Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Black tailed Godwits of Mangalajodi

Jan 12th 2014.

To the north of Chilika is a freshwater wetland - Mangalajodi.  A remarkable success story of conservation
The slideshow below, put out by the local NGO says it all.

We travelled from Barkul up north on the state roads of Orissa, and we could see evidence of the destruction of the cyclone Phaillin - trees fallen, boards knocked down and even electricity poles still on their side.

The driver told us that several areas here were without power for a couple of months. 

And life goes on.

We turned off the main road, into a smaller village road,  quiet and dusty.  Nothing much going on.  The local kids eyed us curiously.

We arrived at the Eco Tourism Centre, and waited thre until it was time to leave for the evening boat safari.  We had a hot, delicious lunch there, though I now don't recollect whether we came back for it, or left only after lunch.

We gorged on these sour-sweet star fruits that Sameer obliged us by climbing the wall and pulling down with the help of the family that lived there!

Aditya in the meantime was befriended by this little flea-bitten cheerful pup, whom all the members fed with biscuits and chapatis, at the end of which he was so full he just rolled over and went to sleep!
Opposite the Ecotourism centre was this "marriage" between the banyan - boro in oriya, and Peepul - oshtho.
a fallen tree
We walked through an orchard next door, where the barbets and drongos called, wheeled and flitted from one tree to another
 We climbed a nearby hill and had a lovely view of the area.

This calote eyed us beadily, refusing to give up his sun perch or be bothered by us.
 We moved along to the waterways and swamps. 

What a wonderful day it was. moving silently among the reeds paddled by the locals who were expert in spotting and identifying birds, I had many lifers -
  • Black-tailed Godwit
  • Yellow bittern
  • Plaintive Cuckoo
  • Jack Snipe
  • Ruddy breasted Crake
  • Bailon's Crake
And many familiar ones as well - purple herons, stilts, swamphens, sandpipers, egrets, terns, pintails, kingfishers, citrine wagtails, glossy ibis, pond herons, OBS, cormorants.

And the not so common ones - comb ducks, ruddy shelducks

But for me, I will always remember Mangalajodi for those Godwits Limosa limosa, they are winter visitors to the Indian subcontinent, supposedly near threatened, and vulnerable, but they were everywhere!

After the initial excitement of seeing them, they then became like crows and pigeons!  Flying, wading, roosting, squabbling, we saw them in all poses, up close and in singles, flying in huge formations in the sky, landing noisily in the canals.

These birds are monogamous, and even when they migrate across continents they arrive as pairs.  Reportedly, a strong case for "divorce" is if your partner does not show up at the migration ground in time!!

I wonder if all these "singles" are divorcees?! flocks on the ground....

...doing sorties in the air.. their black tails showing us how they are different from the bar-tailed godwits.

Seen in the duller winter plumage

A jacana up close - kept a nervous eye on us

The shelducks were distinct and plump,  their ruddy feathers further brunished by the sun

Mixed flocks of ducks, godwits, and other waders

Egrets would fly by, always looking like they were in slow motion replay!

The buffaloes moved around clumsily, and would sometimes break into a lumbering run causing much noise and splash

Fishing nets were cast, and the poles gave these whiskered terns a nice perch

Looked like the Godwit was asking the Pintails for directions!

It really was quite idyllic.  And as we floated along, I daydreamed and felt like a lotus eater!

We got off for a bit on one of the bunds and walked on it for a while, from where we spotted the comb ducks

A grey lapwing skulked in a corner

While the OBS looked like it had found something interesting
The evening excitement was the Jack Snipe hidden among the reeds and a Bluethroat, just as we were about to leave, by the roadside.  A Ruddy breasted Crake scurried into the reeds and we almost missed the Bluethroat.  There were a pair of them.  "Did you see them?", was the stage whisper that went up, and there was a huddle on the bund road, as necks craned to search for this exotic pair of migrant visitors.

Most of us did, and we were a bunch of happy campers that evening back at Panthaniwas.

The group count for birds was some 130 species, I had seen about 81 of them.  I went to see Chilika, but discovered Mangalajodi. 

A day on Chilika

Jan 11th 2014
The train to Calcutta chugs past the vast Chilika lagoon, and it has always been my wish to stop there one day.  So vast is it, that the train seems to take forever to go past it, not that I mind.

So it was that we finally visited Chilika lagoon, alighting at Balugaon in Orissa, a sleepy little side station, the train running late as usual.

We phut phutted our way to the Orissa Tourism lodgings on the waterfront at Barkul, riding in autorickshaws which had seen better days, but with drivers who were cheerful and helpful.  We paid some ridiculously low amount - Rs 80 I think - far far below Madras rates and took over an entire wing of the motel/hotel.  It was dark, and I was all excited that the next morning we would see the lake.

When we awoke the next morning, I was bemused to find a huge children's play area and other such stuff outside our window.  The lovely lagoon beach had been taken over for people's amusement it seems.

A short walk down to the boat jetty and we were off on the lake in a motorboat.  The cyclone Phailin had just been through these coaastal areas, and we were warned that it had affected the bird life and bird arrivals.

8 am - It was a gloomy day and the sun was up but visibility was still poor because of the morning mist.  This is the southern part of the lagoon
Chilika is a huge brackish lagoon - more than 1,000 sq kms, and a provider of fishing livelihoods to fishermen like these.  Waist deep in many areas, when in the middle of it, it was like being stranded at sea, with no land in sight.

The egrets waited patiently for the fishermen's nets to be raised

The mud flats had patches of reed growing on it, and the light reflected off it beautifully.  A school of dolphins slid noiselessly by, but they were gone in a flash.  I was heartened that they were alive and well.

Nalaban island, seen in the distance was where we were kind of headed.  It is east, closer to the mouth near Naupada.  But it is a long boat ride away, and the fumes from the outboard motor filled me with a kind of guilt and remorse.  This is not what I had in mind when I signed up for this trip.  The birds were in plenty - coots, pintails, egrets.....

We saw a bunch of flamingoes on the island, two harriers attempted bombing raids on the birds below, unsuccessfully as long as we were there, a bunch of barheaded geese had flown in, and brown-headed gulls bobbed in the water.  This is the watchtower on the island, but we didnt go there.

5 pm -and it was time to return. 
He was croaking away that night, missing in our cities.

This argiope seemed to be missing a leg?  (I can only count 7!)

In hindsight, to visit Chilika, I wonder if it makes more sense to come in via the northern borders, to Satpada, from Puri?  I wouldnt reccomend the Balugaon route, as Barkul is also the jetty for pilgrims going off to the Kali temple in the lake.

When we were departing from Balugaon, it was on Sankranti, and the station put the wildebeest migrations of Africa to shame.  Train upon train arrived and disgorged loads of pilgrims who would move across the tracks, platform and station as a dark, murmuring shadow, emptying and leaving a quiet vaccuum behind, only to be filled by the next train!

Mangalajodi, the swamps to the west of the lake, were more enjoyable, and also resulted in a smaller carbon footprint.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The stupas of Sarnath

9th August 2014.

9 kms the board said, to Sarnath, but it was a bit more than that.
It is 11 am and my buddies are still not ready.  We had decided the previous evening to visit Sarnath, and the agreed time of departure - I wanted 8am and they wanted noon! - was 10am!

It would be bright and sunny, we woudn't get enough time, I wanted to do it leisurely, but my selling skills have always been hopeless, and it failed yet again.  It did not seem in good team spirit to ditch them and go off on my own either, so there I was fretting and impatient in my hotel room in Varanasi.

The Vivekananda memorial in Varanasi that we passed

It was 11:30 when we finally got a start, and the sun was already blazing, but there was no way I was going to be deterred from visiting Sarnath, just 15 kms away, and with a history so ancient.  We left the city on NH29, and were in Sarnath in about half an hour.  Half an hour, and it was another world, another India.

From the decorated rickshwas and frenzy of the pilgrim city of Hindu Varanasi to this suddenly slowed-down Buddhist world of Sarnath, tended by the ASI.

The gates to the charming Central University of Tibetan Studies Campus.  Set up in 1967.
We wandered in to CUTS,   to discover scores of Tibetans, girls and boys, many of whom have not been to their homeland for years.

Sarnath was a thriving Buddhist town, and Hiuen Tsang had been here, that much I knew.  I couldnt imagine my good fortune - we had visited the Dayan Pagoda in Xi'an, where he built his monastery with all the scriptures he took from his India travels, and here I was, at the other end of his journey!  In those days it was called Rishipatn/Isipatana Mrigadaya, I learned later.

This place is important for the Buddhists, the Jains, and then there was Saranganatha, Shiva as the Deer Lord, which gave the name Sarnath to the place at a later date.

Chaukhandi Stupa

This was our first stop, standing tall an imposing and visible even rom the main road.

It has been dated to the fourth century AD (the Gupta period), being rediscovered/unearthed in excavations in 1835.  I cannot imagine how such a  large structure could have been buried.  It is some 93 feet high, made from brick, with three terraces.

The ASI inscription mentioned that it was built to commemorate the spot where Buddha met his five disciples - Kaudinya, Bhadrika, Vashpa, Mahanaman and Ashvajit and gave them the Dhammapada.  Even thinking about it now gives me the goosebumps.

Imagine coming across this all of a sudden! 

This tower bit was supposedly added in 1588, by Raja Todarmal's son Govardhan becuase Humayun was coming to visit!  There is a Persian inscription to that effect on the plaque that you see on the extreme right of the picture above the doorway.I wonder how it looked without it.

Looking up along the wall.  The bricks are held together by mud mortar.

The view from the side.  The terraces have all crumbled into a mass of brick rubble.  I wonder if the grass being allowed to grow on these terraces will actually cause them to deteriorate faster.

The view from the back. 
The contemporary Mulagandhakuti Vihara

This is a functioning Buddhist temple, which was closed when we arrived.  It is closed between 1130 and 130.

I was totally confused seeing this.  It looked rather more modern and in good shape compared to the brick ruins around.  An inscription outside the temple clarified matters.

Turns out that a Sri Lankan aristocrat, Anagarika Dharampala was on a pilgrimage here in 1864, and was appalled at the state of various Buddhist monuments here and in Bodh Gaya.  It became his life mission thereafter to "resurrect" Buddhism in India.  He seems to have attended the Chicago religion convention (the one where Vivekananda wowed the world), and collected funds and favours to carry out his mission.  The Mahabodhi Society was formed and in 1931 this temple was opened in Sarnath, and he took to monk life and was known as Siri Devamitta Dhammapala.  He died at Sarnath in 1933.
"SarnathWallPaintings2" -  What I missed inside the temple.

Behind this temple is the Isipatana Deer park, which I did not visit.  There is a beautiful legend of the deer, a translation of which I quote from, "The history of Sarnatha or the cradel of Buddhism" by B C Bhattacharya

" Once in this wide forest-tract, a certain deer king of the name of Rohaka had taken upon himself the 
protection of a herd consisting of a thousand deer. He had two sons, one being named 
Nyagrodha and the other Visakha. From his herd, he gave five hundred deer to 
one son and the remaining five hundred to the other. 
Brahmadatta, the then king of Kasi, frequently came to that forest on hunting excursions and killed a good 
many of the deer. The number of the deer that were wounded by him and met death entering the bushes, 
the deep parts of the forest, the tracts covered with thorny plants and reeds, was greater than that of 
those that were actually killed by him. The dead deer in those parts became food for crows, vultures and 
other birds. 
One day, the deer-king Nyagrodha ; said unto his brother Viakha, *' we desire to bring it to the 
notice of the king that more deer are being wounded by him and eaten up by the crows and vultures than he 
actually kills when out on a hunting excursion. We shall send to the king one deer daily, who will enter 
his Mahanasa of his own accord. In this way the herd may probably be saved from wholesale destruction." 

His brother Visakha replied that they would do so. Just at this time the King of Kasi had been out 
ahunting. Surrounded by soldiers armed with swords, bows and other weapons, he saw the two deer- kings 
advancing towards him. Seeing that they were coming without fear and hesitation he gave this ordfet tcr 
one of his generals, "you are to see to it that none may put them to death. They are not terrified at 
the sight of the soldiers ; on the contrary they are coming towards me ; it seems to rtie that they are doing so 
with a definite object in view." 
In obedience to the order of the king, the general pushed away the soldiers 
to the right and' the left and made a way for them. Then the two deer approached the king and bowed fcnto 
him touching his knee. The king then asked them what business they had and what question they had to 
ask. Then they spoke these words to the king in the language of man, Your Majesty, several hundreds 
of us live in this forest within your kingdom. As your cities, towns, villages and other seats of men are beauti- 
fied by men, cows, bullocks, and many bipeds and quadrupeds and other animals, so forests also look 
beautiful on account of asylums, rivers, springs  deer and birds. We look upon your Majesty as thte 
very ornament of these places. All these bipeds and quadrupeds live under the sole rule of your Majesty. 

They have placed themselves under your Majesty's protection; hence it is the bounden duty of your Majesty 
to take care of them and to protect them, no matter whether they live in villages, forests or hilly regions. 
Your Majesty is their sole Lord; they have no other King. When your Majesty is out for hunting then 
a number of deer is needlessly killed at a time. Many of them being wounded with the arrow, enter thorny 
woods and fields of kaa grass where after their death they are eaten up by crows and other birds; those that 
meet death in this way are more numerous than those that are killed by you. In this way, your Majest)' is 
being led to sin. If your Majesty be pleased to order, we, two deer-kings, shall send for your kitchen one 
deer a day. This deer will be taken from each herd on alternate days. If this be done, there will be nothing 
to prevent your Majesty's feasting upon flesh and still the deer will be saved from meeting simultaneous death." 
Hearing these words, the King of Kai granted their prayer. Accordingly, he asked the ministers to take 
care that no one might kill any deer there. The King having left for his city, the deer -kings convened an 
assembly of all the deer and consoled them in very many ways. They informed them that the king would 
no more be out a-hunting but that they should have to send him one deer a day. Thereafter, they counted 
all the deer and divided them into two principal herds. 
From that time forward each began to send a deer to the King's Court on alternate days. 

At one time it was the turn of a pregnant female deer of Visakha's herd to go to the King's kitchen. 
In due time the head-deer asked her to go. She said to him that she had been carrying two young ones 
in her womb and that it would be well if her going could be postponed till her delivery. Thereupon the 
head-deer brought this matter to the notice of the King of the herd who ordered that some other deer should 
go in her stead. But all the 'other deer declined to go till their turn was come. Then the female deer went 
to Nyagrodha, the King of the other herd and laid her case before him. But, in that herd, too, no one agreed 
to go. Then their King Nyagrodha addressed them all and said, "you may rest assured that when I have 
given her assurance of safety she must not be put to death. I am ready to go to the King's Mahdnasa 
{kitchen) in her stead." 

Then the deer king issued out of the forest and proceeded along the path to Varanasi. Whoever met 
him on the way was charmed at his flawless beauty and followed him. Seeing him the citizens said to one another, "It is the king 
of the deer.  As soon as he entered the Mahanasa all the citizens prayed for the safety of his life on the ground of his 
being good looking, gentle and the ornament of the garden round the city. Then the King caused him to 
be brought from the Mahanasa and asked him why he had come there himself,  having narrated the 
whole thing from the beginning to the end, the King and all others who were present there were struck by 
his righte ;usness. Then the King said to him, "He who sacrifices his life for the sake of another is never a 
beast. On the other hand, we are so many beasts, because we are bereft of all sense of righteousness, 
1 am glad to hear of your self-sacrifice for the sake of the doe. I also grant safety to all the deer for your 
sake, go to your place and live there fearlessly." The King proclaimed this throughout the length and breadth 
of the city with the ringing of bells. 

Gradually this incident came to the notice of the Gods. The King of the Gods created thousands of deer 
in order to test the righteousness of the King of Kasi. The people of Kasi were put to much inconvenience 
by these deer and lodged a complaint with the King.  
The country is passing through a crisis^ the prosperous kingdom is going to ruin. The deer are 
eating our corn y O King y please take steps to prevent them. 

Let the country pass through a crisis, let the prosperous kingdom go to ruin. I have given assurances 
of safety to the deer king. I can't tell a falsehood now. 

The King, gave them to understand that he could by no means withdraw the assurance given to them. 
And so the kingdom became Isipatana Mrigaday, where the deer roamed without fear.

The Hindus have also adopted this legend from the Jataka, and "Saranganatha" or the Lord of the Deer, is seen as a form of Shiva.  The cab driver said that there was a temple which had been destroyed.

The Isipatana complex of ruins

Sridigamber Jain temple in the background.  Shreyansanath was the 11th Tirthanker for the Jains, of royal lineage and attaining Siddha.  I di not have time to go in there.
The sun was blazing as I gazed at the sheer magnitude of the complex.  Always, the Dhamekh stupa towered over everything.

As with everything in India, there are layers of vintage, and the complex had the Ashokan pillar from 242BC, all the way to the new Mulagandhakuti Vihara.

I walked the outer path, which has some tree cover and headed for the Ashokan pillar.

Very unimpressive looking stubs arent they?  And I missed the actual capital, which is housed in the museum.
We had seen Ashoka's edicts at Junagadh, and I seem to be crossing the emperor's path every now and then! More than 1,700 kms apart these two places, and the extent of Ashoka's empire hit home.

Bases of little stupas dotted the ground everywhere....

From the ASI map, I made out that this must be the ruins of the main temple that was here, referred to as mulagandha kuti

I continued on the outer path, stopping for a minute in the shade of this Arjuna tree, taking in the view. 
Locals seem to use this as an open space, and they lounged in the grass, laughing and chatting.  Of course there was a good smattering of couples too, seeking the privacy of distant ruins.

Drongoes swooped and called, while Spotted Doves cooed in melancholy fashion from the wires overhead.

How I wished I had more time.  But then, imagine if I had not come at all.

I then came across this field, strewn with what seemed like bits of a jigsaw puzzle.
From the Dharma chakra Jana vihara ruins
This was part of a monastery/complex donated by the Buddhist Queen of Kannauj, Kumari Devi in the 12th century.

Some of the pillars of this complex.
I had circumnavigated the outer pathway, and was back in the centre of the complex, where the Causeway of the main central temple was evident.  It was long and impressive, and must have been some kind of pillared corridor?
The central causeway of the main temple, in immediate proximity to the Dhamekh Stupa.

Buddhas in the niches....
Dhamekh Stupa
Dated to 500 CE, this huge stupa stands over an earlier one, supposedly.  Look at the men walking at the base to get a sense of its size.
As I walked around the stupa, I heard the familiar sound of Tamil, and my eyes followed the sound.  A father was animatedly explaining to his son, as to how these stupas must have been built, with the bricks and stones just fitting into each other.  I couldnt help myself, I just had to know where they were from, and of course they were from Madras!

So, is the upper portion unfinished, as archeologists claim?
The next few pictures are in large size, click on them and enjoy the magnificence of the stupa, as I did.
The whole lower face is covered with beautiful engraved decorations

The niches must have contained images.

All that's left of the large Dharmarajika stupa. Story goes that the Diwan of Chait Singh, king of Benaras, decided he needed bricks for his mohalla, and found them in plenty here, and was responsible for its discovery and destruction.  Sounded a bit like the Terracotta warriors discovery story. 
Supposedly his workmen also brought him a little marble casket within a stone box.  Now the casket had some bones (could have been the Buddha's, maybe?), and this was tossed into the Ganges.  However the stone box was preserved and is in the Kolkata museum.

And so I hurried back to the waiting cab, where my travelling companions sat waiting for me.  Elated, hot and excited.  Strange, they did not seem at all excited by this piece of antiquity we had just come across. 

I definitely need to go back as we didnt enter the Sarnath Museum, that dates from 1910 or something, making it India's oldest museum.

...Some of what I missed at the museum. (Picture from their website)