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Monkey Business at an Indian Wedding

We were privileged to attend a traditional Indian wedding at a marriage hall in Agra, just a stone’s throw away from the Taj Mahal. The chief cook was busy with two assistants in a couple of small enclosures adjacent to the main hall. They labored over a gas cooking fire, preparing sweetmeats and the main meal for the 300 guests expected to attend. Watching over the cooking fires perched on an adjacent wall were two handsome gray langurs who occasionally bared their teeth at someone or something in the distance.

Watching over the cooking fires: Hanuman Langurs

Watching over the cooking fires: Hanuman Langurs

They were watching over the cooking fires and keeping a troop of a dozen marauding rhesus macaques at bay. The two langurs belonged to the cook who kept them as pets for this very purpose.

Not invited to the banquet: Rhesus Macaques

Not invited to the banquet: Rhesus Macaques

These itinerant cooks are specialists who travel around during the wedding season carrying their large cast-iron vats, giant ladles and woks. They are in great demand during the wedding season from November till July, and are often booked out months in advance. They can churn out meals for hundreds at a couple of days notice.  A preliminary tasting convinced us it would be a meal to look forward to. More details after tonight’s banquet.

Two Old Friends

No, this is not a short story. I met two old friends yesterday, to the left of the path to the Power Station Beach on Lamma, both of whom I hadn’t met in years. The first was a Greater Coucal (centropus sinensis), also known as the crow pheasant. Its haunting call is heard everywhere on this island, so there must be scores of them here if not hundreds, but this is the first time in two years that I’ve seen one. Here’s a link to a YouTube video that someone posted from Thailand.

The second was a bittern, whose European cousin I used to frequently meet among the reeds at the edge of a pond on the outskirts of Vienna, usually in late autumn. Here’s a mobile camera photo of the bittern that may be distinguishable if you can enlarge it on your screen.

Bitterns are facing habitat loss worldwide

Bitterns are facing habitat loss worldwide


Bitterns, and thousands of other species, are being endangered by habitat loss, so it looks like rethinking ‘development’ may be an idea whose time has finally come.

Volunteering for a one-way trip

Image: courtesy mars.nasa.gov

Image: courtesy mars.nasa.gov

Two years ago I wrote a short story called Enigma. It was a rather bleak story of a group of adventurers who volunteer for a space mission to the Red Planet, knowing fully well that they might never return. The story was prompted by a news report that more than 150,000 people had volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars, offered by a group that calls itself Mars One. At the time I wrote it, the story seemed (even to me) hopelessly fatalistic, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of space travel, so I included it, with some hesitation, in my last collection of short stories (see The Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories). I tried to put a positive spin on the fatalistic elements of the story by hinting at some kind of a superior intelligence or presence that shows that the indomitable nature of human striving is not futile, that it is a quality to be nurtured; a quality that has rewards beyond death as we know and fear it.

Imagine my surprise when I read an article in Time magazine this morning entitled “Why I’m Volunteering to Die on Mars,” about a young woman named Sonia van Meter. Sonia is one of the Mars One finalists (100 have been chosen from more than 200,000 applicants in the third round of the selection process), and she gives her reasons for wanting to go on a one-way trip to Mars (planned to depart every 2 years, beginning in 2024).

Here are some of the reasons Sonia (who is married and has 2 step-children) gives for volunteering for this mission. Space exploration is worth a human life. Every astronaut that has ever flown has known the risks they were up against once they strapped into that ship. And there’s no guarantee that I won’t be crushed by a collapsing roof tomorrow or diagnosed with a terminal illness next year. Some call this a suicide mission. I have no death wish. But it would be wonderful if my death could be part of something greater than just one individual. If my life ends on Mars, there will have been a magnificent story and a world of accomplishment to precede it.

To know more about why Sonia, and hundreds of thousands like her, who volunteer for such a mission, read the Time article here.

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The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan

The town of Phalodi lies halfway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer on the Rajasthan tourist circuit. Phalodi is an unremarkable town that one drives through in a couple of minutes on the good highway that links the two larger cities. Phalodi is known as the salt city of India and was an important trading post in the days of camel caravans travelling along the overland silk route. Six kilometers away from here, driving along a narrow dirt road, is an even more unremarkable and dusty village called Khichan. The village has been a traditional stop for decades on the annual migratory route of Demoiselle Cranes between September and March each year. Sometime during the 1970s, after a series of droughts, a local Jain merchant decided to help the few dozen migrant visitors and began to feed them grain. The following year, the number of visiting birds doubled and more volunteers stepped in to contribute grain or funds for the feeding of the birds. By 1996, Otto Pfister writes in a despatch of the Oriental Bird Club, that 6000 cranes were visiting and being fed half a ton of grain per day (mainly sorghum) for six months every year. By 2012, there were an estimated 20,000 of these elegant birds in Khichan every year, on their way back from breeding sites in Mongolia and Eurasia. After crossing the steppes of Central Asia, where they are hunted by predators like the golden eagle, these delicate-looking birds fly at heights of 5000 to 10,000 meters to cross the Himalayas. This is an incredible feat at oxygen-starved altitudes and along the way are other dangers; the wars in Afghanistan, or human disruption of their habitats.

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

The crane is known as  Koonj in Hindi, and there are many stories told about why the village community decided to feed the birds. One villager, when asked, speaks of the birds as auspicious symbols. “As long as the birds come, the future of our village is assured.” In the epic Mahabharata, the disciplined flight formation of the family groups of these birds is imitated when forming battle lines (Krauncha Vyuha) in the Kurukshetra war. In the crane-shaped formation of infantry units, forces are distributed to imitate the cranes’s wingspan, with a formidable, penetrating centre depicting the crane’s head and beak.

Through the power of the media, what was once a small local custom has attracted a large international following. The village of Khichan is now on the tourist map of Rajasthan and bird lovers from all over the world visit the place. What started forty years ago as a gesture to help a small flock of 150 migrant birds now attracts over 20,000 cranes annually. There are several amateur videos of the remarkable spectacle on You Tube. Here is one example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSWEWdp-X_k

One observer writes: The most amazing thing during the morning feeding sessions perhaps is how disciplined the cranes are. They fly into specially created enclosures, walled fields of around an acre each. When one batch has fed, the next batch flies in for their turn. If the field is full, they land outside the field and patiently wait their turn.

Beginning in the 1970s, several remarkable people have transformed the face of Rajasthan. One of these, Rajendra Singh, mentioned in an earlier blog (Stepwells and Johads:digging into the past) as the man who restored the flow of seven dried up rivers in Rajasthan, now finds his expertise in demand at international meetings like the Economist Water Forum in early November where he advised property owners in the UK about methods to prevent flooding in Northumberland and elsewhere. For more, see The driest part of India offers a solution to Britain’s floods, from the Telegraph of 7 November 2014.

A lot has been written in recent years about mitigation and adaptation measures to counter AGW (anthropogenic global warming) and climate change. It is to mankind’s own long-term benefit to protect biodiversity. Ecological studies show that biologically diverse communities are more productive and stable. Traditional communities have long followed this wisdom, hard-won through years of observation and patience. Modern science confirms their wisdom. Positive actions usually come full circle, but when the circles are on a global scale they so large that we often do not see it.


Fireflies, Orang Utans, Palm Oil and Climate Change

Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. Some of the world’s carbon is locked up in its tropical forests, a good reason to leave the forests untouched, but a strategy that condemns the locals to a life of relative poverty. Enterprising as people are, they find it profitable (and it affords their families a decent living wage) to cut down a few acres of tropical forest and plant oil palms instead. Harvesting around 10 acres of oil palms yields an annual income of US $ 20,000 a year. By doing this, they are depleting the world’s remaining store of carbon, but does the rest of the world have a moral right to object, having already done so in the more affluent parts of the world over decades and centuries past? When asked, a small farmer shrugs and points to the undulating stretches of forest behind him. “I’m taking only 10 acres, and there’s over 100 million acres of untouched forest behind me.” Which brings us to the moral conundrum of climate change. A similar answer is heard from anyone who drives a car or flies to a holiday destination in a plane (yours truly, in this case); it’s just one more drop in the ocean.

This way to the gaint

This way to the gaint

The giant among giants

The giant among giants. 88m to the crown

Surprisingly, in a tropical jungle, the undergrowth is not dense. One can see the forest and the trees.

Surprisingly, in a tropical jungle, the undergrowth is not dense. One can see the forest and the trees; but not the leeches!

Talking to a businessman in Tawau, the third-largest city in the Malaysian third of the island, he spoke of the pains taken to extract only some of the most valuable timber using heli-logging methods (with large helicopters) to lift harvested tree trunks from the jungle, leaving the surrounding growth and trees untouched for future generations, and with no access roads to encourage future encroachment. Clear-cutting, he assured, is practiced only on second and tertiary growth forests that are replanted for further harvesting. In Kalimantan, I was told, lightning strikes (both celestial and man-made) set fire to thousands of acres of primal forest, and these clearings are later used for palm oil plantations.

Orang Utans are shy, solitary creatures, which is just as well for them, since encounters with humans, their close relatives, has not been very beneficial to them. At the Rasa Ria Orang Utan rehabilitation center, and several other places on the island, considerable sums of money are invested in rescuing orphan orang utans from the wild. They are painstakingly rehabilitated over a period of 6 to 8 years before gradual release again into the wild. The rangers entrusted with the task are obviously dedicated to their charges and proud of the natural wealth of their island.

A young male Orang Utan relaxes during feeding at a rehabilitation center

A young male Orang Utan relaxes during feeding at a rehabilitation center

After nightfall, fireflies emerge from the trees like thousands of falling stars. During the daytime, proboscis monkeys, looking like simian philosophers, forage in the undergrowth

After nightfall, fireflies emerge from the trees like thousands of falling stars. During the daytime, proboscis monkeys, looking like simian philosophers, forage in the undergrowth



Will tourism provide for a sustainable Borneo? Only time will tell. Actually, what happens there is up to us, as we help to shape the future with our cumulative thousands and millions of daily actions.

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Facebook for the Gods: Phads and Puppets

William Dalrymple, in his fine book “Nine Lives” writes about the Phad singers of Rajasthan. As in traditional arts and crafts everywhere, the few remaining Phad singers and puppeteers are struggling to find audiences and sustain their livelihoods. There is a great danger that these rich traditions will soon be lost. Performances for tourist groups can help these artists survive, but to be really appreciated, the audiences need to be educated about the background to these stories (which are well-known to most traditional rural audiences) and this happens only with the most knowledgeable tourists, such as academics or researchers studying language and culture.

The Phad: Image courtesy Rajasthan Textiles

Pabuji ki Phad: Image courtesy Rajasthan Textiles

The Phad is a religious scroll painting of deities, a kind of a portable temple. As representations of the divine, these Phads, or painted scrolls, are treated with great reverence by the Bhopas (traditional singers) who carry them from village to village and fair to fair. The bhopas are bards, singers of epics, and perform prodigious feats of memory. The most popular epic is that of Pabuji. In the old days, when this 4000 line courtly poem was recited from beginning to end, something that rarely happens today, it took a full five nights of eight-hour performances to complete the narration. The art of the bhopa was handed down in families, from father to son. Sadly, the bards with their traditional accompanying musical instruments, called Ravannahatta, are disappearing from both town and country today.

Another dying art tradition is that of puppetry performances. Scholars believe that the tradition is thousands of years old. The puppets are called “kathputli” and fashioned from fabric, wood, wire and threads. In a desperate attempt to attract foreign tourists, puppeteers have “dumbed down” their elaborate plays based on the classic Indian epics, and developed contemporary five-minute local variations that neither do justice to the original, nor do they attract the tourists as they are meant to do. As Janis Joplin presciently sang in the 1960s, the sentiment behind Lord, can I have a Mercedes-Benz and the pursuit of material wealth has eclipsed the spiritual quest even in this land of 33 million gods.* There are several standard figures in the line-up of modern Rajasthani puppets. One of them is called Anarkali, who is modelled as a temptress and courtesan.

Anarkali: The temptress struts her stuff

Anarkali: The temptress at her seductive best

The second standard modern puppet figure is a Rajasthani version of Michael Jackson, who struts his stuff on the portable wooden stage and manages a passable moonwalk. The highlight of this 2-minute skit is when he raises his detachable head.

Michael disguised as a Rajput

Michael Jackson disguised as a Rajput

The third modern set piece is a snake charmer and his cobra, which begins to chase him around the stage after initially swaying to the charm of the flute in the background. Another character who often appears is a demure bride who suddenly is flipped over and becomes a male singer. Sometimes these puppets are handled with considerable skill, all the while accompanied by an ektara, a single stringed violin, and a shrill-voiced male singer who speaks through a bamboo reed.




...and Yang

…and Yang



...or a bit of both.

…or a bit of both.

*The figure of 33 million was pulled out of a hat after many discussions of the number of gods, where the count ranged from 3000 to 330 million, the last figure based on the reasoning that almost every third person in the country has his or her own personal deity. This seemed rather far fetched, but it is true that in every small village and town there are local version of the principal gods and lesser deities of the Hindu pantheon. If it all seems too foreign and confusing, look at it this way. There is but one god, Brahma, the creator of all things, and all the numerous deities are but one way of approaching him, just as Catholics pray to their favourite saint to intercede for them before the one God.


A lake palace, and a lake of tears

Udaipur is one of the must-see cities of Rajasthan, for its iconic Lake Palace situated in the middle of Lake Pichola with its grand series of stone and marble palaces that have been successively added along the shores over centuries. Udaipur’s royals belong to the longest unbroken line of rulers in the world, having endured for more than a millennium.

One of the world's longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

One of the world’s longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

The present-day city was founded in the 1530s at around 1000 feet above sea level, close to the cooling influence of the Aravalli range of hills. The aboriginal hill tribes of the Aravallis, the Bhils, were traditionally self-sufficient hunter-gatherers and good archers. Bhil tribesmen assisted Rajput troops in their periodic wars against Mughal armies, and for this reason, the Mewar coat-of-arms portrays both a tribal armed with bow and arrows and a Rajput warrior flanking the shield with a fortress in the middle.

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

The lake dries out occasionally when there is a succession of bad monsoons, but a project is underway to ensure a steady inflow and expand the rainwater harvesting systems that were installed in the palaces from the 17th century onwards.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats line the lakeshore…

...most are hotels.

…most are hotels.

Pushkar: a holy lake of tears.

Pushkar is one of the holy places for Hindus in India. There is a temple to Brahma in Pushkar, a rarity. There are only six temples dedicated to Brahma worldwide and this is considered the most important. There are several beautiful stories associated with the reasons for Pushkar’s sanctity. One has it that Siva’s wife Sati was insulted by her father (this is a long story in itself, see the URL below for more) and literally burned with shame. Siva was so overcome on hearing of the death of his wife that he wept inconsolably. The pools formed by the tears from his two eyes are the lake at Pushkar and the Katasraj temple lake about 300 kilometers away that lies today in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

There is another story about the reason for Pushkar’s spiritual significance. In this, Brahma saw a demon named Vajranabha killing people, so he killed the demon with a divine lotus flower. In this process, the petals of the lotus flower fell to the earth and formed the lake. Yet another story tells of a mortal, a Rajput king, following a wild boar down to the lake during a hunt. He stopped to quench his thirst and found that dipping his hand in the lake had cured his leukoderma. Whatever the reasons for its perceived sanctity, the town exudes a certain contradictory bustling calm and the lake itself is surrounded by temples and bathing ghats. The biggest attraction for tourists is the annual 5-day camel fair where livestock are bought and sold.
See the stories of Siva and Sati at http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/bhagavata/bhagavata_4.html

Innumerable temples line the lake

Innumerable temples line the lake

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around...

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around…

...this is holy ground

…this is holy ground


Blue City: britches, brahmins and battlements

Our tour guide showed us around the impressive Mehrangarh fort and indicated the blue-washed houses in the valley below. All those blue houses, he said, belong to Brahmin families. Further enquiry found many other explanations for the blue coloring, so the jury is out on this one. Other possible reasons: as in the case of imperial yellow in Austrian Habsburg palaces, the color could have been chosen because it was the least expensive. Whatever the real reason, Jodhpur is commonly described as the “blue city” of Rajasthan and, together with Jaisalmer and Jaipur, make up a trio of colored cites in the state. Jaisalmer really is a golden city; golden sands of the Thar desert that spread from its outskirts and the golden sandstone of which the city is built. Seen from the fort, the city of Jodhpur is speckled with blue, the afore-mentioned allegedly brahmin houses. Jaipur is called the pink city mainly because of the iconic Hava Mahal, and because its royal family preferred the colour on all their buildings. But in today’s Jaipur, bustling with handicrafts and industry and bursting at the seams with people, the pink color is lost unless one wanders among the historic buildings and older parts of the city.

Blue-speckled city of Jodhpur seen from Mehrangarh Fort

Blue-speckled city of Jodhpur seen from Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur is probably the most impressive in Rajasthan and well worth a visit of 2 or 3 hours (there’s more than three hours worth to see if you can take it in at a stretch), from royal palanquins to a beautiful collection of swords, and finery worn by royalty in centuries past. A tip: the audio guides available in the fort are excellent and provide concise commentary at every important object on display. In addition to its blue-painted houses, the dominating fort, and riding breeches named after the city, Jodhpur was also famed for its Marwari horses. They are a hardy breed with distinctive ears that point towards each other. They have a regal gait and are descended from local ponies interbred with Arabian and Mongolian horses beginning in the 12th century.Close to Jodhpur lies Mihir Garh, a boutique hotel with only 9 rooms that Lonely Planet listed in 2014 as the most unique hotel in the world.

A well-paved road leads from Jodhpur to Udaipur, again a city named after its founder Udai Singh in the 1530s, although this dynasty has ruled in the area for more than a thousand years, and represents the world’s longest unbroken ruling line, from the 9th century to the mid-twentieth. More on Udaipur and Pushkar in the next post.

Stepwells and Johads: Digging into the past

More on Rajasthan. One of the places on this summer’s itinerary was a village called Chand Baori. “Do we really want to go there?” I asked the driver and tour guide. “I’ve never heard of it.” “Very old well, from the 8th century,” he assured me. “If you like we can go.” Which was a roundabout way of saying yes, so we went.

On a trip to the ruins of Hampi (1343 to 1565, capital of the Vijayanagar empire) a year ago, we had seen a 500 year-old stepwell that was a work of art. It had not run dry in living memory and had presumably been in active use by the local populace for more than 5 centuries. Hampi lies in a zone that tends to the semi-arid and receives around 400 mm of rain a year compared to ca. 900 mm for a typical Mediterranean city (in this example Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome).

Stepwell - Hampi, North Karnataka State

Stepwell – Hampi, North Karnataka State

However, Hampi’s modest rainfall is a veritable flood compared to the sparse annual haul (ca. 200 mm) of the desert area around the flourishing city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Founded in the 12th century, Jaisalmer was an important node in the overland silk route and well connected with Europe. A great deal of knowledge and deep understanding of sustainable living in harsh climates accumulated in this part of the world long before scientific knowledge became codified and PhD’s in hydrology were awarded by the world’s universities.

Anupam Mishra is one of the pioneers of the 20th century revival of ancient water harvesting techniques in Rajasthan and other arid parts of the country. (See a biography here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anupam_Mishra ). A quiet Gandhian and a modest man, he is one of the foremost Water Warriors of the world. Anyone who can spare 17 minutes to listen to a witty and humorous TED talk he gave in 2009 is guaranteed enlightenment on the continued relevance of rainwater harvesting in the world today.  http://www.ted.com/talks/anupam_mishra_the_ancient_ingenuity_of_water_harvesting

Despite the fierce July heat, our detour to Chand Baori was well worth the effort. The stepwell in the village was more ornate than anything we had seen so far. Much more than being a mere source of water, it was obviously designed as a public meeting place and center for social interaction where one could find cool relief by the water’s edge, two or three stories underground.

Ornate carvings adorn every pillar and statue around the well

Ornate carvings adorn every pillar and statue around the well


Rajendra Singh is another Water Warrior from Rajasthan who has won awards around the world for his work. Nominated by the Guardian newspaper in 2008 as one of the 50 people most likely to save the planet, he trained as a doctor, and was inspired by Gandhian ideals to set up a practice in the remotest desert village he could find. When he got there, literally at the end of the road, he found that what the villagers needed more than medicine was water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajendra_Singh

With no money and only hand tools at his disposal, he began with a few friends to dig out an abandoned “johad,” a traditional water catchment reservoir. The rains came. The johad retained a little water. This was the beginning of a virtuous cycle that was copied by neighbouring villages. In the course of a few years, over 5000 earthen check dams or johads have been built in Rajasthan and neighbouring states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra with rising water tables as a result everywhere.

Rajendra Singh is now known as the rain man of Rajasthan, having brought water back to more than 1000 villages and for restoring the flow of all five major rivers in the state. In the words of one of my personal heroes, Amory Lovins, quoting Pogo Possum: “We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”

It is time for the world to grasp them. Click the Follow button below for alerts to forthcoming postings on this blog and find out how people around the world are grasping these opportunities.

Seemingly built for eternity. The well's depth bears testimony to the long-range vision of its builders

Seemingly built for eternity. The well’s depth bears testimony to the long-range vision of its builders

Travels in the Land of Kings

For some people the best journeys are those that take place in the mind. If you have good company and travel in the right frame of mind, an inward transformation occurs with each step and each changing view of the landscape. This was a summer of encounters in Rajasthan that changed the inner landscape of my mind but words are a poor way to show the changes, so I will post a few pictures here instead. This is offered by way of apology that this blog has been inactive for the past six weeks.20140712_161027

Rajasthan is India’s largest state. At 340,000 sq. km, around the size of Germany, it comprises 10% of India’s territory. The name, literally “the land of kings.” is very apt. There are ruins aplenty and reminders of past glory at every turn. But take a moment to look behind the ruins and there are stories behind every crenellated wall and jharoka.

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

This is also a land of stories, a place where myths are born. The stories are a glorious mix of fact and fantasy, like the great Indian epics themselves, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. More about this land and the stories in the blogs to follow.

9th Century cool decorates a step-well in Rajasthan

9th Century cool adorns a step-well in Rajasthan