-John Eickert

South of the now paved road, linking Shigatse with Lhasa in central Tibet is the small tourist and farming village of Gyantse. Approaching Gyantse, the eye locates the old fort resting atop a dry brown hill in the center of town. This fort, dzong in Tibetan, once guarded the valley from raiders who used to swoop in from the north. Now, Gyantse Dzong catches the suns first rays and watches as tourists arrive from the north, most auspicious as they say in Tibet.

There is another attraction in Gyantse, the Gyantse Kumbum. The Kumbum, described as one of the world’s most unique architectural buildings, rests hard against an arid south-facing slope on the edge of town. Kumbum means 100,000 images and there are many within the four-story structure. There are 77 chapels, which one views by walking a tantric inspired clockwise path up the four floors then into a fifth floor inside the summit dome and the sixth floor on the roof. Each chapel contains paintings with a distinctive style, a blend of Newari (Nepal) and Chinese methods creating a unique Tibetan form. As one ascends, the way becomes narrower and the ceilings lower forcing the chorten guest to remain on an ever-tightening path. The two ladders leading to the fifth and sixth floors are very constricted and steep. The architects and builders of the Kumbum designed the building to emulate the path of life. Open, and flat, and easy in the beginning with much to see, the path within the Kumbum becomes more difficult. The chapel paintings become more detailed. At the top, the scene opens up with everything below.

 I sat within the walls of the compound between the Assembly Hall and the Gyantse Kumbum. Near me, along the wall where I sat waiting for Elizabeth to come down, were two thin trees with no leaves. The courtyard for the Assembly Hall is elevated and there are four stone steps leading down to the courtyard in front of the Kumbum. A pack of dogs with a red-gold longhaired leader prowled the upper courtyard. The pack in the lower courtyard in front of the towering Kumbum was the domain of a thin wiry black dog with a broken tail. The dog packs made a game of invading each other’s courtyard and at times, the invader was repelled in an aggressive manner causing any passing monk to cry out warnings. The time passed as I waited and the territoriality displayed by the dogs fascinated me. I think this is how it has always been in this valley, one wild pack invading another for the sheer delight in doing so. The tourist invasion, those visiting to fulfill their own delights, is checked by the short summer season on the Tibetan plateau, the high altitude winter providing a no less aggressive manner of repelling the modern invader.

China is a close neighbor to India and Tibet is worth seeing, maybe some of you will travel there this year. Cheers.

 (Photograph of ‘kumbum’ by Carsten Nebel from


Common Birds of India

Mallard. ( Anas platyrhynchos )

Mallard. ( Anas platyrhynchos )



This month I have the Mallard for the monthly article on Common birds of India. The Drake was very robust and in prime age. His sheer glistening caught my eye and I had to really approach him with stealth to get a shot. These being very wary birds take off at the slightest disturbance.

Very similar to our domestic duck in size and coloration these birds are very adept at water and air both. The Drakes are grey above and below with well marked black colorations. The head is glistening dark green which goes right down to the neck with a well marked white collar. The chest is chestnut colored in matured males and two prominent white bands on the wings, with metallic blue in between. In drakes there will be two upcurled feathers near the rump on the tail. A typical yellowish duckbill with orange legs. There is sexual dimorphism and the ducks are a dull brownish grey with slight grey markings on the wing feathers.

Flocks of these birds can be seen in Lakes foraging with a " bottom up " fashion typical to ducks, feeding among the submerged weeds. These birds are more restricted to North west India and may visit the Deccan area also.

The walk of this bird a gawky undulating one which when at the slightest disturbance takes off to air rapidly. A very strong flier these birds can be airborne in no time.

The duck makes the typical " Quack....Quack ...." call and the drake's is more or less a harsh murmur. They are often found in pairs at the banks of lakes among the border reeds, while resting. They are found to be standing on one leg with the neck withdrawn close to their backs with the mate reposing quietly beside.

These wild birds are the ancestors of all our domestic breeds of Ducks, bred by selective breeding. Next to the Domestic fowl ducks are the only birds that are raised on farms for their eggs.

Breeding season is around May- June and the nests are made with clumps of weeds and grass among the reeds on lake shores. Normally six to ten eggs are laid slightly greenish or yellowish and larger than the domestic fowl' s. It is really a marvelous sight to see the parent taking the young ducklings to water in a single line formation.

A marvellous bird and fellow being on this planet, it is upto everyone to keep our lakes and ponds in their pristine conditions before the Mallard will go, like the many species have gone. The Pink-headed Duck is an example for this which has gone-to extinction. Once we loose a species, there is nothing we can do to bring them back.


Did You Know ?

Nature and Ancient Indians –Part III


Vaastu Shastra

- Geeta Verghese


The ancient Indian architectural science of Vaastu Shastra is based on precepts laid down thousands of years ago in the Puranas and Vedas. Vaastu Shastra, which means the science of the built area, lays down rules to create ideal conditions for living, by connecting individual life with cosmic life. Vaastu represents an evolved world-view in which humans, plants and animals can live in kinship.

Man does not inhabit this earth alone; He inhabits ‘akasham’ or space. He is linked with his Shakti or energy to other energy forms. He is part of an eternal cycle of life and death, which is known as ‘Kaala’ (time). Vaastu is therefore about the built environment and its harmony with the energies of the cosmic universe.

Akasham’ or Space.

Vaastu Shastra deals with four kinds of spaces - space within human form, constructed space, terrestrial space, and cosmic space. An architect with an insight of Vaastu Shastra achieves harmony between all these spaces, and in the process strives to create a microcosm in the built-up space that replicates the qualities of the macrocosm. The concepts of Vaastu Shastra result in designs for houses, which are beneficial to the body and mind of the dweller.

Vaastu Shastra encompasses the phenomenon of the Pyramids. Experiments carried out on small pyramid models have proved that pyramids are energy generators at the centre. According to Vaastu Shastra, shapes like square and rectangle are conducive for safety, completeness, and stability. Nowadays, architects are introducing round & triangular shapes in the structures they construct. This is prohibited in Vaastu Shastra.

Shakti’ or Energy

The Sun, as our ancestors realised, is energy, the only source of light and heat for humans and all other living beings. It directs and sustains life on earth. Therefore, the Sun, especially the rising Sun is like God, and its direction of rising is considered pious and is taken as a point of reference. If we face the rising sun, the facing direction is the East. Therefore, the effect of the direction affects the building and ideally the entrance to a dwelling should be east facing.

Kaala’ or Time

Many of the rules of Vaastu Shastra are attributed to cosmological considerations - the sun's path, the rotation of the earth, its magnetic field, etc. The body is considered a magnet with the head, being considered the North Pole and the feet the South pole. Hence sleeping with one's head in the North is believed to cause a repulsive force with the earth's magnetic North and thus considered harmful. Bedrooms are therefore designed keeping this in mind.

Along with guidelines relating to construction, Vaastu Shastra also prescribes certain guidelines for selection of a site, such as, avoid water logged land or one that is too close to graveyards or hospitals. Further, trees such as Amla and Coconut are suitable for planting near a house while trees with sap should be avoided Also, the trees should be away from the building so that their shadow does not fall upon the house, thereby obstructing the beneficial cosmic radiations found in the sun rays. As we build modern space saving homes, keeping in mind the principles of Vaastu Shastra helps us to live in wholesome surroundings, conducive for our well being.

Picture Pagan Sun God





-Shivani Thakkur

2007 is the year of the pig according to Chinese astrology. The pig is considered to be a gentle creature and generally brings positive energy to all. Thus the qualities of that animal, which the year belongs to, influences the whole year. Although we keep hearing of poaching and dwindling numbers of various species, the start of this year brought some good news for all wildlife enthusiasts.

The Pygmy Hog once considered to be extinct for over 40 years has made a comeback. The pygmy hog is the smallest pig in the world. Once upon a time, it was found widely across India, Nepal, and Bhutan. But by 1960’s it was believed that the hog’s population had been lost. A chance discovery of two small population found in Manas National Park in Assam in 1971 gave a ray of hope. At that time there were only 100 of the species left. The reasons for this decline had been simply poaching and loss of habitat.

The pygmy hog weighs just 8 to 10 kgs and stands tall at 12 inches. It lives in the grasslands and feeds on roots, tubes, vegetable matter and insects. Here the similarity with the regular farmyard pig ends .Its DNA is verily different from other hogs. In fact Gerald Durrell, a naturalist and an author,  proposes to take it of from family tree of the genus Salvanius to new genus Porcula Salvanius. This means that they are as different from warthogs and pigs as any horse is from a donkey.

Even after finding those small populations they were confined to Manas wildlife sanctuary. It was in 1995, Durerll Wildlife ,a zoo founded by Gerald Durrell Jersey UK, along with Indian authorities and World Conservation Union started a programme. Here an observation has to made that the years 1971,1995 and 2007 are all years of the pig and these can be marked as significant in the life of the pygmy hog.

They captured six pygmy hogs for conservation. The programme was so successful that there are now about 70 to 80 of these shy animals. Dr.Goutam Narayan project director of Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCH) says it has been the world’s most successful breeding programmes of the wild.

Dr. Narayan along with Durrell wildlife are about to release 10 animals in the semi-wild in Sonai Rupai Wildlife sanctuary and Nameri National park. They will be kept in a pre release centre near Nameri for them to get acclimatized to life without human support. But the danger still persists in the form of large scale human encroachments in the Sonai Rupai sanctuary. It may be disheartening but the determination and dedication of these activists in achieving their target cannot destroy their efforts. So we all can hope for their success to be incorporated in other ongoing conservation programmes and expect this year to bring glory. Hence, start this year of the pig with aplomb.

 ( Picture: The pygmy hog of Assam-credit )


Understand The Animals

Diary From the Desert

Diary From the Desert 
- a colour changing beetle 
--- Ashwin Baindur *
"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Albert Einstein


Yesterday (13 Jun 06), at around 0830 hrs, at a dolomite mine near Chacha village, 20 odd kms from Pokaran on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer road, my son Aashay saw a beetle scurrying very quickly on the ground. The beetle was white with part black markings. We chased it trying to catch the dodging creature. It was so active that it escaped from our scooped hands many times. We took a number of shots. Over the course of our encounter, to our amazement it gradually turned black with a very thin white edging only. The local people told us that it would recover to the first pattern after 15 minutes or so.

Another experience from the desert this time! The beetle turned out to be a Tenebrionid. The probable explanation for this phenomenon was given by Doug Yanega, an eminent American entomologist and curator is that the Tenebrionid has a cuticle wax layer which turns dark on absorbing moisture. He said that it reflects sunshine when moisture is less but absorbs more when moisture is greater. It appears our efforts to catch, our breath etc may have triggered the colour change. But this is a hypothesis as of now.

This is where we found the beetle. See below.

 ( Text and photos Lt. Col. Ashwin Baindur, Col at Indian Army commanding an Engineer Regiment at Indian Army)


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