Written by phileasfogg on 14 Jun, 2002
We’re ploughing our way through tough, knee-high grass, wet with dew and harbouring God knows how many insects. Every now and then, there’s a pothole, an anthill or some such unpleasant surprise, and the fact that one can’t even curse loudly- for fear of scaring…Read More
We’re ploughing our way through tough, knee-high grass, wet with dew and harbouring God knows how many insects. Every now and then, there’s a pothole, an anthill or some such unpleasant surprise, and the fact that one can’t even curse loudly- for fear of scaring away birds- makes us even madder.
We’re in Bharatpur- or to be more precise, in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. It’s 8 in the morning on a chilly January day. A mist is hanging over the marshes and the grasslands, and the park is, mercifully, free of the crowds of tourists who’ll come in later in the day. Since this is a bird sanctuary we’re in- India’s best known, and a World Heritage site, incidentally- it’s very quiet.
Our guide, a tall, gaunt man from the neighbouring village, has a voice loud enough to scare off all the birds for miles around. His name’s Bacchu Singh, and he admits, very frankly, that he isn’t one of "those young upstarts from town" and can’t read English. What comes as a bit of a surprise is his astounding knowledge about nature. A chance question about the name of a plant we see, and he rattles off a string of botanical names. He carries a book (an English one) on birds, with each bird’s name- common and scientific- carefully penned alongside in Hindi.
He’s phenomenal- all he needs to do is look at a thorn tree about 100 metres away, and his verdict is instant: "Look there- see that? About ten feet down from the top of that tree- that’s a spotted owl. And it’s looking this way." We peer through our binoculars very dutifully, but can see nothing beyond a dark smudge which may be a bird- or may not. Eventually, Bacchu Singh ends up having to take us, through the grass, to the tree. The owl is there, and it has been looking at us. And the smudge we’d been peering at turns out to be a clump of leaves.
Keoladeo is, even for city people like us who can barely tell the difference between a rock chat and a house sparrow, a fabulously interesting place. A wide stretch of marshland, it started off being a private hunting reserve for a Maharaja, and later became a national park. All through the year, it’s crowded with birds- especially aquatic ones- and winter is when that squawking, feather-brained crowd increases by about a few thousand.
Now is when they’re all around: kites, crested eagles, purple, grey and night herons; greylag geese; bar-headed geese, cattle egrets, darters ("snake birds" is what all the guides call them- when they swim, with their long curving necks sticking up out of the water, they do look rather reptilian), jacanas, brahminy ducks, rosy pelicans and hundreds more. Near us, a sudden flash of bright yellow reveals the presence of a golden oriole; on a roadside bush, a podgy little black-and-white magpie robin suddenly bursts into exquisite song. A V-shaped flock of pelicans circles lazily up above, looking out for a place to land, and far away, in a leafless tree, sits a large black bird, its forked tail distinctive in the early morning light. "That’s a drongo," says Bacchu Singh. "A jungle kotwal." (a kotwal is the Hindi equivalent of a police inspector- basically a lawman). It turns out that drongos defend their nests- and the trees on which they make their nests- very belligerently; that’s why the epithet.
Epithets, in fact, come very easily to the local people: the brahminy myna, with its distinctive black head, is called a Sunil Dutt myna, after a Hindi filmstar of yesteryears whose hairstyle looked much like the myna’s patch of black. The crimson-beaked purple moorhens (deliciously jewel-like in colour, these birds: a gorgeous vivid purple, shot through with emerald green) are called `lipstick birds’. The red beak, you see.
On an island in the marshes is a rock python, sunning itself in the weak winter sunshine; further away, in the slowly-evaporating mist, we can see a couple of sambhar deer, the male with a beautiful pair of antlers. An evening walk reveals more of Keoladeo’s mammalian inhabitants: on a long walk back to our hotel, our path is crossed by a skittish spotted deer. In the fading light, a mongoose scurries across the road, and suddenly a wild cackling, howling chorus breaks out- far away, but eerie enough to make us just a wee bit nervous. "Jackals," our guide explains. "They start their hunts around this time, when the sun sets."
Jackals are about the only large predators in Keoladeo, although a stray tigress, probably an illegal immigrant from Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, is wandering around the park these days. "We saw her the other day," Bacchu Singh says, as he takes us through a really wild patch of tall grass. "Just about where you’re standing-" (we glance around nervously, half-expecting the creature to leap out at us, bang on cue)- "we hadn’t realised she was around; just happened to look back- and there she was".
But tigers aren’t Keoladeo’s forte; birds are- and none as much as the rare Siberian crane. Part of the Siberian crane population- and it’s a small one- flies south to Bharatpur every year during the winter. Till about two decades ago, the number of cranes which came to nest here was around 40; now, a single pair comes. Bacchu Singh tells us of the breeding programmes organised by the National Park in an attempt to boost the crane population- with our friend himself dressing up in a crane costume and acting the role of foster mother. "It didn’t work," he says sadly. The birds (one called Boris- after Yeltsin; and the other called Billy- after Clinton; obviously named by some overworked Indian bureaucrat with politics on his mind) didn’t survive.
But things are looking up. A Russian pal of Bacchu Singh’s has just sent him an e-mail with some welcome news- he’s spotted 17 pairs of Siberian cranes, of the population which comes to Keoladeo. Does that mean we’ll see more of the cranes than the solitary pair we’ve seen this year? We’ll be back next year to check.
Written by actonsteve on 07 Jul, 2001
There are ruins in India that simply knock you sideways.And the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri is one of those. Nearly perfectly preserved after 450 years in the Rajasthan desert it's pavilions, walls and mosque are a magnificent sight and testimony to the great building…Read More
There are ruins in India that simply knock you sideways.And the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri is one of those. Nearly perfectly preserved after 450 years in the Rajasthan desert it's pavilions, walls and mosque are a magnificent sight and testimony to the great building power of the Moghul Emperor's. It is also conveniently on the way between Agra and Jaipur, but I think Bharatpur makes a good base to explore Fatehpur Sikri. And the bus service on Bird Sanctuary road gives a good show of village India life on it's journey to the ruined city.Fatehpur Sikri was the creation of one man - Akbar the Great. Shah Jahan is the most known of the Moghuls as the builder of the Taj Mahal, but Akbar was the more proficient builder and reigned far longer. Everyone forgets how powerful the Moghuls were in the 16th Century world. Their Empire stretched from Kandahar in Afghanistan all the way to the Bay of Bengal with the capital moved between Lahore, Agra and Delhi.Although he had many wives and was all-powerful he could not produce an heir. He visited a holy man (sadhu) in the nearby village of Sikri and the holy man prophesied he would have an heir. In gratitude to the holy mans vision Akbar sought to create a new capital in the village of Sikri.Using the hard reddish sandstone of the nearby hills, the city was built on a hill and the court in all its splendour moved with it. The dancing girls, elephant jousts and chess-games with real people only lasted for fourteen years as the city was notoriously hard to supply with water. It was abandoned and reclaimed by the desert until it was rediscovered in 1900.The first sight of the city on the hill is magnificent. And whichever way you arrive, as soon as you approach the gates you will be marked by hawkers, beggars etc. Postcards, knives and souvenirs will be shoved in your face by children (whose fear is less) and you will be bombarded as you make your way to the gate past the drink and souvenir stands.I took on a guide, as my experience at the Red Fort had proved, you miss things on your own - and took the one who got rid of the hawkers. He took me to a nearby stall and remove my boots (his families stall, what a surprise)and the my bare legs were wrapped in a lunghi (sheet) and I was led barefooted to the great looming gate of the Shah Darwanza.This was the great towering gateway to Fatehpur Sikri (see photo)and once through you are in a gigantic courtyard. Blazing in the sun this was about 500ft square and covered in a ribbon of cloth to protect the faithful's bare feet from the hot marble. Behind me Shahi Darwanza soared in red marble and there were porticoes containing worshippers that were sheltering from the intense heat.The guide explained, Fatehpur Sikri was built in 1572 (I did my calculations, Elizabeth I's reign in English terms)and was where Akbar, fascinated by all the faiths of India, tried to find a fifth credo that incorporated them all. This was apparent in the towering red mihrab (mosque)This was cool and shady with soaring column's, a domed ceiling and Arabic inscriptions. The niche that contained the koran was still there and Akbar's fascination of all the religions of the world was pointed out to me - Muslim inscriptions, Hindu column's and a Christian dome.Then it was on to to the tomb of the royal ladies and a phalanx of grey marble tombs spread across the floor. The biggest was the white marble tomb of Sheik Salim Christi, a Muslim prophet. The tomb was exquisite and saried women moved around carved pillars, and lattice screens filtered the light to stunning effect. Inside was a tomb inlaid with mother-of-pearl where a holy man sat on cushions and visitors donated rupees.Fatehpur Sikri is a fabulous sight and looks the same as it did when it was constructed in 1572. If you can brave the tourist bustle, this is a good stop on the route between Agra and Jaipur. When we were driving away I took one more look at the soaring Shahi Darwhanza and then was stunned by what I saw on the road. There were a number of men with dancing sloth bears, they would dance for the tourists by rearing on their hind legs when their handler yanks their their nose-chain.Local colour or extreme cruelty to animals? You decide. Close
India still stuns with the abundancy of its wildlife. The Keoladeo Ghana National park almost bursts at the seams with creatures out of 'The Jungle Book' and you can get a real taste of wilderness India amongst its lakes and watermeadows. You may spot sambar,…Read More
India still stuns with the abundancy of its wildlife. The Keoladeo Ghana National park almost bursts at the seams with creatures out of 'The Jungle Book' and you can get a real taste of wilderness India amongst its lakes and watermeadows. You may spot sambar, nilgai, pythons, wildboars, jackals, otters and hyena's but it is most famous for its migration of thousands of birds which added to the year-round residents creates an incredible spectacle. Even if you are not interested in birdlife then the open lakes and jungle make a relaxing environment. A world away from the tourist frenzy of Jaipur and Agra.The best way to see it is with a guide. We hired a turbaned Schwammi and his cycle-rickshaw for about 200 rupee (£2.30/£3.40 - a steal!). The Schwammi had been a guide in the park for twenty years and was very knowledgeable, and once you have paid your entry fee (100 rupees) you are free to explore.The main route is the raised road which runs across the lakes and watermeadows for about five miles eventually finishing at python point. The road overlooks the lakes which are home to thousands of birds. The whole experience is very relaxing with the only sounds being the cawing of the birds and the creaking of the cycle-rickshaw.We arrived at the park late in the day when the heat was less and the animals more active. Our first animals were not far from the entrance gates and were a pair of jackals on the road - they soon vanished into the undergrowth.The jungle was now either side of the cycle-rickshaw and we scanned the trees and bushes for any sign of life. The Schwammi was more experienced and soon pointed out hornbills, grey mynah birds and brightly coloured kingfishers. The lakes around us were turned into watermeadows by the dry season and the great green expanses now housed storks, egrets, herons,ducks, betas (partridges), cranes, ibis' and spoonbills. One bird particularly amused me, "grey heron" said the Schwammi, "all the way from England."The day was so hot we got out of the cycle-rickshaw and walked along the roadway allowing us to see the animal-life from a better angle. We were marvelling at huge weaver-bird nests in the tree's (see photo) when movement caught our eye. A herd of nilgai (antelope) was plodding across the watermeadow. One big bull nilgai stopped and watched us (see photo) without fear and was magnificent with his russet-red colouring. The Schwammi thought he saw a watersnake in the marsh and not far from us sitting in the bole of a tree was a wood owl. The denizens of the park must be very used to tourists as we could approach within 10 ft for photos.But now dusk was falling and the animals were coming out to hunt or settling down to roost so there was a flurry of activity. As we creaked back to the park entrance the Schwammi pointed out Jacaranda's and the sound of peacocks could be heard from the tree's. My favourite moment was when a small-cat like mongoose ran across the road. The Schwammi puffed up at this."He on the hunt. He looking for cobra to eat." Close
Keoladeo Ghana is India's best bird sanctuary, and the birds you'll see here will be a fabulous cross-section of not just species from the Indian sub-continent, but also a sizeable bunch of migrating species. Most prominent are the aquatic birds, which include greylag geese, bar-headed…Read More
Keoladeo Ghana is India's best bird sanctuary, and the birds you'll see here will be a fabulous cross-section of not just species from the Indian sub-continent, but also a sizeable bunch of migrating species. Most prominent are the aquatic birds, which include greylag geese, bar-headed geese, brahminy ducks, pelicans, pintail ducks, jacanas, common moorhens, purple moorhens, darters, egrets, and the gorgeous shocking pink-tinted painted storks.
The park's also got a decent popualtion of raptors: white-shouldered kites, spotted owls, crested eagles, and a few others- though they're not as visible as the rest of the birds.
Other feathered friends around include magpie robins, golden orioles, thrushes, mynas, weaver birds, and the stars of the show- the Siberian cranes. The beautiful scarlet-necked Indian Sarus cranes are also around, though they're on the endangered list.