Darwin’s pigeons

When Darwin sent his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to his publishers, they sought pre-publication advise from some trusted reviewers. One wrote back saying that the book was too long, and Darwin should be asked to cut out the uninteresting stuff about Galapagos and expand the section on the breeding of pigeons. The reviewer was one of the many pigeon fanciers of his time. Although it is not such a big sport any longer, racing pigeons still fetch millions in prize money. Pigeon races apparently count among their avid followers the Queen of England.

I’d taken the featured photo several years back in Yuksom in Sikkim. It seemed to be a colour variant of the common domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica). Looking at the photo now, I remembered that this could well be the first species ever to be domesticated. I’d seen dovecotes in every old structure I’ve visited: from the rock caves of Cappadocia to those in ancient India. There are learned papers on the changes in the brains of domestic pigeons which allow them to home unerringly. This ability kept them in military service from the earliest recorded times to as recently as the second world war, when several million homing pigeons were used by armies (some were given medals). For a couple of tens of thousands of years humans have bred pigeons as food, as racing animals (twice as fast as thoroughbred horses), and for military communication.

It was a straightforward matter to rule out other identifications for the bird in the photo. My only confusion was whether it could be the hill pigeon (Columba rupestris). Experts pointed out that it lacks the prominent white bar on the tail which hill pigeons have. Also, those are found at altitudes of over 3 Kms above sea level, whereas this photo was taken at a height of about 2 Kms. It may not be a hill pigeon, but man’s oldest companion is nothing to sneeze at.

Odds and ends

Paging through photos I came across some odd shots which suddenly reminded me of the circumstances in which I’d taken them. The featured photo was taken in south Sikkim on a very overcast day. We’d thought of taking a walk in a rhododendron forest, but the cold drizzle put us off. Instead we walked through a small village looking for a place to have a chai. This blazing wall gave me the first photo of the day. It was a typical frame house. Mats are tacked to the frame and covered with mud. A hole cut in the mud holds a window. But the colours!

From the wonderful aesthetics of the mountains to its utter absen e in Delhi. Walking through the university, I this unlikely juxtaposition of a toilet door covering an open manhole, a bicycle on the ground chained to a post, and an office chair. The exuberant gracelessness of such sights is as much Delhi as the beautiful imperial monuments built across half a millennium.

“Out at work” is a line that popped into my head when I saw the closed doors of a trekking guide’s office. We were in Yuksom, west Sikkim. This is the start of a big array of walking trails of all levels of difficulty, and guides are in heavy demand. Clearly.

The extremely decorative facade of CST, the century and half old railway terminus in the heart of Mumbai, is reflected in the window of a taxi waiting at a red light. I was in another just behind it, when I realized that this just might be the oddest shot that I’ll ever get of that ornate building.

A lovely spot

We stayed the night in a homestay in Lachung village. The village is named after the river it is on. In the morning we followed the river to Yumthang valley. We were on a trip to Sikkim, eleven years and eleven days ago. The road took us through a rhododendron sanctuary. I remember colours of rhododendron that I have not seen elsewhere. Purples, light reds, greenish yellow, and funereal white. It is an amazing sight, and one that I was planning to take my niece to see at the beginning of this month. Unfortunate that the country was locked down, and she was infected (she recovered very quickly). It will be another year before we can try to take that trip again.

The road continues to the open valley bordered by high mountains. It was cloudy, and extremely windy. Through the clouds we could see glaciers coming down the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Some people had camped there. I dipped a hand into the river. Cold. I was happy with a night in Lachung. There were trout in a holding pond. You are allowed to fish in the river. Was the trout supposed to be released back into the water?

It was a great place for photos. I wandered around taking in the primula, the irises, the glaciers. There were even butterflies; I got a photo of the Indian Tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis). It was a lovely place, but by late morning I had a feeling that a spot of tea would come in handy. That’s one thing this place did not have. I wished I had thought of carrying a thermos full of tea up here.

They let the Zebra and the Giraffe get up; and Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

Rudyard Kipling, in “How the Leopard got His Spots”, Just So Stories

Dotted and striped patterns arise repeatedly in nature: butterflies, flowers, fish, big cats. Kipling’s story seems to be verified by biologists. But what is the genesis of such patterns? In 1952 Alan M. Turing made an observation that people have built on since then. He wrote: “It is suggested that a system of chemical substances, called morphogens, reacting together and diffusing through a tissue, is adequate to account for the main phenomena of morphogenesis. Such a system, although it may originally be quite homogeneous, may later develop a pattern or structure due to an instability of the homogeneous equilibrium, which is triggered off by random disturbances.” The featured photo of the river in Yumthang explains what Turing meant. Imagine a tub of perfectly still water. Sunlight falling on it would illuminate the bottom of the uniformly. Now take the random winds that disturb water in a river, and the random placing of obstructions below. The net effect is a series of interlocking ripples which refract the water and give that dotted pattern of shadows on river bottom. Turing realized that patterns in nature could arise in the same way, due to the flow of pigments being disturbed during the early development of the organism. Subsequent authors have studied and begun to understand how these patterns are formed by the actions of genes, and how they are inherited.

Counting the days

Finally, the tickets are booked. I’m looking forward to a trip through the Himalayas again. Wonderful views would be great, but no views, just fog, is also welcome.

There are very few things I want in life (only about a hundred and forty seven), and the pandemic has taught me to seek a balance between them.

Possibility

Before my day can start, I make myself a cup of tea, and look at photos from a ten years old trip. Sikkim is one of the places I would like to go back to as soon as I can. The Family and I have been trying to organize our work so that we can begin to travel again. International travel is a long way off, but India offers immense opportunities. There will probably be a window of opportunity in the next six months, when cases have declined, and the adventurous can start to travel again.

My trip through Lachung and Yumthang had been too short. An overnight stay in Lachung (elevation 2.9 Kms) was followed by a day trip up the Lachung river towards the Yumthang valley and its Rhododendron sanctuary. The weather is usually bad, but the sight of glaciers descending from the clouds can be a welcome change, even if you are cold and wet. On our trip the clouds were so dense that we could not even sight the fabulous Chombu peak. Well under 7 Kms high, the peak remains unclimbed even today.

But spending a day walking around the village of Lachung can be rewarding. The Lepcha who live here cheek by jowl with Tibetans are very pleasant people. Ten years ago the place was small, but years of tourism after that must have caused it to expand. This would have been interrupted by the immense earthquake which happened the year after our visit, but surely the village has been built back up by now. I have many photos of the wooden houses with their cheerfully coloured doors, and I would like to see them again.

One of the other nearby places I remember fondly is the Lachung monastery, a quiet 19th-century structure. It was deserted when we visited. We walked around it, admiring the solidity of the walls and the great upkeep. The Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have a colour scheme which is simultaneously extremely visible, because of the whitewashed walls, and immensely restful because of the small areas of earth colours, mainly black and ocher, with little touches of blue and green. I wonder how well it survived the earthquake.

The monastery has a wonderful garden and orchard. I spent a long time admiring the apple blossoms, and the moss growing on it. That was a time when I began to wonder whether an aesthetic I had considered Japanese could actually be widespread within world Buddhism. The delight in nature, the accidental and fleeting, which is captured in the Japanese phrase wabi sabi could perhaps be a Buddhist response to what the religion considers to be a fleeting and passing life. We flitted through this part of the Himalayas quickly. After the day trip up the Lachung river, we were back to the village at the confluence of the Lachung and Lachen rivers. The next three days were taken up by a trip up the Lachen to the high lake of Gurudongmar. Perhaps our next trip could be slow.

Spring, Locksley Hall

Locksley Hall, that in the distance overlooks the sandy tracts,
And the hollow ocean-ridges roaring into cataracts.

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time;

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:

When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson


The toads were photographed ten years ago. Since toads return to their birth and breeding sites to breed, it is likely that someone today is seeing something similar at this pond in Gangtok, Sikkim.

An impossible job

Primrose flowering by the road are impossible to photograph

If the photo above looks weird, it just shows what I mean. On a walk in a high forest in Sikkim we came across primroses flowering by the road. They grew in clusters, brightening up an otherwise overcast day. But every time I tried to take a photo, it would refuse to come out right. I tweaked the exposure and colour balance on my camera. I tried as many other things as I could, even changed the f-stop, but nothing could make the colours come out right. The primroses looked much more pink to the eye than what the camera was getting. I could not stop the camera from changing a fuchsia to a violet.

It seems this needs post-processing. I tried to reproduce the original colour from memory by manually changing the colour balance and produced something that looks reasonable. I decided to make this change only on the left half of the photo above, so one could see what the changes did. It made the dead leaves look a little too red. Fortunately it did not change the colour of the green leaves and grass, and it made the small yellow flowers on the top left to pop a bit. I’m happy that it turned out to be reasonably simple.

I seem to have trouble with pinks and purples at high altitudes. Could this be due to the enhanced UV content of sunlight? Have you had such problems as well?

Rhododendron flowering

Red rhododendrons flowering near the Norbugang throne in Yuksom

Sikkim is the most accessible part of the belt running across the Himalayas where Rhododendrons grow. We’d seen them wilting when we visited Yumthang a few years ago in early May. Now, in early March we saw them in bloom when we visited the Norbugang throne in Yuksom. We sat on a bench in the garden near the throne and looked at the deodars festooned with prayer flags. Below them were the bushes of Rhododendrons, heavy with flowers. Some had dropped around a little building lower down. It was quiet, pleasantly cool, and serene. I composed a little piece of doggerel and recited it to The Family: “My blood is red as a rhodo, until I become as dead as a dodo”.

She said, let’s go to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. I’d read about this before coming. It seems that you can reach it if you take a long walk, some say 8 Kms, from Uttarey in the north or a short walk, about 3 Kms, from Hilley in the south. barsey-map I’d hesitated to do this because we didn’t know the terrain and couldn’t predict how long it would take us to cover 16 Kms. Now we decided to travel to Hilley and take the shorter walk. It turned out that Hilley was around 80 Kms from Pelling, over roads that were not in very good shape. The drive took us 4 hours. We passed through beautiful roads, the greenery blooming red with flowers of the rhododendron. Hem Kumar told us that his friends did not believe he would see the flowers today.

My faith in Hem Kumar’s unfailing fallibility grew as we climbed, and the red flowers became rarer. The gate to the Barsey rhododendron sanctuary near Hilley villageIt was probably too early for high-altitude flowers inside the Barsey sanctuary. It turned out (map above) that Hilley was already inside the sanctuary, and the 3 Km walk was to a nearby ridge from which Kanchenjunga would be visible. The bright sunshine of the morning was hidden behind fog and clouds as we started on the path. We saw some leaf warblers and tree-pies in the dense jungle. Little streams flowed down the rocks next to the path. Primulas bloomed everywhere. Rhododendron buds were visible on every tree. They would flower in a week or two. It was a lovely walk, until it started to rain. We turned back after about twenty minutes of walking, perhaps somewhat over a kilometer.

The Family reminded me of the Rhododendron juice we drank on our previous visit to Sikkim. Hem Kumar didn’t know of it. A journalist, Sumana Roy, has a peculiar recipe for rhododendron chutney: “A handful of flowers, about five or six fresh red rhododendrons, crushed into a paste with a clove of garlic, a tomato, and its sweet-sour balance refined by the addition of pomegranate juice or molasses and mango powder, depending on individual preference.” On the other hand, there are warnings, persisting to modern times that all parts of tree are poisonous, even the honey. Perhaps these are like mushrooms, some species are poisonous and others are edible.

As we exited the gate of the sanctuary, we saw some birds foraging nearby. One fluttered from a little hut to a bush. My first impression was that we it was a coucal, but The Family realized that it was something else. We stood still, and the bird flew next to us. This was our first view of the chestnut crowned laughing thrush. My camera was packed away in my backpack. We stood still and watched. Pink rhodo and banana plants in the garden around the ruins of Rabdentse palace Eventually, The Family reached into my backpack and handed me my camera. As I sighted, the bird flew off into a dark undergrowth. We spent the next day at a lower elevation and saw many kinds of Rhododendron. The ASI has planted many varieties in the garden it maintains around the ruins of the Rabdentse palace. This photo shows something which is perhaps visible only in this part of the world: Rhododendron and bananas next to each other.

We have bracketed the flowering season of the Rhododendron: after early March and before May. We need to visit Sikkim in early April once.

The glorious Pemyangtse monastery

Detail of ducks from a painting in the Pemyangtse monastery

The Pemyangtse gompa lived up to its reputation. Some workers were busy repaving the front courtyard as we got off the steep entry ramp. They waited for us to walk past them to the stairs leading up to the monastery. A monk was sitting nearby with a book in which we had to enter our names. Behind him was a gigantic prayer wheel. We walked around it, and found it was pretty well balanced, and required little effort to turn. We walked round the main building to the inner courtyard. We’d missed the morning prayers. Many young monks were at their lessons in a side building. We took off our shoes and climbed the stairs to the gorgeous entrance porch.

Painting of a guardian deity in Pemyangtse monastery Painting of another guardian deity at the Pemyangtse monastery
Painting of the parable of the 4 friends in Pemyangtse monastery Painting of the benign monk in Pemyangtse monastery

This monastery was almost the last thing we planned to see in this trip, and the wait had been worth it. The paintings were gorgeous and overwhelming. On the pillars next to the steps leading up to the porch were paintings of two guardian deitys (top row in the table above). The fearsome guardians wear tiger-skins, a crown of skulls, and a garland of heads. Some of the heads seem to have pretty modern hair styles. One of the guardians rides and elephant, the other a white yak. They are surrounded by lighting and fire. The guardians carry maces while their left hand is folded into the karana mudra.

The two pillars on either sides of the door had gentler murals. The one on the left had a beautiful painting of the four harmonious friends. The rendering of the tree with fruits and birds seems specially beautiful. The other pillar has a blue and gold painting of a serene monk surrounded by deer and herons; his disciples throng around him, and one of them offers him tea.

Detail of Yama devouring the Bhavachakra in the Pemyantse monastery

The rest of the porch is full of large and beautiful paintings. One shows Yama, the god of death, devouring the Bhavachakra. A teenaged monk was passing by. I asked him in Hindi whether he could explain the meaning of the wheel. He gestured to a friend who came and explained to us that he could talk to us because he speaks better Hindi. He called the wheel by its Tibetan name Srd paikhor lo, and gave a quick explanation of the six realms of samsara. Then he pleaded that he had to go for his classes, and left.

Detail of a phoenix in a painting in Pemyangtse monastery

Glorious as the paintings are, they need restoration. Large parts of the painting o the powerful bird above, either Garuda or the phoenix, are fading. The people below him in the picture are just outline figures. In some parts of the murals the layer of paint above the plaster has fallen off, other parts are flaking. Clearly the murals are painted on to a dry plaster. It is time for the local monks to start restoring the paintings.

We walked into the monastery. Unlike the Tibetan monasteries, one is not allowed to take photos inside. At first sight, the empty cavernous space of the prayer hall looked very much like the Gelugpa monastery in Tawang. Then we noticed the differences. Amongs them are the statues along the wall. The large main statue is a many armed and many headed aspect of the Guru, Padmasambhava. It is interesting that in addition to the central statue, the Guru, in his many incarnations, gets more statues than the Buddha himself.

There are two floors above this. We walked upstairs under the gaze of cameras. The first floor has more statues and paintings worth spending time on. The theme of the Guru’s many incarnations carries on here. The top floor has many old books in Tibetan and Pali, and a wonderful painting of the heavenly palace of the Guru.

The Pemyangtse monastery was founded in 1705 by Lhatsun Chempo. Although built later than Dubdi and Tashiding, it now exerts administrative control over all the other Nyingma monasteries in Sikkim. That was consistent with the number of monks we saw here. The next time we visit, we will have to come here first to get permission to enter the Dubdi monastery. The temple festival occurs around the same time as the Bhumchu festival in Tashiding, namely around the Maghi Purnima. In most years that would be around the end of February. We’d missed it by about a week.

Social games

A game of carrom in progress near the Resh hot springs in Sikkim

When you travel across the eastern Himalayas you cannot help but notice the popularity of carrom. In Thimphu we found a street lined with carrom boards after dark, each board had a game going on. It’s hard to be excited by a game of carrom unless you have been exposed to it since your childhood. In the streets of Thimphu no game was without a little band of appreciative spectators. The photo above was taken at mid-day near the Reshi hot springs in Sikkim. We saw similar scenes in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Assam, and even as far away as Tripura.

Football is tremendously popular as a sport in the hills. One can understand that in the narrow ledges on hills it might be difficult to kick a ball around in an impromptu game of football. Cricket is not very popular; presumably a boundary would not be hard to score. Archery is a widely practised competitive sport in the hills. But these are not games you sit down to with a bunch of friends.

Chinese pavements are full of games which often attract large audiences. Sometimes they seem to be strategic board games of various kinds, but often they are games of luck: cards, for example. The Chinese way of life involves accepting luck as a cosmological principle. Perhaps the Himalayan cultures, with their guardian deities, are different?

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