Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A climb in the monsoon

A climb in the incessant rains

In hills and vales far above the plains.

Splashing thru’ innumerable streams

Clouds and fog and misty realms…

Roar of a mighty waterfall

As it plunges down a rocky wall.

Lifting now the cloud reveals

The rocky summit thru’ wispy veils

A soaring cliff of black basalt

Outlined against a dull grey vault

Sailing in a sea of white

And now the clouds hide it from sight…

Trudging among the weeping trees

In pelting rain and whipping breeze

Steeply, the track winds on and on…

Just when our minds of hope are shorn,

There looms ahead the final ridge.

Hundred feet more to the top, we judge.

Gripping the glistening wet basalt,

We launch into the tough assault

With taut muscles and strained sinew,

And for once not bothered of the view,

Climbing steadily in a single row

Till there’s no more left to go….

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wind Pictures...

Icy breath from Realms of Snow,
Carry these prayers high above
Those soaring spires where no bird flies
'Cross passes bound in snow and ice.
Sustain my soul weary and worn
'Til I to your Kingdom return...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mission Rudragaira - interlude at Uttarkashi...

On the way from Hardwar to Uttarkashi, near Chamba

Reached Uttarkashi at evening on 14th June, rather tired and weary from the longish drive from Hardwar. Got our old room no. 2 at Hotel Bhandary and Restaurant - that favourite haunt of mountain lovers. Shivraj turned up there and there was a joyful reunion with our old friend and instructor. After initial thumps on the back and catching up on his exploits - he had summited Satopanth (7071m), Gangotri I (6672m) and Rudragaira (5820m) in the one year that had elapsed since our last adventure together.

The situation didn't look too good for our attempt on Baby Shivling just now - recently he had taken a French couple to Tapovan and had scouted the region well. First of all, the Bengali Mataji who had looked after us so well last time had been evicted by the forest department from Tapovan. which meant that hiring a cook, porters etc. would jack up the costs of the trip markedly when added to the charges that the forest dept. would levy for persons, tents etc. That, coupled with the bad weather still prevailing at Tapovan, tilted the balance in favour of Rudragaira. So Rudragaira it would be that we attempt this summer... A good 200m or more higher than Baby Shivling, technically it would be less demanding than the rocky cliffs of Shivling Junior, though. At the back of my mind, I wondered if it was the lack of belief in our technical abilities that made Shivraj change plans, actually...

Sudhakara Sir, Shivraj and Kailash on the way to Nachiketa Tal

We spent the next day on an acclimatization trek to Nachiketa Tal. A beautiful mountain lake in the midst of pine and rhododendron forests, it can be reached by a trek of 3km on foot from Chaurangi Khal, itself a drive of about 18km from Uttarkashi. It was an easy hike and we caught up with Shivraj on the various happenings in his life and in the mountains.

Nachiketa Tal

At the lake, we came across some pahari girls cutting fodder for their livestock. The tough girls were clambering up steep slopes and even tall trees to chop down the leaves. Their songs were extremely melodious and Sudhakara Sir recorded the sweet strains with their permission. A Eurasian jay and a yellow-billed blue magpie kept us amused with their antics, too. We then went to pay our respects to the Baba who lived in an ashram on the banks of the lake, only to find that the holy man was rather miffed with us that our first attention had gone to the damsels singing among the trees! However, we soon placated him and before long he was regaling us with his dramatic narration of the Nachiketa legend related to the lake. He even made us tea and advised us to visit the Yam Dwar (Portal to the nether world that young Nachiketa visited to parley with Yama - the God of Death himself).

A young pahari girl at work collecting fodder

The baba at Nachiketa Tal

We visited the Yam Dwar and spent some more time at the lake before hiking back to Chaurangi Khal and our waiting vehicle. Back at Uttarkashi, we met our cook-to-be for the expedition - Dinesh Kumar, a fine climber himself who was the veteran of many treks (including the arduous hike to Auden's Col) despite his young age.

Dinesh checking supplies at Uttarkashi

Now we started feeling the excitement of the trek, with Dinesh shopping for supplies and going over the logistics of how many porters to hire etc. with Shivraj. We also stocked up on last minute purchases of essentials like warm clothing, waterproof gloves etc. I remember going to sleep with the feverish excitement of anticipation.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rudragaira - the beginning of the adventure

Well, the time had come...

Mount Shivling and Baby Shivling

After a year of gazing at a picture of Mount Shivling and Baby Shivling that adorns my table at my workplace and fantasising about climbing Shivling Junior, June finally came around. Following the tensions of examination duties and corrections and what not had come depressing news about developments at work. We were impatient to get among the mountains and shake off the baggage that tends to accumulate during work.

A source of worry was that our mountaineer friend from Dharali - Shivraj Singh Panwar, was not reachable by phone for quite a while now... However, when he contacts, he contacts on all fronts - messages by email, on Orkut and Facebook, followed by a phone call! Anyway, we were relieved to be in touch with him again. However, he had some dampening news. He was just back from Tapovan where he had gone with a French couple and had the opportunity to study Baby Shivling from all sides. The weather was bad, he said. It had been snowing heavily at Tapovan and the gullies on the mountain of our dreams were full of unconsolidated snow. Treacherous conditions to climb, especially for us inexperienced climbers. How about Rudragaira, he asked.

I was unwilling to give up on the mountain that had given me a dream to hang on to for a year now. "Let's take a final call when we reach Uttarkashi." I replied, hoping wildly that the weather would clear miraculously, as it is perfectly possible in the Himalaya. And that the Sun would melt away all the troublesome snow by the time we reached.

Thus we set out on the morning of June 11 to Margao, where we stayed for a day, moving about in the market, window shopping for fishing tackles and such stuff. Later, Kailash and I could not resist the lure of the spirits in Goa. Poor Sudhakara Sir - a teetotaller vegetarian stuck with two most unscrupulous elements! He caught up on his reading while we both struck a spiritual high.

Kailash insisted we walk everywhere in Goa - preparation for the trek, apparently!

Next day we were on the Rajdhani to Delhi. The journey was made enjoyable by the presence of a little Sardarji - Indermeet Singh, in our coupe, whose antics kept us amused. At Delhi we were welcomed by Shri. Duggal - Kailash's classmate from B. Arch. and a most endearing character. We freshened up at his house and went to the Qutb complex and Ba'hai temple. There we discovered the dangers of travelling with a Professor of Islamic History. He didn't spare anybody - including poor Duggal and Prof. Sudhakara the mathematician!

The Qutb complex

KR didn't even spare the poor mathematician

Duggal gets even with his former classmate finally!
After another session of spirits and non-veg at "Rajinder da Dhaba" (with Sudhakara Sir forced to sit in the car with his Paneer Tikka and coke), Duggal dropped us at Nizamuddin station, where we caught the Dehradun Express to Haridwar. We arrived at Haridwar at the unearthly hour of 5am, and as we picked our way among the several hundred prone bodies of people sleeping at the station, it struck me for the first time that our journey had really begun! But I simply could not wait to be away from the crowded pilgrim centre to travel deep into the Himalaya.

Breakfast at Hardwar


We checked into a hotel near the station to catch a few hours of sleep and had our breakfast. Next was to take a taxi to Uttarkashi, where we would meet up with Shivraj.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Crocodile...

I love this poem by Roald Dahl... But I also love the crocodile!

My Crocodile!

"The Crocodile"

by Roald Dahl

"No animal is half as vile
As Crocky–Wock, the crocodile.
On Saturdays he likes to crunch
Six juicy children for his lunch
And he especially enjoys
Just three of each, three girls, three boys.
He smears the boys (to make them hot)
With mustard from the mustard pot.
But mustard doesn't go with girls,
It tastes all wrong with plaits and curls.
With them, what goes extremely well
Is butterscotch and caramel.
It's such a super marvelous treat
When boys are hot and girls are sweet.
At least that's Crocky's point of view
He ought to know. He's had a few.
That's all for now. It's time for bed.
Lie down and rest your sleepy head.
Ssh. Listen. What is that I hear,
Galumphing softly up the stair?

Go lock the door and fetch my gun!
Go on child, hurry! Quickly run!
No stop! Stand back! He's coming in!
Oh, look, that greasy greenish skin!
The shining teeth, the greedy smile!
It's Crocky–Wock, the Crocodile!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In the land of the Mountain Monarchs...

A Mountain Monarch surveys his territory near Chirwasa!

I paused for a moment on the steep hillside, gasping for breath. I had been resting in my tent after the long trek from Gangotri to Bhojwasa, fighting a mild sensation of nausea when Shivraj burst into the tent shouting "Bharal! Lots of them, come let's go..." In a trice I had (rather unwisely!) forgotten my weariness and my altitude sickness and raced out behind my mountaineer friend, who started up the 60-degree slope of the nearby mountain with an agility better suited to creatures that we were racing to see... I followed, more clumsily but steadily, my whole attention focused on the 90-odd tiny figures high up the hillside, till the rude jolt of reality that we were at altitude made me pause for a while. Looking back down the slope I'd just climbed, I felt a faint glow of achievement when I saw the tents of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) rest house tiny in the valley below.

The herd of bharal on the slopes above Bhojwasa

Shivraj on the slopes above the facilities at Bhojwasa (in the backdrop)

The bharal had spooked seeing us climb and had all stood up and were watching us keenly. One or two of them sneezed - a way of showing alarm. We let them calm down by remaining still, Shivraj even sitting down and moving sideways on the slope, pretending to be least interested in them. This suited me just fine, ample time to rest and catch my breath. Then we slowly approached them. I stopped at about 200m away, while Shivraj approached even closer. He even whistled to them, which somehow seemed to calm them! Soon, as light ebbed away, we reluctantly left the bharal to their evening engagements and climbed down to the rest house and dinner.

I had first read about bharal in the classic travel book "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen, who had accompanied the celebrated field biologist George Schaller to the Shey Monastery in Nepal to study mountain ungulates and their predators (including the elusive snow leopard). Bharal (scientific name Pseudois nayaur), also called the blue sheep of the Himalaya are classified as sheep, though they exhibit many traits that belong to goats too. These "mountain monarchs" - as Schaller called the wild sheep and goats of the Himalaya, occupy a large swathe of Himalayan and trans-Himalayan ranges. The male are larger and have heavier, backward sweeping, horns than the females, which have small ones. Subsequently, I had devoured the books by Schaller - "Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya" and my all-time favourite - "Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya". My previous experience of wild mountain ungulates was with the Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) of Eravikulam - an enigmatic mountain goat of the Western Ghats and I spent many a happy hour watching and photographing these majestic animals whenever I visited Munnar. I was thrilled to meet George Schaller himself at the world conference on mountain ungulates held at Munnar in 2006.

George Schaller at Eravikulam in September 2006

Nilgiri tahr at Eravikulam: unlike the bharal, the tahr is more goat than sheep

I knew from travel accounts that I had a good chance to spot bharal when I set out on my trek to Gaumukh and Tapovan last year and sure enough, I spotted my first one from the trail near Chirwasa on day one. I was so excited and started clicking pictures of the tiny figure on a rock in the river bed from the high trail. Shivraj laughingly told me to spare my film (I was using a film-SLR), "You'll find plenty of them at Tapovan, Sirji!" I later got a few good shots of that first bharal when it climbed up and crossed the trail in front of me. Later that day was all the excitement about the herd on the slopes near the rest house.

My first bharal (can you spot it???)!

The same bharal ram as it crossed the trail near me

Early next morning, we set out for Gaumukh, and then crossed the glacier and climbed to Tapovan. One of the first things I saw was a small herd of around 14-16 bharal on the meadows of Tapovan. We put up at the shelter of the Bengali Mataji at Tapovan. The shelter itself built under a rock was a marvel of simplicity and ingenuity. And Mataji herself, dignified and simple, was really a mother to us there - cooking, cajoling our altitude-hassled selves to eat and scolding me especially when my bharal-watching kept me away from my meals!

Mataji and Shivraj in front of her kutiya.

A bharal ram silhouetted against the skyline near Tapovan

A bharal ewe and young

The 3 days I spent at Tapovan was a mix of climbing (Shivraj and I climbed to 4600m on the lateral moraine of the Meru glacier), bharal watching and suffering the effects of altitude on our sea level-accustomed bodies. The bharal were quite confident in the vicinity of Mataji's ashram and it was touching to see the trust they had in human beings here (aided, no doubt, by the salt that Mataji and others used to sprinkle on a flat rock near the ashram). They were quite wary of me initially, though and used to keep away till they realized that I probably was harmless and allowed me to approach within ten feet of them.

The hills are alive... with bharal and their young..!

A lick of salt...

... and a drink of water...!

Towards the end of my stay, the bharal let me approach quite close...

The breeding season seemed to be over and there were several tiny lambs among the herds that frequented the ashram. The large males were mostly together in a bachelor herd, though the odd male could be spotted occasionally among the females and young, too. They were beginning to shed their winter coat and it was common to see tiny clumps of their winter fur lying around. I had a lovely time observing these magnificent creatures and felt privileged when they allowed me a window into their lives. It was with an inexplicable sadness that I bid goodbye to Mataji and her bharal...

Rock 'n bharal: a bachelor herd

A ram scratches off winter fur with his horn

An adult ram watches warily while two younger rams lick salt and an ewe preens herself

On the way back to Bhojwasa, I stumbled upon the skull of a bharal off the trail next to the rest house. Later, Shivraj found the rest of its body some way up the slope. It seemed to have been killed by a leopard (I had found leopard scat near one of the pinnacles we had climbed on the slopes of Shivling Parvat near Tapovan), or maybe, a snow leopard. Shivraj claims to have seen snow leopard several times in this region.

A skull of a bharal spotted near Bhojwasa

This year, as I prepare for my next Himalayan trek, I feel excited. What new experiences may be in store for us??? We plan to scale Baby Shivling this time around, and who knows, maybe this June we will have a darshan of the snow leopard Itself...!

Friday, February 12, 2010


It's sessional time once more... So here I sum up this unpleasant duty:

Like an unfed and hungry predator I prowl
Among hunched-up bodies and faces that scowl
Ever so alert for activities foul
All this, I'm sure, is not good for my soul...!

Monday, February 1, 2010

"But is it Architecture???"

View from one of the rock-cut chamber tombs at Eyyal near Thrissur

For the last 3 years that I have been investigating megalithic monuments for any clues to the possible astronomical knowledge of their builders, a lot of "learned architectural academicians" have been smirking and commenting - "But that is not architecture..."

In fact, one worthy who claims that he was the "only doctorate in architecture for several square kilometers around Manipal" even went so far as to state that megaliths do not constitute architecture - "they are only ugly stone remains..."

So, dear readers, what exactly is architecture..? Looking back at the hoary origins of this noble profession, when can one say that "Architecture starts NOW"? Most textbooks on the history of architecture cursorily deal with "prehistoric architecture" in a paragraph or two and then go on to early examples of more glamorous buildings like temples and palaces. By now, having tramped over many a hill and vale, and having seen examples of many structures that archaeologists tell us were erected in the Iron Age (but which I have reason to believe were erected much earlier - more on that later), I think I have earned the right to say a few things I believe about early architecture. And that shall be the content of this post...

A kudakkal at Kudakkal Parambu, Thrissur

A few dolmens of the Central Group at Hire Benkal, Karnataka

Look at the above pictures - the top one is a kudakkal (lit. umbrella stone) at Thrissur in Kerala, the lower picture shows some of the dolmens at Hire Benkal, north of Hampi in Karnataka. Both are associated with burials - the kudakkals are sepulchral, i.e., they are erected over the remains of deceased persons, while the dolmens are probably memorial in function. The kudakkals consist of 4 clinostats (inclined stones) forming the lower portion with an almost hemispherical capstone forming the top portion. Being made of a soft stone - laterite, that is predominant in the region, the builders could sculpt the stone finely into these curved shapes. The dolmens are made of the much harder granite and consist of 4 orthostats (vertical stones) arranged in a sort of swastika pattern to prevent inward collapse, surmounted by a capstone. There is also a circular or semicircular "port-hole" in many of the dolmens to make the chamber "face" any one direction.

Now, what is remarkable about such structures? Is it architecture???

The human race seems to be unique in the way it responds to death - how the mortal remains of the dead are disposed, how they are remembered and, sometimes, venerated. Burial of the dead arose probably early in the history of primates - marked burials are known even among the Neanderthals. In the prehistory of peninsular India, the dead were buried within the premises where they lived, often in the floor of their dwellings, in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. It is only in the Iron Age that we find a separate area for the dead - a separate "graveyard" emerging. And megaliths... The prominent surface markers of stone that caught the attention and imagination of the early workers in this field.

We do not know exactly what these monuments meant to the people who built them. And we probably never will... But notice the way the kudakkal and the dolmen have been conceived. How the laterite pieces were crafted into the curvilinear shapes of the clinostats, how the heavy capstone was fashioned and detailed (with a circular notch on the lower flat face for the top ends of the 4 clinostats to fit in). Or how well the thin stone slabs of the dolmen were made. And imagine how these were wrestled into place, especially the heavy capstone. Even if we cannot guess today what exactly did these structures mean to the people of the Iron Age, we can safely conclude that it must have been of sufficiently great importance for them to undertake such awesome engineering feats and invest so much time and labour in.

And isn't that what architecture is? Man, not just building for shelter, not just building for functional needs, but going far beyond that... Trying to find a form to express a belief system he has developed. And going to great lengths to do that...

Rock art at Onake Kindi near Chikka Rampur (I am thankful to Dr. U. S. Moorti of AIIS Gurgaon and Dr. Sundara, Shringeri, for calling my attention to this rock art site and painting and to the work of Erwin Neumayer on this)

Near Hire Benkal is a small village called Chikka Rampur close to which is a small amphitheater of rock shelters where one finds several rock art sites, presumably belonging to the same cultural phase as the megalith builders. Most of the rock art depict everyday scenes - cattle, dancing figures etc. But on a small overhang in one of the shelters is a symbolic painting showing what can only be a burial - showing a body, burial goods etc. But there are also other depictions of what may be Sun and Moon symbols (at the periphery), a river (?) and bridge (?) across it, stones of the boulder circle surrounding the burial etc. Since the only "texts" that we have for these prehistoric monuments are these rock art examples and the monuments themselves with all associated material goods, this is one of the media through which prehistoric man is "talking" to us.

Thus it is evident that the megalith builders had a philosophy that they were trying to express through the forms and orientation of their structures. Now isn't that architecture???

And all that this study attempts is to understand how/when different practices such as orienting structures to the direction of the rising (or setting) sun emerged, were any of the structures set up to function as a time-keeping device of any sort, what were the knowledge systems that existed during the period when the megaliths were built as evident from the structures themselves..?

Most of these megalithic sites are set in remote locations and trekking through the dramatic natural landscapes that they are embedded in and viewing the remarkable natural rock formations and the interplay of sunlight and shadow with these, it is not difficult to imagine how the architects of the megaliths could have drawn inspiration from them. I shall just stick to showing a few images of the natural landscapes and the structures built by prehistoric man for you to ruminate on.

A natural jumble of rocks that resembles a stacked pile near Hire Benkal

A natural "dolmen" on the way to Sidilephadi near Badami

Interplay of sunlight and rock forms near Sidilephadi

The environs of Sidilephadi - an ancient Stone Age rock shelter near Badami

Light filters in through the openings atop the rock shelter at Sidilephadi - believed to have been formed by lightning

A rock shelter chamber - one of the earliest megalithic typologies

A view from inside one of the dolmens at Hire Benkal

It is really strange to what lengths people would go to defend their hidebound outdated views, even in the face of obvious logic. Once, in a public discussion, the above-mentioned worthy was trying to prove that megaliths "are not architecture". Red in the face, he hissed that megaliths were mostly burials and burials could not be called architecture. When I gently reminded him that the Egyptian pyramids are burials too, he spat out, "So what? Pyramids are not architecture..." Someone in the audience found it prudent to add, "The Taj Mahal is also technically a burial." "So what???" thundered the worthy, "The Taj Mahal is also not architecture."

What do they know of architecture, who only architecture know??? (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling!)

Two menhirs framing the setting sun on winter solstice at the megalithic site at Nilaskal

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Manipal I've come to love...

Bali Kunja raises its head proudly over the valley wreathed in mist

It's not the worst of times, but it's not the best of times either... (With apologies to Charles Dickens!)

Just that the past few days I've been seriously harboring thoughts of leaving Manipal. I don't want this blog to be in serious danger of abounding in cribbing posts, so I'll spare you the petty details. I have many a grouse against this place, but when I think of leaving, the proverbial lump rises in the throat... I don't think I'll miss MIT much, may not even miss teaching should I decide to bid goodbye to teaching forever. But I will miss the Manipal I have come to know and love in these years I have spent here. A few shots of these reasons for the lump in my throat follow (not in any particular order).

Beautiful Swarna...

Sunrise over the hills

My weather station...

I'll miss the cricket a lot...

Amme Mookambike! Kollur has been a very good retreat away from Manipal

I've never tired of trekking to Kodachadri

Malpe and St. Mary's island

A storm brews off Kaup

Hanging bridge near Kallianpur

The magic of Koodlu...

A dash of local culture: the recent kambala at Manipal