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.
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”.
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.
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.

Tracing Monsoon: Part II: Following the Insects

Monsoon is magic. If I have said it already (thrice now), please bear with me. This magic is not the kind we read in books. It is a heightened sense of seeing, of hearing, of smelling, of tasting, of being happy. Of love. It is a heightened sense of knowing: anything natural seems supernatural. Anything supernatural is no less than magic. And monsoon is just that – a heightened sense of everything.

To be amidst the deep and dark woods or over the edge of a cliff while the cupid of clouds strike the ground with numerable arrows, is not only our time of happiness. It belongs to all the creatures of this world. Happiness to be alive, to be able to survive, to procreate. During this time of the year, it is monsoon that expands this emotion, even to creatures we so wrongly consider sphexish.
A bee pollinating Chlorophytum tuberosum - a monsoon ephemeral
As I followed the plants, I followed insects as well. Their lives are intermingled, and I find observing either without their counterpart unfair.

When the first drop hits the ground, it is not only the plants that take root or blossom. Life blossoms.
Streambed puddling
In the beginning, there is only an increase in the humidity, with a negligible drop in the temperatures from the torturous summer trend. The first showers are always silent and, like spices, are only sprinkled upon the receptive soil. But this little sprinkling is enough to start mass congregation of butterflies that have been eagerly waiting to mud-puddle and chase mates.
Common Emigrants and a Spot Swordtail
Streambeds, river banks, lake shores, and many other sources of freshwater that turned to dust by the end of summer are again brimming with new life. In pre-monsoon months, it is not merely to survive, however. For butterflies that especially mate during monsoon, it is to build up the reserves of minerals and other nutrients, which the males present to the females when they mate. This cycle almost exactly coincides with the onset of sprouting plants.

I find this natural rhythm of life like music. It begins with the clairvoyant songs of birds and the flutter of butterfly congregations. It is backed by the chorous of cicadas accompanying the backdrop of thunders. But it is not always the sounds.

There are plants that add colours and perhaps vibrations as they grow, to the string of monsoon’s instruments. There is that silent music to which the butterflies perform the courtship dance. There are man-made structures that play the theme of rain. And then there are our senses, providing illusions that are true.

For an intro to the great musical that lasts for four long months, it passes by seemingly quickly. This is proof enough that you’re entangled in this rhythm by your heightened senses, that you become invariably lost during monsoon. Time doesn’t merely pass by, it escapes.

Slowly the streambed and forest floor is saturated with water, and as soon as it happens, little bejeweled creatures stir out of their burrows, leaving behind their previous life now only reminiscent deep into their genome: Tiger Beetles.
The Azure Tiger Beetle - Jansenia azureocincta
These extravagant creatures are less than an inch in length. They spend the dry months of winter and summer in burrows under decomposing wood and forest floor, preying actively on other unfortunate invertebrates lurking nearby.

Monsoon is the best season to observe these beetles, as most species are seen only during the early monsoon weeks (mostly from June to July-mid week). I have never seen a dead Tiger Beetle ever, save those that were either crushed or were killed by predators. I’m sure most of them die a natural death, probably by lying still deep under the leaf litter, hidden from scavengers – a respectful death of a creature we once thought were mindless.
Cicindela fabriciana (probably)
Given that counting number of species and the comparison of species diversity to other similar habitats elsewhere is scientifically important, it is also of a personal interest to me. Merely striking off a checklist, however, is not my intention, although sometimes I give in into striking off some heard-of creatures I’m yearning to see.

In case of Tiger Beetles, it is not worth making a checklist, simply because there exists none for Sahyadri (which is a shame really), but also because they are some of the most ephemeral and elusive of all insects. For instance, I explored as much for these beetles last year as this, and I could identify only 5. This year was a bonus, with 9 to 10 species on the list: some as inconspicuous and small as a fleck of dust in a dust-storm, some as brilliantly obvious as Nyctanthes arbor-tristis on a dark night.

Their life as adults is merely of two months. From a few days after pre-monsoons starts their mating season, where a male is rather territorial, and would not tolerate the presence of another male in his little territory. However, there are always small communities of these beetles near banks of rivers with a thick canopy. Such places show tolerance of a male with several other individuals about probably because food is in abundance.
The mating season lasts until end of July, after which they abruptly disappear. Whether they hibernate, like several species in North America, is unknown; but many do complete their lifecycle and return to dust.

Not all last long to live and retire back to earth, however. In their life of two months as adults, the Tiger Beetles face a great threat from predators – birds, small mammals, other predatory insects. One in particular specializes in parasitizing the grubs of Tiger Beetles. This nemesis is rarer than Tiger Beetle themselves – the Velvet Ant.
A mating pair of Velvet Ants
We stumbled across this rare sight as we were looking for spiders. The sexual dimorphism is pretty apparent in Velvet Ants. The male are winged, and always larger than female, which are wing-less. The name Velvet Ant signifies the female, but they are actually Wasps. A male holds the female in his mandibles, and carries her up on a leaf – where they mate.
A female Velvet Ant
Once mated the male flies off and the female scampers down on the forest floor, and begins the search of prey for her offspring’s upbringing. These preys are the many burrowing insects – mostly larvae – and Tiger Beetles happen to be one of them.

The female of the mating pair is different from that of the individual seen by a stream-side. They both were observed on the same day, and around the same time as last year. I can be pretty sure that this is the season they are commonly seen around, although I cannot say for sure until I have observed more than just three specimens.

Sighting them mating at the same time as Tiger Beetles only means that their lifecycles overlap. It may not mean that their lives are entwined, but only because it has already been established, we know that some of the Tiger Beetles were sacrificed for the birth of another unique insect we might again consider sphexish.

We are in the end of June; the struggle to survive and procreate in the little world of insects is now at its peak.

There is an explosion of life everywhere. There are insects flying everywhere – flies and butterflies, bugs and beetles, dragonflies and damselflies. Some are sipping nectar from freshly blooming flowers, some munching on the freshly unfurled leaves. There are those, feeding on those that feed on plants. One of the extremely efficient predators, probably one that will beat all other aerial predators for its stealth, is a Robberfly.
Robberfly feeding on a Horsefly
Like a hawk swooping onto an unsuspecting prey from high in the sky is invisible even on a clear day, the Robber Flies are efficient hunters of the lower troposphere. On two days, I saw the same species feeding on a variety of diet – from a Weevil, Housefly, Horsefly, to its own kin – a Robberfly. This shows the efficiency with which they feed. On other occasions, I have seen them feed on Paper Wasps, Dragonflies, Damselflies, Hoverflies and flies in other families, Beetles, and Butterflies. The list probably contains all that they can empower. We must be glad we’re beyond the size that they can feed on.
A mating pair of Robberflies
These flies are ferocious predators, but are splendid lovers and responsible mothers. Sure, it is all coded in their genes like ours, but in case of insects, nature takes its course in the most efficient manner. Nurture, on the other hand, is their own responsibility. The Robberflies will reign throughout the Monsoon, some well into the dry months. And as the season grows old, their competition will only increase.

One such competitor is the Dragonflies and Damselflies.
Trithemis aurora defending his territory
The months of June and July are always interesting if you’re interested in Odonates. One of the curious things about early dragonflies is that the females are more common than males, and as the season ages, males become more common.

In June, starting from late May, Trithemis aurora females are common along forest-clearings. As the monsoon begins, the males capture territories along the waters – mostly free-flowing streams, where they defend it from a number of other larger Dragonflies, as well as small but persistent Damselflies. Yet they never always succeed in claiming their territory, and several species end up laying eggs in the same spot.
Disparoneura quadrimaculata, male, sharing the same territory
In August and early September, the Odonate diversity is rather low, and it is the most diverse in October when the waters are full, the niads have left their aquatic lives and entered the aerial.

But really, we’ve not seen even half of this waking world. For that, we need to look a little closer. On a wet trail at Karnala, we found a large tree bearing many young flowers, the Ficus. Some of the figs were tender green, and some yellow-orange. It was just a flower, just a fruit, on one really large tree.
A Fig Wasp from Karnala Bird Sanctuary
On these were tiny wasps carrying a long sword in their back-end. This is the Fig Wasp, some so small, that they are almost invisible to a naked eye. On another occasion in the month of July, I found another species of wasp with an extremely long ovipositor – almost five times its own body length sitting patiently on a fig.
A Fig Wasp from Peb Fort
These rather specialized wasps are anything but sphexish. Some are the caretakers and breeders of Ficus trees, few of the largest and oldest trees to grow, harbouring their own species of Fig Wasps, and some are cunning and deceitful, playing no role what-so-ever in pollinating the figs. The sword-like ovipositor is sharp enough, and long enough, to pierce and enter into the centre of the Ficus flower. An egg is carefully nestled amongst the anthers and stigmas.

There are several non-pollinating Fig Wasps in the family Agaonidae. What these do, is lay an egg close to the larva of a pollinating Fig Wasp, and the grubs when hatched devour the pollinator's larva. While it may seem that this wasp damages the mutual relationship of the pollinator wasp and Ficus tree, the non-pollinator actually help keep the populations of pollinator wasps under control - because if the fig is overloaded by pollinator wasp grubs, it may exploit the plant as a resource and may result in damaging the flower.

The wasps I photographed likely belong to the non-pollinating clan, which prefer to insert the egg through the wall of the flower, unlike pollinating wasps which enter the flower through an opening at the top. A really great article discussing some species of Indian and Sri Lankan non-pollinating Fig Wasps can be found here.

The plant-animal interactions are closest amongst insects. Although it is a love-hate relationship, monsoon is often the time of rejoice, when they so hopelessly, lovingly, lay down their guards and provide the selfless services to each other.
Apis florea and Justicia procumbens share a connection
A Dwarf Honeybee, Apis florea, was busy feeding on the flowers of Justicia procumbens, an annual herb seen commonly on the slopes of Sahyadri during monsoon. There was a complex, diverse system in function here. The Dwarf Honeybees were accompanied by Leaf-cutting bees, Common Honeybee, Hoverflies (Eristalinus sp.), feeding on the ephemerals and endemics of the Sahyadri. If it was not for them, the endemism of Sahyadri would probably be replaced by monocultures of other aggressive species, such as is seen in many urban ecosystems today.
A pair of Cicindela fabriciana at Yeoor Hills
By July end, the Tiger Beetles, Wasps, Butterflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies, and a number of members of various Orders and Families have mated, and laid the edifices of the future generation. Their killing and feeding has not gone in vain. As a human, I see a Robber fly’s voracious diet as an excellent example of population control, of flies and bees’ tireless flower-visits I see as the strongest bond, for the survival of our very own species.
A Common Crow - Euploea core, chrysalis
It begs me to think beyond the obvious: are they really sphexish? Is their life merely mechanical? As I sit here and shuffle through the biology-oriented articles, I see a life history of an insect drawn as a never-ending cycle. To a student it explains the life of an insect in the simplest form, but to observe it unfold in nature is what gives you a clear perspective. To call it complex would be to sum it in one simple, understandable word; but to call it social, interactive, and as lively as we believe our species is, is something I believe is true for all organisms on the planet, including insects.

We’re into August now, and life is speeding faster than the speed of my grasping. To have it each described will take us a million lives, so I end this note here until later.