Everything but the Bird(s)

19 Feb

My earliest memories of Bharatpur go back to a trip we made in the 80s. The Birla‘s ran a Wagon factory there and my father being in the Railways meant that we were put up at the Birla Guest House. We were well looked after by them and served some excellent vegetarian fare throughout our stay. In the mornings we would venture out to the Bird Sanctuary and spend a couple of hours in a boat gaping in awe at a variety of avians including the much coveted Siberian Crane. Our boatman and guide was not only knowledgeable in the matter but could mimic pretty much every bird he spotted!

We were lucky then to have been guests of the Birlas for the only other boarding option at the time was the horrid ITDC Ashok, which had ‘government undertaking’ written all over it!

More than two decades have passed and a lot has changed in Bharatpur. The lake levels have all but dried up, the Siberian Cranes don’t come there anymore and the boatmen have all left. Meanwhile, like every other Government enterprise worth its salt, the Bird Sanctuary has managed to secure a World Heritage listing! The Birla factory closed in the early 90’s, only to reopen recently, and with the passage of time, the town has grown in leaps and bounds. But most importantly, Bharatpur today has plenty of nice places to stay, including The Bagh..

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A 200-year-old, 10-acre property built to the Mughal Charbagh (four fold garden) layout, The Bagh (Bagh = Garden) is as true to its name as one could ever expect. With over 50 species of fruiting trees and flowering plants, a variety of birds and small animals, The Bagh is every bit a nature lover’s paradise.

The Bagh‘s biggest claim to fame, however, came towards the end of last year, when it played host to the biggest Derawal Family Reunion yet, where we reached the magic number of 32 attendees! Go Derawals 😉

A magic number no doubt, but how many of those 32 would actually muster up the courage to get out of their comfy Razai‘s (quilts) early in the AM to go and see some birds? After all, wasn’t the location (Bharatpur) chosen for its ‘world famous’ Bird Sanctuary? Amazingly enough, 17 of them did!!

And no doubt, it had a lot to do with my persuasive powers, but a few of them even rode bicycles..

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Probably one of the smartest things they’ve done at KG National Park (Keoladeo Ghana, not Kasturba Gandhi!) is to ban motor vehicles past the main gate. Your only options then to see the birds are on foot, by cycle rickshaw or on a bicycle! It was a rejuvenating ride for those of us who took to the bikes – riding through the mist, watching the sun rise and so on – but by the end of it, we also risked losing our hands to frostbite! Note to self – always wear gloves while riding in winter!

Whilst visiting a Nature Reserve, if you’ve ever been in doubt on whether you need a guide or not, make no mistake cause you most certainly do! Our guide – or ‘naturalist’ as he goes by – was the very competent Rajveer Singh. Being one of the early detractors to the plan of hiring a guide, let me say this – I thank the good lord we had Rajveer with us! Cause can you imagine a group of 17 Derawals – loud, gossiping ones at that – walking along a nature trail, completely oblivious to everything around them, happily walking past sights such as these??

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Granted, their camouflage was good!

Spottings for the day included the Brahminy Starling (pictured above), Greater Coucal, Long-tailed Shrike, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Indian Grey Hornbill and the odd Nilgai! Oh, and we also heard the cries from a pack of Hyenas, which led to the characteristic, ‘hai hai, yeh kya cheez hae?’ (What on earth is is that?) response!

Not only does Birding require a lot of patience but a lot of focus to. The long gaps between bird spottings were somewhat taken care of by our collective banter but our focus slowly but surely drifted towards breakfast at The Bagh, which each one of us was raring to have a go at by then!

For the 17 Derawals who spent those precious morning hours (read 6 to 10 am) outside of their beds, there was less guilt while gorging down the 7-course breakfast. For the remaining 15 who hit the tables (not the Vegas variety!) straight from their beds, they would have to work off their guilt somehow! Thankfully The Bagh has more than 500 metres of lush pathways, so it’s a walker’s paradise to!

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A few enthusiastic rounds later and with the false feeling that breakfast had all been worked off, we were soon ready for lunch! What followed was one of the most memorable reunion meals, ever! At the outset, I’d like to state that food at The Bagh was overall very good. It was low on oil and salt, yet very tasty, and with all their vegetables and fruits sourced from their own property, it was very fresh to!

The real highlight however was their ‘Rajasthani Special’ lunch on Day 2 which included several traditional vegetarian dishes – Dal Bhatti et al – and the pièce de résistance, Laal Maas – quite easily the best mutton I have sampled outside of home cooking – the Bukharas of the world be damned!

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It would have done even the most discerning of Bharatpur Maharajas proud!

Talking of which, the princely state of Bharatpur was founded by the Jat rulers in the early 17th century with their capital at Deeg, about 30 km to the northwest. When the capital eventually moved to Bharatpur, Deeg continued as their summer palace.

Built in 1722 by Maharaja Badan Singh and completed by his successor Maharaja Suraj Mal, the Deeg Palace is one of the biggest attractions of the area. So with much excitement in our hearts and some Laal Maas still sitting in our bellies, we set forth for Deeg..

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The 30 odd km drive to Deeg felt more like a 100 given the quality of the road surface. If that wasn’t bad enough, seeing the condition of Deeg Palace was even more upsetting! A highly considerate schedule by the ASI (Archeological Survey of India) meant that we had to race against time to view the interiors, where of course photography – the greatest threat to our country these days – was banned! So I had to make do with the exteriors, which I have no qualms in admitting, I did a lot more justice to than any similar effort by the ASI!

Much like The Bagh and several other more storied monuments in India, Deeg palace was built on the Charbagh layout and is surrounded by two reservoirs. The water in the latter was akin to a septic tank, whereas the channels and fountains within the Charbagh, sadly had no water in them!

As for the rest of the splendid structures on the sprawling palace grounds, they were all but falling apart, propped up in some cases by thoughtless brickwork! It was all very disheartening to see. A cousin of mine put it in perspective, ‘Monuments like these have the potential of sustaining tourism in a tiny European country’.

Meanwhile, the family patiently heard out Rajveer’s tales of Jat valour, all the while wondering whether it had been worth coming all the way there, and pondering the long, bumpy drive back!

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Back at The Bagh, as we awaited another 10 course meal, the discussion around the bonfire ranged from determining the best reunion so far (even though this wasn’t over yet!), to the possibility of getting out of Rajasthan for the next one (everything from Kerala to Bali came up!), to the appalling condition of Deeg. The last topic was a mistake as the Derawals who stayed behind decided to rub it all in – telling us just how they spent their afternoon soaking up The Bagh‘s sylvan surrounds!

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It had been established early enough that there’s nature, some walking and a lot of food to be had at The Bagh. Why then would any Derawal in his or her right frame of mind even bother going to a nearby Bird Sanctuary? It was little wonder then that the early morning of Day 3 saw only 5 of us make the cut!

The smaller, easily manageable, and certainly more attentive group of 5 suited Rajveer as well, who wasted little time in leading us to the best spots – the park’s few remaining water bodies!  Only this time we left behind the cycle rickshaws and bikes and took to some of the most inviting nature trails on foot..

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The temperature and light conditions were perfect, the crowds were thin and there were spottings aplenty! Pelicans, ducks, geese, cranes, you name it! All told, we spotted a little over 50 species, a majority of them on our second outing – thanks in no small measure to Rajveer and his very powerful spotting scope!

And never mind my tiny little point and shoot, for it redeemed itself when I finally got my Kodak moment 😉

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Up unto that point everything had gone to plan on the reunion, which is really quite uncharacteristic of the Derawals. Something had to go amiss and pretty quickly at that, for the trip was slowly but surely coming to an end! Thankfully, for our collective reputations, Fatehpur Sikri was still on the cards!

Of the 7 vehicles that had carted our group of 32 to Bharatpur, only 2 made it to Fatehpur Sikri together!!! The rest were either already on their way back to Delhi by then, or had taken the wrong route to get there, or better still, had ended up in another part of the same monument! Go Derawals!!

Fatehpur Sikri is huge, split into two monument complexes – the part where Badshah (King) Akbar lived and ruled, and the part where he and his followers prayed (and where 2 car loads of Derawals ended up by mistake!) – and it can take the better part of a day to do them both the justice they rightfully deserve.

On our speed tour however, we started with Akbar’s palace. A wise decision, we realised later, considering how sparsely frequented it was, almost devoid of touts and utterly magnificent!

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No that’s not timber you’re looking at above (I had the same reaction!), that is in fact carvings on sandstone! Needless to say the quality of craftsmanship is simply breathtaking and to think they could accomplish all this in the 16th century is just baffling. No doubt, I appreciated it more than ever before and thanked my stars I was back there again after all these years.

Although the Jami Masjid boasts the very storied Buland Darwaza, having the Dargah within makes it all very crowded and commercial, and I have to say, the beehives hanging off the ceilings are rather off putting to! Lest I invite the wrath of UNESCO on the ASI, I present the non-beehive view of the ‘Doorway of Magnificence’.

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A few hours later, at our last food stop on a highway dhaba, we had a winner for the best non-stuffed parathas outside of a Derawal home! Better still, the gentlemen serving us these wonderfully luscious, layered parathas would constantly regale us with a resounding ‘Sirjeeeeeeeeee’ each time he rushed in with a plate fresh from the tandoor, no doubt, sending us into raptures! Our 4th annual reunion may have come to a close but the fun and eating never stops amongst us Derawals 😉

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A full set of pictures for Bharatpur, Deeg & Fatehpur Sikri can be viewed on my Flickr.

If you’re looking for a guide in Bharatpur, Rajveer Singh can be reached at +91-9414208428.

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3 Responses to “Everything but the Bird(s)”

  1. Deepa Grover February 22, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    Thank you for documenting and sharing our interesting, sometimes chaotic but always fun, reunion. Great pix. Go Bratislav!! 😉

  2. Ravi February 23, 2010 at 6:50 am #

    Now looking forward to the next one after reading this.
    Let the inputs begin!

  3. Mohan February 28, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    Go Derawals! ….so that every year we get these enticing descriptions of places to see!

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