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Northern India part 7: Jodhpur and the Bishnoi villages: 28th – 30th November 2019   Leave a comment

This is the 7th post about our wonderful trip to northern India in November 2019. The custom tour was arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel, who arranged an itinerary, accommodation, transport and guides to our specification, which combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights.

This post covers our half-day visit to the city of Jodhpur and a visit to some nearby villages belonging to the Bishnoi people.

 

After visiting Mumbar gardens (see post 6) we entered the city of Jodhpur and stopped at the Clock Tower where there was an extensive market  …

 

… selling a wonderful variety of fruit,  vegetables, clothing etc. We were able to buy some spices and masala tea, far better souvenirs than the usual tourist junk.

 

The whole area is overshadowed by the Mehrangarh or Mehran Fort. which dominates the skyline.

 

Later we were taken to our hotel, the lovely Rattan Villas near the city centre.

 

No dancers this time, but a musician playing traditional instruments made up for that.

 

The next morning we drove with a guide to Jaswant Thada, a marble mausoleum overlooking the city. Note the ancient city walls running along the skyline.

 

An adjacent lake got me my first Ferruginous Ducks for the trip, but the main focus was the beautiful architecture of the mauseleum.

 

Unfortunately the usual mist and pollution haze hung over the city, but even so the view was spectacular.

 

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m no fan of the selfie craze, but even so I found this sign quite amusing.

 

From Wikipedia: The Jaswant Thada is a cenotaph located in Jodhpur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh of Jodhpur State in 1899 in memory of his father, Mahara-ja Jaswant Singh II, and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family of Marwar.

 

The mausoleum is built out of intricately carved sheets of marble. These sheets are extremely thin and polished so that they emit a warm glow when illuminated by the Sun.

 

The cenotaph of Maharaja Jaswant Singh displays portraits of the rulers and Maharajas of Jodhpur.

 

The cenotaph’s grounds feature carved gazebos, a tiered garden, and a small lake. There are three other cenotaphs in the grounds.

 

The view from the mausoleum’s gardens were once again dominated by the Mehrangarh Fort, which was to be our next destination.

 

From Wikipedia says about the Mehrangarh Fort,: There are seven gates, which include Jayapol (meaning ‘victory gate’), built by Maharaja Man Singh to commemorate his victories over Jaipur and Bikaner armies. There is also a Fattehpol (also meaning ‘victory gate’), which commemorates Maharaja Ajit Singhji victory over Mughals.

 

The fort is truly enormous, said to be one of the largest in India.

 

If Jaipur is known as the pink city then Jodhpur is the blue city.

 

From Wikipedia (again): Jodhpur is the second-largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan and officially the second metropolitan city of the state with a population surpassing 1.5 million. It was formerly the seat of the princely state of Jodhpur State. Jodhpur was historically the capital of the Kingdom of Marwar, which is now part of Rajasthan. Jodhpur is a popular tourist destination, featuring many palaces, forts, and temples, set in the stark landscape of the Thar Desert. It is popularly known as the “Blue City” among people of Rajasthan and all over India. It serves as the administrative headquarters of the Jodhpur district and Jodhpur division.

 

The old city circles the Mehrangarh Fort and is bounded by a wall with several gates. The city has expanded greatly outside the wall, though, over the past several decades

 

This bronze model shows the size and scale of the gigantic fort.

 

These next three photos …

 

shown the scale and extent of the wonderful architecture …

 

… and the incredibly intricate stonework seen here …

 

… and here.

 

The museum in the Mehrangarh fort is one of the most well-stocked museums in Rajasthan. In one section of the fort museum, there is a selection of old royal palanquins, including the elaborate domed gilt Mahadol palanquin which was won in a battle from the Governor of Gujarat in 1730.

 

The museum exhibits the heritage of former times …

 

… in shrines, costumes …

 

… paintings and decorated tapestries.

 

A few more photos of the fabulous interior …

 

… it was so gob-smackingly beautiful …

 

… that I failed to take in all the details that our guide was providing.

 

Eventually we emerged outside for another view over the city.

 

You get the feeling that this passage way was designed for a smaller person!

 

More of the delicate stonework that allows the breeze to enter but allows the women of the court to view the plazas below without being seen themselves.

 

This time a view complete with Rock Pigeons. The question of what is a truly wild Rock Pigeon and what is a domesticated feral pigeon is a vexed one. Certainly those in European cities and any in the New World are feral but these here on the forts of India showed every characteristic of being wild; no enlarged cere, no variation in plumage and pale grey not white rumps.

 

More views of the city walls …

 

… more highly decorated corridors …

 

… and yet more intricate stone work.

 

Later on we returned to Jodhpur and after some lunch we headed into the countryside to visit the villages of the Bishnoi people.

 

After lunch the guide and our driver Mehaz took us to some villages of the Bishnoi people. Apparently Bishnoi means 29 in the local dialect which comes from the 29 commandments given to members of the Bishnoi sect by Guru Jambheshwar (1451-1536). As well as religious instructions and social rules the commandments list a number of environmental considerations and instructions for sustainable living. If only Moses had thought to bring another 19 commandments with him when he descended from Mount Sinai then the world would be a very different place today! Like so many of these village tours it was really just an opportunity to sell artefacts to tourists, but the villagers seemed so much more deserving than their city counterparts (and prices were much lower).

 

In this rather scruffy yard we were shown how the villages make and fire the large earthenware pots and we bought a ‘terracotta sun face’ to put on our garden fence …

 

… whilst elsewhere and an old man with a gammy leg offered us some opium – which we politely declined.

 

Although we usually hate being taken to ‘carpet outlets’ when on a tour we rather stumbled on this one and as he didn’t give us the hard sell,  we bought a small rug off him.

 

Our visit to a group of nomadic ‘snake charmers’ was more impromptu but we were welcomed in once they realised that the guide came from the same village as they did.

 

… although a small child ran away screaming in terror when he saw our white faces (he calmed down later for this photo).

 

These are the cow-turd piles that the villages construct as the fuel store for cooking and heating.

 

The Bishnoi believe in protecting nature and we were taken to a lake where they feed the Demoiselle Cranes that come from Central Asia for the winter. The birds were rather distant for photos so I’ve included a shot from the similar, but much larger feeding station at Bikiner some distance to the west, where the cranes can be found in their tens of thousands.

 

We returned to the hotel that evening but the following day was worst of the trip. The flight to Delhi was in the early afternoon which would have given us time to do some sightseeing on arrival, so in the morning we had a bit of a lie in followed by another visit to the Clock Tower markets (where once again Margaret would be asked to pose for a selfie with the locals). Then we headed to the airport in the late morning and said our goodbyes to the very capable driver Mehaz. Before we left he reminded us of the three requirements for driving in India – a good horn, good brakes and good luck! Once through security we found there was a major delay with the flight and we spent six or more hours in a tiny departure lounge that was hot, crowded and very noisy due to a loud security scanner and lots of babies. We finally arrived at our hotel in Delhi late in the evening where decided to skip dinner and get straight to bed. It was the only hiccup of the trip and completely outside the organiser’s control.

 

I’ll conclude with a photo of the wonderful Jaswant Thada taken with on a telephoto setting from the fort of Mehrangarh.

The eighth and final post will deal with our time at the wildlife reserve of Sultanpur Jheel near Delhi and some of the monuments within the city itself.

North India part 6: Tal Chhapar and the Mumbar Gardens near Jodhpur: 27th-28th November 2019   4 comments

This is the 6th post on our wonderful trip to northern India in November 2019. The custom tour was arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel who arranged an itinerary, accommodation, transport and guides to our specification that combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights.

After spending a day touring historic sites in Jaipur it was the turn to do some birding in the reserve of Tal Chhapar (yes that is the correct spelling!) a reserve near the village of Chhapar which is just under half way between Jaipur and the Pakistan border.

 

We were relatively close to Tal Chhapar on my Birdquest Western India trip in 2016 when we visited Bikaner, (as so often happens it was added to the itinerary the following year). There were two lifers for me here, one mammalian and one avian, the beautiful Blackbuck and the little-known Indian Spotted Creeper.

 

It was a 215 km drive from Jaipur and took over four hours. The village of Chhapar was quite unremarkable with a single busy main street and a few back streets like this.

 

We stayed at Raptors Inn, a private guest house run by local bird guide Atul Gurjar and his wife Sunita. They made us very welcome and provided great food. Margaret was very taken by this home stay and had a chance to ask Atul and Sunita about many aspects of Indian life including their cuisine. See more here

 

They tried their best to keep their boisterous children away from us but we found them most entertaining.

 

That afternoon we headed to a ‘gaushala’ a walled off area where the sacred cattle can safely graze. On route we passed this camel and buggy. There is clearly no law about using your phone whilst driving a camel in India! Here we were to search for the ‘semi-mythical’ Indian Spotted Creeper. Now I can’t say that I’ve been waiting to see this species all my life, I didn’t even know about of it until after it was split from its African cousin in the late 90s, but I have been wanting to see the area’s other attraction, the beautiful Blackbuck since I was a small child.

 

Finding the Indian Spotted Creeper took some time but there was no problem with seeing Blackbuck, up to 50 were on view. The females ,which are smaller, brown and white and have no horns were present but elusive, but the males were in rut and were bold and approachable.

 

Males would approach each other and then ‘parallel walk’, sizing each other up …

 

… sometimes disputes were resolved by this but often it ended up with an all out battle.

 

In due course Atul found a Spotted Creeper but it was in a line of trees by the gaushala wall. After a brief view and one very mediocre photo, it flew to some trees outside the gaushala where it could be seen but not photographed (there was a considerable drop on the other side of the wall so climbing over was impractical).

 

This was my first bird lifer on the tour and I was pretty pleased at this moment. This species and its African cousin are members of the Sittidae, the Nuthatch Family rather than Certhidae which contains all the (Holarctic/Oriental) treecreepers. Both photos by Prasad Natarajan see here

 

I think I said in an earlier post, when discussing the catastrophic decline in Indian vultures, that the only vulture we saw on the trip was Egyptian. That’s not quite true as we saw a single wintering Eurasian Griffon Vulture. How ever that doesn’t detract from my earlier statement that because of poisoning, the formerly widespread and abundant Slender-billed, White-rumped and Indian Vultures are now critically endangered.

 

Other raptors included this Black-winged Kite …

 

… and a beautiful Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Other birds photographed that afternoon included the punk-crested Brahminy Starling (above) and …

 

…  flocks of Indian Silverbills, small estridid finches, native to India but introduced to many other places.

 

There were a few ‘lesser whitethroats’ wintering. The taxonomy of this group has been controversial with between one and five species accepted at various times and by various authorities. IOC and HBW both now recognise three species, Hume’s Whitethroat which breeds in the mountains of Central Asia and winters in southern Baluchistan and SW India, Lesser Whitethroat which breeds from western Europe to east-central Siberia and winters in Africa and northern India and Desert Whitethroat which breeds in parts of China and Turkestan and winters in the Arabian peninsular and north-west India. This bird is a classic minula, ie a Desert Lesser Whitethroat, small, sandy with reduced grey in the crown.

 

There were quite a few Lanius shrikes in the area, including this male Bay-backed, which looks like a Penduline Tit on steroids …

 

… and the more familiar Great Grey Shrike, although here of the race archeri. The ‘great grey shrike’ group has undergone a lot a changes during the last few decades. Originally one species, then three (Southern, Great Grey and Steppe), its now still three but a different three: Northern Grey occurs in North America and eastern Siberia, Iberian Grey occurs where it’s name suggests and all the rest are re-lumped in Great Grey again. The problem seems to be that genetics and morphology don’t match, maybe eventually more sensitive and innovative genetic methods will be able to divide this group further and so better match DNA to plumage.

 

Also present were a number of Common Woodshrikes. These are not related to true shrikes of the genus Lanius (see the two photos above) but instead are members of the Vangidae, an unusual Family which includes the vangas of Madagascar, the African helmetshrikes and shrike-flycatchers and Asian philentomas.

 

After we had our meal that evening we heard very loud music coming down the street. Atul and Sunita said it was a pre-wedding celebration, so we decided to take a look.

 

Although they had never met us before the villagers were most welcoming. First they brought chairs out into the street so we could watch the dancing in comfort, then they invited us into their house and where the ladies were keen to be photographed with Margaret.

 

Later we (well mainly Margaret) joined in with the dancing …

 

… and we were treated as honoured guests. The bride and groom-to-be had yet to arrive but everyone else seemed to be having a great time on their behalf.

 

Now I’ve heard of ‘a bull in a china shop’ but its not that often that you come across the ‘cow at the mobile disco’, well not this sort of cow anyway.

 

Atul was a bit hesitant about visiting the actual Tal Chappar reserve (Tal meaning low-lying land) as heavy rain had made the tracks unsuitable for vehicles. As a result the following morning we first visited a lake near the gaushala.

 

We found a few waterbirds we had seen earlier on like these Indian Spotbills but the River Terns we found were new for the trip.

 

Spotbill used to be a single species but has since been split into Indian and Chinese varieties. I think it looks rather splendid in the pale-yellow light of dawn

 

Eventually Atul relented and took us to the nearby Tal Chhapar, but we had to leave the vehicle at the entrance gate. In this low-lying hollow the mist persisted, producing some atmospheric views of the local Blackbuck.

 

As well as Blackbuck there were quite large numbers of Wild Boar.

 

However some of the piglets showed characteristics more typical of domestic pigs so there must be some interbreeding. Also seen were Common Cranes and Western Marsh Harriers, but unfortunately not Monties or Hen Harriers (I dare say we would have seen more if we could have stayed or if the visibility had been better).

 

Well we weren’t able to walk very far as we had huge great clods of mud stuck to our boots, making walking rather difficult. Back at vehicle we had a very close encounter with a male Blackbuck. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this magnificent antelope again, but if I don’t I can’t complain about the views we had this time.

 

So we returned to the other side of the road and explored another area dodging great herds of goats on route.

 

Here we found Indian Desert Jirds. We only saw about ten but their burrows were everywhere.

 

These little rodents are preyed on by many raptors including …

 

… Booted Eagles (although in Europe rabbits are their favoured mammalian prey) …

 

… and Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Tawny Eagles are know to be mainly a scavenger and a kleptoparasite but I dare say the odd Jird or two would make a tasty snack, if they were quick enough to catch one.

 

We had spectacular views of a Tawny Eagle being harassed by a pair of Lagger Falcons. Unfortunately in my photos either the eagle or falcon are blurred so I’ve included one from iNaturalist taken by Philippe Boissel see here

 

The little Shikra is in the genus Accipiter which feeds mainly on birds rather than rodents.

 

Rather commoner than the larger Gyps vultures but still declining severely is the widespread Egyptian Vultures.

 

We came across a group of four on our drive around.

 

Also seen was (yet another) Spotted Owlet.

 

Enjoyable as it had been it was time to leave Chhapar and heard to our next destination.

 

That afternoon we drove to Jodhpur and stopped for a short while at Mumbar Gardens near the city where there was an attractive temple and a wetland area caused by the damming of the local river.

 

We didn’t learn anything about the temple a this was just a short impromptu stop …

 

… but like all old Indian architecture it was very beautiful.

 

There were a few birds in the temple area …

 

… but most were in the overgrown water channel. These included a ‘water rail’, I hoped that it would be the recently split Eastern Water Rail (or Brown-cheeked Rail), after all the scientific name is Rallus indicus, but it proved to be the same one we get at home.

 

Perhaps the most notable feature of the temple was the very approachable Hanuman Langurs.

 

The next post will cover our visit to the city of Jodhpur, the nearby Bishnoi villages and a nearby lake where Demoiselle Cranes gather.