Western India part 1: Delhi, Amritsar and Harike – 12th – 15th January 2016   Leave a comment

This January I spent nearly three weeks in north-western India. This was my third visit to India and my fifth to the subcontinent (I have also visited Bhutan and Sri Lanka). My first trip was in 1986 when I joined a group of 17 for an event-filled tour of northern India with a visit to the Desert National Park in the west. My second visit in 2001 was to the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya in the north-east.

This trip was mainly to the north-west and the states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat with a short visit to the state of Maharashtra in the centre. This post covers our time in Punjab and our visits to Amritsar and the wetlands of Harike. But first we have a morning in Delhi before our flight to the north-west

IMG_2271 Bull in Delhi

To the western visitor India is full of contradictions: modern roads full of fast traffic that have to dodge bulls that wander unrestrained even in city centres, people stopping to feed monkeys on the way to work and the very poor and very rich living in close proximity.

IMG_2275 RNPs and pigeons

During our short time in Delhi we visited the Delhi Ridge park in the hope of seeing the rare Brook’s Leaf Warbler. The best we can say about the warbler was that we probably saw it, but most of us got better views later at Harike. India is a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. Here Rock and Collared Doves join Rose-ringed Parakeets, a scene that could be replicated in, for example London, but here the parakeets and the Rock Doves and are wild rather than feral.

IMG_2278 5 Striped Palm Squirrel

Less familiar was the abundant and quite tame Five-striped Palm Squirrel.

IMG_2299 Golden Temple Amritsa

Soon after landing at Amritsar we headed off to see the wonderful Golden Temple, the Holy Shrine of the Sikh religion. Cultural aspects are in short supply on most Birdquest trips but with little quality birding close to the city we had several hours to fully appreciate this wonderful site.

IMG_2314 Frank at Golden Temple Amritsa

Here our tour leader Frank Lambert, with whom I travelled to Tibet in 2005, stands in front of the Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Abode of God) usually known as the Golden Temple of Amritsar. As you can see we had to go bare footed, which became quite chilly as the afternoon drew on.

IMG_2321 Robb & Heidi

Rob and Heidi display an interesting choice in head-gear – all visitors must have their heads covered inside the temple precinct.

IMG_2325 Holy dip for Heidi

No birder likes a dip, even if it’s a holy dip just for the ladies.

IMG_2316 Golden Temple Amritsa

Up to 100,000 people visit the temple precinct daily to worship. We visited on the day of a holy festival, but fortunately the majority of pilgrims had left before we arrived, but the sky was full of paper kites flown to mark the occasion.

IMG_2326 Golden Temple Amritsa

At the centre of the ‘holy tank’ is the Sri Harmandir Sahib itself, the location of the Adi Granth, the holy scripture of Sikhism. The tank was excavated from 1570 and the temple was completed in 1604 but had to be rebuilt in the 1760’s following attacks by the Afghans. The gold leaf was added in the early 19th century. More recently, in 1984, the temple came under attack from the Indian Army in an attempt to defeat Sikh nationalism, an outcome of this action was the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards..


Pilgrims line up to see the Holy Book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth inside the Sri Harmandir Sahib. Photography is not allowed inside so this photo and the next (ATP Photography) were taken from the Internet.

111 Golden-Temple

Within the Sri Harmandir Sahib the pilgrims sit to hear the words of the Adi Granth read out aloud.

IMG_2346 free meal Golden Temple Amritsa

Incredibly the 100,000 pilgrims and tourists that visit daily all qualify for a free meal ….

IMG_2347 free meal Golden Temple Amritsa

…. these kitchens serve what must be the biggest fast food joint in the world.

IMG_2353 Harike fog

We spent the entire of the next day and the early part of the one after at Harike, an extensive wetland formed by the damming of one of the regions rivers. Whilst the dam has allowed this former arid region to flourish through irrigation and has created wildlife habitat it has also produced fog. This thick mist hardly cleared all day and it was midday before we could see 100m ahead of us. This was our least successful day of the trip with only three of the eight specialities of the area seen (although we were able to catch up with one later and only one of the missed birds was a lifer for me). Even so I saw one life bird, Rufous-vented Prinia – which is now a babbler not a prinia, but bird photography was out of the question given the conditions.

IMG_2362 Harike Macaque

Indeed the only species I photographed was this Rhesus Macaque. With the trees all numbered it looks like she’s waiting outside of her front door

IMG_2380 Hazzards of Indian roads

On day three, after some further dipping at Harike we headed south towards Rajasthan. As always on Indian roads there were multiple hazards, such as these loads so wide that they take up the entire road and prevent their driver having any idea of what is behind him. Indian traffic operates with completely different rules than anywhere else, driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway, overtaking a vehicle that is already overtaking another, expecting oncoming vehicles to get out of your way in spite of the fact that you are on their side of the road and the continual use of the horn seem perfectly acceptable.

IMG_2369 Red-naped Ibis

On route we came across a flock of Red-naped Ibis, a bird I missed in 1986 due to a poorly timed ‘bush stop’. I was delighted to catch up with this bird after 30 years of waiting.

IMG_2480 House Crow

Other birds seen on route included the ubiquitous House Crow, a bird that has spread around the world by hitching a ride on ships and has even established a breeding colony in Holland ….

IMG_2462 Southern Grey Shrike

…. and the elegant Southern Grey Shrike. The grey shrikes or ‘jackie hangman’ as my wife calls them, are in taxonomic limbo, different authorities recognise one, two or three species, but a recent paper proposed seven or more species based on genetics. If this was accepted this would be Indian Grey Shrike Lanius lahtora

In the evening we arrived in Bikiner in Rajasthan, more about that in the next post.


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