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Journeys in Arunachal

Travelling in north-east India can be an amusing, exhilarating experience or nerve-wracking and frustrating depending on your frame of mind and your stars. Murphy’s law applies – so just bear in mind that if anything can go wrong it will, but then again it may not.

As a wildlife biologist who has spent many years working in Arunachal Pradesh, I have had my share of mishaps and adventures while trying to get around there. Earlier, as a researcher on a low budget I travelled alone lugging my backpack everywhere on buses and other public transport options, even hitching rides with strangers on trucks and motorbikes – which later progressed during the middle of my PhD years to a rickety old jeep whose radiator would often decide to leak and stop and splutter on some highway leading me to abandon it and hop back on to buses.

A thorough understanding of the geography of Assam and Arunachal is a good idea, if one is planning on extensive low budget travelling alone. There were often really frustrating difficulties in reaching places in Arunachal when I began work in the nineties. One has to usually take a roundabout route – from Guwahati, you have to travel eastward along the south bank of the Brahmaputra, cross the Brahmaputra and then proceed north to Arunachal. If you have to go to another place in Arunachal, you often have to return to Assam, travel there till you reach the nearest point that lets you go back up again north to Arunachal. A road network connecting places within Arunachal from west to east is practically non-existent, although things have improved considerably since 1995 when I first started working there. Transport options for travellers, connectivity, road conditions and options for places to stay has improved considerably in recent times.

Needless to say you should have got your Inner Line Permit before proceeding. Unfortunately, there are complicated rules about where, how and for how long you can get it. Of course, what often happens is that when you don’t have it, they’ll ask for it at the check gate and when you do, they don’t even look at it and just wave you through!

You also have to go with the flow, no rigid plans or squeamishness at modes of transport. It’s safe to hop onto trucks or hitch rides on passing vehicles in Arunachal and even sometimes in Assam – but you have to rely on your judgement. And you must ask questions. You can forget about all the stuff that your mother told you about not talking to strangers. I have had the most fun travelling on state buses, line buses, trucks, ferries meeting curious amused people who were invariably helpful. The North-east usually gets bad press for its insurgency problems – it’s time people came to know how safe it is travelling in the public transport system there in spite of militancy. Where else can a woman hitch rides on trucks and bikes with no worries. Catch anyone trying this out in some parts of north India.

However, despite my no-holds barred enthusiasm, periodic spurts in militant activities, frequent bandhs and increased vigilance by the Army do sometimes make it difficult to move around. The dreaded AFSPA also means that there are frequent checks on many routes. Sometimes, if you are travelling in a hired vehicle, they may stop you and ‘requisition’ your vehicle while you are en route to somewhere.

I remember being stranded on a cold winter night while returning from Miao (Namdapha) to Seijosa (Pakke) during my PhD years. I was on the night bus and the bus reached the Tezpur bus stand at 4 am when it was still pitch dark. I had hoped it would reach later in the morning. There was a curfew on. I was alone with a heavy backpack and nowhere to go. I knew of a few people there but either did not know them well enough to barge in at 4 am or I did not know their address, and anyway there was no transport to reach anyone’s place at that time in the night. No mobile phones in those days. I racked my brains and remembered hearing of an officer based at the GREF headquarters in Tezpur once from Ramana Athreya. The GREF headquarters was quite some distance away, so I pleaded with the bus guys to drop me there on their way out. All the other passengers had gone off. The bus driver and conductor thought I was mad but agreed to drop me at a nearby crossing. I trudged to the GREF headquarters with my rucksack in the dark and pleaded with the suspicious guard at the gate of the GREF headquarters to let me into their guest house or at least sit somewhere. I told him the name of the officer and said I knew him (well, I knew his name and knew someone who knew him). The guard was unconvinced and said it was impossible for him to call him at that time in the night. But he very sweetly offered me a place to rest on his makeshift bed in his own room which was some distance away from the main gate, but I felt a bit awkward doing that. I then gingerly sat in a stool in his guard cubicle and shivered. Finally, after much pleading, he relented and called some other officer, not the big man I sort of knew.  The officer came and was flabbergasted that I was roaming around alone at that time of the night. I was finally allowed in and shown to a guest room with stern admonitions from several officers and guards on how I should not be roaming around on the streets in the middle of the night, that too during a curfew. I told them I had no choice. They were very kind; after some time, I was given hot tea. I waited till sunrise and left in the morning to catch the first available buses to reach Pakke.

Another night I can never forget is the time I reached Guwahati on the day of a major curfew after some bomb blasts. I had a train to catch which was leaving at some unearthly hour. I was forced to find a room to spend a few hours in a really dingy room in a dodgy and noisy lodge close to the railway station. I would have to walk from there in the middle of the curfew in the night with all my luggage to catch the train. I knew few people in Guwahati in those days and I did not always feel like bothering them. I spent a mostly sleepless night watching soldiers patrolling the streets and worrying about the random men walking around and shouting in the hotel.

Another time I remember in October 2000, I was returning from Miao (Namdapha Tiger Reserve) with a young colleague, and we had to get off a bus at 2 am on the main street of a small town (Biswanath Chariali), where we did not know a soul. We were again headed for Seijosa, Pakke Tiger Reserve but the buses did not directly go there, so the plan was to wait till morning to take several smaller ‘line’ buses to reach our destination. Biswanath Chariali is quite a busy and bustling town now, but there was no proper hotel in those days on the main street, so we stood around on the main road at night waiting for several hours with our luggage on the roadside till the dawn broke and the first buses started coming.

There are many such travel memories from those times and most have faded with time. Almost all of those journeys were solitary. And in those days I could not afford to hire vehicles. Nor did I usually have any prior plans on reaching a destination on where I would be staying and whether I would find suitable accommodation. Decent reasonably priced hotels where almost non-existent in most of the places I went to and even if some hotels existed, I usually could not afford them on my student budget and PhD grant money. Government accommodation in the form of the ubiquitous “PWD IB or Forest IB” is usually what is available in most of north-east India or sometimes the Circuit Houses which usually needs prior permissions from different officials who are hard to find or contact. On much of my travels, once I reached the remote villages and forest, all was fine and dandy as I stayed in peoples’ houses in comfort and was very grateful for the wonderful hospitality, warmth and delicious local food. It was the in-transit travel in the big and small towns where it was usually not much fun.

However, apart from the fact that one has to travel through Assam to reach places in Arunachal, Arunachal is the safest and easiest places to travel in, except that on a shoestring budget with heavy baggage to lug around and no travel companions it can be a bit daunting at times with the limited transport and stay options.

In those early years till 2003, I remember many fun and pleasant journeys travelling through the mountain roads to reach small towns and then walking beyond to remote villages and hill forests all over Arunachal – to places like Palin, Ziro and Tale Valley in Lower Subansiri district, to Pakke Kessang in East Kameng, to Roing and Mayodia Pass in Dibang Valley, to Nampong, Rima, Putok, Changlai and beyond to the Burma border in Changlang district, to Deomali, Khonsa and Pongchau in Tirap district, mostly on the rickety Arunachal State Transport buses and then lots of walking. On these journeys, often the best part was meeting and conversing with strangers and really getting to know Arunachal and its people. In later years, I spent a couple of months with my NCF colleagues (Charu and Madhu) doing a wildlife survey in Tawang and West Kameng districts where we walked over many parts of the landscape. I have mostly worked in the lower altitude areas of Arunachal but on that survey we covered the high-altitudes. I was thrilled that we went up to 5200 m, the highest I have ever been in Arunachal. I also remember we spent a full 16 days walking and camping without a bath. And on the last few days on the walk from Mago to Jang, I got bitten by several marauding wasps (which I am highly allergic to) and had to walk with a swollen head for 2 days, much to everyone else’s amusement.

Nowadays North-east India is much in the news for its famed biodiversity and, Arunachal Pradesh with its vast spectacular mountainous forests is arguably the richest in its wildlife heritage and forests.

There are many such wonderful places in Arunachal, but among the most magical of such places is the Namdapha National Park where I first began work in 2003.

Namdapha river-Dihing river Valley at Firmbase_Aparajita Datta

One of my favourite places in Namdapha – the main valley at Firmbase where the snow-fed Namdapha river meets the east to west flowing Noa-dihing river.

I had visited Namdapha for a few days in 1996 and 1997 and had only been up to the Deban-Haldibari-Hornbill-Bulbulia-Ranijheel-Firmbase where most tourists and bird-watching groups go. It was only after I first undertook the walk from Miao to Vijaynagar in November 1998 with the Forest Department staff that I fell more in love with the place. A two-month survey spent in parts of the park and exploring beyond the park in the Gandhigram-Vijaynagar area with the Lisu villagers in search of the leaf deer in the winter of 2002-2003 helped me decide that I must work there.

park-usf boundary Deban at Namdapha

The park boundary on the western edge where the Deban nala meets the Noa-dihing river. To the right is the park area.

This 1985 km2 park lies in the easternmost corner of India, in insurgency-ridden Changlang district, in Arunachal Pradesh. Described as being among the last large tracts of wilderness areas in Asia and flanked on the south and east by the Patkai hills and to the north by high mountain passes and the Himalaya, it is a place deserving superlatives. The last remaining large tracts of lowland dipterocarp forests in India, the world’s northernmost rainforests, contiguous with primary forests to the north, south and east in neighboring Myanmar.  Its altitudinal range (150 m to 4500 m), have resulted in an unparalleled diversity of habitats from lowland rainforests and river valleys to temperate forests and snow-capped peaks. Its biogeographic location and heavy rainfall also add to its diversity with over 1000 plant species, over 100 mammals including at least 15 that are globally threatened, 400 plus bird species, 72 herpetofauna and still counting.

Despite the fact that this area has been visited by a handful of biologists for only short periods and much of this area still remains unexplored (steep terrain, high rainfall, no roads and few walkable trails), new records are being reported and new species discovered. Even tigers, though extremely rare now, can bounce back, if adequate protection measures are taken, given the large forest area.

A handful of tourists visit the park now – picnickers who spend a day or two at the tourist facilities at Deban and bird-watchers that spend a week in the western part of the park (the designated tourism zone) occasionally venturing up to Firmbase in the Namdapha river valley. Conventional wisdom is that much of the rest of the park is inaccessible and difficult to move around in.

I realized this was not true when I began working in 2003 with the Lisu, a little-known tribe in Arunachal. The main Lisu villages of Gandhigram, Sidikhu, Hazulu and Vijaynagar lie beyond the south-eastern boundary of the park. A 157 km road once ran from Miao to Vijaynagar through the Namdapha National Park that is little more than an overgrown slushy forest path broken up by numerous landslides. From the main village of Gandhigram, Miao is a walk of 3-7 days through the park. The road from Miao is motorable up to Deban (26 km) on the western edge of the park.

How long you take each time depends on the weather, how many kilometers of knee-deep sinking mud you have to walk through, how many streams you have to cross. The route you take for this walk keeps changing every year, because the whimsical Noa-dihing river decides what track you can take. All Lisus have to make this trip at least once a year, and some of them up to 7 times. When they are sick, needing surgery, essential supplies, for contract work, or for access to better schools. And even to carry tin sheets or parts of rice mill machines, dismantled cycles or 29-inch TV sets all the way to Gandhigram from Miao.

Mugaphi peak near Namdapha_ Aparajita Datta

Mugaphi peak and lower areas – the snows came down low that year – view from Hazulu village beyond the eastern boundary of Namdapha

There is one other way to get there, air sorties from Mohanbari (near Dibrugarh) in Assam to Vijaynagar – but these are few and waiting for them is quite a frustrating experience. Walking is faster, at least for the Lisu and definitely less stressful than the endless waiting and uncertainty of a sortie.

I have done the walk between Miao and Vijaynagar about 13 times, sometimes both ways and at other times just one way from Miao or Deban. And the return journey usually by the air sortie on the Russian AN-32 planes or the helicopter. For us it’s a big deal, but for the Lisu it is a normal way of life to walk such distances a few times in the year for basic needs.

Though every year I got more nervous about crossing the treacherous fast-flowing Namdapha river.  Sometimes the water was chest-high and it was hard fighting the strong currents while trying to cross walking upright. I remember several horrible river crossings at different times where I felt I would be swept away. On one of the early trips, I remember Japang and I having a bad time crossing alone. We were both shaken on reaching the other side. At another crossing on the main Noa-Dihing river, where even while being helped by Akhi, I was almost swept away by the force of the water current and fell in the water.  Akhi managed to pull me out but he was just laughing all through as if nothing had happened and was more concerned about not getting my rucksack/binoculars/camera bag wet. I told him that he should worry less about all that stuff and more about me!


Holding hands to cross the Noa-dihing – deceptively strong currents. Photo: Charudutt Mishra


Near 52 mile clambering over rocks – usually this is Day 2 of the walk from Deban. Photo: Charudutt Mishra

Those walks along the M-V road and the river valley and river banks hold many memories. By the last day, some stretches would be endless slushy mud and we would all be yearning to reach the village. And every time that last bend on the M-V road where you get the first glimpse of the Shidi valley (Gandhigram) was like heaven and a coming home.

We had established a research and conservation program there which tried to address some of the socio-economic needs of the Lisu, engage in dialogue with them, and try to win their support for conservation through various community welfare and livelihood interventions. The ultimate goal was reduction of hunting and recovery of wildlife populations, so a part of our research work there included figuring out the status of some of the important mammal groups there such as the various primates (monkeys), the small carnivores (civets, mongooses, martens) and ungulates (several species of deer, wild pig, gaur, takin, goral and serow)

Namdapha may not appear to hold much for the usual Indian tourist that always expects or wants to see the tiger or large mammals. It’s not that the spectacular mammals are not there (in fact, the diversity of species is much more than anywhere else) just that they are rare, elusive and many of them are nocturnal and in a dense rainforest, sighting mammals is not easy. Even after having spent so much time in Namdapha, we know that many of the exciting mammals are actually there only from the camera trap pictures we got from some of the surveys we did between 2004-2006.

The only relatively common mammal species is the barking deer and even this you do not see much as in other forests like Pakke Tiger Reserve. Apart from the hoolock gibbons, Assamese macaques and several kinds of tree squirrels, mammal sightings are rare in the daytime. Our field work showed that abundance of many species is very low, even compared to other rainforest areas. But fortunately the forests are not quite empty as yet.

Although I can count on my fingers the number of mammal sightings that I have had in Namdapha and often I complain about how frustrating it is not to see anything despite miles of walking – the few that we do see are much more exciting than the countless animals that one can see from a jeep or elephant back in famous Kaziranga with hundreds of other tourists.

Give me the excitement and uncertainty of a rainforest any day – the possibility of a glimpse of a rare stripe-backed weasel or the curious hog badger around the corner – compared to the tedious certainty of grasslands dotted with large mammals gazing at you in boredom.

hogbadger NCF

Hog badger camera-trapped near 27 mile area by our team in 2007

For instance, I remember suddenly coming across a crab-eating mongoose scurrying along on a forest path, turning once to look back and disappearing down a slope, before I could focus my camera.

crab-eating mongoose NCF

This picture is from our camera trapping study done in the winter of 2006-07

Another time, we came across the extremely rare Hodgson’s frogmouth sitting in a bamboo thicket staring unblinkingly at us. It was still there when we returned a couple of hours later. I got a bad photograph with my point and shoot camera, but at that time, it was probably among the first pictures of the species from Namdapha.


Hodgson’s frogmouth

The magic these forests bring does not even have to be of an animal – the glimpse of a startlingly colored rare root parasite growing on a mud bank while you are puffing your way up a steep climb is reward enough.

Sapria himalayana rare root parasite _Namdapha

Sapria himalayana – rare root parasite

Then there are the moss-covered branches, the snaking huge lianas, brightly colored flowers in the dense green vegetation, the tree ferns, mushrooms, fungi and orchids or the sudden view of a thickly forested ravine from a steep hill top.

Stinkhorn fungus_Namdapha

Stinkhorn fungus – Dictyophora sp.

Phaius mishmiensis

Phaius mishmiensis – an orchid

Tree ferns3_Namdapha

Tree fern – Cyathea sp.

Or the many many smaller creatures that one encounters.

Paris peacock_Namdapha_Aparajita Datta

Paris peacock

Takydromus sp_Namdapha_Aparajita Datta

Takydromus sexlineatus – long-tailed lizard in a stream near Firebase (identified by some herpetologists – I would not know).

Draco norvili_Namdapha_Aparajita Datta

The one and only time Rohit and I saw a Draco in Namdapha’s forests thanks to Japang’s sharp eyes. Rohit identified this as Draco norvili.

And the many many birds and of course, the hornbills that were abundant in Namdapha.

Rufous-necked hornbill AparajitaDatta_Namdapha

The spectacular Rufous-necked hornbill which occurs in good densities in Namdapha

Field work in Namdapha was also exciting and made fun because of the company of several Lisu (Akhi, Duchaye and Ngwa-akhi and many others) who worked with us and knew the terrain well. With them, we traversed new areas that others have not been to, away from the Miao-Vijaynagar road and the Noa-dihing valley, although there are still so many areas left to explore in mysterious and magical Namdapha.

Often, a walk of an entire day through numerous crazy shortcuts that Lisus love to take would involve several river crossings, wading through slush, walking for hours upstream on small shady streams over slippery rocks vaulting over entangled bamboo thickets and thorny cane and countless ups and downs. All this to reach a salt lick where the Lisu say a takin might just show up. Once you are there, all you will finally see are a few old tracks and dried up dung. Then Akhi will tell you that they may not be coming now because the moon phase is not right! It would be frustrating and tiring but fun too and the forests were amazing.

For several years during the period we worked there, I spent the winters camping in Namdapha and celebrated New Year and Christmas in the Lisu villages. There are many memories from those times spent in the village that would fill a book. Through part of our community engagement, we worked with the community members to set up kindergarten schools for the children with support from Katha, as there were few teachers in the area. We transported books and other educational material bought from shops in Tinsukia all the way to Gandhigram (the biggest Lisu village outside the park beyond the eastern boundary) with porters carrying them on foot from Deban.  One memory I have is that the children in these remote villages did not have access to many toys. Nothing would be wasted. After a pig slaughter in winter, I was amazed and fascinated that the adults would blow up the pig’s urinary bladder to give to children to play with as a football, and on the village paths, games would be played with the seeds of Entada gigas.

We usually carried out the wildlife monitoring work on the return walk from Gandhigram, after we finished the community meetings and other work in the villages.

We would set out from Gandhigram with our rations (basic stuff like rice, salt, tea, a few vegetables that soon dried up, some mustard oil), tents, other camping gear and set up camp at each location (either on the M-V road or by the Noa-dihing river bank) for a few days before moving on to the next one.

Often we would send some bags of rice ahead with passing elephants and these would be kept safely for us at some tea shop or settlement on the way. On occasion, we also buried the rice in pits and covered it up to use on the return journey.

Luxuries such as oil, sugar, dal and milk powder are hard to get and in any case it is best to travel light. However, before we set out from Gandhigram, we would always carry some smoked salted delicious pork that the Lisus prepare when they slaughter their domestic pigs in winter.  Apart from that, we would be laden with parting gifts from villagers in Gandhigram – eggs, pineapples, oranges, dried Chinese apple (persimmon), yam and packets of smelly fermented soya beans.

We also carried zakhulu (rotis made from pounded steamed rice with no salt or sugar, thick and unfermented unlike a dosa,) wrapped in large Phyrnium leaves collected from the forest. These rotis can be of a variety of shapes or consistencies and can be eaten smoked, steamed or fried. All these goodies would usually run out on the second day anyway, as the Lisu philosophy is to eat up all available food fast and not save for a rainy day! Later we would end up eating boiled banana flowers, tender cane shoots or some other jungle leaves. The pork would be the only thing rationed out to last as long as possible.

Sometimes essentials like salt or rice would run out and we would have to borrow from passing Lisus and other porters or send someone ahead to get it from one of the Lisu settlements inside the park. Every day after the day’s work or on reaching a new camp, Ngwa-akhi and Duchaye would try and find edible stuff from the jungle to add some variety to our diet. This would include bitter shoots of various cane species, some wild leaves, wild banana flowers. All of this would be pounded along with chillies, ginger/garlic and made into some chutney to be had with rice.

Often field work was hampered by the rain and then we would sit around the fire, listening to the rain and drinking endless cups of bitter and very strong local tea (this is drunk by most tribes in Arunachal and is essentially green tea leaves that have only been partly dried over smoky fire). The rainwater would collect in a depression on our flimsy plastic shelter, needing periodic sloshing out. If it cleared up for a while, we would play chillo (a game played with a round ball woven from cane, essentially like volleyball but with a lower net and to be kicked like a football with feet). Later I learnt that apparently this game is also played by other tribes in north-east India and even in Thailand.

I would be very bad at kicking over the net; this would cause much amusement. Occasionally, we would watch a Lisu diving in the cold river with his home-made rubber ‘snorkelling’ mask and bamboo spear to catch a fish.

Sometimes, we would have people passing through on their way to Miao from Gandhigram or vice versa and we would exchange news and information about all manner of important and trivial stuff. There would also be rumours about various people and happenings which would lead to a lot of animated discussion and speculation.


En route to Gandhigram – camp site near 34 mile, looking at pictures, ca. 2005. Photo: Charudutt Mishra

The rain would start again and I would complain that it was because of Ngwa-akhi’s non-stop singing. Undeterred, Ngwa-akhi would get out his hymn book and sing with more gusto. Duchaye would join in. Akhi would be restless, as he hates sitting around doing nothing.

On such rainy days, when no work was possible, we would get out periodically from the tent when the rain slowed down to desultorily watch birds.

One such morning it started to pour so heavily that the small stream next to which we had camped, became hugely swollen and muddy. One of our tents almost went under water. Fortunately, we had finished our cooking, but as we sat and ate, the water levels rose and almost swept away our vessels.


The rain also brings forth vast numbers of the dreaded leeches that manage to sneak their way in no matter how careful you are. One time, I remember when Charu and Madhu had come on the walk to Gandhigram in 2003 soon after the monsoon season, they had complained bitterly about the leeches.  Charu is not too partial to rainforests. To this day, he insists he had to pick off around 2000 of them per day on that trip, which of course, is a gross exaggeration. Although I recall even me being horrified one morning when we woke up in our small tent to see the leeches all crawling around on the outside of the tent.

I don’t mind the leeches as much as the ticks, though. I used to itch for days till I learnt from the Lisu that dancing around a small fire while blowing on your clothes is the best way to get rid of them.

Namdapha is a very very special place, even if you do not get to see the tiger or the usual large mammals that you see in other forests.

On one of my winter visits, on the return journey, we got lucky – a helicopter ride over Namdapha from Vijaynagar. As I gazed at the expanses of green, the snow peaks, ridgelines, the rivers and the unexplored lakes and swamps, my eyes were wet taking in the vastness, mystery and beauty of the landscape. And suddenly to make it even more special, I saw a flock of ten Wreathed hornbills flapping hard and flying over the green canopy, visible so clearly even from our helicopter.

I realized that what makes Namdapha so magical and sets it apart from many other wild places is the feeling of being really far away, unconnected from civilization and truly in the wild.

Postscript: This article originally appeared in a shorter form in an inflight magazine of Air Deccan published in March 2008. 


The joy of cloudspotting

by Shreya Yadav

When I landed in San Francisco a few years ago and got in the air train to the city, the first thing I noticed were the clouds outside the window. I had never seen clouds like this before. Soft white curls rolled across the horizon in perfect Van Gogh waves, swirling like cream in a liquid blue sky. I was stunned. I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing this. If they were, they didn’t look so excited. “Kelvin-Helmholtz in the sky!” I texted a friend in disbelief, paying no attention to the fact that I was trying to use an Indian number in the U.S. These cloud formations had been on my radar for a while. They form when air currents of differing speeds push the cloud in different directions, usually making the top part of the cloud roll over its base. It is the same with waves when they break on shore – the lower parts of the wave slow down as the wave hits shallow ground while its crest tumbles ahead and crashes.

I’m a nervous traveller. New places demand your full attention, and I have a tendency to forget things. Bus schedules, train timings, pocket change, a cardigan… I am always missing something crucial, and so I am always a bit on edge, aware of my unpreparedness in a foreign environment. But inevitably at some point I look up and see clouds. They are usually always hanging in the sky, sometimes like benign and lazy poodles (cumulus humilis), sometimes high and wispy (cirrus fibratus), sometimes poking upward in turrets (cumulus castellanus) or lying flat against the sky, tired at the end of the day (altostratus). And very soon a place doesn’t seem so new and unfamiliar anymore.

A club for cloudspotting

I was content just to look at clouds until a friend presented me with a book one day. It was called The Cloudspotters Guide, written by an Englishman named Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I devoured the book in a day, surprised by how much more there was to clouds than just fluff. For instance, I knew clouds had names, but I had no idea their naming followed a Linnaean system of classification .Clouds are made up of different “species” and varieties, just like birds or plants. But unlike birds and plants, one species of cloud can quite quickly drift into another. In fact in 2008, Pretor-Pinney, who founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and runs its website (which has a gallery for posting cloud photos), noticed that people were submitting photos of a cloud type that had never been seen before. Even though it resembled a couple of cloud varieties, it didn’t quite match all their characteristics. In 2014, the World Meteorological Organization recognized this “new” cloud as asperitas, which roughly translates to “roughened sea” because of the way it rolls across the sky in dark waves.

And then there are much older clouds, clouds that are famous because of the places they are associated with. When you think of Mount Fuji, do you not also think of the spaceship-like altocumulus lenticularis that hovers over its summit? Or the contrails (condensation trails) of planes that steak the skies of New York? The dense and foreboding cumulonimbus of the Bombay monsoon? Hawaii is well known for its rainbows (which are also clouds) and Bangalore for its cotton ball altocumulus floccus.

As the climate and weather of the earth change, clouds too are bound to appear in new and interesting forms. So far, none that we know of seem to have gone extinct. This makes cloudspotting a very comforting and pleasant activity – and you can do it from anywhere you like, just as long as you have the open sky above you.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 31 August 2016.

Nature in Music

We asked our staff for their favourite songs that evoke memories and feelings, merry and melancholy, of the natural world—ones that celebrate its beauty and wonder, and ones that lament about the environmental crises we’re grappling with today. And here are some of their suggestions.

Do you have favourite tunes that moan about or celebrate nature? We’d love to hear about them! Let us know in the comments.


Music and Nature4

Music and Nature10


Music and Nature17



Music and Nature6




Music and Nature8

(Click here for a playlist with all the English recommendations!)



Music and Nature19


Music and Nature14

Music and Nature


Music and Nature7


Music and Nature12


(Click here for a playlist with all the recommendations in other languages!)


Field days: of sloth bears, wild dogs, cicadas and a vanishing leopard

For my Master’s dissertation, way back in ancient times in 1992, I spent six wonderful months in the Bori WLS (now the Satpura Tiger Reserve) in Madhya Pradesh studying the Indian giant squirrel (aka the Malabar Giant squirrel).

My study involved watching and following individual squirrels to understand their foraging and range use and how they tracked resources, mainly seeds. The dawn to dusk watching also meant we had no rest and spent the whole day out in the field even in the hot summer months when temperatures were well above 40 degrees. On days when we were not following the squirrels, we would be laying endless grids in the squirrels’ home ranges as they moved, mapping and measuring every tree (manually with tapes/ropes as this was way before the days of GPS) and also monitoring the phenology of all the trees in their ranges.

Chet Ram, a Korku from the nearby Gond/Korku village was to accompany me in the forest and help me with my field work. Very cheerful in the beginning, he became increasingly horrified at the amount of work we had and the long hours in the field. He noted that other researchers who were studying birds had it easy. Their work was over by 9-10 am on most days with 500 m long bird transects. He pointed out to me that not only did we have to leave the earliest – in darkness, we also returned the last. He used to lament that he was stuck with this foolish girl who insisted they had to chase squirrels the whole day. Fortunately, the squirrels would rest for long periods in summer and so Chet Ram also got long periods of half-sleep. He would often be sleeping a little distance away, and I would have to call him as the focal squirrel decided to move on. On some days, when I was watching the focal squirrels that lived close to the village and forest camp, I would tell Chet Ram to go off home as there was nothing much to worry about.

There were no elephants in Bori to worry about, but Bori was notorious for many sloth bear attacks which had left many people disfigured or maimed. Sloth bears do not go around attacking people but they have poor eyesight and hearing and a sudden encounter leads to such accidents. Their main food is termites, many varieties of fruits, and honey. Whenever, we used to go deeper into the forest, Chet Ram would be always worried about the bears. He would tell me that we would have to climb up a tree if we came face to face with a bear. He also warned me that he would either run or climb up a tree and that I would have to fend for myself. Not being particularly agile or experienced at tree climbing, I found the thought of myself shimmying up a tree highly unlikely. I was not even sure I would find the right one in the heat of the moment. Like most city kids, I could possibly have done some gingerly, cursory climbing up on some large low branches of mango trees or suchlike trees in some city garden or park, but surely not the kind of quick on-the-uptake skilled tree climbing needed for avoiding a disgruntled sloth bear.

Chet Ram was really worried that I had no plan. His constant focus on the perils of bear encounters ensured that I ended up being in mortal fear of encountering them on foot which persists to this day. He and Hari Ram (who I must admit I had a secret crush on) would also reel off some statistics on the number of people that get maimed annually during the time of the Mahua flower collection season in Bori. Mahua (Madhuca indica) is a very important tree species in central India, its flowers are collected and fermented to make a heady liquor by tribal people. Both Hari Ram and Chet Ram would recount gory stories of various people attacked by bears in sudden encounters. Annually, around 12 people or so. They would point out one of the forest guards whose face was badly disfigured due to a sudden encounter with a bear. One of the main reasons this happened was because villagers living in the area would go collecting the Mahua flowers very early, almost in the dark before dawn. This was the time when bears would also be active visiting the same trees as they were also partial to the fallen flowers of Mahua.

So, I hit upon a plan to reassure Chet Ram and myself. I started carrying a deodorant spray into the forest and told him that if we met one, I would simply spray the thing into the bear’s eyes and I would be able to run away. He was fully sceptical and smirked at the weird ideas of a city person. I was sceptical myself, as I then started worrying that being a bit accident-prone, in the heat of the moment, I was more likely to aim it the wrong way and end up spraying my own eyes instead of the bear’s.

Fortunately, (or sadly), I never did encounter a bear in the forest while on foot. But we did see one (my first ever sighting of a sloth bear) on an exciting night drive where I also saw my first hyaena. These were the days much before restrictions on night drives in national parks. I was a lowly Master’s student but whenever the senior researchers from the WII came with their field vehicles or the Range Officer of the park, Mr. Chacko came visiting, we were fortunate enough to get to go on some night drives. I remember seeing nine jungle cats on one such night drive.  We never did see a tiger in Bori on those drives, though once Chet Ram and I had an exciting time when we came across tiger pugmarks and we tracked the individual for 2 km along a perennial stream towards a hill till its tracks vanished.

As a city girl, I also encountered cicada rain for the first time – one day while walking in the forest with Chet Ram, the sound of the cicadas was deafening and I was complaining to Chet Ram that I had never seen them properly up close. It was a sunny day and I was suddenly hit by some fine spray and I was surprised as it was not raining, I asked Chet Ram what was happening and to my wonder, he said the cicadas were doing it. This was the cicada rain which I had not known about before.

All of the memories are not wonderful – soon after we reached, the Babri masjid demolition happened and I remember being heartsick with dread listening to the radio and hearing from outside visitors about the riots and mayhem all over the country. I remember one day actually sitting by the nala while following the squirrel in tears thinking about what was happening to this country.

Dr. Johnsingh and Dr. Goyal came visiting once during our time in the field in March. We had a busy few days being out in the field day going all over Bori, discussing our work. On their visit, I learnt something from Dr. Johnsingh that had nothing to do with research/ecology. Their visit coincided with Holi which is celebrated in a big way there. As I and the other researchers were busy with field work every day, Chet Ram, Hari Ram and a couple of others would cook all our meals. In those days, none of us were used to cooking much, that too in a different sort of kitchen. We had taken the fact that they cooked for us for granted. We had not really considered giving our assistants a holiday.  On the day of Holi, we had all taken a break from field work and all of us had played Holi with the villagers (except Dr. Goyal who hated being smeared with colours and remained holed up in his room and refused to come out). Dr. Johnsingh participated with full enthusiasm. In the evening, when we went to the kitchen for dinner, we were surprised to see Dr. Johnsingh cooking. He told us he had given the assistants a holiday as it was their festival and they needed a break too from their usual work. I was really touched by his thoughtfulness and all of us felt a bit ashamed about not having thought of this ourselves. A  few minutes later, Hari Ram and the others appeared, very sheepish and apologetic and quite a bit drunk on Mahua telling us that Dr. Johnsingh had insisted they leave and go have a drink/enjoy themselves on their holiday and that he would do the cooking. It was a lovely meal that we all had together that evening washed down with lots of Mahua, though I don’t recall what we ate now.

The handsome wild dogs, much-maligned and misunderstood, one of my favorite creatures in the Indian jungles were a dime a dozen. I had many memorable sightings during those six months, some were just glimpses on the drives, but the best one was watching a hunt where they brought down a sambar doe near the nala where I used to watch squirrels. I also witnessed a couple of hunts by a pack of ‘feral’ dogs again killing sambar. Some of these dogs were probably ‘owned’ by people from the nearby village and used on hunting trips but they were allowed to range freely.

I also had the weirdest leopard sighting in Bori  – one evening, after I had returned to camp, it was dusk – that beautiful twilight hour (known as godhuli in Bengali) when the village cattle were straggling back in towards the forest camp/village. There was a fence that marked the boundary of Satpura National Park. I got a cup of tea from the kitchen and was walking slowly to the fence looking around. Suddenly, right in front of me was a leopard, sitting on its haunches, watching me. We were separated by the fence but it was a distance of 5-10 m. I kept staring at it and so did it, unblinking, unmoving. In the gathering darkness, I could not even make it out very clearly. I was new to the forest in those days and a raw young Master’s student and I got a bit unnerved. It was eerie watching the leopard watching me at such close quarters. I took a few steps back. I turned away and wanted to call out to Hari Ram and the others as I wanted them to see.  Also to reassure myself that there really was a leopard. The kitchen was some distance away. I called out Hari Ram’s name once. And when I turned back, it was gone in that split second. That was my first sighting of a leopard and the one that was most memorable. I also regret getting scared and calling out and not watching that leopard for longer. But to this day, I am not sure and keep wondering was that leopard really there or was it just my imagination, and could it have just been a dog?



Oil palm expansion in forest and traditional agricultural lands, Mizoram

The march of the triffids

“In temperate countries, where man had succeeded in putting most forms of nature save his own under a reasonable degree of restraint, the status of the triffid was thus made quite clear. But in the tropics, particularly in the dense forest areas, they quickly became a scourge.”
—John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

In his dystopian novel, The Day of the Triffids, British writer John Wyndham describes a world overrun by mobile, carnivorous plants—the triffids—biologically engineered for their rich vegetable oil. Farmed and controlled, the plants prove economically valuable. But when a strange meteor shower drives much of the world’s human population blind, the triffids begin to gain ground, attacking people, threatening human survival itself.

The triffids could serve as a metaphor today for the tropical oil palm Elaeis guineensis. Oil palm is remarkable for its high palm oil yield, its profitability, and its mobility—read expanding cultivation in vast monoculture plantations in tropical forests worldwide. Many studies attest that biological diversity declines when oil palm monocultures replace forests (thus ‘eating up wild spaces and species’). According to FAO figures, oil palm now occupies over 14 million hectares worldwide. Consumer pressure in the developed world has triggered calls for sustainable palm oil production, but the reality in the tropics is that oil palm cultivation continues to expand rapidly, particularly in South-East Asia. India, too, plans to expand oil palm cultivation to meet domestic demand and reduce palm oil imports from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Oil palm monocultures are replacing mature tropical forests besides secondary forests resulting from shifting agriculture in North-East India. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Oil palm monocultures are replacing mature tropical forests besides secondary forests resulting from shifting agriculture in North-East India. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Biodiversity and traditional farming in peril

Oil palm expansion in India is slated to occur within the country’s north-eastern region that falls within portions of two global biological diversity hotspots, the Himalaya and Indo-Burma. Other monoculture plantations established or expanding in these regions include timber plantations, notably teak Tectona grandis, and other plantation crops such as tea and rubber.

 Teak plantations in summer offer a dry and leafless prospect for rainforest birds. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Teak plantations in summer offer a dry and leafless prospect for rainforest birds. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Given the extraordinary diversity in north-east India, conservationists are justifiably concerned at plantation expansion. But forest loss is not the only issue. Also at stake is the loss of traditional multi-crop agricultural lands and practices.

The forested mountains of North-East India are home to over a hundred indigenous tribes whose agricultural mainstay remains the practice of shifting cultivation, locally known as jhum. A traditional swidden system of organic farming, jhum involves rotational cultivation of cut and burnt fields, followed by a fallow period during which secondary forests are allowed to recover, before the next round of cultivation. Jhum creates a habitat mosaic of fields, fallows, and forests, including remnant mature forests in the landscape.

A current year’s jhum field is set alight in a landscape that includes the previous year’s fallow, regenerating bamboo and secondary forests, and remnant mature forests. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

A current year’s jhum field is set alight in a landscape that includes the previous year’s fallow, regenerating bamboo and secondary forests, and remnant mature forests. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Yet, since colonial times, foresters have decried jhum as destructive. In recent years, government authorities in states like Mizoram are deploying policy-based incentives to eradicate jhum and replace it with other livelihoods and land uses, including oil palm.

Birds, jhum, and plantations

Our research was motivated by the question: what are the consequences of such forest conversion to monoculture plantations on tropical forest birds? Is shifting agriculture or jhum really destructive as claimed, or better than monocultures for bird conservation? In a 2001 publication from the same landscape, I had noted the need to assess whether

“…monoculture plantations …are superior in conservation value to successional habitats arising after jhum, especially bamboo and secondary forests, which harbor many forest bird species’’.

But data were lacking.

To find answers, Jaydev Mandal, a research scholar at Gauhati University, and I surveyed sites in the core and buffer zones of Dampa Tiger Reserve, a 500 km² protected wildlife reserve in Mizoram state, North-East India. We selected five study strata: oil palm plantation, teak plantation, shifting cultivation (jhum), mature forest edge, and mature forest interior.

Canopy of mature rainforest in the core area of Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. (Photo: Zakhuma)

Canopy of mature rainforest in the core area of Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. (Photo: Zakhuma)

In March and April 2014, we surveyed for birds along twenty transects (100 m long and 30 m wide on either side) within each of the five strata distributed across multiple sites, constrained by logistics. We surveyed oil palm areas planted since 2007 and 15 – 25 year old teak plantations established by the Forest Department near villages along the Tiger Reserve boundary. For shifting cultivation, we covered a range of sites representing the typical jhum landscape: recently burned fields, fallows, and secondary forests with bamboo that had regenerated for 7 – 8 years, the typical rotation period. We looked for birds in moderately disturbed, forest-edge transects abutting the reserve and in relatively undisturbed tall, closed-canopy rainforests in the reserve’s core.

Jhum better than plantations for forest birds

We recorded 107 bird species: 94 were birds of mature and secondary forests, 13 were open-country species of open and sparsely wooded habitats. In oil palm plantations, we found mainly five common and widespread open-country species such as Olive-backed Pipits and Spotted Doves on the ground and Red-vented Bulbul and Common Tailorbird in the few shrubs and trees. A mix of open-country and forest bird species occurred in teak and jhum sites, but the latter brimmed with birdlife from understorey babblers and flycatchers to canopy minivets and woodpeckers. Some forest bird species such as Yellow-bellied Warbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, and White-browed Piculet, occurred mostly in the jhum landscape and bamboo forests.

White-browed piculet Sasia ochracea is frequently encountered in bamboo forests (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)

White-browed piculet Sasia ochracea is frequently encountered in bamboo forests (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Mature forest sites had few open-country birds and a large diversity of forest birds, including 25 species not seen in other habitat strata. These included birds such as Grey Peacock-Pheasant, Red-headed Trogon, Blue Pitta, Mountain Imperial-Pigeon, Long-tailed Broadbill, and Wreathed Hornbill.

Grey Peacock-Pheasant Polyplectron bicalcaratum prefers mature and late secondary forests. (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department).

Grey Peacock-Pheasant Polyplectron bicalcaratum prefers mature and late secondary forests. (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department).

Quantitative analysis reinforced our impressions. Oil palm plantations had one-fifth the number of forest bird species recorded in jhum (10 vs. 50 species) and jhum was intermediate between teak plantations (38) and the rainforest interior (70). We also found that the jhum landscape supported more forest bird species, higher bird abundance, and a more similar mix of species relative to mature forests, than teak or oil palm. Our vegetation data suggested that this could be due to the rapid recovery of secondary successional forests, including dense Melocanna bamboos, in jhum sites. Oil palm and teak plantations had few native trees and little bamboo, and oil palm also had sparser canopy. Our findings were broadly consistent with earlier research from South-East Asian tropical forests.

Dense vegetation characterises the interior of secondary forests recovering after jhum (left) unlike the open vegetation of oil palm (right). (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Dense vegetation characterises the interior of secondary forests recovering after jhum (left) unlike the open vegetation of oil palm (right). (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

Earlier research that had reported jhum as supporting fewer birds than mature rainforests had compared individual fallow sites that had regenerated for a fixed number of years (1 yr, 5 yr, etc.) with mature rainforest sites. Our recent research presents a better picture by comparing a range of sites representing the jhum landscape with a forested landscape. Although mature forest interior was still better for rainforest birds, an impressive array of forest birds persists in the jhum landscape.

The jhum habitat mosaic of fields, fallows, and forests (left) supports more tropical forest birds than monocultures such as oil palm (right). (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

The jhum habitat mosaic of fields, fallows, and forests (left) supports more tropical forest birds than monocultures such as oil palm (right). (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, CC-by-SA 4.0).

For forest and bird conservation, our results underscore the need to protect mature forests, but also attest that jhum cultivation is a better form of land use than oil palm or teak monocultures. Better land use planning and practices such as retention of forest remnants and areas of high conservation value amidst plantations are urgently needed to minimise the effects of ongoing conversion of forests and traditional shifting agriculture lands to oil palm monocultures.

If we go blind to these needs under the meteor shower of neoliberalism and market forces, the tropics may well succumb to the march of the triffids.

(This post first appeared on the BOU Blog and is based on the paper:
Shifting agriculture supports more tropical forest birds than oil palm or teak plantations in Mizoram, northeast India. Mandal, J. and Raman, T. R. S. 2016. The Condor: Ornithological Applications 18: 345–359.)

References and further reading

Azhar, B., N. Saadun, C. L. Puan, N. Kamarudin, N. Aziz, S. Nurhidayu, and J. Fischer 2015. Promoting landscape heterogeneity to improve the biodiversity benefits of certified palm oil production: Evidence from Peninsular Malaysia. Global Ecology and Conservation 3: 553–561.

Dasgupta, S. 2014. India plans huge palm oil expansion, puts forests at risk. Mongabay.

Koh, L. P. 2008. Can oil palm plantations be made more hospitable for forest butterflies and birds? Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 1002–1009.

Raman, T. R. S. 2001. Effect of slash-and-burn shifting cultivation on rainforest birds in Mizoram, Northeast India. Conservation Biology 15: 685–698.

Raman, T. R. S. 2014. Mizoram: Bamboozled by land use policy. The Hindu (op-ed), 14 May 2014, page 9.

Raman, T. R. S., G. S. Rawat, and A. J. T. Johnsingh 1998. Recovery of tropical rainforest avifauna in relation to vegetation succession following shifting cultivation in Mizoram, north-east India. Journal of Applied Ecology 35: 214–231.

Srinivasan, U. 2014. Oil palm expansion: Ecological threat to North-east India. Economic and Political Weekly 49.


Shekru sees a blazing issue

by Geetha Ramaswami

Shekru the giant squirrel sees a massive plume of smoke rising from the far side of the forest. He can sense waves of smaller creatures living in the soil fleeing impending doom…

Shekru is very content hanging upside down from a teak tree branch, decimating his loot of newly procured seeds, his rich coat of rusty-brown glistening in the sun. Shekru is a squirrel, but at 2 kilograms, he fully deserves his name – the Indian Giant Squirrel. With a swish of his luxuriant tail, he hauls his sleek body back on the big branch and sniffs the air. He senses a commotion nearby and with an uneasy pang, leaps further up the tree to investigate. Shekru lives in a kind of forest that becomes very dry between the months of January and April, what with the winter monsoon long gone and the summer monsoon very far on the horizon. This is the time when all the leaves have been shed from most of the trees he knows personally – the ones which he eats from and the ones in which he makes nests to sleep in. This is time when the air is hot and dry and whooshes by in loud gusts. This is the time when the dry dead grass and leaves on the forest floor easily catch fire. It is the time when the angry winds carry the fire far and wide into the thirsty forest.

Surveying the forest from 20m above the ground, he catches flashes of red in all directions. But those are just the flame-of-the-forest trees who have exchanged their green, leafy monsoon appearance for a red, flowery summer dress. Their bright red flowers are attracting swarms little insects and an army of small insect-eating birds has congregated to partake of the insect feast. But wait, what are those birds doing? Swooping from the sky, foraying in groups? They are picking out insects from the sky, not from the trees! That’s when Shekru sees a massive plume of smoke rising from the far side of the forest. There is indeed a fire over there, and it is forcing the insects to take to the skies!

Shekru knows that he is safe, all the way up in this teak tree, but he can sense waves of smaller creatures living in the soil fleeing impending doom. Though he has seen many fires sweeping across the forest floor, they have never climbed up the juicy barks of his beloved trees. The fires eat away the grasses and dead shrubs. In the monsoon, he has seen the plants sprout from the ground again, green, tender and juicy. There are humans under his tree now. Did they create these fires? They seem to be a mischievous lot, always pottering about in his forest. But no, these humans seem to be doing something else; clearing patches of grass, sweeping away litter? Thankfully, they are creating a barrier to the fire. Once it reaches this bare patch without leaves to burn, the fire should fizzle out on its own. Shekru decided he has better things to do than to watch his beloved forest burn. He hurriedly bounds over the canopy, and rushes far away from the mayhem.


  • Tropical dry forests in India have many deciduous tree species – they shed their leaves in the driest months of the year between January to April. In this season, many grasses and herbs growing on the forest floor also dry up and easily catch on fire.


  • Fires are common occurrences in these forests in the dry season and are almost always human-made, mostly accidental, but some are deliberate.


  • Staff employed by the State Forest Departments help prevent fires from occurring and spreading by taking a number of precautionary measures like creating fire-lines, clearing litter and making fire breaks. They also try to control any small outbreaks that may occur.


  • Indian giant squirrels are found all over peninsular India, living high up in the canopies of trees feeding on the seeds of large trees. They have a very distinct, loud call.


Photo: Indian Giant Squirrels are very comfortable hanging upside down. Credit: Manoj Ashokkumar (Wikimedia Commons)

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 13 July 2016.


The barley fields in the beautiful village of Kibber in Spiti valley.

It never rains in Spiti

3rd – 10th September 1995

The bus was hurtling its way down the rain and hail-washed mud road near the Kunzam pass when I realized that it was actually snowing lightly. Sitting cosily ensconced in the relative comfort of the Himachal State Transport Roadways bus, I felt a great thrill watching the lightly falling snow flakes on the windscreen of the bus, and the periodic rhythm of the wipers moving deliberately. I felt a passing sense of awe tinged with sympathy for the hardy Gaddi herdsmen walking with their never-ending white flocks of sheep and goats in the cold wet rain and wind. Only a few hours later I would be feeling more than a little sorry for myself when I too would be walking down the same muddy road with a rucksack on my back, tramping through and over ice-cold puddles and rivulets of water pouring down from the slippery mountainsides on to the road.

The Spiti river, on the road from Kaza to Manali.

The Spiti river, on the road from Kaza to Manali, on another trip, 15 years later in August 2010.

We had left Kaza in the morning after having spent a few weeks in Kibber and camped and explored the nearby areas in Langza and Komik looking for wild ungulates like blue sheep and ibex.  We had sighted several herds in different areas, and even seen a pale weasel and a dead specimen of a snow leopard.  For the first time I had gone up to 5200 m where the air was so thin.

The barley fields in the beautiful village of Kibber in Spiti valley.

The ripening barley fields in the beautiful village of Kibber in Spiti valley.

In the meantime, the bus reached the 15000 feet high Kunzam pass, and Yash Veer’s voice woke me from my dozing. I was reluctant to get wet, being content to watch the snow from the inside, but on Yash Veer’s insistence that I should have a photograph taken at the Pass, I got down gingerly from the bus shivering from the cold.


The Kunzam Pass on a bright sunny day in August 2010

The Kunzam Pass at a different time on a bright sunny day.

The cold was actually exhilarating especially the snowflakes settling down on my hair and clothes. The bus resumed its way, now down the pass towards the Chandra River, after people had run in to offer coins at the small temple with fluttering flags and a chorten. In the bus, we had a garrulous co-passenger with ears sticking out at right angles with a permanently d-uh expression on his face. He carried on a loud non-stop conversation interspersed with hand clapping and irritating laughter with people behind, while simultaneously listening to reggae music (a la Walkman). From time to time he would tunelessly chant ‘Buffalo soldier’ and ‘No woman, no cry’. Yash Veer had a pained expression on his face and was muttering under his breath, so we changed seats letting Charu suffer for a while. Charu, I think, promptly dozed off. The bus was making good time despite the rain and we were making plans for a sumptuous dinner at some place in Manali. Charu rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of butter chicken and Yash Veer in his more sedate way of his usual stuffed tomato paneer. I was voicing my morbid thoughts about how I imagined what would happen if the bus fell off the edge of the narrow road, with Yash Veer and Charu giving me not-very-amused looks, when the bus came to a halt. It seemed that there were rocks on the road ahead, so some passengers got off to haul them away and we were on our way again. The intensity of the drizzle had increased, and I watched the slippery wet rocks on my side of the window wondering at how horribly wet and cold they would feel. We passed some mules and horses standing under a poor shelter of rocks with resigned patience and two big mountain sheep dogs running about in the rain. I wondered how they felt about the rain.

Somewhere near the Kunzam Pass

Somewhere near the Kunzam Pass

I was feeling quite miserable about the rain; the world seemed hostile, grey and joyless. Charu kept up his incessant refrain of how wonderful the rain was; otherwise he would have been sneezing at the dust. And also about how it actually never rains in Spiti. These over-optimistic positive types really get me down at times.

Suddenly we saw some trucks on the road ahead and the bus came to a halt. This was it, the roadblock! A truck had got stuck in the quicksand and could not be pulled out. At that time, I little realized what would eventually happen, being optimistic about speedy road repairs, I assumed that we would be held up for a few hours at the most, by which time the trucks would be towed out. The worst eventuality would be that the bus would turn back to Kaza. But no sooner had this happened than within minutes our co-passengers started getting off with bag and baggage which included sacks of sweet peas. It seemed they were walking to the nearest place from here – Chhatru, that everyone said was just 2 kilometres away. I remembered Chhatru while coming into Spiti as a place consisting of two teashops, the inside being basically a cold stone structure covered on the outside with a tarpaulin. Yash Veer reassured me that the bus from Manali should be reaching soon on the other side of the roadblock and explained the concept of transmutation of passengers to me. This is a common thing in Himachal especially on these landslide-ridden roads. Essentially the idea is simple, passengers of two buses going in opposite directions change buses, and consequently the buses change their original destinations and move back where they came from keeping everyone happy. But then that’s not how things always work, as Murphy’s law puts it, when things can go wrong, they usually do!

After a few seconds, we realized that barring the conductor and the nonchalant driver, the three of us were the only ones waiting optimistically for this transmutation. Even the Austrian couple behind us were busy taking down their bicycles from the top of the bus and putting on layers of waterproof clothing. I watched with envy, thinking with dread of my cotton and woollen clothing and my flimsy cloth shoes being soaked within minutes of being in the rain. Yash Veer told us that people are so impatient that they walk ahead for the bus and therefore the bus would not come all the way to the roadblock and probably turn back before, so it would be better for us to walk too. The driver’s opinion also was that we should start walking. By this time only the Austrian couple were left, still preparing to bike it down to Chhattru. By now we had learnt that Chhattru was actually five and a half kilometres away. Yash Veer and Charu were taking the whole thing in a matter of fact way, so I tried my best not to appear upset. Our rucksacks and kit bags on top of the bus were soaking wet. Yash Veer and Charu were to carry their rucksacks along with one kit bag each, while I was to carry only my own rucksack. We also had sundry items such as the GPS bag, Yash Veer’s daypack and two carry mats. After some time, we were on our way, with the stranded truck drivers watching us with (what seemed to be in my misery) callous amusement. I tried to forget about the cold as I stepped into the rivulets, the road in most places had become like a shallow nullah with water streaming over the rocks and pebbles. The sky was invisible, a cold grey thick enveloping mist everywhere, and the mountains dark grey wet with patches of green pastures, the upper reaches covered with fresh snow. The Chandra River was rushing down over the rocks, a murky brown. The force of the river was awesome and in spite of the cold rain I couldn’t help wondering over the harsh beauty and the strangeness of this landscape. Yash Veer being weighed down with the luggage was trying to walk down as fast as possible. Charu was stopping periodically to rest because of the weight of his load. I did not feel the weight of my rucksack initially, but as I kept walking, my shoulders hurt. The bags had also become heavier due to the rain. We passed an old man bent double carrying a huge sack filled with utensils. His companion was carrying some bedding. Both seemed quite infirm and were not wearing any warm clothing. Earlier, Yash Veer had helped them to get their luggage down from the bus.

After trudging about a kilometre, we saw a bus and I thought “Wow salvation”. But the callous driver told Yash Veer to keep walking and said that he’d be going till the roadblock and that we could get on it only on its way back. He did not even allow us to keep some of the luggage. So our hopes dashed we trudged on, but at least we knew the bus was returning. A man offered to carry Charu’s kit bag.

I gave a sigh of relief as I saw another Himachal bus way ahead around the bend. I forgot the pain and dragged myself as fast as possible towards what I saw as my last hope. On reaching the bus, I realised that the over-enthusiastic passengers of this bus were hell-bent on reaching Kaza come what may. The wheels were stuck in the soggy black treacherous mud and seemed to be sinking in deeper with every heave and push. Yash Veer’s efforts at warning them were futile. I guess these passengers, most of them tourists and hikers wanted to make sure that there really was a roadblock ahead. They didn’t believe things could be so bad. So giving up all hope of getting a lift, we trudged on again. By this time, I was wondering whether the idea of these two buses returning back was a trifle too optimistic.

Anyway the milestone showed that Chhattru was only a kilometre away, so things were not too bad. I had visions of a smoky fire, dry socks, hot tea and steaming dal and rice and heavenly warmth awaiting me. The reality was that as soon as I reached I started shivering uncontrollably, since it was only then that the cold really chilled my bones.  I felt the wetness of my thick jacket, Sridhar’s wonderful but much-maligned monkey cap which I had borrowed in Dehradun and worst of all my thin socks and canvas shoes. Yash Veer and Charu herded me towards the tiny fire. In this harsh treeless landscape, fuel wood is scarce and due to the rain there were only some damp scraggly twigs and branches of some shrub (probably Juniper) available. There were already various people sitting around the wooden bench trying desperately to get warm. Many of the passengers from our bus were sitting around in various corners of the shop; the others had stopped at the second teashop. Another Himachal roadways bus was stranded there for two days. Many passengers stayed put in the bus, others had put up at the PWD rest house nearby. We decided against going to the relative comfort of the rest house since it would be too crowded.

The same stone benches in Rawat's cafe at Chattru - on a different trip, some 15 years later!

The same stone benches in which we slept for several nights in Rawat’s roadside tented ‘hotel’ at Chattru – on a different trip, some 15 years later.

After getting reasonably warm and at least smokily damp instead of wet, we staked our claim to one small section of the cold stone bench along one side of the tea-shop. The tarpaulin and mats on it were damp, barring Yash Veer’s bright red sleeping bag, everything else was soaking wet. We made ourselves comfortable with some hot tea and steaming rice and dal and kept fighting over the sleeping bag trying to keep out the chill. Everyone was unsure as to the situation further along the road. Some doomsayers insisted there would be roadblocks everywhere and we would have to trek all the way to Manali (a distance of 88 km), while others said once we reached Gramphoo (17 km), the road would be clear. It soon dawned on us that this was not a temporary halt that we would have to stay put there at least for the night.

The rain showed no signs of stopping, just an inexorable steady drumming on the tarpaulin. The sun was far away, taken over by impenetrable armies of grey clouds and mist. After a while I took notice of all the other stranded fellow passengers. We learned that one busload of passengers was stuck there since the previous night. In the course of the next two days, there would be five busloads of passengers including one or two trucks sheltered in these two tiny chai-shops, the place called Chhatru, which is even depicted on maps of the area. It had seemed funny that such a tiny inconsequential place should be worthy of mention on tourist maps of the area, but after the trip, I felt that in these harsh barren landscapes, the two chai-shops of Chhatru were probably like the Maurya Sheratons of Delhi.

Lady in Rawat's eatery making noodles for thukpa.

Lady in Rawat’s eatery making noodles for thukpa.

Throughout the day, foreigners returning from treks, and tired Gaddi herders taking a break from tending their flocks on the mountain slopes trooped in, while a few fed up with the waiting, left the first day itself on the walk to Gramphoo.


The large flocks of sheep and goats on the road between Kaza and Manali in the Chandra valley.

We were hampered by our heavy luggage, and decided to wait till the next day, in the hope of getting some porters or horses to carry the luggage. By evening, those who were going to stay were allotted their places by Rawat, the cool owner of the chai-shop who seemed to be handling all the influx with great equanimity. The bus drivers, truck drivers seemed to be quite happy with the status quo, trooping in and out of the cold, playing cards, singing, taking swigs of whatever drink they had. We sat stiffly watching all the merry-making trying to get comfortable against the damp stone wall, all bunched up. Next to us were some local men, maybe Gaddis. Facing us were two young city chaps who were dressed like hippies, smoking ganja and generally being very friendly with the foreigners. One of them had a guitar, and throughout the next two days kept incessantly strumming ‘Dum-Maro-Dum’, which probably was apt considering their general appearance. But as far as a repertoire went, it left much to be desired. The fellow seemed to put his heart and soul into it, no matter how many times he sang it. Rawat put on the radio and all talking and singing ceased. Heavy rains were reported all over north India, the situation was reported to be very bad in most parts of Himachal, Manali was damaged, roads were blocked and so on and so forth. It’s very different to listen to this sort of news when you are away from it all, unaffected. That night passed somehow, all of us so exhausted that we slept despite the cold and cramped space. We would hear the deep rumbling sounds of rock falls outside as during avalanches. For me, the worst thought was getting out of the comparative dryness of the shelter to go out to pee in the cold wet outdoors with people swarming all over.

The next day passed somehow in a daze with periods of optimism when the watery sun made a feeble effort to shine through and phases of boredom and stiffness from sitting in the tiny space for two days on end. We could not get any willing porters or horses. Even the Gaddis or other locals did not want to go. Most also did not have their horses or mules there. We were advised by most people not to leave that day since towards mid-day, the rain got worse and there were reports of landslides and quicksand on the road ahead.

In the late evening, a young American couple had come into the shelter. They were cold and wet and had walked all the way from Chandra Tal after the weather changed. I spoke to the girl a bit and helped her find a sheltered place to change, as the place was crowded with people.

Finally, the next day, the weather cleared a bit. Everyone was fed up of waiting and there was talk of walking up to Gramphoo. The American couple had decided they would start their walk. The guy did not talk to anyone, but the girl had become friendly with me, and we advised them not to set off alone and wait a little bit and come along with the rest of us. But the guy did not listen. Soon after breakfast, they headed off on their own despite warnings from several people. After much discussion and planning, we and a motley group of several other travellers including locals from Himachal and a Forest Range officer from Himachal set off. We had nearly run out of money having spent 3-4 nights at that place. We needed to keep a bit for the journey ahead, so we traded some packets of instant noodles we had carried from Spiti, for a last meal of dal-rice at Rawat’s place before we left. We said our goodbyes and thanked our host.



A bit of color and decor in Rawat’s roadside eatery, August 2010

As I walked, my thin cotton shoes were wet in a few seconds. The road was still a stream and the raging Chandra was as grey and furious as before. The skies were impenetrable.  Just after the bridge at Chhatru, there was a section, where the road was nothing but a quagmire of squelchy mud. We somehow crossed this. Further ahead, the road was no longer there, so we left the road and climbed and skirted up a slope. At one point, a black muddy stream had formed and was rushing down the hillside and had broken up the track. To continue, one had to jump over it to cross. If one slipped or missed a footing, it was a sheer drop straight down into the Chandra river. The Gaddis and their sheep were watching us from high above on the slope.

The Gaddis and their sheep and goats are a common sight in the summer months in this harsh landscape.

The Gaddis and their sheep and goats are a common sight in the summer months in this harsh landscape.

We were all carrying heavy bags and Yash Veer and Charu were even more weighed down with additional bags. Everyone else in the group crossed over. And even Charu and Yash Veer hesitated to jump and cross with their heavy loads. Then, fortunately, the Range Officer from the Forest Department at Tabo, Devi Singh who was in the group, turned back to lend a hand and help us cross. At that point, we all wondered how the young American couple had crossed this place as they were both carrying heavy rucksacks. We hoped they had made it.

After this, we reached back on the road again and it was essentially just the tiresome business of plodding along in the rain, and trying to remain oblivious to the cold. At one point, Yash Veer had stopped and was leaning against the rockface with his eyes closed. Charu was concerned that something may have happened, but Yash Veer had just stopped to meditate in the middle of that walk! The reason we were carrying so much luggage was because Yash Veer was bringing back a lot of the stuff including old utensils from his field basecamp in Pin Valley, many  sheets of pressed plants (herbaria) for identification and some fossil rocks. Charu (always practical and a minimalist) and I suggested that we could leave/throw some of the stuff behind, but it was all important and dear to Yash Veer, so they had to be carried back. We kept walking and at some point, I left them both behind as I had much less to carry and was impatient to reach a drier place. Our companions had long since gone ahead. Once in a while, someone else passed.


The Chandra river at a more peaceful time in 2010.

I passed a lone hut and walked on. After some time, I heard a shout and Charu was calling me back. They had decided we would not push ahead to Gramphoo that day as the weather was not good and it was getting late. So we went back to the hut I had passed by. Imagine my surprise when we entered that small hut to find it sheltering what seemed to be over a hundred people. That little hut belonged to a Nepali man and the place even had a name and was called Dorni. We had come about 4-5 km from Chhatru. That night passed somehow and we all sat cramped together trying our best to sleep. We made friends with some of the fellow travellers including a big Malaysian guy called Jin who had been travelling in India for six months. We all spoke of the terrible weather and stories of various stranded groups and what the road conditions could be ahead.

Yash Veer and I at the hut in Dorni with the only dry sleeping bag. On my head is Sridhar's monkey-cap.

Yash Veer and I at the hut in Dorni with the only dry sleeping bag. On my head is Sridhar’s monkey-cap. This is the only photo I could find and scan from that trip.

Matters were made worse for me as I was among the very few women there and discovered half-way through the night, sitting amongst some 50-odd people in that cramped space, that I had my period. I was totally unprepared.

By morning, miraculously, after 3-4 days of continuous dark and pouring rain, the sun appeared and the skies were a lovely clear blue. We could not believe it. Everyone poured out of the small hut to be out in the sun, making preparations for the walk to Gramphoo. Things were upbeat and Yash Veer had also finally managed to find a couple of willing porters to help us carry our stuff.

Although the skies had cleared, the road was badly damaged and there was slush, boulders, rocks and landslides all the way. We had to traverse some pretty treacherous terrain and the memories have blurred. I will never forget one of the porters who helped me cross in many dangerous places. I would not have made it without him. I could remember his name till recently, but now after 22 years, it is hard to remember. On the way, one of the travellers we met had got caught in some quagmire and was having difficulty walking. Yash Veer gave him a pair of chappals.

One of the small glaciers in the valley.

One of the small glaciers in the valley.

Gramphoo was bustling with news and activity. It is again normally just a pit stop on the road to Spiti. The road bifurcates here, to the left is the highway to Lahaul valley and further on, all the way to Leh in Ladakh and Srinagar. To the right, is the road we had come on from Spiti valley. There was news of trekkers and tourists stranded in Baralacha La, one of the highest passes (4890 m) in the Zanskar range in that area and that rescue missions were on and the government may be sending helicopters to rescue the people. We also heard with much disappointment that this was not the end of our journey. That we may have to walk all the way to Manali, as the roads were washed away. In fact, we would have to climb up (and later, down) the many hairpin bends of the windy Rohtang Pass (3,979 m).

Many more tired travellers walked into Gramphoo. More than five bus loads of tourists and locals had been stranded. We all exchanged notes on the journey and the situation.



All these fellow travellers had become friends and despite the dire situation, it was kind of festive and fun. There were elderly women among the travellers, several women were in saris and high heels and had trouble negotiating the terrain in their attire. They had all been on the bus expecting a hassle-free and uneventful routine ride to Manali. No one had expected such heavy and continuous rains in Spiti, a cold desert. As people straggled in, and we accounted for everyone we realized that the American couple were nowhere to be seen. We asked some people and then it turned out that the couple had fallen into the Chandrabhaga river, the previous day soon after they had left Chhatru. Apparently, some Gaddi herders had seen them from afar high up on the slope. They were alone with their heavy rucksacks trying to cross the muddy stream. This was at that same treacherous point where we had needed help to cross. The girl had slipped and the guy in trying to help had lost his footing and both fallen straight down into the river. The Gaddis could not do anything as they were far up and it all happened in seconds. We felt horrible thinking that this had happened just a while before all of us had crossed that same point. If only they had listened to us and waited to come along with the larger group, they would have been alive. We also heard of the death of another elderly traveller due to possible hypothermia and one other person who had got caught in the dal-dal (quagmire).


The Chandra valley lies between the Kunzam Pass and Gramphoo on the Manali-Kaza road. It remains cut off and completely uninhabited for many months through the long winter. In the past, the road used to open for 3-4 months in summer when a few shops like Rawat’s at Chhatru open along the road to cater to the passing tourists and local people. Gaddi shepherds also use the area in the summer to graze their livestock.

It was afternoon and it takes a few hours to climb and cross the Rohtang pass, even if one avoids the long winding road and hairpin bends and takes the shortcut straight up through the meadows. Yash Veer wanted to go ahead to Marhi, as the porters were available only till that day. Marhi is a famous stop on the way to the pass with many roadside shops, dhabas and hotels –a tourist point where people get off to take pictures and pose in hired long fur coats and snow gear with the mountains and ride on ponies. It is the last point where you are amidst the oak, pine and fir of the Greater Himalaya, before you cross over the Pass and hit the dry cold desert of the Trans-Himalaya into the Lahaul and Spiti valley.  People said that there are usually very strong winds and the weather often turns bad high up on the pass in the late afternoons. Most travellers were staying overnight and planning to undertake the trek next morning. Charu and I decided not to go ahead that day, as I was not feeling up to tackling the pass that day. Yash Veer went ahead with the porters. We found a corner to sleep in along with many others in the small teashop by the roadside.

The next morning was bright and clear. The road distance from Gramphoo to Rohtang Pass is 15 km, but the walk is shorter as we cut straight uphill. It was a fabulous day, with blue skies and a lovely breeze and the walk up took around 2-3 hours. It was not as difficult as people had made it out to be. From Rohtang pass, it was another 16 km down to Marhi, but again all of us took short cuts down the mountain slopes. The road was blocked in places, with many stranded vehicles. The whole hillside was filled with travellers trudging, running down the slopes. It was kind of exciting and I felt wonder looking at the high mountains and forested slopes all around. After Rohtang Pass, the landscape changes dramatically to lush green alpine meadows and pine and fir forests of the Greater Himalaya.


We finally reached Marhi and found Yash Veer. He had spent a cold and miserable night sleeping on a table at a roadside café. And in the morning, the owner, mistaking him for an uninvited road labourer had yelled at him to push off. After several days of being unwashed with no change of clothes and burnt by the sun and wind with peeling skin, the three of us looked quite a sight, but Yash Veer who usually looks so distinguished and dapper, somehow looked the most bedraggled with his unshaven and sunburnt face from the time spent in Spiti.

Despite all the news about the devastation in Manali, we had optimistically assumed that after Marhi, we would still be able to find some transport and the road would be cleared and open. But we realized that we had no choice but to walk all the way to Manali, which was around 35 km from Marhi. From Gramphu to Manali, the total distance was around 67 km.

It was quite a festive carnival kind of atmosphere as the hillside and roads were swarming with people all clambering down the slopes. Marhi’s roadside eateries are famous for their various kinds of paranthas, rajma-chawal and Maggi. After a breakfast of alu paratha with globs of homemade butter, we followed everyone who seemed to know the shortcuts through the forests down to the Beas river. Jin, the Malaysian guy, and two brothers from lower Himachal who worked at the power station in Rangrik in Spiti and several others who we had met at Chhatru/Dorni/Gramphoo were all walking with us. My knees and legs were hurting after all the non-stop walking. In one place, we had to cross the river along some rickety logs. Several local herders helped us at some difficult points. After miles and miles of walking, I remember vaguely, that we reached back on the highway near Palchan, a small roadside village where everyone stops for tea. It was a place full of ‘mahaul’ as Yash Veer likes to call it. But we could not stop to enjoy the mahaul (roughly translated to mean atmosphere) much. We quickly ate and managed to hitch a ride on a passing truck for a short distance. As we approached Vashisht, a town near Manali, it was shocking to see the devastation the floods had caused. All along the roadsides we met local people who stopped to chat and expressed concern and gave us news about the situation. At one point, there were a bunch of men with baskets of the famous Himachali apples, stopping all the weary travellers to hand over the apples and cheering us on. This gesture was so fabulous, spontaneous and heart-warming – this is what makes me love this country so much. We passed the Centre for Snow and Avalanche Studies which was heavily damaged, the river had overflown its banks here and ripped apart sections of the road and the centre. We all laughed at the irony of this particular place being so badly affected by the floods. Luckily, the floods had come in the middle of the day, so although there was severe damage to property on both banks of the river, lives had not been lost in Manali town.

As evening fell, we realised that even though we had reached Manali, it was still quite some way to the centre of the main town. And because different sections of the road had been damaged, we had to take a long-winded route through the forested slopes climbing up and down the hillside again. We had to ask many people the route many times and there were many detours. At some point, we got lost and went on a wrong route. It got completely dark and we walked without any torches. By this time, I was completely fed up and complaining. The day’s euphoria was gone. It was frustrating to have covered so much distance all through the day and bizarre to have reached what I thought was Manali in the late afternoon and yet still be walking endlessly in the dark. At one point, I slipped in the darkness and sat down on the slope and it turned out I had sat down on some human poop. That was really the worst part in the entire journey.

Finally, at around 8 pm, we reached the main centre and trudged wearily to a hotel. We said our goodbyes to all our fellow travellers, with handshakes and hugs all around – it had been wonderful walking with them and everyone had helped each other. We would never see them again but I would always remember the warmth and fun we shared on the long walk.

We had begun our day at 6 am from Gramphoo. We had probably walked around 35-40 km (though the actual road distance is 67 km). After 7-8 days of no bath, it was unbelievable to actually sit down on a bed, use a bathroom and a shower. The tiredness and stiffness in our muscles and joints hit us as we sat down to a full dinner, the first proper meal after several days – but sadly, there was no butter chicken on the menu, that Charu had been dreaming of when we had set out from Kaza so many days ago. That would have to wait till we reached Dehradun.

But the journey was not over.  We realised next morning that we did not have enough money to make the journey back to Dehradun. We had used up whatever cash we had during our enforced stay at the roadside stops and on hiring the porters/horses. These were before the days of ATMs, and mobile phones. All of us knew friends and family would be terribly worried as we were supposed to have reached almost a week before. We could not call from the STD (Standard Trunk Dialling) booths that used to be ubiquitous and a lifeline in those days. All phone lines were down due to the floods. Fortunately, Yash Veer knew of a range officer in Manali and we decided to request him for help. Next morning, we headed over to his office to borrow some money. Before we reached the Ranger’s office, Charu managed to sneak a quick shave from a roadside barber which made him more presentable. Both Yash Veer and I were limping, he, due to blisters, and I, due to stiff joints and knee pain as the exertions of the previous two days were taking effect. The ranger was shocked by our sunburnt, haggard appearance. When he offered us tea, Yash Veer had refused politely. The ranger laughed and said “Aap ko dekh ke lag raha hai ki aapko chai ki sakht zaroorat hai”.

There were no direct buses from Manali to Dehradun, so we had to get to Kullu. Even the 40 km stretch from Manali to Kullu was badly damaged in places. Autos were doing brisk business ferrying people for short distances from point to point. We hopped on and off several autos, negotiated some precariously damaged road sections on foot and finally reached a point from where we got on a very crowded bus to Kullu. As we were getting on to the bus, there were a group of Bengalis getting down with all their mountain gear and discussing their mountaineering trip into the higher reaches. We laughed at this madness of being headed in the wrong direction into the mountains when everyone else was trying to get out. Finally, we reached Kullu and there were no direct buses to Dehradun. We managed to get on a Himachal Roadways bus to Saharanpur, which would be an overnight ride. From here, we would have to take another bus to Dehradun.

As we sat down on the bus at Kullu, the conductor came for the tickets. When Charu was paying, for some reason, the conductor was surprised to learn that Yash Veer was also with us. Later when the bus had stopped somewhere and Charu had got down, he asked Charu “Acchaji, aapke saath jo dusra aadmi hai, who kahan se hai – Madrasi hai kya?”. He was surprised to learn that he was not. This is a typical reaction in north India where anyone with dark skin is automatically often assumed to be from the south and generically referred to as ‘Madrasi’. Yash Veer with his sunburnt face apparently qualified. It can be offensive most times, but this guy did not mean to be prejudiced, I guess.

At dawn, we reached Dehradun on the 10th of September, a week after we had left Kaza. Charu and I were headed to the Wildlife Institute of India campus, while Yash Veer was headed to his home which was outside the campus. Poor Yash Veer, here too, as he was waiting for a Vikram (that’s what the big shared autos were called in Dehradun) – the police caught and questioned him as they thought he looked suspicious.

Even now, we laugh when we remember how Yash Veer was questioned and treated because of his appearance. But it is also a telling comment on how appearances and the colour of your skin determine how people treat and view you.

After that time, I have done many journeys in different areas in the Himalaya, including countless ones to Spiti after Charu began his PhD studies there in 1996. There have been many other crazy long-distance walks and journeys in difficult terrain especially in parts of Arunachal, but this was the first such experience and remains the most memorable. Charu who loves the mountains and is used to them, said later that even he was pretty shaken during the journey and had wondered at times, whether we would make it back alive.

Even now, if you google, you will find many news reports and articles on the floods in September 1995. Here is one I found:

“It was in the first week of September, 1995 when the entire State had heavy rains that district Kullu witnessed heavy floods particularly between 2nd to 5th September, 1995. The intensity of floods was very high throughout the district. However, the worst affected part in Kullu sub-division was from Palchan to Bajaura where the river Beas caused substantial damage to public and private property on its right as well as left bank. The flood was caused mainly due to heavy rains in the higher mountainous region from where the river Beas emerges. During this period, the rainfall was estimated to be about 74 cm, which was abnormally high, compared to the annual average of 81 cm. “

I still remember the faces of the American couple that lost their lives. In later years, we would learn from Rawat, the hotel guy at Chhatru, that the parents and family of the American couple had come to the area and that a memorial had been put up somewhere near Manali.

Note: Although I had some photos from parts of the trip, these were all taken on some ancient cameras and are on slide/film rolls. For most of the journey after we started to walk, the incessant rain and the circumstances precluded stopping to take photographs. I will eventually make the time to find and scan some and insert them here. But for now, I have used photos from another trip in August 2010 to add some visual relief from my long-winded detailed account.












All about figs – book review of ‘The Secret Garden’

Books on nature and wildlife for children set in the Indian context are few and far between, though in the last decade, there are several available. It has definitely improved since my childhood, when I read a lot about nature and wild species in far-off places but had very little to read on about Indian wildlife.

I still lament that many Indian children (and their parents) would have heard of toucans and gorillas and armadillos but not about hornbills and lorises or civets. And these are still the better known more popular animal species.

The cover page of the book authored by Shruti Rao and illustrated by Rohan Chakravarty

The cover page of the book authored by Shruti Rao and illustrated by Rohan Chakravarty

 ‘The Secret Garden’ written by Shruthi Rao is possibly among the first few nature books from India for children that focuses on plants and plant-animal interactions. The concept and scientific inputs have been provided by several ecologists who work on these systems.

The book is about the natural history of figs – many species of which are familiar to most people even in the cities – such as the Banyan (Ficus bengalensis), the Goolar (Ficus glomerata), the widely cultivated and edible Anjeer (Ficus carica) and the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) – one of the commonest and well-known fig trees in India. These are some of the well-known species, but there are over 750 species of Ficus in the world, mainly in tropical forests.

Although fig trees are familiar to most people, few people know about its fascinating biology and its dependence of a range of animals for pollination and seed dispersal. The story of the complex tight mutualism between the fig tree and its fig-wasp pollinators is told in a simple, clear and fun way. The narrator is the Peepal tree who tells the story of its unique and remarkable relationship with Kanaja, the tiny fig-wasp (Kanaja = fig-wasp in Kannada).

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a book for children on nature is to make it interesting even while providing facts and information. This book has done this job beautifully – being both educational and a fun read.

An appealing aspect of the book is the clever and intriguing title. It refers to the hidden garden of flowers inside the figs which no one knows about or sees. People may have wondered where are the flowers of the fig tree – actually they are hidden inside the receptacles (syconia) that outwardly many would simply consider to be the unripe fruits.

My 7-year old son after reading it with me, was fascinated on learning this and very amused when he understood the reason for the title. He also thought the book should have been called ‘The Peepal’s Secret Garden’.

The wonderful cartoons by Rohan Chakravarty that accompany the story and facts are quirky, delightful and apt and had my son giggling on every page. In children’s books on nature, a bit of humour is an important component that is often missing. This book has this on every page.

The paintings by several other artists and images and the design of the book is also appealing. The knowledge and information is delivered with a light touch, woven into the story-telling by the Peepal tree. Some facts and numbers are provided separately, represented as writing on a lined notebook. Some more tidbits are given in yellow boxes as in sticky notes.

The book goes into every aspect of fig biology and their importance for a host of animal species. It talks about intricate aspects of the tight co-evolution of the fig-fig-wasp mutualism, then about the parasitic wasps that try to get the benefits without helping in pollination, and talks about the threats from human impacts to fig trees. The later part of the book talks about how their fruits are a reliable source of food for many birds and mammals. And then about some of their prominent consumers and dispersers – the hornbills and about their breeding biology and the competition between different-sized hornbills at fruiting trees. Lastly, it tells us how fig seeds are dispersed, and where and how they germinate and grow. And why the Peepal or other Ficus species are so important in the forest as keystone species.

What figs provide - cartoon by Rohan Chakravarty

What figs provide – cartoon by Rohan Chakravarty

It is also super that several of the animal characters have lovely Indian names – starting with Kanaja, the fig-wasp, then Mangat and Chilotro, the Indian grey hornbills and Dada, the Oriental Pied hornbill. And there is Atthiamma, the Goolar tree, another common fig species.

Inside cover - Oriental Pied hornbill by Sartaj Ghuman

Inside cover – Oriental Pied hornbill by Sartaj Ghuman

The book is also a paperback, easy to carry around and distribute, being light and only 21 pages. The paper and printing quality is excellent.

I presume this book is primarily meant for children from 6 years to about 11 years. My one quibble with the book is that in some places it could have had even less text and shorter sentences, especially for the younger age group (6-8 years). A few of the pages also look somewhat cluttered. One minor issue is that the book does not mention the variety of growth habits of fig trees – while many are stranglers like the Banyan familiar to all, that are epiphytic and grow by killing a host tree, some others grow on rocks, while many are also free-standing.

The Secret Garden is a delightful book about one of the most fascinating mutualisms in nature and about the many connections between figs and a host of animals ranging from the tiny fig-wasps to hornbills and large mammals. I recommend it highly for every child (and even adults) to read and enjoy. And it is a must-have in school libraries.

The book has been produced as part of an educational initiative of the Nature Science Initiative (NSI) – and has been funded by the Rufford Foundation, UK. The book is priced at Rs. 250. Another plus point is that the book is published under a Creative Commons license. There are also plans to translate and publish this in several Indian languages.

redventedlantana small

Plant invaders: Q&A with Geetha Ramaswami


Geetha Ramaswami is a Research Associate at NCF, and is particularly interested in invasive plants—especially how they affect and get affected by the ecosystem they invade.


What are introduced species? What are native species?

Well, over many millennia, different species have evolved to live in different kinds of environments. They may not have had the chance to reach new environments and are therefore not found there ‘naturally’. Say, you are a hypothetical little frog sitting on an island 1000 km from any continent, in the middle of a sea; and say, your skin cannot tolerate swimming in a salty sea, you wouldn’t really risk trying to cross an ocean just to reach a new place. But you are well equipped to deal with the highs and lows of life on the island itself. You would be a ‘native species’ on that island.

But suppose you catch the fancy of a pet trader, who thinks that your brilliant colours belong in a mainland aquarium. He captures a bunch of you and ships them across the ocean onto a continent (where neither you, nor your ancestors of many generations have ever set foot before), you would be an introduced species on the continent.


What exactly is an invasive species?

Supposing a bunch of you grew too big for your aquarium on the continent and the pet trader decided to release you into a shiny new pond outside; you found a whole buffet of new insects to eat, thrived, survived, managed to reproduce and spread from your point of introduction to really far (say a 1000 km inland), and perhaps even started affecting other species and the environment there, you would be called an invasive species.

How can a puny thing like you have achieved such a gargantuan task, you ask? Perhaps your brightly coloured skin exudes toxic stuff that predatory birds are wary of eating. You don’t get eaten as much as the local frogs. The more you stay alive, the more you can breed, the more of you there are. Frog 1, predator 0. Because the local viruses, bacteria and other critters have never seen the likes of you before, they do not know how to use you as a host, you might escape getting a fatal infection from local frogs. Frog 1, parasite 0. Perhaps hundreds of you escaped into a world with only tens of other kinds of frogs. The locals’ small numbers are no match for the hundreds of you now eating and breeding on their land. Perhaps you are better at catching insects; perhaps you can take the cold or the heat better. The locals, fighting disease, predators and the weather while trying to feed and breed stand no chance against you. Frogs 1, competitors 0. Meanwhile, your eggs float around in seasonal streams, spreading to new areas as the water flows. You see, invasive species have many tricks up their sleeves to ensure their own survival and persistence.


It does seem like it’s way easier for species to spread to new locations today than ever before, doesn’t it? What is encouraging this further spread?

Humans! Creatures can now traverse millions of kilometres over land and water in a jiffy, riding in human-made means of transport, a feat that would have perhaps taken a species many millennia to achieve without man being around. A lot of this transport is driven by some human-created need for the species in a new place (for example; exotic pet trade; biocontrol agents) or by accident (for example; the introduction of mammals like rats on an island without mammals, which came as stowaways on a ship with the humans who colonised that island).


What exactly are invasive plants? What makes a plant invasive?

Imagine all of the above happened to you, except you are not a frog, you are a plant! Many plants are introduced to new places either intentionally for human benefit (they had pretty flowers and looked nice in a garden; they were fast growing and rapidly provided fuel and fodder) or accidentally (a bunch of invasive plant seeds got mixed with seeds of a crop plant and got exported to a new place). If they ‘escape’, survive, establish a population, proliferate and spread thereon, they can be called ‘invasive’.

Resistance to attacks by plant-eaters and microbes, producing biochemical arsenal that can harm other plants, hijacking helpful fungi to do your bidding, producing lots and lots of seeds, having the ability to exploit resources and to withstand local conditions, having the ability to change local conditions—any combination of these superpowers can make a plant invasive.

Lantana, a thorny shrub with pretty flowers; the water hyacinth, an aquatic plant with leathery leaves that covers entire lakes; Parthenium, a small plant with white, acrid-smelling, asthma-inducing flowers; are all invasive plants commonly seen in and around Bengaluru.

Water hyacinth
The water hyacinth, an aquatic plant with leathery leaves that covers entire lakes,
is a non-native, invasive plant in India


So, all invasive species are introduced species, but not all introduced species are invasives, right?

That’s correct. Many introduced species may not fare as well as the hypothetical frog species mentioned earlier. They might quickly die out in an environment that they have never encountered before. Or they may not be able to compete or breed or move very far and be smothered by their own brethren. They may not find essential partners—mutualists—required for breeding and sustaining their numbers. Say, you are an introduced plant that produces flowers that only hummingbirds can pollinate, and you are now stuck in a new place without any hummingbirds—you will never get pollinated, your seeds would never set and your lineage will end with your death. You will not be able to spread and therefore you will not become invasive.


Are all non-native, introduced species harmful to the environment, do all of them negatively affect biodiversity?

As I said before, not all non-native species will become invasive. Those that do, are often associated with some or the other effect on the new regions that they colonise. ­Invasive animals can sometimes directly decrease the diversity of other animals and plants that they could be feeding on. Have you heard of the brown tree snake? It is native to Australia and Papua New Guinea and was accidentally transported to Guam. The subsequent invasion was devastating for prey species like birds, rodents and reptiles. Some birds even went extinct on Guam!

It is a bit more complicated in the case of plants. If you look up scientific literature, you would find that many invasive plants are associated with reduced native plant diversity. But that may not always be the case, because the direction of the effect (reduced diversity due to invasion or invasion due to reduced diversity) is not always clear. Add to it the complications of a natural system—the soil, weather, water, animals, microbes and human interference, and you have a confusing cocktail of factors which could all affect native species diversity in more ways than the invasive species by itself. Needless to say there are many conflicting opinions amongst the scientists who study invasive plants. Researchers do a kind of statistical analysis called ‘meta-analysis’ to compile and summarise results from many many studies in one place. By looking at these meta-analyses, one can say that the environment, the scale at which observations are made, the time and place of observation all affect the impacts that invasive plants have on native diversity.

Some of the more worrisome effects of invasive plants (apart from reduced native species diversity) are: changing existing ecosystem processes that have been shaped in space by time (like fire cycles, soil nutrient cycles, local hydrology), changing existing relationships between native species (like hijacking helpful fungi or pollinators or seed dispersers), and releasing ‘allelopathic chemicals’ that can reduce native species survival and growth.


Can some native birds and animals actually benefit from invasive plants?

They can! Especially if the invasive plant is provisioning them with lots of tasty food! Pollinators drink nectar from flowers and in return transfer pollen between plants, helping them create seeds that will become future plants. Without their courier service, many plants will be doomed! Invasive plants offer the same kind of barter as native plants (nectar in return for pollen transfer) and are readily used as an additional source of food by those native pollinators who care only about a nectar reward and not so much about where it is coming from! Some invasive plants make delicious berries that animals eat. Fruits are, of course, just bait. The real purpose is to make the animal carry the seeds in its gut far away from the parent plant (seed dispersal) and get pooped out in a new place so that the plant can spread there. So, yes, some fruit-eating animals that find invasive plant fruits tasty will use them as a food source. Some microbes (bacteria and fungi) that benefit plants in some way (say, by producing nutrients or absorbing water) and gain benefits in return (eat up carbon fixed into sugars by the process of photosynthesis), may also be happy in the company of invasive plants ready to partake in these exchange offers.

That said, we need to acknowledge that invasive plants are entering a complex mishmash of relationships between native species and their environment (their Facebook relationship status might as well read ‘It’s complicated’). What is certain is that invasive plants bring about change and some of these changes are so dramatic that a pre-invasion state may never be achievable. But to naively classify all changes as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ does not help in addressing problems holistically. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are dependent on the context in which the plant is being looked at (e.g.: ‘bad’ for native plant diversity, but ‘good’ for the populations of pollinators dependent on the invasive plant). Also remember that change happens over time; ‘bad’ today may set off a chain reaction of other processes that may result in something ‘good’ ten years from now and which may revert to ‘bad’ in another ten years.


That does sound like a very complicated relationship, indeed. Tell us a little about what you have been working on.

I work on the ecology of a fascinating invasive plant called Lantana camara and all the mischief it is bringing about on the forest ecosystems in India. Lantana is a plant of central and South American origin and is a very common invasive plant in India. You might have seen this thorny, messy-looking bush, lush green in the monsoon and skeletal in the summer. It has pink or orange flowers held in little bunches and the leaves have a distinct sweaty smell when crushed. You might have eaten its berries too—small, purple-black, sweet, with a single grape-like seed inside. Lantana has many survival tactics—it shades out competition (but does not like being shaded out), is fire and abrasion resistant, it can live in very hot and moderately cold and moderately dry habitats, it produces a lot of flowers and a lot of seeds and invests heavily in a seed bank. Once a substantial population has established, Lantana is very difficult to get rid of and is impossible to completely remove or ‘eradicate’ because of these tactics.

I spoke about seed dispersal earlier. My current research looks at whether lantana is stealing away dispersers from native species. I want to understand if birds like eating lantana berries more than the fruits of other native plants, and if so, is it because the fruits are of better quality, or because they were available when others were not, or because there is way more lantana fruits than any other kind of fruit when everyone is fruiting? Perhaps lantana does not steal dispersers, but in fact, lures more dispersers to a native plant that it is sitting next to! I hope to unravel some of these mysteries by next year.

Lantana camara

I can’t help but wonder how this little plant from South America came all the way to India…

Lantana was introduced into India as an ornamental garden plant by the British in the early 1800s. Legend has it that a few rogue plants escaped from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens more than 200 years ago and the descendants of those plants continue to terrorise farmers and forest managers alike, ever-growing in The Blob-like fashion, engulfing larger and larger swathes of land with each passing year. Lantana was also introduced along the west coast of India and some populations may have even spread to India from Sri Lanka. Even as early as the late 1800s, reports of lantana taking over hillsides and plantations were being published in the esteemed forestry journal of that time—the Indian Forester. And here we are 200 years later, still devising ways to deal with the same plant!


What is being done to keep invasives out?

It is better to nip a problem at the bud by preventing invasives from arriving at one’s shores! Different countries have their own regulations to deal with the prevention and control of invasive species. Many countries quarantine live plant material arriving from overseas, and import is permitted only when such material is found to be free of what is considered a weed. In India, this is carried out under the Plant Quarantine Order (2003) and the Plants Fruits and Seeds Regulation of Import into India Order (1989).

But these regulations are fairly recent, developed after the ill effects of weedy invasive species were recognised. The plants that came before these regulations are still around and land managers have to deal with them everyday! Inside forest habitats, the Forest Department Working Plans in different Indian states have guidelines to remove (for the purpose of eradicating or controlling further spread of) invasive plants. Often a suite of methods is used to remove invasive plants from target areas and this exercise is usually a yearly occurrence (it depends on the availability of funds and manpower). Methods of removal depend upon the species being removed and are very labour-intensive. In protected areas, beats are regularly monitored and data on the status of invasives is updated regularly. Outside of forests and protected areas, in agricultural land, tilling and seasonal burning usually keeps invasive plants in check.


Can all of us help in preventing the introduction and spread of invasive species? How can we do so?

  • Follow quarantine rules at the airport if you are travelling from abroad—declare any living thing you may have on you. Make sure that the seeds you are getting will not turn into a vile weed later.
  • Don’t buy exotic pets! Don’t release exotic pets into the wild (fish and turtles are released in the nearest water body once no one wants them—DON’T do that! Have a look at this escaped alligator fish wreaking havoc on fish and fishing communities: Don’t know if the pet you want is exotic and has the potential to become invasive? Check out the terrifyingly large Global Invasive Species Database ( If it’s on this database, DO NOT GET IT!
  • If you are setting up a garden, make sure you are aware of the plants going into the garden. Read up about the plants you are putting in your backyard. Crosscheck if your plant is on the GISD database and DON’T PUT IT IN YOUR GARDEN if it features on this list. Instead choose from a list of local native species. You might want your plants to attract butterflies and birds to your garden. Ensure that such plants are native and not introduced plants. Even if you do not intend to attract pollinators and dispersers, be aware that colourful flowers will get pollinated and sweet fruit will get eaten! So, double check to make sure that your plants are native, to prevent an inadvertent escape via bird- and bat-mobiles.
  • Read regularly about invasive species (like at this Facebook page: and militantly encourage people to follow steps 1,2,3.
  • Report the occurrence of an invasive plant (if you can ID it) on a reliable forum like: These sites help scientists create databases on the extent of occurrence of invasive plants.
  • DON’T remove creatures from where they belong and put them in places where they don’t. Following this simple rule will ensure that we do not have to deal with pesky invaders in the future.

Illustrations and photographs: Geetha Ramaswami

Cover illustration: An indigenous disperser (Red-vented Bulbul) finds the fruits of an invasive (lantana) very edible

Colours of a Catastrophe

by Shreya Yadav


I am swimming in the unusually warm waters of Kalpeni in the Lakshadweep, overwhelmed by the bizarre colours of this catastrophe. Muted pastel shades have turned violently psychedelic. A branching colony of brown Pocillopora is now lavender, sky-blue fingers of Acropora a radiant white, grey sheets of Montipora fluoresce green and pink. Before the final loss of colour there is a heightened luminosity – stressed corals eject their symbiotic algae and for a brief while, starvation looks stunning. It is like swimming over the canvas of some hallucinating artist. From the surface, the reef is pockmarked with colour, like a tree trunk covered in spots of glowing lichen. I can’t help but think this is beautiful. But what it really indicates is the end of an ancient symbiosis with algae. The colours are just different shades of stress.

A reef in Kalpeni starts to bleach
Pale and bleaching coral colonies (left) 
that were healthy just a few months previously (right)

The first few months of 2016 have been the hottest on record since 1880. A particularly strong El Niño resulted in extreme weather across the globe – floods when it shouldn’t have been raining, droughts where it should have, unexpected snowstorms and very hot seas. In the Indian Ocean, sea surface temperatures were higher than what they have been in the last 15 years. In the Lakshadweep atolls off the west coast of India, we were recording 31 degrees even at 20 meters below the surface of the water. Already, large parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia had bleached and the coral was beginning to die. NOAA’s monthly updates on global sea surface temperatures predicted abnormally hot waters for the Lakshadweep in May. So were we surprised when the reefs began to turn white? Not really. This had been predicted and expected and so we were ready for it, quadrat and camera in hand.

But I had only read about corals bleaching “en masse”, never really seen it happen. Now, as we swim over some of our favourite reefs, everything is pale or glowing white, even species that we expected to stay more protected in deeper, cooler waters. Just a few months ago we had dived these same sites and marvelled at how well some of them seemed to be recovering from the coral bleaching mortality of 2010. Now, decade-old coral boulders stick out from the reef like fragile snow castles.


The bleaching was severe across several species of coral

We are doing short, rapid assessments of as much reef area as we can survey before the weather turns. There is hardly enough time to think underwater – the quadrat is mechanically laid on to the reef, a photograph taken, and the process repeated a few meters away. But the few times I peek into a bone-white colony, I see how exposed some of the animals have become. The stonefish and Pocilloporid crab, usually so well camouflaged, now stand out like bright red cherries on a porcelain plate. Hawkfish still perch on the branches of bleached coral but look dangerously visible. A leopard blenny looks unnaturally bright against its paling host. Where will these animals go when the coral dies? How quickly do these relationships begin to unravel?

Coral-associated and dependent species become starkly visible during a bleaching event

Here in Kalpeni, one of the southernmost islands in the chain, the damage is most visible. I am diving with Gafoor, a Divemaster with the Department of Tourism. He too is shocked by how fast the coral is bleaching. It has gotten worse this week, he says. A lot of the stressed coral is already covered in algae. This is the final stage of death – once a coral colony bleaches and is overgrown by macroalgae, it cannot recover. Their skeletons will slowly crumble and accumulate in piles of rubble on the reef. In some areas, these broken pieces will be cleared away by the force of monsoon storms, potentially freeing up space for a new batch of coral juveniles. On other reefs, these rubble piles never move, becoming more and more overgrown by different kinds of algae. But in both scenarios, mature adult coral are necessary to seed the reef again. Diving these waters now, I wonder how much reproductive coral is going to remain after this warming event. Everywhere, vast fields of bare coral skeleton stretch out before us. Even giant clams, usually a bright purple because of the algae they house in them, have turned pale.

Pocillopora with algae on tips

The tips of this colony of bleached Pocillopora are beginning to be covered in algae

Giant clams, usually an electric blue because of the algae they house in them, 
also bleach during warming events

When we surface from the dive in the lagoon, Gafoor looks visibly worried. Where will we take the tourists? he asks. This was our most popular site. I tell him there’s a chance not all of this will die – especially if the rains come soon and cool the water down. Corals can live for a little while without their algal symbionts, and are very often able to recover from stress if water temperatures drop back to normal levels after a short period. Not all bleached coral will necessarily die.

Recovering reef

An example of a recovering reef, after the coral mortality of 2010

But the sky is clear and the water is calm. Our boat cuts through the lagoon, blurring the white reef below us. Gafoor and I watch the ripples in silence.