It’s awfully loud, definitely above legally permissible sound limits. Yet, none of the spectators complain, their eyes focused on those causing the ruckus. These aren’t school boys in a fist-fight, or riot police battling crowds. They are young painted storks in Keoladeo National Park (Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) who’re voicing their hunger, excitement, and perhaps disapproval of each other’s behaviour.
Perched close to one another, they might remind you of Jungle Book’s lovable vultures. A few fledglings are fed regurgitated fish (ugh? not for them) by parents while others prepare for test flights. The routine being – spread wings, slap the air furiously, hover a few feet above the nest, and depending on your skill, land or crash-land a short distance away from where you started.
I watch, fascinated by this peek into a bird’s life – it’s like seeing a child take its first steps. Young birds go through the drill while adult painted storks watch or coach them, some showing tough love, even giving unwilling offspring a little shove off trees. When one of them manages to circle over a moat separating the avian flock from their human audience, I’m elated.
Just a few decades earlier, birds weren’t safe here. A dam called Ajan Bund, built in the eighteenth century by Maharaja (King) Suraj Mal, caused flooding in a natural depression. Successive generations of kings added dykes, sluice gates and such to develop the Bharatpur wetlands as private hunting grounds, first for deer and then for ducks.
It’s not clear if Maharaja Ram Singh was responsible for converting the wetlands into killing fields or it was the British who manipulated two-year-old Prince Kishen Singh to create a duck shooting retreat for their entertainment. Whatever the truth, in an organized hunt on November 12, 1938, over four thousand birds (4,273 to be precise) were shot here in a single day, with the then Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, believed to have killed around 2,000 of them.
Things changed for the better when in 1956 the swamps were notified as a sanctuary, hunting was prohibited even for royalty in 1972 (others had already been banned from hunting), the area was declared a national park named Keoladeo National Park in 1981, and in 1985, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Since, the sounds of fatal gun shots have been replaced by chirpy bird calls, people chatter, camera shutters, and the rattle of cycles and manual rickshaws in today’s times as visitors flock to see resident birds and migratory ones, from Siberian cranes to Coots and Teals.
I’m here with my husband, daughter and a friend’s family. Even though it’s out of the way, we have added Bharatpur to our Rajasthan itinerary, which now reads Mumbai-Jaipur-Mandawa-Alwar-Bharatpur-Jaipur-Mumbai.
At first sight, the sanctuary doesn’t seem impressive. Instead of being tucked away in a green enclave as I imagined, it’s right on Mathura-Bharatpur highway, exposed to all the noise and dust that comes with it. A few minutes past the gates though and a welcome silence greets us at Hotel Bharatpur Ashok, the only hotel inside Keoladeo Ghana sanctuary.
The park is easily done as a day trip from Agra in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh barely one and a half hour’s drive from the city, explaining why few visitors stay overnight. While tourists leave after a cursory look around, birdwatchers and researchers camp in Bharatpur for days or even months. With over 230 resident bird species and over 150 migratory ones that call on Bharatpur, the sanctuary is almost like Alibaba’s cave of treasures for those interested in birds.
A single metalled road cuts though the park, branching off into narrow paths that invite exploration by foot or on wheels. On the first day we do a recce, hiring a cycle rickshaw from outside our hotel. “Kitna loge bhaiya,” we ask meaning ‘how much will you charge’ and the rickshaw fellow quotes 100 rupees an hour for two passengers. We agree given that it’s the standard rate. It’s a bit disconcerting to sit in a rickshaw pedalled by a fellow human if you’re not used to that sort of thing, but it becomes easier to accept when you tire of walking.
The good thing is these drivers also double up as guides and you can tip them accordingly, leaving you feeling a little less guilty. With a practiced run and an eagle eye, they point to birds you won’t be able to spot unless you are a birding enthusiast yourself.
The next day we return with Brijendra Singh, a naturalist cum guide (Phone number – 098283 34907). I’ve found that guides are almost indispensable if you don’t have too much time on your hands to see a place plus they add their own titbits to make the experience that much more interesting.
Brijendra leads us down a pathway speckled by early morning light and soon we spot a family of deer who freeze at our sight, only to quickly recover and bound away as one of them stays briefly to keep an eye on us. As we walk, he points to and gently picks up butterflies and dragonflies, rattling off names that soon begin to sound familiar given the number that cross our path.
Shrubbery that looks nondescript starts to pique our interest when he picks something off one and cracks it open to reveal red seeds called ‘ratti’ that were used in the past by Indian jewellers as a measuring weight. He talks about how ‘Babool’ or the Gum Arabic tree, initially planted by the forest department, has now become a nuisance given that it doesn’t allow other plants to grow in its vicinity.
“Sab log itna interest nahin dikhaate hain, nahin toh main bahut kuch bata sakta hoon,” says Brijendra meaning that not everybody is as interested in facts about flora and fauna otherwise he would share a wealth of information. He goes on to tell us about a book on dragonflies for which he’s helping with the research.
As the day progresses, we see owlets, darters, ducks, herons, ibis, cormorants, wagtails and more species of birds. In the evening, climbing up a viewing platform to see the Indian crane or ‘saras’ doesn’t yield what we want, but allows us to watch a beautiful sunset.
As we’re returning a tad sad at not having sighted the cranes, Brijendra hears them in the bushes somewhere. Hurrying after him, we reach a spot where he stands binoculars in hand. Through a clearing in the thick bushes, we see in the fading light 4-5 birds, an unmistakable red band on their head and neck proclaiming their breed. It’s a moment that we cherish to this day, but I wish we had seen them when there was enough light for photography. Well, there’s always a next time!
For a map of the Keoladeo Park and more pictures of birds, watch the video below
HOW TO REACH KEOLADEO IN BHARATPUR
Bharatpur is well connected to Agra, Jaipur, New Delhi, Gwalior and other major cities.
Nearest airport: The nearest feasible airport is Jaipur International Airport, also called Sanganer Airport – IATA Code JAI (188 km). Agra has an airport around 54 km away, but connectivity is not that great.
Nearest railway station: Bharatpur Junction (Station code BTE). The sanctuary is only about 6 km away from the station.
By road: NH-11 connects Bharatpur with Agra (55 km, 1.5-2 hours). Other places where visitors drive down from are Delhi (212 km, 4-5 hours) and Jaipur (185 km, 3.5-4 hours).
SANCTUARY TIMINGS, BEST TIME TO VISIT, TRANSPORT, AND PRICES or FEES
- The best time to visit is mid-December to beginning of February as you’ll find the maximum migratory birds during this period. However, the breeding season for different birds is between August and October
- Keoladeo National Park is open from 8 am to 6 pm in the summer and till 5 pm in the winter.
- It takes time to fill in the forms before entry is granted, so reach early enough
- The entry fee has recently been increased to 75 rupees (INR) for Indians and 500 for foreign visitors. Tickets for students are available at a concessionary price.
- Your vehicle will be allowed inside the park after paying a certain fee only if you’re staying at or dining at the Bharatpur Ashok Hotel on the premises. You cannot drive your vehicle beyond the hotel.
- Cycle rickshaws charge 100 rupees per hour for two passengers while tongas charge 150 rupees per hour. The drivers of the rickshaws also serve as guides.
- Two battery operated vehicles are available, which are booked on a first come first serve basis.
- Bicycles are available on hire at the ticket counter for the whole day, but you should hire them as early as possible as there is a limited stock. You need to deposit identity cards (like Aadhar card etc.) with them, which is returned when you give back the cycles. I think the price is 25 rupees per cycle for 5 hours
- Boat rides cost 75 rupees an hour, but they are available during certain hours. Morning and evening are better to watch birds at close quarters
- Guides charge 150 rupees per hour and provide one scope and binoculars. However, if you need more than one, they might ask for money for the additional number separately.
- There are canteens inside the park, but you won’t get much except tea and biscuits. It’s best to carry your own food in non-plastic containers as plastic is banned inside the park.
BIRD WATCHING, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND OTHER TIPS
- Early morning after sunrise and early evening are the best time to watch and photograph birds as they come out to feed
- Head straight for the heronry to see the painted storks and then explore the paths on your own for other bird species – the guides will take a long time getting here but this is the best place to begin your visit
- February is the best month for photography as the winter fog is less compared to December and January
- It’s best to have a DSLR with a 18-200 lens. If you’re serious about the photography bit, carry a prime lens too. The water birds won’t be very close and even if you take the boat, they are likely to fly away the moment they hear you approaching
- Rickshaws are best avoided if you’re here for photography as they make a racket going down the road, warning birds of an alien presence from a long way off
- Wear clothing in subdued colours like brown, olive green, and grey as bright colours alert birds to your presence and they will fly away. If you don’t have clothes in these colours, you can buy T-shirts and jackets at the gift shop near the entrance
- Red-faced monkeys are notorious for snatching stuff from unsuspecting visitors. So avoid carrying food conspicuously and calmly walk past if you come across them. Do not provoke them under any circumstance as they can bite
- Snakes, in particular pythons, are found in the park. If you suspect their presence, bang your feet as you walk and keep a long stick with you to ward them off. Keep a watch on branches above if you’re passing through thick vegetation
- Don’t just focus on the birds. The Park has other interesting creatures too – the golden jackal, nilgai, sambar, wild boar, jungle cat and more
- If you wish to buy books on the birds and animals of India, Asia etc., they are available at the gift shop near the entrance. You could read up before going bird watching
- It’s an offense to harm any animals or plants inside. In any case, one shouldn’t do that
Please don’t litter or let anybody else throw garbage around. Rubbish bins are available
WHAT TO CARRY
Binoculars, caps or hats in neutral colours, glares or sunglasses, insect repellent, sunscreen, and most importantly water. If you can, take packed lunch too.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Bharatpur Ashok is inside the Park and has satisfactory rooms though the furniture is very old. It offers a decent breakfast, but generally has buffet meals which becomes a little restrictive as they don’t prepare a la carte meals during such times.
Birder’s Inn is a good option, but it’s quite expensive. Hotel Sunbird is quite popular among birders. There are other smaller hotels with a limited number of rooms nearby, but they are very basic and you need to keep in mind that you will get what you pay for. The better hotels are a little far off.
WHERE TO EAT
Atithi restaurant serves good Indian food even though its appearance is not much to talk about.
You could visit Bharatpur Palace and Deeg Palace
If birding interests you, you might want to check out my other posts-
Bird watching in Anegundi – Part 2 for tips on identifying birds, where to go bird watching in India, tour companies that offer birding tours, a site for Indian bird calls, suggestions for books on Indian birds etc.
Bird watching in Anegundi – Part 1 for a bird watching experience in Anegundi, a small town literally next door to Hampi
Some of my other posts on Rajasthan are below too –
Alwar, one of the oldest kingdoms of Rajasthan, whose king once used Rolls Royce cars to carry garbage when he felt insulted by a Rolls Royce London showroom employee.
Ranakpur, a grand marble temple complex, where each of the 1,444 supporting pillars of one called Chaumukha temple, are uniquely carved so that not one is similar to the other