Blogs, Expedition, History, India

General Zorawar Singh – a picturesque ode to Wanderlust

With the advent of WhatsApp started the great integration. Or cellphone reunion we may say. Old class mates, friends from the old neighbourhood, colleagues — everybody started to form small groups and talk about good old days as if we all hate the present. Although the most people talk in those forums, mostly male members, are jokes, some random photo or video, and rarely about anything actually to do with the common interest of the group. One such group is formed by the alumni of the college I attended, to do my engineering. A senior alumnus has a passion for photography and posted links to a few photography competitions he entered. His photographs are exceptional, and naturally, some alumni suggested why doesn’t he start a blog. These days everybody is trying to write something – including me. Anyway, one of the alumni, while asking about the blog, cited a site, suggesting a blog about that theme. The blog was by a certain Amardeep Singh, and that’s where I first heard of Zorawar Singh.

It was a captivating tale. When a story starts with finding human skeletons by a lake in the Himalayas at a high altitude, you cannot stop reading. If it was a book, I’ve have used the adjective ‘unputdownable’. A general in Maharana Ranjit Singh’s army, Zorawar Singh was ranked a General at an early age, he carried out successful expeditions in Baltistan and Tibet, winning strategic locations from Afghan and Tibetan armies, which still is of geo-political significance for India’s borders with Pakistan and China. The most important one was, of course, Ladakh valley, which the author’s claims would otherwise have been a part of China at present. The blog was perfectly paced, rich with details about General Zorawar Singh’s exploits at such high altitude and inclement weather situations. The time span covered is from 1835 to December 1841, when Zorawar Singh had fallen in the hands of the Tibetan army.

It was a captivating piece of history. Yet, what inspired me the most was the ending phrase – Not all those who wander are lost. I’ve heard it before but put into the context of the expeditions of General Zorawar Singh in the vast emptiness of the Tibet valleys made the phrase a thousand times more profound. Considering the blog is mainly a photo blog, presenting snippets of history with many pictures taken by the author, the phrase delved into the realms of imagination, the other side of the Himalayas, Silk Route, gateway to the Central Asia. Parts of the world I’m immensely interested about. Amardeep’s blog rekindled the passion for exploring the world off the beaten track. And somewhere I felt a pang of jealousy for him, for successfully pursuing his conquest of following the footsteps of General Zorawar Singh, trying to solve a mystery learned from a school teacher thirty years back. And finally learning that those skeletons date back to 9th century meant that he actually found something he Wasnt looking for, reminiscent of the ending of The Alchemist. His wanderings have certainly not been lost, and I’m just playing my part to spread the tales of his amazing expedition.

Thinking about the conquests of General Zorawar Singh made me think of the history from another perspective. Looking at the landscapes snapped by Amardeep, paired with the description of Zorawar Singh’s expeditions in the treacherous terrains evoked the expeditions of Hannibal through The Alps, and Leonidas as Thermopylae, or in more recent times Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose reaching Aizawl through Burma. The expeditions led by extraordinary men are characterised by going against the tide, almost like a lone ranger. Yet, the annals of these significant deeds remained silent in the Indian history books. Maharana Ranjit Singh and his regime have been barely touched when I completed my history curriculum, but nearly 25 years later, education curriculum is certainly more biased than ever before. At least the regional schools provide some exposure to the regional history, and let’s hope that the significance of General Zorawar Singh is not forgotten in his own land, although the Tibetans remembered his valour by making a cenotaph in his memory after he was fallen in 1841. So let’s raise a toast to General Zorawar Singh, and to all those souls driven by the wanderlust, those who wander but are never lost…


Short essay on Red Piranhas

Red Piranhas: Story of a killer becoming prey
(based on a documentary on National Geographic Channel in 2002)

South America. The continent yet untarnished by the human civilisation, of their tendency of spreading colonies and subsequently resulting in deforestation, loss of wildlife; all that needed to disrupt the ecosystem. Here still are few roads, few cities and fewer people: just a vast expanse of water and sky. The land is yet pristine, far from the cacophonous bedlam of so-called modern world: the land where even now lies the serene mother earth, as she has been several millennia ago. From the Amazon basin to way down in the Argentina, the whole area is covered by some of the largest rivers in the world. The water plays a very important role in the lives of animals of South America – it provides them food as well as shields them from the ferocities of wild animals there. Therefore, if circumlocution is precluded, in a simple sentence water is life for the wildlife in South America. However, this water bears the most terrible danger for the animals’ there – PIRANHAS, THE RED DEATH.

From Paraguay and Guyana down to Argentina, in the Amazon basin prowls the fiercest carnivore in the whole world, the most intimidating after the great white shark, with their teeth like a jagged saw that can scratch even on iron, they attacks everything that fall on their way. Among the several species known to exist in the hundreds of rivers in South America, only 24 of them are known to be harmless; but others, they are the most ferocious and feared in the jungles out there, and one species called RED PIRANHAS, due to the red streak on their belly, are the fiercest of them all. For instance, a giant Cayman, the most famous fish-eater, that breeds its offspring near the bank of the rivers, tries to keep them near the bank, where they rest in the dense weeds to avert them to fall into deep water until they are grown up enough to cope with that violent assault. One moment of loss of caution, and the weakling becomes the meal of the ravenous creatures, which, always hungry for food, scarcely leave behind a small morsel of their prey. What is more difficult for other animals to defend against them, is the fact that they attack animals not separately but in schools. Once the fish lets its teeth pierce inside its prey it’s very hard to get out of their way and within a minute everything is gone; and the turbulence that the prey makes only excite them and once they make assault on some animal however large they don’t give up and the aides keeps on coming from the surround.

In Brazil, Guyana, Paraguay, Bolivia – wherever the landscape is covered by fresh stagnant water, the legend of piranhas is supposed to be grown. It all started from the basin of the ORENOCO RIVER, VENEZUELA, where the topography on both side of the land is filled with grassy low-lying areas called THE LLANOS. During the rainy seasons in May every year, when the endless sky in the LLANOS is blanketed by the dense rain-cloud, comes the D-day for the piranhas. As the heavy downpour swells the rivers and later floods the banks of the ORENOCO River, the water spreads through the LLANOS, turning the area into a waterlogged marshland. As far the water spreads from the embankments of the ORENOCO River, so does the territory of the RED PIRANHAS. This rainy season is also the time for breeding of the innumerable species of birds; they build the nest in trees and to raise their chicks. The giant trees that are found in the LLANOS become home for different type of birds, and hence a wide spectrum of colours can be seen in these periods up in those trees. Amongst other species of birds, most common are CORMORANTS, HERONS AND EGRETS. By the end of July, with all the area in the LLANOS submerged in water of about 10-15 feet deep, the trees are completely islanded by the water and hence the PIRANHAS gather near the trees to catch their prey. As it has been seen from previous experiences, luckily though, that PIRANHAS are not very interested in human flesh, an attack on a person was seldom heard; they normally pry for the smaller and dying animals in the water. Reasonably so, the watery areas of LLANOS are called PIRANHA LAGOON. The trees full of birds and their chicks – with a high chance of those birds falling into the water, the water under the trees becomes the picnic spot for the PIRANHAS. At that very young stage, the chicks have a voracious hunger and so their parents had to search for meals several times a day. Where the water level did not grow high, as near the trees, the watery grasslands are full of what they just search for. In these places, the tadpoles grow up to be transformed into large toads, which are proved to be a succulent food for the birds as well as their young. For these few hours the parents had to leave their chicks on their own and as from the time immemorial, they used to have a tendency to go out of their nests long before they learn to fly. PIRANHAS wait for this very moment all along; they just keep their cool and without showing any sort of hurriedness linger near the trees and get ready for the final attack. The age-old instinct prevails over the caution for the young chicks, and their attempt to get out of their nests brings a curtain over their lives. Once the chick falls from the branches of the tree, there is barely any chance of their survival; few of them however scamper through the water to the weeds near the base of the tree – then it had endured the ultimate spell of adversity in the LLANOS. Rest of them share the same bit of luck, just to be annihilated within few flash seconds; this course of action goes on for the next 2-3 months, as for this period the young chicks will commit the same kind of mistakes several times. Although when the fish hunts its prey, the commotion it makes surely churn the guts of the birds, but they soon forget about the terror awaiting them underneath. For most of the time of their short lifetime of one year, having some specific reasons, PIRANHAS just has to do this little chore to grab their food, the need, which does not seem to end. Consequently, in their final attempt to quench their insatiable hunger, they become a victim of their own vices.

As the month of September begins, the length of daytime increase in most of the South America as it falls on the southern hemisphere. The sun casts its scorching rays on the lands now filled with water. Heated up, the water starts to evaporate; the plush green of the LLANOS, now submerged in water, again starts to soar over the water. Time goes by, clouds disappear, sunlight scorching everything it falls upon and the lands keep emerging beneath the water. This is the critical moment of every PIRANHA’S life. As the water continually heats up and evaporated, the low-lying areas surrounded by somewhat higher planes cuts off the link between the PIRANHA LAGOONS and the rivers. During this time, the fish has to cover a long distance to find out a channel or any waterway that will take it to the river. Sometimes it has to travel as long as 2-3 miles before reaching their destination and while doing so, they have to adopt several measures to cope with the adverse conditions such as, the unique ability to swim sidewise for even several hundred meters, so that if the water level gets too shallow, even then they can escape. Every year some of the pack manages to find their way back to the rivers passing through the LLANOS, but for others, whose link is cut off the flowing streams, it is an endless wait for the next season to come or die in the mud. November arrives, and in comes the sunshine with its utmost atrocities, deep blue sky blazing mercilessly over the LLANOS, sapping every droplets of water wherever left, the plush green grassland turning golden in searing heat; in this ambiance survival is not easy at all. Those trapped in the low-lying areas like pond etc. doesn’t have anywhere to go but wait for the next rainy season to come, most of them die due to shortage of oxygen in the muddy waters and some falls prey to the now grown up birds of the LLANOS, which they made meal of in the past rainy season. Perhaps this is what a poetic justice is; the cycle of life so amazing – in one season, the most feared killer in the water, becoming meal on the other. In Venezuela, wherever there is some water left in the LLANOS, scores of birds flock to have their meals trapped in these waters, some dead and some gaping to have a breath; and surprisingly found among those species of fishes are PIRANHAS, the fish that lunched with these birds. In fact, however cruel these killer fishes are, they also make a delicious meal, and birds eat them gleefully. All sorts of birds especially from the CUCKOO FAMILY, HERONS, CORMORANTS, EGRETS and the BLACK VULTURES are known to eat the piranhas and they gather to join the feast there.

By the end of February, the grand banquet for these birds comes to an end; the legacy of PIRANHAS seems to be finished for the season, birds fed by those nutritious food are able to breed. In comes the May, and brings forth with her the heavy cumulus cloud. Rain starts to pour; spilling the banks of the rivers and so comes another season for the terror, PIRANHAS, THE RED DEATH.