Bunches of bell-like flowers hung just a little above my head on a tangled bank of leaves and stems near the village of Dotiyal (about 1900 m) in Kumaon. The leaves looked like those of the lemon tree that grew in my mother’s garden. I tried to follow the stem back to get an idea of the shape of the plant, but I lost it in the thicket. Later, from my photos I figured that it was Lemon Clematis (Clematis buchananiana, घन्टे फूल).
I hadn’t paid much attention to identifying the family Ranunculaceae, the buttercups, to which it belonged. The family includes the many anemones which you see in the Himalayas. Their flowers have numerous stamens and pistils which are all separate from each other. Everything else is variable. The number of petals in the flower may be five or less (this had four) or numerous. The leaves may be simple (this was) or many-lobed and usually alternate along the stem (this had opposed leaves, as you can see in one of the photos above). The flowers may be radially symmetric (as here) or irregular. I’m unlikely to come across them away from the Himalayas, because they like colder climates than most of India offers.
I was pretty sure that the plant was not a tree, nor a herb. Was it a bush or a vine? The growth was too thick to figure this out. But later I found that it is a vine. Kumaonis use it for everything from curing toothache, to peptic ulcers and cuts. If I were to take up watching wild plants seriously I have to spend more time looking at each. Perhaps I’ll also need to carry a magnifying glass in my pocket.
Gray treepies (Dendrocitta formosae) are easy to spot. Fearless as most corvids are, they can often be heard in the foothills of the Himalayas. Quite frequently you’ll see them on tall stumps of dead trees, looking out for food, while calling away: the corvid equivalent of people sitting in restaurants and talking on their phones. I was happy to get this shot just before my breakfast one day. The good light on the bird and its perch was really welcome; it shows the contrasting textures of the wood and feathers.
Two plastic chairs were pulled up to the mild sun on the terrace of a farmhouse. The farmhouse was surrounded by trees. Beyond them were the fields. It was autumn, just after Diwali. The rice had ripened, and some fields were already harvested. Beyond the fields was a rocky bank which held the cold stream back even in a monsoon-heavy year like this. The farmland stood in a narrow valley shaped by the stream. I stood far away, atop a hill road looking down at it. I raised my eyes to see the surrounding hills. These are only the foothills, the Sivaliks, barely as tall as a kilometer. A number of streams flow down this range to merge into the Ganga, some kilometers away.
It was nice to be able to stand there above the valley with a good camera and a lens which could zoom down to the chairs (and more, if there was more to see) or take in wide angle views of the surrounding hills. No shooting a single wide angle view with a phone and then having to crop (Digital zoom! How language can be twisted!) down to smaller images. Here was freedom, and I took the road just because I wanted to.
At first I thought this was a very unkempt bird. In the morning light it’s outline looked very messy, as if it had tossed and turned all night in its nest, and needed to sit in the open and preen now. Looking through the viewfinder I realized that I was looking at a chick still in its down jacket. I wasn’t quite able to recognize it until I looked around and spotted an adult. It was the familiar Baya weaver (Ploceus philippinus), so easily mistaken for house sparrows until you hear them.
I’d not seen its beautifully woven nests here. Even now I couldn’t. The grass was too tall in this place next to the Haripura reservoir. It was the perfect habitat for these grain eaters. They would get lots of grass seeds near the nest, and also forage in nearby fields for rice. The adults hopped and chittered, their usual active behaviour. The chick clutched on to a thick stem, as if afraid of falling off. Interesting that young humans are more active than the adults, but here it was the opposite.
Farmlands may look tame to you, but seen in the small it is as wild as the jungles. The farmers around Chhoti Haldwani had planted pumpkin vines to grow over the Lantana that takes over berms. They were in flower. I love that bright yellow, a colour that remains even after you batterfry them. I haven’t eaten the flowers in years, because you don’t get them in markets in Mumbai. I remembered the taste as I took this photo of an ant crawling down in search of nectar. There were also a few tiny moths sitting on the flower. If I’d had the time to stand there, I could have got photos of a very large variety of insects as they came to it in search of food.
You can see more of these intersections of different kinds of life if you walk through the fields. Like this blade of grass, converted into a trap by one of the fiercest carnivores of this tiny world. Some spiders can eat around 10% of their body weight in a day. This web has a couple of spidery snack wrapped up for later. The trap is as indiscriminate as a fishing trawler’s net, and has snagged some dandelion seeds. I wonder whether the spider comes along later and cuts them loose.
Passersby like me know the little town of Bhowali in the Nainital district of Kumaon as a great market place for fruits. On our journeys north, we’ve stopped here every time (not a mean task, considering the crowded and narrow roads) to pick up a few days’ stock of fruits. This time The Family decided to take photos. I’d never really paid attention to the place before, but her photos revealed an interesting town.
Her most distant view, the one you see in the header photo, showed a picturesque town laid out on the slopes of a hill. I’ve always been too focused on the road to notice how nice it looks from far. The approach from Bhimtal passes by a school on the outskirts of the town. The road there is so crowded that my attention is always on it, instead of the view you have on one side. This diptych looked very familiar to me, but I’ve never had time to examine the different buildings and notice that everything except the school is hunkered down against winters.
The construction on the outskirts is all concrete and steel, but in the center of the town these old style buildings still stand. The oldest tradition here is wood and stone. There’s quite a bit of it in evidence in the center. The closed box balconies on the upper floor are common across the hills, but these are in a typically Kumaoni style. The cast iron and corrugated metal sheet next to it is a colonial style popular from the late 19th to the middle 20th century. That is perhaps the time when Bhowali grew from a village into a little market town on a cross road.
One of the buildings that The Family had captured was very interesting. It had boxed balconies in the traditional style, but the line of the roof and the fretwork decoration was colonial. Such a lovely construction deserves to be better preserved. The houses lining the main roads through the town are all built to have shops on the ground floor and living space above. I liked the modern door behind the balcony on the first floor above where the group of women have taken a break from their Diwali shopping. All towns in this district have walls with art work of the kind that you see in the last photo. I liked that boy not really interested in minding the stall with Diwali pottery.
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.
Daar. That’s the Nepali name for this small tree which intrigued me as we explored the region around Dotiyal. We were probably somewhat below 2000 meters when we stopped in a densely wooded part of the road. It was shadowed by overhanging trees, and was exactly the kind of place where I find it very hard to spot birds. So I concentrated on the plants, while The Family exercised her binoculars. The sight of a tree with long streamers of green flowers hanging down from it was intriguing. What was it? Not weeping willow certainly.
The answer stunned me. It was a member of the nettle family, Utricaceae. The genus Boehmeria which lies in this family does not have stinging leaves, so plants in this genus are called false nettles. This one, Boehmeria rugulosa (a synonym is Pouzolzia rugulosa), is called Daar in Nepali. I could identify it later by the distinct bunched streamers of flowers, the shape of the leaves, and the dark bark. Neither of our guide-drivers could give us a local name. I guess Nepali false nettle is as good a name to recall it by as any other. I found claims that it is common across the lower slopes of the Himalayas. I probably spotted it near the upper end of its range. October is about when its flowering season ends, so I was doubly lucky. I could have made up for past inattention to this tree if the cliff above me was a little less steep, but now I’ll have to leave that examination for another time.
Did you know that thistles are in the same family as daisies? I found that unbelievable at first: the cheerful white and yellow daisies which dot sunny meadows cousin to the thorny thistles which brood in dark open spaces under trees? But then I considered the evidence. Like their other cousins, the asters and sunflowers, both are complex flowers. There are the colourful petals surrounding a distinct center. When you look at the center, you find them full of complete tiny flowers called the disk florets. The circle of “petals” around this disk are each a flower, a ray floret, which has given up its identity by fusing into a larger structure. There are other commonalities, but this observation began to break down my initial disbelief.
I’ve usually seen them under dense growths of pines or deodar (cedar) which dot Himalayan grasslands, in places where the sunlight does not reach easily and other flowers shun. I suppose these are its refugia, safe places, where humans don’t hunt them down. They do not actively shun sunlight, because they can grow also in farmlands, but they are usually evicted quite quickly from there. Maybe they need some open space around the base, which is why they do not grow where the grass is dense. I’ll have to look more carefully at its base in future.
But was this particular plant a common thistle (Cirsium verutum) or Wallich’s thistle (Cirsium wallichi)? The flower head is not sufficient to clearly distinguish the two. I had to look at the leaves and the stem. The common thistle has leaves which end in a long spine, with other spines along the lobes on the sides. Wallich’s thistle has a less pronounced terminal spike and a hairy stem. So I think this was Cirsium verutum, the common thistle.
Glacial scouring and rainfall and stream accumulation formed the lakes of Kumaon at the foot of the Shivaliks. This area is just up-slope of where rice was first domesticated in India immediately after the retreat of the glaciers. The study of sediments in the lakes show the growth of agriculture around them only in the last thousand years or so, although the first settlements left their mark on sediments long ago. Since colonial times, population growth and slow urbanization has begun to degrade the waters. With concern growing, I hope the degradation ceases, and the beauty of the area remains more than just an appearance. We keep going back to the lakes every now and then; after all, they are a pleasant stop on the way to higher altitudes.
This year we spent a couple of days just before Diwali in this area. The anticipated hordes of post-Diwali tourists had not arrived, and we had the lakes to ourselves. The large Ram Tal (in the featured photo), the small and deserted Garuda Tal, the extremely tourist oriented Bhim Tal, and our favourite Naukuchia Tal were wonderful places to walk around. The silence was broken only by bird calls.
With new buildings sprouting in the area every time we visit, it is hard to say what the local style of architecture is. They are mostly quick concrete constructions, but they follow the forms of either the traditional Pahari style, or the nondescript boxy architecture of small towns. If I had to identify what sets this place apart architecturally, I would point to the kind of architecture that is meant to give access to the waters of the lakes. That could be either the traditional steps of ghats, or boat houses with doors that open into the lakes. Sometimes you find both, because the level of water can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, depending on the monsoon.
We walked, but it is clear that boating is the main leisure activity here. I’m always charmed by sails gliding over the lake. From Mall Road in Naini Tal I took the photos above. The foot-operated pedal boat in the second photo looked wonderful against the sparkle of the sun on the waters.