Saturday, March 25, 2017

Befriending the King Cobra at Agumbe

I love snakes. They fascinate me. Having watched countless of documentaries on reptiles on National Geographic, Animal Planet and the Discovery channel, I have always wanted to meet Romulus Whitaker; the legendary snake rescuer. That too in Agumbe; India's largest home to the King Cobra. But I couldn't find his base and if I could go and spend some time with him there, possibly chasing the King. But his chase led me to P. Gowri Shankar who runs the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE). Gowri was trained under Whitaker and has featured with him in television documentaries too. And much to my joy, KCRE had planned a King Cobra workshop in March. It all fell in place then and I soon boarded a Jet Airways flight to Mangalore and hopped in the cab that took me 70 kms deep in the western ghats, onto the mountains of Agumbe.

(The western ghats as seen from Agumbe ghats)

Located about five kilometres from a small village called Guddekere, which itself is about 9 kms from Agumbe town, KCRE sits hidden in the lush greens and tall trees and surrounded by all sorts of creatures, beautiful ofcourse. The greenery at Agumbe hits you, much like many other parts of Southern India. It's known as the Cherrapunji of the south. In simple words, it receives amongst the highest rainfall in the country. Some of the spices found here can only be found here in Agumbe.

KCRE must be around 5-8 acre property. It has betelnut plantations and a thick tree cover. Cars can go upto a point, after which you have to hike a bit and then climb down a large flight of stairs. The forest cover is so thick that you cannot see an inch of KCRE till you are right in front of it. There is a main hall where all activities take place; workshops get conducted, it has a well-stocked library filled with all sorts of books on nature, wildlife, flora, fauna, snakes, King Cobras, other snakes, birds, mammals and everything nature for us to read and learn. Here's also where you have your food and- on one side- you put away all your luggage.

Tented accommodation is provided to all us (typically two people per tent); extra tents are set up in minutes if there are more guests. Each tent is provided with a mat, blanket and a pillow. There is a separate block for toilets and bathrooms. Care is taken to maintain it well. Hot water is available for a few hours everyday as there is no electricity. They use wood fire for cooking as well as bath. Food is cooked in a healthy way; everything is organic and grown nearby. It's quite tasty I should tell you. Simple, yet good food.

KCRE can really buzz with enthusiasts and nature aficionados who all want a piece of Agumbe, to suit their palettes. So there was a group of final year students from a Kerala biotech college on the day I landed in KCRE for a nature and wildlife outing trip. After they left, came another corporate group from Bangalore for a team building exercise. Not everyone comes for a King Cobra related workshop; there are other activities too like hiking, trekking, and so on. But everyone learns a little about the King Cobra; Gowri Shankar's speciality and in which he is also pursuing a PHD. Ours was specifically a 3-day King Cobra workshop.

Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology grounds

Malabar Pit Viper

The King Cobra workshop is a mixture of theory classes and practical observation. Every year- and especially during the breeding season of the King Cobra (February to April)- KCRE receives snake rescue calls from Agumbe villages as far as 20-30 kms away. Gowri Shankar and his right hand man Prashanth dash off and rescue the King Cobras (they only rescue King Cobras and not typically other snakes) and release them again in the wild. Note: it's rescue and not catching snakes. We use the term "rescue" because if the King gets very close to human habitat, KCRE's aim to take the King away and release them back in the wild, and preferably as close as possible to their habitat, not just anywhere in the wild. Snakes are not be collected nor should we kill them.

Gowri's PHD is to research- and document the findings of- behaviour Kings in India and particularly of the western ghats, and also those that are found in northeastern forests and the whole world (Gowri also visits Thailand to study the Thailand Kind Cobras, for instance). To support the study, he is gathering evidence on the Kings' defensive nature, breeding, home range pattern, evolution and so on  and more importantly, its genetics. Through his work and studies, he is also trying to get attention and funds to help conservation of snakes. The gene behind his PHD is to also determine if King Cobras behave differently in different parts of the world and whether they actually belong to the same species (at present, all Kings belong to the Tat o.Hannah species) or should they be classified under different species.

Apart from the watching presentations and some very engaging videos and documentaries that teach us various facets about the King, toxicology, etc., we also engage in team exercises. One such exercise is to build a King Cobra nest. The batch was divided in 3-4 groups and we have to go in the forest on the fringes of the KCRE and select a suitable spot and build a nest. It looks like a simple task, but it's not. The King's nest has to have the right temperature for eggs incubation, enough to allow sunlight, careful to not allow the rain to wash it away (nests are built in the monsoon and they need to be protected from the very heavy rainfall that they are not washed away or flooded) and so on.

There are leisurely activities to be had during our stay like hiking to the highest peak in Agumbe (you can also spot deers here), and numerous forest trails. There is also a stream nearby where we can go and bathe or just wet ourselves. It looks like in the middle of nowhere and all you can hear there are chirping of birds and rustling to leaves.

All in all, the workshop was a great success. We learned a lot and had a great time in this paradise called Agumbe. And did we see the King Cobra? Yes, once. On the last day, Gowri and Prashanth rescued a King Cobra that had come too close to a human settlement. He showed us how to gently handle the King, and then sensitised us about the need to release the King back in its own habitat. Care, he said, should be taken to release the snake in its own habitat as it's a territorial snake and will be comfortable only in its own home, and not just anywhere else in the forest.

Gowri Shankar gently handling the King Cobra

 Wine tree snake

 A moth sleeping while we were on a night trail

 The flying lizard (Gecko)

Sunset at Agumbe

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A walk in Chor Bazaar, Mumbai

Many big urban cities around the world have real markets where you get cheap stuff, replicas and some genuine treasures. Mumbai too has its own such flea market; the Chor Bazaar. It is off Sardar Vallabhai Patel Marg, which itself starts from Opera House, south Mumbai, runs past Harkisondas Hospital (now Reliance Foundation Hospital) and then goes on to meet the J.J. Flyover. The SVP Marg was earlier known as Sandhurst Road. If you go down straight this road, past the JJ Flyover, right down this road till the end and then turn left, you will reach Sandhurst Road railway station; India's first- and possibly the world's- split level railway station. This means that few platforms (No.1 and 2, in this case) are at ground level and the remaining (platforms No.3 and 4) are at an elevated level or a bridge.

Coming back to SVP Patel road, go to Gol Deval (round temple). This was earlier a temple as a roundabout but over time the authorities added the extension and made it look like a boat and less of a roundabout. Take a look at the building just diagonally opposite to the temple, right opposite to Null Bazaar. Look at the top. You'll notice a bust. It is of King George V who landed in Bombay in 1911 at the Gateway of India. It is said that he came to this road and the bust atop this building was in his honour. 

We hit the Mutton Street and start walking inside. It's a place of nostalgia. You find all sorts of things; antiques, artefacts, paraphernalia, furniture, posters, decor items, and every other item you'd have probably seen in yours or your grandparents' home, growing up. But not everything is what it seems. Rajan Jayakar, the legal luminary and our guide for this Intach Heritage Walk, Mumbai, told us that 60% of the items you get at Chor Bazaar "was manufactured yesterday, but you can't usually tell the difference." Jayakar is an expert at collecting artefacts and there are very few like him who know what you can get where at Chor Bazaar without being taken for a ride. 

Naturally there are items original available that have either been restored or in same condition as they were sold by their original owners. The Bohra trust nearby is now said to be buying out the area and Chor Bazaar is diminishing in size and a large section would soon vanish. That's a pity; a part of Mumbai's heritage would soon be wiped out. Yet, Jayakar tells us, some portions of Chor Bazaar would continue to live on. Hopefully, for generations.  

 A candle flame blower. A good device for us Zoroastrians who worship fire as the symbol of our Lord Ahura Mazda. We aren't supposed to blow out candles as there is a chance of our saliva or traces touching the fire.  

 Brass cutlery 

 There is no better place that Chor Bazaar if you wish to collect original posters of old Hindi movies and other movie memorabilia

An old bell that was once used in a ship / steamer. You'll also find compass and other sailor memorabilia if you wish

This shop sells old phones that are now antique (before the push button phones were came) and also new phones manufactured yesterday but look like old models. 

An old transistor radio 

Where else you can get old LP (Long Play) records that you could play on LP record players, other than Chor Bazaar! Ofcourse, you could still find some in old Parsi homes in spick-and-span condition, but never ask a bawa if he wishes to sell them! 

An ancient fan that runs on kerosene

A world clock that is on sale. Price? Rs.1 crore. It is in working condition I am told 

 You would remember these old type switches and regulators from your childhood days

An old Analogue Taxi meter that is now an antique 

A traditional room separating apparatus 

A gigantic cupboard. Or as Rajan Jayakar, our guide, puts it: "A one BHK (Bedroom-Hall-Kitchen) cupboard!"

The roof of an old-styled wooden cupboard 

Casablanca poster 

Left: A jug and dish to wash your hands.  Centre: A large-sized jar and its exact replica in small-size. Both the items are original though.

Lobby cards of old Bollywood movies. In olden days, cinema halls used to put up lobby cards (pictures of scenes from movies that were currently playing) in the corridors leading up to the cinema hall. You could find many original lobby cards as well as movie posters at Chor Bazaar 

A beautiful door handle

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Book Review - Halt Station India by Rajendra B. Aklekar

Just finished reading ‘Halt Station India’ by Rajendra B. Aklekar. It’s a book on the nation’s first railway lines. Much of the book devotes on how the Great India Peninsula Railway (GIPR; now Central Railway or CR) was built, but the book also delves on Bombay, Baroda & Central India railway (BB&CI; now Western Railway or WR) and a bit on the many tramways that once dotted Bombay's (now Mumbai) streets. The book is a fascinating read for those us who love Indian railways and trains. Halt Station India starts- in a manner of speaking- at the Camberwell Old Cemetery London where James John Berkley’s grave is there and then going back in time to trace his journey from London to Bombay where he was sent to build Asia’s first railway line. He was appointed as the Chief Resident Engineer of the GIPR. Berkley passed away in England in 1862. His bust lies on the walls of the massive CST Terminus on the fa├žade that faces Bazaar Gate and the bus depot at CST.

But our journey has just begun. Apart from carefully documenting and unearthing some very interesting tales of how the rail lines were laid (did you know that Sion was where the first construction of the Indian railways began?), Aklekar literally takes a walk on the tracks from Mumbai CST to Thane to spot relics and remains of the original rail lines. And there are plenty if you care to look. From original stone buildings, iron brackets, carvings of GIPR (although GIPR officially became CR in 1951) to platform pillars, fixtures and fittings that bear original inscriptions of the names of century old factories in the United Kingdom where they were made, wrought iron floral design brackets to hold name plates (Byculla station), what looks like- though I must confess I may have seen it myself but never paused to admire it- the stunning iron booking office with ornamentally carved iron logos of GIPR (again, Byculla station) and the original booking office at Matunga (CR) with original wooden brackets, the GIPR logos and the pitched roof. There are many such relics that Aklekar has taken pains to look out for and has unearthed all along the CR, WR and Harbour lines.

The book chronicles stations of the past era that are no longer there; Mazgaon station, Colaba station (which was once the last station on the BB&CI line…now the site where Badhwar Railway Colony at Cuffe Parade), Ballard Pier Mole Station and so on. Did you know that two of India’s oldest trains amongst those that are still in existence today, ran from Ballard Pier Mole Station? The Frontier Mail (now the Golden Temple Mail; WR) and Punjab Limited (Punjab Mail; CR).

It’s an easy read that flows well. It starts from Mumbai CST and as Aklekar starts his journey from there, he stops at every station along the way to give you a brief history of what they once were and what remains. I would highly recommend for those who are interested in Mumbai’s and Indian railway’s history.  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

My dream of Mumbai's Metro and Monorail

It has been quite a while since the first phase of Monorail (Wadala-Chembur) in Mumbai was inaugurated. The second phase (Wadala-Mahalaxmi) is still under construction. Meanwhile, the first Mumbai Metro route is running to packed capacity between Versova - Ghatkopar.

While the Versova - Ghatkopar metro route has brought about a lot of relief to the east-west city commute on and around this route, the rest of the city continues to reel under increasing traffic that promises to get insane by the day. Offices have shifted to new suburban commercial areas like Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) and Kalina Santacruz.  But public transport is so pathetic there that during peak hours, especially evenings, it's almost impossible to catch a rickshaw, much less get into crowded buses that ferry thousands of people to nearby suburban railway stations. It's inhuman; looks like a sea of people on the streets after what appears to be just a dozen rickshaws.

Once after finishing a meeting in Santacruz late evening, as I failed to catch a rickshaw despite jostling with dozens and dozens of people scrambling to hail rickshaws, I felt an urgent need to pee. I had to walk 4 kms in excruciating pain and massive traffic jams and thank God I found Hyatt hotel nearby where I could use its facilities to relieve myself. I felt like I could have fainted that day!

As a Mumbaikar, I would propose the following:

First principles: What is the difference between Monorail and Metro? Do they serve different needs or should we choose one over the other just on the basis of space and cost?

A monorail is light railway.

  • It should cover short distances; typically to serve business districts. And connect them to nearby transportation hubs, such as a suburban rail station or bus station or metro station.
  • This explains why it should be overground
  • To me, a monorail route between Mahalaxmi to Chembur is a waste. That is not what a monorail should do. That's the Metro's territory.
  • Any business district that gets planned in suburbs should be planned with a monorail route in mind
  • South Mumbai, as it is already so crowded, should not have any monorail. Here's where Metro should be built and, preferably, underground.
  • A monorail should cater office crowds hence should be open from early mornings to late night to help facilitate office goers to reach nearby transportation hubs, like a suburban railway station.

A metro caters to heavy traffic

  • Hence, the routes should be long
  • Like most of the advanced Metro routes around the world, Mumbai Metro should, preferably, be underground. It's expensive, but keeping the Metro over the ground takes up a lot of space (already a rare commodity in crowded cities like Mumbai) but also blocks precious sunlight to reach the ground. Just go to various metro stations in Mumbai and Delhi and stand on the pavements underneath stations.
  • Multiple metro routes should criss cross to help facilitate passengers reach multiple destinations. I had heard that when Paris Metro was planned, the objective was to have one metro station within a 3 square km radius.

Challenges of Mumbai

  • Unlike Delhi which is circular in shape, Mumbai is a long strip. The distance between north and south is vast and improved connectivity is important to ferry passengers. Any breakdown in this link disrupts commute to a great extent
  • Since Mumbai is covered by sea on both the west and east coast, the city can only expand northwards. This explains why suburbs beyond Borivali and Thane have developed and more and more people are shifting there.
  • But any such northbound expansion only extends the north-south commute time. 

Possible solutions

  • Suburban stations on Western, Central and Harbour lines should be identified as hubs.
  • Monorails should touch one or maximum two of these hubs and connect nearby office areas.
  • Monorails should only be built to connect office / commercial areas with the hubs. They should be ideally limited to just 10 kms.
  • Metros should connect long distances and should multiple hubs and also make it a point to connect one or few monorail stations. This helps interconnectivity and reduced pressure on any one hub
  • Mumbai should be divided into two zones. 
  •         Zone#1: Mumbai city + suburbs up to  Borivali (Western railway or WR), Thane (Central Railway or CR) and Mankhurd (Harbour line).
  •         Zone#2: Suburbs beyond Borivali (Western railway or WR), Thane (Central Railway or CR) and Mankhurd (Harbour line).

Case in hand
The distance between Virar station and Borivali is 26 kms. Realistically- and in terms of square kms- there's a vast landmass of settlements on the east and west side along this route. The same is the case on CR (between Thane and Kasara, Thane and Karjat) and Harbour line (Mankhurd and Panvel).

These areas (Zone#2) have a burgeoning population. To help them reach faster from South Mumbai business and commercial districts as well as various other business districts in Zone#1, to their homes in Zone#2 in the least amount of time possible, should be the objective.

At the same time, commuters residing all along Zone#1 should also be given a fast commute.

To help achieve both of the above- and given the fact that Mumbai is growing northwards- it is essential to have separate lines for Zone#1 and Zone#2. And Zone#2 lines should skip Zone#1 as far as possible. This will enable Zone#2 residents to reach their homes faster.

It will also help avoid the numerous conflicts between commuters of the two zones as we see them happening on WR and CR. Numerous news reports have surfaced over the years on how commuters coming from Virar end do not allow residents of Borivali to enter the trains and how commuters beyond Thane don't allow people to get off or enter before Thane and block the doorways (read here and here).

At present, Mumbai's east-west connections are pathetic. Roads are always jammed and WR and CR meet only at Dadar and Parel/Elphinston. It's a long commute for passengers using trains who wish to go east-west. For instance, a Virar (WR) resident who works in Vikhroli (CR), has to come to Dadar and change trains then go back to Vikhorli. Virar to Dadar by a fast train is 1 hour if it is on time. Add 10 minutes to change trains at Dadar and waiting time. Add a further 20 minutes to reach Vikhroli. Total travel time = 1.5 hours each way. That is just station to station. Add atleast another 30 minutes on an average to reach stations at the respective ends and commute time could be an agonising two hours each way (four hours every day!).

Possible solutions (Monorail)

  • Monorail route #1: Bandra WR local- BKC - Kurla station - Santa Cruz business district - Santa Cruz local - Bandra WR local
  • Similarly, there could be many other monorail routes that could be considered to serve other present and upcoming business districts or clusters. 

Possible solutions (Metro)
Let's call Metro network in Zone#1 as Mumbai Metro (MM) and in Zone#2, Mumbai Metro One (MMO).
MM and MMO should have different routes. For MMO, the aim is to transport passengers quickly to the edges of Zone #1 as quickly as possible. In other words, MMO should have minimal stations in Zone#1, only in business districts for office goers, pick the up and go straight to Zone#2.

Once MMO reach Zone#2, then the trains should become akin to slow trains and have as many stations as it takes to serve that route.

The Zone#1 routes should not go beyond Zone#1 edges.

WR, CR and Harbour line routes should ideally have atleast one Zone#2 route serving the remote areas (beyond Zone#1). All these lines should converge and terminate at Dadar-Parel.

Atleast one Zone#1 route also from WR, CR and Harbour line routes should converge at Dadar-Parel.

This kind of route meeting at Dadar-Parel will facilitate commuters to effectively criss cross and also effectively commute between Zone #1 and Zone#2.

For instance, as per the above Virar-Vikhroli example, a Virar resident (Zone#2) can take the MMO route to reach Dadar, cross over to CR MM to reach Vikhroli (Zone#1).

The WR Zone#2 and CR Zone#2 should start from Dadar-Parel, run parallel, have stops at BKC, Santa Cruz-Kalina business district and possibly SEEPZ and then bifurcate. The WR MMO's next station should be straight at Dahisar and then have regular stops going forward. Similarly, after SEEPZ, the CR MMO's next stop should be Thane and then go beyond from there with regular stops.

The Harbour Line MMO should head from Seepz to go straight to Vashi and then have regular stops beyond.

Regular criss - cross routes should be encouraged. For instance, Godbunder Road (Thane) to Bandra.

Conclusion: Unless Mumbai (and other cities across India) takes up metro and monorail work seriously, efficiently, and speedily, the traffic situation will only get worse and make our cities more and more crowded. 

Meher Mahino, Ava Mahino and Adar Mahino: The holy trinity of Zoroastrian calender

Zoroastrians- or better knows as Parsis and Iranis of India- have a separate calendar. We look at the English calendar of course, but we al...