“It has been said that birds could exist without man but that man would perish without birds.” – Dr. Salim Ali in his book on Indian Birds published by Bombay Natural History Society.(He is eminent Ornithologist also known as the “ Bird man of India”. Won Padma Shree and Padma Vibhushan Awards)
The month of January ended giving us a three day long weekend. Being satiated by routine strenuous life associated with all hustle - bustle of the metro, we were desperately seeking for some repose to rejuvenate our souls. Just looking for some serene spot around Delhi which can offer tranquility during the stay, we consulted few travel savvy friends of ours, but could not decide. Like always, internet came to our rescue and after short listing few placid destinations, we ultimately zeroed upon Bharatpur- popularly known as birds’ own city..... a small town near Mathura famous for its Bird Sanctuary. Initially I thought of booking some place for overnight stay thru the net, then since option of returning to Mathura was there, I pronounced ....let’s take a chance and make the move.
We left Faridabad at around 11.00 am and after driving on NH-2 upto Mathura, spotted a bifurcation towards right on the flyover within the city itself, just before reaching Mathura refinery. They had placed a small signboard on the flyover indicating the turning towards Bharatpur, so one has to be very careful. We accessed this road after ascending back the flyover from the next u-turn. From this junction onwards starts the state highway 33 to Bharatpur. One important thing: if you are looking for breakfast or lunch, it is better to opt for some roadside dhabha on NH itself before reaching Mathura town, because there is virtually no good eating point on that state highway 33. You can also go for Mc Donald or UPSTDC’s hotel just opposite Mathura Refinery before leaving the NH. We had packed lunches so we didn’t stop for food anywhere except one or two short breaks to respond to natures’ call. The 34 Km long journey from Mathura to Bharatpur was smooth, the road was good except few bumpy speed breakers, and we reached Bharatpur at around 3.30pm. This small town does not give looks of any tourist destination. In absence of any roadside indication for the sanctuary, we had to rely on the traditional Indian GPS of asking around the local people. After covering almost the entire width of the town, ultimately we reached the Bird Sanctuary. It is located on the southern outskirts of Bharatpur town, on Agra –Jaipur highway. Named as Keoladeo National park, it is also popularly known as “Ghana” meaning dense forest.
As we went inside the national park, the wilderness of the place evoked an instant sense of satisfaction in us for choosing this destination. We were asked to park our vehicles at the first check point as only non polluting vehicles are allowed inside the park which includes: bicycles, specially allowed cycle rickshaws and battery driven tourist cabs. Very close to this location is one and only Jungle Lodge maintained by ITDC. In fact, the term lodge appeared to be misleading; the place is very well maintained. It is probably a three star hotel with a nice reception and a lobby. The idea of staying inside the forest area itself excited all of us. But alas! being the peak season, it was completely booked. Lodge Manager advised us to book this place in advance for future visits especially if one is coming during this time of the year. Booking is available on ITDC website. This forest lodge is a government undertaking having seventeen well furnished rooms with balconies peeping into the greenery of forest all around along with a rooftop restaurant.
The ambiance of the forest area was perfect to suite our taste. Before entering the main park area, we decided to visit the museum located near first check point. It is dedicated to famous Ornithologist Dr Salim Ali. We found it to be very informative, migratory routes of various birds visiting this place from all over the world has been very nicely depicted by means of electronic buzzers......and amazingly all were working. The concept of wetland development and preservation is shown in a very simple form through models such that it can be understood even by kids. Stuffed replica of several species of birds and animals inhabiting the park is also placed in this museum. There is a book and souvenir stall which we planned to visit the next day as we were getting late for entering the park.
The evening trip to park was altogether a different experience. We could see large flocks of painted storks resting on the Acasia trees. Large swarms of Herons, Geese and Egrets flying and honking around was common site during this part of the day. Since it was getting dark, we decided to return back and search for some accommodation for night stay outside the park. The serenity of the place was splendid during the evening hours.....As we walked through the jungle back towards exit gate, howling of Jackals among cracking sound of birds and a sudden crossing of a spotted deer with electric speed just brushing our sleeves reminisced me of the days I spent in Arunachal Pradesh in Dibang Valley where such sound and action during evening hour stroll around our camp use to be a very common experience.
After coming out of the national park we had to search for accommodation for night stay. Several hotels and lodges are located outside the park boundary including one RTDC hotel at a distance of about 200m from the park. Surprisingly we got accommodation in it as some rooms were got vacant few minutes back only. Priced reasonably, I found the rooms and food good enough.
Next day morning after having a quick early breakfast we moved into the park. The entry ticket is very nominally priced at Rs 50/- for adults and Rs 25/- for kids. The park staff was very cooperative and helpful. Bicycles are available on rent @ of Rs 60/-per six hours. The rickshaw charges are fixed @ Rs 70/- per hour. These friendly rickshaw pullers serve the dual purpose. They have knowledge regarding birds and forest area equivalent to any professional guides. They try to explain many minute details about the various birds and also helps in spotting them. Binoculars and camera are most recommended accessories for this trip. We hired bicycles for ourselves and rickshaw for the kids. Our next five-six hours passed spotting and photographing various types of birds. We could easily spot Ibises, cormorants, coots, green Sandpiper, kingfisher, egrets, grey and pond herons, snake bird or darter, lot of pelicans and owls etc. After every spotting, the rickshaw puller use to brief us. Like when we spotted Ibis, this person very enthusiastically told us a story about this bird from Egypt and Eastern Sahara region. It is honored and respected a lot by Egypt’s people. It was believed by ancient Egyptians who had mummified these birds along with their royals that they catch and kill all the flying serpents coming towards Egypt from Arabia before they could enter into their country during their eastward migration towards South East Asia.
He also told us how this one time duck shooting site was developed into a bird sanctuary. Later on from one of the books I purchased from the museum, I came to understand that this place got attention of the British as it use to have large population of ducks, teals and geese. Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy developed it into a duck shoot resort in the year 1902. Thousands of birds were shot here each day. On 12th November, 1938 world duck shooting record was established as on that single day, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgo shot dead more than 2000 birds. After Independence, on 13th March 1956, state government declared it a bird sanctuary. In 1972, this region was prohibited for hunting. In 1981, this 28.723 sq km of area was upgraded as a national park and from 1985 on wards UNESCO has internationally recognized it as a unique bird place and World Heritage site. Today more than 400 species of birds inhibit this area.
In the center of the park there is one Koleodev temple devoted to lord Shiva. We visited and offered prayers in this temple. During our return, beside lot of birds, several close sighting of other species like wild boar, giant turtles, Jackals etc gave thrills to the kids. We started our return journey after lunch and by the evening we reached our abodes. Overall this two day trip was a great experience and I’ll recommend this place for a hearty and healthy weekend.
( Text and Photo: Rahul Khanna)