Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khichan - 1 March 2017
01.03.2017 - 04.03.2017 30 °C
As the sun rose, a bright orange ball on the eastern horizon, the calls of a thousand cranes filled the air – krr, krr, krr, garroo, garroo, garroo...
Thousands more birds, in typical V-shaped skeins silhouetted against the morning sky, circled and slowed as they dropped lower and lower. Hundreds landed among grass and sparse trees away to my right. The others circled suspiciously directly overhead.
I was the only watcher here on the flat, bare concrete roof of Sheva Ram's house overlooking the chugga garh, the 'feeding house'. This place was established some 50 years ago here in Khichan to help ease the plight of Demoiselle Cranes on their annual migration from the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia. I was enthralled by this sight last year and would encourage you to read my previous blog 'The eighth Wonder of the World perhaps?' too.
As the minutes ticked by, Sheva Ram brought me a welcome cup of hot chai and a young photographer from the village joined me to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before us. Numbers of birds continually increased and soon the protected piece of sand below me, covered the previous night in heavy lines of grain, was crowded with the grey, white and black shapes of feeding Cranes.
While I was again amazed by the synchronised chaos this morning (and would be again this afternoon and yet again at dawn tomorrow), I had come this year to discover more about one of the people responsible for this wonder and to see a part of the village that had previously evaded me.
Yes, you'll find many photographs of the cranes on my previous blog - and on this one too. Inevitably, the birds will always be the main attraction. However, I wouldn't be here - and nor would the birds - without the devoted hard work of a few people and the village environment that provides these people's homes.
It was one Ratan Lal who started feeding the cranes here in the 1970s. Those initially small numbers rapidly increased until he and his fellow villagers could no longer fund the grain provisions unaided. A prominent member of the community, Ganga Ram, stepped in and started fund-raising in earnest, calling upon wealthy Jain merchants, many of whom no longer lived in the village, to contribute to the work. A 'Trust' was established, of which Ganga Ram became Chairman and, although he is now retired at the age of 73 - after 35 years in the role, his work continues to this day.
I met Ganga Ram this evening, with my hotel’s restaurant manager acting as interpreter, beside the ponds where his beloved flocks of cranes gathered in the cool of evening to rest and drink before moving off to night-time roosts in surrounding fields.
It was a proud moment for me to meet the man who helped establish the chugga garh, this small piece of land in the centre of Khichan that is now walled to provide a safe landing and feeding place for the cranes. He also petitioned the government to remove electricity cables that prove so disastrous to landing birds and he expects many of the poles and pylons to be eradicated and the cables placed underground in the not-too-distant future.
With the addition of donations of grain from villagers and money from international and national visitors, enough is now raised to provide up to a claimed 1,250kgs of grain (the volume was variably described to me as 700kgs and 1,250kgs!) to be spread on the ground of the chugga garh every night during the winter. Ganga Ram modestly said he was only doing the Lord’s work.
The daily job of feeding the birds - and providing a roof and chai for any visitors - has now passed to Sheeva Ram (despite the name, he is not related to Ganga Ram and they are actually of different castes too). Sheeva Ram clearly continues to work hard to provide for the cranes as numbers have risen year on year, reaching around 20,000 or more each winter. He also collects birds that are unwell, apparently from eating chemically-treated crops elsewhere in the countryside, and takes them to an animal hospital for treatment.
To see so many birds of this graceful species in one place is a truly wonderous sight and one which I hope to have the privilege of witnessing again at some time in the future.
The village of Khichan itself is another world away, a world for which I'd failed to find time on my previous visit. On this trip, my remaining objective was to make good that omission. So, after returning to the hotel for breakfast, I ventured forth into the village with a member of the community.
It's said that 'a traveller sees what he sees; a tourist sees what he has come to see'. Nearly all tourists visiting Khichan, like me last year, come just to see the cranes. On this occasion, I'd also come specifically to see the village's havelis, something most tourists do not come to see. Does that qualify me as a tourist or a traveller?
An ‘haveli’ is a merchant's house, built in opulent style to demonstrate his wealth and his standing in society. Most of the havelis in Khichan are owned by Jain families, who settled here originally because the former non-Rajput rulers of this region let them live their peaceful vegetarian lives unhindered and when trading conditions were different to what is found here in this desert region today.
The grand stone buildings mostly date back to the 1900s, when trade routes across the desert into Pakistan and Afghanistan were at their peak and providing fabulous opportunities for accumulation of wealth. Following India's Independence in 1947, when borders were raised and traditional routes declined, these traders moved their businesses to the big metropolises, like Mumbai and Chennai, and even overseas. Their sumptuous properties were abandoned.
They are a rather sad sight in consequence, architecturally beautiful with skilfully sculpted stonework and decorative doors and windows, soulless, empty, left to the mercy of the environment. The owners, I was told, do come back from time to time to check on the buildings' condition and to meet socially, but many of these heritage structures have multiple owners, resulting in complex maintenance, buying and selling issues, and some have simply fallen into ruin during heavy monsoons.
The village is quiet, with few people or animals in evidence by day. I did have a humorous conversation with a kindly old gentleman, Shurad Kuran, during my walk around the village. We shared similar ailments, creaky knees and the like – the main difference being I’m only in my early-70s, while he was in his early-100s (102 to be precise)!
Well, that was Khichan – an interesting village, a fabulous wildlife encounter.
I stayed again at the Kurja Resort, Bird View Point, Railway Station Road, Khichan, Phalodi, Jodhpur
Tel:+91 09649417417 email: firstname.lastname@example.org (Response to emails may sometimes be slow due to communication problems in this area. For that reason, you might be best advised to reserve through Booking.com)
I was impressed that the standards of accommodation, food and service were all even higher than last time. The rooms here are particularly large and both food and service are very good indeed.
It’s efficiently managed by Abhay Singh Bhati, for whom no request seemed impossible. He very ably arranged my meeting with Ganga Ram and all my car journeys in and around Khichan and onwards to Jaisalmer.