Tuesday, December 25, 2007


The Blue Gemstone – Another Prince of Gems

I am sure you would like to know more about the gem stones.
This informative article is one of a series of 5 articles covering the four precious gemstones - Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald and Pearls (which is really not a gem).

Which colour would you associate with Sapphire?
The answer is pretty obvious. Blue.

Most people believe that all sapphires are blue.
It is true that the best and most precious sapphires are blue.

But sapphires extend over a wide range of colours except red.

Sapphire is a form of Corundum

Chemically, sapphire is corundum, a crystalline form of aluminium oxide, found in nature as a mineral.

In this photograph, you can see a piece of natural corundum.
Corundum is the second hardest mineral on Earth (the hardest is diamond).
On the Mohs scale (which is a measure of hardness), the score of corundum is 9.
It is so hard that combined with other additives, it is used as an abrasive - from the common sand paper to large machine tools for machining anything from metals to the hardest stones.

Pure corundum is colourless.
Traces of other elements like chrome, iron, titanium or vanadium give it colour.

What is a Sapphire
Both sapphire and ruby are corundum, that is, aluminium oxide.
Their colours are different because of the presence of different trace elements.
A trace of chrome makes the gem red and it is called ruby.
Only red corundum can be called ruby.
Traces of iron, titanium or vanadium give the corundum different colours.
Corundum of all colours, other than red, are classified as sapphires.

Different kinds of Sapphires
Star Sapphires

Star sapphires contain intersecting needle-like inclusions (usually rutile, a mineral composed mainly of titanium dioxide).
When viewed under a single overhead light source, the sapphire will display a six-rayed ‘star’.

Blue sapphires

Deep and vivid blue sapphires are the most in demand.

Sapphire and India
The finest sapphire in the world, having the most intense and vivid blue hue (Kashmir Blue) originated from India’s north western region of Kashmir, along the Indo Pakistani border, in the Himalayas.
A landslide caused by an earthquake in the late 1800’s revealed sapphires in that region.
The region was excessively mined for eight years.
By the early 1900s, the region was completely depleted.

Where do the finest Sapphires come from

Sapphire and Ruby Mines of Mogok
After Kashmir, the world’s finest sapphires, rubies and spinels have been found in the Mogok Stone Tract of the high-altitude Mogok Valley, about 175 km northeast of Mandalay, in Myanmar (Burma).

The 4,800 square kilometer area, comprising the Mogok Valley, has over 1000 ruby and sapphire mines. In 1972, the world's largest sapphire (63,000 carats) was found in the Mogkok valley.

But some of the finest sapphires have come from Sri Lanka.
Both the Logan sapphire and the Star of Bombay came from Sri Lanka.
Today, Madagascar is the world leader in sapphire production.

Some fabulous Sapphires

The 182 carat (36.4 g) Star of Bombay, is one of the world’s greatest blue star sapphire.
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the actor, gave it to his wife, the silent-film actress Mary Pickford.
It is now housed in the National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.

The massive 563.35 carat Star of India is the largest sapphire in the American Museum of Natural History.
But its colour is not deep, but a grayish blue.

The giant 423 carat Logan Sapphire set with 20 diamonds is the largest sapphire in the Smithsonian collection.
The stone has a rich blue color, but unfortunately is faceted with a large window.

Synthetic Corundum

Big and beautiful sapphires can be made artificially.
In 1903, Verneuil produced high quality synthetic corundums on a commercial scale by using a flame fusion process.
This simple and inexpensive process is used to produce flawless single crystal sapphires, rubies and other corundum gems of much larger size than are normally found in nature.
The Verneuil Process has been replaced by the Flux-Grown method which produces large, high-quality gem-grade sapphire.
Synthetic sapphire crystals of large size, up to many inches in diameter, can be grown in cylindrical crystal boules.
On the right, you can see a ring with a synthetic star sapphire.


Natural sapphires are usually heat treated to improve their appearance and color.
Heat treatment improves the sapphire’s color and clarity.
Many natural sapphires are also diffusion treated.
In this process, trace elements are added to impart or to improve colors.

The sapphire is a prized possession.
A sapphire which suits its owner is supposed to bring very good luck.
And a sapphire which does not suit its owner could bring extreme misfortune.
Prospective purchasers often test its suitability by keeping it under their pillow.
Good dreams mean it is suitable for them.
Bad dreams indicate that they should not purchase the sapphire.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


The Gemstone of Love and Passion

I am sure you would like to know more about the gem stones.
This article is one of a series of 5 articles covering the four precious gemstones - Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald and Pearls (which is really not a gem).

Which colour would you associate with love and passion?
The answer is pretty obvious. Red……... Deep Red.

Deep Red is the colour of love.
It radiates warmth and a strong sense of vitality.
Blood is Deep Red.
The heart is also a Deep Red.

Deep Red is the traditional colour of the rose.
(God alone knows why scientists are still struggling to produce a true black or blue rose).

Red is also the colour of Ruby, the Prince of Gemstones.
Where love is involved, ruby is the undisputed ruler of the fascinating world of gemstones.

Ruby is a form of Corundum

Chemically, Ruby is corundum, a crystalline form of aluminium oxide, found in nature as a mineral.
In this photograph on the right, you can see a piece of natural corundum.
Corundum is the second hardest mineral on Earth (the hardest is diamond).
On the Mohs scale (which is a measure of hardness), the score of corundum is 9.

It is so hard that combined with other additives, it is used as an abrasive - from the common sand paper to large machines for machining metals to the hardest stones.
Pure corundum is colourless.
Traces of other elements like chrome, iron, titanium or vanadium give it colour.

What is a Ruby

Only red corundum can be called ruby.
Corundum of all other colours are classified as sapphires.
This is the photo of a large crystal of uncut ruby.
Its length is about 0.8 inches (2 cm).

On the left is the world largest uncut ruby crystal.
Nicknamed the 125West, this natural ruby crystal weighs 8.2 lbs. or 18,696 carats.
After cutting, it could become the largest ruby in the world.

Earlier, there was some confusion and misclassification.
Red garnets or spinels were also thought to be rubies.
This is the reason why two of the British Crown Jewels, the ‘Black Ruby’ and the ‘Timur Ruby’, were wrongly named rubies, when really they are not rubies, but spinels.

Ruby and India

India was the ruby’s classical country of origin.
For a long time, India was a major supplier of Ruby.
The term ‘corundum’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘kuruvinda’.
The Sanskrit word for ruby is ‘ratna raj’, which means ‘king of gemstones’.

Indian rulers gave great importance to rubies.
The insignia of many royal households all over the world are still embedded with rubies.

Where do the finest rubies come from

Today, the finest rubies come from the ruby deposits in Myanmar (Burma).
They are a rich, full red with a slightly bluish hue ‘pigeon-blood-red’.
The finest rubies are termed Myanmar rubies even if they come from some other country, but the term ‘Burmese colour’ would be more appropriate description for them.

There are Ruby deposits in neighbouring Vietnam, near the Chinese border.
Vietnamese Rubies are slightly purplish.
Rubies from Thailand are a darker red towards brown.
The ‘Siamese colour’ is considered only second to the Myanmar rubies.


Even natural rubies are improved.

Such improvements include:
· Color alteration,
· Improving transparency by dissolving rutile inclusions, and
· Healing, or even completely filling in, fractures (cracks).

Rubies can be carved.
On the right is a fine piece of carved ruby known as Greenland Carved Ruby.

Synthetic corundum

Surprisingly, beautiful rubies can be made artificially.
In 1837, Gaudin made the first synthetic rubies by fusing alumina at a high temperature with a little chromium as a pigment.
In 1847, Edelman made white sapphire by fusing alumina in boric acid.
In 1877, Frenic and Freil made crystal corundum from which small stones could be cut.
In 1903, Verneuil produced high quality synthetic rubies on a commercial scale by using a flame fusion process.
This simple and inexpensive process is now used to produce flawless single crystal sapphires, rubies and other corundum gems of much larger size than are normally found in nature.

Qualities of a good Ruby
A good ruby more than 3 carats is exceedingly rare and more expensive than an equivalent diamond.

What determines the price of a ruby

· First, its colour. Colour is a ruby’s most important feature.
· Second, inclusions within the ruby. A ruby without any inclusions is extremely rare.
· Third, cut. It is the cut which bring out a gem's beauty. Only a perfect cut can do justice to a priceless gem.
· Lastly, some rubies display a wonderful silky shine, called ‘silk’ of the ruby. This is caused by very fine needles of rutile. Sometimes, the retiles create the fabulous star rubies.

A really perfect ruby is rarer than perfect love. And it is the costliest gem on earth. Even costlier than diamond.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Oldest living City in the World

Varanasi (also called Benares) is the oldest living city in the world.

I lived and worked in Varanasi for two years, but that was over 25 years ago.
After that, I have visited Varanasi on and off.
Varanasi has changed, as all modern cities have, for the worse.

In those days, we lived in a small apartment, close to Dasashwamedh Ghat, the most popular ghat (bank) of the river Ganges.
We used to drop our two sons at the bus stop for their school bus to pick them up, walk down to the Ganges river every morning, stroll along the ghats (all the ghats are connected to each other) and meander through the narrow lanes bordering the river.
The morning walks used be really fascinating.
We would pass small shops selling all kinds of colourful merchandise.
Bulls sitting or standing in the narrow lanes completing blocking the way.
But they neither disturbed any one nor felt the least disturbed when any one pulled them or pushed them to one side to pass through.
Lots of temples, pundits (priests), devotees, pilgrims, tourists and mere idlers like us.

The most fascinating thing about Varanasi was that no one seemed to be in a hurry.
Everyone had plenty of time to stand and stare and enjoy life.
Even many of those who had to go to office, ritually went to the river every morning, did some exercises, had an oil massage, took a dip in the holy river and visited one of the numerous temples.
So deep was this practice imbibed in many, that if they were in Varanasi, it was impossible to wean them away from this morning ritual.
For them, this was the most essential part of life.

Once we had a very strange experience.
My wife fell sick for quite a few days.
We could not go down to the river.
Then a strange thing happened.
It suddenly started raining.
And the river started swelling.
The area started getting flooded.
The river crossed its banks and came right up to the place where we stayed.
For some time, we sat with our feet immersed in the water.
After that, the water gradually receded.
This could be pure coincidence.
But someone had predicted that since we were not able to go to the river, the river would come to us.


There is no doubt that Varanasi is a very ancient town.
It is much older than Rome.
Old Rome has gone down the pages of history.
But Varanasi has not only survived, but prospered.

According to mythology, Varanasi was created by Lord Shiva.
We find mention of Varanasi in the epic Mahabharata and in our ancient scripture Skanda Purana.
Buddha arrived in Sarnath on the outskirts of Varanasi in 500 BC.
Even then it was a prosperous city.

The original name of Varanasi was Kashi from the word ‘Kasha’ meaning bright.
The present name is a combination of two words - Varuna and Assi, the two rivers on the north and south of Varanasi.

Even now, many Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi, they will reach Heaven.
There are a number of old homes whether the aged come to live and spend their last days.

Varanasi has given the world its unique style of classical Hindustani music and has produced such eminent poets, writers and musicians as Kabir, Ravi Das, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Acharya Ram Chandra Shukla, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Ustad Bismillah Khan.
Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas here.
Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath.

What to see


Varanasi is a city of temples.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the shrine of Jyotirlinga, is the most sacred shrine of Lord Shiva in India.
The original temple was destroyed by Emperor Aurangzeb who built a mosque in its place.
The present temple was rebuilt near the mosque in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore.
In 1839, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab, donated gold to guilt the two domes of the temple with gold.

The Ghats
There are several interconnected ghats along the river.
Visit them in the morning or evening.
You will sense the fervour of the place.

Gyan Vapi Mosque
This mosque was constructed in the 17th century on the old temple by Emperor Aurangazeb.

Banaras Hindu University
The sprawling Banaras Hindu University is a great centre of higher education.
It is the largest residential university in India and the only university with a Hindu temple inside.
Man Mandir

The old palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur with a astronomical observatory.

Sarnath (10 kms from Varanasi)
Buddha gave his first sermon here.
The 110 ft. tall Damekh Stupa marks the place where Buddha preached his first sermon.
Later, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka erected magnificent stupas and other buildings and the famous stone pillar.
This place is visited by Buddhists from all over the world.

Reaching there

Varanasi has an airport with direct flights from New Delhi, Kolkatta, Mumbai and other places.

Varanasi is an important railway station.
The city is linked by trains with all metros and major cities across the country - New Delhi (760 Kms.), Mumbai (1509 Kms.), Kolkatta (735 Kms.), Chennai (1970 Kms.), Lucknow (286 Kms.).
Varanasi is connected with all the major cities by good motorable, all-weather roads.

Best Season

Varanasi is hot in summer.
The best time to visit Varanasi is between September and November because Varanasi celebrates a lot of festivals during this period.
Visit the oldest living city in the world.
Perhaps you will share the same feeling which brought Gautam Buddha to this place.
Varanasi is famous for its silk zaree saris (silk saree embroidered with pure gold thread) and woollen carpets.
But purchase from a respectable shop.
Varanasi is equally famous for its cheats.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pearls - the Queen of Gems

This article was inspired by two events.

I visited a Hyderabad Pearl exhibition in Calcutta.
I was surprised because there are no pearls in or around Hyderabad.
The fact is that the pearl smiths in Hyderabad import fresh water cultured pearls from China and transform them into beautiful ornaments.

On another occasion, I visited the Central Marine Research Centre in Tuticorin when they had just successfully made cultured pearls.
I saw the entire process.

I even learnt scuba diving there and went down inside the sea where the pearl oysters lived, bred and made the natural pearls.
Pearls are interesting ……..

What is the value of a pearl necklace?
A good pearl necklace is priceless.

A pearl can not be cut, polished and crafted like other gems.
A natural round pearl is a piece of art created by mother nature herself.
A really beautiful pearl is rare.
A necklace made of a number of pearls matching in colour, size, shape and lustre is therefore extremely expensive and worth a furtune.

Baroda Pearls – the most expensive pearl necklace

The Maharajah of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwar (rule 1856 – 1870), was one of the greatest jewellery collectors of the 19th century.
Amongst his pearl collections were an ornamental belt of one hundred rows of pearls;
a majestic seed pearl and a seven-strand necklace made of natural pearls from the Gulf.
When his descendant Maharajah Pratapsingh Gaekwar (rule 1939 – 1947) married his second wife, Maharani Sita Devi - one of the most flamboyant Maharanis of all time and referred to as the Indian Wallace Simpson - in 1943, Sita Devi received the pearl necklace and other items of jewellery from the Maharajah.
The pearl necklace was last seen on her neck in 1948.
Many items of her jewellery have since been sold in Monaco.
But the necklace remained in Baroda.

The Baroda Pearls - made out of the best pearls in the original necklace - a two-row seven-strand pearl necklace, comprising of impeccably matched 68 of the finest and largest pearls in the world, with a cushion cut Cartier diamond clasp, was auctioned at Christie’s in New York on April 25, 2007 for $7.1 million, setting a new world record for a pearl necklace.

The pearls measure 9.47 to 16.04 mm, from the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh strands.
The necklace has a matching pair of natural pearl and diamond ear pendants, a brooch, and a ring.

The previous record was set by a two-strand natural pearl necklace sold for $ 3.1 million at Christie’s in Geneva in November 2004.
Pearl of Allah

The Pearl of Allah (Pearl of Lao-Tse), the largest pearl on record, was recovered by a Muslim diver from a giant clam off the coast of Palawan Island, Philippines on May 7, 1934.
The chief of Palawan took the pearl because it had been found near his island.
Around 1939, Wilburn Dowell Cobb saved the life of the chief’s son.
The chief gifted the pearl to Cobb.
In 1980, Cobb’s heirs sold the pearl to Peter Hofman, a jeweler from Beverly Hills, for $200,000.
Peter Hofman still owns 33 percent interest in the pearl.

The pearl is 9.4 inches long and weighs about 14 lbs.
Its surface bears the semblance of a turbaned face.
The Pearl of Allah is valued at $40 million.

The giant pearl is also called the Pearl of Lao Tsu, after the legendary sixth-century B.C. philosopher known as the father of Taoism.
Replicas of the Pearl of Allah are on display in various museums around the world.

Paradoxically, although referred to as a pearl, and even treated as the largest pearl in the world, the Pearl of Allah is actually a non-nacreous calcareous concretion; and therefore gemmologically speaking, not actually a pearl.

The Hope Pearl

The Hope Pearl is the largest natural salt water pearl ever discovered.
It is a white, drop-shaped blister pearl, measuring approximately 2 x 4 inches, and varying in color from greenish gold on one end to white on the other.
It weighs 1,800 grains (450 carats), or approximately 4 ounces.

It was once owned by Henry Philip Hope, the one-time owner of the Hope Diamond.
Currently, it is displayed in the British Museum of Natural History.

Is the pearl a gem?

A pearl is a hard, round, shiny, lustrous object produced by certain species of the bivalve mollusks - an aquatic animal.
The freshwater pearls are produced by mussels and salt water pearls by oysters.

On the other hand, a gemstone, gem, precious or semi-precious stone is an attractive and valuable piece of mineral.
Pearls are certainly not gems, yet they are included in almost every book and writing on gems for the simple reason that they are used in jewellery.
When we talk of gems, we talk of diamonds, rubies, saphires, emeralds and other precious and semi precious stones………. but we also talk of pearls.

Pearls are prized like gems and widely used in jewellery.
Pearls are also crushed and used in indigenous medicinal formulations, in cosmetics and paint formulations.

Fresh water and salt water pearls

There are two kinds of pearls - fresh water and salt water - depending on where they are formed.

The fresh water pearls are formed in fresh water mussels that live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water.
The pearls the Chinese first used - over 4000 years ago - were obviously fresh water pearls because they have been described as not quite round. Even today’s fresh water pearls are not that round.
China with a a total production of 1500 tons in 2006 is the undisputed world leader in fresh water pearl production.

The salt water pearls grow in oysters that live in the oceans, usually in protected lagoons.
Over 99% of the salt water pearls we see today are cultured pearls.
Generally, only a single pearl is found in a salt water oyster.
While, a large number of pearls can be found in one fresh water mussel.

Natural and cultured pearls

A pearl is formed when a small irritant or parasite penetrates and lodges in the mantle tissue of a mollusk.
The mollusk secretes nacre around this nucleus.
Nacre is a complex combination of crystalline and organic substances which builds up in layers surrounding the irritant forming a pearl.

Natural pearls are formed by chance.
The shape of the pearl depends on the shape of the nucleus.
The shape of a natural pearl is therefore unpredictable.
The odds of formation of a perfect natural pearl are 1 in a million.

Cultured pearls have been given a helping hand.
A foreign object is introduced into a mollusk thereby inducing the mollusc to secrete nacre around it and create a pearl.
The shape of the resultant pearl can be controlled to a great extent.
It is possible to grow large quantities of almost identical cultured pearls.

Today, nearly all pearls in the market - both fresh water and salt water - are cultured.

How to differentiate cultured pearls from natural

The simplest and scientific way of distinguishing cultured pearls from natural pearls is through x-ray.
The x-ray will reveal the nucleus of the pearl.
If the pearl is cultured, you will see the tell tale image of the synthetic nucleus implanted as an irritant.
There will be no visible nucleus in the case of a natural pearl.

The culturing process

Kokichi Mikimoto almost single handedly developed and commercialised the modern cultured pearl industry.
Mikimoto was born in 1858 in Toba City, Japan.
He was the eldest son in a family which ran a noodle restaurant.
He started raising oysters in 1888.
By the late 1890s, he patented a process for culturing mabes (hemispherical pearls).

Over the next two decades, Mikimoto continued with his research in culturing pearls, culminating in 1916 with his patenting a process for culturing spherical pearl.
He developed the modern techniques for culturing pearls and simultaneously pursuaded and convinced the public to accept the cultured pearls.
Mikimoto created the cultured pearl industry that exists today.
Mikimoto died in 1954 at the age of 96.

Technique for culturing pearls

Freshwater pearls and salt water pearls are nucleated differently.

Freshwater cultured pearls are not bead-nucleated.
A small incision is made in the fleshy mantle tissue of a 6 to 12 month old mussel.
A 3 mm square piece of mantle tissue from a donor mussel is inserted inside it.
A single mussel can with stand upto 25 such incisions.
But in practice, only 12-16 incisions are made for production of 24-32 pearls.
The mollusks are then returned to their freshwater environment where they are looked after for 2 to 6 years.
The resulting pearls are of solid nacre, but without a bead nucleus.
These pearls are rarely perfect round.

The salt water pearls are bead-nucleated.
The oysters are opened.
A small incision is made in the gonad (reproductive organ) and a round core or nucleus which is generally a polished bead made from a freshwater mussel shell is surgically implanted into the incision.
The oysters are returned to salt water.
The pearls which will form in about 2 years will be round.
An x-ray will reveal the tell tale nucleus.

Main types of salt water pearls

Today, the cultured pearl industry has effectively and totally replaced the natural pearl industry with production of cultured freshwater; and the three main types of salt water pearls - South Sea, Tahitian, and Mikimoto’s original Akoya pearls.

Pearl culture in India

Natural pearls were once found in plenty in Jam Nagar (Gulf of Kutch) and Thoothukudi (Gulf of Mannar).
Over the years, both these resources were depleted.
And today, India imports almost all her requirement of pearls.

In 1972, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) started an experimental project of pearl culture at Thoothukudi.
The next year CMFRI achieved a breakthrough and produced the first spherical cultured pearl on July 25, 1973.

The Tamil Nadu Fisheries Development Corporation Ltd and Southern Petro Chemical Industries Corporation Ltd. started a joint venture pearl culture project in 1983.
But there has been no commercial success and the project has been leased out to private party.

In 1976, the CMFRI started a pearl oyster hatchery and spats (baby oysters) produced from the hatchery are supplied to pearl producers.

Artificial or synthetic pearls

These are cheap imitations made of glass, plastic, acrylic, etc.

Caring for your Pearls

· Pearls have an organic origin. They are scientifically different from gemstones and precious metals.
· They are softer and far more delicate. They can be more easily scratched, cracked, and damaged.
· Chemicals in perfumes and hair spray can harm pearls.
· Even natural body oils and perspiration can dull the pearls’ luster or cloud their brilliance.
· Acids present in lemon juice, citric fruits, etc. corrode pearls.
· For these reasons, your pearls require special care.
· Apply perfume, hair spray, and other cosmetics before putting on the pearls on your person. This way, you will minimise the contact of these products with the pearls.
· After wearing your pearls, wipe them with a soft damp cloth to remove any traces of cosmetic products and body oils.
· Wash the pearls periodically with mild soap water and a soft cloth, to remove any accumulated build-up.
· Store pearls separately, in soft cloth or in a soft-lined container, pouch, or jewellery box away from hard jewellery items, to prevent scratches or other damage. If possible, store them wrapped.
· If the pearls are strung, have the pearls restrung periodically - perhaps once a year or so, if you wear them often - to prevent strand breakage. Knotting the strands between each pearl will prevent all the pearls from falling off, if the strand breaks. Knotting will also prevent the pearls from rubbing against one another and causing damage by friction.
· With a little bit of care, your Queen of Gems will remain bright and lustrous for years to come.

Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary

The oldest bird sanctuary in India

This is one wonderful scene I will never forget.
I am in Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary near Chenni.
The sun is just about to set.
The trees are dotted with birds.
At a rough estimate, there are about 75,000 birds.
There are numerous nests.
Some nests contain fluffy little chicks - some a few days old, others older.
Other nests contain eggs.
There are several species of birds - most of them migratory.
You can easily identify some of the birds.
Pelicans, the heaviest bird (each weighing upto 10 kilograms), have enormous heavy flat bills with an elastic pouch on the bottom.
They fly from one tree to another.
They look clumsy.
Yet, they take off the water effortlessly and can easily fly long distances.

I remember reading a story about a Japanese fisherman and his pelicans.
He would tie a twine around the necks of his pelicans.
They would fish in the rivers.
They would store the catch in their pouch.
When they returned to the fisherman, he would take out the fishes leaving one or two for the pelicans.

The spoonbills have peculiar spoon shaped bills and black legs.
The Open Bill Storks can be identified from the tell-tale gap between the two bills.

Several species of ducks from Canada are swimming.
Every now and then, they dive into the water and come up with a fish or tadpole.

Suddenly, the snake like head of the snake bird or darter pops out of the water.
It swims with its body submerged under the water.
The neck and head move like a snake and as suddenly disappear under the surface.

The herons and egrets patiently wait at the water’s edge for an unfortunate fish.
The sun dips down the horizon.
The western sky turns a beautiful soft red - the dream of any painter.
The tropical dusk wraps up the entire vista.
Thousands of birds are returning to their nests for the night.
If there are eggs or chicks - one of the parents goes out in search of food, while the other looks after the eggs or chicks.
If the birds have chicks, they bring back food in their beaks.
As they delicately land in their nests, the little impatient chicks start clammering for food.
They insert their tiny beaks into the mouths of their parents and try to snatch whatever is possible.

There is a lot of noise. Different kinds of bird sounds.
Birds flap around.
Singles. In small groups. And in larger groups.
It is difficult to believe that there can be so many different kinds of birds in one sanctuary.
In spite of all the noise, there is an unbelievable oneness.
The din is soothingly pleasant.
One simply forgets that he is very close to Chennai.
For a few hours, peace and tranquility take over and one becomes a child.

There are a number of large boards carrying sketches and details of different birds.
Request some one from the forest department to accompany you.
He could give you your first lessons in bird watching or ornithology.
He could bring out the traits of Salim Ali in you.
He will teach you how to identify the birds from the way they fly, the formations in which they fly and the way they land on their nests.

The oldest bird sanctuary in India

The Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary is the oldest bird sanctuary in India.
It is situated in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu (90 kilometres from Chennai (Madras)). For over two hundred ago - long before the days of modern day wild life conservationism - the villagers around have zealously protected the winged visitors to this sanctuary.

They knew that the large numbers of birds translate into droppings which turn into a lot of guano - one of the finest natural fertilizers known to mankind.
The birds also devour a lot of insects, pests and rodents which would otherwise harm the crops.

The villagers recognize the symbiotic beneficial relationship with the birds.
The fertility of the land is very high.
The yield of the crops is also very high.
And the crops are free of artificial fertilizer and insecticide.
True conservation means recognizing the mutual benefits to us.
Archival records show that towards the end of the 18th century, local villagers complained to the then Collector Lionel Place about indiscriminate shooting of the birds by British soldiers.
The Collector issued a ‘firman’ (order) - prohibiting any shooting of the birds in the entire village.
The East India Company recognised the villagers’ rights and renewed them in the year 1858.
The lake was first recognised as a sanctuary in 1936.
In 1962, it was accorded the legal status of a reserve forest under the Madras Forest Act.
Ten years later, in 1972, the entire lake was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act.

Today generations later, the villagers still protect the birds with the same zeal which their fore fathers showed.
They avoid any noisy activity near the sanctuary.
During the months the winged visitors use this place for breeding - the 3,000-odd villagers even make marriages and festivals a silent affair.

The forest officers told me that a bird census had been taken recently.
There were more than 75,000 birds.

The sanctuary comprises of a grove of Barringtonia Acacia nilotica trees in a large tank.
In addition, there are dry evergreen scrub and thorn forests.
Boating is not allowed here.
As a result, breeding birds do not have any disturbance.
During the monsoon, rain water accumulates not only in the main lake, but also in the 60 and odd ponds and adjoining paddy fields resulting in proliferation of aquatic prey for the birds - such as fish, tadpoles, frogs, water insects and snails.

115 species of birds have been recorded in this sanctuary.
I have compiled a list of a few migratory birds I could see and identify:
Garganey Teals, Glossy Ibis, Grey Heron, Grey Pelican, Open-billed Stork, Painted Stork,
Snake Bird, Spoonbill and Spot Bill Duck.
In addition, I could spot Cormorants, Darters, Grebes, Large Egret, Little Egrets, Moorhen, Night Herons, Paddy Bird, Painted Stork, Pintails, Pond Heron, Sandpiper, Shovellers, Terns, White Ibis, etc.

As summer sets in, the water in the tanks starts receding.
By this time, the chicks become old and strong enough to fly.
The migratory birds start leaving in batches.
The villagers bid them adieu……only to welcome them back after six months or so.

General Information

Best season to visit
The nesting season commences late October.
The birds are through with breeding and start returning to their feeding grounds around March. The best time to visit the sanctuary is from November to the middle of March.

Best time to visit
When the birds have eggs or chicks, only one parent will remain in the nest.
The other will fly to the surrounding areas in search of food.
Therefore, the best time to visit the Sanctuary is during the early mornings or late evenings when you can see more birds.

Reaching there

Nearest airport is Chennai - 58 kms away.
Railway station
Nearest railway station is Chengalpattu - 30 kms away.
90 kms. from Chennai.
There are regular and frequent bus services from Chennai, Tambaram and Chengalpattu.

You can stay overnight at the forest rest house at Vedanthangal close by.
For reservations, contact :Wildlife Warden’s Office DMS Compound, Anna Salai, Teynampet, Chennai – 600 006Tel : (044) 2432 1471

All types of accommodation are available in Chennai.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Elephanta Caves

The World Heritage Site nearest to Mumbai

The Elephanta Caves contain the most striking collection of rock-art statues, sculptures and reliefs panels in India.
They contain the most exquisite works of art skillfully hewn out of basaltic mountains.
They are comparable to the works of Ellora.
It is quite possible that the Elephanta and Ellora caves were built by the same artists.


We have not been able to determine the precise period of construction.
There is mention of the Elephanta Caves in the Aihole (Karnataka) inscriptions of King Pulkesin II of Chalukya dynasty.
In the inscriptions, Elephanta Island has been described as Puri.
Later, the island came to be known as Gharapuri - the Place of Caves.
Some historians say that the great warrior King Pulkesin II raised the shrine to celebrate his victory.
Other historians suggest that these caves were built much earlier - in the 6th century A.D. - by the Kalchuri King Krishnaraja.
But we do know that during different periods of time, different dynasties ruled over this little island.
The Konkan-Mauryas, Trikutakas, Chalukyas of Badami, Silaharas, Rashtrakutas, Kalyani Chalukyas, Yadavas of Deogiri, Muslim rulers of Ahmedabad and the Portuguese.
The Marathas also ruled over this island. From them, the island passed over to the British.
When the Portuguese came, they found a large monolithic stone elephant at the place where they landed so they named the island Ilha do Elephanta, island of the elephant, or Elephanta Island.
The elephant statue collapsed in 1814.
The British removed it to the Victoria Gardens (Mumbai’s zoo - now renamed Jijamata Garden) and reassembled it there.
Even today, the monolith stands guard at the entrance of the zoo.
The Portuguese also found a stone horse.
But we do not know what happened to it.
It has simply vanished.
The Portuguese built a fort on the island with a watch tower.
And they used the caves for target practice, damaging most of the beautiful statues - intentionally, or due to sheer rashlessness, we do not know.

The Magnificent Caves

A flight of about a hundred steps, from the ferry landing, take you to the two groups of caves. Towards the east, Stupa Hill (named because of a small brick Buddhist monument on the top) contains two caves, one of which is unfinished, and several water cisterns.

Towards the west is the larger group of five rock-cut caves containing Hindu shrines.
The main cave is famous for its carvings of Shiva, in various forms,
performing different actions.
The cave consists of a square mandapa whose sides measure 27 metres each.
The interior is divided into smaller areas by rows of pillars, columns, supports and arches.
The whole structure, meticulously carved out of basaltic rocks, closely resembles a cemented stone building.

At the entrance to the caves is the 20 feet high Trimurti (three faced statue), the world famous trinity of Elephanta - depicting Lord Brahma the Creator, Lord Vishnu the Preserver and Lord Shiva the Destroyer.

In a chapel on the right of the entrance is a huge Shiva Linga (the phallic form of Lord Shiva). The chapel has four doors, each guarded by colossal figures of dwarapala, or temple guards.

There are 15 beautiful relief panels depicting - Ardha Nari Ishwara (Lord Shiva in half male and half female form), Shiva receiving the waters of the Ganges, marriage of Shiva to Parvati, Shiva killing the devil Andhaka, etc.

The Elephanta Festival

The Elephanta Festival is organised on Elephanta Island in February every year.
Renowned dancers and musicians perform outside the Caves, under the open star-studded sky. This is an event eagerly awaited by lovers of art and culture.

Scenic Beauty

The place is very beautiful.
You can walk around the island. You can climb the hills.
There is also the Cannon Hill with a rusty canon which was used
by the Portuguese to drive off pirates.

Reaching there
Elephanta Caves are located on Elephanta Island - a small island (7 square kilometers in area) - 7 kms. off the shore of Mumbai.
You can reach the Island only by boat (11 kms).
The journey is enjoyable.
There are regular ferry services from the Gateway of India to the Elephanta Island and back. Boats usually leave every 10 or 15 minutes from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.
You can even hire your own boat.

During the monsoons, the sea becomes very rough and the journey dangerous.
Ordinary boat services are usually suspended.

There is no place for overnight stay on the island.
So you have to go in the morning and return back at night.


UNESCO has included Elephanta Caves in its World Heritage Site in 1987.
If you visit Mumbai, this is one place you should not miss.
I am sure you will feel cosmic vibrations in the caves.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Gir National Park

Only place in the world where you can see the Asiatic Lion in the wild

The only place in the World where you can see the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) in its natural habitat today is the Gir Forest located in Junagarh district in the State of Gujarat in Western India.
The Asiatic Lion
Until a hundred years ago, the majestic Asiatic Lion roamed over large areas extending from Greece, through West Asia, Delhi, Bihar and Bengal.
Just to give you an idea of the large numbers - fifty lions were killed in the district of Delhi between 1856-1858.
But the killing took its toll.
The last Asiatic Lion seen outside Gir Forest in India was in 1884.

Of course, lions can be seen in plenty in Africa.
But they are not the Asiatic Lion, but their close relative, the African Lion.
The Asiatic Lion is a genetically distinct sub-species that separated from the African population of Panthera leo about 100,000 years ago.

The Asiatic Lion has an average length of 2.75 metres.
Compared to its African counterpart, it is about 0.3 meter shorter, has a lighter mane, thicker tail tassel, bushier elbow tufts and more prominent belly folds.
The Asiatic Lion avoids human beings.
It can jump over 5 metres.
Of all the wild animals, it is the only animal which kills only when
hungry and attacks humans only if it is starving.
Unlike its African cousin, the Asiatic Lion never feeds on carrion.
It is the truly the king of the wild.

On the brink of extinction - role of the Nawab of Junagadh

Since 1884, all the Asiatic Lions are localized in Gir Forest, the private hunting preserve of the Nawab of Junagadh.
The famine of 1899 almost decimated the lions.
In 1900, the Nawab of Junagadh invited Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, for a lion hunt.
This invitation provoked an anonymous letter in a newspaper in which the writer questioned the propriety of a VIP hunt of the endangered species.
Lord Curzon not only cancelled the hunt, but also requested the Nawab to protect the endangered lions.
The Nawab in turn declared the lion a protected animal.

By 1913, the population of lions in Gir Forest had dwindled to less than twenty.
As a protective measure, the British Government imposed a total ban on the shooting of lions.
The number of lions gradually increased.
By 1949, the number of Lions in Gir Forest rose to about 100.
Gir National Park

The Goverment of India established the Gir National Park on 18th September, 1965 as a Forest Reserve to conserve the Asiatic Lion.
The original area of the Gir Forest was about 5000 sq. kms.
Today, the sanctuary covers a total area of 1,412 sq. kms. of which the core area of 258.71 sq. kms. is the Gir National Park.
There is a surrounding buffer zone to monitor and regulate the spill over.

Present Status

There are about 320 Asiatic Lions in the Gir National Park today.
There were 13 poaching deaths during the first quarter of 2007 raising serious concerns about the safety and future of the species.
Occasionally, the lions travel outside the park boundaries in search of food and water, get caught in poachers’ traps and die.
Other animals in Gir Forest
There are other animals like Flying Fox, Hare, Hyena, Hedgehog, Jackal, CheetalChinkara , Chowsinga (four-horned antelope), Civet, Mongoose, Musk Shrew, Nilgai (Blue Bull), Pangolin, Panther, Porcupine, Ratel, Sambar, Wild boar, etc.
Three smaller wild cats - the Jungle Cat, Desert Cat and the Rusty Spotted Cat are also found there.
There are many species of snakes, lizards and crocodile.

There are more than 300 species of birds including the Crested serpent, Bonnalis and Crested Hawk eagles; Brown Fish and Great Horned Owls; Pygmy Woodpecker, Black Headed Oriole and the Indian Pitta.
Gir Forest is one of the few remaining forests comprising diverse habitats.
The vegetation is mixed deciduous, with Teak, Acacia, Jamun, Tendu and Dhak trees, with large open patches of grasslands.
For most part of the year, Gir Forest is dry with scrub trees and therefore animal sighting is very good.
Other places to see
· Hot springs in Tulsi Shyam deep inside the forest - 96 kms. from Sasan.
· Famous Somnath temple - 45 kms. via Veraval.
· Sirvan - 13 kms. from Sasan. This is a unique village where you can see Siddi tribals of African origin.
· Kamleshwar Dam - 12 kms. away is a beautiful picnic spot.There is a Crocodile Farm here with a large population of marsh crocodiles.
· Interpretation Zone at Devalia -12 kms. from Sasan. This is a fenced lion area covering 412 hectares. You can see lions and other animals in their natural habitat here.

Best Time to Visit

Gir Forest can be visited from mid October to mid June.
But the best time for sighting the lions is November to February.
The sanctuary remains closed during the rainy season.
Getting there
The nearest airport is Keshod - 90 kms. via Veraval.
There are daily flights from Mumbai.

The nearest railway station is Sasan Gir (1km).
Sasan Gir to Ahemedabad - 395 kms. (metre gauge railway)
From Ahmedabad (via Rajkot, Junagadh and Mendarda) - 400 kms.

My views

Asiatic Lions are classified as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International trade in Asiatic Lions or their parts is completely banned.
Yet their claws and bones are in great demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
And therefore, the lions are in great danger.
Apart from this, in 1994, canine distemper killed more than 1,000, or about a third, of Africa’s Serengeti lions.
The same or similar calamity could occur in Gir Forest due to lack of genetic diversification.
The Government is thinking of translocating a few Asiatic Lions from Gir Forest to Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh so as to have another habitat.
But unfortunately, the issue has become entangled in political mire.

The Gir Forest is a unique and wonderful place to visit.
Not only have the number of lions increased, the population of other animals have also increased several fold.
There are numerous human settlements of cattle herders called Maldharis within the sanctuary. And they don’t have any problem with the animals.
You can see a perfect example of man and nature living in complete harmony.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lonar Crater

The only impact crater on the earth in basalt rock

The Lonar Crater is the only meteorite crater
in the world in basaltic rock.
It is very similar to the craters on the moon
A large number of interplanetary bodies of all shapes and sizes are speeding around in space.
Thousands of such bodies enter the earth’s atmosphere and flash
through the night every day (they flash even during the day time,
but we can’t see them).

Most of them are quite small, catch fire, burn and completely vaporize in the earth’s atmosphere.
The trail of light they leave behind is called a meteor or shooting star.

Hardly a dozen or so weigh more than a kilogram.
They create meteorites.
Most meteorites fall in the oceans, deserts, forests and other uninhabited places;
and are not noticed at all.

The chances of a giant meteorite hitting our earth are extremely remote.
Scientists have calculated the probability as three in one million years.

In spite of this, large meteorites do hit the earth.
What happens when this happens?
The impacts create huge hollows or craters - much larger
in size than the meteorites.

And though even most Indians do not know this, India
has the world's largest meteorite-created impact crater
in basalt - in Lonar.

Lonar is a small village in Maharashtra about 122 kms from Aurangabad airport.
It has a unique natural feature - a huge crater with a salt water lake inside.

There are the ruins of a few
ancient temples inside the crater, a
live temple with a fresh water spring outside the rim, an ancient temple in the village nearby, etc.

And there are a lot of mythological tales.

The crater is inhabited by numerous species of birds, animals, plants, trees and aquatic organisms.
History of Lonar

Lonar Crater has existed since time immemorial.
We find mention of Lonar Crater in ancient scriptures like the Skanda Puran, Padma Puran and Aaina-e-Akbari.
Lonar even had a salt factory during the days of the Moghul Emperor Akbar.
Lonar was sort of rediscovered by a British officer, C J E Alexander in 1823.It was believed to be a volcanic crater.

In 1896, Grove Karl Gilbert, Chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, and one of
the most respected geologists of the day, pointed out Lonar Crater’s similarities with the Barringer Crater in Arizona.
But Gilbert rejected the impact origin for both these craters.
He postulated a volcanic origin for both.

There were a few studies after that, but none suggested an impact origin for Lonar.
The exact mode of its origin remained a debatable issue for almost a century and half.
In 1952, in his work ‘Volcanoes as landscaped forms’ C.A.Cotton doubted the theory of volcanic origin because of lack of recent volcanic processes in the Indian sub-continent.
He proposed meteoric origin for Lonar Crater.

So the debate continued - whether Lonar Crater was an astrobleme (created by a non-terrestrial entity) or a geobleme (formed by terrestrial process on the Earth itself).

In 1973, scientists inally established the impact origin of Lonar Crater.
In 1996, scientists estimated its age to be around 52,000 years.

Barringer Crater (also known as Canyon Diablo)

The most famous impact crater on earth is the Barringer Crater (in Arizona)
named after Daniel Barringer and still owned by his family.

In 1891, Grove Karl Gilbert, visited the crater to determine whether it was
the result of a meteorite impact.
Gilbert considered two alternatives:
The crater could have been formed by a meteorite,
or It could have a volcanic origin.
He concluded, wrongly, that the crater had a volcanic origin.

Daniel Moreau Barringer (born 1860), a Philadelphia mining engineer, who had become
a successful miner, heard about the crater.
He postulated that it was an impact crater formed by a meteorite.
At the same time, he was convinced that a lot of iron lay somewhere in the bottom
of the crater which could be exploited commercially.
He and his friend Benjamin Chew Tilghman, floated the Standard Iron Company,
and secured mining rights in the Crater and the land around.

Barringer had to fight for twenty seven long years to get the impact origin
of his crater vindicated.
So great was Gilbert’s reputation that no one dared challenge him or his findings.
Not surprisingly, in a 1928 article, even National Geographic attributed the impact
hypothesis not to Barringer but to Grove Karl Gilbert.

Barringer was convinced that the crater contained 10 million tons of iron.
He calculated profit of $250,000,000 on investment of $500,000 and found a
number of wealthy investors to back him.

Work began at the crater in January 1928 with capital of $200,000.
By November, it was clear that the operations required further funding of $500,000.
At this stage, an astronomer, Forest Ray Moulton was called in.
He estimated the mass of iron at 300,000 tons - a mere 3% of what Barringer had estimated.
It was clear the project was not commercially viable.
The mining operations had turned out to be a disaster.
Barringer had lost all his fortune. Many others had lost too.

On September 11, 1929, the directors of the Meteor Crater Exploration and Mining Company called off all further operations.
Barringer himself died of a massive heart attack on November 30.
But even today, the Crater remains an attractive tourist spot.

What to see at Lonar

The Lonar Crater

· The Crater which is about 1830 meters in diameter and 150 metres deep.
· Such impact could have been made by a 60 meters long and 2 million tons heavy meteorite.
· The lake is full of very saline water. The salinity is increasing over the years.
· There are 14 temples around Lonar Lake inside the crater.
· The oldest temple is about 1300 yrs old and many of them are decaying.
· These temples were built by different kings of different religions at different points of time.
· A temple gives the mythological story of the formation of Lonar.
· The small Vishnu temple and most others in the vicinity have been constructed
in the Hemadpanthi style, i.e., without the use of any cementing material.
· Most temples are dilapidated and occupied by animals and bats.
· Lonar crater is surrounded by dense forests.
· There are many kinds of trees - custard apple, eucalyptus, lemon grass, bamboo, teak, etc.
· There are many kinds of animals – deer, fox, rabbit, langoors, mongoose, snakes, monitor lizards, etc.
· The many birds include peacock, black drongo, little green bee eater, shrike, pipit, crane, hoopoe, and pelicans.

Getting there

The nearest Airport is Aurangabad - 122 kms.

The nearest Railhead is Malkapur on the Mumbai-Bhusawal line, or Jalna 90 km away.
Mumbai to Lonar (via Aurangabad and Jalna) - 600 kms.
Lonar to Buldhana - 95 kms.
Lonar to Aurangabad - 145 kms. Accomodation

There is a MTDC Resort right across the crater.
Or you can stay in Aurangabad.

I have visited the place twice, and plan to go again soon.
Surprisingly, its location is not even marked on the tourist map of Maharashtra.
Visit this beautiful place.
Walk to the lake below.
See the age old temples.
Sit on the brim during sun rise and sun set
and see flocks of pelicans and other birds going
out or returning from their feeding grounds.
Visit the Gomukh temple on the brim
and the beautiful temple in Lonar village.