KEOLADEO GHANA NATIONAL PARK
KEOLADEO GHANA NATIONAL PARK
FLY AWAY HOME
Location In north-eastern Rajasthan, near the Uttar Pradesh border, within the golden tri- angle of Agra, Delhi and Jaipur, just off NH11
Distances 179 km SE of Delhi, 56 km W of Agra, 43 km SW of Mathura NH2 to Mathura via Faridabad, Palwal, Hodal and Kosi Kalan; state road from Mathura to Bharatpur
When to go The park is open through- out the year. Aug-Oct are the peak months for breeding and Oct-late Feb for migrant birds. However, whatever time of the year you go, there will always be interesting birds to see Best sightings From Nov to Mar, when migratory birds flock to Bharatpur
Go there for Birds
Wildlife/ Forest Dept office
• Keoladeo Ghana NP
Near Shanti Kunj (park area)
STD code 05644
Air Nearest airport: Agra (56 km/1 hr). Taxi to Bharatpur Rs 600 approx
Rail Nearest railhead: Bharatpur Junction (2 kml 20 mins). Very convenient option if you are visiting from Delhi. The Frontier Mail and the Kota Janshatabdi are both good options from Delhi, especially in the monsoon, when the Delhi-Agra Expressway can be in a bad shape. There are also rails links with Sawai Madhopur. Hotels will arrange to pick you up from the station; there are cycle-rickshaws at the station too. But beware of the local scooter rickshaws, which have zero suspension and are powered by noisy and polluting engines actually meant to be used for generators
Road Bharatpur is 177 km from Delhi on the Agra Highway via Mathura. It also makes a natural extension to a trip to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri and there is also a good link road from Jaipur. Tour buses operate from these cities to the park area. Prices vary on the day packages on offer
ABOUT KEOLADEO GHANA NP
Keoladeo is actually a name of Lord Shiva and is the form in which he is wor- shipped at the small temple in the heart of the park, near a canteen that serves a welcome cup of hot tea. Ghana refers to the thick tree cover the area once had. This sanctuary is known by the name of the adjoining town of Bharatpur, which is also the name of the king who created the park in the late 19th century. He recognised the potential of this area of scrub woodland that formed a slight depression, a hollow region where water could be collected to attract water birds until it dried up.
By diverting water from an irrigation canal, building small dams and constructing a system of dykes and shooting butts, he succeeded in converting it into one of the richest wetland habitats in the world. Conservation was, however, a by-product of his main purpose ,- shikar. He entertained all the big guns of his time, including viceroys and Indian princes (see A Shot in Time on page 254). Their exploits are recorded on a sand- stone inscription near the Keoladeo Temple. In 1956, the hunting preserve was declared a sanctuary but the VIP shoots here continued until 1964; the royal family maintained their hunting rights until 1972. It is perhaps ironic that bird numbers seem to have decreased after hunting stopped. Other problems have hit the park, one of them being the decline in the number of migratory birds in their summer homes, drought, and buffalo and cattle straying into the park from nearby villages. Pesticide contamination in the water bodies is a cause for concern too.
The huge number of tourists visiting the park has also contributed to the park's decline: many leave behind litter and plastic, adversely affecting the water quality in the swamps. It's, therefore, all the more important that you leave behind nothing but your footprints in the Keoladeo Ghana Park.
The shallow freshwater lakes, which make up about a third of the park's 29 sq km area, comprise just one part of this fauna-rich region. Some 350 species of birds are visitors here while about 120 species nest in the park. Keoladeo Ghana also boasts of an amazing variety of flora, and as many as 181 genera are to be found here. Besides the babul, indigenous trees seen here include kadarn, date palm and khejri and dozens of species of grasses and reeds.
The park is open from 6 am to 6 pm - excuse the pun, but it pays to be an early bird, as morning is a great time for bird- watching. The main gate, where entrance tickets are purchased, stands at one end of the tarred road that runs from the north to the eastern side of the park, through the largest area of wetland and along the line of the Ghana Canal. Either at the gate or the ITDC Hotel, you can park and take a cycle rickshaw whose pullers have been trained by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to recognise birdlife. At the main gate, you also have the option of hiring bicycles, or one of the tongas. You can go on walking trips too. Motor vehicles are not allowed inside the park.
Binoculars are essential if you want to make the most of your visit, even though many of the birds are large and therefore easy to spot. Within the park, there are a number of well-maintained paths, which means you can make your visit as long or as diverse as you wish. The natural place to take a break is the Keoloadeo Temple compound.
Park entry fee Indians Rs 25, foreigners Rs 200 Guide fee Rs 75 per hr Video camera Rs 200 Bicycle hire Rs 30 per day Cycle rickshaw Rs 50-75 per hr
Field guides and maps of the park are sold at the Tourist Reception Centre, located at the place where you show your ticket to enter the park
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The best way to see diverse species of birds and animals is to make trips at different times of the day. Wake up with the birds in the early mornings, see water birds in daylight and, of course, catch night birds such as owls at dusk and after sunset. Birdwatching may mean long waits, so factor it in, and meanwhile, turn the pages of a good birdwatchers' guide such as Salim All's Birds of Bharatpur - a Checklist.
• 350 species of birds including open-pill storks, egrets, grey herons, black- headed ibis, cormorants, pipits, larks, waterfowl, ground-thrushes, rubythroats, sleeping night jars, eagles, harriers, owls, and migratory birds such as bar-headed geese, pied-crested cuckoo, garganey, Baikal teals, little grebe, northern shovellers, greylag geese
• Nilgai, sambar, spotted deer, jackals, wild boars, otters, hares, civets, fishing and jungle cats, porcupines, blackbucks
There are many routes inside the park, but opt for the ones near the swamps for the maximum number of sightings. One route is to head to Sapan Mori, and then to turn right towards the Keoladeo Temple. If you head left (and it's best to do this in the afternoons), then you will reach the sunning ground of pythons. The Mansarovar and Hansarovar marshes and the swamps and lakes of Bharatpur form one of the most important heronries in the world.
If you are visiting the park in winter, the sheer number of birds will surprise you. With just a little application, you can see as many as 100 species of birds in 24 hours. The wildfowl visitor I love the most is the blue-winged teal or garganey, but the most thrilling sight is a water surface full of birds, and the way they take off in swirling flocks when there is a slight disturbance. Waders from the godwit family, with over-sized bills, and tiny stints abound in shallow muddy areas. In low bushes and wood- lands, you can test your spotting ability by looking out for orange-headed ground-thrushes, ruby throats and sleeping night jars. You'll spot eagles and harriers feeding on the wildfowl, sometimes stealing each other's prey in mid-air.
Winter in the park is one of the best times to see the various birds of prey together and compare their size and plumage as, unlike leopards, they do change their spots. The largest and most impressive is the imperial eagle, while the smaller marsh harrier has an entertaining habit of gliding low over assembled ducks and putting them to flight. However, my favourites among the dozens of species of flesh-eaters are owls. If you're very quiet, and go with one of the trained guides, you might just be able to see the large owls before they see you and, with a whoosh, set off for a further perch. The most visible ones are the magnificent dusky horned variety, and if they are nesting, they are clearly visible at the top of the tall tree they have chosen.
The scale of the journeys migratory birds undertake is breathtaking. Silvery- winged bar-headed geese return to remote parts of Ladakh to breed. Other species come from Central Asia and Siberia, and the pied-crested cuckoo, the monsoon bird, comes from East Africa with the monsoon winds. We still have a lot to learn about how they navigate.
The sanctuary is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the sociable plover, which breeds on open steppes in Central Asia where its natural habitat has been destroyed to such an extent that it is on the brink of extinction. It's difficult to spot these plovers as they are much more modest in size and colour than the Siberian crane, and despite their name, are profoundly unsociable. They are not wetland birds and retreat, well camouflaged, to the dry areas of the sanctuary where human disturbance is least, but if you are quiet and patient and don't try to approach them closely, you can be rewarded with one of the hardest-sought sights in the world.
In drought years, Keoloadeo Ghana becomes a haven for the desert species of birds but a large area of the park is always dry land, home to pipits and larks. These are generally overlooked as the star attractions are waterfowl and waders. Among mammals, apart from the deer and antelope, you also have a chance of seeing otter, porcupine, wild boar, and fishing cats as well as palm civets and hares.
A Shot in Time
The 29 sq km of shallow jheels and marshes, scrub jungle, mature green woods and golden grass of the Keoladeo NP plays host to over 400 species of birds - about as many as in the entire UK! This World Heritage Site, however, did not start off as a sanctuary. It was conceived and designed by the Maharaja of Bharatpur for the single purpose of shooting birds. In fact, on one particular shoot held in the honour of Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy, during the heady days of the Raj, more than 4,000 feathered friends were shot down. The shooting records are etched on sandstone plaques near the Keoladeo Temple, in case you want to check yesteryears' 'score'. In 1971, the guns fell silent thanks to the efforts of India's most famous ornithologist, the late Salim Ali. Today the World Heritage Site is famous for its heronries and, of course, the sadly dwindling numbers of the great white (Siberian) cranes that visit during the balmy winters, along with thousands of other migrants - waterfowl, waders, passerines and raptors.
At the Tourist Reception Centre, you can book boat rides if there's water in the lakes and it's boating season. Boats are available for hire from the boarding point near the !TOC Bharatpur Ashok Hotel (see alongside for details). These give you a peaceful and easy way to get close to the birdlife and the otters.
Boating fee Rs 100 per person, per hr
WHERE TO STAY
Most places to stay are along Dr Salim Ali Road, which runs from Bharatpur Town to the entrance of the park. The pride of place is the Laxmi Vilas Palace (Tel: 05644-223523; Tariff: Rs 3,000- 4,000), a fine heritage property run by members of the Bharatpur royal family. It's set amidst 50 acres in Kakaji-ki-Kothi on the old Agra-]aipur Road. The palace is small and ornate, with a large court- yard, and has a new swimming pool entirely in keeping with the design of the old building. The staff is friendly, and the hotel offers jeep safaris and return transfers to the park and railway station.
The ITOC Bharatpur Ashok Hotel (Tel: 222760; Tariff: Rs 2,799) in the park has the best location, but is run down and needs renovation, although the staff is most helpful and friendly. In-house facilities include a multi-cuisine restaurant and bar, and they also help you hire forest guides. The hotel garden plays host to a number of birds. Its restaurant is open to non-residents.
The Birder's Inn (Tel: 227346; Tariff: Rs 910-1,150) is located near the sanctuary entrance. Kadamb Kunj (Tel: 220122, 225067; Tariff: Rs 1,950-2,450 on Fatehpur Sikri Road, 3 km from the park, has a restaurant, a bar and organises cultural events in the evenings.
The popular Hotel Sunbird (Tel: 225701; Tariff: Rs 700-1,050), close to the park, offers clean rooms. Hotel Saras (Tel: 223700; Tariff: Rs 450-900), run by the RTOC, has 28 rooms and also a dormitory for drivers (Rs 50 per bed). At Shanti Kunj, 2 km inside the park, close to the Tourist Reception Centre, the Wildlife Warden's Office complex (Tel: 222777) houses a Forest Rest House with 5 rooms for forest officials. Rooms are rented out to tourists at the discretion of the warden. The charges are Rs 600 a night with meals.
WHERE TO EAT
Salim Ali Road is the best bet, as most of the restaurants in the hotels are open to non-residents. Hotel Sunbird has a good breakfast, and the menu boasts of crepes, while Nightingale has a number of tandoori options. ITDC is still the best place to head to for lunch - the food is not at all bad and you can have it with- in the park itself. Both the buffet and a la carte service feature Rajasthani, Mughlai and Continental fare.
AROUND KEOLADEO GHANA NP
The strong central citadel of Bharatpur was built by the ruler Suraj Mal in 1730. He was a king strong enough to take on Delhi and sack the Red Fort. You can still see the mud walls of the fort he built here, with the occasional canon in place on the bastions, surrounded by a moat. In the late 18th century, the fort was in the hands of the Raja of Bharatpur. The British stormed the fort in 1804, after which the bastions and walls were dismantled, which explains why these are in such a dilapidated state today. It is possible to visit the palaces, built as 'pleasure palaces' on the island within the moat. There is a government museum in the fort, which has displays of arts and culture of the region, including inscriptions and sculptures dating to 2nd century AD.
Timings 10 am-4.30 pm; closed on Fridays and gazetted holidays
Deeg (36 km N)
Deeg was the second capital of Suraj Mal's kingdom in the 18th century. It was here that the king defeated a combined Mughal and Maratha army of 80,000 odd men. The fort here has massive walls that are nearly 30m high. Suraj Mal's palace, Gopal Bhavan, and the gardens in the Mughal-Rajput style make the trip worthwhile. There is also an old Hanuman Mandir with a secret passage to the king's bedroom. Apparently, this was constructed so that the king could visit the temple before dressing up in his royal finery. There's an ancient water fountain system that works even now, but it's turned on only on special occasions.
Palace entry fee Rs 10