Archive for April, 2013


April 28, 2013 Comments off

Grey langur

India of course has well over 1 billion human inhabitants.  Tenancy of the subcontinent, however, is shared with another primate: the gray langur.  In our recent trips we saw many langurs – one dashed across the road while we were driving to Ajanta so fast we could barely see.  The fellow above we saw resting in shade at Daulatabad Fort.  At Ajanta families of langurs rested in trees:

Langur in treeLangur in tree

At Ellora the langurs were well habituated to people.  In the parking lot a troop of them begged food … the langurs were like curious children, picking kernels of popcorn one at a time from outstretched hands.  However getting close to these animals is not a good idea.  Some carry rabies, but more generally these langurs are smart and have ways other than begging to get food from people.  There are many stories posted online, like this, about langurs attacking in groups to divest people of grocery bags – pretty much anything carrying eatables.  A colleague in my office related a story about langurs collaborating to steal a lady’s purse: one langur begged food, and when the lady offered, its confederate snatched the purse and immediately the first one began attacking the lady to cover the other’s escape.

These monkeys have an important place in Hindu mythology.  The statue below is in Gujarat:


This is Hanuman, King of Monkeys and ally of Lord Rama in his fight against Ravana.  He is holding his weapon, the gada.  While the gada looks unwieldy, it was no problem for Hanuman; the monkey king was so strong that one time, when asked to retrieve a certain herb growing on a mountain but unsure of exactly which plant to pick, he picked up the whole mountain and brought that back.  The ancient stories of Hanuman were the inspiration for Sun Wukong, the monkey king hero of Journey to the West.

Part of Hanuman’s story involves the gray langurs.  The story is told in different ways, but the short form is this: Being monkeys the langurs were his subjects, and Hanuman commanded they follow him into battle against Ravana.  Ravana used fire against them and their hands and faces were burnt black, and their langur descendants today still show the marks of the battle with the evil Ravana.

Hanuman is revered by Hindus for his many excellent qualities: Courage, Strength, Intelligence, but above all his complete devotion to Lord Rama.  Alas, today Hanuman’s langur subjects have a hard life.  The golden langur in particular is endangered, with only about 1,000 individuals in all of India.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags:

India in Pictures

April 27, 2013 Comments off

India excess female mortality

No, not pictures as in tourist snaps … pictures as in data visualizations.

Wife Kim sent me a link to an interesting site, Data Stories (India).  This is the blog of Avinash Celestine, a journalist with India’s The Economic Times.  The idea of Data Stories is it shows interactive visualizations of different types of Indian economic and socio-metric data.

What sort of thing is Data Stories showing?  The map below shows ownership of TV, Computer, Phone and Vehicle (either 2- or 4-wheeler).  The darker the color the higher the percentage of households who own all those things in that area:


Where I live in Pune about 18% of households have all these things.  The message here is how wealth in India is concentrated in a small number of urban centers.

These maps show worldwide per-capita income from perspective of both India (on the left) and China, on the right:


India and China are represented by flat lines in their respective graphs.  The other lines represent the relative proportion of that country or region’s per capita income to the base country at that point in time.

In 1975 USA per-capita income was about 18 times that in India, and  maybe 19 times that of China.  But notice how in the China chart the USA line starts sloping down steeply starting in around 1977?  By 2005 the USA:China ratio has dropped from 19:1 to 6:1, but in India with its more gently sloping line, the ratio has not dropped much, from 18:1 to 12:1.

What to make of these visual presentations?  I’ll leave the public policy aspects of these to the side and just say: We need more of this stuff.  Thinking I might make my own geographic visualization I did some quick Googles on the topic.  Conclusion: There’s not that much out there that can do this quickly.  Microsoft sells an add-on for Excel called MapPoint that looks quite powerful, but at $300 list for the North America edition, it’s not going to get my vote.  There’s some Flash- and/or web-based tools out there, like StatPlanet and BatchGeo, but tools like these definitely have a learning curve.  Isn’t there something easier?

<shameless-plug>My employer IBM has an answer, ManyEyes.</shameless-plug>  ManyEyes is a free system where you can create visualizations from existing data-sets, or upload and visualize data-sets of your own.  I found many India-related visualizations there, like this one:



Note to self: Government of India has many data-sets available online.  Try to find a likely one and then make a ManyEyes visualization of it.

In Aurangzeb’s Domain

April 20, 2013 2 comments

Bibi Ka MaqbaraHe was a Muslim warrior, both pious himself and utterly unaccepting of impious behavior in others, and a Mughal emperor who ruthlessly consolidated control over all of India but in the end, was unable to stem the erosion of his empire.  His name: Aurangzeb.  Though he died more than 300 years ago, his capital, Aurangabad, still faces assault today, from relentless hordes of tourists who come to look at his works and – while some may despair – mostly just take pictures.

It is nearly a month ago now that Kim, Morgan and I traveled to Aurangabad.  I’ve already posted about Ajanta and Ellora Caves, and on the conditions of drought we saw on our journey.  I wanted to close out the record on that visit with a bit about the city, a bit more about some about a few other visits we made and, of course, pictures.

Aurangabad is called the City of Gates; in our time there we passed by or through 3 or 4.  Here is an example:

Bhadkal gate

These gates in Aurangzeb’s time were all part of a system of walls that protected the city.  Today the walls are mostly gone, but the gates remain.

In a way Aurangabad encapsulates the story of today’s India.  Westerners who come here quickly learn that across the country there are cities with names ending in “-bad”: Aurangabad, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad are some of the largest, but there are many smaller such named cities.  Almost all of these places were either established or re-named by the Mughals, the Persian/Muslim conquerors of Aryan/Hindu India, who ruled the subcontinent from the early 16th century to the mid 18th.  For nearly two centuries the Mughal Empire was  the richest in the world, but the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 marked the beginning of a swift decline.

One of the key forces at play in the downfall of the Mughals was the Maratha hero Shivaji.  Born to a warrior clan he was raised into the family trade of being a mercenary.  But Shivaji evolved a vision of freedom for his people and, after his fame and skill as a warrior grew, he began to confront the armies of the Mughals.  In 1674 he established an independent Maratha Kingdom which persisted until 1818 when it became subservient to what would become the British Raj.  Shivaji is a legend in Maharashtra – the Mumbai airport is named after him and school children here learn his life from comics like these (a gift from a work colleague): Shavaji comic

This page relates the story of how Shivaji went in disguise to attack the Mughal ruler of Pune and to reclaim his childhood home, the Lal Mahal.  But in addition to being a fierce and crafty warrior, Shivaji was also apparently an enlightened ruler.  The Marathas of his time were a clan of Hindu warriors, but Shivaji brought many Muslims into his ranks, both as generals and as ministers.

And so it is with India today.  Hindu and Muslim work together in numberless ways without any thought of religion, but the difference and the tension is always there, just beneath the surface – or sometimes above the surface, as seen in the terrorist attacks that have plagued India over the past decades, or the extreme nationalist rhetoric of politicians like Bal Thackeray.

A place that brought us closer to the conflicts of those long-ago times was Daulatabad Fort:


Kim posted about Daulatabad a few weeks ago.  Side-note: See how almost all the people shown above visiting the fort are non-Indian?  How can you tell?  Hats.   Indians never wear hats.  Americans, Germans, Koreans, Russians, French: We all wear hats.  On the day of our visit we encountered two large parties: one of Germans, and another of (we think) Koreans.  The hawkers at these sites who sell fake ancient coins and other spurious artifacts should just switch to hats.

The northern half of India is very rocky and mountainous.  For all of recorded history here military rulers have created forts on the many hilltops that define the terrain, and Daulatabad is a typical example.  From the foot of the hill to the palace at the summit is several hundred meters; in many places are sheer walls with the only path a single meter wide.  The entire way up is guarded by places where defending soldiers could fire projectiles or attack unexpectedly.   Finally, there are two moats which make the ascent even more unlikely.  This picture was taken about half way up:


To us a very interesting view was the remaining fortress walls that can be seen once you reach the top:

Daulatabad view

Aurangzeb, like overlords of the Deccan for centuries before, possessed Daulatabad.  In his time the walls shown here encompassed a fortress town of soldiers, artisans and peasants.  These are humbler versions of the kind of walls that must have girdled Aurangabad itself.

While Daulatabad was not built by Aurangzeb, on the last day of our trip we went to see something he had built: the Bibi Ka Maqbara, known hereabouts as the “mini Taj Mahal” – shown in the lead photo of this post.  Aurangzeb built this as a memorial to his first wife, Dilras Banu.  Here is an example of the massive marble carvings you find on this monument:

Bibi Ka Maqbara entryway

This carving above the main entranceway was easily 40 feet high by 40 feet wide. This pierced screen is also of marble:

Marble screen

While there are many and impressive ornaments here, we found particular interest in this:


This green parrot living atop one of the towers was like a tiny emerald set in a giant tablet of alabaster.


We westerners often think of India through simple images: Gandhi, Mountbatten, Slumdog Millionaire, Raj from BBT.  Now in my list of images I have Aurangzeb   He was an emperor, for his time arguably the richest and most powerful in all the world.  His works and achievements were some austere, some beautiful, and some grim, and in the end what was important to him was swept away by an irresistible tide.  He himself seemed to perceive this, for he is reputed to have said on his deathbed:

"I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing."


Such was our visit to Aurangzeb’s domain, where the remnants of old India’s wars and grandeur stay side by side, while the new India ponders the old emperor’s last words … were they lament, warning, or both?

Categories: Expat life, Pictures, Travel Tags:

Dragon Island!

April 7, 2013 Comments off

DragonIsland screenshot

Here’s some tips tip for those contemplating a stint as an ex-pat: #1, Plan to immerse yourself in local culture, food, shopping, sightseeing, travel, meeting and conversing with new people.  Don’t be isolated – connect.

Tip #2: Get some video games.

Seriously, you and your family won’t be able to do the cultural ambassador thing 24 x 7.  You need some downtime, some alone with your family time – you need games.

The game that has swept the Salazar household this past weekend is Dragon Island, free for iPad.  This game is like Pokemon … turn  based combat, with really cool monsters organized into the traditional air-water-earth-fire model.  There’s a role-playing aspect as your hero character – a “monster trainer” – travels around doing the bidding of the Trainers’ Guild and piecing together the also-traditional story of a lost father and mysterious doings at the highest levels of something or other.

Who cares?  It’s the planning and the combat that make this game.  Seriously, once you start it is hard to stop.  First, the monsters are very clever – thus far among the enemies I’ve faced are Bitewings, Mutations, Giant Crabs, King Penguins, Cult priests, Blood Priests, Baby Nessie, plus something called an “Abomination” that is animated as a fat opera singer.  Second, your own monsters gain new abilities fairly quickly, and even “evolve” into new  forms – for example, a “Fairy”, an innocuous Tinkerbell-like thing that puts 1 enemy monster to sleep, evolves into a “Fairy Queen” which puts many monsters to sleep, and is, shall we say, very attractively rendered.

Here’s another look at the combat screen:

DragonIsland screenshot

There’s just the right amount of animation here, the  enemies slowly floating up and down, with animated question-marks, or ZZs to indicate different conditions, and slashes or explosions to mark each attack.  All this is squarely in the Dragon Quest style. and takes about 30 seconds to figure out.

Finally, this game is very forgiving.  You lose lots of battles, but there’s no effect on your progress in the game.  You just re-spawn in the last town you visited, your battalion of little horrors all healed-up and ready to try again.  If you can’t get past a certain boss fight, no problem: Just wander around, level up your monsters, maybe capture some more, then after a while go back and try again.

Net-net: Dragon Island for iPad, super-game, get it.  Now sorry, have to go – need to find out what my 20th level Bat Fiend is evolving into …

Dry Times in Maharashtra

April 6, 2013 4 comments

Aurangabad trip map

It’s a few weeks ago now that Kim, Morgan and myself journeyed to see the sights near to Aurangabad.  I’ve already posted about Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves; now I want to share a few more things we saw, especially about the climate and lives of average folks here in Maharashtra.  It is a sad fact that times here for a great many people are very bad indeed.

The first place we came to, still part of Pune proper, was Wagholi, a very fast growing area to the north-west of town.  This picture from the web is typical of the many in-progress developments we saw:

Wagholi development

Whether it will ever finish or not, there’s no way of knowing; it seems everywhere we go here there are big buildings in perpetual 1/4-finished state.

One reason this area is growing so fast is simply because it is close in, only 13 kms or so from center of Pune, but still fairly empty.  Another is because of the increase in manufacturing in this region.  There is a lot of heavy industry here, including Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen plants to the north of town.  As we continued on the road going north-east we passed facilities of many global companies – P&G, LG, Whirlpool, Haier – as well as many Indian companies making, for example, auto-parts, stone & tiles, and plumbing fixtures.  Chatting with Rupesh we asked what type of people were the workers at these plants.  He said a great many came from outside Maharashtra, from Uttar Pradesh mostly.  Entry-level laborers at these factories will earn around Rs. 9 – 10,000 per month – about $190.

Soon we came to the first of several toll gates we would pass on the way to Aurangabad:

India toll plaza sign

We did not stop to see what difference there might be between accessing the First Aid Box and the Complaint Book.

30 kms or so outward from our flat the road became a 4-lane road – 2-lanes in each direction – of good condition, our speed reached 100 kph many times.  It was here for the first time I think we were seeing the “real” Maharashtra.  Pune is a big place and fairly modern.  Yes, cows, goats, dogs and other animals abound, but any place with a Hard Rock Café has an immense amount in common with a Western city.  Away from the city proper we fell into a rhythm of passing 10 kms or so of farms, then coming to a tiny village of tea-stalls and shops, then going on through another 10 kms of farms.

This pic from Google shows part of the way we took:

Satellite photo

You can see a center of buildings down in the south-west of the picture, then as you go along the road an empty area of multi-colored fields, then another small nexus of buildings at the upper north-east of the picture.  From Pune to Aurangabad we must have passed through 20 or so such small villages, and some larger towns as well.

Notice the many striped areas of differing colors?  These are the different crops being cultivated in small plots.  Probably the most prevalent crop is sugar-cane:

Sugar cane field

but we also saw corn, onions, cauliflower, cotton and more.

While people in India are moving to cities at an increasing rate, 70% of people still live outside cities, and that means they are mostly farmers.  The vast majority of farms here are tiny by USA standards – 95% of farms are 5 acres or less in size.  On average these small-plot farms earn less than Rs. 2,500 per month – about $50.

But you don’t really need a satellite picture to tell you that farms are small in India – little goods-carrier trucks with sacks of produce, usually with sandal-footed laborers riding on top – are ubiquitous here.  These all carry the output of small farms to markets and depots in cities and towns.  Because refrigerated transport is virtually unknown this produce is consumed typically within days of harvest.  If you are eating in India, chances are good everything on your plate came from with a few 100 kms of where you are.  This is a gigantic contrast with a state like Massachusetts in the US, which produces a lot of dairy, apples and cranberries, but gets virtually all other produce from Florida, Texas or California.

Another thing we saw on the road was the intense dryness of the land, like these fields:

Dry landscape in Maharashtra

or this dry river-bed:

Dry riverbed in Maharashtra

Note the distant pools of water?  In monsoon time this whole area will be a flowing river.

The monsoon is the arbiter of life here – it fills lakes (most artificially created by dams) and the water table that cities, villages and farms draw water from all through the year.  The rains of June-Aug last year were especially sparse, and Maharashtra is now enduring the worst drought in decades.  While many farmers are fleeing to cities, seeking work as laborers, some see no option but suicide – and there are stories of farm women and girls becoming sex-workers in cities like Mumbai.

A poor monsoon is only part of the reason for the drought.  Clearly a great contributor is all the manufacturing I talked about at the start of this post.  All factories use a lot of water.  In addition to auto- and electrical-manufacturing, we passed paper mills and sugar refineries – two extremely water intensive operations.  There does seem to be some local response happening, as I read here.  The main technique is rainwater harvesting, where rain in monsoon time, through gutters and other catch methods is directed to cisterns, local ponds, or even straight to the water table.  Another technique is the guli plug.  The idea here is to create simple soil and rock dams in gullies to force more rainfall into the local water table:

Gully plugs

This picture comes from the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR).  WOTR is an NGO active in 5 Indian states.  One of the funding partners of WOTR is Blue Planet Network, which works to improve water quality and availability throughout the developing world.  BPN fund raises for many projects, including several in Maharashtra.

I am intrigued.  Apparently a mere $6,000 will provide drinking water for a hamlet of 140 people.  This looks to be a space where small donations can have profound impact.

I will post more when I know more.  On our trip we saw many women working with water or carrying water, like this lady rinsing clothes in a trickle of water by the side of the road:

Lady washes clothes

Maharashtra needs more scenes like this:

Water carriers