Saturday, September 24, 2011

Traveling Notes from Keoladeo National Park, Bharatput, India


The lazy days of Summer are coming to an end, We have also past the everyday Rains... Clouds come only for 20-30 minutes, in the middle of sunny day and then vanish with the winds. Hard. Crazy weather! The good part is that the fall is standing over the next corner...

On one comparatively cool morning, I was welcomed by the calls of jungle babblers and Brahminy Mynas that hopped from branch to branch along the trees at the edge of the park.


The small road that cuts through Keoladeo National Park is like a great, open-air aviary, where a medley of bird calls and sudden flashes of colour in the foliage keep you light and peaceful. There’s a mind-boggling variety of birds and other local animals at this sanctuary in Rajasthan, where I encountered nearly a hundred species living happily within the protected area. The park is so densely populated that no matter where I stood, there were at least half-a-dozen species preening and calling out.





It’s one of history’s ironies that the origin of this national park has nothing to do with protecting birds. More than a century ago, the Maharaja of Bharatpur created these wetlands by damming Gambhir River and diverting its waters to a natural depression. The marshy area thus created for shooting (with gun of-course) ducks and cranes and other migratory birds, which arrived in the winter months. What is a beautiful sanctuary today was thus a protected hunting site, which hosted shooting parties of Indian and British royalty!


This hunting reserve was declared a bird sanctuary in 1956 and named after the Keoladeo (Lord Shiva) Temple located within its boundaries. The sanctuary, with more than 300 species of birds, many of them critically endangered, was later declared a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.




I had barely taken a few steps inside when I spotted a peahen escorting a bunch of young ones foraging on the ground. They quickly disappeared into a bush when the mother saw me watching them and alerted her flock. A minute later, a laughing dove was posing for me gracefully from atop a bush.



In my first hour inside the park, I saw only smaller birds commonly found in the plains, like rose-ringed parakeets and a variety of shrikes, bulbul, Myna, Drongo and other common birds. Parakeets love to chatter! Every inch of Bharatpur’s shrub is filled with their raucous calls and yet their green blends so seamlessly with the vegetation that it’s hard to spot them in the trees.




As I walked further down this great birding highway, birds that were less common were kind enough to make an appearance. The only pair of black-necked storks nesting in the park was feeding happily in knee-deep waters at the edge of the road, showing off shiny blue necks.



After a few hours of wandering around the sanctuary, I spotted a fine pair of critically endangered Sarus Cranes—the largest of the birds in the park—known to stand almost as tall as a human adult. As I kept watching them, the pair delighted me with a fine display of their courtship dance, jumping up and calling with a loud trumpeting sound. Watching this happy couple alone made my visit to the park rewarding.


The marshy terrain makes the Keoladeo an ideal habitat for large herons, which need plenty of space and isolation to breed. These large birds were nesting on trees scattered across the swamp. There was a fairly large population of painted storks that stood out with their colourful pink-and-black plumage. Grey herons, with their long necks, were everywhere. Standing absolutely still in knee-deep water, they would suddenly stab at fish with their needle-like, long beaks.
There is more to Keoladeo National Park than this massive congregation of birds. The large water body makes it an ideal habitat for turtles. It was a full three hours later that I found an easy way to get a good look at them, thanks to the generosity of Seetaram Baba. Baba lives at the Hanuman Temple in a corner of the park. He had been feeding the turtles for many years and they now respond to his calls.

Baba took a vessel filled with dough to the water’s edge. As we watched, standing on the steps leading to the pond, he started calling them, “Aa…aa…aaa.” Within seconds, I saw something stir in the water. Then, a small snout and two tiny eyes popped out near the steps. This was soon followed by another one and another one, all of them emerging slowly. They fed on the wheat balls slowly and cautiously, coming out of the water only for an instant to gulp the food before disappearing again. They looked gentle and harmless but Baba told me they can collectively tear apart an animal.


This sanctuary is also inhabited by Sambar, Chital, Nilgai and Boar that graze happily on the lush grass at the edge of the marsh.




One of the major environmental issue in this park is—many species of migratory birds have failed to show up over the past two decades owing to successive years of drought and lack of sufficient water in the marshes. The increased demand for redirecting the waters of the dam to nearby agricultural fields is making it harder to keep the swamp filled. For instance, the Siberian cranes, once almost the migrant mascots of the park, have not visited Bharatpur in eight years.



About Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur

Keoladeo National Park is a small marshland with a very high density of bird population. A large number of winter migrants arrive in the park in the years when there is sufficient water in the marshes. Small roads cut across the marshland, allowing visitors to get a good look at the birds. Access to the park is by foot, cycle rickshaws and bicycles. Cycle Rickshaws and bird guides can be hired at the park entrance on hourly rates. It is recommended to use the services of guides as they are well informed and can show you some birds that you may not easily find yourself.  Bicycles are a good way to traverse the park and are available on rent.

The park is just outside the town of Bharatpur, which is an hour’s drive from Agra on the Agra-Jaipur road. It is about five hours by road from Delhi. 



More than 300 species of birds are found in this small wildlife park of 29-sq-kms of which 11-sq-kms are marshes and the rest scrubland and grassland. Keoladeo, the name derives from an ancient Hindu temple, devoted to Lord Shiva, which stands at the centre of the park. ‘Ghana’ means dense, referring to the thick forest, which used to cover the area. 

Keoladeo, popularly known as Bharatpur Wildlife Sanctuary, is perhaps the only case where the habitat has been created by a maharaja. In earlier times, Bharatpur town used to be flooded regularly every monsoon. In 1760, an earthen dam (Ajan Dam) was constructed, to save the town, from this annual vagary of nature. The depression created by extraction of soil for the dam was cleared and this became the Bharatpur Lake.

Boats are also available on hire. A early morning boat trip or a late evening one is quite a rewarding experience to check out the hidden surprises of Bharatpur.

Other nearby tourist attraction  

Bharatpur Palace :
Not far from the National Park is the Bharatpur Palace, an marvellous structural blend of Mughal and Rajput architecture.

Lohagarh Fort :
The invincible Lohagarh Fort, which remained unconquered despite several attacks by the British regime.
 
Deeg Palace :
Situated just 32-kms away from Bharatpur is the Deeg Palace. A strong and massive fortress, Deeg Palace was the summer resort of the rulers of Bharatpur and houses numerous beautiful palaces and gardens.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Thanks for sharing. An erstwhile duck hunting ground for Lord Curzon, Bharatpur today is the site of one of the most well known bird sanctuaries in India. Years of colourful Jat rule have also bestowed the place with a rich historic legacy. Check out Picture Palace, a movie hall in Bharatpur.

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