March 30, 2013


(A slightly edited version of this story was published in The Hindu Metro Plus Issue Dated 30-Mar-2013)

When Columbus was just touching down in America, a Buddhist monk was in the process of mummifying himself in the distant land of India -- to free the village from the trouble of scorpions. The monk, or lama, known as Sangha Tenzin is probably the only mummy in India who is supposed to have undergone natural mummification. And we wanted to explore this mummy which was in one of India's remote villages.

Gue is a very small hamlet in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, almost bordering the India-China border. There are no buses to Gue and hence we decided to hire a cab from the high altitude village of Nako. Earlier, we had started from Chitkul at 6:30 in the morning and had reached Nako at 6:30pm after a daylong rickety ride, passing via one of the most treacherous roads in the Kinnaur range. We started from Nako at 7am passing via barren mountains for the next 2 hours. The treacherousness of the Malling-nalla no longer lingered and also our driver did not give us any pre-emptive warning. In fact, we were so much lost in the rugged and arid scenery that we did not realize the Malling-nalla till we had reached Sumdoh. Spiti starts from Sumdoh and foreigners visiting this region need to have the inner line permit (ILP can be obtained from Rekong Peo).

The road to Gue is on the right just after passing the Gue-nalla. A colorful arch invites you to village of Gue, and from here it is a further 11km ride inside, along a narrow road abutting the mountains. There are hardly a dozen odd houses in this village and the mountains engulf it from all sides. The last structure in the village atop a small knoll is supposedly the current residence of the mummy. The chill breeze sets up the right tempo for visiting the mummified lama. The stillness in the scenery lends a soothing effect, as our heart races against time yearning to catch a glimpse of the lama.

A laborer working in the construction of the adjoining new monastery opens the door and we get the first glimpse of the lama sitting inside a small glass box. The scenery at our back is reflected on the glass which lends a karmic connection. As we step inside, the face of the lama gets clear giving way to the empty eye sockets and the broad forehead.  Our driver (and guide) informed us that blood oozed out of the ground when people were digging up the area. This led to much furor and scare amongst the local people and on further digging, this mummy was found.

Though the mummy is dated to be 400-500 years old, there is a certain air of freshness about it. The lama seems to be lost in contemplation overlooking the valley while he is sitting and the current concrete structure is just a casing to preserve him. Probably, it was the clean air and the low temperatures in the region that could have contributed to the good state of the mummy - the hair and the teeth are well preserved. The silk robes on him seem to be concealing the tremendous powers and the will inside him, which led him to undergo the mummification process.

Natural mummification is an extremely difficult process in which the body is made to react in such a way that the body fat and fluid reduces at a constant rate and the organs which can decay are reduced in their size. Also, a special diet is given during the end days, which preserves the meat on the bone. It is believed that the body should be kept in such a posture so that the monk can meditate and a restrainer is used for this purpose. Even the slightest movement can lead to tightening of the restrainer around the neck. My post-travel research educated me about this esoteric practice which was part of the Dzogchen tradition in the Nyingma sect of Buddishm. It is believed when Sangha Tenzin's soul left his body, a rainbow appeared across the sky and the village was emancipated from the trouble caused by the scorpions. Northern Honshu in Japan is another destination wherein such a practice of natural mummification was followed.

Our driver felt that there was something magnetic about this region (or was it the mummy?) as they felt that some force was pulling them towards the mountains when driving towards Gue, and they could feel a traction while driving away from it. I could not ascertain this fact, and nor has there been any mention of this in any of the online geological reports. But I opined that this phenomenon was probably a sister to the Magnetic Hill in Ladakh.

With the thoughts of the mummy and the serenity of this village still lingering at the back of our minds, we bid adieu to the mummy and continued our journey towards Kaza.

Getting There: Gue is an hour’s drive from Sumdoh and 80 kms from Kaza. Hiring a car from Kaza or Nako is the best option. Via bus, you can get down near Gue-nala and walk for 11kms along the narrow road to Gue.

Staying/Eating: There are no options to stay or eat in Gue or Sumdoh as there are no hotels here. However, if you are nice to the locals, you might be lucky and end up spending the night with the family at Gue. Hurling is the closest village that has a few hotels.

March 24, 2013

Book Review : Butterflies on the Roof of the World By Peter Smetacek

The Butterfly Diaries

(An edited version of this story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-Apr-2013)

At Singapore's Changi Airport I glanced upon a board that mentioned the presence of a Butterfly Garden. Unable to hide the childlike curiosity, i quickly ran towards to it only to enter into a beautiful mini rainforest ensconced in this concrete and glass structure; I wasn't sure when i last saw a butterfly in Bangalore. But that is not a problem with Peter Smetacek, who runs the Butterfly Research Centre at Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, works on the taxonomy and zoo geography of Indian Lepidoptera, published closed to 60 papers on the subject, is an authority on Indian butterflies and moths and is also the author of the beautiful book titled 'Butterflies on the Roof of the world: A Memoir'. Credits to this book that i came to know that word 'lepidoptera' is actually the term that acts like a collective noun for moths and butterflies.

A super-imposition of a memoir and travelogues, the author paints a rich tapestry with beautiful landscapes and butterflies fluttering around and takes us into small ecosystems high up in the mountains that are perfect havens for different species of butterflies and moths. And though interspersed with the Latin scientific names of the species of the butterflies, Peter takes us into forests, ravines, meadows and streams during his quest to document Lepidoptera at different altitude ranges. The different altitudinal ranges include bands from plains till 1500m, the second from 1600m to 3000m, the third from 3000m to 4000m and the last belt comprising of butterflies in the trans-Himalayan area from 4000 to 5800m above sea level. Having worked on Lepidoptera for more than 30 years, Peter shares his fascination for these fragile and short-lived creatures from his central vantage point.

An extremely entertaining and informative narrative, the book indeed sometimes enthuse us with a sense of adventure and prompts us to pack our bags and get on a quest to explore these butterflies in their natural habitats. The author also shares his interesting observations about the behavior of these butterflies. The butterfly's wing shape, color and pattern all help it in surmounting the challenges in the nature, and the author mentions how techniques such as motion camouflage and silhouette recognition that are actively used by the Lepidoptera also end up being used by our modern air forces. He also shares an interesting insight that though butterflies are generally held responsible for pollination, it is the moths that are responsible for pollinating most flowers above the tree line on the southern face of the Himalaya.

Loads of interesting trivia about the butterflies throughout the book is what adds an extra dollop of ice-cream in this drool worthy sundae. For example, did you know that butterflies use their wings not only to fly but also to reflect solar radiation onto their bodies and that the clouds obstructing the sun can sometimes make them inactive? And that the word 'butterfly' actually originated from the pale yellow colored butterflies (known as Brimstones) in England that looked like butter? These and many more.

During his quest in the inaccessible regions of Kumaon and Garhwal, our butterfly tracker has had his own share of interesting experiences, be it the sedating honey, dried caterpillars that are used as aphrodisiacs or a new record in India of little-known butterfly that was recorded earlier in remote Pamirs and in a village in Tibet. In the last chapter, Peter underscores the importance of moths and butterflies as bio-indicators of ecological functions and groundwater without being overly melodramatic about nature conservation. He highlights the importance of these little creatures in our larger ecosystem and also to our own sustenance and mentions how forest fires and depleting green cover are affecting the butterflies to vanish from certain regions.

Full marks to the author in this masterpiece that many readers will cherish in their bookshelves for a long time. The tapestry wouldn’t be complete without the added life and depth that the author has carefully spread across his canvas.

Rayakottai - Tipu Sultan's Forgotten Fort

Probable entrance at the top of the fort

(An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald dated 24-Mar-2013)

Ibn Battuta, one of the first and greatest travellers, said about traveling
“it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller".
And this was the exact feeling after visiting Rayakottai.

Scouting for possible one-day getaways from Bangalore, I stumbled on Rayakottai in the Krishnagiri tourism website. This was followed by a curious search in the Internet which gave me limited information about the place and its history. And we, a group of motorbikers, decided to explore this place on a lazy Saturday morning. The NICE road was almost empty and we cruised through the broad-deserted road. We continued riding through NH-7 (Bangalore-Chennai highway) only to be halted near Hosur wherein one of the Bullets(Royal Enfield) had broken down. The rest of us continued and we reached the town of Rayakottai in an hour.

The sun was slowly catching up, as if it was still not sure whether to wake up from the morning slumber and perform its routine schedule. We spotted a huge rocky hill on the right of the main road as soon as we entered the town. A quick enquiry at the road side tea stall confirmed that as our destination. I picked up a conversation with one of the guys sipping tea and asked him about approximate time to summit the rocky hill. He smirked and said that it would take a few hours for ‘city-dwellers’ like us, whereas he can climb up and return in within an hour. I smirked and carried on.

We parked our bikes near the base of the hill and without much excitement started the ascent on foot. The sun was bright but less tormenting. The serrations formed on the boulders and the rocks laid out in the form of steps aided us in getting to the top in an hour. A dilapidated structure, in what should have been the main entrance to the fort, greeted us and we could spot the fort walls at a distance. The walls overlooked the entire town of Rayakottai at its base. The adjoining cliffs looked threatening.

We climbed further up along the trail formed by crushed grass, with a few cave-like structures formed due to boulders on the sides and reached the top of the hillock. We could see some structures emerging out of the tall elephant grass and other thorny shrubs – it was as if we were just getting into a treasure hunt.  Most of the structures wore a beaten look, with no ceilings with an overgrowth of shrubs and grass everywhere. The small lake at the top had totally dried up.

With hardly any information boards from the ASI(Archeological Survey of India) educating the public and the crumbled state of the structures, we really felt that this place should be better preserved and promoted. I spotted a kid who was writing down something in his notebook in the shade of one of the bushes and asked him why he had climbed all the way up. For him, this was the perfect resting spot to finish off his homework as it was too noisy ‘below’. I felt a certain aura in him. When I quizzed him about the place and its history, he did tell me that it was once Tipu Sultan’s palace and then he went blank. I shared a few biscuits with him which he humbly refused and moved on from his present resting place – I felt as if this ‘city-dweller’ had indeed disturbed his fabric of tranquility.

I moved on. Goats roamed around and the ramshackled state of affairs here on the top was disheartening. From the top of the hill, one could see the whole town of Rayakottai and also spot the distant Krishnagiri Dam. After an hour of exploring the different structures, we thanked the clear skies and descended down along the rocky path.

My post-travel research educated me about this forgotten fort. It is believed that this fort was one of the most important and strategic places in the Palakkad Pass and commanded the road to Carnatic. The Mysore armies, during the 18th century, could invade the Carnatic via this route. The fort fell to Major Gowdie during Lord Cornwallis’s attack. The sultan’s troops tried to blow up the fort, but the Major's advance was so sudden that they failed in the attempt and the fort was later occupied. It is believed that the Commandant of the garrison took a bribe from British on the condition of a safe passage to him and his family and that is how this ‘strong and complete’ fort fell into the hands of the British Army. The forts at Rayakottai, Anchetidurga and Oodiadurga formed an important triumvirate in this region guarding the entire route, and the latter two too soon fell to the British.

I could now reenact every piece of history associated with Rayakottai in my mind with the hillock as the perfect backdrop. The threatening cliffs being used as a perfect spot to throw away the prisoners from the top and the British climbing up , made the landscape part of a sordid past was etched in my mind now.

View of the entire layout from the top