Asia » India » Rajasthan » Bikaner - 1st to 3rd February 2018
01.02.2018 - 03.02.2018 30 °C
The alarm clocks sounded their merry chimes far too early. We’d have liked more time with our hospitable host, Raisal, and could easily have spent many more happy hours exploring his interesting little town.
But, there's no rest for the wicked - and, with our combined age of 155 years, these two old farts had had plenty of time to be bad so, after a hurried breakfast, Santosh quickly ushered us to our car and we bid a reluctant farewell to Khandela.
Off towards the Thar Desert we headed.
An uneventful two-hour journey brought us via Sikar and Sujangarh to a long, flat, straight road with even more potholes and missing tarmac than usual. Thankfully, we only had to endure 5 kms (3 miles) of constant bouncing and zigzagging before we reached the entrance to the small but important wildlife sanctuary of Tal Chhapar (yes, two 'h's!). There, the Deputy Conservator of Forests, the affable Mr Pooniya, alerted to our arrival by my friend Dashrath, was waiting with a welcome cup of chai in the lounge of the forest resthouse.
First though, I must mention that Mr Pooniya's title and the resthouse's name were both misnomers, for there was no forest anywhere to be seen. Here was only a flat saline depression - known, we discovered, as a 'Tal'. The 'Chhapar' bit refers to an uninteresting small town nearby. This sanctuary is savannah-like open grassland with only an occasional acacia tree or clump of low-growing and extremely thorny prosopis shrubs. There are salt-pans around one edge of its relatively tiny, fenced boundary of 7.2 sq. kms (3 sq. miles), but it’s otherwise featureless with one or two clumps of trees dotting acres of tall, golden grass swaying in the lightest of breezes almost as far as the eye can see.
Once a hunting ground for the erstwhile royal family of Bikaner, this is now home to large herds of the antelope called Blackbuck. It's the only official sanctuary in Rajasthan for this beautiful animal. Fossils of closely related species have been recovered from distant places like Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia, but those of Antilope cervicapra, the one species seen here, have been found only on the mainland of the Indian subcontinent, where it continues to live in protected pockets of land to this day. Maybe for that reason, it's sometimes called the Indian Antelope.
I'd seen one or two of them on my visit to the Bishnoi tribes last year ('A tribe called 29'), but even though those people revere and protect all wildlife, the numbers of Blackbuck around their rural homes pale into insignificance compared to the vast numbers here at Tal Chhapar. More than a thousand of them (I've seen unlikely estimates of more than 2,000!) roam these grasslands. Whatever the accurate figure, we certainly saw a lot of them, most of them grazing, searching for the sparse Mothiya, their preferred sweet-tasting grass. Others wandered in groups. Some concealed themselves among the taller grasses. Lots of them were busily lekking. Lekking? Well, yes, at least the handsome males were lekking - it's what they do.
Mature males are large, sleek, black on top and white below. They have elegant twisted horns and large curious eyes. Females and young males on the other hand are a boring, plain golden brown. The grown-up males mark their territory with saucer-shaped dung piles and rub their scent on blades of grass in the vicinity to warn off other males and, of course, to attract females. They closely guard these territories but, being a gregarious lot, they tend to gather in just one big area the size of several football pitches. The goalkeeper seemed to have worn out most of the grass, leaving bare and dusty, sandy soil with just an occasional tuft of brown grass. This barren group of neighbouring territories, Mr Pooniya explained, was known as a ‘lek’. Hence, they were 'lekking'.
It seemed that, today, the ladies were starting to get interested. Some of the bucks strutting their stuff around their territories were facing off and hurling themselves head-first at one another - like black-suited businessmen showing off and engaging in fisticuffs after a few too many beers. Noses in the air, they walked stiff-legged up and down before charging one another, the dusty earth erupting in clouds beneath them. Clashes of horns resounded, before pushing and shoving with more dust from rear hooves revealed a victor, who strutted back to his dung pile with his nose once again held high.
As this is a protected area, it naturally attracts other wildlife too. We were only here for a couple of hours, but spotted a Steppe Eagle among the grass and then in flight, plus a flock of Common Crane, a Kestrel, several wild boar and even a pretty little Stolickza's Bushchat singing his heart out from the top of a near-dead tree. Being with the boss of the sanctuary, we were also fortunate to see a rare Red-necked Falcon concealed from the prying eyes of the general public on its nest among the branches of an acacia tree. Out of the sanctuary, on and around the salt-pans, were flocks of waders, including a good number of Avocets preening and dozing on one leg with their beaks tucked beneath their wings. We searched for an owl known to be living in a dried-up well, but it wasn't at home today.
Above: Stolickza's Bushchat - also known as the White-browed Bushchat (Saxicola macrorhynchus)
I've read reports of terrific sightings of unusual birds, particularly raptors, by those who spent a night or two at the resthouse in this small reserve. It's been added to my long list of places worth revisiting for a bit longer on a future visit to Rajasthan.
Mr Pooniya insisted on providing us with lunch before we pressed on for another 130 kms (78 miles) to Bikaner, our destination for the night.
I'll spare you at least some of the boring stuff about the ancient city of Bikaner. I've been here before, but this time, we were staying more centrally and at a hotel where I wasn't the one and only guest. My brother David, the oldest of the two old ones, was yet to encounter the city and, more importantly, the wonders nearby!
To save a lot of repetition, you might like to take a minute to look at my blog from two years ago: Rats, vultures and camels!. It contains more information and photos about everything we would be seeing during our two-night stay.
Our comfortable hotel this time was a ten-minute stroll to the colourful market, past a little boating lake and along wide avenues bordered with crumbling colonial-era buildings. The clean and tidy streets were always busy with motorbikes and scooters, the vast majority of their riders typically ignoring laws about donning crash helmets, row upon row of which, in a variety of styles and colours, were displayed for sale by the roadside.
We didn't stop to have our fortunes told by the chiromancer seated beside one of the roundabouts - for fear he’d tell us that our wrinkled palms reveal we'd already had happy, successful and long lives!
Just a few minutes farther away were the balloon sellers in front of a statue of General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh, ruler of the former princely state of Bikaner from 1888 to 1943, mounted on a horse with his sword raised aloft. This, in turn, stood outside the vast but rather down-at-heel Junagarh. Regular readers of my blogs will recall that a 'garh' is a fort - Junagarh translates as the Old Fort, appropriate since it was constructed, a few years before we two brothers were born, in the 16th-century.
Within the fort's towering red sandstone walls, through huge entrance gates, past handprints of the princesses and concubines who committed the ancient practice of 'sati' by throwing themselves on their master's funeral pyre and a little temple with its bejewelled figure of the elephant god Ganesh, there's said to have been 37 palaces, temples and pavilions. They're not all open, even if they're still there or in one piece. Following the numbered signs, though, showed us the highlights of this impressive building – courtyards surrounded by intricately-carved windows and balconies, beautifully-decorated palace chambers, elaborate frescoes, and, of course, an old aircraft that's squeezed into what was once a magnificent pillared Durbar Hall, now complete with faded, moth-eaten stuffed leopards.
Heaven help anyone inside the fort if there was a fire!
While the city holds some other interesting sights, our time was limited so, after lunch, Santosh drove us out to some of the fascinating places nearby:
Karni Mata Mandir
It's fair to say that rats aren't everyone's cup of tea, but those willing to walk bare-footed among 25,000 of them should head 30kms south of Bikaner to Deshnok.
There, you'll find the Karni Mata Mandir, otherwise known as the Rat Temple. It’s an ancient building currently undergoing construction of an extension. Perhaps the well-cared-for rats have been doing what they do naturally and their ever-increasing population is running out of space in the old temple.
If you see a rat running around in the town, as well you might, it’s just a rat!
However, all those within this temple's walls are holy reincarnations of Karni Mata’s descendants. As such, they’re well-fed on grain, coconuts and milk. Oh, and good fortune is bestowed on pilgrims to the temple if they eat the rats’ leftovers. Fortunately, we were mere visitors, not pilgrims!
Karni Mata Mandir (RatTemple)
Alas, we weren’t fortunate to spot one of the four or five albino rats that are said to be here. However, lady luck smiled upon us several times as the dark brown ones scurried across our shoe-less, sock-less feet! Incidentally, it’s important not to step on them as temple law dictates that, if one is accidentally killed, it has to be replaced with another one made of gold or silver.
We continued to the village of Jorbeer, which has become known (at least by birdwatchers and others ‘in the know’) as a place to see vultures in large numbers. In recent years, these massive birds have become an unfamiliar sight in India as the drug Diclofenac, used to treat sick animals, proved poisonous to vultures consuming their dead bodies and this decimated their populations.
Carcasses of animals from around Jorbeer – cows, buffalo, horses and the occasional camel - are brought to a large plot of land near the village and unceremoniously dumped on the bare earth among scattered outcrops of trees. Inevitably, this has attracted vultures, eagles and feral dogs eager for an easy meal.
Although veterinary use of Diclofenac was banned more than ten years ago, stocks still remain, but the local authorities here go to great lengths to prevent dumping of carcasses which may been treated with it illegally. To help this, the area has just been made an official conservation reserve and visitors must now cough up an entrance fee. However, the local Forest Officer, Balram Sharma, was kind enough to meet us and, together with Ranger Gujendra Singh, we were guided to various places in his comfortable jeep, both in the reserve and among the dry and dusty farmlands surrounding it.
It’s always amazing to see so many large wild birds in one place. In the sky, a kettle of vultures whirled higher and higher on late-afternoon thermals. A wake of Griffon Vultures with their distinctive feather collars, smaller white Egyptian Vultures with yellow faces and bills, little Black Drongos and large, seldom-seen, black and white Cinerous Vultures fed voraciously on the skeletal remains below.
In the tops of trees, more Egyptian Vultures and occasional Steppe Eagles awaited their turn at the table. Mangy-looking dogs in various colours, little white egrets and jet-black crows were already there among a squabbling mass of scavengers.
Out on the neighbouring plains, committees of vultures gathered around scarce pools of water, preening and drying their outstretched wings as if awaiting the truckload of new corpses, which was entering the dumping ground just as we were leaving.
National Research Centre on Camels
Our day ended just another 15 minutes’ ride away at the National Research Centre on Camels. These curious beasts are a familiar sight in this desert region. Indeed, it’s thought that 80 per cent of all India’s camels are found in the state of Rajasthan.
They’re often seen loping along pulling carts in rural areas here (and sometimes in towns too), but there are several breeds, each adapted for a particular need – transport, milk and even racing. Decreases in suitable grazing and water resources, coupled with increases in mechanisation and motorised transport, have led to their numbers plummeting, however. Two years ago, the Rajasthan government introduced plans to revive camel milk dairy production and that’s just one of the research projects being undertaken at this centre.
David and I didn’t get around to sampling milk from the animals here – but I know from my previous visit that we really didn’t miss a lot!
So, that’s Bikaner done and dusted again. Tomorrow, we’re looking forward to reaching Khichan and the thousands of Demoiselle Cranes to be found there at this time of year.
Maharaja Ganga Mahal Hotel, near Ganga Niwaqs Public Park, Rathkhana, Bikaner http://www.maharajagangamahal.in/EN/ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Although this was once a palace owned by the Bikaner royal family, it’s a mid-19th century building that’s been restored and some of its heritage character retained.
It’s well-located, has gardens and a swimming pool, and is altogether an above-average mid-range hotel. This makes it popular with coach groups, which put pressure on the under-sized and underwhelming restaurant. Food and service were generally okay though, even when the place was at full stretch.
Our room, one of some 25 or so, was comfortable and well-equipped.
It was reasonably priced at INR 3600 (GBP 40/USD 50/EUR 43) plus 9 per cent tax for two in a double room, bed and buffet breakfast. We booked through Booking.com, but may have had a better deal haggling direct with the hotel.