The Blacksmith …

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Walking through a small town in Rajasthan I came across a blacksmith at work. Not an uncommon sight but this man had drawn a bit of a crowd which seemed more to do with the banter which was going on than any particular interest in his work.

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The lady behind the smith works a twin bellows. By alternating between them she provides a continuous blast of air. When the smith places his work on the anvil another man will deliver the necessary heavy blows with a large hammer. The smith does the fine hammering himself.

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As you can see there is a smile on every face. A lady in the crowd has just called out loudly, another member of the crowd was kind enough to translate for me …

Don’t photograph that stupid piece of iron. Take photos of me!

Bishnoi …

Whilst in Rajasthan I was lucky enough to visit a Bishnoi village.

These are followers of Guru Jambheshwar who was born in Rajasthan in 1451. He enunciated bis nai, ie twenty nine, principles by which life should be led. The principles cover hygiene, social interaction, the avoidance of intoxicants and a reverance for living creatures and trees. Bishnoi people will not kill animals or cut green trees, indeed, on occasion they have given their lives to protect nature. They are vegetarian and traditionally do not wear blue clothes because blue dye was formerly made from large quantities of shrubs. They take care with the dead wood that they use as firewood to ensure it is free of insects.

In 1730 Maharajah Abhay Singh of Jodhpur required wood for the construction of his new palace. He sent his men to fell a large number of trees at Khejarli.  They were resisted by Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi woman who, along with more than 363 other Bishnois, died trying to save the trees. Some are buried at Khejarli where an annual gathering of Bishnoi commemorate their sacrifice. The tradition still survives, on January 29th this year a young Bishnoi man was killed trying to defend Indian Antelope or Chinkara from poachers. He was shot dead when he grabbed hold of one of the poachers.

A Bishnoi elder by his house.
A Bishnoi elder by his house.
A Bishnoi woman thickening milk.
A Bishnoi woman thickening milk.

Vulture …

Vultures were once a very common sight in India. Cows are kept for milk but very few ever end up on a plate. Of the estimated 500 million head of cattle in India, only 4% are destined for consumption by humans as meat. Dead cows have traditionally been vulture food.

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It was noticed in the 1990’s that vulture numbers were in decline. The decline became precipitous. Vultures are now rare in India. In my recent trip to India I saw about ten individuals of two species, Egyptian Vulture and around the rocky outcrops at Siana, Indian Vulture.

The decline has led to an increase in feral dogs and rats. These have brought an increase in rabies, anthrax and plague. India now accounts for about 30,000 deaths from rabies each year, more than half the entire world’s total. 70% of victims are children under fifteen. Do not pat or feed the village dogs.

The cause of Vulture decline is diclofenac poisoning. This is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that has been used extensively in veterinary practice and also in humans. The first signs of toxicity are lethargy and a drooping neck. It is followed by renal failure and death within two days. I have used diclofenac for the occasional bout of trochenteric tendonitis. Sadly I am unfit for vulturine consumption.

The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan banned veterinary use of the painkiller diclofenac in 2006. A safe alternative exists in Meloxicam. Diclofenac remains readily available for human use and sadly some is still misapplied in livestock. By the end of 2012 it seemed that populations were no longer declining but birds that were once common and widespread are now rare and vulnerable to extinction.

The Thar Desert …

Siana is located on the fringes of the Thar desert in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The desert sweeps from the Rann of Kutch, Gujerat, east and north through Rajasthan and across the border with Pakistan into Sindh and Punjab. Rainfall ranges from about 10 cm or less in the west to about 50 cm in the east and varies widely from year to year. The ground water is deep and usually salty.

The great advantage of this region for the wildlife watching tourist is that it is not a national park. This makes it possible to get out and about at night to see nocturnal mammals. Over the course of two nights we caught up with the Indian Gazelle or Chinkara, Desert Cat, Desert Fox, Indian Fox, Palm Civet, Striped Hyena and Indian Hare. A couple of night birds were also encountered, Indian Eagle Owl and Indian Nightjar. Leopard are present but we were not lucky enough to see one here.

The Desert Jird is also present and with patience and a little luck you can get to see it. It is active late afternoon and early morning and lives in communal burrows in firm sand. I suspect that quite a lot of time can be wasted gazing in eager anticipation at abandoned burrows but eventually …

Desert Jird.
Desert Jird.

The Indira Ghandi canal has brought a measure of prosperity to parts of Rajasthan. It is 470 km long and enables crops to be grown in irrigated fields. In the vicinity of Siana, though, small scale livestock herding seemed to be the principle agricultural enterprise.

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The red turban and white clothing is typical of Rabari men. It is the men that manage the livestock, the women take charge of the household and matters financial and are famous for being strong and shrewd. Traditionally they were nomadic but there is much less scope for this lifestyle in modern India. Most have now settled on the fringes of towns and villages.

Siana, Rajasthan …

Today’s drive would take us from Dasada, Gujerat 306 km north-east to Siana, Rajasthan, stopping for lunch at Balaram Palace near Mt. Abu, Rajasthan.

From this …

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… to this …

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And the PBalaram palace was a very nice spot to break a drought …

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Although, it may not have been the ideal preparation for the last leg of the journey …

Our intrepid leader, Mark Brazil.
Our intrepid leader, Mark Brazil.

… by camel. Our camp lay on the other side of the saddle to be seen behind Mark Brazil. It really is worth clicking on this next photo (then the back icon to return to this page) …

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Looks like luxury to me. And even more beautiful as the sun goes down.

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The Step Well at Patan …

Gujerat is a dry state. In both ways … no alcohol and little rain. It is dry and sandy. Wells, therefore, had to be deep. A form of architecture evolved here where the wells would have steps down to the water, usually on just one side. They are mostly dug close to rivers or lakes and it came to be the case that providing such wells was seen as a meritorious act. The finest of them all is the Rani-ki-vav, or queen’s step well located just outside Patan close to the River Sarasvati. Once again it is a legacy of the Solanki dynasty. This one built by Queen Udayamati as a memorial to her late husband Bhimadeva I.

It is rectangular, the long axis runs east west and is 65m long 20 m wide and 27m deep. The well is at the west end. The walls are sheer except for the steps running down from the east end. It is large among step wells but the richness of the decoration places it above all others. In the lowest third of the rectangle there were a series of pavilions that braced the side walls. These have fallen into a state of disrepair, indeed the whole structure had fallen into disuse and debris had filled a good deal of the well. Considerable restoration has been undertaken.

There are more than 800 elaborate sculptures among seven galleries. The central theme is the Dasavataras, or ten incarnations of Vishnu, which are  accompanied by sadhus, brahmins, and apsaras (celestial dancers dressed in their celestial dancing outfits).  At water level, no longer open to the public, there is  a carving of  Vishnu, reclining on the thousand-hooded serpent Shesha, resting in the infinity between ages.

Rani ki vav from the west end.
Rani ki vav from the west end.

To negotiate the steps from terrace to terrace you turn left and right making patterns of progress as you choose your path. Long diagonals or short diagonals at your whim. Whenever you approach the walls you come close to the carvings including one of Queen Udayamati herself, seated on a cushion with a parasol held above her.

Looking west.
Looking west.
About two thirds down into the well.
About two thirds down into the well.

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And a dancing girl to finish, take note of her plump beautifully formed owls.

This is part of a series that began with मुंबई … published 30/01/2014.

The Sun Temple at Modhera …

History starts when writing starts. Writing, I would venture, is a product of civilisation. We find the first great civilisations and writing springing into existence about 3,100 BC in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. About 500 years later the Indus Valley produced its own version which grew to cover a larger area than Egypt and Mesopotamia combined, built the major cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and survived for more than a thousand years.

One of the finest archeological sites in India is at Dholavira, in the Kutch region of Gujerat. It is a Harappan site that was occupied from about 2650 BC until about 1450 BC. I hope that one day someone discovers there the earliest commercial brewery and distillery known to humanity.

In Australia we start slapping heritage listings on anything over fifty years old and our oldest buildings are barely pushing 200. Gujerat was there from the beginning of history.

My first glimpse of the glorious architecture of Gujerat was on one of the journeys onto the Little Rann. We passed the walled city of Zinzuwada. This was built in the eleventh century, a troubled time because of  invasions from the north.  The city has four magnificent gates, the best preserved is the Madapol Gate. I wish I could have had the time to explore it properly … next time.

I was able to do better at the  Sun Temple at Modhera. This is dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya.

According to the little guide book one can purchase at the gate, there is an inscription on the rear wall of the central hall naming king Bhola Bhimdev as the builder in the year 1027 AD. That is  around the same time as Zinzuwada and by a king of the same dynasty, the Solanki.

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The temple is in three parts. The weary traveller would first bathe in the pool, the Suryakund, then ascend the steps, pass between two columns to enter the Court or Dance gallery, Sabha Mandap. The next building is the main temple, Garbha-griha. Legend has it that it once contained a magnificent and bejewelled pure gold idol of the Sun God and his chariot drawn by seven horses. This sat atop a pit, fifteen feet deep, filled with gold coins. It was designed so that the rays of the rising and setting sun on the day of equinoxes (round about 20 March and 21 September) fell on the sculpture and filled the temple with radiance. This was taken away by the marauding Mahmud Ghaznavi who is credited with 17 raids on India, carried out for fun and profit. His last invasion, however, was supposedly in 1026. Clearly the legend needs a little tidying up before the insurance claim goes through.

Considerable damage was wrought on the temple by the Sultan of Northern India, Alauddin Khilji, during his reign from 1296 to 1316. Gujerat was one of the first territories he conquered and annexed.

What we have left though is still magnificent. Symbolism is everywhere, just as the sun in its passage causes the lotus flower to open and close so the temple form follows that of the lotus. All the gods are represented in their appropriate forms in their appropriate places with their appropriate vehicles. Various manipulations of the calendar determine the number of pillars, the number of elephants and so on.

Sabha Mandap, built on 52 pillars.
Sabha Mandap, built on 52 pillars.
Pillars within the Sabha Mandap
Pillars within the Sabha Mandap
The dome within the Sabha Mandap
The dome within the Sabha Mandap
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Garbha-griha

As can be seen from the photos, the stone work is intricately carved. Many of the panels depict what the little guidebook quaintly calls “sexual and amorous acts”…

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This was all completed without the aid of cranes or engines. Once each layer was completed it was filled with sand. Elephants were used to drag the stones up ramps to the new level. Once the building was finished the sand was removed.

Prayers are no longer offered at the temple. The Garbha-griha is now the daytime roost of Greater Mouse-tailed and other bats.

Greater Mouse-tailed Bat
Greater Mouse-tailed Bat

Little Rann of Kutch …

My name is Robert and I am still in Gujerat …

The next destination is Dasada and the Little Rann of Kutch. The Arabian Sea once extended into the belly of Gujerat in two shallow arms. Over time these have silted up to form the Great and Little Ranns of Kutch. Rann meaning saline desert and Kutch being the name of the region. These are inundated in the monsoon and steadily dry out through the remainder of the year. Some grass survives around the margins and within the marsh there are some low islands, called Bates, on which mesquite and some grasses persist but most of the Rann is utterly devoid of vegetation. Beyond the ancient coastline is the Thar desert.

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This place is not as sterile as it seems. It is the stronghold of the Khur or Wild Ass Equus hemionus khur. This was formerly widespread and numerous but has suffered from loss of habitat to the mesquite and herdsmen and also from some diseases. Recently given protection its population and range are currently increasing. Once the only place to see it, this is still the best place to see it. They feed mainly early morning and in the evening. They are more elegant than one might expect of an ass and can gallop at up to 80 km/hr, an impressive beast.

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The Hoopoe Lark is another denizen of this empty landscape whilst the bates provide good habitat for Macqueen’s Bustard. Where there is water in an arid landscape one can be sure of a concentration of birds. We got as far as the tidal reaches of the sea and enjoyed Flamingoes, Ruff, Little Stints, Kentish Plover, Common Cranes, Greylag Goose and some Gulls and Terns.

There are even people who can make a living out here. When the Rann is flooded it becomes a prawn fishery. As it dries out it can be exploited for salt production.

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It appears to run as a small family enterprise with the family living a very humble and remote life right next to the pans.

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Velavadar …

After a last morning safari at Gir it’s on the road to Velavadar.

The journey takes us about 206 km north-east through countryside that is fairly flat and intensively farmed with the aid of extensive irrigation. From time to time we pass cotton processing plants with little mountains of cotton waiting for the gin (just to remind us that Gujerat is a dry state … it’s been four days now). There is still plenty of cotton awaiting harvest in the fields. Other crops include Castor, Millet and Mustard. Later in the year it will be time to plant Sorghum.

The roads are fair but busy. The trucks tend to be small by Australian standards and mobile works of art. As well as cars, they have to contend with tractor hauled carts, camel hauled carts, oxen hauled carts and a strange hybrid of motorcycle and cart called a chakra. Motorbikes and motor scooters are numerous and generally low powered. I will need to undertake a great deal more study before I can explain the system by which all these vehicles avoid collision but initial observations reveal that a good horn, good brakes and good luck are vital ingredients. An average speed of 50 km an hour would be a pretty good achievement and four or five hours of that should bring you to the verge of exhaustion.

Chakra
Chakra

In former times the region we are headed to was an extensive open grassland. Much of the area has given way to agriculture or been lost to the encroachment of  Mesquite, Prosopis juliflora, a native of the americas. It was introduced to provide fuel wood, which it has and it is also used to make fences. It has ferocious thorns and grows as dense thickets. Overall it has been much too successful. An area of 34.52 sq.km. has been preserved as Blackbuck National Park.

The grassland is home to the very elegant Blackbuck and also Asia’s largest antelope, the Nilgai. In winter it is visited by large numbers of Montague’s and Pallid Harriers, in the monsoon it provides a refuge for the small and endangered bustard, the Lesser Florican. There is a wetland in the park that can amuse the birdwatcher for hours with such creatures as pelicans, cranes, avocets and flamingoes, although they can be sure that the other occupants of the vehicle will drag them away in pursuit of wolves and hyena.

Blackbuck
Blackbuck
Blackbuck male
Blackbuck male
Nilgai male
Nilgai male
Wolf
Wolf

The wolf was in possession of a buffalo leg.

The obvious place to stay in Velavadar is the very comfortable Blackbuck Lodge situated only a couple of kilometres from the park gates …

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and as you watch the sun go down over the mesquite you can contemplate a couple of lines from the Blackbuck National Park website …

The Park provides one of the world’s best roosting sites to thousands of Harriers that arrive here from Central Europe for wintering …

… An entirely different experience of the wildlife begins to transcend as the darkness falls. The persistent howls of jackal add to the feeling of true wilderness. The long, deep and threatening howls of wolves, occasionally penetrate the darkness .

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… such a pity that the visitors had to be out of the park an hour or so earlier and won’t see the thousands of Harriers at their roost or be able to feel a shiver run down their spine as a wolf howls nearby.

Gir …

From Mumbai to Gir.

Security is tight at Indian airports. To get into the departure terminal you must show a printed itinerary showing your name, destination, flight number, date and time, accompanied by your ID, which for foreigners means your passport. Your friends say their goodbyes on the pavement.

My destination was Gir which is in the state of Gujarat immediately north of Maharashta of which Mumbai is the capital. The nearest airport is Diu, the flight takes about an hour.

India is composed of 28 states and seven union territories. Daman and Diu together make up one of the territories. Along with Goa, Daman and Diu were excised from India by the Portuguese. When India gained control the trio were governed as a single territory, Goa was given statehood in 1987 leaving the two small enclaves of Daman and Diu, 198 kilometers apart, each surrounded by Gujarat. This has enormous practical importance, Diu is a small but busy seaside resort, Gujarat is a dry state. Lunch was accompanied by a couple of refreshing beers.

Then the drive to Gir, as a passenger of course.

No palatial accommodation for me here, although that isn’t to say that good hotels aren’t available. For me one of these tents …

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This is the Lion Safari Camp near the small town of Sasan Gir. The lions are a respectable distance away and the tents come with en suite facilities, hot and cold water and plenty of headroom. The camp is situated on the banks of a river, you don’t have to go far to find plenty of birds, the laundry, swimming pool and the odd Mugger Crocodile.

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It’s reported that the Mugger is more famous for its tool use than it is for eating people. It is known to balance sticks on its head, birds, especially in the breeding season are tempted to take the sticks … swirl of water, snap, lunch.

I spent the next three nights at the camp making seven forays into Gir National Park and any spare daylight time birding around the river.

Coming soon … the lions of Gir National Park.