Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Velavadar: Life in the grasslands

I’d heard & read a lot about the bountiful wildlife that Gujarat’s forests have to offer. I’d even seen photos from others’ trips. Now, having visited Gujarat, I can say that no amount of research or familiarity with the wildlife there prepares you for the experience. The sense of déjà vu you’re so worried about, doesn’t strike. You may have seen the Sarus crane in many a photo, but, when you see it there, it still leaves you awestruck. The Wild Asses may seem familiar but when you see them gallop over the parched desert, your heart still skips a beat.

Green Bee-eater

This is the first in a three-part blog about my Gujarat trip. Read part two, about the Little Rann of Kutch, here. Read part three, about the Greater Rann of Kutch, here.

Blackbucks heading home as the sun sets
The grasslands of Velavadar, swathes of pink & green, make for a fetching backdrop to all the action. A drive on a typical cold winter morning begins with vistas of misty grass, interspersed with horns & antlers. As the morning warms up, faces peer out from within the grass & limbs are languorously stretched. You watch as the grass rustles to reveal a curious Blackbuck fawn or a skulking Wolf. Sometimes, the rustling grass reveals the skulking Wolf to the curious fawn. And a chase ensues. Suddenly, the morning languor is all but forgotten as the agile Blackbuck out-runs the Wolf. Later in the day, in the hot sun, raptors skim the top of the grass as they scout for prey. After dusk, activity tapers down as the nip returns to the air. Harriers, in hundreds, return to a clearing, to roost. Nocturnal life is now active, but unfortunately, we have to leave the park. Sometimes, as we sit outside our rooms, we’re lucky to spot a Jungle cat or a Hare, just before it turns pitch dark.

Blackbucks stretching themselves early in the morning

A Steppe Eagle

Pardon the anthropomorphism, as I bring you stories straight from the horses’ mouths.


Sarus Crane pair - they mate for life
She looked ravishing in the evening light. I watched her for sometime as she ate; her slender, long neck bending so gracefully. I wanted her to look at me, to notice me, to like me. But, more than that, I wanted to keep looking at her. The grass was a little tall & it kept getting in my way; that irritated me a bit. I slowly moved towards her, unsure of her response. She didn’t move away. The setting was perfect: the grass glowing with a tinge of gold and delicate pink flowers bobbing in the cool breeze. Most importantly, there was nobody else in the fields. A few vehicles occasionally drove down the dusty, narrow road but I ignored them & so did they. Finally, I was right next to her. She lifted her head up & gazed at me. 

I spread my wings out & began to dance. I’d practised really hard & I hoped that she liked it. She joined me; there we were, like two excited teenagers, prancing around. I closed my eyes; this was bliss! I heard her say “lovely”, “awesome”; and I was happier. 

I opened my eyes to see that it wasn’t her but a group of humans who had uttered that. Both of us stopped for a minute, unsure of what to do. We flew a little further afield. 

I was very worried that she would fly away, but, she didn’t. She landed next to me. Our eyes locked once more. We danced once more. It was a wonderful evening! 

Later, one of the other birds told me that the group of humans too had continued watching us. They’d lain on the road, concealed behind some grass & taken photos of us. Well, I’m sure she looks lovely in the photos!


The Indian Wolf - an endangered species

Feeding on a road-kill
I’d begun my day on a great note; I’d had a heavy breakfast. That Blackbuck was very meaty! Despite eating to my heart’s content, I still have some meat left on the leg. Tempted as I am to nap right here, I decide to walk with the carcass to my domain. There, I can eat it later; for dinner, maybe. I’m so glad I don’t have to hunt today or, even until tomorrow. I quickly begin walking towards the main road that cuts across the forest. My home is across the main road; something that I hate. But, there’s nothing I can do about it, really. All I can do is hope that I safely cross the road. Humans, with their dangerous vehicles, never care for lesser mortals like us. I’ve had friends & neighbours injured or killed by humans. They’re probably the most dangerous mammals around.

I ensure I’m hidden behind the tall grass. I come across a couple of Blackbucks ahead & chuckle. The poor things don’t even suspect that I’m there; walking as peacefully as they are. They’re lucky that I already have food today; else I’d be chasing them right now! I ponder; should I attempt to catch one of them? I decide against it; after all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I don’t want my arch rival snatching my carcass like he did the last time, when he caught me off-guard.  I wait for the Blackbucks to cross & then move ahead.

Prey in mouth, waiting for the Blackbuck to pass

I look back for good measure & am surprised to see a jeep-full of people looking at me. They’re all desperately trying to photograph me but I’m too far away. I laugh; I’m no good looker, but, people seem to get really excited when they see me. Their expressions, exclamations & the incessant photo-taking of my every move amuses me. I’m tempted to go towards them, just to see the wonderment on their faces. I decide against it & move towards the road. There’s that whirring noise, now! Do they have to cut grass early in the morning? For that matter, do they have to cut it at all? I’m quite happy when the grass is tall & it makes it easier for me to skulk around. I sulk a little & wait. As the grass-cutter moves away, I break into a trot & run towards the road. I now spot a man with a bike right in my path. Bah! But, suddenly, I hear voices call out to him & he climbs up the embankment & onto the road. Great! I hurry up the embankment myself; I can’t wait to go home. Maybe I’ll hide the carcass here & come back for it later; I don’t want my neighbours to spot it & fight me for it.

Walking right next to the jeep
I’m almost at the road now & am startled to see that the same jeep from below is now up here, with a lady peering straight at me. Drat! They must’ve known where I’m headed & then driven here & stalked me. The lady looks as shocked as I am & mumbles urgently to her friends (who haven’t noticed me) “Kya yeh kutta hai? Dekho, dekho!” I chortle; me? A dog? She must be seeing me for the first time & lost her mind in the excitement; I tend to do that to people. A quick scan for other cars & I run across the road, right under the lady’s nose. She tries photographing me but I’ve been too close for her to even focus. I bet this is one ‘sighting’ she’ll remember. Yes, ‘sighting’ is what humans say when they see any of us. With a quick look back to see the four stunned faces looking at me, I dart homewards. What an amusing morning!


A male Blackbuck - an antelope that can run at speeds of 80 kmph

Nilgai - cozy in the grass
I love how the forest looks, this time of the year. The grass is tall & a beautiful shade of pink. It’s also really cozy to lie in, in the mornings. Why, the Nilgai, won’t even get up from the grass until the sun is overhead. I’m with my group this morning. We’ve been lying around in the grass, with just our antlers showing. There’s a cold nip in the air & the sun is just making an appearance. The young ones are beginning to get restless. We decide to move to the nearby meadow for some grass. I rise, to lead the herd. I have to carefully scan the area for that pest, the wolf, before we go there. The last time someone disobeyed me & strayed, they were the wolf’s lunch. Okay, the area looks wolf-free. I signal the others to walk behind me. Despite the cold morning, a group of humans has already arrived. I stop to look at them & they fire a strange weapon at me ‘rat-tat-tat’. I’ve never seen this one before; perhaps it’s that thing my friend told me about; called a camera. He says that humans like to take photos of us to show their friends. This group whispers how beautiful I look, with the ‘morning light’ on my face.

I move ahead. The rest of my herd follows, casting cautious glances at the humans. The little ones are unafraid & glad to be moving. They pronk; a few of the adults join in as well. In any case, I think it’s better to make it amply clear to the humans that we’re not to be messed with. Surprisingly, the pronking has them going ga-ga over us; maybe these guys mean no harm anyways or maybe they just didn’t understand what we are hinting at! 

Pronking - an action involving jumping high up in the air. This is used to warn predators & threats that " I am fit & not to be messed with". Pronking is also used to show-off while attracting a mate and sometimes, also in play.

We reach the other side & busy ourselves eating. A couple of my friends spar a bit over this beautiful girl. The ‘rat-tat-tat’ from the humans reaches a crescendo.

Males sparring over a female

That evening, my friend saw the humans near the watering-hole, as his herd went there for a drink. One of the females in the herd is white as a ghost, absolutely colourless. The humans wanted to probably look at her; many have been coming by since word spread about the ‘albino Blackbuck’.

A female devoid of colour, with her fawn

Another evening, the humans (do they call themselves ‘gang’?) were watching a fellow Blackbuck’s herd. Unknown to the herd, a wolf had been lurking on the opposite side of the road, carefully watching them. The jeep was on the road, right between the wolf & the herd. The gang must’ve spotted the wolf, for they all turned away to admire him. 

I wish the head of the herd had sensed something amiss when the entire gang suddenly began watching someone else. The wolf mustn’t have budgeted for the humans turning up at his hunt, but, he guessed their jeep would probably make for a good cover as he crossed the road. He didn’t worry about the gang anymore; he realised that they wouldn’t make any noise & disturb the hunt. He knew how thrilled they’d all be, to see him so close; they’d definitely not want to chase him away. Soon, hidden by the jeep, he reached the road & darted across. The herd finally sensed him & scooted, faster than the gaping humans could have imagined. The wolf had to give up his chase, though; he was hunting alone & there was no way he could go for the kill. My friend & his herd had a lucky escape.


I travelled to Velavadar:
With naturalists & wildlife photographers Harsha J & Dilan Mandanna

For information & tips about Velavadar, read this:

Sunday, 11 March 2012

In search of the pyramid of my dreams

An October evening, my flight hovers over Cairo, preparing to land. It’s just 5 pm but the sun’s already set. I crane my neck trying to get a glimpse of the pyramids, but, without success. I was to see them weeks later, when I returned to Cairo at the end of my 3-week journey along the Nile; today, I fly on to South Egypt. I’d saved the best for last: Cairo’s most famous resident, the Sphinx, flanked by the Giza pyramids. Or, so I thought.

The Giza pyramids

The vast brown desert with miles & miles of nothing-ness.
The wind blows wisps of sand around, creating swooshing sounds.
A gentle storm brews & you hold on tight to your camel; you should be approaching the pyramids any minute now.
As you go over a dune, lo-behold! Amidst the swirling sand, you see silhouettes of the three pyramids. Drawing your veil tightly across your face, you race your camel towards these marvels & stop in your tracks as you come close.
You are tongue-tied. You let the enormity of the structures sink in.
There’s not a sound around, except for the swooshing sand; probably carrying messages from deep within these magnificent tombs.
You feel like you’ve been transported to 5000 years ago.

A vast, paved parking lot with miles & miles of vehicles.
Plastic wrappers & paper stubs flying around you.
Taxis honk as people dart across the narrow street & you hold on tight to your seat; you should be approaching the pyramids any minute now.
As you near a Pizza Hut, lo-behold! You can see the entrance & the mad rush of people walking in.
Drawing your bag closer to your chest, you jostle your way towards these marvels & stop in your tracks as you come close.
You are tongue-tied. You let the enormity of the structures sink in.

You also let these facts sink in: The pyramids are smack in the centre of bustling Cairo. There’re three buses obstructing your view of the pyramids. Somebody’s trying to sell you souvenirs & offer you camel rides. The area around the pyramid is fenced (of course, with good intent; to prevent vandalism). You struggle to see all the three pyramids together. There’s a lot of noise around, including a very loud one in my brain: Crash! Boom! Bang! That is the destruction of my fantasies & my rose-tinted glasses.

The paragraph about the desert was how I always imagined the pyramids to be. It was also what was shown on television & in movies, which I’d hungrily lapped up for years. Unfortunately, it does not exist. It takes a lot of concentration & effort on my part to shut all this out, to try & feel like I’ve been transported to 5000 years ago. I don’t succeed; I remain where I am.

The Great Pyramid - of Pharaoh Khufu

Evolution of the pyramids

Over the next few days, I explore other pyramids. The Stepped pyramid at Saqqara is the first pyramid to be built, by chief architect Imhotep, for Pharaoh Zoser. Not satisfied with mastabas (flat-roofed, rectangular structures that marked burial sites) that were usually built atop tombs, Imhotep designed & built the Stepped pyramid using hewn stone. Encased in fine, white limestone, this pyramid rose to a height of 60 metres. Soon, Stepped pyramids became popular in Egypt.

Around 2600 BC, Pharaoh Sneferu wanted to build a ‘true pyramid’; one that wasn’t stepped. He began constructing the Bent pyramid, the next prototype in the pyramid experiment. It stands in the middle of a military zone & can’t be visited. Construction began at an angle of 53 degrees. Midway along the construction, Sneferu’s architects realised that the pyramid was unstable due to the steep angle. Abruptly, they changed the angle to 43 degrees & completed the pyramid, with a final height of just over 100 metres. I look through my binoculars at this testament to the architects’ perseverance. Instead of abandoning the project, they’d now learnt how to construct the perfect pyramid. Soon after, Sneferu commissioned the Red pyramid.

The Red pyramid, constructed at the now tried & tested angle of 43 degrees, was the first true pyramid to be successfully built. Sneferu was buried there. 104 metres tall, it is located at Dahshur, outside Cairo city. Very few people visit this beautiful & well-preserved pyramid, as it is overshadowed by the famous Giza pyramids. It works out to my advantage; a pyramid sans crowds, where you can climb down to the inner chamber without the snaking queues at Giza. With barely concealed excitement, I huff & puff my way up the extremely steep stone steps to the entrance, which is almost mid-way up the pyramid. Next, I bend over double & scrape my way downwards through a long, sloping, narrow passageway. And then, what I see knocks the wind out of me: I’m in the central chamber with a beautifully corbelled, 12 metres high ceiling.  I also walk down to the next chamber, with an even higher ceiling. With barely any ventilation for about 30 minutes now, I am suddenly acutely conscious of the sulphurous smell. I work my way back up & out. Sunshine & a hot breeze greet me as I exit, but they’re a welcome change from the claustrophobia. I am jubilant; this feels like the pyramid of my dreams.

The Red Pyramid, with steps leading to its entrance

The Giza pyramids are where all the practice bore fruit. The angle, the height, the proportion; everything is just perfect. And, the fact that they’re standing millennia later is a tribute to the architects’ skills. The great pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the tallest. Khufu, Sneferu’s son, built himself a wonder that was 146 metres high; almost 40 metres taller than his father’s Red pyramid. Over centuries, wind erosion is said to have reduced its height by almost 9 metres; it’s imposing, nonetheless. The two other smaller pyramids belong to Khafre (Chephren) & Menkaure.

The pyramid complex, seen from the main road

Egyptian burial rituals involved burying ornaments & other valuables alongside the mummy. The massive pyramid was a dead give-away of the location of the valuables. Attracted by this wealth, thieves plundered & looted all tombs within pyramids. The next generation of pharaohs, wiser from seeing their forefathers’ tombs ransacked, started hiding their tombs underground. Thus were born the fabulously painted underground tombs at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor (Thebes), by then, the new capital of Egypt. King Tutankhamun’s treasures survived & awed us only because they were buried in his secret underground tomb. But, that’s another story. As for the pyramids, they were never built again. The pharaohs realised their folly; but if all follies led to such magnificence, would we mind them so much? 

Revisiting Giza

The location of the Sphinx & the pyramids may have let me down, but, I don’t think I can leave Cairo without giving them a second chance. Perhaps, my description of the desert would have rung true millennia ago; the pharaohs could never have foreseen a city developing around the pyramids. The day before I leave Egypt, I’m back in the queue at Giza. On my earlier visit, I’d undertaken the difficult & extremely crowded trek into Khufu’s pyramid. This pyramid has a constant stream of visitors & to prevent more damage to the structure, visitors are advised not to spend too much time within. Today, I have only one agenda in mind. Refusing to give up until I find the pyramid of my dreams, I endure a long walk under the harsh sun, till I am well beyond the third pyramid. The view from here brings a smile back to my face. Most people, though, are too rushed to spend time & energy walking to this area. Now, un-hindered by noise or crowds, I can appreciate these structures at leisure. I pronounce that the pyramids deserve every bit of the attention they get. We, for all our modern tools & technology, still cannot ape the work done in that age; neither in precision nor in grandeur or scale.

Seated in the hot mid-day sun, I draw my scarf across my face; like a veil to shield me from the heat.
There’s neither a person in sight, nor a bus; all I can see is swathes of brown desert.
A gentle breeze blows, occasionally spraying me with the hot sand.
It’s silent, except for the swooshing sounds of the sand in the breeze.
A lone camel saunters past.
I sit on rocks, my bare toes drawing patterns in the sand, bustling Cairo far from my mind.
Slowly, the sand turns cooler & the pyramids start becoming silhouettes in the fading evening light.
This is as close as it can be, to my dream. I relish it.

Tips & facts:

The Sphinx is likely to have been modelled on Pharaoh Khafre. The nose was said to be cut off sometime before the 15th century. The Pharaoh’s beard too has fallen off the sculpture. The Sphinx is smaller than I’d imagined it to be. Most of the Sphinx’s facial features seem to have been remarkably well preserved until the early 19th century, based on sketches from the time. Currently, it’s been a struggle to preserve this monolith as it is undergoing rapid deterioration.

While at the pyramids, definitely visit the Solar Barque museum. It has a separate entry ticket but is absolutely worth it. Pharaoh Khufu’s Solar Barque (boat) is humungous & painstakingly restored. It is said to have been used to carry the body of the dead pharaoh across the Nile.

See the Sound & Light show at the pyramids. Though the lighting was a little over-the-top for my liking, I enjoyed being able to see the pyramids & the Sphinx at night; free from crowds, vehicles or touts. I enjoyed the narration & the atmosphere. The show is available in multiple languages; ensure you check about this before you go.

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