Archive for January 2021

Northern India part 5: the city of Jaipur: 26th November 2019   Leave a comment

This post covers our stay in the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan in northern India.  This was part of a custom tour arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel which combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights in a way that wouldn’t be possible in standard tour of India.

 

 

As I explained in the last post our bird guide at Baratphur came with us to Jaipur on 25th November as there was a site nearby where we might encounter the seldom seen Indian Spotted Creeper, but we weren’t in luck. We dropped the guide off at a bus station to get back to Bharatpur and we were taken to our hotel.

 

The hotels and lodges we had stayed at so far had been really good but the Umaid Mahal hotel was something special …

 

… with it’s highly decorated corridors …

 

… and a lovely room.

 

In the dining room we were entertained by some Indian music and dance.

 

The following morning we picked up our guide and drove into the centre of Jaipur.

 

From Wikipedia: Jaipur is the capital and the largest city of the Indian state of Rajasthan. As of 2011, the city had a population of 3.1 million, making it the tenth most populous city in the country. Jaipur is also known as the Pink City, due to the dominant colour scheme of its buildings. It is located 268 km from the national capital New Delhi.

 

We stopped on a busy road to photograph the Palace of Wind. Unfortunately we couldn’t get further away from the façade to take the photo so the following image shows a bad case of ‘falling over backwards’.

 

From Wikipedia: Hawa Mahal (English translation: “The Palace of Winds” or “The Palace of Breeze”) is a palace in Jaipur, India approximately 300 kilometres from the capital city of Delhi. Built from red and pink sandstone, the palace sits on the edge of the City Palace, Jaipur, and extends to the Zenana, or women’s chambers. The structure was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the grandson of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, who was the founder of Jaipur. He was so inspired by the unique structure of Khetri Mahal that he built this grand and historical palace. It was designed by Lal Chand Ustad. Its five floor exterior is akin to honeycomb with its 953 small windows called Jharokhas decorated with intricate latticework. The original intent of the lattice design was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life and festivals celebrated in the street below without being seen, since they had to obey the strict rules of “purdah”, which forbade them from appearing in public without face coverings. This architectural feature also allowed cool air from the Venturi effect to pass through, thus making the whole area more pleasant during the high temperatures in summer. Many people see the Hawa Mahal from the street view and think it is the front of the palace, but it is the back. In 2006, renovation works on the Mahal were undertaken, after a gap of 50 years, to give a facelift to the monument at an estimated cost of Rs 4.568 million.[6] The corporate sector lent a hand to preserve the historical monuments of Jaipur and the Unit Trust of India has adopted Hawa Mahal to maintain it.[7] The palace is an extended part of a huge complex. The stone-carved screens, small casements, and arched roofs are some of the features of this popular tourist spot. The monument also has delicately modelled hanging cornices.

 

But our main focus for the day was the huge Amer Fort, which is usually known as the Amber Fort.

 

We parked and climbed up the access road which gave us views of the modern town and and the ancient walls that enclosed the town and fort. Some of the wall can be seen just to the right of the large cream-coloured buildings in the upper right of the photo.

 

There was a lot of step climbing involved.

 

Some views over the town from the fort – here …

 

… and also here. More of the wall can be seen in the upper right corner.

 

Some people opt for an elephant ride around the lower part of the fort but we didn’t bother.

 

It was quite spectacular to watch the procession of elephants coming through the arch. Yet more of the ancient wall is visible through the arch …

 

… and in this photo. Climbing up further we visited the parts that elephants couldn’t reach.

 

From Wilipedia: Mughal architecture greatly influenced the architectural style of several buildings of the fort. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, the attractive, opulent palace is laid out on four levels, each with a courtyard. It consists of the Diwan-e-Aam, or “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas, or “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace. Hence, the Amer Fort is also popularly known as the Amer Pal-ace. The palace was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and their families. At the entrance to the palace near the fort’s Ganesh Gate, there is a temple dedicated to Shila Devi, a goddess of the Chaitanya cult, which was given to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore, Bengal in 1604.

 

Incredibly fine ‘filigree’ stone work was employed to produce these screens, to allow maximum ventilation whilst providing the women of the court (who were not allowed to mix with outsiders) the opportunity of watching proceedings in the plaza below.

 

It was hard to take in or remember the function of each of the architectural marvels that we encountered …

 

… so may of the wonderful buildings will have to remain undescribed.

 

Today was a day for enjoying ancient architecture and Mogul art rather than birding, but I did have my bins with me. A large raptor that I never got to identify and some distant ducks on the lake below was about all I recorded.

 

More from Wikipedia: Amer Fort is a fort located in Amer, Rajasthan, India. Amer is a town with an area of 4 square kilometres located 11 kilometres from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Located high on a hill, it is the principal tourist attraction in Jaipur. The town of Amer was originally built by Meenas, and later it was ruled by Raja Man Singh I. Amer Fort is known for its artistic style elements. With its large ramparts and series of gates and cobbled paths, the fort overlooks Maota Lake, which is the main source of water for the Amer Palace.

 

Even the cleaning staff wear beautiful uniforms!

 

Within the palace were wonderful floral frescos …

 

… and pretty gardens.

 

Much of the decoration consisted of intricate patterns on the walls and ceilings. This ceiling has a series of small mirrors set in it …

 

… evidenced by the fact that in the mirror just left of centre, you can see part of my arm and camera!

 

I was going to include a Mogul painting of a naked man and woman painted above an entrance arch but it was so explicit that looked like an image from the Kama Sutra. However I decided that I didn’t want to get in trouble with the ‘cyber police’ and thought it wise to omit it.

 

On the way back into Jaipur we stopped briefly at the Water Palace or Jal Mahal. From Wikipedia (again): The Jal Mahal palace is an architectural showcase of the Rajput style of architecture (common in Rajasthan) on a grand scale. The building has a picturesque view of the lake itself but owing to its seclusion from land is equally the focus of a viewpoint from the Man Sagar Dam on the eastern side of the lake in front of the backdrop of the surrounding Nahargarh (“tiger-abode”) hills. The palace, built in red sandstone, is a five-storied building, of which four floors remain underwater when the lake is full and the top floor is exposed. One rectangular Chhatri on the roof is of the Bengal type. The chhatris on the four corners are octagonal. The palace had suffered subsidence in the past and also partial seepage (plasterwork and wall damage equivalent to rising damp) because of waterlogging, which have been repaired under a restoration project of the Government of Rajasthan.

 

We carried on to Jantar Mantar …

 

… a sort of astronomical observatory built by the Rajput King Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734.

 

Most of the instruments are designed to tell the time of day from the angle of the sun …

 

… and considerable effort was made to take account of the sun’s position at various times of the year. With a correction factor for the deviation of Jaipur from the meridian of India’s time zone applied, the result was accurate to a minute or two.

 

Not content with that Sawai Jai Singh II had a truly stupendous sundial built 27 m tall …

 

At this scale the sun’s shadow moves along the dial at 1mm per second. These are just two of nineteen instruments in the complex all built on the orders of this most scientifically minded king. As always Wikipedia is my source of information: The observatory consists of nineteen instruments for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking location of major stars as the earth orbits around the sun, ascertaining the declinations of planets, and determining the celestial altitudes and related ephemerides. The instruments are (alphabetical) 1. Chakra Yantra (four semicircular arcs on which a gnomon casts a shadow, thereby giving the declination of the Sun at four specified times of the day. This data corresponds to noon at four observatories around the world (Greenwich in UK, Zurich in Switzerland, Notke in Japan and Saitchen in the Pacific); this is equivalent of a wall of clocks registering local times in different parts of the world.) 2. Dakshin Bhitti Yantra (measures meridian, altitude and zenith distances of celestial bodies) 3. Digamsha Yantra (a pillar in the middle of two concentric outer circles, used to measure azimuth of the sun and to calculate the time of sunrise and sunset forecasts) 4. Disha Yantra 5. Dhruva Darshak Pattika (observe and find the location of pole star with respect to other celestial bodies) 6. Jai Prakash Yantra (two hemispherical bowl-based sundials with marked marble slabs that map inverted images of sky and allow the observer to move inside the instrument; measures altitudes, azimuths, hour angles, and declinations) 7. Kapali Yantra (measures coordinates of celestial bodies in azimuth and equatorial systems; any point in sky can be visually transformed from one coordinate system to another) 8. Kanali Yantra 9. Kranti Vritta Yantra (measures longitude and latitude of celestial bodies) 10. Laghu Samrat Yantra (the smaller sundial at the monument, inclined at 27 degrees, to measure time, albeit less accurately than Vrihat Samrat Yantra) 11. Misra Yantra (meaning mixed instrument, it is a compilation of five different instruments) 12. Nadi Valaya Yantra (two sundials on different faces of the instrument, the two faces representing north and south hemispheres; measuring the time to an accuracy of less than a minute) 13. Palbha Yantra 14. Rama Yantra (an upright building used to find the altitude and the azimuth of the sun) 15. Rashi Valaya Yantra (12 gnomon dials that measure ecliptic coordinates of stars, planets and all 12 constellation systems) 16. Shastansh Yantra (next to Vrihat Samrat Yantra) This instrument has a 60-degree arc built in the meridian plane within a dark chamber. At noon, the sun’s pinhole image falls on a scale below enabling the observer to measure the zenith distance, declination, and the diameter of the Sun.) 17. Unnatamsa Yantra (a metal ring divided into four segments by horizontal and vertical lines, with a hole in the middle; the position and orientation of the instrument allows measurement of the altitude of celestial bodies) 18. Vrihat Samrat Yantra (world’s largest gnomon sundial, measures time in intervals of 2 seconds using shadow cast from the sunlight) 19. Yantra Raj Yantra (a 2.43-metre bronze astrolabe, one of the largest in the world, used only once a year, calculates the Hindu calendar) The Vrihat Samrat Yantra, which means the “great king of instruments”, is 88 feet (27 m) high; its shadow tells the time of day. Its face is angled at 27 degrees, the latitude of Jaipur. The Hindu chhatri (small cupola) on top is used as a platform for announcing eclipses and the arrival of monsoons. Jai Prakash Yantra at Jantar Mantar, Jaipur The instruments are in most cases huge structures. The scale to which they have been built has been alleged to increase their accuracy. However, the penumbra of the sun can be as wide as 30 mm, making the 1mm increments of the Samrat Yantra sundial devoid of any practical significance. Additionally, the masons constructing the instruments had insufficient experience with construction of this scale, and subsidence of the foundations has subsequently misaligned them. The samrat yantra, for instance, which is a sundial, can be used to tell the time to an accuracy of about two seconds in Jaipur local time.[13] The Giant Sundial, known as the Samrat Yantra (The Supreme Instrument) is one of the world’s largest sundials, standing 27 metres tall.[14] Its shadow moves visibly at 1 mm per second, or roughly a hand’s breadth (6 cm) every minute, which can be a profound experience to watch.

 

We continued with an obligatory visit to carpet makers, but we convinced our guide we didn’t want to stop long (unlike our experiences in Turkey and UAE).

 

The final stop on our guided tour was the City Palace within the city of Jaipur.

 

And yet more from Wikipedia:The City Palace, Jaipur was established at the same time as the city of Jaipur, by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who moved his court to Jaipur from Amber, in 1727. Jaipur is the present-day capital of the state of Rajasthan, and until 1949 the City Palace was the ceremonial and administrative seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The Palace was also the location of religious and cultural events, as well as a patron of arts, commerce, and industry. It now houses the Mahara-ja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, and continues to be the home of the Jaipur royal family. The royal family of Jaipur is said to be the descendants of Lord Rama. The palace complex has several buildings, various courtyards, galleries, restaurants, and offices of the Museum Trust. The Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust looks after the Museum, and the royal cenotaphs (known as chhatris).

 

Once more we saw some exquisite architecture …

 

… and beautiful buildings.

 

Of particular note was a quadrangle with four large ornate doors representing the four seasons.

 

… here are close ups of the arches above the other three doors, although which one represents which season …

 

…. is rather hard to tell …

 

… but that doesn’t detract from their beauty.

 

A few more images of the City Palace …

 

… Margaret posed for a photo with these guards …

 

… before we left to find our vehicle.

 

Our guide departed and we spent the last hour of the day looking around some shops …

 

… away from the tourist areas.

 

Unlike similar places in other parts of Asia or north Africa there was no hassle …

 

… and you could take your time wandering around. We were able to buy a few Christmas gifts for the family.

 

The food markets were most colourful …

 

… and Margaret stocked up on a few goodies for the journey tomorrow.

 

So it was back to our lovely hotel …

 

… where that evening the dancers played the ‘how many pots can I balance on my head’ game. Later the two dancers got people at tables to get up and dance with them. Margaret of course joined in, I have some video of the event but unfortunately no still photos.

The following day we left the city and headed to the small town of Tal Chhapar. Although I had seen a lifer mammal (Sloth Bear) on the trip I had not added any birds to my life list. But one was waiting, I hoped, in a reserve just outside Tal Chhapar. This will be the subject of the next post.

Northern India part 4: Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur, Rajasthan: 24th-25th November 2019   Leave a comment

This is the fourth post on our trip to India in 2019. We wanted a mixture of watching wildlife and cultural sites, a combination that isn’t easy to find on most commercial tour. The trip arranged by Jo Thomas at Wild About Travel was to our specifications and perfectly combined India’s wonderful temples, ancient buildings and unique way of life with watching Tigers, Blackbucks and loads of birds.

This post covers one of the most famous wildlife reserves in the world, officially called the Keoladeo National Park but universally known by the name of the adjacent city – Bharatpur.

 

To save me typing it here is the description of the reserve from Wikipedia: Keoladeo National Park or Keoladeo Ghana National Park formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India is a famous avifauna sanctuary that hosts thousands of birds, especially during the winter season. Over 230 species of birds are known to be resident. It is also a major tourist centre with scores of ornithologists arriving here in the winter season. It was declared a protected sanctuary in 1971. It is also a World Heritage Site. Keoladeo Ghana National Park is a man-made and man-managed wetland and one of the national parks of India. The reserve protects Bharatpur from frequent floods, provides grazing grounds for village cattle, and earlier was primarily used as a waterfowl hunting ground. The 29 km2 reserve is locally known as Ghana, and is a mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands. These diverse habitats are home to 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, 5 species of lizards, 7 amphibian species, 7 turtle species and a variety of other invertebrates.  Every year thousands of migratory waterfowl visit the park for wintering and breeding. The sanctuary is one of the richest bird areas in the world and is known for nesting of resident birds and visiting migratory birds including water birds. The rare Siberian cranes used to winter in this park but this central population is now extinct. According to founder of the World Wildlife Fund Peter Scott, Keoladeo National Park is one of the world’s best bird areas.

 

 

Again from Wikipedia: The sanctuary was created 250 years ago and is named after a Keoladeo (Shiva) temple within its boundaries. (see photo above). Initially, it was a natural depression; and was flooded after the Ajan Bund was constructed by Maharaja Suraj Mal, then the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur, between 1726–1763. The bund was created at the confluence of two rivers, the Gambhir and Banganga. The park was a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur, a tradition dating back to 1850, and duck shoots were organised yearly in honour of the British viceroys. In one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds such as mallards and teals were killed by Lord Linlithgow, then Viceroy of India.[citation needed] The park was established as a national park on 10 March 1982. Previously the private duck shooting preserve of the Maharaja of Bharatpur since the 1850s, the area was designated as a bird sanctuary on 13 March 1976 and a Ramsar site under the Wetland Convention in October 1981. The last big shoot was held in 1964 but the Maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972. In 1985, the Park was declared a World Heritage Site under the World Heritage Convention. It is a reserve forest under the Rajasthan Forest Act, 1953 and therefore, is the property of the State of Rajasthan of the Indian Union. In 1982, grazing was banned in the park, leading to violent clashes between local farmers and the government.

 

During the days of the Raj the site was renowned as a great place for shooting wildfowl. Looking at this tally board that’s still on display it was possible to shoot many thousands of birds in a single day. Of course due to the widespread destruction of breeding sites throughout Asia there are nowhere near as many birds visiting as in the past but a visit to ‘Bharaptpur’ still remains one of the world’s top birding experiences. I don’t like the shooting of wildfowl but it would be fair to say that the reserve probably wouldn’t be in its current state without the patronage of shooters in years gone by.

 

I visited Bharatpur before in 1986 and at that time it was one of the best birding experiences of my life. We were there for nearly three days compared to a day and a half this time and saw a truly awesome number of birds. By the time 2019 had come around it was highly unlikely that I would get any ‘life birds’ at the site but I wanted Margaret to experience it’s avian richness and of course enjoy it myself.

 

Our journey from the hotel to the park and around the park itself was by bicycle rickshaw with our bird guide cycling along beside. In true Indian fashion we were taken the wrong way down a duel carriageway!

 

Once in the park you realise that you’re not the only one using a bicycle rickshaw. Most of the rest of this quite extensive post is a collection of bird and other wildlife photos interspersed with a few habitat shots and there is only a limited amount I can say about each.

 

One of the first species encountered is one I know well from home, indeed it even occurs in my garden. Originally confined to the Orient and Middle East Eurasian Collared Doves expanded its range rapidly in the 20th century spreading across Europe and reaching the UK in the late 50s. It soon became a common bird in towns and gardens. Soon afterwards some Collared Doves either escaped or were released in the Bahamas and rapidly spread to the USA where they are now common (I believe) from coast to coast.

 

Along the central track we saw these Grey Francolins.

 

I have shown a few photos of Jungle Babblers on earlier posts, here we saw their cousins Large Grey Babblers …

 

… which as you have probably realised are a bit larger and a bit greyer.

 

As with several other sites we visited Spotted Owlets were easy to see at their daytime roost.

 

They could be seen indulging in a bit of mutual preening, so-called allopreening.

 

There were several colonies of Indian Fruit Bats.

 

Between the various lagoons, known locally as jheels, were a series of paths were we could see …

 

… a variety of species such as Eurasian Hoopoe …

 

… here of the greyer Asian race saturatus

 

Also seen were Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and Bank Mynas …

 

… the inevitable Coppersmith Barbets …

 

… and the personata race of White Wagtail, sometimes known as Masked Wagtail. These breed in the Tien Shan of Kazakhstan unlike the race leucopsis that we saw on the Chambal River that breeds in China.

 

Also present were a few Citrine Wagtails, wintering from further north in Asia. This is probably an adult female as 1st winters lack the yellow tones.

 

Bharatpur is famous for its pythons and we found this individual in ditch along side the path, but it was nowhere a big as the one I saw on my 1986 visit which must have been 5m long.

 

Is this another snake or just a Purple Heron having a preen?

 

Other species included Pied Stonechat …

 

… White-cheeked Bulbul …

 

… Rufous Treepie …

 

… a roosting Dusky Eagle Owl …

 

… and a Greater Coucal.

 

Around the jheels we saw a wide range of waterbirds …

 

… from familiar ones like Common Kingfisher (the same species that occurs in the UK) …

 

… to the mush larger White-breasted Kingfisher which has a range from Turkey and the Levant through to SE Asia.. This species used to be known as Smyrna Kingfisher after the ancient city of the same name on the Turkish coast. More recently Symrna has been renamed Izmir.

 

The species once known as ‘purple gallinule’ has been renamed Swamphen to distinguish it from the bird known as Purple Gallinule in North America. Then it was split into six species with the ones in India becoming Grey-headed Swamphen.

 

Another inhabitant of these wet grassy meadows was Bronze-winged Jacana, which in spite of appearances is a species of shorebird/wader and not a rail! We only saw a single Pheasant-tailed Jacana which is surprising as they were as common as Bronze-winged on my last visit.

 

A female and two immature Knob-billed Geese …

 

… but only the male has the ‘knob bill’. This species has recently been split from the South American version which is now called Comb Duck.

 

Another species of duck that we saw regularly was the Indian Spot-bill.

 

We only saw a few Woolly-necked Storks, the Asian race is sometimes treated as a separate species from the one in Africa on the basis of bronze colouration on the wing coverts and paler face.

 

We only saw a single Black-necked Stork, this compares to a dozen or more that I saw in 1986. In general big wetland birds; cranes, storks and wetland breeding raptors are doing badly in Asia. In 1986 we saw 37 Siberian Cranes at Bhartapur; now the western population of this species, which used to winter here, is reduced to a single individual which winters in Iran. Pallas’ Fish Eagle is another species that used to occur and we saw regularly in 86 but has now vanished.

 

The male of this species has a black eye whilst the female has a nice golden colour. In spite of losses in India this species has a wide range and its stronghold is probably the wetlands of northern Australia.

 

Many waterbirds breed on the jheels but at this time of year most are using the trees as roosting sites. In this photo mainly Great Cormorants, Painted Storks and Black-headed Ibis.

 

A closer view of a pair of Painted Storks with a couple of immatures and two Black-headed Ibis.

 

And an even closer view of one of the adults.

 

Of the most obvious feature of the site was the herons, as well as the expected Great, Little and Cattle Egrets there were good numbers of Purple Herons …

 

… Black-crowned Night Herons …

 

… and even (after a bit of searching) rarer species like Yellow Bittern …

 

… and Black Bittern.

 

Little and Large: The saw three species of cormorant, here are the eponymous Great Cormorant and Little Cormorant. The third one (not shown) breaks the naming convention and goes by the name of Indian Cormorant.

 

This is not a cormorant but a darter, a different Family comprising of just four species, sometimes known as ‘snake birds’, with one occurring in each of the Australasian, Afrotropical and Oriental regions and another in the Americas. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, named Oriental Darter.

 

This darter has got some fishing net caught around its bill, presumably obtained outside the park as no fishing occurs within. The staff were attempting to capture it to remove the netting, I hope they succeeded.

 

I mentioned in the last post how vulture numbers in India have dropped to <1% of their former numbers due to poisoning with the vetinary drug that we know as Volterol or Diclofenac. One species that has survived better than the others is Egyptian Vulture, whether this is because it can metabolise the drug or feeds less on the poisoned cattle carcasses, I don’t know. This was the only vulture species we saw on the trip.

 

There were many raptors around the site such as this Western Marsh Harrier, a bird we are familiar with from the UK (you have to go a lot further east than India before you encounter Eastern Marsh Harrier).

 

Less familiar to us was Crested Serpent Eagle, this bird with the pale forehead and supercillium is an immature …

 

… whilst this is an adult.

 

We also saw Greater Spotted Eagle (seen here with two Black Drongos) and an Indian Spotted Eagle. Indian Spotted Eagle has been split from the more westerly Lesser Spotted Eagle and as my recollection of seeing it in 1986 is somewhat vague I was very pleased to catch up with it.

 

Greater Spotted Eagle can be identified in flight by the larger number of ‘fingers’ in the outer wing but is a bit trickier when perched, the shaggy nape and the gape extending up to but not beyond the centre of the eye are key features. All these large Palearctic eagles used to go by the scientific name of as Aquila clanga. Now for reasons I don’t understand it has been transferred to the new genus Clanga, so its now Clanga clanga! If anyone would ever reverse this decision they would be dropping a clanger!!

 

We were very pleased to come across a group of five Grey-headed Lapwing (three of which are pictured here), a species I’ve several times before in Asia but never as far west as this.

 

‘All the Birds of the World’ the single volume from Lynx Edicions which illustrates every bird in the world shows 24 species of Vanellus plover of which Grey-headed of course is one. One of the 24 is almost certainly extinct but I’m glad to say I’ve seen all but one of the others (Brown-chested, which I missed in Uganda).

 

Another Vanellus plover, Red-wattled Lapwing in the background and a Common Moorhen to the left but the star of this photo is the impressively named Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle.

 

On our last morning we sort out some birds that skulked in the vegetation that fringed the jheels, these Pied Mynas were easy enough to see …

 

… as were Black Redstarts (here a female of one of the red-breasted Central Asia races).

 

Wintering birds from Siberia included Bluethroat …

 

… but best of all was this superb Siberian Rubythroat that entertained us for some time, recalling seeing that one at Osmington Mills in Dorset in 1997, (a sighting so remarkable that some still claim it was an escape from captivity)

 

Unlike Tadoba, the previous national park we visited, Bharatpur doesn’t have any dangerous wildlife (hence all the tourists travelling around on bikes or rickshaws) but we did hear there was a Leopard in one (closed off) area. However we did see a few mammals such Rhesus Macaque …

 

… which scanned the tourists carefully for any sign of a free meal …

 

… several Golden Jackals were seen …

 

… a female Nilgai (with Purple Heron) …

 

… Indian Grey Mongoose …

 

… the inevitable Palm Squirrel …

 

… and Wild Boar.

 

I’m sure if we had spent more time at Bharatpur we could have seen more species in this wonderful park but we had to move on this time to the city of Jaipur. There was a site on route where the rare Indian Spotted Creeper, a life bird for me, could be found. Wild About Travel had arranged for our guide Gaj to accompany us and see if he could find the creeper. Unfortunately the creeper wasn’t at home but we did see a few other quality birds.

 

The next post will be about our visit to the historic city of Jaipur.

Northern India Part 3: The Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, Agra: 23rd November 2019   Leave a comment

In November 2020 we went on a customised tour of northern India organised by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel

This was Margaret’s first visit to India (although my sixth) and allowed us to combine visits to cultural sites with wildlife viewing. Earlier posts on this tour dealt with our visits to Tabora National Park and the Chambal River area.

 

This is the third post on our trip to India in November 2019 and covers our visit to the Taj Mahal and the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri in the city of Agra which we visited on route to our next overnight stop in the city of Bharatpur.

 

We left the Chambal River Lodge mid-morning and drove to Agra. Most of our earlier travels, from Nagpur to Tadoba and back, had been on main roads and the journey from Agra to Chambal was before dawn, so this was Margaret’s first real experience of the vibrancy and colour of everyday Indian rural life.

 

… to the omnipresent cows and water buffalos.

 

A few birds were seen on route such as the suitably common Common Babbler.

 

On arriving we arranged a local guide and took a bicycle rickshaw from the car park …

 

… travelling to the entrance to the Taj Mahal in style.

 

Our guide made sure we paused for all the clichéd photos.

 

To say the Taj Mahal was crowded would be an understatement.

 

This is probably the best and most awe inspiring view of the Taj Mahal and as can be seen from all the phones and selfie sticks, everyone else felt the same.

 

From Wikipedia: The Taj Mahal is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the southern bank of the river Yamuna in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658) to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal; it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. The tomb is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall. Construction of the mausoleum was essentially completed in 1643, but work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. The Taj Mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million rupees, which in 2020 would be approximately 70 billion rupees. The construction project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by the court architect to the emperor, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”. It is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history. The Taj Mahal attracts 7–8 million visitors a year and in 2007, it was declared a winner of the New 7 Wonders of the World (2000–2007) initiative.

 

One bird that was absolutely abundant on my first visit to India in 1986 was Black Kite. I was surprised how few I saw on this trip, however there were quite a few flying around the dome of the Taj Mahal.

 

The race here is govinda, a more strongly marked race than those in Europe.

 

These black inlays in the white marble produce an optical illusion because if you gaze upwards the zig-zags become a straight line. I tried to capture this in a photo but the pillars ‘fell over backwards’ so badly that you will just have to imagine it!

 

The mausoleum itself is flanked on three sides by these red stone buildings, one of which is the entrance and exit …

 

… whilst the fourth side is flanked by the Yamuna river.

 

When I visited the Taj Mahal in 1986 this area was full of vultures, but the widespread use of the veterinary drug diclofenac (used to treat cattle which after death are eaten by vultures) has resulted in widespread poisoning and a reduction in numbers of over 99%. At least there were plenty of Great Cormorants and a few Painted Storks, Ruddy Shelducks and Grey Herons present.

 

We entered the mausoleum, but there was a policy of no photography inside …

 

Taj Mahal Inside Picture

… the tomb of Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal lies centrally and so looks down the the central axis of the complex. Shah Jahan’s tomb which was placed here after his death in 1666 lies offset to one side. As I was unable to photograph the tomb I’ve copied this wide-angle shot from here

 

As we emerged from the mausoleum it was clear that the compound was rapidly filling up with tourists, it was time to get some lunch and move on.

 

We continued on to the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri.

 

From Wikipedia: Fatehpur Sikri is a city in the Agra District of Uttar Pradesh, India. The city itself was founded as the capital of Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar, serving this role from 1571 to 1585, when Akbar abandoned it due to a campaign in Punjab and was later completely abandoned in 1610. The name of the city is derived from the village called Sikri which occupied the spot before. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavation from 1999 to 2000 indicated that there was a habitation, temples and commercial centres here before Akbar built his capital. The region was settled by Sungas following their expansion. In 12th century, it was briefly controlled by Sikarwar Rajputs. The khanqah of Sheikh Salim existed earlier at this place. Akbar’s son Jahangir was born at the village of Sikri in 1569 and that year Akbar began construction of a religious compound to commemorate the Sheikh who had predicted the birth. After Jahangir’s second birthday, he began the construction of a walled city and imperial palace here. The city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory”, after Akbar’s victorious Gujarat campaign in 1573. After occupying Agra in 1803, the English established an administrative centre here and it remained so until 1850. In 1815, the Marquess of Hastings ordered repair of monuments at Sikri.

 

 

Again from Wikipedia: The city was founded in 1571 and was named after the village of Sikri which occupied the spot before. The Buland Darwaza was built in honour of his successful campaign in Gujarat, when the city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri – “The City of Victory”. It was abandoned by Akbar in 1585 when he went to fight a campaign in Punjab. It was later completely abandoned by 1610. The reason for its abandonment is usually given as the failure of the water supply, though Akbar’s loss of interest may also have been the reason since it was built solely on his whim.[14] Ralph Fitch described it as such, “Agra and Fatehpore Sikri are two very great cities, either of them much greater than London, and very populous. Between Agra and Fatehpore are 12 miles (Kos) and all the way is a market of victuals and other things, as full as though a man were still in a town, and so many people as if a man were in a market.

 

This lady looks impressed by the architecture!

 

Of course we could only visit a small part of the city. More from Wikipedia: Fatehpur Sikri sits on rocky ridge, 3 kilometres in length and 1 km wide and palace city is surrounded by a 6 km wall on three sides with the fourth bordered by a lake. The city is generally organized around this 40 m high ridge, and falls roughly into the shape of a rhombus. The general layout of the ground structures, especially the “continuous and compact pattern of gardens and services and facilities” that characterized the city leads urban archaeologists to conclude that Fatehpur Sikri was built primarily to afford leisure and luxury to its famous residents. The dynastic architecture of Fatehpur Sikri was modelled on Timurid forms and styles. The city was built massively and preferably with red sandstone. Gujarati influences are also seen in its architectural vocabulary and décor of the palaces of Fatehpur Sikri. The city’s architecture reflects both the Hindu and Muslim form of domestic architecture popular in India at the time. The remarkable preservation of these original spaces allows modern archaeologists to reconstruct scenes of Mughal court life, and to better understand the hierarchy of the city’s royal and noble residents. It is accessed through gates along the 8.0 km long fort wall, namely, Delhi Gate, the Lal Gate, the Agra Gate and Birbal’s Gate, Chandanpal Gate, The Gwalior Gate, the Tehra Gate, the Chor Gate, and the Ajmeri Gate. The palace contains summer palace and winter palace for Queen Jodha.

 

One thing that greatly surprised Margaret was that pretty young Indian ladies would ask if they could take a selfie with her, like she was some sort of celebrity. I caught these two in a more candid pose after they had done the selfie thing with my wife.

 

We appreciated that we had only visited of this ancient place but were pleased we had taken the time to do so. In spite of the constant haze and pollution that blights the lowlands of northern India in the winter we had captured some nice photos …

 

… however as always we concentrated on photographing what we came to see rather than photographing us!

 

Rose-ringed Parakeets (or Ring-necked as they are often called in the UK) were a common sight …

 

… native to India and parts of northern Africa this species has been introduced into many places, including the UK where they often become a pest, competing with native species for food and nest holes.

 

Northern Palm Squirrels were a common sight running along the ancient walls and roofs.

 

A few final views of Fatehpur Sikri …

 

… its lakes …

 

… and spires …

 

… before we departed to the city of Bharatpur and the wonderful wildlife reserve nearby.

 

On route we driven down a major highway, this gave Margaret her first chance to experience heavy Indian traffic. I don’t think she sat in the front seat again after that! Although Indians nominally drive on the left like we do in the UK, the rules of the road seem to be made up as they go along. Of course the traffic speed is much lower than the UK, with all the cows, sheep, bicycles and vehicles going the wrong way it couldn’t be otherwise. We loved the highly decorated Indian lorries, although not their kamikaze driving.

 

The next post will cover our visit to one of the finest wetland reserves in the world, Keolandeo National Park, known also universally by the name of the adjacent city Bharatpur.