Shekhavati is typical Rajasthan terrain: an arid region of loose soil, swept into dunes and earthbanks by hot winds. Pretty much devoid of vegetation, this land barely manages to support tussocks of grass and knobbly keekar trees, their bitter, thorny leaves providing fodder for the camels. A colourless land, one might think -- colourless and lifeless.
Interestingly enough, not so. We’ve barely driven a few kilometres through this forbidding landscape when things begin to happen. . . ornithologically interesting things. A burst of deep blue and turquoise flashes swiftly across the road, and we realise that we’ve just glimpsed an Indian roller -- a blue jay. A couple of rotund partridges scurry past, watched by a vivid little green bee-eater sitting on a telephone wire up above, on the lookout for passing insects. A hoopoe swoops past in a flurry of orange-pink, black and white-striped feathers, and alights on an earthbank, the striped crest on its head coming erect as it does so. Wood pigeons, collared doves, little brown doves and common mynahs there are in plenty, both along the roads and in the dusty villages we drive through. And sitting stolidly on a wire miles from any pond or village well, is also the portly form of a white-breasted kingfisher, its immaculate white shirtfront a striking contrast to its turquoise-and-chocolate coattails.
One evening, we sit on the flower-fringed lawns of the Piramal Haveli in Baggar (where we’re staying) and have our tea while the fountain in the middle of the garden gurgles merrily into its tiered marble bowls. It’s been a hot day, and the cool water soon begins attracting birds. The house sparrows flock around, twittering and creating a ruckus, but fly off after a while, to be replaced by a red-vented bulbul. With its triangular black crest of feathers bobbing proudly atop its head, the bulbul has a drink at the fountain and then hovers around, cooling off in the gentle spray. A passing rose-ringed parakeet arrives, stops long enough to give the tip of the fountain a derisive kick, and then swoops off in a flurry of grass-green feathers, as if content at having expressed its opinion in a manner that leaves little room for misinterpretation. The bulbul, a little taken aback at such rudeness, also flies off, its pretty crimson belly twinkling.
A brief lull follows, and then a timid collared dove alights. It minces along nervously around the edge of the fountain, and just about summons up the nerve to have a drink when a peahen, heavy-bodied and dull-looking but with an iridescent blue-green neck, arrives. She hops onto the rim of the fountain and tiptoes along it in the wake of the dove, graceful as a ballerina. High up above, on the parapet of a nearby house, a stunning peacock piao-piaos in a wild and unmusical call. We wait impatiently for him to arrive, but he obliges only later, when the peahen has left. He’s a sight for sore eyes. His tail, long and lavish, glitters in a medley of gold, green, blue, indigo and violet; and the pretty crest atop his blue-green head is really more a regal coronet than anything else. He knows he’s gorgeous, and the way he sparkles in front of the comparatively dull red-wattled lapwing that’s drinking at the fountain, it’s clear to everybody who holds sway here.
By the time the peacock leaves, it’s nearly dark. The last birds in the garden- a delicate purple sunbird flitting among the canna lilies; the lapwing; and the odd house swift, flying about between the parapets of the house- have gone home, and we carefully pick up our camera and get moving. It’s been a delightful evening. And Shekhavati, we’ve discovered, actually has more to offer than just havelis.