Thursday, December 31, 2009

My friend S. A. Hussain

S. A. Hussain (1944 - 2009)

I came to know of my friend S. A. Hussain's demise while on a field trip yesterday. It took a while for the news to sink in. As I was travelling down to Tirthahalli from Hosanagara, it began to hit me. I would never hear his jolly voice over the phone again, never hear that hearty laugh again... In the last 10-odd years that I have been in Manipal, he has been a friend, mentor and guide, ever available for advice and I can't remember a single occasion where he failed to cheer me up when I was down.

I met him for the first time at the Mangalore railway station, where both of us had come to greet a common friend - J-P Puyravaud, who was arriving from Pondicherry to deliver a lecture at my institute. I don't know how we became friends, but in no time we were calling each other regularly and meeting up whenever Hussain Sa'ab was passing by Manipal. I worked out the design for eco-tourism facilities for Harike Lake in Punjab for him, though finally the project did not see light of day. Later we collaborated on the project to rejuvenate Anekere Lake at Karkal.

Through it all, I developed tremendous respect for a man who lived life on his own terms, had great love and affection for friends and humanity in general and could teach you a lot without seeming preachy. I still remember an incident when we were inspecting a farm-house in Jarkal as a model for our Harike project. The owner, whom Hussain Sa'ab knew, was away and we were moving around in the property when two of the guard dogs rushed us, snarling ferociously. While I was terrified, Hussain told me in a low, confident voice not to run, but to stand my ground and not look them directly in the eye. Sure enough, the dogs stopped just short of us, growling. Slowly, they sniffed us over, then decided that we were ok! They didn't trouble us after that, but my heartbeat rate was a lot faster than prescribed!

On another occasion, he demonstrated his sharp understanding of bird behaviour - by slapping his thighs to imitate the display of dominance among cocks by flapping their wings. The cock in question immediately perked up and started flapping its wings and crowing, trying to intimidate its unseen rival. I remember that he could also do a good imitation of the call of a langur.

I last met him about a month ago, when he dropped by with his nephew. I had been waxing eloquent about a new fish joint at Manipal and he wanted to test it out. We had a nice lunch together, with prawns and anjal fry and we parted happy. There were plans afoot that Hussain Sa'ab, Shiva and I would go to Sikkim in February, where he would stay at the forest rest houses we were to camp in, while Shiva and I would go trekking.

Once when I was particularly depressed with the happenings at work, I had told him that I was considering quitting. "Don't you go off without telling me," he'd admonished me. And now he has gone off without telling me... There is a recollection I have about a conversation we had long ago about migratory birds during one of his visits. I remember him saying that he once spent some time with some American who was studying bird migration. He said that, unlike most of our perceptions, most bird migrations don't happen in large groups. The American had found that a large number of migratory birds travel singly and at night, from his studies using radar. Intriguingly, he found large numbers of birds that travel in the reverse direction too. This piece of information, though it didn't strike me as remarkable then, started fascinating me later. I always meant to follow it up with him sometime, maybe work it into a story that I was planning... Somehow, that didn't happen, there was too much for us to discuss whenever we met. And now, sadly, it will never happen.

Goodbye Sir, dear Hussain Sa'ab... I will miss you badly. May your soul rest in peace. I am sure that whichever heaven you find yourself in, there will be plenty of your feathered friends to keep you busy!

Baise, Araga Gate and a dog named Gunda!

A motley crew at Baise!

I'm back from another field trip. The ending of the field trip, otherwise fulfilling, was on a tragic note - I came to know that S. A. Hussain - my close friend and mentor, had passed away in the early hours of December 31, 2009. I will post a separate entry on Hussain Sa'ab after this.

This trip was to photograph the winter solstice sunset at Baise - after last winter's spectacular pictures at Nilaskal, I wanted to repeat the feat at Baise. These sites contain 'menhirs' - free standing single stones, that were thus far assumed to be erected in no particular pattern. Early on, I had a hunch that they were arranged in a particular pattern and after a survey of the site at Baise (there are fewer stones there and so, easier to survey!) and the photograph of winter solstice sunset at Nilaskal, I wanted to furnish photographic proof of the alignments I had predicted at Baise.

I went with some goodies for my team of young surveyors at Baise - Santosh, Nagesh, Subrahmanya and Sudhakara - the kids who had helped me last year as well as provided a wonderful environment with their constant enthusiastic chatter. They were thrilled to see me and I was pleasantly surprised to see that even Gunda - their ferocious dog, gave me a warm welcome. In fact, when I sat down to take off my shoes, Gunda ran up to me and licked my face! The kids also took me to Bhootada Gadde - one of their 'secret places' near a stream and a waterfall. It was lovely - the place, the camaraderie and the company of the little ones.

Gunda is made to pose for a pic!

My young friends at the stream

The sad part was that the sunset was clouded out - the best I could get was a shot of the sun several degrees above the horizon near the alignment that I was planning to shoot - between the largest menhir under a tree that the locals worship as bhootaraya and the prominent stone no. 1 in my survey. I spent some time teaching the little ones to take readings on my prismatic compass.

The sun sets behind Bhootaraya

Little Nagesha tries his hand at surveying!

I spent the night at a lodge at Hosanagara and woke up at 4am to catch sunrise at Nilaskal. More disppointment was in store for me - it was misty and cloudy and there was no hint of the sun's presence anywhere in the sky even by 9am. I consoled myself by taking a few bearings of some of the alleged sight-lines and then headed back.

Sharpie - one of the menhirs of Nilaskal against the cloudy sky

On the way back, I remembered that on one of the crazy wanderings with Kailash, we had met an old man (Dharmanna of Hosuru, near Agumbe) who talked about what could only be menhirs at a place called Araga Gate. Since my route was through Araga, I decided to enquire around - but nobody there knew anything about "old stones". By that time I had got word about S. A. Hussain's passing away and I was feeling very upset. So when I saw a promising stone in a plantation off the highway, I didn't stop the car. But when I spied a flash of black granite deeper in the plantation, I got excited. Afer all, Hussain Sa'ab would've wanted me to finsih whatever I'd started. Upon inspection, there were 8 stones inside the plantation in a similar pattern to Baise and Nilaskal.

The largest menhir of the site at Araga Gate

One of the menhirs of the Araga Gate site, showing clear N_S orientation

This region is richer in prehistoric remains than anyone had ever suspected. There is plenty more to seek, plenty more to explore. Already, plans for the next trip are taking shape - Dharmanna had talked about what could only be prehistoric rock art at Hosuru...

Monday, December 28, 2009

The waterways of Kumarakom

Cruising the waterways of Kumarakom

The other day I took a break at Kumarakom with Ajith and his family. It was a nice trip, gliding past houses with canoes parked on the canal much like people park cars elsewhere; passing so many houseboats (too many!) with air-conditioners, the whole works; stopping for tea at a nice restaurant on the waterway; finally watching the sunset from the huge Vembanad Lake where, with a little imagination, one can pretend one is on a boat in the ocean...

A kettuvallam on the waterway

A little musing on the concept of the houseboat: when I was a kid, houseboats were associated with Kashmir. It was after I left Kerala after graduating as an architect that the kettuvallam took on its current avatar as a houseboat. In one and a half decades, the Kerala kettuvallam eclipses its Kashmiri cousin as the image of a houseboat for the average tourist! Such are the ways of tourism propaganda!

Sunset on the Vembanad Lake

Ajith, Pallavi and Sapna

For them, it's a daily mundane ritual...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Meadows Taylor, badang fry and a 2500 year old stupa!

Mirjan Fort

As we sat on the masonry seats in the compound of Taylor Monzzil, watching the night lights of Surpur (Shorapur) far below, sipping rum and coke, we slowly felt the exhaustion of a hard day's travel and work slipping away. And with it, some of the frustration of what had turned out to be a very exasperating day...

We were on a whirlwind trip of several sites, starting with a trip to Mirjan Fort. The fort, which is close to Bhatkal, is under the protection of ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). Kailash was asked by the Superintending Archaeologist of ASI, Dharwad Circle to have a look at it and suggest conservation strategies for the fort. We had formed a team of 2 engineers (Raghuprem M. and Ramaswamy R. N.) and 2 architects (Kailash and myself) to visit the site and assess it.

A view of Mirjan Fort

The fort is an impressive laterite structure, very massive, and has been subjected to the ravages of time and neglect. Parts of it are being restored (though without a sound strategy, I should say) and Kailash has excitedly formed plans to restore the rest of it more scientifically and conscientiously. We spent most of the day going around the fort assessing damage and forming strategies to take up the work in a phased manner.

The team takes a drinks break at Mirjan!

From Mirjan, Kailash and I moved on to Sirsi, while the others returned to Manipal. We stayed the night at Sirsi and visited Banvasi the next day. We spent the day at the Madukeshwara temple there and just moving about in the laid-back, sleepy little town and longing on the banks of the Varada river. We also examined the remains of the 30m wide brick and laterite fort walls that once encompassed the town. We also spent some time at the excavated site Gundnapur in the premises of the Veerabhadra temple.

The Madhukeswara Temple at Banvasi

Slicing through history - the fort walls at Banvasi

Kailash inspects the excavated site at the Veerabhadra Temple premises, Banvasi

From Sirsi, we moved to Gulbarga via Hubli. There we had the experience of the most frustrating kind ever. We were to inspect the recently excavated Adholoka Maha Chaitya - a Buddhist Stupa believed to have been built during 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD, at a place called Sanniti. The day started on a disatrous note. The ASI guy (name withheld!) who was to get us there was of the less competent variety, and callous and ignorant to boot. He could not even guide us properly to his own office. Then, after we had somehow reached the place, he made us wait a long period (while he had "tiffin" among other things...) , only to inform us grandly that since no vehicles were available because a jatra was going on, our trip could not happen. We departed in as best civil way we could and found a taxi after a long hunt.

The taxi driver was another poor communicator and between his unenthusiastic approach and the ASI goon's active misguidance, we found ourselves at Sanniti (actually Kanaganahalli) only by 8pm! It was the most frustrating experience going around in the ASI-goon-defined circles while the last of the daylight ebbed teasingly away. However, the guards appointed at the site, with their enthusiastic help more than made up for the by now lost reputation of the ASI with us!

By torch light we saw the very impressive remains of what must have been a most magnificent stupa in its time. The limestone panels depicting the Jataka tales, the life of Siddhartha and his transformation into the Buddha and even one of the Emperor Ashoka with his (female!) bodyguards are exquisite, though cracked and broken.

A panel showing Emperor Ashoka with his bodyguards at Sanniti

From Sanniti, we proceeded to the historic town of Surpur, where a historian friend of ours - Mr. Bhaskar Rao, arranged for us to stay at Taylor Monzzil. The location of the house of this famous British officer and novelist could not have been better. It is at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The large and well planned house built in the colonial style is now a PWD guest house. As we sat for a long while outside the house watching the lights of Surpur, all the tribulations of that frustrating day melted away.

Me pretending to be Meadows Taylor at Taylor Monzzil

Next morning was lovely, as we saw the sun rise over Surpur from Kudremukha - the lookout point at the top of the hill near the house. As we got ready for the next task on the trip, I silently thanked the man who built this lovely house while he was helping the young Raja of Surpur administer his domain and also reported many of the megaliths in this area for the first time.

Sunrise at Kudremukha, near Taylor Monzzil

We took a jeep to the village of Rajan Koluru, near Kodekal. After a brief search, we found what we were looking for - 50-odd dolmens on a flat piece of land near the canal that was built recently. We woked without lunch, surveying each of the 42 dolmens that are reasonably intact. we found that all of them were N-S oriented, a first in our studies. We found 4 more dolmens to the east of the main site, including one in which the port-hole was intact, lending credence to my hunch that these are basically S-facing dolmens.

One of the dolmens at Rajan Koluru

Our friends at Rajan Koluru with Kailash

After working till nearly 4pm, we hit the road again, making a beeline for the nearest watering hole, where we refreshed. A beautiful little place on the highway, marred only by the sight of little boys working as waiters. Our waiter, a boy called Sunil, said that he does not go to school. When we asked for snacks to go with our beer, he recommended "badang" fry. Disdainfully, he explained to us nitwits that, no, it is not mutton fry, but badang! It turned out to be a sort of fried bhel puri with lots and lots of gun powder in it!

Badang Fry!!!

Refreshed by several beers and badangs, we set off for Lingsugur, from where we began the return journey to Manipal, thus ending one more remarkable trip. I know that one needs to return... Lingsugur, Gajendragad, Maski... Several megalithic sites remain in this nucleus of megalithic culture. Dr. Sundara would know...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A mountain sunrise...

Another day dawns
On Kodachadri...
An ocean of cloud below
Lesser peaks hold their summits
Just above...
Prehistoric behemoths
Swimming in a sea of clouds
Soon the Sun rises
Over the distant ridge
And the mountains Awake...
(From the poem "Kodachadri" written in 2005)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rum 'n Shivraj...

Shivraj Singh Pawar demonstrates bouldering skills at Base Camp, Shivling Parbat

The other evening, Kailash and I were enjoying the rustic delights of Swathy Bar when I got a call from Jagdish of Agora village in the Himalaya. Jagdish was the cook's assistant on the trek to Dodital and Darwa 2 years ago and likes to call once in a while to ask me about a CD of photographs that I had apparently promised to send him. I had long since realized that the CD was only an excuse to ring up - he basically just wants us to hire him on our next trek!

Talking to Jagdish in my atrocious Hindi reminded me that I hadn't called Shivraj in several days. Shivraj is a young mountaineer from Harsil, near Gangotri. He had been our instructor in the Drawa trek in the summer of 2008, which was organised by the RedX club of Manipal and Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. During those days, in spite of my nearly non-existent Hindi and his less-than-satisfactory English, a strong bond of friendship had formed and we had kept in touch intermittently via phone calls.

Communicating face to face was easy in spite of all the linguistic deficiencies, but phone conversations are an entirely different story! I usually attempt a call to him only when I have a couple of pegs of rum inside me and Kailash (the great Hindi/Urdu lyricist and poet!) beside for emergencies...

This summer (June 2009), 3 of us had set out for another Himalayan trek - this time to Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan and we met up with Shivraj at Harsil. We were impressed by the beautiful setting of this little hill town. Shivraj was our companion during the entire trek and we benefited a lot from his experience, especially while negotiating our way across the Gangotri glacier, where rockfalls and collapse of the glacier in places are very common.

Shivraj at Gaumukh - the snout of Gangotri glacier

As always, it was a pleasure to be with this young mountaineer - a product of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, whose dream is to climb Mount Everest someday. Language is no barrier when communicating about one's dreams during the long marches and the camps at night. I'm surprised at how much we discussed over the few days we spent together. Another factor that bound us together is our love of wildlife. I still remember how, at Bhojbasa, camping after a tiring day's march from Gangotri, we both climbed up a steep hillside to get near a herd of bharal (blue sheep). I surprised myself how high I had climbed with Shivraj above the camp site, forgetting the fatigue and the altitude-induced headache!

Shivraj on the slopes above Bhojbasa, where we spotted bharal

Shivraj points to the peak of Mount Shivling, from near the Advance Base Camp

That night at Swathy I did call Shivraj, and for a change, the Hindustani just flowed (albeit as nonsensical sentences!)... Shivraj has summitted 3 peaks in the period since I last met him - Bhagirathi I, Satopanth and some other peak. We are planning our next Himalayan venture - an ambitious crossing from Gaumukh to Badrinath via Tapovan, Nandanvan and the Kalindi Khal. Hope it materializes...

Me with Shivraj on the trek to Gaumukh (Pic. courtesy: Jayaram Sir)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The old man and the sea...

The old man in his boat as a speck on the ocean

An old man in a small canoe... A tattered sail made of discarded plastic sacks sewn together... The ocean with its relentless heaving... An indomitable spirit as he takes on the elements, not to proclaim victory over Nature, but just to earn his meagre livelihood... A tribute to the spirit of the Old Man who takes on The Sea!

The old man and the sea

The humble vessel

The old man in his craft among larger vessels

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A tribute to Prof. Achyutha Rao

The late Prof. D. S. Achyutha Rao

It has been more than 2 years since I was awarded the Prof. D. S. Achyutha Rao Memorial History Research Fellowship for the year 2007 to conduct research on the megalithic monuments of south India. Prof. Achyutha Rao was an eminent Professor of History at the graduate and post-graduate level at Maharaja's College, Mysore and later at "Manasa Gangotri", University of Mysore till his unfortunate demise in 1965. I applied for this fellowship with a fascination for the enigmatic structures called megaliths found all over southern India. Of course, megaliths are found all over the world and India is no exception. From my college days, I was enamored of these strange looking structures and enjoyed reading about the possible connection of these with astronomy. Books such as "In search of Ancient Astronomies" by E. C. Krupp whetted my appetite and I wanted to know if such connections were true for Indian megaliths as well. Was there a Stonehenge somewhere in the wide expanse of our motherland, waiting to be discovered..?

The Fellowship gave me the opportunity to follow my heart and I set off on megalith-hunting jaunts from my base in lovely Manipal. Of course, I concentrated mainly on Karnataka, with the occasional foray into neighbouring Kerala and one trip to Burzahoma in Kashmir. I travelled hallowed terrain like that of Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal, Hanamsagar and Vibhutihalli, marvelled at the dolmens and rock art of Hire Benkal and stood in awe at the menhir site of Nilaskal, Baise... In the course of my travels, I passed the wonderful architecture of Hampi, Aihole, Badami etc. and, though they were not the immediate focus of my study, could not help being moved deep down inside by the sheer magnificence of these sites.

I made progress on the megaliths, too. I found that most of the sepulchral megaliths (mostly burials) were oriented to face sunrise or sunset at some day of the year, though there were sites like Meguti Hill at Aihole where all the megaliths faced all points of the compass with no preferred orientation towards any point of celestial interest on the horizon. As for the non-sepulchral sites, I found that many of the stone avenue sites (where a large number of stones are arranged in rough grids) like the ones at Vibhutihalli and Hanamsagar were roughly oriented to the cardinal directions.

The dolmens of Hire Benkal

But it was at the menhir sites of Nilaskal and Baise (also nearby are 2 more sites - Hergal and Mumbaru) that I found definite astronomical purpose in the layout of the stones. Many pairs of stones align up to dramatically frame the sunset on winter solstice day (the shortest day of the year). These same stones team up with other stones to frame the winter solstice sunrise and summer solstice sunrise and sunset. The apparently haphazard distribution of these stones seem to follow a sort of distorted solstitial grid.

The menhirs of Nilaskal

Sunset on midwinter day at Nilaskal

I have a lot of people to thank for the enormous support that I have received for this project. I thank Dr. Prasanna and Dr. (Mrs.) Rajani Prasanna from the botton of my heart for taking personal interest in this project. I also wish to thank Manipal University for seconding the grant. Dr. Vinod Bhat- Registrar, International Programs, Manipal University has been a source of strength throughout this project and instrumental in guiding me and keeping me on track. Prof. S. Settar of NIAS has given me valuable advice. My guide Prof. M. N. Vahia and co-guide Prof. Sudhakara G. have given me invaluable guidance and support. Stalwarts from the field of megalithic research have helped me in innumerable ways - Prof. A. Sundara, Dr. U. S. Moorti, Dr. Ganapaiah Bhat, Dr. Ravi Korisettar are some of the people who have helped me a lot. Kailash Rao has been a co-traveller on many of my site visits and surveys. And lack of space prevents me from naming innumerable persons at these scattered sites who have offered hospitality and guided me to several of these monuments.

Mrs. Chitre, Prof. S. M. Chitre, my team of young surveyors, Mayank and me on location at Baise

During these travels, I believe I have seen the Karnataka that few tourists see. Near Aihole and Badami, Hampi and Shahpur, I have been chasing monuments that are not remarkable for their architectural splendor. But these few stones hobbled together in innovative ways mark the true beginnings of architecture - when man started expressing his belief systems through the medium of architecture. And in following this trail of ancient architecture, I have passed through beautiful country and made friends with the rural folk of Karnataka. In the process, I have come to love this part of the world with a passion I didn't know I was capable of... Thank you, Prof. Achyutha Rao, for the entire experience; but most of all, for opening my eyes to the beauty and splendour of this magnificent part of India.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Clouds over Kodachadri!

On the trail back from Kodachadri

Last time I wrote about The Astronomy Club, Manipal's trek to Kodachadri, it was called "Stars over Kodachadri", but this time, at the peak of the monsoon, it was the turn of the clouds and the rain... It has become a routine practice of the Club to repair to this amazing hillock (all of 1350m altitude)that is a backdrop for the famed Sri Mookambika Temple at Kollur quoting any excuse ranging from stargazing to nature retreat ("While we reach for the stars, we do not ignore the flowers at our feet!"). This time too was no different - we set off for Kollur one evening, with hostel "perms" and frantic calls to wardens and all the resultant delays. Once in Kollur, free of all the worries that Manipal inflicts on us and mostly free from the constant harassment of our mobile phones, we soaked in the atmosphere of the quaint little temple town, before retiring to our rooms at the Lalithambika Guest House.

Next day, early in the morning, our vehicle deposited us at Karanakatte - the starting point of the trek. The first part of the trek is a long walk over flat and gently sloping forest tracks, and the newcomers were "blooded" to the Cult of the Leeches! The usual pit stop at Hotel Rajesh - the tea shop run by Madhavan in the forest, facilitated de-leeching and allowed the tea-addicts amongst us to tank up.

Ankit, Arushi, Pramit and Parth during the trek

The next part of the trek is the most strenuous and the most rewarding part. We trekked through mist and rain over steep paths and grassy slopes and stands of trees to ultimately reach the temples atop Kodachadri. Here there are temples run by Brahmin priests as well as other temples where worship is in the Sakteya tradition. It is at this latter place that we stopped to refresh ourselves. There is a tall iron pillar which is believed to be the haft of the trisul with which Mookambika killed Mookasura - the terrible demon.

Refreshed, we pressed on to the hilltop, with precipitous slopes to the left of us and ultimately reached the top, with the Sarvajnya Mantapa - where Adi Shankaracharya is supposed to have meditated. We spent time at the top and, after the customary Club photo in front of the Mantapa, reluctantly returned...

The customary Club snap with the Sarvajnya Mantapa as backdrop

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chasing elephants near Coimbatore...

Well, this is about a trip I took in February this year with my younger sister Priya who works for Times of India, Chennai. She had got a fellowship to study and report on man-elephant conflict in the Coimbatore region. So after a long long while, bro and sis got to spend some quality time together. We visited several areas of conflict in the region, including commercial farms and tribal villages. (Priya in action at a tribal village - pic above)

It was interesting to see that, while the tribals were well-adjusted to the idea that elephants would take a share of their crops and were happy with the harvest that remained, the commercial farmers were indignant and wanted the problem elephants removed/eliminated. Some of the more imaginative amongst them even alerted us about their pet theory that these elephants come from Kerala and are trained and sent in by the cunning Mallus from across the border who want to destroy Tamil crops! Also, the tribals tried to grow crops that were not attractive to the elephants while the farmers were growing cash crops that the elephants loved.

Priya's study also showed a lot of encroachments in the elephant corridors used by these behemoths to move around in their extended range. Since elephants are mega-herbivores that pretty much devastate the area they feed in, it is important that they move to other areas and give time to their former feeding grounds to recover from the effects of their foraging.

But the best part of our trip was the visit to the elephant training camp at the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary at Anamalai and the contiguous Parambikulam National Park in Kerala. Apart from meeting up with a lot of wildlife experts like the famous Dr. Easa (formerly with Kerala Forest Research Institute) and the legendary vet Dr. Cherian, we got to see the keepers of the law in the elephant world - the kumki elephants of Anamalai!

The kumkis are the trained elephants that are used to drive back invading herds and tackle rogue elephants. They have to be strong in body and mind and must obey the commands of their mahout at all times. The most revered among them is Kaleem (in pic above) - at all of 45 years (older than me!), in his prime and the dominant male at the camp. He is a large-hearted soldier who is fearless in his encounters with wild elephants. However, he has also killed several of the other kumkis in the camp, including IG - the earlier alpha male.

As Kaleem's mahout Palanisamy narrated his great deeds and misdeeds to us and as we photographed him in the fading light, Kaleem struck several poses to impress us. He had a devilish twinkle in his eye and it was quite clear that he reveled in all the attention he was getting! And the enduring memory of this trip is just that - Kaleem, the Terrible, performing schoolboy pranks to get our attention, while the sun gradually set in the beautiful forested valley that is the location of the elephant training camp.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Musings on Dholavira...

This is a trip I'd not even dared to dream about..! All thanks to Mayank - my PhD guide, for making it happen. Dholavira - one of the bustling port cities of the enigmatic Harappan civilization, the ruins of which still evoke awe in contemporary architects and planners, with the kind of perfection achieved in their city layout.

Mayank was leading a team of scientists and students from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences (CBS), Mumbai, to see the site, which features prominently in his landmark study of the growth of astronomy in the Indian subcontinent. I was asked to go along as a surveyor!

We travelled from Mumbai to Bhuj by train and then took a bus to Dholavira. It was a lovely journey, right from the fafdas (have I spelt it right???) and jalebis we had for breakfast to the bus ride through the surrealist landscapes of the Rann of Kutchh to reach the little village that exists near the protohistoric site.

There is a Gujarat Tourism resort at Dholavira where we stayed and over the next couple of days we explored the site under the able guidance of J. B. Makwana, who had assisted R. S. Bisht in the excavations there and is a veritable treasure trove of information on Dholavira. The ruins have a citadel area - which consists of the castle and the bailey, and a middle and lower town. There are several large reservoirs for water (what could be the reason for this obsession with water for the Dholavirans - reservoirs, tanks, baths...?) and a cemetery beyond the town area.

I spent most of my time surveying the various features of the site with Jithin - the TIFR photographer and Mayank, notably an enigmatic circular structure that doesn't seem to belong to the general rectilinear structures that characterized the rest of the Harappan city. We have a few findings to report - we believe we have discovered the baseline to which the city has been laid out and a few (wild?) archaeoastronomical conjectures - but I will write about those separately!

The pic shows me in action at Dholavira, near the east gate of the citadel . Thank you, Mayank, for this lovely experience.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opportunity to blog for TFN..!

The Tour of Nilgiris - an opportunity to accompany bikers through some wonderful country and write about the experience would be something of a dream come true for a person like me. An architect by calling, my first job was to help design an observatory for an astronomy research institute at Pune, which involved trekking up potential observatory sites and reconnoitering several hillsides. After a few years of architectural practice at Bangalore, I chose to settle in this quaint little university town of Manipal in a teaching job so that I could follow my passions in travel, ecology, astronomy and history.

So in this decade that I have spent here, I have founded The Astronomy Club, Manipal, kept wickets for my college team, studied peafowl and hornbills in the area, trekked extensively in the Western Ghats and a bit in the Himalaya, got fascinated with the prehistoric landscape of the subcontinent (I have been awarded the Prof. Achyutha Rao Memorial History Research Fellowship to study the Iron Age megalithic monuments of Karnataka) and even flirted a bit with the ocean... And taught architecture to rather unwilling pupils, of course! While taking up only the few architectural projects that appealed to me like designing cottages for researchers at Rom Whitaker's Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) at Agumbe, or facilities for the Kollur Mookambika Temple located near the Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary, and a few other projects that enabled me to "build green".

It is the study of megaliths that has given me some of the most memorable moments of my life. I have been to some really off-beat locations in Karnataka and Kerala to search out stones that were erected maybe 3500 years ago by our ancestors in rituals that we can scarcely guess about today. Some of these sites are in magnificent settings and it is difficult to express in words the awe one felt when beholding two menhirs framing the setting sun on midwinter day at Nilaskal.

Overall, it has been one big adventure wandering through all these places and trying to piece together the ecological and the cultural landscape of these regions so that one might glimpse a close approximation of the big picture. And it is this background that excites me about a possible opportunity to blog for TFN and makes me, confident about my abilities to do so. And living in a campus where motorised vehicles are discouraged and students and faculty alike are supplied with bicycles free of charge to encourage cycling, biking through mountainous country is something that holds appeal for me!

My flickr site can be accessed here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A new beginning...

Well, the monsoon has come, overstayed and gone, letting the sticky heat regain control of this little bubble of abnormality in the sylvan countryside of Udupi called Manipal. But my blog, restarted so hopefully quite a while ago, hasn't really been thriving on the rains. (Sigh! I used to blog more often - check out my earlier blog.) So this contest that has come up for a blogging opportunity for TFN may be just the right thing to get me started again...

Thing is, there has been too many things happening for me to get time to type them up. First was the trek to Gaumukh and Tapovan in the Himalaya. It was an amazing experience to cross the famous Gangotri glacier and then live in the solitude of Tapovan for a few days. Very basic accommodation and food courtesy the caring Bengali Mataji who lives there, herds of bharal or the beautiful Himalayan blue sheep grazing around us within touching distance and a trek to ABC (Advanced Base Camp) of Mount Shivling marked this period spent in the beautiful country explored and described by Eric Shipton in his classic book Nanda Devi.

The return to Manipal and the renewal of hostilities (!) with the current brood of budding architects did not deter me from continuing the activities that have kept me going here for a bit more than a decade now. Took the new board members of my Astronomy Club to Kodachadri for a trek, though the overstaying monsoon meant that the only stars visible were in the kids' eyes. As we reach for the stars, we do not neglect the flowers at our feet!

(The picture shows a lone bharal on the skyline at Tapovan.)