Khichan in Thar Desert plays host to huge flocks of demoiselle cranes arriving from Central Asia. This mesmerising spectacle is something to treasure for a lifetime.
The birds seem to have been waiting for you all morning. You have been advised to come here early in the morning for the congregation. But Khichan is in the middle of nowhere and so justifiably you arrive here around noon. The action is supposed to happen in early mornings and evenings. The setting at Khichan seems to have been designed for full effect. As you crest the hillock, the spectacle unfolds before your disbelieving eyes in a shallow bowl like valley below. Surrounding a pond, there are thousands of demoiselle cranes. Yes, you have seen packed penguin settlements and stampeding wildebeests on TV, but never anything like this in front of your eyes. You don’t like to keep anyone waiting but here, it seems you have an entire colony of demoiselle cranes waiting for you.
Excitedly, you clamber down to the water body. Most of the birds are on the other side of the pond. And the birds are all talking at the same time. So while in Kutch, the mind goes silent listening to the emptiness of Rann doused in pink of a setting sun, here in Khichan, the mind goes quiet making sense of thousands of cranes trumpeting excitedly. There is a constant motion and activity – wings flutter, beaks are dipped into water, some dance while some preen. A dog and some cows move through the ranks. In response, entire columns move in unison like ripples on a grey sea. The view is hypnotic – the spectacle of feathery grey, the constant high-pitched loud trumpeting and the beauty of the cranes.
A GRAND SHOW OF BIRDS
The cranes are beautiful and graceful like the lasses they are named after. The name demoiselle is derived from the French word dameisele which means damsel or young girl. Everything about the cranes is beautiful, measured and graceful. They have long slender necks with white ear tufts. The foreneck is dark while the light grey of the neck extends to an attractive shiny bluish-grey plume. Bright red eyes are inquisitive as they strut like pretty damsels.
The chatter changes pitch. There is some expectancy that builds up. Signals are transmitted through the congregation. Feathers start flapping. And then as if on cue, the entire entourage of the birds lifts into the sky, like a soaring Mexican wave. The sight of thousands of birds taking off at once creates a fantastic show. It seems that thunder claps are rolling over the waters creating ripples. The sound and the spectacle are both dramatic and dazzling. The cranes circle over you even as more cranes take off. For few minutes it seems the feathers have obscured the sun that came out reluctantly from the foggy skies. All you can do is watch the sky spellbound. You cannot imagine your good fortune. First, the cranes wait for you and then they treat you to this extravaganza in the skies. Apparently, after the feeding session, the birds gather around the water bodies only to fly away in the afternoon. They will spend the night on the dunes standing on one leg and will return in the morning.
HOSTING THE BIRDS
The story of how inhabitants of frozen steppes in Mongolia and Eurasia and beyond found a loving home in Thar Desert, thousands of miles away, goes back to the seventies when Ratanlal Maloo and his wife, residents of Khichan village, began feeding birds. Initially, few demoiselle cranes joined the pigeons and other local birds. Over the years, as stories of benevolent Ratanlal’s lavish feast started doing rounds of steppes, the number of cranes arriving in Khichan grew rapidly to thousands. The cranes – called Kurja locally, would start coming by August and leave in March. The cranes are fed in chugga ghar or feeding house where, during peak months, fifty bags of jowar, weighing fifty kgs each are offered to the cranes daily. The cost is borne by individuals, village panchayat and government agencies.
The deafening sound recedes and the pond becomes almost empty. The cranes turn into tiny dots as they rise high into the stratosphere. The flying regime is probably followed on a daily basis designed to provide lessons to the young members and to keep everyone else fit for the impending long haul back home.
The few hours spent in watching the cranes are pure joy. It is actually a combination of God’s miracle and large heartedness of a small desert village that provides these moments of bliss. Every year the birds travel thousands of miles, crossing the mighty Himalayas, fighting hunger, disease and predators to come to a village in India’s Thar Desert. The village residents welcome them, feed them and look after them for months while expecting nothing in return. It is as if God had intended all beings the freedom to move about a planet that belongs to everyone – a planet where no passports are needed and no boundaries exist. Just like the cranes, humans too could move across the world without restrictions and find love wherever they go. Now that would not need a miracle. It would be something that was always meant to be.
Text & Photos: Nirdesh Singh