Tuesday, May 12, 2015


The Magic of Sand Dunes

Born not too far away from where the sand dunes begin, I could say that I have a little bit of desert in my blood.  My early childhood memories were made up of  sand dunes, arid bushes of keekar, ber and the bitter-sour fruits of dansra. Catching a teetar (grey francolin) underneath a  semi spherical  basket was a favourite pastime with the older boys. Bajra seeds were laid out below the propped basket to entice the unsuspecting bird, that was invariably set free after a little bit of harmless fun, or even earlier, if an unapproving elder happened to be passing by.

Grey Francolin

 We were a village of strict vegetarians and meat eating was taboo, though on one occasion, an uncle of mine  dared to cook mutton on a slow fire in his backyard. In the fields, choicest bean-like fruits that hung from the tall thorny bushes were reserved for the camels, who deftly nibbled at them, carefully avoiding  the thorns. These were khokhas  which had a flat, slightly acrid taste and once inside you, caused flatulance in decibels to the power of n. Domesticated camels roamed free, but had their front feet tied with a rope, so that they did not graze too far away.

Domestic Camel with its Front Feet Tied Up

Despite so many years spent in different parts of Rajasthan, this was only my second  trip to Jaisalmer. The first one had been with my family.After a gap of barely three years, sand dunes of Barna had enticed me once again. This time I was with Adesh and his 'Nature India' team.
As we travelled from Pokhran to Jaisalmer, the dusty terrain brought back a number of  random images, long forgotten, from my childhood. In a way, Jaisalmer was the land of my ancestors, who, several centuries ago,  moved from Rajasthan to Lahore in search of a livelihood. My grandmother, with a trace of pride, often reminded  us that we were warrior Rajputs and not Punjabis. The adjunct 'warrior', though, was a bit of a misnomer. In reality, our ancestors, the Bhatis, were court singers who performed in front of captive audiences. I learnt from my mother that her maternal grand-uncle was a full time singer who also excelled in the popular dance 'swaang' dressed as a woman. In distant rural Bihar, they call it  'Chhokra Naach' or 'Boy Dance'. 

On my first visit, as we approached the outskirts of Jaisalmer, a familiar sense of belonging had overtaken me. As an urban Satyajit Ray fan, I also remembered several mesmerising images from the movie 'Shonar Kella' (The Golden Fortress). Simple sketches in coloured crayons, bright courtyards embellished with peacocks and yes-- the unforgettable sight of the metre gauge train with Feluda chugging across the desert at midnight. Expectations soared high as we entered the outskirts of the city. But the first sight of Jaisalmer filled us with disappointment and a touch of sadness. The town was dusty, uneventful and nondescript, like any other small town of Rajasthan.

Approaching the Jaisalmer Town

The magical Golden Fortress, made of the famed yellow stone of Jaisalmer, is as deceptive as the 'chhokra naach' or the 'swaang' that my great maternal grandfather once danced. Like the Hawa Mahal of Jaipur, the Golden Fortress is only a beautiful façade. There is nothing worthwhile behind it. If anything, the backside, or the reality behind the mask is crass, very commercial and jolting, somewhat like a make-believe set being constructed in the backyard of a film studio.

The Beautiful Facade of 'Golden Fortress'

As with the fort at Chittorgarh, the Jaisalmer 'Kella' too is a 'living fort' with dwellings, dirty pathways, dumps of garbage and unkempt shops & stalls inside its boundary. As a tourist, you are better off clicking the majestic yellow-golden structure from outside and believing in its grandeur, instead of tearing the mask and witnessing the entrails on the other side. In my view, more than the Fortress, a trip around the famed Hawelis of Jaisalmer (particularly Nathmalji Ki Haweli) can certainly be more rewarding and worthwhile.

Nathmalji Ki Haveli

Thankfully, this time over, we were not in Jaisalmer for sight-seeing. As our vehicle turned left, away from the hum-drum of the city, the familiar sight of undulated sand dunes, 'aak' shrubs and thorny bushes of wild berries sprang into view. In the distance, a row of windmills turned their giant blades menacingly. It is learnt that the windmills do not auger well for the terrain and under their influence, the beautiful undisturbed sand dunes are already turning into flat stretches of sand and dust.

On our way to the hamlet of 'Khuri', a large, unfamiliar raptor perched on a bush on one side of the road, took off as we adjusted our cameras. Experts in the group considered the possibility of it being a golden eagle, though no one was really sure. Golden eagles do sometimes travel this far from their Himalayan abode in winter but spotting one in this arid terrain is rare, if not impossible. In the silhouette of the evening, a desert fox, resting behind a clump of shrubs, bolted off on seeing us, but stopped several times on its  track to look back, before finally disappearing behind a sand dune. The desert has its own variants of foxes and cats which are endemic to the region. Last winter at Tal Chhapar (in Churu District of Rajasthan), we had chanced upon a family of foxes with three cubs.

Mother Fox

The mother went hunting during the day while the cubs stayed behind, never venturing far from the den and disappearing into the depths of their home at the slightest sign of danger. In the evening, the mother fox returned with the kill of a rat, but the cubs were still too young and hungry for mother's milk. On the fourth day, the entire family disappeared. We were told that for reasons of safety, the desert fox changes its home two or three times before the cubs grow up.

Cubs of Desert Fox Outside the Den

It was almost dark by the time we reached our destination. Our resort, set in the backdrop of golden sand dunes, consisted of a row of tents with a cluster of rooms with a large courtyard in the centre.

A few arranged chairs and a small platform at one end with a harmonium and a pair of tablas placed in the middle, indicated a musical evening of some sort in the offing. A food counter with a provisional bar at the other end completed the scene.

Waiting for the Evening of Music & Dance

While our resort was fairly well organised, we learnt that more than 100 makeshift resorts operate in the hamlets of 'Khuri' and nearby 'Sam' offering  packaged deals for a 2 or 3 day 'Sand Dunes' holiday. Almost every other house of the village has a tourist lodge of dubious stature in winter. According to one local, the breathtakingly beautiful giant sand dunes used to be   upto 60 metres in height at one point of time. Today they are, sadly, mere shadows of that majestic past, carrying deep in their guts, an unspecified junk of broken beer bottles, metallized plastic 'namkin' wrappers and hordes of empty 'bisleris' recklessly abandoned. Most of the tourists who come here have little or no interest in wild life or nature and come to the desert solely for revelry, food, drink and fun. Environmental impact of these mushrooming resorts (not always with minimum optimal arrangements) on the fragile ecology of the adjoining Desert National Park is a question no one wishes to answer, as long as the cash boxes keep ringing.

How Long Before They Vanish?

As a  vegetarian meal under the stars got underway, the musicians on the dias started tinkering with their tablas and the harmonium. A young boy with miniature cymbals provided additional support to the beats. Starting with the mandatory 'Padharo Mhare Des' (Welcome to my country!), the robust singer moved on to some local semi-classical songs which were quite well rendered. This was followed by the entry of a male dancer  from the wings. Reminiscent of  the 'Chhokra Naach', the dancer was dressed and heavily made-up as a woman in traditional Rajasthani attire. As the evening wore on, the dancer performed a number of items, including the traditional 'kalbelia' (snake dance), dancing on hot embers and manoeuvres while balancing a number of pitchers on the head. The audience generously clapped.

Male Dancers Dressed as Women

 I remembered that during the last visit, some of us had been dragged on to the shop-floor by the dancer and a colourful, energetic number had been performed with active audience participation.

The Desert National Park is one of the larger wildlife parks of the country covering an area of over 3000 kilometres but regrettably, little has been done to preserve the sensitive eco-system of the park. As with many other parks like Sariska in Rajasthan, and Tadoba in Maharashtra, a road, with regular traffic of vehicles and buses cuts across the park. The park's most spectacular inhabitant, the greatly endangered Indian Bustard is gradually getting pushed out into the interior core zone of the park. Maharashtra (Nannaj) and Kutch in Gujarat have already lost nearly all its bustard population. As things stand, this unique species (ironically the state bird of Rajasthan),  is also destined to be wiped out from its last sandy abode, unless appropriate preservation measures are taken on war footing. We learn from Adesh that more than protection, breeding of this extremely shy bird is an issue preventing increase in numbers. During the last trip, we had seen a number of bustards, some of them close to the dwellings.Three years ago, if you drove along the road bifurcating the park early in the morning before the first bus made its noisy journey, you were sure to get a sighting of a couple of bustards at more than one location. Sadly, not any more. Within a matter of 3 years, spotting a bustard has become that much more difficult.

The Great Indian Bustard-- Facing a Grim Future

This time over, on our first morning at the park, we slowly moved in our jeeps with the first rays of sun emerging from behind the sand dunes. Graceful chinkaras, a flock of bimaculated larks blending with the dull ground and a sole long legged buzzard on top of a thorny tree completed the all too familiar desert scene.

A Chinkara in the Desert

Our search for the Great Indian Bustard had just begin, when a speeding milk van overtook our jeep and recklessly hit a chinkara trying to cross the road. As the animal fell down, the van sped away before we could stop it. The chinkara had been fatally hit and withing seconds, it collapsed in the middle of the road, stone dead.

The audacity of the whole act had shaken us up.We informed the forest authorities about the accident, but the guy at the other end of the phone line was sleepy and outright bored. There was nothing more that we could have done.We decided to drag the carcass of the dead chinkara away from the road, so that it did not get run over by another speeding car. 

News of a freshly killed animal spreads fast in the desert. Sure enough, within a few minutes, there were vultures circling the air space above the dead animal. As our presence was a deterrent for them, we moved away to a vantage point with our cameras.

The first to arrive were a pair of Egyptian vultures with a juvenile.   

A Hovering Egyptian Vulture

They were followed by Eurasian Griffons who promptly pushed away the three smaller egyptian vultures to the side line. It was interesting to see that raptors as well as animals descended on the fresh carcass according to a hierarchy system based on might and strength. Anyone trying to break the pecking order was promptly shooed off. As the morning wore off, we got a close glimpse of a pair of Punjab Ravens gorging on the juiciest parts of the carcass and the eyes. The evening was to attract foxes, wild cats and even eagles to the same spot.

Punjab Ravens feasting on the Dead Chinkara
It was ironical that the tragic death of the chinkara was now providing us an opportunity to witness and capture the raptors of Jaisalmer at such close quarters.

A Cinereous Vulture  Swooping on the Carcass

The vast area of the Desert National Park encompasses nearly 70 villages and many traditional settlements called ढाणी which have existed for several hundreds of years. Threat to the sensitive and unique eco-system of the desert comes not so much from these traditional establishments, but from the rampant growth of irresponsible tourism and crass commercialisation of human activity in the area. Communities like the 'Bishnois' have lived for long in complete resonance with the plant and animal life of the arid region. They are not only protectors of wild life (remember the ongoing Chinkara shooting court case involving Salman Khan vs. the Bishnoi community) but also worship and revere the 'Khejri' trees abundantly found in the region.

A Stone Hide in the Park

During the last trip, we had gone around the park in a painfully slow and mighty uncomfortable camel cart, just to get a flavour of the local life. Around the park, we had also found a number of circular stone hides, presumably for watching animals and birds at close quarters. Sadly, most of them were abandoned and in a sorry state of upkeep. A local told us that trappers sometimes use these hide-outs for catching the extremely shy sandgrouse which fly and settle in hundreds, completely camouflaged against the sandy background.

Painted sandgrouse are more difficult to locate, as compared to the widely occuring chestnut bellied sandgrouse which fly all over the desert in large flocks.

Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse- Female

Amongst the other birds endemic to the region is the upright standing Cream Coloured Courser, which is paler than its 'common' counterpart found in Gujarat and elsewhere.

The Upright Standing Cream Coloured Courser

An important part of the food cycle of the desert is the spiny tailed lizard which burrows in flat ground and forms the regulation diet for buzzards, harriers and their young ones. In the nearby Churu, on a flat bushy ground, we had found thousands of burrows of these lizards, while the adjoining trees were dotted with nests of buzzards and eagles, with an endless supply of food right at their doorstep!

Hardwicke's Spiny Tailed Lizard

 The intricate and extremely fagile eco-system of the Desert National Park, with all its birds, animals, reptiles, insects and plant species is unique and fascinating. During the course of the day we saw buzzards, tawny and steppe eagles and falcons.

Laggar Falcon

Sparrow larks sand short toed larks can be seen on the ground almost everywhere in the park, and if you look up, you will always find a couple of vultures soaring high in the blue sky.Two other endemic species we saw were sand lark and  the desert bush warbler. Wolves were abundant once upon a time but have since been hunted down, mainly due to their unreasonable reputation as cattle lifters. In a small 'dhani'', we found the skin of a wolf hung on a tree outside the hamlet. The wolf had apparently killed three of the village sheep.

Our search for bustards almost drew a blank till we ultimately found a group of four birds almost half a mile away. A number of agencies are today working on preservation of the bustards. But the population  shows no sign of multiplication.

As the day drew to a close, we took mandatory shots of the sunset and then  drove past the dead chinkara back to our resort.

The Resort in the backdrop of the Receding Desert

The carcass had already been reduced to a bare skeleton. In another day or two, it would vanish without a trace and the bones would mingle with the bright sands of the desert. As I chanced to look out of the rear window of my resort into the ugly heap of plastic bottles and other trash, I wished these would also vanish as seamlessly as the dead carcass left behind in the desert. While the chinkara, even in its death  had fed the eco-system before becoming 'dust unto dust' with  the winds blowing over the sand dunes, science tells us that plastic waste in contrast stays put endlessly for another eight hundred years or even more.

And a sobering thought rang through my mind-- which out of these two would I rather leave for the next visitor and for myself and for the children, grandchildren and their grandchildren of this fabulous desert wonderland where my ancestors once sang and danced?

 Jitendra Bhatia
From Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, 2015
copyright Jitendra Bhatia


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