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The International Writers Magazine:

Magic Marshland
Shivani Shah

God's golden fingers break the diaphanous, misty morning veil that drapes the landscape… a flash of electric blue of a little-blue kingfisher… an apparition… lilies break into bloom on cue from the sunlight… Everything here in Bharatpur is ethereal… perfect… almost. No sweet twittering breaks the slumber, but a cacophony of the birds. Colour and clamour vie for your attention. The gentle bobbing of your boat as the boatman sticks the bamboo into sludge propelling the boat forwards has a strangely sedative effect on a crisp and fresh morning. A perfect way to begin the morning. Welcome to bird haven.

Birds big and small, flock here in hundreds, and almost as though orchestrated, have begun to wing their way across vast continents; sometimes small, to be here… and nearly everyone will spend their time till the onset of spring.

In this otherwise arid and brown land of Rajasthan, Bharatpur seems like an oasis; quickly dispelling an image of a parched State. And just how is that, one begins to wonder. Many many years ago, in the days of yore, Bharatpur was crafted with tectonic movements causing the crash of Gondwanaland into the mainland of Asia; the depression of Bharatpur, at the foothills of the Himalaya was thus created. And much later, in days of the British, water was channelled to attract birds for their favourite pastime – shooting. Over the years, shikaar of birds as with all other animals got out of hand. Fewer and fewer birds were returning to this favoured winter home. Soon enough, protection of the birds came to the fore and this area was chalked out for conservation. Today, with the number of birds it attracts, it has earned the status of a World Heritage Site. That was history in a flash.

Juveniles of Painted Storks, screeching rather screechy notes bring you back to the present. I am no pedantic here. No inclination either. I was alerted by the rickshaw driver; also a bird guide. Here in the Bharatpur National Park, you can tailor your way around – amble around (there are no predators), cycle (good exercise), request a guide to guide you or simply clamour onto a rickshaw (the easiest way around). Spot. Stop. Make a few notes and move on.

Even if you move around slowly, it is possible to cover much of the area (the wet part of the park, and a smaller section of the entire 29. sq. km.) in about a day's time. The famed and glorious area. The drier part harbours not so many birds but smaller animals such as the hyena.

Here, around the Mansarovar lake, try to get off the main, concretised road that snakes around the lake and walk into the waterless land. Porcupine quills from defensive pokies, squirrels squirreling their way around trees, nilgai or blue bull quietly hidden in the foliage fringing the lake, till your quiet but sudden presence unnerves it and makes it hurry all the way to the centre of the watery expanse. Wild pig wallowing, unperturbed. And above, in the centre of the lake, on a the branch of a forked tree a Crested Serpent Eagle head held high and almost sleuth like, scanning vast areas for any movement. Food, which is hard to find and harder to catch is always welcome. Darters swiftly darting their long necks into water, following fish, and sometimes acting like submarines, sticking their heads out like periscopes and quite likely to puzzle you into believing that it is a different bird altogether. And ever so often, while you trod along, a basking lizard, with all the strength it has gathered from basking skitters away till it finds it safe enough to return. In a distance, not very far away, you are likely to meet a jackal. But before you confirm that it really was, it scurries away into the thicket. Jackals are found here in plenty and that is confirmed when darkness begins to creep in.

Phew, so much activity. But there is a strange peace in this chaos. At the end of a long day, which does not seem long after all, light begins to fade away… darkness dispels long, wide, tall wisps of blackness from god knows where and little remains visible. It's time to call it day, time for noisy bipeds to find slumber. But other life begins to stir. Watchful and quiet through the rest of the day. Owls, jackals, porcupines – awaken and alert themselves. You will miss their activities, but pugmarks, remains of bones and feathers confirm their presence on the following day.

The Bharatpur National Park, of course, is famed and glorified today for the 400 plus bird species that can be seen here. But there is more to this land than meets the eye. Geographically, it is located only kilometres away from Agra and Jaipur and is deeply embedded in history. Sadly, this is often ignored. And a visit to the rather decrepit museum confirms this. A part of the old fort that once held fort to all the Rajputs, the Khaas mahal is converted into the museum. Few visitors come here, but it perfects a visit to the region. --

© shivani shah November 2008
shivani6@gmail.com


Shivani is a freelance writer currently working with Greenpeace, India
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