It’s mid-June. I’m back home in Bangalore. I’m wishing I could transport myself to the Malabar Coast to see the onset of the monsoon. But I’m already late and all I can do is await the rains here, while getting caught up with work.
Around mid-night the curtains along the window start lashing out. A cool wind begins to stream through the house. I turn the fan off for the first time this season. I step out on the porch and see a stream of clouds floating in on a cool breeze steadily blowing from the west. I can’t wait for the rains to begin…
Over the years I’ve spent many days & nights soaked in monsoonal downpours while working in the Western Ghats and northeastern India. Here are a selection of images from times spent traveling with the monsoon.
Exactly this time last year, I was in Kaziranga National Park in Assam. I was there to document the onset of the monsoon and see how the animals cope in the rainy season. But when I got there, all I saw were blue skies and puffy clouds. There had been heavy rains all through May, but in June the rains had stopped. The first bout of monsoon rain had come and gone. I took this image with my iphone camera. It shows the transformation of the landscape from a seemingly lifeless, parched brown of summer to a transformed green vista of the monsoon.
What is the monsoon??
The word monsoon actually means season, after the Arabic word mausim – and what better symbol of transformation from one season to the next than the onset of monsoon rains over the lands scorched by the unrelenting heat of summer. Monsoons are caused by the difference in temperature between landmasses and the surrounding oceans. The Indian monsoons are initiated when the Asian landmass heats up during the summer. As the warm air rises, it creates a low-pressure system that causes air from the oceans to stream overland. These moisture-laden southwest winds from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal release monsoon showers from June to September. Mountain ranges like the Western Ghats and the Himalaya intercept these moisture-laden winds and receive significantly more rainfall than other parts of India. During winter, northern winds from the cold Asian landmass start pushing back the southwest winds, causing the retreating or the northeast monsoon from September to November.
Everyday I check Google Earth to see what the monsoon is doing. In this image from a few hours ago you can see a huge swathe of clouds covering most of coastal and peninsular India. The other arm is flowing up the Bay of Bengal soon to make landfall in Meghalaya and North-eastern India.
If not the Malabar Coast the next best place I’d want to be at to see the onset of the monsoon is in Meghalaya. Here the Khasi hills give way to the plains of Bangladesh and when the southwest monsoon gathers momentum over the Bay of Bengal, the first places to get soaked are Cherrapunji and Mawsynram – two of the wettest places on earth, receiving nearly 500 inches of rainfall – that’s nearly 40 feet of rainfall each year!!
Nohkalikai Falls – plunging to over 1000 feet, this is one of India’s tallest waterfalls. I photographed the falls in the dry season, I can’t wait to get back there to photograph it in August.
Monsoon fishing seems to be a popular past time in many parts of Meghalaya. Fish are stocked in these large ponds and during the monsoon I saw posters for fishing tournaments on nearly every weekend. Even during the heaviest rains men and women sit under umbrellas for hours to catch a prized fish and win the grand prize cash award for the biggest fish.
In 2009 I was stationed at Agumbe -one of my favourite places to watch the advancing monsoon clouds. From the viewpoint along a hairpin bend you get a nice view of the coastline and the Arabian Sea. When the monsoon clouds advance, the Western Ghats form a blockade, an obstacle. Here we positioned ourselves and created a time-lapse of the advancing monsoon. A half hour later the rains arrived, battering our equipment and us before we could retreat into the vehicle.
Perhaps the most bizarre of all frogs – the purple frog – (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis). Very little is known about the frog apart from the fact that they surface during the heavy monsoon rains only to feed and mate before returning back underground. Their hard nose and stout limbs are ideal adaptations that allow this creature to burrow into moist soil. The pig-nosed frog, derives its scientific name from the word nasika, Sanskrit for nose, referring to the pointed snout, batrachus, Greek for frog and sahyadri, as the local name of the mountain range where it was found. We were fortunate to find and film this frog a few years ago while filming for the BBC Natural World – Mountains of the Monsoon.
A pair of critically endangered frogs in amplexus, the (Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus). The smaller male on top holds on to the female while fertilizing the eggs, which are laid after creating a large foam nest, usually over a permanent water body. Once the eggs are fertilized and the tiny tadpoles start wriggling in the foam nest, they drop down into the water and undergo the rest of their life-cycle as tadpoles underwater.
At Jog Falls, the Sharavathy River plummets a spectacular 253 metres, forming one of the highest waterfalls on the Indian subcontinent. During the monsoon, the sheer force of water plummeting down is an incredible sight to behold and is one of the top monsoon tourist destinations in the state of Karnataka. I only wish the Tourism Department would better manage the flow of people and stop the menace of tourist litter in this otherwise incredible spot.
While documenting the Eastern Himalaya I was photographing near a village when the rains came. My assistant and I ran and took shelter in a small house in a Bodo village near the Indo-Bhutan border. As we sat and waited for the rain to subside, (which wasn’t happening) a lady opened up an umbrella and started on a long walk to the next village. For most people the monsoon is cause only for a momentary pause, otherwise life goes on as normal.
As we were driving along the Eastern periphery of Kaziranga National Park, the rains paused momentarily and the sun came out creating a rainbow. I was lucky to find this villager walking along the same road to tend his field. The warm evening light, and if you look closely, the double rainbow makes this one of my favourite monsoon shots.
Tips for shooting in the Monsoon:
1) Get a good raincover, or even a plastic bag with a hole for the lens will do. For years I used a hand towel around the main body and lens while duct-taping a plastic cover to the hood of the lens. This works incredibly well.
2) Always keep a good raincoat – rather a poncho. These are much better, as they can also cover your backpack during heavy bouts of rain.
3) Shoot out of your car. While doing this always try to angle yourself opposite the direction of the rain. Not always possible, but helps get the images more comfortably if you can get the angle right.
4) Fill your camera bags with Silica gel, or better yet, keep a drying container, where you can quickly dry up a camera and keep in a silica-gel container for use the next day.
5) Do NOT pack your cameras and lens caps on the lens while still wet. This is what can later lead to the development of fungus inside the lens – an expensive clean-up job.
6) Do NOT keep running your equipment in & out of air-conditioning. This can lead to condensation due to the high levels of moisture in the air and the temperature differential.
7) Find interesting mini-topics within the broad theme of the monsoon. Umbrellas is taken – anything else is fine…
8) Don’t worry too much about shooting in high ISO. Most of the time you’ll need to shoot in a high ISO. Content is what matters.
9) Prepare to face wet weather. Keep the right kind of clothing gear. Being wet means being cold, and being cold means being uncomfortable. So get comfortable, stay dry.
10) Most importantly if you plan to shoot during the monsoon don’t forget a good umbrella and a clean handkerchief!