Ever since I can remember my all-consuming interest was in birds, animals, and flowers. All my books and toys had to be nature-related. My greatest treasures were the birds and animals which I would help rear with my grand parents. My fantasies, before drifting off to sleep, were images of the birds and flowers from my picture books, and I in the midst of them. One very strong image that imprinted itself was of a large garden sheltering hundreds of birds, in which I lived in complete harmony with them. To my mind it was Paradise, where once you entered you never wanted to leave.
Sometimes, one gets to live one's dreams. My garden turned out to be the Keoladeo National Park, popularly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Arriving by bus from Delhi late one September night we were ready to grab binoculars and set out in search of some local fauna. But we had to wait for dawn to be let into the park. So you can be sure we slept holding our breath.
The RTDC hotel where we checked in made the arrangements for our tour to the Preserve.
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Sanctuaries & Parks
Very very early in the morning, at 5:00 am, the wake up call rings - not too early for me, though. Sleepy faces greet us at the reception, and we are led to the rickshaw that is waiting. Our envoy for the day is going to be Ranjit, a licensed rickshaw driver who would peddle us to the preserve. This certainly appealed to the lazy part of our nature and the fact that we were hard on time. The real joy, however, was that these guys could see and point out birds and beasts that only the most trained eye can spot.
Twilight had worked her magic on the cobbled road that lead to the Preserve, and we came closer and closer to the images and sounds of the charming place. We were all eyes, feasting on details so different from our daily world. Although, I have seen these scenes intermittently, I'm as beguiled as ever.
After buying our entrance tickets we quickly scurried back to our rickshaw and Ranjit pedaled us into another world. Nothing, but nothing prepared us for the sounds and the sights we saw as we entered the Keoladeo National Park. The Preserve chirped with life. The effect of the morning light through moist skies cast an enchanting spell on the pathway. I was already fascinated. The first to greet us was the Jungle Babbler. While we giggled at the chattering birds, Ranjit smiled and said we wouldn't be allowed to chatter while in the park. He pointed more and more birds along the way and we realized just how well trained he was.
The sun was by now bright, the day cool, and the world was out celebrating the day- what bliss.
So many wondrous sights, if only we could have captured the sounds in the photographs we clicked. The chirping, the croaking, the distinct noises in the marshes, pastures, woodlands and the floral communities. I delight in the paradise called Keoladeo and my imagination wanders back to the time I spent with grandpa as he told me, "If you find a bird that can use both wings and appears healthy, place it back on the tree, out of reach from others. Observe the young bird from a distance. If the bird is injured, place a blanket over the bird and feed the bird". But here the birds did not need me. Their world was large and complete. They had their families around them and I would be an intruder.
We saw an endless number of birds and beasts: the Painted Stork, Herons, Blue Bucks, Sambar, Chital, Cranes and more. Yet, we had but a mere glimpse into paradise. More than 300 species of birds are found in this Preserve. Surprisingly, this unique ecosystem of a little over 29 sq. Km, of which about 11 sq. km. are marshes, scrubland, and grassland, is manmade. Species start to arrive here from September to December from as far off as Russia, Europe, China, Mongolia, Southwest Asia, and Tibet. Each tree is crowded with some 100 nests.
I will leave the description of the birds to the ornithologists and brochures. But this I'll say: to think of Keoladeo is to relive a myriad scenes of the beautiful feathered creatures, and the incredible variety of sounds they make. "A rare bird", Ranjit said "is like the most precious gem". My real fascination with birds is that they embody the freedom and wildness of which we human beings only dream. I believe, "Free as a bird" is more than just a cliche for good reason. Living in a fast-paced world with all it's demands I envy the untamed freedom of birds.
We found a nice souvenir shop with plenty of reading material. I would recommend the post cards and the books by Salim Ali to take back as souvenirs.
Too many impressions remained floating in my head. I will probably be looking at the sky in search of them for a very long time, if not forever. I think these brief encounters with the lives of birds will remain one of the brightest in my journey through this life. If I could choose just one world of which to be a part, it would be among them.
More than anything else this visit into the bird kingdom has been in a sense, a journey to my childhood and a dream I could relive. As we all looked back in a gesture of farewell, I inevitably wondered how soon I would return. Lines from Four Quartets, Little Gidding, V, by T.S. Eliot came to me.
"We shall not cease from exploration
For me, nothing compares to these memories. To be cherished forever. To leave is only to return - the birds, the bright sun, the clean air, and the smiling faces. Time passes. Oh! the sights, sounds, and laughs remain.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.