Bharatpur’s Mahabharat

Madhusree and I went for a short trip to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. Ever since Georgie, our Lhasa terrier has come into our lives it is no longer possible for us to be out of home beyond one night. We leave Georgie behind with our trusted people but their magic lasts only for twenty four hours after which she becomes distressed. So Madhusree’s and my footloose and fancy free life has been severely restricted to about 200 kms around Delhi, most of which we have exhausted. Bharatpur was one of those rarest of rare destinations that we had not covered in our twenty years of stay in Delhi.
Frankly speaking, Bharatpur never quite excited me because I could never get myself interested in birds; I did like it when the Serberian cranes flew into Kolkata Zoo and later in my life in my Hauz Khas home I would notice some exotic birds perched on my clothes line, which the landlord would tell were from all over the world headed for Bharatpur. But Bharatpur continued to remain outside my pale of interests because tigers and rhino and not the avian species constituted “wild life” for me. It was only because of the very short duration of our parole from Georgie’s bondage that we actually took a trip along the Golden Triangle to reach Bharatpur early this December.
Madhusree had booked a hotel called Birder’s Inn, a quiet place whose entrance resembled a bird’s nest. She has this huge knack for finding exciting places through the Internet. The hotel was small and quaint and we were the only Indians staying there; the rest of the guests were all whites and naturalists!! Outlook Weekends From Delhi said that there was no need to take a guide because the rickshaw puller would double up as the guide but nothing could be a greater blunder than this. The forest department guides have powerful telescopes through which one can see the smallest of the birds in its minutest of details. I never had an idea that apparently similar looking birds could be so different in the hues of its plume, shape of the tail, colour of claws, eyes and beak. I learnt that the first step in bird watching is to be able to identify the call and then associate the species with its habitat and learn about its perching habits and recognize its flight; after this locating a bird becomes fairly simple.
We were told that Bharatpur is only a quarter of what it used to be, especially because there is no water left in the park. Of the total area of 29 square km, 11 square km are supposed to be water bodies. Today Bharatpur is reduced to only a quarter of its former strength because of the lack of water. The water bodies today stand dry with sambar deer and antelopes grazing merrily with their herds and caracass of boats lie strewn untidily around these depressions; water seems to have left the sanctuary. We watched larks, robins, swallows, shrikes, kingfishers, woodpeckers, hoopoes, owl, eagles, babblers, barbets, starlings, crows, sparrows, mynas, flycatchers, peacocks, pheasants, ducks, cranes, vultures, drangoes, pigeons and night jars but this is only the tip of the iceberg. We were told that the exotic species almost abandoned this park though the naturalists were hopeful that the season of the migratory birds was not quite over and there was hope in the spring to come. The forest officers, rangers and students seemed to feel that the lack of water was due to the lack of rains – what they missed out was that the intense industrial activity around Bharatpur depleted the water tables mercilessly to dry up lakes and destroy one of world’s most bio-diverse natural habitat forever. Indians favour industries so much that they seem to miss out on the fact that environmentally insensitive development can ruin more livelihoods than what it helps to create.
What was supposed to be a tame and a benign forest full of birds, turned out to be a veritable epic drama of insects, plants, mammals, human beings and birds; in fact climate change seemed to actually form relatively a smaller part in the story. I realized that plants fought with one another for space as varieties of bush babool that destroyed other vegetation, species of grass tried to deterritorialize its contenders; eucalyptus eroded resources for mango trees and lantana bushes ate up peepals. Parrots were possessive of their territories and chased away the Egyptian vultures and dusky eagle owl and made them into reluctant visitors in the park today. Crows have a bad habit of cartelization and monopolization and they harrassed the kites and reptors out. In the marshy habitats, swallows fought with turtles for homes and cats were forever on the prowl to feed on infant chicks of the water hen. Porcupines harass pythons and loss of pythons is bad for the mongoose; mongoose dig holes that the dusky owls use and the loss of mongoose population have created havoc for the dusky owls. Cats however were the most commonly visible mammal in the sanctuary forever on the prowl to prey on infant birds and chicks. In our hotel too cats abound jumping on tables to drink milk from the milk pots after we finished our evening tea.
For a long time thanks to the forest management policies of the government villagers were denied access to the forest, and no cattle grazed in the park. As a string coincidence the brahmani cranes disappeared and the naturalists discovered that such cranes fed on the leeches on the bodies of cattle and if there were to be none of them, such birds also could not feed and breed. Vaccination brought down animal death rates and municipal corporations disallowed open disposal of carcasses, the vultures, jackals and hyenas had less food to feast on and were decimated.
Certain species of grass and shrubs that spread very fast and quickly bring about a forest cover. But these species like the eucalyptus, babool shrub and many other kind of grass also draw out enormous quantities of water. Over 200 species of birds have lost habitat due to the depletion of water tables due to the shrubbery planted by none other than the forestry department. The forest department is encouraging wild boar to root out these water guzzling shrubs but as these shrubs go, the certain species of insects they host also die. This upsets the food chain of small fish, tadpoles, frogs, and eventually birds.
We were happy that Sohran was our guide not only because his amiable nature and good command over the species of birds but also because he gave drew for us a wholistic picture of birds’ habitat, breeding habits, nesting patterns and told us many things about the deer, boars, cattles and cats in the forest. I realized that the bird that perched atop dead trees fought about 10,000 species of insects, 360 species of grass, 300 species of plants, 30 species of mammals and about 400 of its own kind to alight in Bharatpur as its winter residence. This is ecology, dynamic, dramatic and constantly unfolding; the stories of strategy, judgment, choice and decision making in the world of the flora and fauna is no less exciting than in any business venture. It is sad that the subject is taught so badly in schools.
Sohran introduced us to a few enthusiastic young naturalists; one among them was researching on pythons. Madhusree was very excited at this because she remembered Satyajit Ray’s story Khagam, where a man was made into a rock python, the species that the young naturalist was pursuing. Sohran told us stories of sadhus and holymen who could change in various forms of cats, tigers and snakes from their human selves and thus delude the people, Madhusree felt that the episode of the man turning into the snake Balkishen was a part of this local myth. Sohran was a Scheduled Caste, an exceptionally bright young man and his being so close to this myth struck me. There were many myths among the Dalits that spoke of magical powers of some human beings and these were basically the way that the downtrodden fantasized to resist the guiles of the upper caste.
I have traveled quite a bit as a tourist but I have enjoyed it the most when I have been a nature tourist. Everyone seems to get into sync with the nature tourist seeking her experience in the forest, helping her with clues on where to find a natural species she is looking for and introducing her to fellow nature lovers. The hotel owners, waiters, guide, co-travellers become a community which is on a pilgrimage with a sense of mutual sharing. The owner of our hotel was Tirath Singh, a Gujjar. He was a man of riches and now he wanted to enter the world of sophistication. He is of a certain kind, a kind that is sensitive and respectful of educated people and no wonder that his hotel were full of serious naturalists. The locals were a little contemptuous of Tirath’s closeness to the higher echelons of society and spoke of him in defamatory parlance. Sohran was especially very critical of the Gujjars, saying that they were a bit “cracked” clearly he did not quite like those that dominated his ilk through centuries.
The rickshawpullers were overwhelmingly Sikhs from Sindh and ours was one too. Never before these rickshawpullers had I seen poor Sikhs. Hakim Singh was cut up about the Congress government and I realized that he, like all Sikhs had a personal grudge against the Congress. He was all for BJP despite its communal politics. Sohran and he argued their heads off with Sohran supporting a nationalist, centrist, inclusive and accommodative party, and Hakim wanting an ethnic, partisan and a communal outfit. The caste war and the ethnic competition clearly had distinct political preferences and nothing was more evident than in the Sohran-Hakim argument.
Madhusree sat down with Sohran in the hotel lawns to note down the names of the birds she had taken photos of while I cleared out our rooms and got Tirath Singh to prepare the bills. We bid our goodbyes with tips to the waiters, mobile number to Hakim Singh so that he and I could get the gurudwaras to prepare for a showdown with the perfidy and betrayal of a government apparently for the aam admi and took Sohran’s card to help friends and relatives locate him in case they went to Bharatpur for he had one of the best telescopes among the guides. Madan got the vehicle ready, and since Fatehpur Sikri was only 21 kms away we decided to zip down the Golden Triangle expressway to pay our respects to Akbar, the Great.

5th December 2009

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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