India Stories and Tips

Of Dancing Peacocks and Flocks of Parakeets

Breakfast on the lawns at Pataudi Photo,

Deb is nine, Neeti ten and a half. Like a lot of other children, their world revolves around Harry Potter, school, and friends. Travel is low priority. (Their mother, my sister, took them on a Metro ride through some of the most historic areas of Delhi—and made it a point to tell them all about the history of the area. After they'd revived themselves with a Coke and fries at the local McDonald's and come home, my sister asked them what they liked best about the trip. McDonald's, what else?)So it is with some trepidation that we arrive at Pataudi. Pataudi is not exactly bursting with things that would be a hit with the children—they have a table tennis table and a TV (one in the entire hotel), but that's it. Neeti and Deb have come armed with books, but we're wondering if that's going to be enough.Thankfully for all of us, one of the first sights we see as we drive into Pataudi Palace is a peacock. A real, live peacock. Shimmering blue and green, lustrous as can be, and so utterly exquisite that Neeti and Deb stare after it, wide-eyed and excited. When you've lived all your life in the heart of New Delhi, the sight of a peacock is cause for celebration. It's close to lunchtime, so we head indoors, but post a brief siesta, we decide to go for a walk. This walk is ostensibly to see if there are any interesting old monuments in the vicinity, but for my husband, Deb, and I, it's definitely also a quest for peacocks.We walk down the curving driveway, which is of vivid red earth, past thick hedges and below leafy silver oaks. The road beyond is deserted—this is all part of the very private Ibrahim Estate, and other than a couple of villagers, there's nobody around. Just the peacocks. They're there, almost everywhere we look. In the village, Deb whispers loudly to my husband, "Uncle! On that heap there! Quick, take a picture!" The peacock, poised prettily atop a heap of rubble, watches warily as my husband edges his way closer, but does not allow a photo to be taken. We see other peacocks too: one, sitting on the parapet of a low roof, is watching a group of boys play cricket; another is stepping along below the guava trees on the edge of the estate. But the prettiest sight of all is the flock of peafowl that we see in a field of wheat near the palace. The wheat, fresh and green, is just high enough to hide the bodies of the peafowl: all we can see is a flock of sinuous, iridescent necks, all green-blue in colour, each wearing its own little tiara of feathers. The drabness of the peahens is cloaked by the emerald green of the wheat, and as we stand there, all of us—even Deb, who finds it difficult to be still for long—have to admit that we've rarely ever seen a prettier sight.Twilight brings with it the unmistakable sound of rural North India: the piaow-piaow call of peacocks. The sound echoes round the grounds, combining with the more throaty cooing of the blue rock pigeons that huddle against the parapets of the palace.The peacocks, thankfully, fall silent with the coming night, but the pigeons, restless as ever, bill and coo and shift about on the parapets all night. And they're at it even early the next morning. I wake up, not quite at the crack of dawn, but early enough to be among the first of the guests to be moving around. I lean on the heavy railing of the balcony, looking out over the gardens below, and the birds literally come to me. On my right, there's a tall tree of flowering bottlebrush, and amidst its drooping crimson flowers I can see a pair of red-vented bulbuls flitting about. They've chosen their tree well: the colour of the flowers almost exactly matches the tiny triangular patches of red on the bulbuls' tummies. Very pretty! In the tree on my left are no bulbuls, but a pair of purple sunbirds. The female, a drab yellow-brown in colour, is easily outshone by her more flamboyant mate, who whizzes amidst the flowers, a constantly moving shimmer of purple and deep green. He's like a little swathe of shot silk.Mum and I wander downstairs, to sit in the veranda and wait for the others. And we're rewarded for our patience with the sight of more birds. There are, as we'd expected, plenty of wood pigeons, blue rock pigeons, and green parakeets around. But there are also—and this I hadn't expected—a pair of cheeky tree pies around. Large handsome birds, they're elegantly attired in coats of black, grey, tan and white, with long tails streaming behind them. They swoop gaily about between the parapet, the lawn and the bottle brush tree, always just a little too agile to allow me a good photo opportunity. Eventually, one of them takes pity on me and alights on the lawn, just long enough to let me take a quick photograph.After breakfast, it’s time for yet another walk, this time with Neeti and Deb in tow. And, like before, we’re well rewarded. On a neighbouring patch of land, we see a pair of elegant red-wattled lapwings; a bunch of noisy babblers; and many more parakeets. My sister and I end up wandering about near Iftkhar’s tomb, gazing up into the trees and watching a flock of parakeets at their nests. The sight of a couple of common grey hornbills briefly diverts our attention; but they fly off soon enough, and we head off back towards where we’d left the kids.They’ve been exploring the estate, accompanied by Mum and Papa, and the grandparents are just as excited as the children about what they’ve just seen: a dancing peacock. We’re told in great detail about how the peacock spread its tail; how it shimmered; how lovely it was.As we head back into the palace for a bit of rest, I wish I’d been there to see the dancing peacock. I’ve never seen one, only heard about them, and seen countless photographs. But even if I missed out on the treat, at least there’s a bit of consolation: Pataudi isn’t likely to run out of peafowl for sometime yet, and we can always be back to see the birds.

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