Wednesday, 5 June 2013

My travel piece on Bharatpur for The Thumbprint (5 June 2013)

Cycling around Keoladeo

JUANITA KAKOTY relishes the natural splendor and the freedom to cycle around at Bharatpur bird sanctuary

The October evening we reached Bharatpur last year there was a little nip in the air. We rested the night at Hotel Sangam, one amidst the rows of affordable and neat hotels near the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. “Jats have originated from Bharatpur,” Shiv Singh Sikarwar, owner of Hotel Sangam, told me as I chatted him up after checking in. “This is the Eastern Gateway to Rajasthan and was founded by Maharaja Suraj Mal. His scions still live in the city palace Moti Mahal. The British could never occupy Bharatpur and so it is also known as Lohgarh or the Iron Fort.”

There are many such other legends associated with the place, but what the sleepy town is best known for is of course the Bird Sanctuary, where we planted ourselves early next morning. I was only too happy to see bicycles and cycle rickshaws available for visitors. Booking a cycle each for myself and the husband, I put my seven-month old daughter in the safe hands of my father as he got onto a cycle rickshaw.

The cycle rickshaw puller, who took my father and daughter around, turned out no less than an official guide. He appeared quite the ornithologist too, at least as regards the birds seen in the sanctuary. He told us, “Ninety percent of migratory birds from outside India are ‘vegetarians’ while ninety percent of the local and other Indian migratory birds are ‘non-vegetarians’!”

Ishwar Singh, an official guide since 1987, added, “This sanctuary was earlier called Ghana (Dense) Park, developed for duck shooting by the Jat Maharajas of Bharatpur. In 1956, the forest department renamed it as Ghana Bird Sanctuary and opened it for tourists. It was upgraded into Keoladeo National Park in 1981.” The name “Keoladeo”, as Singh said, came from the Shiva temple discovered at the centre of the Park. “Keoladeo is another name of Lord Shiva.”    

As we cycled through the beautiful Park with water bodies on both sides, trees reflecting themselves on still waters, we spotted quite a few fascinating birds. There were plenty of Painted Storks who, Singh informed, “Come from South India for breeding during January-February. The little ones make a lot of noise. But when they grow up, they lose their voice and become dumb.” There were Black Cormorants too who “also come from South India and have some inherent oil that prevents their wings from getting wet while in water.” We saw many Snake Birds or as Singh said, “The Indian darters whose necks give the impression of snakes while in water; and so the name.” We spotted a couple of White Ibis (Egypt’s national bird) and the Paddy Bird or the Pond Heron that is grey while resting on a perch but turns white in flight.

The Park has three major habitats – woodlands, grasslands (Savanah) and wetlands; the wetlands comprising about half of the ecosystem. It is supposed to be Asia’s largest marshy land. “It is a World Heritage Site, host to several North-to-South migratory birds; most famous for the Siberian migratory birds,” Singh lets us know. “The Siberian birds come with their little ones, showing them the route, teaching them to read the positions of the moon and stars.” And apparently, if one believes what Singh shared, “There is a variety of Siberian crane of which only one pair survives in the whole wide world. They come to Bharatpur.”

“In 1935 the great ornithologist Salim Ali came to Bharatpur and started the process of putting rings on Siberian birds for identification and numbering,” informed Singh as we cycled past the Dr. Salim Ali Interpretation Centre. “This centre was opened in his memory in 2006.” The Park, however, had fallen into a sorry state in the last five-six years. “There was no water and the migratory birds had stopped coming. This had turned the status of the Park precarious. The government finally woke up and is now ensuring unlimited water supply.”   

Besides birds, there are pythons, deers, antelopes and various other reptiles in the Park. It once also had a tiger, briefly though. Singh related this tale to us. “A male tiger escaped from Ranathambore last October and came to Keoladeo. You couldn’t cycle around like this then. After a lot of failed attempts at capturing it, the authorities taped a female tiger’s voice and played it at the Savanah grasslands where it made its home. Hearing the voice, it came out in the open and was finally captured. That is how it was taken back to Ranathambore this February.”     

The whole day went by as we cycled around and halted every now and then to spot some species of an animal, bird, reptile or plant. I was like some Alice in wonderland! Wonderland because all that I saw and experienced was far removed from the kind of existence I otherwise find myself in the city. The high point of course was the natural splendor and the freedom to cycle around, free from traffic and pollution woes.

Juanita Kakoty is a freelance writer and journalist based in New Delhi. She writes regularly on art, culture, travel and people for Deccan Herald. Her stories have also been published in India Today and The Assam Tribune. She holds an M.Phil degree in Sociology from JNU and taught the subject at Gauhati University and Jamia Milia Islamia University before doing projects with the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and a European Union consortium on ICTs for Development. At present, she is taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation.

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