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.)