June 24, 2017

Walking where mammoths once walked...

This is a post that is a year late! We went to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles in June last year, with Vijay's cousin Chaitan. This is one of the world's most famous fossil spots. I still feel overwhelmed each time I think of what we saw there.

Bang in the middle of the glamorous Hollywood are the tar pits (exactly that - a kind of pit filled with tar). Natural asphalt has seeped up from the ground in this area for tens of thousands of years, trapping several species of plants and animals. Digging is still ongoing in the pits, throwing up fossils of various kinds. Apparently new discoveries are made, if not every day, definitely every week!

The Tar Pits Museum houses the world's largest Ice Age fossil collection, which reveals what survived the last ice age and what did not. Ongoing research gives important clues about LA's climate change - both past and future (anybody listening?)

As soon as you enter, you see this recreation of a female mammoth going down into the tar, as the male and the baby mammoths helplessly watch. The pond contains tar and you can see it bubbling.


video

This is a mammoth that has been reconstructed from the fossils found at that spot. It has also been animated and it is so real that it is almost scary!

There are 404 skulls of the Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) here. They are only a portion of the more than 1600 wolves whose remains have been found here.  It is thought that packs of Dire Wolves attempted to feed on the animals trapped in the asphalt and became mired themselves.   


Merriam's Giant Condor (Teratornis merriami) has been reconstructed and the painting behind gives a good idea of how this bird looked. The great body size of this extinct bird is very apparent, and the hooked beak must've been used to feed on large dead animals.
To think that we were walking at the very same spot where mammoths, wolves, condors, sabre-toothed tigers and other extinct animals walked freely 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, was completely mind boggling. This was definitely one of the best things we saw during our visit to the US in June-July 2016.

[With information from plaques at the museum and from the internet] 

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Watch this short but informative video. It gives a good idea of the work at the tar pits. 



April 29, 2017

Awesome Odisha!



I got an opportunity to go to Cuttack, Odisha, to make two presentations at the National Law University of Odisha - one on new media and one on magazine design. First impressions - Bhubaneshwar, where I landed, was very green! Lots of varieties of trees - Kadambas, thick set Ashokas, crape myrtles, laburnums in bloom, tree hibiscus, banyans and peepals, cashew plantations near Konark, and many more. Most of the trees looked old and huge. 'Development' as we know it in the metros has not yet touched these parts, so it looks like the Hyderabad or Warangal of the 1970s or early 1980s. But now Bhubaneshwar has been declared as a smart city, and this makes me afraid for the flora and fauna of the city.

Cuttack is long piece of land between two rivers - Kathajodi and Mahanadi. While Kathajodi was quite dry, Mahanadi had a lot of water. We were waking up to a variety of bird calls - it was such a pleasure! I spotted some birds I had never seen before.

Two days of travelling around Odisha made Ragini and me camera-happy. Let the photos speak for themselves.   

PURI
First time I was seeing camels on a beach! There were hundreds of people on the beach, and getting this shot was not easy. I am rather pleased with it :)

It was lovely to see this grandfather playing with involvement with his grandchildren. He was quite old but played with them like a child!

Romancing on the beach! I found the bulls in Odisha different from the ones here. The hump is bigger and makes them look more like the Nandi we find in temples. 

This is the best shot I could get of the Puri temple. The architecture of the temples is incredible, but photography is not allowed. I am happy I went, but one advice about the Puri temple: don't go unless you get some help from someone. 

I can't travel and not write about trees! On the way to Konark - a cashew nut plantation.

KONARK

Konark was awe-inspiring and left us breathless! 

There are 12 pairs of intricately carved wheels.

The huge chariot is visible from this view. Some maintenance and polishing work is going on.

RAGHURAJPUR

We were on our way to Raghurajpur, and stopped to ask this beautiful tribal woman for directions.


Raghurajpur is an artists' village and contains a cluster of houses where they paint patachitra, palm leaf paintings and make many other crafts.

This cheerful artisan and his father paint patachitras. Very fine and intricate work, like the carving on Odisha's temples.

Just look at these masks and paintings!


BETWEEN BHUBANESHWAR AND CUTTACK
There are these rasagolla and other sweet shacks between Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack..
I thought they were found all over Odisha, but apparently it is typical to this region.


BHUBANESHWAR


We went for a heritage walk called Ekamra Walks, which started at the 9th Century Mukteshwar Temple, with a bansuri recital. The early morning ambience was perfect, and transformed us to another era.

Again, amazingly intricate carvings.

During the walk, chanced upon these two purohits, deeply absorbed in their newspapers.

Several small houses have such paintings on them, with a bride and groom's names written on them.
They are apparently painted when a wedding happens, and is a kind of an invite to everyone!
Since they don't have too much money, the paintings and the wedding info remains
till the next wedding in the family! 

The 11th century Lingaraj temple complex is beautiful, and represents the Kalinga architecture.
The guide told us that there were 107.5 lingas at this temple. 0.5 because it was incomplete. 

A photo I like very much! A vendor arranges her vegetables under the Lingaraj temple chariot. 
DHAULI
Near the Dhauli Buddhist stupa are the rock edicts of Ashoka. The language is Magadhi Prakrita and the script is early Brahmi. The edicts speak about the virtues of Dharma.  

CUTTACK
Another piece of history! Freedom fighter Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's birth place in Cuttack. It is very well maintained and has photographs, letters and objects used in this house.
One can even see the room in which he was born on 23 January 1897. It's the kind of thing that gives me goose bumps!

***

All photos: Copyright Sadhana Ramchander
Giving credit for use of photos would be appreciated

April 08, 2017

An apology to Africans

We have had a professional connect with Africa for a long time. While at ICRISAT during the eighties, we met and were friends with several scientists from Africa. One of them - Dr Kanayo Nwanze - moved to Ivory Coast after several years in Hyderabad, and gave our consultancy its first turnkey assignment, which set the ball rolling, and we will be forever grateful to him for this. We have worked and continue to work on a day-to-day basis with professionals from West and East Africa. They are honest people, dignified and committed. We consider it our good fortune to have had an opportunity to work with them. 

Africa, by the way, is not one country as many people seem to assume - it is a huge continent with 54 countries. It is the second most multi-lingual continent in the world, and their art and craft are second to none. 

I went to Africa once - to Maputo in Mozambique and Nairobi in Kenya - and was taken care of and kept safe by good, simple people in both these places. It was a wish come true when I met the accomplished Prof Monty Jones - the Sierra Leonean scientist who was responsible for a very successful hybrid variety of rice called NERICA, combining the good qualities of African rice and Asian rice. There are many more enterprising women and men I have worked with virtually, and have never met. 

However, this is not about my travels or about the people I met or worked with. It is just to state my admiration for Africans, based on my association with them. They are a gracious people, immensely talented, have a unique character and have the same kind of tehzeeb that we in Hyderabad are proud of. Treating them with disrespect or worse, attacking them because of their skin colour or wrong assumptions based on one's own ignorance is such a tragedy. 

I am not a VIP, nor am I an official in the Indian government. I am an ordinary citizen of India, and I feel compelled to write this apology for the attacks on African students in Noida. I condemn these attacks and am ashamed they happened. I offer my profound apology to the Africans to whom this treatment has been meted out. Please know that there are many of us who consider you our brothers and sisters, who respect you, and warmly welcome you to our country. Please have a safe and comfortable rest of your stay in India.  

April 02, 2017

The doggy quagmire


There's one thing even my closest friends (from my adult life) don't know about me, and that is that I am a hopeless dog lover. I come from a family where everyone, grandmother downwards, loved dogs and had their own theories about them. When I was 3 years old...we had a handsome, furry cross breed. Everyone in the house adored her and even played Holi with her, dousing her with colourful love! After this dog died, we had a Dachschund cross - Sheba - given by my aunt's friend in whose house there had been a litter. Sheba grew up and gave us eight puppies one stormy night, and pretty much like the 101 Dalmatians story, one of them almost died, washed away as it had in the open drain. Oh no, we only have seven puppies, we thought sadly. We found the pup in the garden in the morning, with a couple of black ants holding on to its skin. It was shivering and barely alive. We removed the ants with a forceps and covered it with a blanket and revived it, yes, pretty much like in the movie. And then there were eight puppies once again!

There were others - Shwetha, a Pomeranian given by a friend; the Labrador Blacky, who wasn't happy in my maternal grandmother's house, and so we brought him home. Something told me he would run away, and he did...but not before I wrote our address behind its collar. Sure enough, someone found him and called us. We went and brought him back. Blacky was big brother to Swetha and then became her puppies' uncle, and let them climb all over him! It was really cute watching them...

As an adult, I've never had dogs. One, I live in a flat, and two, Vijay has always said with finality, 'Either a dog or me'. So far, it's been him! :)

The children did ask for a pet on and off, but for the general peace of the household, and the fact that dogs needed space, the 'I-want-a-dog' demands were, sadly, discouraged. To prove her need for a pet, 6-year old Malini even had a pet ant in a box! The box was soon antless and that made her sad. When she was little, someone once gifted Ragini a small bowl with three fish. I don't like fish in a bowl or birds in a cage. So the fish soon swam free in the murky waters of Indira Park.

***

Now is a great time to keep a dog, I think on and off. Once in a while, when I forget Vijay's 'dog or me' statement, or when we have a fight, I am very tempted to get a dog. Those cute puppies videos on FB are difficult to ignore. A friend posts photos of her dog, another narrates a heart warming incident, yet another posts a slow motion video of his dog running towards the camera...aaah! difficult to smother the temptation; it is sheer torture. I too want a dog!

So once in a while, to please myself, I visualise the whole scenario of my getting a dog. "What breed should I get?" I ask myself. "I always wanted a Golden Retriever!" Excitement! I imagine a cute puppy in my house, me playing with it, training it, taking it for a walk. My children coming home and making friends with it and loving it...my heart overflows with joy at the thought.

And then the voices of my conscientious street-dog-supporting friends criticise and scoff me for thinking of getting a dog of a certain breed and not picking up one from the street. Oh, no...what will they think of me? I ask myself horrified. I open the newspaper. "Adopt a pet" columns come every week, offering dogs and cats. They don't look very cute to me because I want a Golden Retriever. They make me feel that I am a cruel person to want one, and that makes me feel worse. Then someone posts about traumatised Beagles rescued from scientific experiments, and they're up for adoption too, and I have to pass an eligibility test to get them. I am sure I will fail that test because all I really want is a Golden Retriever. But then, I look at the photos of the science dogs and my heart melts, and I begin to feel very noble...this is not for long, and I feel like a terrible, cruel, very bad person for not wanting to adopt a handicapped or a street dog.

Ah, life has become very complicated since the time I had dogs. Nothing is simple any more, neither the choice of a dog nor the way one looks after it. One friend tells me they cancelled their holiday because the temporary home where they left their dog was full up because they did not book in advance. And when I heard of what it costed to leave your dog there, my head reeled in shock. Back then, there was always someone at home to take care of the dogs while you were away.

I snap out of the reverie, and ask just for the sake of asking - "Hey, Vijay...how about getting a dog?" "Either a dog or me", comes the predictable answer, this time somehow making me relieved that I don't have to take a decision about which dog to get!

And I see my Golden Retriever run in slow motion, far away from me.

March 15, 2017

A truth dawns on me



(This post is not about Indian politics!)

We've had elections in Uttar Pradesh and a few other states, and there has been a massive win by the BJP. Congress is all but wiped out. Shiv Visvanathan wrote about this election victory, and concluded his piece with this paragraph:

"The U.P. elections show that the old covenant around the concepts we once held sacred is dead. The hegemony of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bajrang Dal combine is almost clear. What we face is what I am going to call the closure of the Indian mind. There are few possibilities of new political dreams. Mr. Modi is offering a straitjacket of a narrow idea of development and globalisation which contain no alternative possibilities, no dissent, no side bets. It is not a post-truth society we are confronting but a creation of a captive mind. This society by choosing Mr. Modi has closed itself to many great imaginations. What we see is not a new generation speaking a new liberated politics but a bowdlerised society oozing simplicities, created by the masterminds of propaganda. India, like the United States, has today become a collection of hard hat minds, facing a tragedy where the aspiration is global but the categories are parochial while masquerading themselves as national. Mr. Modi’s victory signals the victory of the parochial and affordably mediocre over any vision of the cosmopolitan or plural. Deep down it is the future which we have lost today. This is Indian democracy’s most ironic gift."

Reading this paragraph made me feel apprehensive about the future and extremely sad for India and all of us. But suddenly I realised the irony of my own thoughts. For, each of the above statements has been true of my own life where the freedom of mine - and therefore, me - has been in someone else's hands ever since I can remember. Minds have been closed to the possibility of better handling of one major situation in our lives. There are few or even no possibilities for us to dream. We have been offered a narrow solution to handling a universal issue, which contains no alternative possibilities, no dissent, no side bets. Our minds have been captive for a long time...too long. The space around us has been shut to many great imaginations for a great many years now. We too have global aspirations, but invisible walls have been put up at various levels to stop them from entering our minds. Somewhere in the future maybe there is some freedom, but we have lost yesterdays and todays. I revel in my free-spirited lifestyle, but looked at from another angle, this fact makes a mockery of my freedom.

Those who should read and will understand this won't read; those who might read will wonder what I am saying. Let it be that way. Thank you, Shiv Visvanathan, for the words. 
   

February 25, 2017

Vulture conservation at Bejjur, Telangana

I had written earlier about the fact that vultures are an endangered species in India and other parts of Asia. These posts can be found here and here. We had seen a wake* of vultures on a road trip across Himachal Pradesh in 2011, that gave us great happiness considering that by then we already knew that vultures were an endangered species. Actually, I remember seeing wakes of vultures feeding on carcasses here and there during my childhood, especially on the outskirts of a city or town while travelling by train. I also remember hating that sight, and thinking that they were scary, ugly and cruel-looking birds.

Today, I am writing the fourth blog post about vultures! What have we done to the world?


These cliffs are called Palarapu and the waterbody is called Peddavagu. They are located in the Bejjur forest, in Komaram Bheem Asifabad district, close to Kagaznagar in the northern part of Telangana, bordering Maharashtra. Apparently there were more than a hundred long billed vultures (Gyps indicus) here earlier, but owing to several reasons, the numbers dwindled. Some of the reasons, apart from deaths caused by feeding on diclofenac-injected cattle, were: water pollution because of effluents from Sirpur paper factory, lack of carcasses because most farmers sold their cattle away and never waited for them to die a natural death, and predators such as the peregrine and shaheen falcons.

This habitat was discovered in 2013. At that time, there were only about eight birds. The present count is about 24 adults and 6 chicks, taking the total to 30, which was very encouraging. When we went, we spotted three adults and one chick. Perhaps it was the time of the day - we reached the spot at about 11 am. If we had gone early in the morning, perhaps we would have seen more. The birds are up on the cliff, and are well camouflaged. It is therefore very difficult to spot them even through the binoculars. Here's a photo taken by S. Harpal Singh - The Hindu's Special Correspondent from Adilabad (full article here).


We met Mr M Ram Mohan, Bejjur Forest Range Officer, who is spearheading this effort along with Ravikanth Manchiryala, field biologist-researcher. He told us they did not want to open up this site for tourists because they would spoil the tranquil environment and that would not do the birds any good. They said that birdwatchers and people with a serious interest would be escorted to the site by the Forest Department. When we went, we were accompanied by the team, who set up a machan near Palarapu cliff. They have all the equipment to keep track of a record of the vulture numbers. The hatching of eggs and birth of every new chick is a reason for celebration, and encourages them to persist in this mission. It is a painstaking effort, but the conservation project now seems well established. 

As is done at other similar sites across India and elsewhere, there is a 'vulture restaurant' - basically a feeding site where carcasses are placed for the vultures to feed on. At first the vultures did not come to eat the animals placed there, but there was some success subsequently. This is what the site looks like -
The remains of a carcass at the feeding site
The area surrounding this is pristine and beautiful, proclaiming the absence of a certain intrusive species called homo sapiens. Peddavagu, which we had to wade through, to get to Palarapu, is clear and unpolluted, and eventually flows into the river Pranahita. You can see the Sahyadri mountain ranges from this spot - very dry at this time, but the trees of many shades made it look like a watercolour painting. 


Similar efforts have been on for much longer at the Chamorshi forests in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, about 70 km from Bejjur, and have been very successful, as mentioned in this report. 

Being in wilderness does great things to one's soul. A break from the city is always welcome! 

Our grateful thanks to Harpal Singh for his help and to the Bejjur Forest Department for considering us serious enough to be allowed into the jungle. I do hope that this mission is hugely successful, and that the vulture numbers continue to increase on the Palarapu cliff. 

  



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*'wake' refers to a group of vultures that are feeding; 
'kettle = vultures in flight; 
'committee', 'volt' and 'venue = group of vultures resting in trees

January 06, 2017

Hum, katmal aur woh!


We went for a birthday lunch and were driving back, on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There was not much traffic, and we were talking about this and that. Vijay pointed out a galli where a cousin used to stay, and I said we hadn’t gone there in a long time, and he said, yes, actually we hadn’t driven on this road in quite some time…then we tried to remember when it was that we had last come this way...The lunch must've had a tranquilising effect for as he spoke, Vijay drove right past a red light, even as the cop gestured to him and asked him to stop!

I said to myself, “The ever-alert Vijay…so obviously running a red light?! This is something new.”

So Vijay got down and went to talk to the cop. I sat in the car for a few minutes, and then decided to go stand by his side (remembered those wedding vows, “in good times and bad…”!).

I joined them and heard Vijay saying, “…give me a challan, Sir, and I will pay the fine”.

And the cop was saying, “I cannot give you a challan because I didn’t take a photo…I didn’t bring my camera with me today. So you have to…”

“What is the problem?” I butted in. “Write out a ticket and we will pay the fine”, with a stance of “Don’t you see this man can do no wrong…just let him go, now!”

“Madam…what are you people saying, “write out a challan; write out a challan”. I am telling him I didn’t bring my camera!” Impatience in his voice. 

And then he said something I had never heard before.

“He has to do duty for 1 hour as punishment.”

“What?!” I said, ready to protest and fight, when Vijay stopped me saying, “Don’t fight with him…rules are rules. Don’t question…” and so on in the 'husband voice', successfully shutting me up.

I didn’t like this one bit, and began to wonder what we should do next.

And then, from the corner of my eye, I saw a man with a phone standing on the footpath. The cop too saw him at the same time, and walked towards him, asking him what he was doing there and why he was taking a photo!

The man said, “No, I was talking on my phone. I did not take a photo”.

“Show me your photo gallery”, said the cop. "Did you take a video?" The man showed it to him. There seemed to be no photo or video of this conversation, so the cop began searching other places in the phone.

Some more discussion and argument happened between the cop and the man, the attention of the cop completely shifted from us.

Then another cop came on a motor cycle, and parked next to us.

Suddenly the earlier cop looked at us and said, “Pondi saar” (Go, sir)!

“Huh?”

“Let’s go, Vijay!” I said.

Vijay muttered, “Challan ivvara mari?”…Even as he said that, the other cop said impatiently, “We are asking you to go…just go!”

We got into the car, and started driving.

“That was a bit of luck”, I said. “It would’ve been fun to do the traffic duty for an hour, though!”

And then we saw a guy gesturing for us to stop. Vijay recognised him as the chap on the motor cycle, who, the cop thought, was taking a photo or video!

We pulled over, and asked him what he wanted.

He agitatedly told us that he had been taking a video of the conversation between the cop and us! He said, he wanted to catch the cop red-handed, asking for a bribe!

We looked at the guy with amusement, and thanked him for stopping to do this!
.
.
.
Perhaps there is hope in the world after all?

***