Monday, March 11, 2019

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur trip report (aka musings about a misty wintry dream)

Bharatpur. It has always been a wintry dream for me. Ever since I set foot 10-12 years back for the first time on a cold January morning, this small 30 sq km national park has been one of my favorites. Many things work in its favour for me - one is the amazingly beautiful setting. Every frame here is painted by an artist creator. Two, since motorised vehicles are not allowed, the silence is immense. Ofcourse there is bird chirps all around. But for me its noiselessness. Three, you are free to walk around where ever you feel like. No one seems in any hurry unlike in many other national parks. You can be on your own sitting at Sapan Mori for 5 hours just enjoying all the birds going about their routine.
Last season's rains had meant the lakes were full of water. I have been there in bad years and its a forlorn melancholic place. The darters and cormorants still survive on pumped in water in the man managed lakes - but overall they are also melancholic - as if missing their international migratory friends. So I decided then that I'd go only those seasons where the water is good. Once I got intel that this year is good especially with 100s of rosy pelicans arriving along with painted storks, spoonbills and thousands of ducks / geese, I decided it was a great year to introduce Aarav to serious birding.

Day 1

I don't want to make this a technical trip report as such. Most information regarding the park is available on internet and I won't be adding any value in synthesizing it here. I'll jot down some memories and some thoughts, along with the images, which I'm sure tell stories better than me.

After landing in Delhi T3 airport on a Jet Airways from Dubai, we were picked up by driver arranged by Birder's Inn, where we were staying. Enroute we decided to try some roadside dhaba food along with tea in earthen glasses. Amazing ! It also was a test for Aarav's tummy - he had no issues, for which I was immensely proud. Given that most of his vacations are going to be in the wild, he better get used to non-Dubai food standards ! We reached Birders Inn afternoon and decided to go ahead to the park in the evening without wasting any time. I just wanted to enjoy the park and decided to take only my 100-400 instead of the long lens kit. Took a rickshaw driver randomly from outside of the lodge gates. It is always a hit or miss if you don't book your guide-cum-drive ahead but since I was going to be there only for 3 days and since I knew the park I decided i'll risk it. The driver, Mannu, turned out to be quite OK- very enthusiastic, eager and fit enough to take me off the beaten tourist tracks. He also had a good network with others to get information on sightings since I was focused on Sarus and Pelican primarily for first couple of day's shoot. He also knew the names of the more common birds especially the ducks and geese, he was not as good on birds of prey and I guess I taught him a bit too. Above all he loved the Chai, the Indian version of tea with lots of milk and abundant sugar !
First day gave some simple shots - nothing I didn't have in portfolio before other than heron silhoutte on setting sun.

Day 2 

On second day, I asked Munna to come at 6. I love to be the first to enter the park since that early morning drive through the lifting mist with no one around is as close to heaven as you can get. And you might even see a jackal or deers crossing the road which is always a great photo op (the first image of this blog of the painted stork is one we got second morning with no-one around). Munna woke us up at 545 (Sandy was not mighty pleased with that, for obvious reasons). Quickly wore some winter cloths and went to the canteen to have hot chai and biscuits. Sandy and Aarav decided to join me later - both given the early start and the cold weather. I was inwardly glad since I love that lonely ride first in the park, with absolute stillness and silence around -which obviously is not a possibility if Aarav joins. I told Munna that I don't mind waiting for hours if need be but I'm going to focus on Pelicans with everything else a bonus. We did the routine spotted owlets in their roosting tree and went straight past the canteen at the end of the normal tourist road. We checked some lakes turning left post the canteen at the Keoladeo temple. Saw two pelicans in eerie morning mist. I decided to skip the usual clear portraits and instead went between bushes to create something minimalist.

Two friends (lovers ?) enjoying some alone time together which I did not want to disturb. I just sat there between bushes (wishing no centipede or snake would be interested in me) for close to half an hour when they decided to fly away. Great start to a morning, which me and Munna celebrated with 10 rs small chai from canteen.

We then decided to take left post the canteen on an untarred road towards the watch tower to get a birds eye view of the bird park ! We could see Pelicans, open billed storks, egrets etc. approximately 1km into the lake but moving towards our direction slowly as they fed. We estimated it is going to take atleast an hour before they reach reasonable distance for any shooting. After taking a few pano shots, we decided to have our packed breakfast enjoying the amazing panorama in the rising sun.

I could have sat there for ages but Sandhya called and asked to be picked up. Leaving me at Sapan Mori where I shot some darter and cormorants, Munna went to pick them. Once they were back the pelicans we guessed pelicans would have already reached close enough and hence we went back to the watch tower area. There as we had estimated, they had reached reasonably close for some interesting shots including some flights.

We decided to call it quits at lunch time. Went back to room, backed up the files, put batteries on charge and had an amazing lunch. There was a big group of probably german bird watchers, who was going through the species list. Should be a nice post retirement occupation which I'll probably be doing in 20 years !

We left for the park at around 3 pm. By the time we reached Sapan Mori area, the sun had the nice golden hue as is the wont in north indian winters. It's a light to die for. I shot a few interesting frames walking around without any particular focus. Sometimes just letting nature present herself without too much planning and expectation is best - I should remind this myself whenever I'm in a tiger forest. We even got the enigmatic Sarus crane family from afar - did make some habitat shots but planned that tomorrow I'll focus on these famous birds. Sarus have a special place in my mind. Folklore has it that they mate with a single partner for life. And when one of the pair dies, the other suicides without drinking water. I'm pretty sure its a bit of a far fetched story telling but records do indicate they pair for life and do not change their partner.

Small blue kingfisher art

Purple sunbird male

Coot bath

Northern Shoveler

Purple heron flight

Sarus family habitat

Sarus family- mom, dad, kid

Day 3

Idea today was to try and spend some hours with the Sarus family. Munna and me started at 630 from the lodge after some caffeine ingestion  ! Some items of breakfast was ready so I decided that instead of packing it up Ill eat hot. That meant we missed out target of being first in park ! However, given the week day and lack of tourists, we were amongst the first. BY the time we were few kilometers inside we were the first since others stopped at owlet tree and other regular sights. As we were moving ahead we saw a jackal cross the road - almost like an apparition out of the rising mist. The kind of sighting that make Bharatpur special. I have seen and photographed the jackals the world over including Bharatpur but sights like these imprints itself in your mind.
We stood on the side of the road to see if he/she will come back. I chatted with Munna about how his dad was also a rickshaw driver for two decades and how their life is so closely linked to the park. One of the things I invariably do where ever I go is to talk to guides and drivers to understand their life's linkage to the national parks and its animals. Locals around a park are the best conservationists since their livelihood is linked to success of conservation. And that's the only way to protect what ever remains of our wilderness. The whole urban elitist idea of conserving from cities and banishing tribals / locals from buffer is so childish and you realise that only when you speak to people on the ground.

Since no jackal re-appeared, we proceeded onwards to get some sunrise shots as we had planned. KGNP is one of the most amazing places to shoot sunrises in winter since the whole place has an ethereal golden feel along with the picturesque backgrounds you get of trees in islands / water bodies

Soon we reached canteen and had a chai to warm ourselves. In the water body opposite the canteen we tried shooting cormorants and darters trying to catch fish. We also saw a small blue kingfisher pair , probably with a nest close-by, fishing and missing mostly, but being successful once !

Cormorant landing

Large cormorant with catch

Darter with catch

Small blue kingfisher with catch

Pond heron

Cotton pygmy goose

Soon we headed to Sapan Mori and then took the right turn (left while coming from canteen side) and decided to spend the next few hours just relaxing and enjoying everything that was happening around. There were pelicans, coots, painted storks feeding babies, marsh harriers & eagles swooping down on ducks, kingfishers (small blue, pied and white breasted), hoopoes, herons, egrets, glossy ibis etc etc.

Glossy Ibis


White breasted KF

Painted stork feeding young ones

Pelican and open bill stork group

We decided to go for lunch back to lodge and on the way did the boating. Boating is typically not a great experience from a photography point of view. But that's being very parochial. Otherwise its an amazingly rewarding experience. Its almost spiritual to slowly move silently through the bushes, trees and have 100s of ducks and geese fly away at your approach. Off and on you see an open bill stork or even deers/ sambar.

 In one hour, you get a feel for a world untouched by humans - atleast its a nice fantasy to have !

After lunch, we heard there was our Sarus family closer to road. But it was a nice 4-5 km trek turning right from Sapan Mori where rickshaws typically dont go. So lunching my tripod, 300 2.8 and 2 TC on my 7D and 100-400 on my 6D, I decided to test my stamina and muscles ! I must confess we were rewarded by some amazing time. The thing with Sarus is that you've to be quite and then they will get very accustomed to you and give you great shots. Patience is the key and we had loads in store that evening !

On the way back we also saw the enigmatic Bar headed geese, the longest flying birds of em all !! What a way to end another memorable time in this winter bird paradise !

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Epic history

I have always been interested in epics. Especially the thin line between epics and history. As someone clever once mentioned "History is truth for all, epic is truth for some and fantasy is truth for none".
My first love was Egyptian gods helped to a large extent through Wilbur Smith's books including River God and Seventh Scroll.
This then progressed on to Greek epics and history especially the two of Homer's work that are regarded as among the most notable epics in Western History - namely Iliad and Odyssey.
Iliad was of course the more exciting of the two for me. It is a precursor to Odyssey in terms of timeline. Menelaus, is a spartan king whose wife Helen is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the whole world. (Tall tales, I’m sure). Helen is kidnapped and taken to Troy (a city kingdom, probably in today’s Turkey) by Paris, a prince in Troy. To bring her back and take revenge, Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon leads a furious Spartan army of well-known warriors including Achilles and Odysseus. But the Troy turns out to be a difficult citadel to fall even for the mighty warrior. The war rages on to 10 years.
A side story at this juncture worth mentioning is that of Achilles. When he was born, his mother tried to make him immortal by dipping him in river Styx but his heels were not dipped. In the war Achilles kills Hector (as revenge for killing his own friend, Patroclus), brother of Paris and greatest Trojan warrior. Paris finally kills him by shooting an arrow to his heels. Achilles’s anger is the prime motif in Iliad.
Odyssey is the return to Ithaca of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca who fashions the idea of Trojan horse to defeat Troy towards the end of the 10-year siege. The Greeks, pretending to desert the war, sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos, leaving behind Sinon, who persuaded the Trojans that the horse was an offering to Athena (goddess of war) that would make Troy impregnable. That night Greek warriors emerged from it and opened the gates to let in the returned Greek army. Odyssey lays out in detail the journey back of the King Odysseus after the victory to his wife Penelope and the challenges the entourage has to face enroute.
Recently, Ive gotten more and more interested in the two Indian epics - namely, Ramayana (R) and Mahabharata (M).
I find M to be amongst the most philosophically satisfying epics of all I've read - across all old civilizations. Just in size at close to 100000 shlokas, its 8 times that of Iliad and Odyssey and 4 times that of Ramayana. Ofcourse, most believe it was written over decades by multiple authors, all adding up stories to create what some western scholars call “a monstrous chaos”.
R mirrors Iliad + Odyssey in many ways. It’s about the King Ram whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon King ruling the island of Lanka. Ram and his brother Lakshman plots revenge and gathers an army of tribal people from south of India, sporting Monkey and Bear emblems. In a brutal war, they kill all of enemy other than one brother of Ravana (Vibhishan) who they then make king of Lanka and gets back Sita. What then happens is quite astonishing for modern readers – Ram hears rumors from people about Sita’s character since she has stayed at house of another man for many days. And decides to ask Sita to prove her chastity by walking through fire. Sita is victorious but decides (rightly so) to leave her sad husband and give birth to twins Luv and Kush in Naimisha forest under the watchful eyes of sage Valmiki, who is also the author of the epic. Later Ram unites with his sons but Sita refuses to join and goes back to mother earth where she came from.
Both Iliad and R for me are triumphalist stories - one could even say the victory of “right” over “wrong”; whoever steals other’s wife meets the fate meant for such theft. In that sense its also affirmative. There is one right path and who ever deviates meets bad fate.
That is where M significantly deviates from tried and tested format of epics. For starters, it was like an archive – not really a poem written by a single author. Its author is regarded as Vyasa (which roughly translates as editor – someone like a Wikipedia moderator). Potentially most of the core 7000 shlokas (called Jaya) was written by one author – presumably Krishna Dwypayana (means a black man from an Island, likely within the river Yamuna). The core story is the family feud between cousins – the “bad” Kauravas and the “good” Pandavas (drawing parallel with other epics). Kauravas “steal” the land that is due Pandavas through trickery via gambling and throw them to spend 13 years in forests with promise to give the land back if they are not found out during the 13th year. Even though Pandavas are not found out, Kauravas still refuse to part with what is rightfully due Pandavas. In this sense Kauravas are indeed the bad guys – going by normal epic template. However, in the war that ensues, Pandavas kill most major Kaurava warriors through illegal means. 
And finally, at the end of 18 day war, most of 40, 00,000 people that started it alive (clearly impossible given estimated population of Indian sub continent at that time, but still probably a very large number in reality) are dead. No one is victorious – no soul is celebrating. Only 9 people are alive – 6 with Pandavas and 3 with Kauravas. It said every household from Gandhara in west (Current Afghanistan) to Magadha & Anga to east (current Bihar, India) had a widow or mother who lost a child / child who lost father. The winning king Yudhishtira inherits an “ocean of widows”.
Hence, M at its core is neither triumphalist nor affirmative. It’s tragic and interrogative. 

Its philosophical – no one really wins in war, there is no one right path, no human is fully black / white and we all have shades of gray (including gods!).
One constant narrative throughout the poem is one of "dharmasya tatvam nihitam guhayam" which when translated from Sanskrit broadly means, "The essence of what is right (way of living) is hidden deep in caves" i.e its not easy to differentiate right from wrong in everyday human actions.