Mar 6, 2014

Once Upon A Time In Bharatpur...

(Sarus Cranes & Night-jars - the two birds have been eluding me for a long time and hence were on top of my wishlist which I rattled off to our guide-cum-rickshaw driver at Bharatpur. Continuing with the tradition, they remained unseen, and yet the trip was far from being a disappointment. Perhaps, there was a touch of nature's magical wand. Here is an account of what I imagine could have happened, once upon a time in Bharatpur....)

“Mom, Mom, he’s here, he’s here”, cawed the Crow!

“Who?” enquired Mother Nature “What’s making you so pale?”

“What? Pale? Let me look at myself in this pond. Nah, this is just some of the stuff that got stuck to me while I was rummaging through the field. Hmm.., come to think of it, a little more of this and wouldn’t that make me resemble a treepie?”

“No, and I forbid you from trying it. As it is, I find it difficult to distinguish you from your other brothers of the crow family. Anyway, what has ruffled your feathers?”

“Oh, the ruffled feathers are just a part of my new look. You know, I got this idea while taking a dip in that stream, and..”

“Crow, would you please get to the issue that has caused you such consternation, than rambling on about your looks?”

“Mom, remember that guy last year who wished to see the Sarus Crane pair, just about the time when those mammoth birds had flown off vacationing?!”

“Oh yes!  Troubled as I was, I managed to ward this human off. It was, of course, a cruel trick to play, getting him to quarrel with his lovely wife, and the way they went off in a huff made me feel a little guilty. For a moment there, I was aghast, thinking I perhaps went too far. Fortunately, I saw them at Tajmahal later, happy and back to normal. Whatever that poet Sahir may say about Tajmahal, something is surely romantic about that “Mohabbat ki Nishani”.”

“Oh good Lord, that’s cheesy. Et Tu?  Anyhow, he is here again, and it was my good fortune that I heard him talking to that guide, Raju Singh, saying he is desirous of seeing the Sarus Crane pair and, believe me or not, the Night-jars. You should have seen the look on that Jungle Babbler's face - aghast & angry. Fortunately I had the sense and I came straight to you, flying as a crow flies”


“Uh-oh! What an inopportune time! Had he been here yesterday, he could have watched them for as long as he wished to. It is not possible now, as with weekend rush already over, they just wandered off for a much needed respite. Well, there’s not much that can be done now, other than maybe letting him see Nightjars, at least.”

“Not possible Mom! They have decided to stick to their work-to-schedule plan, and will reveal themselves only in the night. They are of the opinion that too much advantage is being taken of them, as bipeds capture their images even during the day, despite their being known as night-jars. Believe me, it is quite jarring – this whole attitude.”

“Pray, Raven, do not be racist. For that matter, even you all are bipeds.”

“Well, at least we have feathers, and we flock together.”

“Yes, and remember, when you crows get together, it is called a Murder! I seriously wonder, why should Nightjars complain? The owlets do not – they get spotted all the time, and yet have not asked themselves to be named something other than Spotted Owlets."


"Now, let me see, I have already ordained a fog-heavy day for tomorrow, so I need to be concerned only about the present, and partially, tomorrow afternoon. For some part of this time, my well-arranged landscapes can enrapture him. Now for the remaining part of his trip, I need to marshal my resources. Go forth, go now, and tell all the birds and mammals to put their shoulder to the wheel. It is showtime!”

“Even the elusive ones?”

“Especially, the elusive ones, I am afraid; Otherwise, this guy may not turn up here again. He was quite disappointed last year as well. Did he ask for anyone else specifically?”

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“No, but having watched him, and the way he eyes those calendars, he would love to sight some kingfishers." 


"Fortunately, that little pompous, pampered brat will be perched atop its favourite place– always posing to get photographed! Let me tell you, this social networking has turned him into a mini celebrity. You should see how he upturns his beak at most of us.”

“Oh, it is a minor matter – and pray do not be like humans, always grudging someone for his looks, brains or skills. You are a bird, so behave like one, content with what you have. I am more worried about what else we can unravel for him. Okay, here is an idea - speak to Black Bitterns and ensure that at least one of them is visible to him.”


“Bitterns? They are so reticent & shy. I have half a mind to ask them, ‘once bitterns why shy?” The crow cackled in laughter.

“Your jokes have gone from bad to terrible. It is time for those Bitterns to take up center stage. That would also make them understand what others have to put up with when these human beings are around. By the way, where are those Ruby-throats. Have they arrived from Siberia?”


“Oh yes, met one of them today, while it was flitting around among bushes, trying to avoid those two photographers who have been camping at her favourite tavern since yesterday, with their bazooka kind of lenses. I really do not understand how high & mighty you allow these migrant birds to behave!”

“Whoa! Stop this talk of migrants & residents! Remember, even though you are in too much of a proximity to those human beings, this behavior is unbecoming even for a human. These smaller birds fly such a huge distance to meet all of us here. So let us be warm to them, and share the bounty. There is enough for everyone’s need, though not for everyone’s greed. Getting back to the birds in bush, please inform at least one of them to be available for sighting when this guy moves around. Of course, if it does not want to be sighted by others, it is fine by me.”

“Okay, you are the best judge!”

“Yes. I hope those human beings also understand that I am the best judge. Anyway, let me see who else is available. Perhaps a few of those lapwings..”


“Oh, those bossy birds?”

“Why bossy?”

“Well, I rarely see them doing anything themselves, and yet all they do is to keep asking …Did-you-do-it?”

“Crow, do not waste time in these silly semantics! I know patience is supposed to be my secret, but you are tiring me out. Go now & inform everyone else also. Include some of the ducks  too– specially the visiting ones, and geese. They­­­ can do with some attention, as well.”

“Not all geese are present. Being a long weekend, those bar-headed ones have headed off to the nearby watering-hole.”

“Ah, Chambal! Yes, I know, and fortunately for him, he could sight them when he was there, too. But remember to tell the other flock. They must try to be visible, even if it is so cold." 


"I know another good surprise that I can throw to make him happy – ask those snakebirds to slither around and show off their hunting skills. The more the drama they can create, the more they will enchant him." 


"Also, those raptors! Ask them to heed me with rapt attention and hover around. One never knows when they can be of paramount importance.”


"Don't forget any of the mammals too, though I know you are scared of them. Perhaps a dash or two of Fox too can divert his attention from his wishlist."


"And yes, to those branched off ones from the ancestors of human beings, remind them not to monkey around too much. They end up hogging all attentions, always!"


“Okay, okay! Understood. Pull out all stops, is what you want us to do. But tell me, why are you being so generous?”

“Oh, it is just another moment for me. However, for him? Well, like most of them who come here, he also treats me as a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight. At the same time, somehow he is stuck to the idea – acquired from one of his favourite authors, that when you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it.”

“So? How does this help him?”

“It is time for him to learn that even when one may not find what one is looking for, there is always a surprise in store for those who are ready to spend time with me." 

"Wasn't it another of my admirer John Muir who had said, so rightfully - "In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks"."

"He must learn what another of his favorite authors Thoreau had said, 'If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hour.’”

“Caww – I mean Wow”

“I know he is unable to get what he is seeking right now, but once he experiences this magical land and the populace of these enchanting winged creatures that I have here, he would like to return again, pursuing his dream. It is important for him to have patience and learn that it is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”

(Dear readers, this is how I ended up getting to see and capture, through my lens, some of the most beautiful feathered friends, a few displayed here, and others on the link given below:

And yes, getting back to those birds that I started with, Sarus & Night-jars, I am sure, not too far in future, Nature willing, I will be able to get some lovely captures of those lovely birds too.)

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Feb 24, 2014

Yeh Kaun Chitrakaar Hai..

Ah! The travails of a travel-blogger!!

Wondering, why this sigh?

Well, it is not an easy task to capture & write uniquely about the essence of a place that finds more than a lakh visitors thronging it each year – a number of them better writers & photographer than Yours Truly. Add to this that fact that in the days when digital imagery has captured a permanent space on everybody’s mobile & Facebook, it is all the more difficult to create a unique photo-journey of a place which attracts nature photography enthusiasts from all over the world.  I was facing this very dilemma that evening, when I stepped out into verandah.

It was about 7 in the evening. After a long day’s walk through the woods & wetlands, my fellow traveller had decided to take a short nap. The weather was cold-rather, very cold-chilling to the bones even through the 5-6 layers of warm clothes that I had donned. In spite of the cold, with nothing much to do till dinner, I opened the door & got out. The sudden appearance of a biped startled a few spotted deer wandering idly just outside the room. I looked incredulously while they, stepping back to a bit of a safer distance, in their perception, stared back at me – an intruder  in their idyllic world - inquisitively and perhaps insolently. That was the moment I realized I had found my WALDEN.

13_01_20142485055272_Oh spotted a Deer

WHEN I WROTE the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself…

Thus begins Walden, the book which narrates Henry David Thoreau’s a year & a half long sojourn & tryst with nature in America of mid 19th century. The experience afforded him an opportunity to discover and contemplate about the various facets of human life, and the synergy these share with nature. The book is also a kind of a treatise on transcendentalism – which links humanity & nature through divinity.

It is almost a decade ago when I first came across Walden while rummaging through old books in one of the cabinets of my office – which were part of my father-in-law’s collection. This was that phase when I was just turning 40, had already been in the midst and then, at the helm of corporate financial affairs, and had by that time set-up my own CA practice. The book’s curious beginning set me on to a journey which, over the years, brought me closer to nature.


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

A good book eggs you on to experience the story.  Thoreau’s Walden had the same effect on me, and I longed to find my own Walden. It was easier thought than done though, accustomed as I have been to the city of comfort that existed within me. Unlike Thoreau, I did not find it as easily possible to lose myself in wilderness for such a long period. Hence, I took an easier path – wandering for brief communes with nature, with my wife or friends, accompanied by my camera & literature at my fingertips, seeking illumination from nature. 


I did manage to travel to places which I would not have thought of a decade ago. These wanderings not only provided wider perspective about nature & its interlinking paradigm, the path also took me to a whole new world of romanticists, Sufis & naturalists. The Walden however, remained elusive – for a long time.

For a long time; that is, till that evening in early January, this year – when I found myself face-to-face with that herd of deer. This was the Keoladeo Ghana National Park of Bharatpur, and to me, equivalent to Thoreau’s Walden.


Bharatpur is a sanctuary different in its setting and ambiance. The park, spread across 29 sq km, brings you in proximity to the miracle of nature in a way which is unmatchable. Here roam some of the bird species with such impudence around you that it is difficult to imagine this place as a once-upon-a-time hunting grounds for the royal gentry of Rajputana & their British friends. A huge plaque placed near the heart of the park lists down the exploits of various hunters during those years.


It is the reputation of it being a heaven for bird-watchers that had brought me to Bharatpur – my second visit in less than a year, and indeed, once again I was not disappointed. However, as I meandered through its wilderness seeking these winged species, I discovered another facet of Bharatpur. It is an absolute delight for those interested in landscapes – as a photographer, a painter or perhaps as a mere traveller.  


Something would remain amiss, if I left Lawrence Durrell, unquoted:  

It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you -- are you watching yourself in me?'

As the Sun traverses through it arc across this terrain, it unveils a view so picturesque that human language is incapable of capturing it. A generous mix of grasslands, woods & wetlands – with interlinked paths well suited for living those glorious, albeit brief, moments, of uncertain nomadic living; the ponds with carpet of moss of ethereal hues, the trees displaying shades of various stages of their life, those shaded paths bisecting the thickets, plumage of flora & fauna adding up to a riot of colours; even the rays of a wintry day’s Sun, mellow in its mood, could not help but glisten exuberantly the moment they touched the pond's surface.  

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Indeed, it is difficult not to wonder, like John Dyer: Ever charming, ever new, When will the landscape tire the view? 


In fact, for most of us, used to appreciate the man-made beauties in this concrete jungle, the architectural wonders, those urban-scapes, skylines, well manicured gardens, and artificial natural views, Bharatpur’s verdant and unadulterated lyrical vista is a necessity that raises the human spirit. The only thought that echoed in my mind came from a song penned by Bharat Vyas decades ago:

Apni to aankh ek hai us ki hazar hai 
Yeh kaun chitrakar hai 
Yeh kaun chitrakar hai


And birds? Well, while I was busy with my musings enjoying the bewitching landscapes, unknown to me, something else was brewing between Mother Nature & its brood of birds. I will come to that in some time. Meanwhile, you may enjoy more pictures from Bharatpur on the following link:

Jan 31, 2014

And Quietly Flows the Chambal..

Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard. ~ Haruki Murakami

Emerson exhorted us to go where there is no path and leave a trail. This was the thought uppermost in my mind at the penultimate moments of planning our trip this season to experience wildlife - specially the birds, from close. The itinerary & destination was to be Bharatpur - when we realised that we have at least one extra day in hand. Not that, it could not have been well spent even at Bharatpur, but that streak to explore some unknown territory took over. 

One of the thoughts was to capture night view of Taj Mahal in Agra - but that seemed a bit cliched. Besides, visiting & capturing Taj would not have been same without my wife. (Those, who find it cheesy, please give me a break. A man needs to score some brownie points too once in a while)

That is when destiny took over, and I came across a few images directing our attention towards Dholpur. A telephonic conversation with Shri Rajeev Tomar of Dholpur - who promised to guide us & did it so ably - tipped the scale. And, as I said at the beginning, Emerson's oft-quoted statement sealed the deal. 

So, off we were, getting down from train at Mathura and travelling towards Dholpur - taking the famous Agra-Mumbai Road. The task at hand, in the beginning was ardous - to goad the driver into driving fast - so that we can reach well in time, before fog gets into action & carpets the whole world. Hilariously enough, this extra cautious driver (Could he have been the inspiration for Imtiaz Ali’s taxi driver in Jab We Met?) was equally hell-bent on getting his car scratched - even in situations where it could have been easily avoided. 

Incidentally, travelling on any of the national highways acquaint one with a number of small, indistinguishable towns – normally lined on the either sides, while the highway cuts across through them. Such dusty  & unimpressive looking towns abound all over the country – seemingly cloned out of similar populace. You have seen one, you have seen them all.

Just Another Town

This is how I felt when we reached Dholpur  - the last town of Rajasthan before NH3, the Agra-Mumbai Highway, enters into MP.

My first glimpse of Dholpur and I could not escape the usual feeling - been there, seen that - kind of.  This time, I soon realized that I had a reason to feel so.  Yes, I had been there earlier - years ago – in different circumstances, in different role.

(If you allow me a bit of a reminiscence, this is the point where I go into a flashback. If not, by all means, you may skip next couple of paragraphs.) 

The year was 1996. The monsoon days of July end looked wettest & bleakest then, all the more because I was away from home, in conditions, describing which as inhospitable, would be a typical British stiff-upper-lip kind of understatement.

I was on road, travelling from Morena, in a taxi which was taking me towards Agra, whereon I was to travel to Delhi for catching a homebound flight. On those wet roads, with rain pouring constantly, I was cold and tired, and all alone, and the home was at least a thousand miles and perhaps more than a day away. 

That is when my taxi was pulled over to side. Waking up from my weather-induced slumber, I stepped out in rain, to realise that the bridge ahead was now closed for traffic - because the river had just started flowing across, in fact  a couple of inches above the bridge. The scape ahead did look ominous, with a furious river lashing along the banks. Fortunately, my ignorance about river's real depth and the desperation to reach home somehow added that extra  edge in my desperate plea, which must have touched a chord and convinced the army officer patrolling the bank to allow my taxi to cross the bridge. Mine was the last vehicle after which the bridge was shut to traffic for next few days.

Despite the chilling rain & ominously dark afternoon, I still remember the warm smile of that officer as my taxi crossed the bridge & moved towards Agra – passing through another town that looked equally desolate that wet evening. 
The thought of returning to those roads, seeing that river, visiting that desolate town ever again in my life ahead was something which never crossed my mind.


That was then. This was now. Here I was – almost eighteen years later – on  a barely warm January afternoon trying to outrace the Sun moving towards horizon and a chilling evening - to get some time during bright daylight and experience the wildlife at National Chambal Sanctuary, and around that desolate town, which -  I now know – was Dholpur. The river was much more quieter, just murmuring along, in comparison to that monsoon evening of eighteen years ago.  


For a bird lover, this is one of the very few locations in India to sight Indian Skimmer, a vulnerable bird, in its natural habitat  – and we were not disappointed. 


As we turned a small bend on one of the sandy beaches of Chambal, a flock engaged in pre-mating rituals, went on to display their flying prowess to us – almost in a manner as if they had been rehearsing for this very occasion.

Another interesting specie to sight is Gharial – a handsome specie of crocodiles, and currently one of the critically endangered species. A Gharial with its raised jaws, en-sheathing sharp & vicious teeth,  looks like a smiling assassin. 


Of course, the crocodiles themselves were not too far from the reach of our lens. Fortunately, though the reverse was not the case.


Dholpur, however, is just not about the National Chambal Sanctuary. The nature, with its extreme temperatures, has created an eco-system, in sync with the river, that makes Dholpur a rich treasure-trove for all kind of birds - be it vultures & raptors, grass-birds & water-birds alike.


For the photographer in me, equally interesting was the topography around the river – carved out by nature through well-toiled efforts of centuries, in a manner that makes it inhospitable for one to live - and very easy for those who want to get lost.

English language uses the word Hinterland for such a place lying so beyond anything. In Hindi, however, the word to describe the region around the river near Dholpur was ‘ Beehad’, meaning  ravines. 


These were not just ravines with a very interesting & distinct landscape. These were part of the infamous ravines of Chambal – badlands of Northern India, infested with dacoits whose exploits were not only the part of local folklore, but were used also to drive the plots in Hindi movies –From Bandit Queen of early 90s to the most recent one,  Paan Singh Tomar.


One look at those unfathomable ravines, and it is easy to fathom the reason why these were the breeding grounds for the dacoits. 


To add to all this, the myriad colours that the terrain sports & the remnants of Dholpur's history is sufficiently enchanting for anyone to get hooked.


The architecture providing a glimpse of its rich heritage, those enigmatic & scary dusty ravines, the red stone plateau, covered with dense forest,  the lakes and smaller water-bodies - reflecting the sky & Mustard cultivation brightening the otherwise dull day


And the birds? Well, by the end of the trip, the count was almost 100, with a few lifers. Perhaps, we could have spent another couple of days in this rainbow, and I would have been as sad faced - but for another proverbial pot of nature's treasure at the other end, which was beckoning us from Bharatpur. 


So, while, I take a breather before narrating my experience of Bharatpur, here is a link for you all to feast your eyes on more images - specially of the variety of birds - from Dholpur:  

And me, well, as far as I am  concerned, I now know exactly what Douglas Adam meant when he said:

I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.

Jan 21, 2014

The Fog at Bharatpur

Unknown to us, during the night, it had descended, like a cat & sat on its haunches silently, looking over the city - just the way Carl Sandburg described it in his poem Fog. Seeing the vista outside my bedroom window, today morning, my mind wandered back to my recent yayawari which had taken us to the ravines and grasslands of Rajasthan.

For three days, despite the weather forecast, we have had a good run with winter. Sun had been more than kind enough - giving us much needed warmth in the freezing cold as well as ensuring superb visibility for us to capture wildlife images. 

The evening on the third day sounded the first discordant note, with fog moving in - slowly but steadily like the proverbial tortoise, seeping through the leaves and grass-blades all around. The morning after had obliterated the vibrancy - and left behind were Black, White and Gray - making me understand what the Britishers meant with the phrase - Pea-Soup Thick fog. 

The ambiance was ominous - perfect for a spine chilling mystery - and yes, I am sure about it, because despite six layers of warm clothes, the chill had managed to infiltrate right into my spine. In the initial days of my hobby, a fog like this would have made me stay put indoor, in a sulky mood,  just like a child, eagerly awaiting the Santa Clause, only to be told that Santa has decided to skip his house this Christmas. 

Not any more! Now the fog was adding another interesting dimension to our trip, enticing us to step out to seek and experience the mysteries of nature. While everything looked & stood still, dew glistening on the spiderwebs, everything was seeming to be appearing & dissolving into the mist - creating an image from the magical realm. To my mind came the very philosophical and popular ghazal by Sahir Ludhianawi, a Bollywood classic from yore.

The ghazal was an inspiration enough for me to use the opportunity and make an effort to capture the beauty of a very-very gray wilderness of Bharatpur, that morning.


While above was one image from that foggy morning at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park of Bharatpur, a few more captures accompanying those famous verse of Sahir can be seen on the following link: