The Urban Deccan

The journey on the Deccan plains under a fine monsoon sky was delightful. I was told to follow a certain system on the road that happened to be quite systematic. The air was cool, the road was free, and the pillar-numbering helped from getting lost in the city, thanks to the 11.6 km flyover that gives the city its 300 odd pillars that now hold more relevance than postal codes.

That was until three hours later, when I had to retrace the road through a multitude of vehicles going in all directions at once. My friend nudged me on my shoulder and welcomed me to Hyderabad. Before I venture out in the urban wilderness I should say here that I noted three accidents on my three days on the road.
Hyderabad
The road-trip however was never dramatic, nor quite systematic. It was rather like going into a bustling crowd in a pub and finding your way through to the bartender. Besides charging an exorbitant fee for an auto-rikshaw ride, they never ceased to entertain their passenger. This I found peculiar of Hyderabad.

On one occasion I was told of an incident that happened during Raksha-bandhan eve by a rikshaw-wallah who was quite a character. This he told me in a very excited, proud fashion of an entrepreneur sharing his take on life: That driving drunk on a festival is justified, and that traffic police should just let him pass. I added a few grunts and no’s to the decadence of the cops, wondering when he would stop and look at the road, and that he did, after 150 pillars, when we turned right to the quarters that perhaps resulted in the turning of my first grey hair. To my unsurprised revelation, he was still celebrating his last night’s shenanigans while driving on the busy streets of Hyderabad.

In the next days’ paper I read about an accident at a location I had seen many people congregating. A man had died crossing the road. Several people die on the road. As many as 161 people are recorded to have died in road accidents during first four months of this year. That’s as bad as any other major city of a country like India where 1,30,000 road accidents that are fatal, have been recorded.

This is very concerning when you’re at the mercy of a driver you do not know. And your life, more often than not, is in the hands of this stranger. I find it rather relieving when the driver speaks, for it makes me understand his mental state – more or less. And this helps in judging whether I’ll reach my destination by the shortest route, alive.

Occasionally I would scry the cityscape from the leather-sheathed rikshaw, and see large posters of movies that are currently running. It usually does not catch my eye, but since I was welcomed by these early in the morning, I chose to pay a little more heed to these. And I was glad I did.

On a billboard that hung nigh fifteen feet high, spanning ten feet tall, twenty wide, was a fly. Not a fly sitting on the corner of the board, but a fly blown up 1000000 times resting in-the-middle, staring on to the road with its bulbous blood-red eyes. On the side of the picture was written “Eega”. Since then I saw Eega posters everywhere strewn around the city. The tagline read “the ultimate revenge story”.
Eega
This blew my mind. Never have I seen a fly given the center stage. In fact I saw a roosting site of flies near a busy ATM that went unnoticed until we pointed it out to the security there. He was annoyed and disgusted, I didn’t understand why. This movie, I thought, would give flies a second chance; a redemption, if you will. While I do not intend to critique this unique movie, it has observed “the unusual and overwhelming success” across southern India, and I cannot wait until it spreads, like swarming flies, to north, east, and the west.

Eega means a fly in Telugu. It is a generic term commonly applied to House Fly (Musca domestica). I will not tell you how the story of Eega comes to be, but I must tell you that things shown in the movie cannot be denied. Forgive me for not alerting you about this spoiler: A fly can kill, and has done so in the past.

I did not ponder over it much, but I kept it in the back of my mind. I googled plagues caused by flies, and the first was the fourth plague of flies: And the Lord did so. Thick swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh, into his servants' houses, and into all the land of Egypt. The land was corrupted because of the swarms of flies. And the countless deaths caused by fly-borne diseases.

It was rather cool when the night came. The air of the plains is dry and very different from that of the Konkan. It is pleasant when the sun is obscured by clouds. But give him the chance, and one would rather be in Konkan than the Deccan. Hyderabad’s monsoon has a different flair than that of the Western Ghats. It is breezy. One can see the cloud cover stretching for miles at length from the comforts of one’s chair. Unlike the Ghats, the monsoon of Hyderabad is but a drizzle, which may take form of a heavy rain that won’t last for more than five minutes, but will remind you that it’s the monsoon.
The Deccan monsoon
I am a rain-person, and so is everyone in India. When we were caught in the Hyderabadi rain, I and a few of the countless people caught off guard were the only ones with an umbrella. I hazard a guess that they, like me, happened to be from the Konkan part of India where umbrella forms the extension of our arms during the four months.

It is quite humorous to watch people run for cover, abandoning their vehicles by the side of the busiest highway. But when everyone does that, as a democracy, it is justified. I wonder if driving drunk would be justified if everyone started doing it, at least during festivals.

When the sun went down we lined by a liquor shop but came home extremely dissatisfied with whatever was offered. A packet of nuts as an exchange to the amount they owe gave me another grey hair. That the nuts were fresh is a different story. On the next day we were to visit a historic fort that I once read in the history textbooks, somewhere before the standard 10th. It was called Golkonda (or Golconda), or Golla Konda, or, as I prefer it, the Shepherd’s Hill.
On a hot monsoon day
You won’t believe me when I say it has been a historically significant location since AD 1363. That is about 649 years ago. And given that the Himalayas grow about 5 inches per year, they have grown 250 feet since then. That’s quite old. This Shepherd’s Hill now rests under a grand palace, officially called Golkonda, passed down, and won over, by many great kings of the medieval Deccan. It is now one the national heritage sites of India, open to all the public to be amazed by its cunning architecture, and more.

Now my interests always go in the favour of the natural history of ancient fortifications. So we took the state transport that runs surprisingly empty if compared to Mumbai’s and reached the destination without much ado. Although of less significance, it is worth relating, if not comparing, two cities’ transport simply because it is the best topic to discuss after weather. A person from this city is always curious to know about the transport of that city. Or is it just in my circle of friends who talk about efficient transportation, be it long string-crossing from over the city (imagine yourself gliding all the way over the skyscrapers to your final destination, nonstop), or by kayaking your way to work.

I was rather satisfied with Hyderabad’s transport that didn’t make us wait for long until we reached Golkonda. And we saw it gleaming high on a hillock that rises from the plains of the Deccan, a menacing figure of sheer power and prowess.

We ventured into the fort that is a haven for wildlife. Its ramparts are of stone, and plants take root in them. Its dark alleyways are home to some of the most elusive mammals, its crevices are claimed by martins, and its roofs are reigned by – flies.
Golkonda Fort
Its arches, tunnels, and passages reminds one of the long forgotten era when the world was built of mud and stone, which managed to maintain just that perfect clime indoors. Most of these now lie in ruins, but even these long-forgotten walls once held secrets. Now they are all but curious remains of a once-upon-a-time kingdom, reclaimed by nature, yet reminiscent of its human connection.
Ruins of Golkonda
As you go up the fort the structures become simpler, but if you see closer – they’re made up of many smaller units – stones the size of your palm form the edifices for some of the most massive walls. This complexity of the structure, standing still, only makes me gaze in awe at the ingenuity, and the ironic simplicity, with which it was built.
Brick by brick
It is on the top of one of these structures we found the perfect place for grass to grow. And what’s more perfect than a little Physiphora sitting on one of the grass fronds? It is unfortunate that they went unnoticed by almost all of the people. That such little things hold no value, except for the grass-expert and a dipterophiliac, is quite disappointing.
Tripogon and Psysiphora
Such little things are the ones that provide details to larger pieces of works. That this fort now harbours a multitude of life-forms, and that this particular location is the home of this particular grass in the genus Tripogon, and that a fly in the genus Physiphora chose to sit on this grass, is of great significance to me whether they’re seen individually or as a part of a larger whole. It is perhaps in the details of their structure, their individuality, and their presence that can be felt when you see it, is what brings many of us closer to nature.

I stood there and looked out into the vastness of the Deccan, with the view of the civilization spread from across the left corner of my eye to the right. This is Hyderabad, under the cover of nimbostratus.
Under nimbostratus
We went to a large gallery from where the view of the city was simply exquisite. The Sultan would have certainly enjoyed this view. Several lakes and ponds are formed around the fort during monsoon, which are visited by a number of waterfowls.
A wetland near Golkonda Fort
We then passed under the fort and into its dark alleyways. While coming through some tall pitch black arches, we heard shrill calls from one of the corners of the passages. Lured by this mystery, we decided to approach it and came by a large, and dark, dome – its ceiling lost in the shrieks. With the aid of my camera, I discerned something glowing in the night.
Stars of Golkonda
Like stars – twin stars – they shone.
The starry ceilings
The feeling of being watched by a thousand eyes is the creepiest. Especially eyes those are hanging directly above your head.

After confirming the presence of a bat colony in several such domes, we carefully went and stooped in the centre of this dome. Just as carefully, with the digital eye, we looked up to the spectacle of living, glinting eyes.
Eyes
They were still shrouded in the dark, as if it never wanted leave this deep part of the fort. These nocturnal bats had sought its protection, and they both were very adamant about leaving it ever.

I carefully stood up, and brought my hands up and closer to the tall dome from where the eyes of the bats rested upon us. And we saw structures, large and small, gliding silently right over us. For the first time in my life did I come upon such a large colony of bats. The experience was exhilarating, with the smell of the guano strong in our nostrils.
Leshchenault's Rousette
This beautiful, large bat the size of a Bandicoot rat, with glowing eyes and a grim invisible smile, hanging down and watching you disturb their well-deserved day-nap, in their thousands, maybe ten thousands, are, well, vegetarian!

They most likely are the beautiful Leschenault’s Rousette, a kind of a Fruit Bat in the family Pteropodidae. They were once said to be abundant in the Deccan, where the regions of arid and deciduous forests, and dark places like caves, wells, and other man-made structures, are their preferred habitats.

This colony of Rousette of Golkonda is rather famous, and has been recorded and re-recorded by many scientists and tourists alike. Some of the wonderful work done on these can be read on here and here.

Unfortunately since the last decade, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has been hell bent to eradicate these “pests” from its “claimed” premises. I bring it to your notice that these bats were most likely one of the first colonizers before even the ASI was established.

Several methods have been employed to get rid of these beautiful creatures that are very important to the city’s few remaining trees. Eradicating them will only result in dwindling of the complex, but elusive natural phenomenon that is in place, which would, without bats, cease to exist. Some of the unfortunate news articles I read about this mainly give the stench of bat guano as the reason that hampers tourism (and of course the income) of this national heritage site.

More reading:
ASI takes on bats at Golconda Fort (September 28, 2002)

I do not understand why the hell tourism-managers cannot think out-of-the-box. Can’t they turn these bat-colonies to educate tourists about their significance, and try to get rid of the superstitions, and, of course, earn money from such kind of tourism? The latest news about ASI’s mission to kill this colony, merely because tourists complain of the smell, dates back to only last year.

On the other hand, as per The Hindu’s rather interesting article dated July 25, 2011 (and which is tagged under kids section), there are about 38 species found in Andhra Pradesh, of which 17 are recorded in Hyderabad, one of which is endemic to the state. Unfortunately, people studying the populations of Leschenault’s Rousette at Golkonda have observed a decline in their populations over a period of 12 years.

These bats are nocturnal, but they don’t go out to feed on people’s blood. As I said, they are purely vegetarian, and generally feed on fruits such as Jamun, Guava, Silk, Cotton, and Mango (source), and assist in dispersal of the seeds. Their importance is justified in the world where trees dominated the cityscapes, where their services resulted in the spread of forests for miles in all directions. As the cities grow, there’s a decline of the important feeding grounds, thus their habitats get restricted, and this results in a decline in their numbers.

It was rewarding to see them without being able to see them by the naked eye. But as for the rest of humanity, I am still in the dark about their history and ecology. In the age where bats are still considered pests, the bats taking shelter in man-made structure visited by thousands of tourists daily, is rather heartwarming.
From the ruins of Hyderabad
Hyderabad is one of the fastest growing metropolitan of India. And by that it means it is, unfortunately, also the fastest encroaching. The Sultan then may have built the house over the Shepherd’s Hill with whatever that was locally available in the region. In today’s fast pacing world, whatever that is built is driven only by the fact that it should provide a home.
The old and the new world
India’s population has crossed the figure 124 crore. We are already lagging behind in taking some serious decisions about protecting our environment for ourselves. Like the kingdoms of days gone by, Golkonda is a startling example, as many other forts in the Deccan and the Sahyadri, that nothing is eternal. A time may come, I hate to say, when all that will remain of our civilization is not the relics, but photographs.

On my journey to Hyderabad I met many experts in the field of Botany and Zoology, who are painstakingly studying even the minutest details of Mother Earth. I felt extremely tiny, but enormously glad to be amongst these giants. It is because of them and others whom I’ve never met that I learnt most of which I produce here.

The glimpses of the Deccan urban ecosystems Hyderabad has offered came to an end before I realized the rich diversity of India’s largest plateau. While descending the Deccan traps I was welcomed by the Konkan rain lashing on the window. It was a warm welcome that I found surprisingly dry.

2 comments:

  1. Being from Hyderabad, the one thing about monsoon in Hyderabad is that it only rains in the evenings and at nights (late nights). 90% of the time that is :) So, if you have a long day planned with plenty to get done, no need to worry. Just make sure you are indoors between 4 and 7, and you're good to go.

    Glad you had a good time in Hyderabad.

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    1. Thank you Sasidhar, if I had some more time to spend, I'd certainly make a note of it :)

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