accidental deaths by drowning. From the statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau it seems that rates of accidental death by drowning in Maharashtra are high compared to the rest of the country.

On the drive back we noticed a few spots where cars and motorbikes were parked haphazardly at the edge of the highway near a stream falling over the side. People were clambering over the stones below to take selfies in the "waterfalls". If a large number of people take similar selfies, it usually means a social-media buzz.

Why? The Family feels that more people have cars, they drive, and there are few places to drive to. This is true; most of the people we saw are young and newly affluent. But the same people could have done anything in the mountains. We did see some groups on open meadows, sitting down to a picnic lunch. A very few go trekking. Some probably go and have an impromptu dance. Could it be that some movies in recent years have kicked off a frenzy of selfies under cascading water?

Dolkhamb market

We tried to follow a road which petered out after the market square in Dolkhamb. It was flanked by two long structures. One was an office, and the other, which you see in the photo below, was a row of shops. This was one of the larger villages we had passed in the previous twenty kilometres. Off to one side was a little open space where several utility vehicles were parked: they serve as local buses. The market was crowded. We stopped to ask for directions. As we talked to the "bus" drivers, more vehicles arrived, bringing people to add to the crowd.

Market square in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra

For some time now we have been trying to eat a larger variety of vegetables and greens than what our meals had reduced to. So the sight of a village market brought out the gatherers in us. On a side of the road was a line of people who had set up makeshift stalls. The featured image shows the lady nearest to us. She had four different kinds of vegetables: tomatoes, knobbly green karela (bitter gourd), fresh okra and large green chilis. Not a large variety, but incredibly fresh. The okra was crisp and snapped easily between my fingers. After her a man sat with small heaps of dried fish. There were fruits further on. The Family bought bananas and apples. The apples were small and not very colourful, but when we bit into them they were extremely flavourful.

Once upon a time these were available in all markets in Mumbai. Now WTO rules force us to import apples which are too expensive to be sold anywhere except in big towns and cities. As a result, these profitable markets are almost completely shut to local apples. We love to eat, and we are not politically committed to local produce. We do like the fact that globalization brings us food from far away, but we are also aware of the variety that local produce can bring to our table. We have read enough about the carbon cost of pushing fruits around continents to begin to take the trouble to visit farmer’s markets.Woman selling farm produce from a truck in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra It would be a pity if we were forced to make a choice between the planet and the economy without thinking through sustainable middle paths. (I’m afraid that sentence might succeed in offending both sides of a political divide which exists, but need not).

The most exciting discovery was a truck of assorted greens, presided over by a lady in a red sari (photo alongside). People walked up to a boy, probably her son, paid him and asked for the greens they needed. He would shout out the order, and she would throw it out of the truck. We bought a bunch of fresh fenugreek and coriander greens from the duo. This family also pushes vegetables around in a box which burns hydrocarbons. But they travel tens of kilometres, not thousands. With fresh produce in the car and virtuous thoughts in our heads, we ignited the non-renewable fossil fuel in the tank of our car and drove out along the road the local drivers told us to take.

Lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara

Mumbai is a megapolis reclaimed from the sea, windwards of the Sahyadri mountains. An hour inland, the terrain is usually rocky and inhospitable: cliffs and oddly shaped peaks tower over a seared land. But, during the monsoon the land turns lush green, and waterfalls cascade over every cliff.

It seems that every monsoon weekend a large fraction of Mumbai’s population spreads out over the mountains. This is a special week, with many holidays. In the afternoon of last Friday there were long traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city. The Family decided that Saturday was a good day for a drive. We started out in the morning, took the highway towards Nasik, turned off it at Shahapur, and got lost soon after as cellular connectivity faded. We were near Dolkhamb, and wanted to reach Kasara. We knew there should be a road, but there were no signboards.

Farmer and rice paddy near Kasara

The result was hours of blundering through an incredibly lush and beautiful landscape. This area is normally dry, and the farmers barely eke out a living. In this season the only way to figure that out is the fact that the land is almost empty. Now and then you come across a small cluster of huts, where each family tends a small plot. Even in the middle of such a heavy monsoon, rice grows only in the lowest parts of the terrain. Hillsides are an inch of soil covering volcanic rock: not suitable for farming. Earthen dams husband water for the remainder of the year. In spite of the fluorescent green cover, this is a harsh country.

Chicken shop in the middle of nowhere

There were no signs at crossroads telling us which way to go. We often took the wrong turn and drove for kilometers before meeting someone who told us to back up and take the other fork. At an empty crossroads we found this little shack sporting a battered board which proclaimed that it was Arbaaz’s chicken shop. They were out of stock, but easy with directions. There were no villages in sight, but I guess the road has enough traffic to keep Arbaaz in business.

Soon after, our cell phones began to receive signals, and we came to the highway again. Fifteen kilometers on we reached a roadside restaurant just before their lunch service closed. This had been a wonderful drive, although really slow.

Kaas: the plateau of flowers

Kaas is a highland plateau about 6 hours’ drive from Mumbai, famous for its monsoon flowering. Ever since it was declared a UNESCO biodiversity heritage area, the number of visitors has grown so much that maintaining the biodiversity has become even more difficult than it used to be. We’ve admired photos of the place, and have wanted to go there for many years. The Family was very keen on it this year, but I couldn’t go, having committed my weekends to learning Chinese. She went there last weekend with a wonderful nature group we have traveled with before.

kaasb

In a normal year, the monsoon would have receded by now; but this year the weather is a little mixed up. It rained very hard during the weekend, both in Mumbai and in Kaas. The plateau is part of the Deccan Traps, the largest volcanic feature in the world. 66 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions lasting perhaps 30,000 years, built the landscape which contains the plateau. The topsoil is less than an inch thick, and the low herbs and grasses form a dry mat holding it together over most of the year. But during the monsoon little pools of water gather in hollows, the ground turns marshy, and the plateau comes alive with flowers. The Family did not gauge the weather properly, and got pretty wet several times a day. But she came back with great stories and photos.

kaasdThe strange ecology has bred strange flora. The soil lacks various nutrients, so a pretty impressive fraction of the plants feed on insects. The Family did not have photos of these. Instead she came back with this photo of the famous Ceropegia vincaefolia. The five petals of this flower (see photo on the left) form a trap to keep in flies which arrive to feed on the nectar. As the trap snaps close around it, the fly frantically buzzes around, so managing to pollinate the flower. Once the pollination is accomplished, the flower droops down so that the trap can open to let the fly out. You can see a drooping flower to the left in the photo.

kaascAnother famous plant is the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosus). Although the leaves are poisonous, they are crushed to treat inflammations by the locals. It flowers once every eight years (but some bushes are reported to flower even as infrequently as once in fourteen years). Fortunately different plants are not synchronised, so The Family saw a clump of plants which were all flowering together. Some distance away was another clump which had no flowers. It is claimed that the fruits may hang on the plant for a year, bursting to release seeds only with the arrival of the next monsoon. Elsewhere in the region these plants can grow taller than a man, but the ones she saw came no higher than her knees, and she had photos to prove it. I don’t know whether the thin soil of the Kaas plateau is responsible for this stunted growth.

kaaseThe Family was very impressed by the large number of wind-power devices. It is interesting in many ways, the chief reason being that local farmers are bothered to put these up. It probably means that there are subsidies involved. Moving from coal generated electricity to greener methods will involve subsidies (even if the WTO disagrees). A question which came to my mind when I saw the photos on The Family’s phone is whether the move to install these windmills also has an effect on the outlook of the farmers towards the environment. Do they become more conscious of the surroundings, more caring of the natural environment? I hope so, otherwise, as another blogger says, the flowers may be gone in a few years. I hope not, but I fear they will.

[All photos in this post taken by The Family on her phone]

Note added

I talked about the windmills with a couple of people who know the area, and they threw cold water on my suggestion. Apparently putting up these wind generators is big money in the locality. This drives people to put them up even in fairly eco-sensitive spots. The rush for short term gains trumps long term sustainability again. If only the sustainable was also profitable in every short run.