Monday, December 3, 2012

Kaas Plateau/Pathar, Satara

Having lived in Maharashtra all my life, it was surprising that I had never heard about Kaas Plateau/Pathar near Satara. It is a plateau in Sahyari range,

Kaas is naturally covered on flower beds during Late August and early September weeks, the bloom remains for about 2-3 weeks and is dependent on the preceding monsoon. Sometimes late or errant monsoon may cause shift in period of bloom. En route to Kaas is as beautiful and enchanting as the plateau itself. Green Sahyadri ranges covered in fog and large valleys with backwater from Koyna Project gets you connected with the nature in an instant. Before visiting the place itself I had heard that its a good place to meditate and after visiting the place itself I had no doubt about it. Peace, Calm, Natural Beauty and grounding enormous Sahyadri makes you feel stable and human again (for all those machines working in a city like me). We opted for a study tour conducted by Medha Karkhanis rather than visiting the place on our own, and our decision was wise. The place itself has lots of natural wonders, but not obvious to untrained eyes. Medha helped us understand those wonders and opened our eyes to a forgotten world, the way Nature works. She knew the flowers and plants found in and around Kaas, knew their specialties and showed us few marvels I had always wanted to see myself since I was a child.

You can see the bed of flowers moving with air in the video below,

We saw a flower called Vigna vexillata or locally known as Halunda. The flower has a bright spot on one of its petal where it wants the bee (pollinating agent) to sit or settle. The bright spot attracts the pollinating agent and assures that the pollinating agent would not settle on any other petal. The pressure on that very spot brings out the male stem out of a tiny tube in a way that it would touch the feet of the bee or pollinating agent. The pollinating agent then carries it from one flower to another causing pollination of the flower.

Vigna vexillata or Halunda - Pollination marvel
Vigna vexillata or locally known as Halunda
I wonder, that the flower itself has male part of reproduction (i.e.the pollens) and the female part of production, so in a way its complete in itself. Yet it is dependent on a pollinating agent or bee for its pollination. Complete yet imperfect. I think thats the way of nature. It reminds me a story from one of the R.K. Narayan books in Malgudi day series, that a sculptor creates a perfect looking god idol, and that god idol is so perfect that it becomes alive and causes destruction. I guess that why we all are made so imperfect, so that we have to depend on each other, and as a consequence live in harmony with each other accepting each others faults and shortcomings.

You can see a real demo of Vigna vexillata or Halunda in video below (please remember that if you come across this flower dont attempt similar thing on the flowers. This was done only for demonstration purpose to students, and only one flower was tormented during this video clip. If you do this same trick on many flowers, you would be wasting all those flowers' pollens, endangering that species in locality. Learn from nature, but dont harm it on your way to knowledge)

Another interesting plant we observed was Drosera indica. Its a carnivorous plant. I had always imagined these plants to be big in size (thanks to the fairy tales and cartoons portraying such plants). But this one was a tiny one and we would have never discovered it without the company of Medha and couple of her friends who knew these tiny details about the place.

You can see the way plant reacts to anything which come closer to it. On putting a stick near its tentacles, it grabbed hold of it with thin hair on tentacles. We also watched an ant walking on the tentacle, getting trapped by it slowly.

The last one I want to cover is Utricularia purpurascens. Though we did see lot many types of flowers, but I want to cover only those which were unique, rare and had some special characteristics. Utricularia purpurascens is also known as Sitechi Asawe in local language - Marathi. This is also a type of carnivorous plant (the flower looks too cute to be a carnivorous type!). They capture small organisms by means of bladder bladder-like traps. The plants have bladders. When some insect or organism passes by those bladders, the bladder door opens and sucks them in along with water. When the bladder is full, it closes the trap door. 
Utricularia purpurascens or sitechi aswe - insectivorous plant
Utricularia purpurascens or locally known as sitechi asawe

Overall the place is worth visiting at least once. The sahyadri hill ranges, valleys, back water, abd lovely flower beds refresh and re-energize you. Below are some more pictures of Kaas flowers. Best time to visit is Sep, Oct every year. I recommend the study tour conducted by Medha Karkhanis too. She conducts these tours from Thane, here are her contact details if you are interested -, 09820101869.

My special thanks to @Kedar Gadre for the lovely photographs I have included in this blog.

Kaas Pathar, Satara - flowers
Kaas Pathar, Satara - flowers
Valley near Kaas, Satara
Valley near Kaas, Satara

Flower bed, Kaas Plateau
Flower bed, Kaas Plateau
Sahyadri ranges near Satara
Sahyadri ranges near Satara
Thoseghar waterfall
Thoseghar waterfall

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Chai and why - Venus transit

Been to Chai and why and the topic today was Transit of Venus next week. 'Chai & why' is an event organised by TIFR, it takes place at Prithvi theater, Juhu, first Sunday of every month. The speaker was so young and yet so thorough and brilliant at her topic, I was amazed by her. She is part of TIFR astronomy team and was part of the astronomy club in her college. She also advised kids to appear for the Olympiad exams taken all over India.

So the Venus is going to pass through between the Earth and the Sun. It happens only twice in a lifetime. It happened last time on 8 June 2004 and now happening on 6 June 2012. Basically it usually happens in a pair with 8 years gap. Next time it will happen after approx 121 years later and then 8 years and then 105 years and then 8 years and so on. So basically the pair happens either in June or December (alternately. i.e. This time the pair is in June, after 121 years the pair will happen in December and then after 105 years pair in December). The transit is nothing but Venus passing through the passage between the Earth and the Sun. It does pass through this passage every 1.6 years but we dont see it every time it does so. The reason is, the orbit of the Earth and that of Venus are not in same plain. They come in same plain only during above mentioned time lines.

So I was quite curious to ask the lady that if it is only matter of a planet passing through the passage between Earth and Sun, then why would it have any negative effect when the moon passes between Earth and Sun, i.e. during Solar Eclipse. As a growing up rebellious kid, I always had trouble believing in Solar eclipse is inauspicious or it has some negative effects on human beings and food. I never believed in all of this. But then came an argument that scientists believe that there are poisonous gases in atmosphere, which I couldnt just ignore or reject that easily. Attending today's lecture made me think again. If its just matter of Moon passing between the Sun and the Earth then why would it release any poisonous gases in environment. The speaker confirmed it. She gave it a whole new perspective. Ages ago when it would go dark during daytime out of nowhere for some time, people didnt have any justifications for the same, making them think that its something abnormal, and thats why the belief of solar eclipse being inauspicious. What about the food going wrong. Well the sudden temperature change during and after solar eclipse might have caused the food to go bad, convincing enough. So thats that. Its funny and sometimes disturbing how we just go on following some traditions, beliefs without ever challenging them or even thinking about them. We never try to connect our day-to-day life with the education we get or the science knowledge which is flowing freely around us.

Well I am still open if somebody still has a convincing argument about the solar eclipse as long as it makes sense in some way. But as far as I am concerned, next time I insist on following regular activities during solar eclipse, I will be 100% sure about what I am doing.
In general the experience of attending the 'Chai and why' was fantastic and now I think we will try and make it at least once in a month to either Prithvi theater on first Sunday of every the month or to Ruparel college third Sunday of every month. The crowd was enthusiastic and ranging from 8 years old to 55+. We also got to register for the Venus transit viewing through telescope happening at TIFR on 6 June 2012, looking forward to it.

Update: Due to clouds and rain, we couldnt watch the venus transit live. We had to be content with the live broadcast by NASA

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Indian Common Mormon

Mom found some bugs on curry leaf plant. She identified them as caterpillars turning into butterflies. We put them into a plastic container. We were not sure of their category and what they eat. Initially we tried putting some leaves of random trees, but no success. Then we put the curry leaves and bingo!! All they eat is curry leaves.

After approx 10-12 days one of them started changing colour. It turned green in about 10-12 hours. Morning it was normal, black with white stripes, and evening it was completely transformed into green colour.

You can see both of them in two avatars in below picture, one of them is transformed into green caterpillar, while other is still to be transformed, though it has started showing green spots, starting to turn green.

I must say once it is transformed to green one, it looks very cute. Its been growing fast and eating much too. We usually put fresh curry leaves twice a day, and open the jar for fresh air. They are quite lousy and lazy, mostly laying around lazily when they are not eating curry leaves. The speed at which they eat those leaves is mind boggling. You can watch them eating leaves -

The typical life cycle of these caterpillars is about 4 -5 weeks. We found them about 6-7 times so far and have followed their life cycle closely from egg to a butterfly. Egg is very tiny one and you have to have keen observation skill to notice them. When the caterpillar comes out of an egg, firth thing it does is - eat the remnants of that egg. There are two reason for their doing so
a) They are very hungry when they come out and      b) Not to leave any traces for a predator to know about their existence.  How carefully nature has designed such things or probably the way every creature has evolved to survive.

Typically these caterpillars are just black and ugly for about 1-2 weeks and start turning green. At the time of turning green, they shed their skin and eat it immediately so that there are no traces. The green caterpillars get absolutely camouflaged in the tree leaves, and it is hard to spot them easily. Another adoption for survival.

Once they turn green, it takes another 1 - 1 1/2 week for them to go into a cocoon. The way they build cocoon is another amazing activity to observe. They attach lower part of their body to any available surface (it could be anything from a jar, a wall, a shady corner in house, or below a chair). Usually they prefer a place where they wont be noticed easily, again to stay safe from predators. And they turn upper part of their body outside making it look like a 'J'. They bind upper part of their body with two thin strings on each side. It takes good amount of it to fine tune those two strings and it is fun to watch them doing so. They stay in cocoon for another week to 10 days. I am told that they may remain in the cocoon for up to a year, if they sense any danger in coming out of it. Usually they come out of cocoon early morning and you better have them covered with a net or have them in a jar otherwise you might miss the butterfly. You can predict when the butterfly would come out by observing the cocoon every day. One day before coming out, the inner side of the cocoon turns black. A newly born butterfly takes about an hour to open its wings completely and be able to fly on its own. I used to wonder at how amazingly most the creatures (bugs, insects, birds, animals) become independent in short time after they are born while human child is dependent on its parents for so long time. But on a second thought I think its in proportion with the overall lifespan of the creature. I would love to find out more about this proportion for different bugs, animals, birds.

Surprise surprise!! The female butterflies are more beautiful than male ones. They have trendy and curvy wings and more attractive colours on their wings. There nothing like the joy of watching them fly freely around a tree full of bloom.

If you are planning to observe this life cycle, I would advice you to make sure that a cocoon is placed in a large container or net where it get enough space to open its wings fully. Its important that they open their wings fully in first hour, otherwise they might not open them properly later and you might repent hurting an innocent and beautiful life. Also please make sure that you set them free as soon as possible, as nobody loves living in captivation. We do all these activities just to study them, but follow many guidelines not to hurt them.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Kanheri caves, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Borivali, Mumbai

We visited Sanjay Gandhi National Park last Saturday. For the first time I came to know that Mumbai held such a historic place as Kanheri caves. It was an hours drive from Thane via Ghodbunder Road. National Park has a nominal entry fee of Rs. 25 per person and one can take own vehicle inside it by paying for its entry fee (Rs. 30 for a motorbike). Sanjay Gandhi National Park is around 40 sq. miles of jungle, nature, flowers, birds, animals, hills and valleys. I was surprised to find that from many parts of the hills, I could hardly see a very small portion of the cement jungle outside boundary of the national park. Lovely greenery, lake, birds, different varieties of flowers, trees, birds made me forget that I was in the most populated city Mumbai.
Initially our plan was to spend some time in Canheri caves and then start with one of the walking trails inside the park.
Canheri caves are more than 3-4 km away from the main entrance of the park. It has parking facility and couple of food joints with basic snacks, mineral water and cold drinks available in it. It also has many roadside vendors selling fruits in season and spicy cucumber. There is an additional charge of Rs. 5 per person to enter the caves. After reading the brief information at the entrance itself, we realised that it demands much more time to see the caves, and we would have to choose between caves and walking trail. Promising ourselves to return for the walking trails, we carried on to wards caves. The caves are from 1st century BC. There are about 110 caves which are carved by buddhist followers. Kanheri comes from a sanskrit word Krishnagiri, which means black hill. The most remarkable thing about the caves is their water cisterns outside all the residential caves, rainwater harvesting for water collection and to keep the caves cool and stairs carved in stone. Many of the rainwater harvesting channels are still existent, and give us an amazing idea of how brilliant those early days people were.
We were intrigued by the cave used for worship. There is a big stupa at the end of this hall, with many pillars on both sides. This might have been used as a classroom for buddhist students. The stupa had 12 small boxes in it at waist level, each precisely equal distance from each other. There were three types of pillars in it. Most of these caves maintain symmetry, while the pillars in this particular cave were symmetrical in number, the left hand side pillars of this stupa were only of two types, and pillars on right hand were of three different types, marking clear asymmetry. I wonder whether these pillars marked different levels of students of position of students or teachers based on their seating location.
There are some caves with statues of Buddha which might have been chapels for prayers. There are residential caves typically containing 2 rooms, inner rooms have a bed cut out of stone while some of the caves have sitting benches cut out of stone in outside rooms. The courtyards have steps to access these rooms, water tanks (which automatically collects rainwater through all the channels carved in the stones above all these caves) and round shaped stones hollow inside about size of less than a foot in diameter (wonder what must have been the purpose of these, maybe they were used as burners to boil water or cook food using burning wood). Some of these caves also have asanas (chair shapes) or some large sofa look alike to be used as seating benches carved in stone, offering a splendid view of the valley. We wondered what those people might be discussing in evenings while seating on these benches, maybe some spiritual discussions, or some local gossip! Some caves had statues as well as sitting benches with a room inside small for one person only. We couldnt really understand the purpose of these caves, and especially the purpose of these small rooms which are big enough for only one person to sit.
I found this interesting video about history of these caves - All the symmetry maintained in the caves, shapes of the water tanks, perfect half circle just around the steps approaching the caves, made us believe that those people had good knowledge of geometry. Being an amateur in History, I am on my way to find out about all the intelligence these generations had in Ancient India, and where exactly we lost it.
On top of the hill there are some signs of caves, probably they were never completed or were destroyed with time. There are 3 massive water storage tanks, and some mid-size water tanks with steps attached to them. After spending more than 3 hours roaming through different caves and hills, we decided to return to the base. Strong sunshine tired us quickly than we had thought and shortage of water and food in our bags forced us to leave the caves with paintings unseen. I will surely return this place as it was exciting to visit these caves and try to imagine what the life must have been like in those times.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Violin Mantis of India / gongylus gongylodes

To start 2012 in a new way, we went for a walk to Yeoor hills, near Thane, India. We hadnt planned for it, just decided and started last minute. It was our first walk experience in India. Walked for more than 3 km, taking in all the nature, its miracles (small or big ones) and the way it works. Observed few bugs, plants and butterflies. When we took a break to relax, we saw a bug looking like a leaf bug. It had back similar to a small leaf, and its front legs had very small leaf like part each, dull green in colour. At first look, we thought that it was a leaf bug. We repented not having any plastic bags or containers with us. We had also stumbled upon a worm having a horn like a rhino, wanted to collect it but didnt have anything to collect it in.
Luckily we found a used crisp packet (for the first time in my life I was thankful to someone throwing garbage in nature's home). We collected the bug in that used crisp packet and tightened it using one of the climbing plant (climbing vine).
We also collected a sample of mushroom. We had never seen it ever, I am still to look for its type and name on internet. Bringing that bug home was a good experience for us. We put it in a transparent plastic container. We were not sure about what it eats. We tried putting some fresh leaves to the container thinking that it was a leaf bug, but it didnt work. Kedar found some information and images on google about different bugs and came to a conclusion that it was a violin Mantis. After knowing the type of bug, it was easier to maintain it. Kedar killed a mosquito and put it in the container, but the bug didnt pay much attention to it. After waiting for some time Kedar caught a live fly, and put it in the container. Bug caught it quickly and finished it in front of our eyes within few seconds. It was first time for me to watch a bug eat another living creature so closely. After few hours we also realised that it had also finished the dead mosquito.
Since the container did not have any holes for ventilation, we opened the container few times in a day making sure that the gap wasnt too big for bug to come out or making sure that the container was upside down. One thing we observed was the bug initially much preferred to be in top section of the container so whenever we turned the container upside down and opened the lid at bottom, it was easier. We read about the bug on internet. Ironically all information we could find on internet about Mantis was about Mantis in US, UK or Canada, there was only one mention about India Mantis which was spotted by a person from Netherlands. After reading about the bug on Wikipedia ( and we found out that it ignores crawling creatures and prefer flying ones for food. So we added a spider and a small fly to the container. We waited and watched, but bug did nothing at all. After reading the wikipedia article in detail, we found out that if it has human beings watching over it, it realises it and behaves differently than in its natural habitat. So we left the bug alone. After an hour or so, both of them, spider and fly were gone. So the bug hadnt ignored the crawling spider.
Another interesting thing I observed was the way it moved its front leg (the one with leaf like part attached to it) to the drops of water gathered on sides of container and then kind of licked it or rather put it in its mouth. Guess it was drinking water. It needs very less water and dry atmosphere.
After keeping it for 3 days like a pet and feeding different things, we had to let it go as we were going away for long weekend and couldnt take it with us. We left it in plants planted in our balcony, hoping that it will be all right there. After few minutes it was gone, hopefully to a safe habitat and not falling a prey to another creature or bird.
We plan to bring in many more things and bugs to observe and learn.
Wish we had this system in our schools, we had learnt much quicker and better. Alas, as a child I was only an exam candidate, now I am becoming a student.