One morning last November, we made our way from Delhi to Bharatpur in Rajasthan for the ninth time. An easy 200-kilometre drive from the capital, Bharatpur is of course famous for its bird sanctuary, the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dense babul and kadam forests—our guide for the day, Babulal, claimed there were 45,000 trees here—ring with the chatter of birds and provide refuge for other animals. On our previous visits, these have always been the primary draw. However, the town also has some interesting historical sights scattered within its limits, and we decided to check them out on this visit.
The Jat ruler Maharaja Suraj Mal established the city of Bharatpur in A.D. 1733, from the region formerly known as Mewat. It is believed to be named after Bharata, the brother of Rama, whose other brother Laxmana was worshipped as the town deity. Like most Rajasthani cities Bharatpur also boasts an impressive citadel, the Lohagarh Fort. Lohagarh’s name implies its invincibility; though the British attempted to besiege it no less than four times. It never fell. While it does not score high on splendour when compared to Rajasthan’s more lavish forts, Lohagarh still looks mighty. Despite the fact that there isn’t much left of its famed seven-kilometre-long mud wall defences, which protected the fort from the Mughals and the British, we could still see why it is regarded in folklore as one of the strongest forts built on the subcontinent.
We climbed to the top of Lohagarh and spent some time inside, wandering through Kishori Mahal, Moti Mahal, and the Kothi Khas. We also marvelled at the beautiful ashtadhatu, or “eight-metal,” gateway, with its large paintings of elephants. The government-run Bharatpur Museum and an art gallery are located within Kamra Palace, the section of Lohagarh that was originally the durbar hall. They house antique Rajput weaponry, miniature art on peepul leaves, mica paintings, and artefacts dating from the first to the 19th century. The sheer range of the weapons showcased here is impressive. Used in medieval battles by Jat rulers, most of them incorporate multiple ways of attack into one instrument, or are smartly camouflaged. It’s a pity they don’t allow photography inside this section.
The palace complex of Lohagarh also has an impressive iron pillar called the Vijay Stambha or Victory Column, inscribed with the genealogy of the Jat kings. We pay our respects to these ancestors of Suraj Mal and then walk to the lovely Banke Bihari Krishna temple, five minutes away. The architecture of this temple is clearly inspired by the popular Banke Bihari temple of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, and there are beautifully carved idols of Radha and Krishna inside.
The Indian spot-billed duck is found across the country in freshwater lakes and marshes. It is seen in large numbers in Bharatpur during winter. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
Our visit was filled with the natural bounty of Bharatpur too. As we walked through the Keoladeo sanctuary, we came across a python sunning itself in the middle of the road, oblivious to the people around it. We also spotted a huge monitor lizard peeping out from behind a bush. Besides these reptiles, there are spotted deer, jackal, and nilgai, especially along the side trails deeper in the forest. Walking down the main road of Keoladeo National Park, we spotted both red-vented and white-cheeked bulbuls, partridges, kingfishers, sunbirds, and colourful parakeets. Time passed quickly as we watched an entire colony of nesting rosy pelicans and flamingos feed their young and add straw to their nests. They flew from one tree to the next and I was astounded by their numbers. We also saw splendid waterfowl, including the barheaded and greylag geese.
There are around 375 species of birds that live in or visit the park. We spotted seasonal predatory birds like the imperial, steppe, tawny, and spotted eagles, and laggar falcon, making circles in the sky. These migratory birds usually come to the park in August and stay until February. Another highlight of our visit this year was the wide variety of ducks, including pintail, common teal, ruddy shelduck, mallard, redcrested pochard, and gadwall. And, inevitably, the park was also packed with tourists, like us, taking advantage of the weather and the ease of access of this birdwatchers’ paradise.
We visited the forest twice—experience has taught us that the morning and evening excursions are quite different. And we concluded this trip at a small, ancient Shiv temple located at one end of the sanctuary. We sat at a secluded section of the waterbody next to the temple for an hour or two, munching on biscuits, letting the calm and serenity of the forest seep in, as we contemplated our next visit. Perhaps next time we’ll also visit the Bund Baretha, a dam 38 kilometres west of Bharatpur, which offers excellent views over a massive reservoir. Or perhaps we’ll head to the Deeg Palace, the summer fortress of the Bharatpur rulers, 32 kilometres away, for another glimpse into the past.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Not Just Birds”.
Bharatpur is 200 km south of Delhi, an easy 3.5-hour drive. There are direct trains connecting the two places as well. The closest airport is at Agra, 54 km/1 hr east of Bharatpur.
An oasis in an arid land, Bharatpur experiences extremes in weather. Summers (Apr-May) are hot and temperatures can soar over 45°C and the minimum doesn’t go below 27°C. Oct-Mar is ideal for birdwatching as many migratory birds take shelter in the sanctuary during that time. The rainy season (Jun-Sep) is humid, but worth a short trip to see the lush green forest with fewer tourists. The most popular seasons are Oct-Nov, during Dussehra and Diwali, and in Feb-March around Holi when the temperatures range from 7-27°C.
From budget to super luxurious, Bharatpur has several options. Hotel Bharatpur Ashok is the only property located inside the forest, just before the main entrance to the park (05644-222722; www.theashokgroup.com; doubles from ₹3,000). Iora Guest House has simple, clean rooms and scores high on location, outside the main gate (98280 41294; www.ioraguesthouse.com; doubles from ₹1,200).
Need to Know
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Entry for Indians is ₹75, and ₹500 for foreign nationals. Vehicles have to be parked at the main gate. Only pedestrians, cycles (rental ₹75 per day), and cycle rickshaws (rental ₹100 per hour) are allowed inside. No food from outside is permitted but there are two small canteens inside that sell tea, cold drinks, chips, and biscuits. Do not attempt to feed the wildlife. Bharatpur Museum is open 9.45 a.m.-5.15 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.
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