Thursday, 16 February 2017

Khichan - Kumbh Mela of Demoiselle Cranes

Khichan in Thar Desert plays host to huge flocks of demoiselle cranes arriving from Central Asia. This mesmerising spectacle is something to treasure for a lifetime.

The birds seem to have been waiting for you all morning. You have been advised to come here early in the morning for the congregation. But Khichan is in middle of nowhere and so justifiably you arrive here in the middle of the day. The action is supposed to happen in early mornings and evenings. You are not expecting a lot. Only recently, you have started to notice the birds around you. A month earlier, all across Gujarat, you have seen these beautiful large birds like pelicans, painted storks and demoiselle cranes feeding in the fields, poking in ponds and flying low over the waters of Rann. You are doing the Great Thar Road Trip and Khichan conveniently falls midway between Bikaner and Jaisalmer. Today you are on your way to see dancing camels in Jaisalmer Desert Festival. Khichan in Thar Desert plays host to huge flocks of Demoiselle Cranes arriving from Central Asia. You need to go investigate; dancing camels will have to wait.
The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan
A bus full of western tourists has just arrived in the village of Khichan, a few kilometres ahead of Phalodi. Like the other tourists you are also trying to figure out what next. The parking lot attendant advises you to climb the mound just ahead. The setting at Khichan seems to have been designed for full effect. As you crest the hillock, the spectacle unfolds before your disbelieving eyes in a shallow bowl like valley below. Surrounding a pond, there are thousands of Demoiselle Cranes. Yes you have seen packed penguin settlements and stampeding wildebeests on TV but never anything like this in front of your eyes. You don’t like to keep anyone waiting but here it seems you had entire colony of Demoiselle Cranes waiting for you.

Unbelieveable Sights of Khichan
The Kumbh Mela of Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan, Rajasthan
Excitedly you clamber down to the water body. Most of the birds are on the other side of the pond. And the birds are all taking at the same time. So while in Kutch the mind goes silent listening to the emptiness of Rann doused in pink of a setting sun, here in Khichan, the mind goes quiet making sense of thousands of cranes trumpeting excitedly. There is constant motion and activity - wings flutter, beaks are dipped into water, some dance while some preen. A dog and some cows move through the ranks. In response, entire columns move in unison like ripples on a grey sea. The view is hypnotic – the spectacle of feathery grey, the constant high-pitched loud trumpeting and the beauty of the cranes.
The Beautiful Damsel of Khichan
The cranes are beautiful and graceful like the lasses they are named after. The name demoiselle is derived from the French word dameisele which means damsel or young girl. Everything about the cranes is beautiful, measured and graceful. They have long slender necks with white ear tufts. The fore-neck is dark while the light grey of neck extends to an attractive shiny bluish-grey plume. Bright red eyes are inquisitive as they strut like pretty damsels. 

Time to take to the skies
The chatter is changing pitch. There is some expectancy building up. Signals are transmitted through the congregation. Feathers start flapping. And then as if on cue, entire entourages of birds lift into the skies, like a soaring Mexican wave. The sight of thousands of birds taking off at once creates a fantastic show. It seems that thunder claps are rolling over the waters creating ripples. The sound and the spectacle are both dramatic and dazzling. The cranes circle over you even as more cranes take off. For few minutes it seems the feathers have obscured the sun that came out reluctantly from the foggy skies. All you can do is watch the sky spellbound. You cannot imagine your good fortune. First the cranes wait for you and then they treat you to this extravaganza in the skies. Apparently, after the feeding session of morning, the birds gather around the water bodies only to fly away in the afternoon. They will spend the night on the dunes standing on one leg and will return in the morning.

The story of how inhabitants of frozen steppes in Mongolia and Eurasia and beyond found a loving home in Thar Desert, thousands of miles away, goes back to the seventies when Ratanlal Maloo and his wife, residents of Kichna village, began feeding birds. Initially, few demoiselle cranes joined the pigeons and other local birds. Over the years, as stories of benevolent Ratanlal’s lavish feast started doing rounds of steppes, the number of cranes arriving in Kichna grew rapidly to thousands. The cranes – called Kurja locally - would start coming by August and leave in March. The cranes are fed in chugga-ghar or feeding-house where, during peak months, fifty bags of jowar weighing fifty kgs each are offered to the cranes daily.  The cost is borne by individuals, village panchayat and government agencies.

The flight of Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan, Rajasthan
The deafening sound has receded. The pond is almost empty now. The cranes turn into tiny dots as they rise high into the stratosphere. The flying regime is probably followed on a daily basis designed to provide lessons to the young members and to keep everyone else fit for the impending long haul back home.

The few hours watching the cranes have been pure joy. It is actually a combination of God’s miracle and large heartedness of a small desert village that has provided these moments of bliss. Every year the birds travel thousands of miles, crossing the mighty Himalayas, fighting hunger, disease and predators to come to a village in India’s Thar Desert. The village residents welcome them, feed them and look after them for months while expecting nothing in return. It is as if God had intended all beings the freedom to move about a planet that belongs to everyone – a planet where no passports are needed and no boundaries exist. Just like the cranes, humans too could move across the world without restrictions and find love wherever they go. Now that would not need a miracle. It would be something that was always meant to be.

A version of the story appeared in the February 2017 issue of Rail Bandhu, the on-board magazine of Indian Railways

Rail Bandhu Feb 2017

Getting There:
Khichan is four kms away from Phalodi while Phalodi is 400 kms from Jaipur and 170 kms from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.
Traveller Tips:
  • Khichan can be visited when travelling from Bikaner to Jaisalmer
  • It is recommended that bird lovers stay overnight in Khichan to witness the early morning feeding sessions in the Chugga Ghar
  • Khichan, supposedly has ornate havelis with even more eyepoppingly ornate doors – do look for them!
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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Winter Surprises - Explore the Misty Layers of Delhi

Every season gives us a different reason to love Delhi. On a winter morning as the fog rolls in even the adorably brash and unruly Delhiites go quiet and contemplative on their commute to offices. Later the soft glow of the afternoon wraps you intimately in a warm embrace. Cocooned snugly in woolly layers it is time to uncover Delhi’s surprises hidden in misty layers of time.

The Majestic Floss Silk Trees that bloom in October - at Shanti Path, Chanakya Puri, New Delhi

Culture Bingeing at Mandi House
The National School of Drama, Bahawalpur House, Mandi House, New Delhi

An artist performing the whirling Sufi dervish dance during Bharat Rang Mahotsav at NSD

Performances by International artists as part of Delhi International Arts Festival (DIAF)
Just as the Floss Silk trees burst into pink blossoms, Delhi’s cultural scene comes alive in winters. Beautiful people draped in elegant shawls and bandhgalas make their way to the cultural epicentre of Mandi House area with its eclectic mix of National School of Drama, Triveni Kala Sangam, Rabindra Bhawan, Kamani Auditorium and Shri Ram Centre that offer a range of performing arts like dance, music and theatre. Walk around the roundabout soaking in the vibe as aspiring actors discuss nuances of Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ over steaming cups of tea at the roadside stalls.  The evening comes to a perfect end as you walk in the misty night to the Bengali Market for some mouth-watering fare of chane bhaturey, gajar-ka-halwa and gazak.

Delhi War Cemetery

Delhi War Cemetery in Delhi Cantt

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) run Delhi War Cemetery

Away from the din of Ring Road beyond the entanglement of clover Dhaula Kuan and metro lines, you enter the urban oasis of Delhi Cantonment. Cantonment areas across India have this special vibe where air seems to whisper among the colonial style buildings. An imposing sandstone entrance brings you to the Delhi War Cemetery run by UK’s Commonwealth War Graves. Among the impeccably manicured lawns lie the remains of fallen soldiers who laid their lives in the two world wars fighting for British Commonwealth. Walking among the rows of tombstones etched with heart-wrenching epithets of young men, you realise the futility of war and the hurt that it wreaks. The peaceful surroundings amidst flowers is hopefully providing some balm to the anguished souls.

Mehrauli Archaeological Park

Quli Khan Tomb or Dilkusha at Mehrauli Archaeological Park

Delhi's prettiest baoli Rajon ki Baoli

The Jewel Box called Jamali Kamali Tomb
In the shadow of Qutub Minar, a sprawling wooded park encapsulates Delhi’s history from Lalkot - Delhi’s First City - to the Slave Dynasty who made Mehrauli Delhi’s Second City to Lodhis, Mughals and to the British times. Choose a sunny afternoon to walk through the trails of Mehrauli Archaeological Park and discover gems like Balban’s Tomb, India’s first building with true arches. Step into the exquisite Jamali Kamali Tomb and get dazzled by its jewel box like interiors. Look down four levels of Delhi’s prettiest stepwell Rajon ki Baoli. Climb up the stairs from the boathouse to Dilkusha, East India Company’s Thomas Metcalfe’s monsoon residence built out of a Mughal tomb. Just ahead Qutb Minar rises – a sight only seen by taking the path less travelled.

The Lutyens’ Delhi

Teen Murti roundabout where you played hide and seek in the summer holidays!

Shanti Path in the Diplomatic Enclave of New Delhi - road you took on the way to your school

The leafy boulevards of Lutyens Delhi
New Delhi is the prettiest in the winters. To appreciate the beauty of perhaps the most stunning urban enclave in the country take a drive in Lutyens’ Delhi - Delhi’s Eighth City - starting from India Gate as you make your way through the tree-lined boulevards with sprawling bungalows in the power centre of the country. Stop on the way to be delighted by the roundabouts that have burst into a riot of colours as flowers of all shape and colours bloom. From Teen Murti turn towards Diplomatic Enclave housing the world’s embassies and High Commissions. A picnic on the grass lawns of Shanti Path or Nehru Park is highly recommended under sunny blue skies.

National Gandhi Museum

National Gandhi Museum near Rajghat, New Delhi
While busloads of tourists make their way to Gandhiji’s samadhi Rajghat, just across the road lies the National Gandhi Museum that is largely overlooked. Walk through the grounds where Sabarmati Ashram has been recreated and peer into Hriday Kunj where Gandhiji lived his simple life. Inside the museum building traverse the incredible journey of the man who gave up his life to give us our freedom. His presence is everywhere - pick up the phones in the lobby and listen to him speak, look with awe at the walking stick he used during the epic Dandi March. The poignant Martyrdom Gallery has Gandhiji’s blood stained clothes from that fateful January day. Not every winter morning in Delhi is beautiful.

Mystical Evenings at Nizamuddin

The lit up Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah

Nizami Bandhu singing Qawwalis on Thursday evenings at Niamuddin Dargah

Come Thursday evening and you are transported to the times of Tughlaqabad - Delhi’s Fourth City – when a Sufi Saint stood upto a Sultan. Beyond Lodhi Gardens is the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. You make your way deep into the alleys of mediaeval Ghiyaspur steeped in history now called Nizamuddin Basti fragrant with roses and sparkling with chadars. In the courtyard between the sanctum and Amir Khusrao’s Tomb, Nizami Brothers render full-throated qawwalis making the devotees go delirious in mystic trance. Hazrat Saheb loves this devotion of Dilliwallas. He loves us like he has over the past 700 years. 

Little Tibet in Majnu ka Tilla

Tibetan Colony at Majnu ka Tilla in New Delhi

Scores of butter lamps flicker. Inside the temple, young monks dressed in flowing maroon sanghatis intone mantras. From the walls Buddha smiles benignly. Rosy faced kids chased by smiling mothers run through the courtyard. Just a few steps from the busy Outer Ring Road at Majnu Ka Tilla, you have stepped into a different world. The Tibetan Colony is Delhi’s own Dharamsala where Tibetans fleeing from Lhasa first settled. Experience Little Tibet’s vibe redolent of an innocent life left behind. Sample Tibetan food that gave Delhi its favourite snack, the Momo! Walk the winding lanes where sweet melancholia of lost homeland echoes along with the zeal to create a new one.

Paharganj – On the Hippie Trail

Neon-lit Dev D Nights of Paharganj
The tall neon sign boards flanking both sides of the lane inside Ram Nagar turn Paharganj into a seemingly Las Vegas strip. Walking distance from New Delhi Railway Station, Paharganj is hub for hotels of all budgets catering to everyone from well-heeled to backpackers and overnight travellers. Paharganj haven for hippies in the seventies burst into prominence after the psychedelic antics of modern day Dev D in the eponymous movie. After finding a hotel room, stroll through the maze for clothes, international cuisines from sushi to hummus and hang out at libraries exchanging old books. Settle down with a beverage on the open terrace of Café Club India and let the unpretentious vibe of Paharganj wash over you.

Ghalib’s Last Ghazal

Ghalib Haveli in Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, Delhi
It is twilight of Mughal Empire when Delhi gets frequently plundered and the British power is on the rise. To beat stress Delhiites take to shayari and ghazals. Zauq, Meer and Momin become household names. In Delhi’s Seventh City of Shahjahanabad, turn into Ballimaran beyond Sunheri Masjid. As you approach the haveli in Gali Qasim Jan, couplets waft in the chilly night. This is the house of Delhi’s most famous poet and its literary historian, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Today, a part of the haveli has been restored exhibiting his books and hand written poems. Ghalib, the delhiwalla dil se and synonymous with Delhi’s culture died lamenting his unrequited love for Delhi. Come and show some love to Ghalib - he just might compose a new ghazal.

Bhuli Bhatyari Mahal

For some heebie jeebies, visit the almost spooky Bhuli Bhatyari Mahal near Jhandewalan, New Delhi

Before the Ansals and DLF, Feroz Shah Tughlaq was the original builder of Delhi as he built Ferozabad - Delhi’s Fifth City, several mosques, a madrassa on the banks of Hauz Khas, brought Ashokan Pillars from Ambala and Meerut and hunting lodges in the forest ridges of Delhi. As you get off the metro at Jhandewalan, walk past the huge Hanuman statue and then turn into the street that rises into the ridge. Here strange looking fortifications guard the Bhuli Bhatiyari, a supposedly haunted monument. Walk in the barren interiors and try not getting spooked as shadows of bare branches play tricks on the walls.

Ishq-e-Dilli at Purana Qila

Pandavs and Kauravs Rolling the Dice in Delhi's best Light and Sound Show: Ishq-e-Dilli at Purana Qila, New Delhi

Mangal Pandey during India's First War of Independence
As the skies darken and the evening turns chilly, you make your way into Purana Qila or Shergarh - Delhi’s Sixth City – past the double storeyed Bada Darwaza. This is probably the site of Indraprastha, the mythological capital of Pandavas. On the left the lone Sher Mandal stands silhouetted where Humayun tumbled to his death. Up ahead is the iconic Humayun Darwaza with its two canopies that forms the backdrop of the most incredible Sound and Light show ‘Ishq-e-Dilli.’ As the laser lights dance, songs and commentary takes the viewer through Delhi’s 5000 year old fascinating history.

Let my favourite city keep blooming
For us mere mortals, every season heralds another year of being closer to the end but Delhi grows prettier and younger every year. Despite repeated invasions and sackings, Delhi has lived on with successive rulers building their own cities. On a January morning as the soft sun turns the Ashok Pillar golden at Feroze Shah Kotla, you fall in love once again with the city you were born in and which will live on long after you are gone.

A version of the story appeared in the February 2017 issue of Rail Bandhu, the on-board magazine of Indian Railways. The magazine is available in Shatabdi, Rajdhani, Duranto and Gatiman Express trains

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