Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rum 'n Shivraj...

Shivraj Singh Pawar demonstrates bouldering skills at Base Camp, Shivling Parbat

The other evening, Kailash and I were enjoying the rustic delights of Swathy Bar when I got a call from Jagdish of Agora village in the Himalaya. Jagdish was the cook's assistant on the trek to Dodital and Darwa 2 years ago and likes to call once in a while to ask me about a CD of photographs that I had apparently promised to send him. I had long since realized that the CD was only an excuse to ring up - he basically just wants us to hire him on our next trek!

Talking to Jagdish in my atrocious Hindi reminded me that I hadn't called Shivraj in several days. Shivraj is a young mountaineer from Harsil, near Gangotri. He had been our instructor in the Drawa trek in the summer of 2008, which was organised by the RedX club of Manipal and Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. During those days, in spite of my nearly non-existent Hindi and his less-than-satisfactory English, a strong bond of friendship had formed and we had kept in touch intermittently via phone calls.

Communicating face to face was easy in spite of all the linguistic deficiencies, but phone conversations are an entirely different story! I usually attempt a call to him only when I have a couple of pegs of rum inside me and Kailash (the great Hindi/Urdu lyricist and poet!) beside for emergencies...

This summer (June 2009), 3 of us had set out for another Himalayan trek - this time to Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan and we met up with Shivraj at Harsil. We were impressed by the beautiful setting of this little hill town. Shivraj was our companion during the entire trek and we benefited a lot from his experience, especially while negotiating our way across the Gangotri glacier, where rockfalls and collapse of the glacier in places are very common.

Shivraj at Gaumukh - the snout of Gangotri glacier

As always, it was a pleasure to be with this young mountaineer - a product of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, whose dream is to climb Mount Everest someday. Language is no barrier when communicating about one's dreams during the long marches and the camps at night. I'm surprised at how much we discussed over the few days we spent together. Another factor that bound us together is our love of wildlife. I still remember how, at Bhojbasa, camping after a tiring day's march from Gangotri, we both climbed up a steep hillside to get near a herd of bharal (blue sheep). I surprised myself how high I had climbed with Shivraj above the camp site, forgetting the fatigue and the altitude-induced headache!

Shivraj on the slopes above Bhojbasa, where we spotted bharal

Shivraj points to the peak of Mount Shivling, from near the Advance Base Camp

That night at Swathy I did call Shivraj, and for a change, the Hindustani just flowed (albeit as nonsensical sentences!)... Shivraj has summitted 3 peaks in the period since I last met him - Bhagirathi I, Satopanth and some other peak. We are planning our next Himalayan venture - an ambitious crossing from Gaumukh to Badrinath via Tapovan, Nandanvan and the Kalindi Khal. Hope it materializes...

Me with Shivraj on the trek to Gaumukh (Pic. courtesy: Jayaram Sir)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The old man and the sea...

The old man in his boat as a speck on the ocean

An old man in a small canoe... A tattered sail made of discarded plastic sacks sewn together... The ocean with its relentless heaving... An indomitable spirit as he takes on the elements, not to proclaim victory over Nature, but just to earn his meagre livelihood... A tribute to the spirit of the Old Man who takes on The Sea!

The old man and the sea

The humble vessel

The old man in his craft among larger vessels

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A tribute to Prof. Achyutha Rao

The late Prof. D. S. Achyutha Rao

It has been more than 2 years since I was awarded the Prof. D. S. Achyutha Rao Memorial History Research Fellowship for the year 2007 to conduct research on the megalithic monuments of south India. Prof. Achyutha Rao was an eminent Professor of History at the graduate and post-graduate level at Maharaja's College, Mysore and later at "Manasa Gangotri", University of Mysore till his unfortunate demise in 1965. I applied for this fellowship with a fascination for the enigmatic structures called megaliths found all over southern India. Of course, megaliths are found all over the world and India is no exception. From my college days, I was enamored of these strange looking structures and enjoyed reading about the possible connection of these with astronomy. Books such as "In search of Ancient Astronomies" by E. C. Krupp whetted my appetite and I wanted to know if such connections were true for Indian megaliths as well. Was there a Stonehenge somewhere in the wide expanse of our motherland, waiting to be discovered..?

The Fellowship gave me the opportunity to follow my heart and I set off on megalith-hunting jaunts from my base in lovely Manipal. Of course, I concentrated mainly on Karnataka, with the occasional foray into neighbouring Kerala and one trip to Burzahoma in Kashmir. I travelled hallowed terrain like that of Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal, Hanamsagar and Vibhutihalli, marvelled at the dolmens and rock art of Hire Benkal and stood in awe at the menhir site of Nilaskal, Baise... In the course of my travels, I passed the wonderful architecture of Hampi, Aihole, Badami etc. and, though they were not the immediate focus of my study, could not help being moved deep down inside by the sheer magnificence of these sites.

I made progress on the megaliths, too. I found that most of the sepulchral megaliths (mostly burials) were oriented to face sunrise or sunset at some day of the year, though there were sites like Meguti Hill at Aihole where all the megaliths faced all points of the compass with no preferred orientation towards any point of celestial interest on the horizon. As for the non-sepulchral sites, I found that many of the stone avenue sites (where a large number of stones are arranged in rough grids) like the ones at Vibhutihalli and Hanamsagar were roughly oriented to the cardinal directions.

The dolmens of Hire Benkal

But it was at the menhir sites of Nilaskal and Baise (also nearby are 2 more sites - Hergal and Mumbaru) that I found definite astronomical purpose in the layout of the stones. Many pairs of stones align up to dramatically frame the sunset on winter solstice day (the shortest day of the year). These same stones team up with other stones to frame the winter solstice sunrise and summer solstice sunrise and sunset. The apparently haphazard distribution of these stones seem to follow a sort of distorted solstitial grid.

The menhirs of Nilaskal

Sunset on midwinter day at Nilaskal

I have a lot of people to thank for the enormous support that I have received for this project. I thank Dr. Prasanna and Dr. (Mrs.) Rajani Prasanna from the botton of my heart for taking personal interest in this project. I also wish to thank Manipal University for seconding the grant. Dr. Vinod Bhat- Registrar, International Programs, Manipal University has been a source of strength throughout this project and instrumental in guiding me and keeping me on track. Prof. S. Settar of NIAS has given me valuable advice. My guide Prof. M. N. Vahia and co-guide Prof. Sudhakara G. have given me invaluable guidance and support. Stalwarts from the field of megalithic research have helped me in innumerable ways - Prof. A. Sundara, Dr. U. S. Moorti, Dr. Ganapaiah Bhat, Dr. Ravi Korisettar are some of the people who have helped me a lot. Kailash Rao has been a co-traveller on many of my site visits and surveys. And lack of space prevents me from naming innumerable persons at these scattered sites who have offered hospitality and guided me to several of these monuments.

Mrs. Chitre, Prof. S. M. Chitre, my team of young surveyors, Mayank and me on location at Baise

During these travels, I believe I have seen the Karnataka that few tourists see. Near Aihole and Badami, Hampi and Shahpur, I have been chasing monuments that are not remarkable for their architectural splendor. But these few stones hobbled together in innovative ways mark the true beginnings of architecture - when man started expressing his belief systems through the medium of architecture. And in following this trail of ancient architecture, I have passed through beautiful country and made friends with the rural folk of Karnataka. In the process, I have come to love this part of the world with a passion I didn't know I was capable of... Thank you, Prof. Achyutha Rao, for the entire experience; but most of all, for opening my eyes to the beauty and splendour of this magnificent part of India.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Clouds over Kodachadri!

On the trail back from Kodachadri

Last time I wrote about The Astronomy Club, Manipal's trek to Kodachadri, it was called "Stars over Kodachadri", but this time, at the peak of the monsoon, it was the turn of the clouds and the rain... It has become a routine practice of the Club to repair to this amazing hillock (all of 1350m altitude)that is a backdrop for the famed Sri Mookambika Temple at Kollur quoting any excuse ranging from stargazing to nature retreat ("While we reach for the stars, we do not ignore the flowers at our feet!"). This time too was no different - we set off for Kollur one evening, with hostel "perms" and frantic calls to wardens and all the resultant delays. Once in Kollur, free of all the worries that Manipal inflicts on us and mostly free from the constant harassment of our mobile phones, we soaked in the atmosphere of the quaint little temple town, before retiring to our rooms at the Lalithambika Guest House.

Next day, early in the morning, our vehicle deposited us at Karanakatte - the starting point of the trek. The first part of the trek is a long walk over flat and gently sloping forest tracks, and the newcomers were "blooded" to the Cult of the Leeches! The usual pit stop at Hotel Rajesh - the tea shop run by Madhavan in the forest, facilitated de-leeching and allowed the tea-addicts amongst us to tank up.

Ankit, Arushi, Pramit and Parth during the trek

The next part of the trek is the most strenuous and the most rewarding part. We trekked through mist and rain over steep paths and grassy slopes and stands of trees to ultimately reach the temples atop Kodachadri. Here there are temples run by Brahmin priests as well as other temples where worship is in the Sakteya tradition. It is at this latter place that we stopped to refresh ourselves. There is a tall iron pillar which is believed to be the haft of the trisul with which Mookambika killed Mookasura - the terrible demon.

Refreshed, we pressed on to the hilltop, with precipitous slopes to the left of us and ultimately reached the top, with the Sarvajnya Mantapa - where Adi Shankaracharya is supposed to have meditated. We spent time at the top and, after the customary Club photo in front of the Mantapa, reluctantly returned...

The customary Club snap with the Sarvajnya Mantapa as backdrop