A tale of Hornbills

Sighting the Malabar Grey Hornbill family from my balcony

I have always maintained that hornbills are one of the coolest birds. Huge size, beautiful beaks, graceful appearance; and the males take on an awesome parental care responsibility! All you bird nerds must be knowing that it’s hard to beat a hornbill dad in the ‘Best Dad Ever’ competition. Because, when the hornbill couple decide to have a chick (or two), they find a suitable tree hollow, the male locks up the female in the hollow (now hold your horses before you start marking this as domestic abuse!), plasters the tree hollow with mud and faeces till only the beak of the female has room to come out. This, my friends, is to be their nest. The female lays eggs in this hollow, nurtures and protects the chick(s) while the male provides for the female and then the chick. Such a nest is made to protect the female and the chick from predators! While I can go on and on about hornbills, I have a story to tell today, so to know more about these amazing birds, I will direct you to this very awesome comic by Green Humour (Rohan Chakravaty) on the hornbills.

The stream behind my house
A small coconut plantation seen from the balcony

To study the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of the Tillari region in northern Western Ghats, I moved to the border of Goa-Maharashtra in a small village called Maneri. Here I stay close to my field site. My house is located near a beautiful stream and there is a small coconut plantation right behind my house. Standing in my balcony I can see this mesmerizing site and even do birdwatching from here.

Since I moved here, a Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus) couple has been visiting me every few days. Sometimes they would wake me up in the morning by pecking at the window (they do this because the windows are reflective and lot of birds get confused seeing their own reflection), other times they would just cackle (a call of the hornbill is called cackle) from the coconut tree perch outside the balcony.

Few months ago, (precisely from February end), I stopped seeing the female here. The male came infrequently but alone. I knew it was hornbill breeding season and I believed they must be nesting. Even then I worried for them. Lot of plantations near my house are being cut and ‘developed’ into buildings. I worried our hornbill couple might succumb to this developmental activities.

I had a camera of a friend for a few days and managed to click this picture of the male of Malabar Grey Hornbill during the time he used to come alone

But today morning I woke up to a hornbill chorus! I saw the male cackling outside my window. I slowly came close to the window. I heard two distinct cackles so I was looking for another hornbill and then slowly the female jumped up from the back frond of the coconut tree and joined her mate. It seemed they were announcing something, and while I looked at them, a head popped up from behind and I gaped at that because voilà! It was a chick! A juvenile little Malabar Grey hornbill! I watched all three of them cackle with tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. For about half an hour they sat there cackling, preening and the chick going on eating something.

The male on the left and the female on the right



See if you can locate all of three of them in this picture! This image is taken from my mobile from a closed window and hence this poor quality.

In the above video, notice a small head popping in the end!

I have been watching this couple and now after many months of not seeing the female, having million different worries about them, and then seeing them like this, is one of the most wonderful sights of my life! I had no idea how much I was invested in this couple until this happened. This, in my opinion, is the best way to wake up. Oh, What a beautiful Sunday morning! 🙂

“Is this a class or a fish market?”

On 27th December 2014, a pleasant Sunday morning in Mumbai, I decided to join a friend for his field work. This is a little unusual. When I say field, I and many of the people I know, usually imagine it as some kind of forest-studying animals. This friend counts the number of boats arriving at Sasoon Dock, which will enable him to determine the fish stock coming in the fishing boats. So I joined him at Sasoon Dock. I must warn you that there aren’t going to be any pictures on this post as photographing is not allowed on the dock. To say that the fishing dock is a chaos is an understatement. Sasoon Dock is one of the busiest docks of the city and was built in 1875 (quite old, huh!) by a gentleman named Albert Abdullah David Sasoon (and hence the name).

“Sassoon Dock
What a place!
So many fishes!
So crowded!”

It was 7 AM in the morning and the fisher folk were already up and about, making sure their stock got sold fastest and in maximum price. There was just so much diversity of fishes in their baskets. Fishes, crabs, prawns, stingrays. I was lucky enough to see a hammer-headed shark (unlucky for the shark because it was dead). Walking around the dock seems like a challenge to your whole existence (No, this is not an exaggeration. Try walking on the edge of the dock with hardly 6 inches space to place your foot while a super pissed fisher woman pushes you because you aren’t walking fast enough while balancing yourself and trying not to fall off in the water).

While I tried walking in a place where it seemed impossible to accommodate a fly, the local fisher people gave me passing looks of anger, amusement, pity, ridicule and disbelief. The entire one hour at Sasoon dock seemed like a second just passed. I was so numb by so much chaos but was enjoying every second of it. Not to mention, the smell was mind numbing as well. Especially for me as I have never eaten fish in my life, except once when a well-meaning aunty in Kerala fed me fish trying to convince me that it was a vegetable. (I smelled of fishes for good two hours after I had said good-bye to the place. I like to believe that I stopped smelling of fish after that).

Having never ever been to any fishing market, I never quite understood the feeling when the teachers in the class used to yell at us naughty students in the class, the statement “Is this a class or a fish market?”. Teachers, take a bow. Sasoon dock felt like I was an ant in this giant world. With all this, the friend, walking ahead of me (totally comfortable with chaos and adept at walking amidst busy and angry fisher folk) explaining different types of fishing techniques, fishing nets, fishing boats, etc. while I tried keeping up with his pace, understanding what all he said, asking him too many questions (some inappropriate for the place, i.e. “Isn’t it illegal to fish XYZ fishes?”).

While walking, we kept talking, my mind struggling to concentrate between staying alive and grasping all the knowledge that my friend had to offer. Once I almost bumped into an 8-9 ft long and narrow lorry carrying fishes that an old man was pushing amidst the crowd, but an attentive young fisherman held my hand, fairly amused at my inattentiveness, his friends laughing at my expense. The floor of the dock was all wet (obviously) and the water was pushing its way through my sandals and my socks; wetting my feet.

The walk lead to a beautiful open place where we could stand peacefully, watching the open sea that gives us bounty of fishes to eat and livelihoods to so many people who brave the storms to go out in the waters to bring us food.

We stumbled upon a chai-wallah (Tea seller) and stood sipping the tea watching Gulls and Terns foraging in the open seas along with the men in boats, both communities aiming at the same goal: catch the most. The morning scene was beautiful. On one side, there was a busy chaotic fish market selling fishes and a part of the dock which was comparatively new, was relatively empty, fishermen standing in small groups, chatting, discussing their day to day lives and enjoying the morning sunlight. Mumbai had a pleasant weather compared to cold Ahmedabad. Mornings gave a feeling of chill but failed to trap us in sweaters (thankfully!) Eventually said goodbye to the dock, carrying with me lot of memories and fish smell.

Turtles, Gharials and Dacoits of Chambal

An experience of my first visit to the beautiful Chambal which was to become my field site for first six months of 2016.

When one talks about Chambal, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is Phoolan Devi*. The famed dacoit, the savior of the downtrodden who emerged strong despite of many crimes perpetrated on her, Phoolan and ravines of Chambal are almost inseparable. Before joining Turtle Survival Alliance, all I knew about the river Chambal was Phoolan Devi and Gharials. Chambal is one of the major tributaries of the river Yamuna. It flows through three states of India, viz. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

IMG_20151101_132755299 - Copy
The sandbanks and ravines of Chambal

In my case, it all started with a desire to work on turtles and tortoises. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought turtles would bring me to Chambal. I Joined Turtle Survival Alliance-India Program in October 2015. Little did I know that this river would be a home to some of the most beautiful, yet little-known,  species of the world.

A view of Chambal from the boat

My first visit to Chambal was a long 6 hours drive from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. We were traveling to our field site, a small village named Garhaita, on the banks of river Chambal. Our group consisted of 5 people, including me. The drive from Lucknow was a long and tiring one, but the conversation with my colleagues kept it interesting. As we neared Chambal, the landscape changed. The famous Chambal ‘ghati’** started becoming visible. The expanse of water and the yellowish golden sand! We decided to take a break and got down at a bridge to have a look at the river. Because of the river being home to some of the most threatened animals of the world, the entire river is declared as a Protected Area named National Chambal (tri-state) Sanctuary covering the entire stretch, from its origin in Madhya Pradesh, flowing into Rajasthan then back to Madhya Pradesh and to its confluence with Yamuna In Uttar Pradesh, giving the animals much needed protection.

Humans and animals peacefully coexisting

As soon as we got down, hardly a minute had passed, and we could see turtles surfacing up the water! In a very short span of time, we saw five turtles of two different species, Tent turtle (Pangshura species) and Indian softshell (Nilssonia gangeticus)! My past experience was working on all herpetofauna (Amphibians and reptiles) except turtles. So all I could make out was a turtle surfacing while my colleagues kept throwing names like no big deal. “Oh there is (Batagur) dhongoka” “Oh look at that huge (Nilssonia) gangetica” and I marveled at their knowledge!

An Indian-tent turtle seen from the bridge

Cursing myself for my rotten luck as I couldn’t take any photos (my camera had given up and stopped working), I merely watched the turtles, craving to capture the amazing sightings they were giving us. Engrossed in turtles, I almost jumped when I heard a colleague exclaim “there, dolphin”. And there it was! A Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) swimming away, surfacing every few minutes to breathe. We also saw Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) and Muggers (Crocodylus palustris). I had seen Gharials in the zoos before. But seeing a Gharial in its own territory where it is the king of the waters is a sight to behold! A full grown adult Gharial male can grow upto 20 feet (which is 4 times my length).And when an adult Gharial moves in the water, it is grace personified. So swift and smooth is its movement that one almost thinks that it is moving without putting any effort to it. Here Muggers and Gharials live side by side. Chambal is a treasure trove for herpetologists. Not only it has two of the three crocodilians of India, Chambal also has 8 species of turtles and many species of snakes in the scrubs along its banks. On the river, one can sight Red-crowned roofed turtles (Batagur kachuga), Three-striped roofed turtle (Batagur dhongoka) and Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra indica) to name a few. The sand banks and the small sand islands in the river is a critical nesting habitat of rare birds like Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis) and Black-bellied terns (Sterna acuticauda). It was wildlife galore in the water! Never had I seen a river which offered such a treat to the eyes.

A beautiful Gharial majestically swimming

Having heard a lot about the dacoits of the Chambal ravines, I was wondering whether we would encounter any of them. I had pictured dacoits trotting off on their horses with their old-fashioned rifles (all thanks to watching the Bollywood movie ‘Sholay’ numerous times) coming down from some far off hills to loot people. But of course there were no more dacoits left in Chambal. Phoolan Devi was murdered and rest of them either surrendered to the police or stopped operating. It was quite disappointing to find out that the dacoits of Chambal, when existed, always traveled, looted and carried out their activities on foot, unlike my ‘Sholay#’ imagination.

I have stood on many bridges before, pondered about life, have watched numerous sunsets, watched fishermen busy collecting their catch, shared a few romantic conversations, watched birds on the banks of the rivers and flying above, but never have I seen a river which has so much life in that small stretch of water. Unlike river Ganga, Yamuna and Narmada, Chambal is not worshipped. It doesn’t fall under the category of ‘river Goddess’, and probably that is the very reason why it has been so clean. Not many people burn their dead on its banks, they do not worship her, do not put all the ‘religious’ discard here. (Almost) untouched by humans, Chambal remains one of the cleanest rivers of the country.

While on the bridge, I wondered how long is it going to stay the same? If not polluted, the threats of sand-mining and poaching still remains. Gharials and some of the species of turtles like the Red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) and the three-striped roofed turtles (Batagur dhongoka) are the indicators of the clean water and healthy river ecosystem. And these are the ones facing major threat from loss of their nesting habitat owing to sand-mining as they need sand dunes for nesting.

A Gharial basks at the base of a bridge

Chambal was to be my field site for coming months and here I was stationed since January 2016 till June 2016. Chambal amazes me with such sightings. And when I see entire sandbanks being cleared in a matter of merely 5 days, I wonder how long? Where will all the turtles and Gharials go for nesting? Where will the waders probe for insects? Where will the skimmers nest? What about the black-bellied tern? With these thoughts I sign off. I shall write about the amazing bird diversity that Chambal offers in a coming few days. For that, stay tuned!

A glimpse of bird diversity of Chambal

*Phoolan Devi: Also known as a bandit queen of India, she was a dacoit and later a Member of Parliament.

**Ghati is a Hindi term for a ravine. Also valley sometimes.

#Sholay Trivia: The village Ramgadh shown in the movie Sholay was actually a fictional village (obviously. Didn’t you read the disclaimer? Any resemblance to person or place is…blah blah). Incidentally, there is a village named Ramgadh along the banks of river Chambal which was also plagued by dacoits, like many other villages along this river.

The Bird and the Tide

The bird and the tide

I wait and wait

Anxious for the liquid to go back

The tide they call is yet to recede

And so at the beach, I wait.

Slowly I see, the powerful sea

Gently in her flow making a roll

Going back opening the shore

For us, her waiting children.

I see my kind

Flocking ashore, for the beach is bare

And there is so much to share

She brought us the treasure of the deep.

The gift of the mother sea

Is enough for all of us to feed

The kind and powerful mother

For your kindness, we thank thee.

Illustration of the bird who waits for the tide to recede drawn in my diary to go with the poem.

The story behind this poem:

When I used to work at Centre for Environment Education, Science Education was a part of my job and I used to take nature trails, stay on camps as science educator, take lectures in universities, etc. In a marine camp (A typical marine camp looks like this), we had students of Mahatma Gandhi International School, Ahmedabad over for two and a half days of camping at the shores of Beyt Dwarka. The teaching style and teachers of this school is very creative. Ms. Amla Shukla, One of the teachers accompanying with the students was taking a session on creative writing, where in she asked the students to gather early morning on the beach, instructed them to observe the beach, become one of the elements and think of the tide from that element’s point of view and then note down what would that element feel about the swelling and receding tide. Once you have the feelings written, weave these feelings into a poem and then illustrate your poem (She had a box full of pencil colors, sharpeners and erasers!). I found this so refreshing from normal boring classroom sessions of poetry that even I participated. The outcome was this poem written above and the illustration below that.

Exploring Sanchi: Its History and Wildlife

I happened to visit Sanchi unexpectedly. While travelling to Bhopal which is a capital of Madhya Pradesh, a state in Central India,on 5th of June, I had a spare day in hand and since I had nothing better to do, I decided to pay Sanchi a visit. Sanchi is roughly 43 km from the city of Bhopal and is well-connected by frequent buses and trains. An hour’s journey and you reach Sanchi.

Welcome to Sanchi!
Welcome to Sanchi!

Sanchi has the oldest and most well preserves stupas in India. Not only stupas but there are temples, pillars and other monuments which record the origin, rise and the fall of Buddhist art and architecture in India from the period of third century BC to twelfth century AD, spanning the period of thirteen hundred years.

Sanchi is supposedly the birth place of Buddhism in India. The first stupa at Sanchi was built by the Maurya emperor Ashoka during his reign in 3rd Century BC. It was a simple structure at first, later in First century BC four ornamental torans (gateways) were added to it.

A beautiful view
A beautiful view
Stupa 1: The main stupa. It has 4 torans (gateways)
Stupa 1: The main stupa. It has 4 torans (gateways)
Backside of one of the torans (gateways)
Backside of one of the torans (gateways)
Toran of Stupa 1
Toran of Stupa 1
Stupa 1 and 3 have staircases to climb up for circumabulation  (pradakshina)
Stupa 1 and 3 have staircases to climb up for circumabulation (pradakshina)
carvings on one of the entrance of stupa 1
carvings on one of the entrance of stupa 1
Buddha statue in Stupa 1
Buddha statue in Stupa 1
Stupa 1 seen from the back side
Stupa 1 seen from the back side

Over the period of time, many more structures were added. Today at Sanchi, we can see 27 monuments which include stupas, temples, pillars, begging bowl, monasteries, shrines, etc.

Remains of a monastery
Remains of a monastery
One of the temples
One of the temples
Stupa 3 and its toran
Stupa 3 and its toran

Sanchi is nested on a hill top of Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. Being protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, wildlife flourishes here. I saw a variety of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals during my visit to Sanchi. In birds, most notable sighting was of Crested bunting male and female feeding on the lawn in front of the Stupa 1, Brown rock chats on the stone structures, woodpeckers pecking on the grounds, sunbirds, tailor birds, Brahminy myna, Black drongo and Indian and Oriental Magpie robins. Common garden lizards were strutting in the lawns, on trees and on sheltered rocks. Butterflies like lemon pansy, blue pansy, yellows, blues, tailed jays were fluttering around and were a delight to watch. But my most cherished sighting was so unexpected that I almost squealed in delight enough to startle the animal.

A terrible picture of Crested bunting as a record shot
A terrible picture of Crested bunting as a record shot
Chilled out Brown rock chats who let me come so close to them that I could take good picture even with my mobile!
Chilled out Brown rock chats who let me come so close to them that I could take good picture even with my mobile!

While walking from the stupa 1 to Stupa 2, one has to climb down to a lower altitude. The stairs are made of stones surrounded by huge rocks and shrubbery. At the stupa 2, there is an artificial pond from where the pipelines carry the water to stupa 1. One of the pipelines was leaking a little and water was dripping out where many birds had come to drink water which had accumulated on the ground. I, being severely dehydrated from the hot summer of central India and temperatures flaring to 43 degrees and giving the feel of 47 degrees, went to this water and gave myself a good splash on face. Here is when I saw a movement and saw something like a mongoose hiding and watching me, equally surprised at my presence. I almost passed it thinking it was a common mongoose, but had to almost jump in excitement after putting back my spectacles on seeing that it was a ruddy mongoose! I had read a lot about ruddy mongoose and seen it in pictures and always wanted to see one myself, but this encounter took me by a complete surprise. I saw the mongoose a lot of times during my climb down to the stupa 2, but unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying my camera with me and mobile camera’s zoom wasn’t enough for the mongoose. But the sight of that beautiful mongoose with its tail tip pointing to sky as if an antenna will remain etched in my memory forever.

The habitat where I spotted Ruddy mongoose
The habitat where I spotted Ruddy mongoose
A view from stupa 2 showing the path that leads to it and the greenery nearby
A view from stupa 2 showing the path that leads to it and the greenery nearby
Path leading to Stupa 2
Path leading to Stupa 2

After climbing down to stupa 2, I dipped my feet in the pond, sat there observing many damselflies, dragonflies and skittering frogs that inhabited the pond and the lush green vegetation around it provided the much need cool air. That was the last monument to be seen at the place and after having a nice hot and strong coffee, I said good bye to Sanchi.

Stupa 2
Stupa 2
On the entrance of stupa 2
On the entrance of stupa 2
Stupa 2
Stupa 2
A view from where I was sitting
A view from where I was sitting
A stray dog cooling himself in the pond water
A stray dog cooling himself in the pond water
Enjoying the activity of dragonflies near the pond
Enjoying the activity of dragonflies near the pond

Buddhism speaks a lot about non-violence, conserving environment and wildlife and about not harming the animals. The unplanned visit brought much-needed peace to my mind and the sightings of wildlife made one of the best ‘World Environment Day’s I had!

Mango trees are done fruiting by now. New leaves are budding as monsoon is on the horizon. There is a story of magical mango tree in buddhism. I saw this one in what looked like a mango orchard outside the stupa campus.
Mango trees are done fruiting by now. New leaves are budding as monsoon is on the horizon.
There is a story of magical mango tree in buddhism. I saw this one in what looked like a mango orchard outside the stupa campus.
Good bye Sanchi. Going back to Bhopal
Good bye Sanchi. Going back to Bhopal

Udaipur in Photographs: Day 2

Enjoy the Udaipur in many photos of its various delightful locales it has to offer. Drenched in history, culture and andcient traditions, Udaipur is one of the most favoured tourist destinations in India.

We saw a part of Udaipur in my previous post. The second day at Udaipur was quite eventful as well.

We woke up leisurely and went to Govinda’s cafe for breakfast. It is a small and humble cafeteria serving breakfast near Lalghat guest house. After having filling breakfast of two cheese omelette, one plain omelette, a banana pancake (super delicious and must try!), two ginger-lemon-honey tea and one masala chai between three of us, we roamed the streets and shopped for colourful and bright ethnic clothes.

Colourful clothes on sale at one of the road-side shop.
Colourful clothes on sale at one of the road-side shop.
A street near the city palace of Udaipur
A street near the city palace of Udaipur

After shopping, we had lunch at Rainbow multi-cuisine restaurant which serves delicious ker sangri- a typical Rajasthani spicy curry made of beans and berries which are unique to Rajasthan. We relaxed a bit and then my friends left for Ahmedabad while I carried on with my Udaipur sight-seeing.

I visited Bagore ki haveli in the afternoon. It is a beautiful haveli built in 18th century by Amir Chand Badwa, Prime Minister of the Mewar State. It has more than 100 rooms and now it has been converted into a museum where there are various artifacts at display, turban museum, paintings and musical instruments open to public display.

Entry of the Gangour ghat  and the entry of the Bagore ki haveli next to it.
Entry of the Gangour ghat and the entry of the Bagore ki haveli next to it.
Bagore ki haveli entrance
Bagore ki haveli entrance
Prince Charming. Any takers?
Prince Charming. Any takers?
Puppet museum in Bagore ki haveli.
Puppet museum in Bagore ki haveli.

As I was walking across the corridor of the haveli, I met a painter named Pinku. I saw him painting and was totally amazed at his skill in producing smallest details. Very creative, he drew a nice art on my thumb nail.

Pinku's gift for appreciating his paintings. So humble!
Pinku’s gift for appreciating his paintings. So humble!
Beautiful glass window in one of the rooms of the haveli.
Beautiful glass window in one of the rooms of the haveli.
Learning to take selfie!
Learning to take selfie!
For public display at the haveli
For public display at the haveli
Disco lights, or are they?
Disco lights, or are they?
One of the exhibit of turban museum. Turban museum has exhibits of different types of turbans worn by varied castes, sects and communities of the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra
One of the exhibits of turban museum. Turban museum has exhibits of different types of turbans worn by varied castes, sects and communities of the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra
Terrace of the haveli
Terrace of the haveli
Haveli's compound
Haveli’s compound
Gangour ghat een from the terrace of the haveli
Gangour ghat seen from the terrace of the haveli

After spending good two and half hours at the haveli,. I went and had green tea at Cafe Edelweiss. I was disappointed by the ticket vendor when he told me the city palace wasnt open to public that day because of a wedding going on. But I was free to roam on the grounds outside the palace. So I took that chance and walked about the grounds.

City palace
City palace
The entry of the city palace
The entry of the city palace

Evening was pleasant and windy. After having dinner at Rainbow restaurant, I went off to bed. Next day I was to leave for Mount Abu early morning.

Udaipur is a beautiful city and traveller friendly. It has no pompous air around it and one can easily lounge about on her own. The city has perfect mix of places for travellers around the world. Lakes, forts, palaces, shopping places, great places to eat, etc. Two days aren’t quite enough and I am hoping to return here someday again and explore Sajjangarh wildlife sanctuary, Saheliyo ki badi, city palace and other places that Udaipur has to offer. But whether you tick off all the places in Udaipur or you just spend time dipping your feet in Gangour ghat, it is worth it.

An art in My espresso love cafe
An art in My espresso love cafe

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Manjula, who left us for heavenly abode. She was very fond of travelling and the last pictures and stories we shared was of this Udaipur trip. You will be sorely missed, friend.

Udaipur in Photographs: Day 1

Enjoy the Udaipur in many photos of its various delightful locales it has to offer. Drenched in history, culture and andcient traditions, Udaipur is one of the most favoured tourist destinations in India.

I was to bid Adieu to Ahmedabad, the city of Gujarat where I spent my past three and half years. Ahmedabad has many tourist destinations close by and Udaipur is one of them. Since I had never been there, I decided to travel to Udaipur before I leave Ahmedabad with two other friends. Just 261 km from Ahmedabad, it hardly takes 5 hours, an overnight journey by a sleeper bus and you are almost there. I left for Udaipur by a sleeper bus on the night of 1st April 2015.

The view from the inside of the bus that took me to Udaipur
The view from the inside of the bus that took me to Udaipur

I reached the next morning on 2nd of April 2015 and joined two of my friends who had already reached the previous day. We stayed at Lalghat Guest House, a comfortable hotel. You get a range of staying options, from a small single room with shared toilets (which are super clean) to lake-view room with a huge balcony all at a very affordable price.

A view from the terrace of the Lalghat guest house
Lounge area at Lalghat guest house.

On the first day, we visited the Jagdish temple, dipped our feet and spent a lazy morning at Gangour ghat, had breakfast at Café Edelweiss and lunch at Lotus Café. Café Edelweiss is a nice cozy place to eat. The German Bakery in the café serves nice pastries, baked goodies and sweets.

The first place we visited in Udaipur. The Jagdish temple.
Jagdish temple was constructed by Maharaja Jagat Singh the first in 1651.
The temple is carved out from sandstones
The carvings at the temple show life of many Gods and Goddesses
Women going about their business while the tourists flock at Gangour ghat at Pichola lake
This platform at Gangour ghat is used for performances during Gangour festival. Everyday morning, people come and feed the pigeons. Parrots and cows join them too occasionally.

After having lunch, we visited monsoon palace in the afternoon. The monsoon palace is also known as Sajjangarh palace and was named after Maharaja Sajjan Singh of Mewar dynasty who built the palace in 1884. It is situated high in the Aravalli hills at the height of 932.6 MSL. Here you will come across a neglected board which informs us of the amazing architectural skill of the architects of those days in conservation of water.

IMG_650064 As we entered the palace, we were greeted by a pleasant sight of a young kitten suckling on an old Labrador mother.

The cat baby and dog mother. The cat though believed that he was dog and refused to clean himself as cats usually do. Seen at Monsoon palace.
The monsoon palace at Sajjangadh once housed the Royals. Now it houses the nature. Swallow and wasp nests and beehive.
Scenic view from the monsoon palace
Sprawling city of Udaipur seen from the monsoon palace
A view from the balcony of the monsoon palace
Enjoying the serenity of the place. It was super windy!

We then hogged at an old sweet mart in the town. People travelling to Udaipur, do not miss moong dal kachori, pyaaz kachori, mirchi pakora and sweets at JMB (Jagdish Mishtan Bhandar) sweet shop.

Evening was spent watching a traditional dance and music performance at Bagore ki Haveli, located next to Gangour ghat. Everyday skilled artists perform from 7 PM onwards. The show is open to all after paying a minimal fee.

Very cool puppetry performance! Brought back lot of childhood memories.
Very cool puppetry performance! Brought back lot of childhood memories.
Women performing dance which women of the earlier days performed doing their day-to-day chores. Quite talented women of those days!
Women performing dance which women of the earlier days performed doing their day-to-day chores. Quite talented women of those days!
This 68 year old lady performed a dying form of dance. Earlier, women had to fetch water from very faraway places. They kept themselves entertained by various dances and songs.
This 68-year-old lady performed a form of dance which is not performed by local ladies anymore. Earlier, women had to fetch water from very faraway places. They kept themselves entertained by various dances and songs.

After dipping our feet in the cool waters of Gangaur ghat and relaxing for a while, we had dinner at hotel Lake View, which true to its name, has a beautiful lake view. One can watch the serene lake waters and have dinner. We retired to bed after a busy yet interesting first day at Udaipur.

I shall share the interesting events of the second day in the upcoming post. Stay tuned!

Update: Udaipur in Photographs: Day 2 can be viewed here.

Camp Life at Beyt Dwarka

Marine camps are conducted by Centre for Environment Education (CEE) Sundarvan at Beyt Dwarka, an island on the western most tip of Gujarat. Beyt stands for an island in Gujarati. Beyt Dwarka is 27.4 sq. km. island of mainly scrub vegetation surrounded by a bounty of marine shore biodiversity. It experiences tropical maritime climate. Storms and cyclones are a part of Beyt life in monsoon. While summers are characterized by scorching heat which starts by the end of February, winters during the months of November, December and January are full of tempestuous winds.

The tents for the camps are raised on a long stretch of sand at the end of the island called Dunny point. Dwarka, even though separated from Kutch by the Arabian Sea, was better connected historically to Kutch than Saurashtra, as the fishermen and traders used the sea route to reach Beyt. Hence people of Beyt Dwarka speak Kutchi which is a dialect of Gujarati. In Kutchi language, a heap of sand is called ‘Duno’ and over the period of time, this stretch of sandy land started being called Dunny point. This stretch of land forms its own separate island as it separates out even from Beyt by the sea during highest of tides on New moon and full moon days.

Basic tents made up of gunny bags are raised by making structure of long and strong bamboos to stand the wind. There are about 10 tents. Right after the tents, there are separate toilets cabins, made with gunny bags again, for girls and boys. Toilets are made by fixing commode in sand using sandbags and make-shift septic tank. There are no bathrooms. The sea functions as bathroom.

Tents for the participants
Kitchen and dining space

Camps start from the end of November and usually continue till the end of February. These are the best months as the temperatures are tolerable as compared to the scorching heat of summers and stormy winds of monsoon. The sea water is clear and the shores host an array of migratory birds during these months. Batches after batches of students of schools, colleges and universities, science clubs, sports clubs and families arrive in the camps. A typical batch spends 2.5 days at the camp.

 Arrival is usually arranged by Sundarvan which is to board a ferry from Okha, a nearby town in coastal Gujarat. Most groups are lucky enough to see dolphins while they arrive at Beyt in the morning. They are greeted with basic vegetarian breakfast and tea. If the batch is of younger students, they are given bournvita as well. It is difficult to get milk at Beyt and hence milk powder is preferred. After coming, they rest for a while and then based on the time of high tide, are made to bathe in sea water. As soon as they arrive, they are given clear instructions on the basic rules of the camp. Then through next two and half days, they are taken for reef walks, bird watching and plant diversity trek to Hanuman dandi, games on the beach, sessions on adaptations of marine biodiversity, tides and ebbs, waves and star-gazing. Campfire is lit on one of the nights. At sunsets and sunrises, yoga and meditation are conducted.

Beach cleaning exercise done by the students of Mahatma Gandhi International School
Students of Mahatma Gandhi International School learning about mangroves
Visually challenged girls of Pragnachakshu Mahila Seva Kunj learning about Rock Oysters
Preparing checklist on the last day of a batch

Reef walks are conducted in the inter-tidal zone, the zone between the highest and lowest tide, when the tide is at its lowest. Beaches to most participants mean sun and sand. But here at the walk, they see the bouquet of life-forms exposed by the receding tide. Marine creatures like Carpet anemone, Sea-cucumber, and Flatworms are mostly new to the participants and organisms like starfishes and octopus are fascinating as these are often only have been seen by them on TV or studied in text-books.

A live shell
Carpet anemone
Species of Cushion starfish
Sea Cucumber, the vulture of the sea world

We commonly see birds like Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata), Western Reef egret (Egretta gularis) , Grey heron (Ardea cinerea), Gulls (Larus spp), Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Sand plovers (Charadrius spp), Crab plover (Dromas ardeola)  and other small and big waders. What we see on field is discussed in detail during the talks on adaptations of different animals to adapt to the marine life, beaks and feet of birds customized to hunt and feed on the platter of the sea food, how the tides and ebbs affect the life of the creatures that live on the sea-shore or the inter-tidal zone and how the climate change affects the sea life. Students are often amazed to find the connections that everything is linked and that deforestation is equally damaging to the seas as it is to the land.

Sand plovers and Terek sandpiper
Oriental darter
Ruddy turnstone, commonly seen wader near camp-site
Grey heron

Participants show their creativity in making sand-castles, some of them are inspired to write beautiful poetries and some love to sketch and paint. Once in the water, it becomes difficult for the instructors to pull them out after the swim! At camp-fire, we all sing, some of them dance, and we laugh at some great and some poor jokes, recite poetry, perform skits and mimicry and in all enjoy each others’ company.

A fort and a fortress. Entry only through tunnel. Creativity by the student members of Narmada Nigam Community Science Center
Up so high!

The activities are hence a mix of knowledge-based sessions, physical activities such as treks and exercises and fun at games and campfire. Being away from civilization and a life away from social media, students realize the importance of friends. The basic life at the camp makes them understand the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Kids often go back with the understanding for core human values, dignity of labour, respect for each living being and survival with bare essentials.

The camp activities and facilities are designed in such a way as to give the most basic survival training to the participants of the camp. Here, one has to wash their own dishes, share toilets, eat the most basic food and live without electricity. While drinking water is provided from filtered drinking water (using Reverse Osmosis) cans brought from the mainland Okha, the nearest town or from Beyt, this water is strictly for drinking purpose only. Washing face, brushing and bathing is not allowed using this water. At Beyt, one has to make friends with salty water and sand. You brush your teeth with salty water of the sea, bathe in sea and whenever you want to sprinkle water on your face, you rush to the shore and use the sea water. Sand is going to make its home in everything you possess. Your clothes, pouches, watches, books, mattresses, sleeping bags, phone crevices and even in your headphones. Not to mention how close friends your body and sand will become. You eventually start smelling of the sea and tasting of salt. Soaps will not foam and hence you will eventually give up bringing a bucketful of sea water and trying to bathe someplace private. For instructors, there are VIP tents. The only difference is they get their own toilet, which is a relief as participants stay only for two and half days but instructors stay on for weeks and many a times for months altogether.

Tent of the instructors. There are two tents in this. One on the left was my home during my days at Marine camps.

Life at Beyt Dwarka, even though full of hardships is made memorable with the care of fellow colleagues, friendships, beautiful and mesmerizing rising and setting sun and ever powerful and welcoming sea. The shore life never disappoints you. Each batch of students is different and more often than not, instructors end up getting attached. More philosophical beings say that one should look at the batches as one looks through binoculars. You watch and focus, but not click as on does in a camera. Let them pass. By the end of camps, the instructors, too, go back wiser, kinder and more patient and hoping to return for the next season for new picture and awaiting new adventures.


A Chance Encounter At Satpura

Some field experiences live with you forever. One such incident has been etched in my memory forever. It occurred when I visited Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh early this year in January. I had merged my work trip and vacation; and hence right after completing my work in Pachmarhi, I stayed in Madhai, an ecotourism venture of the Satpura Tiger Reserve, a two hours drive from Pachmarhi.

A beautiful view on the trail in Satpura Tiger Reserve
A relaxed Sambar doe on the banks of a lake in Satpura

A very good friend, David, hosted me at Forsyth Lodge located in Madhai. Here I stayed for 3 days. The lodge is located on the edge of Satpura Tiger Reserve and the enchanting 44 acre land of Forsyth’s looks no different than a forest. A little walk in the campus of the lodge itself, one can often sight Mottled wood owl, Oriental honey buzzard, Quails, Indian hare and occasional visits from the leopard. Colorful butterflies, wolf spiders and dragonflies are abundant on the campus.

A view form one of the cottages at Forsyth Lodge

The  incident I am about to narrate occurred when David; one more naturalist, a jeep driver, a forest officer and I set out for a night safari in the buffer zone of the Satpura Tiger Reserve. As we left, I could feel my heart beats rising thinking of the possibility of my first encounter with the leopard. During the safari, we spotted Eagle owl (Bubo bubo), quite a few Nightjars (Caprimulgus species) and scurrying hares out of bushes. We were nearing the end of the safari, but there was still no sight of the leopard. A little disappointed, I wondered when I would ever get to see those great big cats in the wild atleast once! We were returning and somehow I had the feeling that I won’t see my leopard in Satpura.

A Nightjar on the safari road

Suddenly the Forest Officer spotted some movement in the huge Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) tree on the way back close to the main road to the Lodge. Flood lights in the direction and we realized two Civets were foraging (searching for food) on the tree unaffected by the flood of light thrown on them. We pulled out our binoculars to have a better look but it was so dark that we could barely see anything. The only available light was the flood light. Slowly we were approaching the tree and the civets happily enjoying whatever they were eating, didn’t bother to stop. We were so engrossed in watching the civets, that we didn’t realize one of them was actually coming right down the tree in our direction completely unaware that humans were waiting under the tree in a jeep watching her come down. (I am feminizing the civet, but I really have no clue what was its gender).

We had our breaths frozen as we saw how close a wild animal was approaching humans which it would avoid in usual circumstances. This one was unlike any of them. Call her a fool or very bold, she kept coming closer and closer until she was at arm’s length. We were trying not to bat an eyelid and remain as calm as possible. Only David’s fingers moved on the camera and the only sound heard were its clicks. She was completely unaware of our existence – just a mere metre away and kept happily sniffing the ground for food, she walked away in slow motion. We were so surprised by this amazing sighting that David and I stood still looking at each other lest the incident might just vanish from our memory in a puff of breath. It was such a magical moment; we were completely shaken by the sheer amazement of how close the civet had come! We slowly realized the reality of the moment and that it wasn’t a dream, hugged each other out of sheer joy of one the best wildlife moments we had experienced. With this experience, we finished our night safari and returned back to the lodge.

The Civet which blessed us with one of the best wildlife experience.

 I wasn’t so sad after all that I hadn’t seen a tiger or a leopard yet. The civet sighting made my day. 🙂

Croaking Ambanaad

I came to Kerala first time in May 2010. I was a Masters’ student doing Wildlife Biology. My subject being one of those which can’t be studied in the classrooms, I was looking for opportunities for field work for summer internship. A little search led me to Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning aka FERAL (the organization though worked mainly on wild animals :D) I was to work in the southern Western Ghats, in a place called Ambanaad Estate. This estate falls in Kollum district of Kerala in the region called Aryankavu. In the nearby area, dense forests of Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, Thenmala Forest Reserve, Ranni and Konni Reserve Forests and Achankovil Reserve Forests are located which makes it one of the best places for wildlife.

Roughly 500m above sea level, Ambanaad estate has rubber as major plantation followed by some coffee and tea at higher elevations. We had been given a field station to stay which was once a medical clinic. Right behind my field station was a beautiful hill which had mixed patches of grass and montane forests (Shola vegetation). I shared the field station with two ladies and two guys who worked on vegetation sampling and large mammal monitoring, and seven field assistants who helped us all with our respective tasks. My task here was to study amphibians and reptiles.

A view from the field site

Neither of the researchers, including me was from Kerala and didn’t know Malayalam but the field assistants even though native to Tamil Nadu knew the language which helped us communicate with local people of the estate. Living under one roof gave us opportunity to know each other better. The atmosphere remained cordial. All the other researchers being senior to me, helped me understand field work better and the field assistants always helped me on the field. The field assistant who always accompanied me was Sathish. Extremely jolly by nature, he taught me to how to climb and overcome the tough terrains of Southern Western Ghats, played pranks, called me Kovilpatti Veeralaxmi* (because I always carried an aruvaal, a sickle-shaped weapon that the tribals use to cut grasses or bamboos or small trees on the field) and even tried teaching me Kalaripayattu (a form of Indian martial art).

Now you know why he called me Kovilapatti Veeralakshmi!
Now you know why he called me Kovilapatti Veeralakshmi!
Sathish teaching me Kalariyapttu
Sathish teaching me Kalariyapttu

Every morning after having tea and breakfast together, we used to disperse for our respective field sites. While others used to go for vegetation sampling and large mammal monitoring in different parts of estates, I and Sathish used to go and look for frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, turtles, etc. and record the data. After field work, we used to have fun clicking pictures of all the animals and plants that we came across- butterflies, dragonflies, bugs, beetles, millipedes, scorpions, wild flowers, interesting plants, etc.

As the time passed, my checklist of frogs kept getting longer. The best of the sightings was that of the Purple frog, the relic species whose closest relatives lie in Seychelles! Learning behaviour of the frogs, snakes camouflaged in the leaf litter, tarantulas basking on the tree bark after a good rain, scorpions scurrying on the road, Rat snakes in combat for the territories are some of the best memories of my field work in Ambanaad. Everyday there was something new to learn. We named the streams after the animals found there, eg. the Rhacophorus stream, the damselfly stream, etc!

The Purple Frog
The Purple Frog

Ambanaad being at such an elevation and surrounded by forests remained cool and pleasant in terms of weather. The place never received mobile connectivity. To make mobile phone calls one needed to walk some distance to the higher elevation be able to connect to the mobile network. The mobile phones were instead used as alarm clocks! Not to forget the peace and quiet that lack of connectivity from human-dominated landscapes can give you. The field station not being designed for the purpose of human residence lacked proper water supply. We had to keep a few buckets of water stored for use and had to go to the nearest stream to bathe. The bathes always ended up us walking up to streams dirty and returning back a little less dirty, all thanks to the shrubs, bushes and muddy pathways on our return journey. The only difference bathing did to us was the amount of dirt that we carried! Bathing was a chore and we avoided it as much as possible until someone revolted to our stench 😀

Ambanaad had become my home and the experience taught me a lot. The experience was made special all thanks to the forests, beautiful misty view every morning, perfect work, so many frogs, great field station, and funny and caring field assistant and great colleagues and supervisor. The month passed quickly and soon I had to return back to my college in Tamil Nadu. But the experience made such an impact that I returned back for my Masters’ dissertation a year and a half later about which I have another story to tell!

To this day, Ambanaad remains one of my favorite places and I feel that it is one of the most beautiful places I have been to. Not only the estate, but I am totally in love with Kerala’s scenic beauty and biodiversity. Some day I will be there. May be for a real long time!

*Veeralakshmi: A woman from Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu who revolted against inhuman treatment against Dalits by the local Police Force.