Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tiger sighting at Ranthambhore - May 2012

The summer months of April to June are the best time to visit Ranthambhore. The undergrowth is sparse, water sources are limited, and the sighting is therefore much better. 

We did 3 safaris and thoroughly enjoyed all three. We stayed at Khem Villas, and can't say enough good things about it. Their commitment to the forests and to the people of the land is incredible, and the work they do to protect the whole ecology of the place is admirable.

On our very first safari, into the tiny Zone 1, we spotted this beautiful tigress:

Side view of T-39, in Zone 1
She is a very young tigress about 5 years old, and she has just given birth to a cub. She is quite thin right now, what with looking after the cub as well as hunting. When we saw her, she had hunted two days ago, with a successful deer kill. Now she was on the prowl again (but you can see she is hungry and her stomach is absolutely shrunken). On a close up of the photo you can see teats, she has been nursing. She is very graceful.

Tiger on path - T-39 goes in search of water
We were lucky she was walking towards us! The photographers in the other jeeps were behind her and could get only butt-shots :) The forest has shed a lot of its leaves and the undergrowth has dried up.

T-39 alert!
She stood, alert and poised, when she saw some prey. It was amazing, the transformation from sleepy walk to alert awareness.

Tiger hidden! T-39 walks into shrubbery
After a while she walked away from the road, beautifully camouflaged in the forest. If this had been winter we could not have seen anything! Because it was summer, we could follow her, and later we saw her emerge from a ravine and climb up a small hillock.

If you are visiting Ranthambhore in winter, the chances of sighting drop substantially. Can you imagine the photo above, if it were full of dense green shrubbery? How would you even know that the tiger was there ! Fortunately, tigers love walking on the forest roads, because it is easier on their paws. So the paw-prints can give you clues about where they are. After that, it is just luck and perseverance!

Ranthambhore is more than just tigers, though. Just being there amidst the jungle is very soul-satisfying. Learning about the ecology of the place, the BALANCE of everything, the seasons, the way the food chain works, the birds of each season...all of it made me feel a sense of peace.

The dhok, the most widespread tree in Ranthambhore
The dhok is particularly well-adapted to the harsh climate of this region, shedding its leaves to survive the summer. It has a hair-trigger response to rains, and begins to sprout leaves with the first few drops. While we  were there, it rained very briefly (unseasonal) and we saw the trees already with their opportunistic response :)

Not all parts of the jungle are dry - there are zones which are green and beautiful. 
Green lush areas of Zone 5 - very refreshing
This photo was taken at the far end of Zone 5, near Bakola. Zone 5 has bone ratting rides up the hill before you get to this ravine with water :) The temperature here is at least 2-3 degrees lower than the rest of the forest, with a moist inviting forest smell. We saw paradise flycatcher, golden oriole, and black-tailed mongoose, I didn't want to leave! 

Zones 2 and 3 are also very scenic, with large lakes. Here you can see not only a lot of waterbirds, but also a wide range of animals. 

Female sambar in Rajbagh lake - Zone 3 
Sambar are good swimmers and often feed on the grasses and water plants. They have good sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight. The safari path skirts the lake (see jeep in photo), so you are treated to a beautiful vista, and you can really get a sense of peace here if you switch off the engines and sit quietly for a while.

While the female sambar remained unconcerned, nearby, the stags were in a confrontational mood:
Male Sambar fighting - Zone 3
Surprise information: they make tiny mewing sounds when they fight!

We were also treated to this almost comic confrontation scene between one macaque and a whole group of langurs.
Ruffian Macaque and Lady Langurs :) 
This single male macaque (you can see him in the centre of the photo) managed to scatter a group of langurs, mostly females with young ones. I was surprised. There were at least 20 langurs, but they all moved away. Only one older female stood her ground, hissing and snarling at him. One young male tried to stand up to him, then got the fright of his life and bounded away into the trees!

I have lots more photos of this Ranthambhore trip, but this blog entry will become too long if I put up everything. Maybe another post, another time!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Malai or paneer? I can't tell!

I clicked this photo outside the Fatehpuri Masjid in Chandni Chowk, but we were walking past too quickly and I couldn't tell if it was paneer (cottage cheese) or malai (cream). Do you know? I assume it is paneer, but someone told me it's malai (hard to believe?).

And if it is malai, then why is he selling it in giant slabs like this? What do you make with it?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Secretariat Building and the people who really run the country!

I was driving towards the President's House compound, when I saw the North Block of the Secretariat decorated with the familiar colours of saffron, white and green. Against the blue sky, the building looked very nice! 

Every time I look at the Secretariat, I wonder what actually goes on in there. So this time I decided to read up a little. 
The Secretariat is made up of twin buildings -  North Block and South Block (see photo below). The first thing I wanted to find out was why these two buildings are called the "Secretariat". It turns out that the folks in these buildings actually provide secretarial functions to the Cabinet. They convene meetings, circulate agendas and papers, record discussions, etc. The Cabinet Secretariat is the custodian of the papers of the Cabinet meetings (hey, *someone's* got to do the filing!).

But it's absolutely wrong to think of the Secretariat as a just bunch of paper-pushers. They provide Advice to the Ministers, and are responsible for inter-ministerial/inter-departmental co-ordination, as well as dispute resolution. Each of the two Secretariat buildings has 4 floors, and about 1000 rooms.  So now you can imagine what goes on inside - a lot of folks doing a lot of meetings and paperwork  and ego-management! 

The numero uno of the Secretariat is the Cabinet Secretary, and he/she is also the head of the Civil Services. Lord Willingdon, who was Viceroy of India from 1931 to 1936, started the practice of having his Private Secretary by his side at his meetings. Later in 1935, it actually became a formal role. 

Today the Cabinet Secretary is India's most powerful bureaucrat and the "right hand" man of the Prime Minister of India. The current Cabinet Secretary is Shri Ajit Seth, pictured below on the day he assumed office. He looks very calm and capable, doesn't he? I'm not surprised.

Kings and noblemen have always had administrators, capable guys who ran their kingdoms while they went off to war or to pay respects at some court or the other. The Chinese created the world's first meritocracy, with their famous 2500-year old Imperial Examinations system. They selected a group of intellectuals based solely on merit, who administered the country while the Emperors focused on political matters.

Closer home, many Indian Maharajahs had able scribes and administrators. The founder of the Walled City of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh (1688-1743) was ably assisted by his Diwan Vidyadhar. Sawai Jai Singh made it obligatory for his thakurs (nobles) to build their houses in the new walled city of Jaipur. But it was Vidyadhar who ran the show. He enforced the collection of 10% of the thakurs’ income to cover costs of building their houses. Vidyadhar also implemented several rules to ensure conformity in the design and execution of Jai Singh's planned city. As several documents of the time attest "Do as Vidyadhar says" used to be a routine part of the orders signed by Jai Singh.

Under the East India Company, appointments to administrative posts were originally by "patronage". In other words, if you wanted to become a clerk or factor, you needed social contacts. A lot of younger sons who could not inherit estates in England tried building their fortunes around the world using this system of patronage. 
But the East India Company was so impressed with the Chinese imperial examination system that in 1806 they established a college near London (Haileybury) to create a professional team of administrators. It was quite a departure from the norm! Pressure to create a merit-based system came from Thomas Taylor Meadows, who served as the Consul in Canton, China. He argued that "England will certainly lose every colony she possesses unless she adopts some system of impartial elevation of colonists to the posts and honours at the disposal of the crown". 

Eventually an open competitive examination replaced the system of appointment by patronage. The original exams were confined to those branches of knowledge to which, in the words of Baron Macaulay, "it is desirable that English gentlemen should pay some attention". This included history, jurisprudence, finance, commerce and languages. Macaulay also suggested that a considerable number of the men selected should be those "who have taken the first degree in arts at Oxford or Cambridge".

And so it was that the "Oxbridge" men came to dominate the Indian civil services, a trend that strengthened after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when the East India Company's rule ended and the crown took over.

The examination system is alive and kicking even today. This year over 200,000 people wrote the Indian civil service entrance exams, and finally 900 people were selected. The top two slots went to women, by the way. I took a look at the profiles of the top 25 candidates in the exams, just to figure out who the future bureaucrats of this country are. And I found a big mix of people from all walks of life: they include alumni from some premier educational institutions including AIIMS, IIM, IIT and the London School of Economics. They come from diverse family backgrounds - farmers, teachers, businessmen, army personnel, low and middle level government servants, doctors, advocates, professors and civil servants. 

Sheena Agarwal, this year's topper. Photo from CNN-IBN Report

So these, then, are the people we will see inside the Secretariat in a couple of decades! In recent press interviews, they seem idealistic and willing to make a difference. Will they still be idealistic in 20 years, when they assume positions of significant influence?