Thursday, January 30, 2014

A quote and a story

The quote:
Expansion is life, contraction is death.
- Swami Vivekananda, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, Reply to the Calcutta Address

The story:
An aging master grew tired of his apprentice complaining and so, one morning, sent him for some salt.

When the apprentice returned, the master instructed the unhappyyoung man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it.

"How does it taste?" the master asked.
"Bitter," spit the apprentice.

The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake.The two walked in silence to the nearby lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, "Now drink from the lake."

As the water dripped down the young man's chin, the master asked, "How does it taste?"
"Fresh," remarked the apprentice.
"Do you taste the salt?" asked the master.
"No," said the young man.

At this the master sat beside this serious young man, who so reminded him of himself, and took his hands, offering:

"The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake."

Friday, January 03, 2014

Thattekad Travels

May 2013

We leave the small town of Kidangoor, near Kottayam, at 730 AM to head out to Thattekad. En route we stop at the ancient Subrahmanya temple at Kidangoor.

It is absolutely quite except for the calls of a few Oriental Magpie Robins pecking at worms in the circumambulatory path around the temple. Women are not allowed inside the temple which has a beautiful image of Karthikeya with his spear and peacock. There is a small Vishnu temple on the side. We step out and walk onwards the river which has a bathing ghat for devotees. It is an amazing view - clear water lined by lush greenery as far as the eye can see.

In a tiled hall nearby we hear the rhythmic tapping indicating that a Kathakali class is in progress.As we turn back our progress is arrested by the sight of two Asian Paradise Flycatchers, a Rufous Treepie and a few Oriental Magpie Robins.

On the drive towards Thattekad we see many acres of land have been stripped bare of the native vegetation and replaced by rubber trees which drives much of the local economy. In a gesture of true secularism, our driver offers a quick prayer at each temple or church he crosses - and there are many of them. We miss the turning towards Thattekad and head ten kilometers away before we are redirected to the correct road and drive into the Dr. Salim Ali bird sanctuary where our homestay is located.

The area was declared a bird sanctuary fifty years after Dr. Salim Ali's  recommendation. Houses that were located inside the area before it was declared a sanctuary have now become homestays. We have a cup of milky sugary tea with Marie biscuits at our homestay and head out to meet our birding guide KV Eldhose.

The first birds we see are a Heart spotted woodpecker and brown hawk owl, both resident near the sanctuary entrance, both new sightings for us.A Common kingfisher is perched on a branch of the tree behind the Shiva temple that faces the sanctuary. As we walk towards the Dr. Salim Ali Birdwatching Trial(sic) we hear the screeching calls of a stork billed kingfisher. It has been caught in a fishing net under the water. A Forest Department official has heard its calls and releases it from the net.

The trail is lined by teak trees with spider webs trailing from the tree tops and the earth is covered with black droppings of caterpillars from the leaves. Most spider webs have a black moth caterpillar caught at the end, waiting for the spiders to come and finish their fragile existence.

The first bird we see on the trail is the racket tailed Drongo flying past.We hear the call of an Iora but it's not visible. We sight a Jungle Babbler browsing through the underbrush, and a Flameback Woodpecker.Wood Swallows are peeling and eating butterflies, perched on a branch of the teak tree.Asian Palm Swifts wheel over lake and Whiskered Terns are lined up on an electric line over the Periyar river.

There are butterflies too: the Blue Tiger,a huge Paris Peacock, and large numbers of  Plain Tigers.

At 2 PM the heavens open up and torrential rains pour down. The sky is covered with thick, dark clouds up to the horizon and it seems it will rain all evening. Our room has a balcony overlooking a small pond. There is nothing to do but sit in the balcony and watch the downpour.

As the rain continues, winged ants emerge from the tiled roof leaving to start a new colony. A few Loten's Sunbirds are waiting for this -  swooping and catching the ants just after they emerge into the rain.

In the horizon we can see Indian Swiftlets flying in the rain.

By 4 PM the rains have stopped and we set out in Eldhose's  Mahindra jeep. A few kilometers away we start walking and see a red wattled lapwing shrieking and flying in circles. We soon see why - there is a clutch of speckled eggs on the ground surrounded by rocks placed by kids.

On the treetop above we see a Mottled Wood Owl being mobbed by Drongos.

We drive further down and park near a huge Cochin International Airport property where they have an array of instruments installed.

We reach a lily pond where David Attenborough shot a portion of his epic Life of Birds series. David Attenborough gave Eldhose his first pair of binoculars. Eldhose tells us about how he read Salim Ali's Birds of Kerala when he was in seventh grade. Many years later, he converted his hobby into a profession by moving from farming to being a full time bird guide.

In the wooded area beyond the lake there are Woodpeckers, Cuckoos, Drongos and we catch a glimpse of Grey Jungle Fowls.

After dinner we step out again with our homestay owner, Gireesh, to look for Nightjars. This is the only place to find the Great Eared Nightjars in India, apart from Bangladesh border. There is no sighting after the rains. Gireesh plays  bird calls on his Blackberry but there are no responses.

At 8 PM darkness descends as the electricity board imposes the mandatory power shutdown. A few fireflies are visible around the buildings but it is pitch dark outside there are calls of cicadas and the occasional motorcycle put putting.

We wake up at 5.15 AM for an early start. It has been drizzling all night. The bathrooom light is mobbed by moths attracted by the only electric light for miles. By 5.30 AM bird calls have commenced. There is a cacophony outside. Cicadas join in cycles of chirping. Drongos and Oriental Magpie Robins  noisily announce their presence.

We have an early breakfast of Aapam for breakfast and depart to the Bhoothatankettu dam.

There are many River Terns and huge flocks of Brown-backed Needle Tails. We have a great sighting of six Racket-tailed Drongos flying together and a Flame-throated Bulbul.

After we return from the dam we go to the feeding station that a Eldhose has set up with grains,coconuts, bannas. Barbets, Rufous Treepies, Jungle Babblers, Black-throated Munias and Grey Jungle Fowl come in a steady procession to feed on the cornucopia.

We drive 14 km to the reserve forest. Eldhose has a private talk with the Forest Department employee and soon we are walking in an old growth forest. We run across a dung beetle making balls out of the droppings that a passing cow has deposited on the road. As we approach it adopts its classical defence position - turning on its back and playing dead. As we retreat it springs back into action, forming small dung balls  and rolling them, collecting a layer of mud on it before depositing its eggs in the dung ball.We start sweating in the extreme humidity and warm sunlight.

Eldhose sets out on a few side expeditions to find the Sri Lankan Frogmouth. After two trips he calls us to see it. The bird has a curious defence mechanism - appearing like a dry leaf and not moving even after we move within a few feet of it.

A few photos later we reach an ancient Durga temple that is being renovated. The temple is dwarfed by giant ficus trees surrounded by strangler figs.

The ficus is that it is only tree that fruits at all times of the year and provides a round-the-year food source and is also believed to be a lightning-resistant tree. Our ancient temple planners knew about the significance of providing these for the birds and a safe place and ensured that these were planted in all temples. Today's forest department plantation drives have resulted in all these native species being chopped down and replaced by teak trees to fuel the construction business.

We return back to the homestay and decide to drop by the Salim Ali Wildlife Centre. It is in shambles. There are a couple of peacocks, a monkey and two Brahmini Kites in cages. Most of the cages are empty and it seems that the animals made a mass escape to better living conditions. On the way back see three hawk owls on the bamboo bushes that line the trail inside.

We start the afternoon session by feeding puffed rice to the fish at the ghat behind the Thattekad Mahadeva Kshetram.

It starts drizzling by 3 PM .We ignore this and decide to go to Idamalayar where there is a possibility of seeing a Wayanad  Laughing Thrush. We are greeted by the mellifluous greeting of the Malabar Whistling Thrush. Given the dense forests that are available most of the birds are seen but not heard. We park at the highest point on the route to Idamalayar dam and walk down the trail that has been cut into the granite. Water drips down from the sides of the granite walls and forms a stream that flows down along the side of the narrow road. The occasional speeding four-wheeler makes us flatten ourselves along the edge of the road. The forests are cut by the huge pylons and power lines transmitting power from the Idamalayar hydroelectric station on the Periyar dam to the urban population.

We hear the Malabar Barbet, see a few Malabar Parakeets, catch a glimpse of the Crested Serpent Eagle.Unfortunately no hornbills are visible. It is nesting time when the female encloses itself in a hollow within a tree and plasters the entrance except for a small hole for the male to provide food for the female and the young ones. They are ravenous eaters and the male needs to provide a variety of food such as small fruits worms lizards and frogs. The whole day is spent in foraging. The female moults in its enclosure and it emerges when the chicks are older, looking fresh and attired in fresh feathers, to join its bedraggled companion in searching for food.

As we trek down we are flagged down by a group of youth driving up from the dam. They have just seen a wild elephant on the side of the road and advise us proceed by a 4-wheeler and not walk. We heed their advise and get back to the car to drive down. We see signs of the elephants recent passage - fresh droppings, signs where the elephant has taken a mud bath. We drive down to the entrance of the dam and are greeted by the sight of an Oriental Honey Buzzard on a tree at the entrance.

We turn back. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has won the recent Panchayat elections and the bridge is festooned with red flags commemorating the victory. A few jeeps dash past crowded with party workers whooping about the victory.

We have a cup of hot tea and head out to see nightjars. The drizzle returns and the only further sighting of winged beauties we have for the night are moths that flock in through the open bathroom window towards the light.

In the morning we head back for a last walk along the Dr..Salim Ali bird "trial" as the sign proclaims. We see a giant Malabar squirrel even before we enter the trail. Once inside we follow the trail littered by snack wrappers. The trail is lined with slide webs that hang vertically down from the branches of the teak trees that line the trail. A few moth caterpillars that have fallen down from the leaves are caught in the web and make efforts to climb up the web back to the safety of the trees.

We leave at 9 AM and head out to Kalady, the birthplace of Adi Shankara in 788 CE. Kalady is a crowded town and shows no signs of being the place where the birth of the person who rejuvenated the Sanathana Dharma. There are shops, mosques and Christian shrines lining the main road. Once we turn into the road that leads to the Adi Shankara Janmabhumi Kshetra, it is a different universe.

A marble plaque highlights the place where Shankara cremated his mother, going against the traditions of his community. The plaque points out that the granite post that stands there has been existing from the times when Shankara lived there. A few students from the Veda Patashala recite the Vedas in front of the shrine dedicated to Adi Shankara.It's a scene that might have occurred a few centuries ago without any change. Just outside is the Krishna temple, the family shrine of Shankara, and the ghat leading to the Purna river which Shankara diverted to bring closer to his mother.

On our return journey we reach Ernakulam North Railway Station to board the Kochuveli-Yeshwantpur Express. There are about half a dozen sparrows chirping and hopping around the railway station - a further proof of the theory that sparrows can be found only in airports and railway stations these days. There is a announcement at 4.45 pm that the train would be arriving at 5 pm. At 5.20 pm there is another announcement that the train would be arriving shortly. The train arrives at 5.30 pm and the last sight of bird life we have is a pair of Drongos chasing a crow from the Neem tree behind the railway station.

Getting there:
The Dr.Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is about 45 km from Kochi Airport and 75km from the Kottayam Railway Station.We stayed at the Jungle Bird Home Stay. Our birding guide was K.V.Eldhose