Sunset and sunrise

The sunset was pretty, even though the mountains were nearly all hidden in mist. You’ve certainly noticed this before: a little before sunset on a clear day the colour of the light changes towards yellows and reds. It’s the golden hour. And that gold transforms the mountain peaks, whether they are clear or hidden behind massed clouds. Fortunately, the only clouds in our sky that day were those clustered on the peaks.

As the afternoon progressed, The Family’s became more involved in the weather. All the moisture in the air seemed to be condensing on the line of the high peaks visible on the horizon. As the winds blew over them, the clouds would roll and shift, revealings parts of the massif for a few moments. The Family kept lamenting of the loss of the clear views we’d had of the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Since the rest of the sky was absolutely clear, I didn’t think the clouds indicated a change in the weather. I thought this must be one phase of a daily cycle. The vapour drops to the valleys during at night, rising as a haze that blues distances during the day, settling on the cold mountain tops as clouds in the afternoon. At night, as the air cooled again, it would condense into valleys.

But as the clear afternoon light shifted to gold, I could not keep my trigger finger from the camera. The light was so good! Even through the misty haze I could spot those edges of cliffs and the folds of land which glowed in the light. A few more minutes, and the mountains turned to that pink gold which you see in the featured photos. I noticed then that the clouds were beginning to settle, falling lower and clear of the tips of the peaks.

The clouds continued to settle in the cold of the night. By morning they had condensed into dense banks of mist covering the lowest valleys. The views of the high Himalayas were perfectly clear. So clear, that I could sight for the first time the hump of a flank of the distant Nanda Devi (7816 m) behind the massifs connecting the Panchachauli (6904 m) to the range around Trisul (7120 m). The light was not the best, but the sight was unexpected from this far south.

Treasures of the internet

Kans grass (Saccharum spontaneum) flowers in autumn

How many farmers does the world have? There are around 570 million farms, most of them small ones maintained by one household. I guess that means more than a billion people around the world are farmers. How many soldiers does the world have? A little search told me that there are around 27 million people in armed forces around the world. But the number of games featuring battles and wars is overwhelmingly larger than the number of games that involve farming.

Hog deer (Axis porcinus) in Corbett National Park. They are about 75 centimeters tall.

I tried to find how many pet animals there are in the world. I couldn’t find a definitive answer, but it seems that there are about 470 million dogs and 370 million cats kept as pets around the world. Add in less common pets, and I suppose there are about a billion pet animals to keep us 7 billion odd humans company. The chances are high that each and every one of us either has, or knows a pet animal. I wonder what fraction of humanity has seen any of the threatened mammals of the world in their natural habitat.

Indian elephant baby and mother in Corbett National Park

Some treasures I looked for. But sometimes, when you start typing a query, the Eye of Sauron suggests a different one. I clicked on the suggestion “are video games athletics or not” and came up with interesting nuggets. A clearly biased site, FunTech, offered up the nugget: “professional gamers exhibit high levels of physical strain during competitions” and therefore video games should be considered athletics. I’m sure you’ve realized that the photos have as much to do with the rest of this post as “physical strain” has to do with athletics.

Cloudy sunset over the stony desert in Bera, Rajasthan

Inevitably, using the kind of logical shortcut that video game makers are apt to employ, that brought me to the question of how many treasure hunters there are in the world. The Eye of Sauron could not see a definite answer. The best it could provide was a Wikipedia list of treasure hunters. Someone thinks there are few enough that they can be humanly listed. They probably forgot people like you and me, those who find invaluable treasures.

Hunder sunset

Hunder had one of the most relaxing hotels we’d ever been in. The Family said “Lucky we decided to stay two nights here.” Most people were passing through in one night. A few, old hands, had decided to stay longer. We resolved to come back later just to relax here. But in the meanwhile, there was a garden to relax in, and a sunset to watch.

After that, on the other side of the valley we waited for the moon to clear the line of mountains. Rather than jumping over the ridge, as I might have done, it seemed to creep up the slope. It was a futile attempt, because the clouds rolled in before it could top the ridge line. We decided to go for dinner. Later we saw that the moon was full. Good to have these ancient calendars; on holidays I lose track of days and dates.

Last light

Monsoon light is special. In many parts of the world you get spectacular sunsets and sunrises when there’s smoke and dust in the air. Here we can see that kind of special light because of small droplets of moisture suspended in the air. At least, we can see it at the change of season between grishma and varsha, summer and monsoon, before the sky is completely overcast.

The Family has been going for a walk by the sea to take photos. Being more of a couch potato, I take them from our balcony. The added advantage to this placement (add-vantage, to make a bad pun) is that I can get a view of the canopy below me, covered with the last flowers of the Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia).

In another neck of the woods a spreading banyan tree, the adult form of a strangler fig, has become host to a dense growth of epiphytic Pothos. I’ve never seen another specimen with such large leaves. In the fading light of the evening the green seems greener than usual.

There are other strange effects of light in this season. In the middle of the afternoon a dense mass of clouds can begin to obscure the sun, producing a watery light like the sunset. The sky and the sea can be beautiful now.

Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?


We took an hour’s walk inside Binsar National Park, a short climb to its highest point. This Zero Point, as it is called is at an altitude of just over 2400 meters. The cool air at this height smelt clean, with a flavour of green trees. The view at the top showed smoky valleys, and the high Himalayas were almost invisible because of the haze. But just around this part of the park the winds and the cool heights had together managed to confine the smoke below. I’m sure that the air here is usually much cleaner, but at that time it still felt better than city air. The walk through an oak forest was wonderful, and a great change from sitting inside a car all day. At this height you get Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), easily identified by the fact that the oval leaves with serrated edges are white on the reverse. The dry tree fern that you see in the featured photo is just one of many things which grow on oaks.

Coming back to our hotel, we felt the change in the air. Warmer, of course, now that we were half a kilometer lower, and also more haze. Fortunately there was no smell of smoke in the immediate vicinity. We were told that a short shower the previous day had put out fires locally, and cleared the haze a little. I admired a red sunset as I walked up the steep forested path from the road to the hotel. Pollution gives you interesting sunsets.

Sunrise or sunset?

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics dies,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

—Dylan Thomas

How can you tell the difference between a photo of a sunset and a sunrise. One of the most popular classes of photos on instagram are these, but we depend on the artist to tell us which is which. I began to wonder if there is something intrinsic in the quality of light by which we can tell. Is there something to the metaphors of rebirth and hope or death and melancholy which are associated with these two daily events, or is it just a fancy?

I went through my old photos, classifying them into bunches: so many minutes before sunset, so many after sunrise, looking in the direction of the sun, away from it, or at angles to it. Then I measured the colours and luminosity. There was no way to tell by these visual cues which was a sunrise and which a sunset.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

—T.S. Eliot

But it turns out that there is a subtle difference. It is not the sky that gives it away, but the earth. The temperature at dawn is lower than the temperature at dusk. This is most visible in winter, when the mist, if there is any, is thicker in the morning. In Mumbai, when it is seldom cold enough for the mist, the haze is worse at sunset, because the sea water has warmed through the day to saturate the air. If you know local conditions, you can usually use these other cues to figure out whether a particular photo you are looking at is from dawn or dusk. “Satisfactory,” as Nero Wolfe might say.

Sunset, ananta chaturdashi

Yesterday was the big day for Ganapati immersions, the day before the full moon. As if on schedule, the clouds thinned and the sun came through. The rest of the festival season can now be counted out in cycles of the moon. In some traditional luni-solar calendars, the month of Bhadon would be half over now, and the rains will begin to peter out. In the corrected official calendar the month will end six days later than traditionally. It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future (as a Dutch parliamentarian is reported to have said). No one really knows how much longer the monsoon rains will last, but I guess I will be able to walk more often.

August saw fierce rainfall and monsoon storms. On my first walk by the sea after a month I saw several things that have not been cleaned out yet. I wonder where this now-rusted barrel fell into the sea. What a wonderful happenstance that it washed up where I could use it to take a photo of the sunset. Plastic waste is never so useful.

To dream, perchance to sleep

The weekend was completely free of rain. The clear skies and wonderful sunsets drew The Family out to the sea shore. She would come back gushing about the light, and the number of people who came to quietly watch the sunset. So yesterday, I took my camera and climbed up to the terrace on the roof of our building. The western edge of the terrace is lined with satellite dishes, and each of them served as a perch for a crow, sitting quietly and looking at the sun. They were a little distracted when I appeared, and were torn between watching the sunset and keeping a wary eye on me.

“When our minds are much affected, so are the movements of our bodies,” wrote Charles Darwin in his book The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). This observation started a whole scientific enterprise of understanding the value of emotions by comparing them in humans and other mammals. Much less is known about the emotions of birds. “Birds and mammals are thought to have evolved from different groups of Mesozoic reptiles … during the Carboniferous or Permian period. Yet, birds and mammals exhibit extensive convergence in terms of relative brain size, high levels of activity, sleep/wakefulness cycles, endothermy, and social behavior, among others,” says a recent review of the literature on negative emotions in birds. Little else is known about emotions in birds. But when I see crows watching the sunset, or soaring against the breeze as the sun goes down, the parallel with human reactions to the beauty of sunsets does not seem farfetched.

The clear air of the last few months, and the relative coolness of the last few days meant that the sunset showed a simple gradation of colour in the sky, so different from the strangely beautiful sunsets that we had seen until the previous weekend. As the sun set, The Family and I enjoyed looking at so many different kinds of clouds. The horsetail streaks of cirrus clouds 5 or 6 kilometers above looked white in reflected sunlight because the sun had not set on them yet. As the horizon rose above the sun, the most spectacular were the golden layers of altostratus clouds at a height of about 3 kilometers. Meanwhile, the fast drifting layers of cottony stratus, merely a kilometer or two above our heads, had already started looking black because they no longer caught the sun.

The moon was already up in the east. As colour faded from the sky, the last clouds to turn pink were the high streaks of cirrus: ice crystals condensing out of the air in the cold of the upper atmosphere. The city lights came on, to add a glow to the moonlight. Between the clouds and lights, there is no way we will catch a glimpse of comet Neowise.