Keoladeo Ghana: Why Bharatpur will never give up

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Statistics reveal that from the time of creation, nearly 99.96% of all animal species has been wiped out from the face of the earth. After years of environmental disasters, meteorite strikes, the ice age and human intervention, what we see now constitutes a mere 0.04% of the original count. Take a moment to reflect on that and imagine what this planet has lost…

One single human invention that altered the scale of killings was the firearm. India, a country that once boasted of 40,000 tigers in 1940 is now a land of around 4000. That’s after Project Tiger. Thanks to the maharajas and the British, the cheetah has been shot out of extinction and the King of the Jungle, the Asiatic lion, ekes out a living in a few patches in the wild. While it is the big cats who have hounded most of the spotlight, the fate of the feathered creatures has been largely ignored. In the bloody history of Indian wildlife, one place that really stands out is Bharatpur.

Bharatpur became a bird sanctuary almost by accident. A natural depression of 29 sq km frequently flooded by the Yamuna, it became a rich habitat for diverse bird life. The Maharajas of Bharatpur recognized the potential of this marshy area, added a few dykes and promptly appointed it as a royal duck-shooting reserve. They would often throw it open to whet the bloodlust of visiting dignitaries. The first official duck shoot was inaugurated on December 1, 1902 by Viceroy Lord Curzon and his Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchner. The party shot 540 birds.

The bloodiest expedition, credited to the then Viceroy and Governor General of India, is also the world record in duck shooting. In one single afternoon in 1938, Lord Linlithgow and his hunting party slaughtered as many as 4273 birds. A memorial inside the park lists out the heinous exploits of Bharatpur’s many distinguished guests. Though it was declared a bird sanctuary in 1956, shooting continued till 1965 and the Maharaja himself reluctantly gave up his shooting rights in 1972. But much before all this, Bharatpur’s history had already been written in blood.

Locals believe it’s something in the air. Perhaps a coalescence of Jat brashness baked in the feudal and bloody atmosphere of Rajasthan. According to a legend, the moment Shravan Kumar entered the town’s boundaries; his pious and mild manner was transformed into that of frustration. He cursed his fate for having to carry his burdensome parents and abandoned them, only to return later in a fit of remorse. However, the pendulum of karmic fate had already swung.

King Dashrath who was on a hunt, mistook Shravan filling a water vessel to be a deer slaking its thirst and let loose a shabd-bhedi vaan (sound-directed arrow). Shravan died and his father cursed Dashrath of eternal separation from his son, thus setting the course of the Ramayana. You can still find a Shravan Taal (lake) inside Bharatpur where this incident occurred. Locals love to narrate this story with devilish glee, taking sadistic pride in the region’s harsh brutality that tests the will and character of the noblest of beings.

Interestingly, the 2000-year-old epic Ramayana also has the earliest historical reference to the Sarus Crane. Sage Valmiki, its author, was deeply angered by the sight of a Sarus fatally wounded by a hunter’s arrow. On hearing the cries of its distressed mate, he cursed the hunter in impeccable verse, thus beginning the epic tale of love and separation. More than anything else, it portrays a deep understanding of birds in ancient India, for today we know that most crane species pair for life. The gracious Sarus cranes, the tallest birds of flight in the world, are considered sacred in India and enjoy rare diplomatic immunity not just in Bharatpur but also across the entire Indian countryside.

One would imagine that after all these years of degradation, Bharatpur would be an avian graveyard. Call it the resilient nature of Bharatpur, but the place is not just heralded as one of the finest bird reserves in the world, UNESCO has even acknowledged it as a World Heritage Site. Some 425 species of birds have been recorded in and around the 29 sq km park, making it an amazingly dense and diverse bird habitat. Bharatpur is considered the finest Heronry in the world as well as an unrivalled breeding site for the Painted Stork, Purple Heron, White Ibis and the Eurasian Spoonbill.

The park is also the last known wintering ground in India for the central population of the Siberian Crane, the most exotic of all crane species. If you discount the birdwatchers that flock from different parts of the world, the Siberian happens to be the park’s most far-flung visitor. It undertakes a mind-boggling marathon of 6400 km from the Arctic, its only other wintering ground in the world being Feredunkenar in Iran. The visitor list reads like a UN delegation, with exotic dignitaries flying in from Afghanistan, Central Asia and Tibet. The Grey-lag Geese come from Siberia while the Bar-headed Geese from China. Bharatpur is the much favoured winter destination of the Bar-headed Geese, an unassuming bird that holds the record of being the highest-flying bird in the world. A flock was found flapping at 9375m in Nepal, a good 500m above Mount Everest!

Open throughout the year, the park is at its full glory when the migrant birds visit between October and February. Though numbers have been dwindling because of successive years of drought, something keeps them coming. Locals believe it’s the blessing of Keoladeo, or ‘The Only God’. Said to be a form of Pashupati Shiva, the Lord of the Animals, Keoladeo is the patron deity of the region. The ancient Shiva temple in the center of the park lends its name to the sanctuary, which was renamed as Keoladeo Ghana National Park in 1981 (Ghana meaning dense). It is one of the few parks in India with unlimited access and it remains open from sunrise to sunset. While some tend to take a luxurious 5km walk from the main gate to the center of the park, others take a rickshaw. Most of the rickshaw pullers double up as guides and are so adept that they’ll tell you where to find what. But if you want to know what stage 2 in the life cycle of a sarus is called, you must meet Lakshmi.

A veteran birdwatcher of Bharatpur, Lakshmi’s usually perches at Birder’s Inn, a joint run by Tirath Singh, himself an avian enthusiast. Birder’s Inn is just 5 minutes from the park gate and acts as a watering hole for serious ornithologists. Excellent accommodation facilities, a wide array of local and Western cuisine, knowledgeable guides, a birder’s library and a garden that acts like a sanctuary to passing birds. As if on cue, a Common Tree Pie perches on a nearby tree and all the other birds scoot as if they have seen a ghost. The Tree Pie is an unusually aggressive bird and a peculiar habit has earned it the nickname ‘Tiger’s Toothpick’. The bird is so fearless that it forages between the teeth of tigers to dig out pieces of meat. Obstinacy, as you see, is the recurrent theme in Bharatpur.

It’s ironical that the place was named as Bharatpur after Bharat, the compassionate, all-loving brother of Lord Rama. But it comes as no surprise that it was the hotheaded Laxman who was worshipped as the family deity of Bharatpur. Rustam, a Jat of the Sogariya clan, laid the foundation of the modern city and after him, control passed to his son Khemkaran and then to Maharaja Suraj Mal. In 1733, the legendary Jat ruler fortified the city, built the fort and transformed Bharatpur into the only Jat dominated pocket in Rajasthan. It defied the British, the Mughals, the Rajputs and any military force that dared to challenge it.

The Lohagadh Fort, whose walls were reinforced with iron, is a sullen reminder of Bharatpur’s resilience. Dull-white, squalid and as chunky as an unwieldy block of cement, the fort successively repelled four British onslaughts. The Jats erected the two towers Jawahar Burj and Fateh Burj to commemorate the victory over the Mughals and the British. It wasn’t until 1804 that Lord Lake managed to capture it for a brief period. But like a wild mustang, Bharatpur shook the saddle of foreign power off its back and proved yet again that it would be tamed by none.

Many years have since passed. The deep moat that once surrounded the fort is now a dirty culvert. The Bharatpur Lake inside the sanctuary is a barren wasteland. Boating, once the preferred means of watching the park’s aquatic birds, is now a distant dream. The Siberian cranes that once visited Bharatpur in flocks can now be counted on fingers, while some of the best birders have been lost to alcohol. Four successive years of drought in Rajasthan have wrenched Bharatpur’s soul from its scarred earth, slowly draining away the last vestiges of life.

I’d like to imagine all it needs to revive itself is a good bout of rain. Perhaps the Siberians will remember their ancient flight path and return again. Maybe the boatmen will pick up their oars once more. It might sound like an idle fancy or a romantic idea, but such optimism stems from nothing but Bharatpur’s Terminatoresque grit. Something tells me that long after empires have crumbled, cities have perished and species have become extinct, some tough microchip embedded in the mental map of Bharatpur will still keep it ticking.

FACT SHEET:

Getting there: Bharatpur’s strategic location at the center of the golden triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra make it a popular stopover. It also easily accessible from Fatehpur Sikri and Mathura.

By Road: Bharatpur is 182 km from Delhi. Take NH-2 via Faridabad-Palwal-Hodal-Kosi and go straight from Mathura Road junction onto the flyover. The right turn for Bharatpur is on the flyover but you can’t turn right because of the divider. Take a u-turn after the flyover and turn left on State Highway 33 towards Bharatpur. In spite of being only 32 km away, the appalling condition of the road makes the journey both painfully slow as well as painful. Watch out for potholes, especially at night though it’s not advisable to travel after sundown.

By Rail: Regular trains connect Bharatpur with several cities on the Delhi-Mumbai track and it also lies on the frequently traveled Agra-Jaipur route.

By Air: Agra, 56 km away, is the nearest airport though Delhi is better connected

WHERE TO STAY

Birder’s Inn: Bird Sanctuary Road, Bharatpur 321001 Ph: 05644-27346

Run by avid birder Tirath Singh, Birder’s Inn is the hub of all bird-watching activity in Bharatpur. 12 air-conditioned double rooms overlook a garden that acts like a sanctuary to passing birds. Located just 5 minutes from the park gate, Birder’s Inn has a small library dedicated to ornithology and a curio shop, which among other things sells beautiful hand-painted bird sketches.

Bharatpur Forest Lodge: Inside Bharatpur Sanctuary Ph: 05644-22760-22722 Fax: 05644-22864

Part of the Ashok Group of Hotels, the ITDC-run Bharatpur Forest Lodge is an abominably expensive choice of accommodation. Not even its prime location inside the sanctuary can redeem it. It’s generally a haunt for super-rich foreigners who have either got off or plan to get on the Palace-on-Wheels. The Lodge has 18 double rooms, of which 10 are Air-Conditioned. Rs.2500 for a single and Rs.2800 for a double. And that excludes the food, which is a choice of Indian and Continental.

Best time to visit

There are two broad seasons to visit the park; the first is the monsoon, which is the breeding season for many of Bharatpur’s resident and local migratory birds. The other, more popular season is winter, when long distance migrants travel thousands of kilometers from Eastern Europe, Siberia and central Asia. And that’s just the birds.

AROUND BHARATPUR

Deeg (34 km)

North of Bharatpur is the beautiful garden town of Deeg that served as the summer retreat of the princes of Bharatpur. It reeks of the indulgence and eccentricity of Bharatpur’s rulers, who quite like the Decorator Crab or the Magpie Robin, would haul any object that caught their fancy to adorn the pleasure palaces of Deeg. Neither size nor distance was a constraint. Gopal Bhavan, easily the most impressive structure has an exquisite swing that once belonged to Noor Jahan. Maharaja Suraj Mal dragged it from the Mughal court in Delhi as a war trophy. In one of the rooms on the upper floor is a solid slab of black marble. It was actually a gravestone from a mausoleum, which one Maharaja mistook to be a royal bed and used it thus. In an operation of CKD assembly that would put Toyota to shame, entire pools and marble fountains were dismantled from Macchhi Bhawan in Agra Fort and re-assembled at Deeg. The Deeg fort has a watchtower that still has a gun captured from the Agra fort and another cannon captured from Ahmad Shah Abdali. The list goes on and it’s best to let a local guide extol the prowess of Bharatpur’s maharajas and the beauty of their leisure resort.

Peharsar (30 km)

Situated 30 km from Bharatpur on the Agra-Jaipur highway, Peharsar used to be a small village called Lohagarh until a freak battle changed all that. Legend has it that Sultan Mahmud captured it in just three hours (Pehar means a three-hour period and sar means victory, hence the name). Pehersar is littered with specimens of Mughal architecture but one magnificent building that has stood the test of time is Chandra Mahal Haveli. The mansion, built in the 1850s by rich Muslim nobles, today serves as a heritage hotel. The management organizes cultural shows, jeep safaris, rural visits to watch carpet weavers at work and excursions to Deeg, Hathorigarh, Weir Fort, etc. Peharsar’s strategic location also makes it an excellent stopover on the way to Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, Fatehpur Sikri (40 km) and Agra (75 km).

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in May, 2003 in Deccan Herald (Sunday).

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