Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek: A Tale of Two Latas


Our first destination of the day was the village of Winter Lata, 30 kms from Auli on the road that leads to the Chinese border. In this region, every village is split in two. A set of houses are located high up in the mountains where the villagers farm terraced plots of land for beans, rajma, potatoes and vegetables. This part of the village is inhabited during the summers and monsoons – the growing season in the Himalayas. After Diwali, which comes right after harvest season, villagers pack up their essentials and move to another set of houses closer to the road below. This is where they wait out the winters and the snow takes over the higher village.

After we climbed down from Gorson, we took a small break at Auli, before continuing to the village of Lata, located about 40 kms from Auli, on the road to Malari (Map with directions). Where we actually stopped was the village of Winter Lata , which comprises of a series of houses on the right side of the road. To the left of the road is a small drop, a couple of levels of terraced fields and then the Dhauliganga river.

READ THE PREVIOUS PART OF THE JOURNEY HERE

A zoomed in shot of Nanda Devi from Dhak, on the way to Lata.

IMPORTANT: The Nanda Devi Outer Sanctuary (NDOS) is a restricted area, even for resident Indians. Entry into NDOS is restricted to 5 people per day and not more than 20 persons per week. For the permit, you will need to furnish one photograph along with a copy of a government issued photo identity card as such PAN Card, Voters’ Card, Driving Licence, Aadhar Card, etc. The entry fee per person is Rs 150 and on top of that, you will need to pay a trail management fee. You will also need to pay for your guide and porters. If you go with a local guide, he can get the necessary paperwork done for you in advance. 

The trek starts from the edge of the road in the winter Lata village, at an altitude of 2,200 m, following a concrete pathway that leads to the Summer Lata village (2400m). The Ultimate destination was the log huts at Lata Khadak at 3,800 m, almost 13 kms away. The trek is doable in one day if one starts from the road at dawn. But since we were camping the previous night at Gorson, by the time we left the roadhead, it was around 3 in the afternoon. 

Looking down at the road and the Dhauliganga river.

 

Stepping into the otherworldly beauty of the Nanda Devi National Park. On the left in the gorge cut by the Dhauliganga river.

For trekkers who are not at their fittest, it is best to break the trek from Winter Lata to Lata Khadak into two days. If you so choose to do so, you have Two possible camping options:

Bhelta: Deep inside the forest, this campsite comprises two narrow ledges to pitch your tent and a natural cave which can serve as the kitchen. Damp, dark and claustrophobic, Bhelta has that one thing trekkers and mountain travellers cannot do without – a water source.  

Kanook: Kanook, also called Kanook Khadak is about 400 m above the Bhelta campsite and is a small meadow with a view of the Dhauliganga valley. While this clearly does not suffer from the claustrophobia of Bhelta, it does not have a water source. Since we had started the trek late and we were short of water, we chose to camp at Bhelta.

Looking back at the end of the day – on the bottom right is the Dhauligamga, to its left is the road from where we started the trek three hours ago. Slightly higher up is the village of Summer Lata.
Bhelta Campsite. It was right after the monsoons and the vegetation was so overgrown that our tents and the kitchen cave were totally hidden.

The 13 km long trek from Summer Lata to Lata Khadak can be largely divided into three section. The first part of the journey, one we had just completed, ends at the Bhelta campsite and is a gradual climb through dense forests. The next part of the trek is the actual steep climb that starts immediately after Bhelta and continues all the way to the treeline. The last and the third part of the trek continues steeply uphill above the treeline, all the way to the Lata Khadak log hut. In the rarified air and lacking the shade of the forest, sunburn is a real possibility here.

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary in general and this trail, in particular, is off the beaten track and we were the first group attempting this trail this particular year. This meant that in places, the trail was swallowed up by the forest and we could rely only on the directions of our guide and at times, some clever guesswork.

State of the trail.

This was going to be a tough day for me as the climb looked almost vertical. In my mind, I had calculated that it would take me a better part of 8 hours to complete the 8 km stretch. We set off around 7:30 am from Bhelta and maintained a slow but steady pace. Every now and then the forest would thin out along a ledge and offer spectacular views of the Dhauliganga Valley and even the Gorson Meadows some 40 kms away, where we had camped to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude.

The dense pine forests of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. The top of the ridge in the background is the Gorson Meadows.
Zoomed in view of the Gorson Meadows from somewhere between Bhelta and Lata Khadak.

This trail has a unique way of reminding you how high you have climbed. Every now and then Summer Lata village would spring to view, growing increasingly smaller. Ditto with the Dhauliganga river. And this works strange magic on the tired body of the trekker. All of a sudden, you have a real sense of achievement. If I can climb this far, surely I can climb a little further…

Looking down at the distant valley through the colourful tangle of the forest foliage.
Lata grows increasingly smaller. The Dhauliganga is a mere ribbon.
PANORAMA: Click to expand. See if you can locate Lata village.

What these photos do not capture, however, is the silence of the forest. This is one of the reasons I chose to get away to the mountains. There is something pure and therapeutic about this silence.

After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest, we found ourself suddenly above the treeline. The path now snaked through ankle length grass swaying merrily in the wind. This was the last stage of the trek to Lata Khadak. The trail, however, was still unforgivingly steep. At this point, our guide, irritated by my slow pace had decided to abandon me. ‘Ab toh asaan hai‘, he said. ‘Just look out for the laal jhanda (red flag)’, he said. On and on I went till a red flag mercifully revealed itself at the top of a hill. As I climbed towards it with a zombie-like intensity, a long, green, timber structure revealed itself.

At last, I was in Lata Khadak (3,800 m), our destination for the day, and shelter for the next three.

View of Lata Village and Dhauliganga valley from above the treeline.
Out there… in the distance is a red speck of a flag. Out there is our destination for the day.
At long last… the Lata Khadak cottage.
View from the balcony.
Sharp edges of the mountain lit by the afternoon sun.
Clouds obscure the Bethartoli Himal.

Lata Khadak is located on a high plateau, surrounded by even higher mountains. One of my favourite travel bloggers, Sadanand Kamath describes the location best:

 On the south-west side is the Dhauliganga valley from where our climb started. Further left to the Dhauliganga valley is the Rishiganga gorge followed by Ronti nala. On the south side, we could see our trekking route – Gorson bugyal-Talli-Khullara-Kuari Pass and a part of descend to Dhak road head. A small ridge connects Lata Kharak with Saini Kharak and Jhandidar. On the north-eastern side, the prominent peak visible is Dunagiri (7,066 m) and some distanced peaks on the Indo-Tibet border. The closest peaks to see from Lata Kharak are Bethartoli Himal, Nanda Ghunti (south face), Ronti, and Hathi Parvat . Nanda Devi, Devisthan I and II peaks are not visible from Lata Kharak as their views are blocked by Jhandidar ridge. These peaks can be viewed only from Saini Kharak.

One of the best things about Lata Khadak is the stunning view of Dunagiri. When we arrived the northeast sky was covered by scattered clouds, but within about an hour, the clouds were gone and there stood the mountain, seeming almost an arm’s reach away.

Dunagiri looms of Lata Khadak.

Once my battered body was coaxed back to life with a gallon and a half of steaming tea, it was time to explore the immediate surroundings. Just behind the cottage a narrow pathway leads to the ridge that connects Lata Khadak with Jhandi Dhar and Saini Khadak. The late September sun was at its golden best, colouring the already spectacular surroundings in a shade of honey.

Golden light on mossy rocks. Dunagiri on the left.
Looking back at Lata Khadak from the ridge.
Looking towards Jhandi Dhar and Saini Khadak.

After two days of hard walking, it felt great to just sit soak up the last rays of the sun from such a spectacular spot. Not a sound was to be heard save the chirping of the crickets. In front of us lay a great big icy wall, the kind that would put the great northern wall of Westeros to shame. This formidable wall was made of mountains including Bethartoli Himal (6,352 m), Nanda Ghunti (6,309 m), Ronti (6,023 m), and Hathi Parvat (6,727 m).

In my experience only mountains, and the Himalayas, in particular, can make you feel so utterly insignificant that it shakes you out of the self-centric bubble we tend to live in.  This is the ultimate surrender – knowing how powerless you are against the sheer force of nature. You come back a grounded and a more rounded individual. 

The long day, which began deep in the forests of Bhelta, was slowly coming to an end on a sunny rock overlooking some of the deepest valleys in Garhwal. The golden light had, by now reached the icy wall of Himalayan pinnacles. The stunning Bethartoli, now bathed in the yellow light resembled a mountain made of gold. The tiredness of the body was forgotten… pain in the limbs suddenly felt very inconsequential. All we could think of were the promises of the next day.

Golden light on the Saini Khadak ridge
Madhur in the Golden light
Mountain of Gold – Bethartoli Himal.

 

READ MORE:

PART 1: From Delhi to Auli

PART 2: Trek to the Gorson Meadows

Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek: Reaching Auli


A strange darkness had started to creep in. I had always counted myself rich with an exciting job, a best friend of a wife, three of the cutest cats a person could have ever wished for – yet, there was this big gaping hole in the soul. It was as if I had been kissed by a dementor, a kiss that had sucked all the joy out of my life.

A chance conversation with the wife helped me reach the root of the problem. Partly it had to do with the phenomenon called ‘adulthood’. Over the last three years, I had landed myself an exciting, albeit stressful job, gotten married, and like Jude of the song, had taken upon my (not so) slender shoulders, all the weight of the world. Unlike my pre-adult life, there were no mountains; no rides on my trusty ‘Dope’, and barely time to be alone with the voices in my head. And it was this absence of this connection with myself, that had made me liken my then existence to a dementor’s kiss.

Coming to this realisation was a massive change in itself. It was as if a weight had lifted off my chest… I could breathe easy… the fog of despair had lifted. Now that I knew what to do, I needed to move on to the next step: where to go? Easier said than done. Every road called out to me. Every Himalayan valley seemed to sing a siren song trying to lure me into their deepest recesses. A week’s plan soon became 10 days, and finally grew to two whole weeks. It was settled then: I would do a trek inside the Nanda Devi National Park. To do that I would need to first get to Auli, near Joshimath. This is where my motorcycle, Dope comes in.

I have been on this route a few times, and from the very beginning, it was clear that Joshimath / Auli could not be reached in one day. So I decided to set off from Delhi around noon on the D-Day. The plan was to reach Rishikesh by the evening, rest up and start for Auli the next day at first light.

Credit: @Manasi Saxena

The road till Meerut was chaotic as usual, but once the by-pass starts, it is a clean six lane cruising all the way till Roorkee. I took to the saddle after four years with a lot of apprehension. Would I be able to ride for long? Will my back give up? Would I have to turn back with my tail between my legs? Turns out nothing of that sort was going to happen. It was like fish in the water. The miles just started tumbling and the first and only break of the day came after 216 kms of riding. Once a biker, always a biker.

I had booked myself into Hotel Green Hills in Rishikesh. A secure parking was absolutely essential for me and this establishment had it. I also got an airconditioned room for the night at Rs 700. Another advantage of the hotel was its location right on the highway. All I needed to do in the morning was tie down my luggage and leave.

Morning view from the hotel porch. The hills are just a touching distance away.

Within ten minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself finally in the hills. The monsoons had just about ended and the mountains were carpeted in a million shades of green. On my right was the young Ganga – green and eager and utterly oblivious to the abuse that lies ahead. With every turn of the road, I could feel the mortal energy return to the husk of a being I had let myself turn into. The roads were blissfully empty and the metronome-like engine note of the large single-cylinder benignly threatened to transport me to a meditative state.

The infant Ganga takes her first few steps out of the Himalayan cradle.

 

As we leave the Ganga far below and slowly climb higher, the sun finally comes out.

 

Dope – my companion on this and many more memorable journeys. May your chrome never lose its glint!

My plan for the day was to ride non-stop (photo breaks don’t count) at least till Karnaprayag.  The annual yatra season had ended and I wasnt expecting a lot of traffic. The road itself was in remarkable shape. Except for a few landslide-affected stretches (inevitable in the Himalayas), the road was a poetry in smooth tarmac. Never had I seen a mountain road, (and a highway no less) in as good a shape.

This is no ordinary road. For thousands of years, long before humankind had mortar and asphalt, people have travelled on this road; on foot, on animal-drawn carts and even on the backs of other people, in search of the divine.  Not only does this road lead to Badrinath, one of Hinduism’s most sacred temples, along it also lie the five holy confluences, or prayags – the Panch Prayag.

Dev Prayag: Alakananda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet here, the first of the prayags, giving rise to the Ganges. In terms of riligious significance, it is second only to Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Saraswati meet the Ganga to form the holiest prayag and hence the site of the Kumbh mela.

Alakananda (right) and Bhagirathi (left) meet at Devprayag

Rudraprayag: The meeting place of the Alaknanda  and the Mandakini rivers. At Rudraprayag, one comes across a fork in the road and the two prongs each follow the rivers. I continue to follow Alaknanda towards the next prayag. I turned left on the fork here to follow the road running next to the Mandakini on a previous journey to Deoriya Taal and a trek to Chopta and Tungnath Temple.

Somewhere between Devprayag and Rudraprayag (click to expand).

Karnaprayag: 34 kms upstream of Rudraprayag, the Mandakini is joined by the Pindar river. Legend has it that Karna, one of the pivotal characters in the Mahabharata, prayed to his father Surya at the prayag here and in the process received the kavach (shield) that made him near-invincible in battle. Here, you cross the bridge over the actual prayag and continue along the left bank of the Alaknanda towards Joshimath and Auli. Another road branches off from the bridge towards Tharali and Gwaldham into Kumaon, a road I took on my way back and immediately  went on to have one of the most fun few hours of mountain riding i’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. More on that later.

Nandaprayag: 23 kms upstream, the Nandakini River meets the Alaknanda River at Nandaprayag. Unlike the other prayags, the confluence isn’t visible from the road here. What you can see is a maze of concrete structures and have your senses invaded by noxious diesel fumes emenating from the bus terminus.

The road thus far has the river for company and follows a gentle enough gradient; but as soon as you cross Nandaprayag, things get more interesting. The roads are not as wide as you have experienced before and switchbacks appear with increased frequency betraying a rather steep gain in altitude.

What a pleasure it is to ride on these roads!
A short break to appreciate the surroundings. And the companion.
… the said surroundings

Vishnuprayag: The last of the prayags was the only one I did not visit. This is where the Dhauli Ganga river (this river will make its appearence in a future post) meets the Alaknanda, a few kms upstream of Joshimath town.

During the course of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary trek, we would be hitting altitudes in excess of 4,500 m (14,700+ feet), so it is recommended to complete an one-night accimatisation trek. We had chosen the Gorson Meadows above Auli for this very purpose. To reach Auli, we had to take a small road turning right from the highway, a few kms before Joshimath town. This tiny little road snakes through thick forests and a couple of Indo Tibetan Border Police encampments for 14 kms and ends at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouse in Auli, at an altitude of 2,500 m.

If the sky is cear, Auli offers the visitor a clear view of the iconic Nanda Devi peak (7,816 m / 25,643 ft). But this was not to be. The sky had gotten overcast as I took the turn for Auli and by the time I was unloading my luggage, it had started drizzling. The clouds, however, did little to obscure the unique jagged-edged mountains around Joshimath and Auli.  In the dying light of the day, the dramatic mountains looked like the exposed teeth of a long dead leviathan, bared menacingly skywards upon death.

The black snake of a road slithers up the mountain at Auli.

 

Ephel Dúath

 

As a couple of plates of maggi, followed by some excellent chilli chicken whipped up by the good cook at GMVN slowly soothed the body into a state of temporary hibernation, the mind drifted across the jagged shadow mountains towards Mordor the deep Himalayas. What adventures lay ahead? Will the goddess Nanda Devi open her bounties to this humble traveller? If only I had a window into her divine mind…

Bharatpur 2017: Getting My Mojo Back


It was 5:00 am on a cold, cold January morning that I stepped into the sleeper compartment of a train at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Station. AC coaches were not considered out of a mere whim while I was booking the ticket from the warm confines of my office. Once again I had underestimated the Delhi cold. Nevertheless, the journey was going to be a short one. Just 180 odd kilometres to the southwest, to the erstwhile princely state of Bharatpur.

Three and a half hours later, I emerged out of the compartment at Bharatpur station, thawed and adequately tea-d. It has been three years since my last visit and i could immediately see that the station had received a make-over. On almost every wall was a mural flaunting the feathered residents of this small town and the importance of nature. The bottoms of every mural, however, was stained by the ever-present paan spit.

A massively noisy and overgrown autorickshaw delivers me to my hotel half an hour later and before I could deposit my luggage, Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917) had arrived to take me to the park. I had met Mr Singh on the previous trip and encountered a man who was as patient as I was restless and with over two and a half decade worth of experience, knows the best birding spots in Bharatpur.

Sign of things to come.
Mr Singh’s Steed

For the next three days, I would enter Keoladeo National park at 6 am and leave only when it got dark.  Here’s what I saw:

OWLS

Of the many species of Owls in the park, I could only photograph the Spotted Owlet and a solitary Indian Scops Owl. Was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Eurasian Eagle Owl at a distance.

PELICANS

In my last two visits, i failed to spot any pelicans. This time, however, i was lucky. There was a whole pod of them, swimming around the main swamps. At various points through the next three days, i could see these massive birds flying into their swamp, sometimes in formation. Fascinating birds, Pelicans. I can spend whole days watching them. You can read about a fantastic (and hiding in plain sight) spot in the heart of Delhi to see pelicans here.

 

DUCKS AND GEESE

BAR HEADED GEESE

An enduring memory of my first ever visit Bharatpur way back in 2007 was the sheer number of bar-headed geese, all over the main swamp behind the temple. Since then,, even though the water supply to the park has improved, their numbers have declined. These photographs capture the opnly flock that i could find.

GREYLAG GEESE

Unlike the bar-headed geese, the greylags were seemingly everywhere. These are large and  raucous, but also infinitely charming.

 

LESSER WHISTLING DUCKS

Unlike the Bar-headed geese and the Greylag geese, the Lesser Whistling ducks are year-long residents ofKeoladeoo National Park. They live in large family groups and get their name from a whistle-like noise they produce while flying.

RUDDY SHELDUCK

Another of my favourite visitors. There is something about that golden plumage and the contrasting black wing-tips! Once, these birds were numerous but now are limited to just tens of pairs.

COMMON TEAL

As the name suggests these ducks are everywhere in the park. They are extremely small and boisterous and darting in and out of the thicket. .

SPOT-BILLED DUCK

Resident species and one of the commonest duck species across the Indian subcontinent. They might be common but I always love photographing the spot-billed as it is a truly handsome bird.

Most ducks and geese get along well and live in large groups. It also bodes well in terms of safety as there are always eagles and Marsh Harrier’s circling in the air above. Stragglers and chocks are usually the ones picked up first. Here’s a look at the birdscape of Bharatpur before we look at more migratory/endemic species.

Darter drying its wings. Spot the ducks in the photo.
Ducks and habitat
Birds of different feather
Ducks and coots
Ducks and coot II

FERRUGINOUS DUCK

Striking! That is one word to describe this duck. Piercing white eyes on a bright brown plumage give it that striking look.

RED-CRESTED POCHARD

This is the first time spotting this bird and that too from a great distance. Unlike the other ducks in the list, this is a diving duck, as in it disappears underwater for minutes at an end to feed, before emerging on the surface.

OTHER DUCKS

After going through a water crisis in the mid 200’s, Bharatpur now was a plentiful supply of water. This means that there has been a spike in the numbers of both resident and migratory species of ducks.  Here is a gallery of some other ducks from Bharatpur:

 

Now that we are more or less done with ducks and geese, we can move on to the other birds.

KINGFISHERS

Believe it or not, I had never ever seen a Pied Kingfisher and had never shot the ubiquitous Common Kingfisher. So you can imagine my excitement when I turned a corner and found a Pied Kingfisher literally posing for my lens! The next day, the same happened but with the Common King.

 

On my last trip, I had particularly good luck with the Sarus Crane, in that one just appeared right in front of me in the most perfect photographic conditions. This time, however, no such luck was to be had.

BITTERNS

Bitterns are hard to spot. They stay motionless in the tickets on the water’s edge, carefully blending into the surroundings. If you are a fish that happens to come within striking range, the bird telescopes its wonderfully long neck in the fraction of a second to snatch the fish out of the water. I have seen a number of bitters, including the great bitterns, but this time was lucky enough to photograph two – a Black Bittern and a Yellow Bittern.

 

HERONS & EGRETS

Purple, grey, night crowned, little green – herons come in many shapes and sizes and Bharatpur provides them with the most ideal habitat.

SPOONBILLS

Fantastically weird birds, spoonbills. Theyb sift through the bottom of the swamp with their unique bills, and when they are done feeding, tuck that bill in the folds of their wings and go back to sleep!

WADERS

OK. Confession time. I have been an active birder for over five years now and even after going through a number of books, videos and of course physical sightings, i am still unable to distinguish between most waders. How can you tell different species of sandpipers apart? Then there are ruffs and snipes and whimbrels. I know this sounds bizarre but it is the 100% truth! So please help me with the captions here:

WATERFOWL

When it comes to waterfowl, i have only scratched at the surface. Below you will see the swmphens, waterhens and the bronze winged Jacana. I am yet to spot any of the crakes, rails, and even the pheasant tailed Jacanas.

It is true that the best of the sightings happen in the mornings and evenings. Most birders follow this pattern and return to their rooms during those hours. But like me, if you like nature and value some quiet time, take off on foot through the site paths deep into the sanctuary. You will come across hidden pools and maybe even a secluded spot where you can wait and watch the day pass.

Long brick road
Sarus alley
Same Alley, different view

BEST OF THE REST

So many birds, so little time. After spending three whole days inside the park you have one problem… a problem of plenty. Those of you have endured thus far in this post would have noticed that i am very bad at selecting photos. I hate leaving photos out and hence every selection becomes this lengthy.  Here are some other birds I photographed.

 

NON-FEATHERED FRIENDS

Walking through Bharatpur, it is very easy to forget that birds are not the only residents of this small National Park. In fact, during this particular visit, a section of the park was closed off because a leopardess had taken up residence there. It is very common to see jackals, three species of large deer – Sambar, Chital and Nilgai, snakes, monitor lizards and at least 6-7 species of tortoises! In fact, during my 2013 visit, I had a close encounter with an Indian cobra.

Truth be told, I am writing this in mid-January 2018, almost exactly a year after the trip and barely 2 weeks before my next.  Calls to Bachchoo Singh have been made and he has informed me that this year, the storks haven’t nested. Migratory birds are present in large numbers, he assures me.

View of the swamp from one of the watch towers
It is the algae that grow on the water which is the base for the whole ecosystem. Fish eat the algae, birds eat the fish.
View from my early morning perch, waiting for the ducks to come closer
My secret lake.
mirror… mirror on the water

Wishlist for February 2018 Bharatpur pilgrimage:

  • Boatride on the swamp.
  • Visit the turtle temple (You’ll know more when I know more)
  • Mooar sarus photos
  • Get close to a basking python.
  • Close photographs of the great crested Grebe
  • Owls, owls and some more owls – the dusky eagle owl would be great.
  • Lastly, can a black-necked stork come pose for me please?
Most spectacles in Bharatpur hide in plain sight. Take this tree for example. Looks bare, right?

 

but if you zoom in, you will notice that what the tree lacks in leaves, it makes up for in Yellow-footed green pigeons.
Another day of birding comes to an end as the sun goes down over the swamp.
A stark reminder of our borrowed time
Until we meet again…

 

Don’t Tell Anyone About Surajpur


As I got out of the car the first thing I realised was that the temperature had dropped drastically. I reached into the backseat to retrieve the down jacket that I hadn’t bothered to put on when I left from home on this freakishly early January morning.  There was, of course, the fog which was doing a fantastic job of obscuring the massive iron and wood gate that I knew lay not ten feet ahead of me.

A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters
A lone palm tree stands guard as the veil of fog lifts ever so slowly off the waters

I was standing outside Surajpur, the small, yet intense reminder of the habitat that once surrounded what we now, rather unimaginatively refer to as the National Capital Region. Surajpur is essentially a large, shallow lake, surrounded by reeds and a sparse forest. While other wetlands fell prey to residential high-rises and the occasional Formula 1  track, Surajpur survived. In fact, with a little help from the WWF and the Uttar Pradesh government, it is now thriving.

Surajpur, much like bonfires and barbecues is a part of my winter ritual. Over the last few years, it has become so engrained in my muscle memory that even wheI I write this, in a featureless, boxed-in office building on a sultry September evening, I can still catch the faint whiff of rotting vegetation. Wait! Was that the quack of a northern shoveller I just heard. Surely that can’t be true. Oh how the mind plays games!

The lake at Surajpur is home to a variety of resident birds, including Sarus Cranes, Spot-billed duck, Black-headed Ibis, Wooly-necked Stork, Asian Spoonbill, Painted stork, etc. In the winter months, however, the numbers swell with the arrival of the migrants. Walking along its sometimes overgrown paths, the occasional nilgai might just cross you.

Here’s a selection of some of the resident birdlife of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary:

One of the smallest and perhaps the most charming residents of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary are the Munias. Unfortunately, during my visits to the park, I have only spotted the Indian Silverbill, or the silver-billed Munia.

One of the largest (actually, the second largest after the graceful Sarus crane) birds of the park is also one of my favourite birds – the Black Necked Stork. Possessing a jet black neck and a menacing, almost sword-like bill, loharjung as the bird is known in Hindi, has acquired an almost mythical status in my mind. In my five years as an active birdwatcher, I have had numerous sightings of this magnificent bird, but never got as close to it as I would have desired. Surajpur was where I got the closest. This passage from the Wikipedia entry for Black Necked Stork tells an interesting tale:

The Mir Shikars, traditional bird hunters of Bihar, India had a ritual practice that required a young man to capture a black-necked stork “Loha Sarang” alive before he could marry. A procession would locate a bird and the bridegroom-to-be would try to catch the bird with a limed stick. The cornered bird was a ferocious adversary. The ritual was stopped in the 1920s after a young man was killed in the process.

Conservation planners at Surajpur have ensured that the wetland is dotted with a number of man-made islands for birds to perch and nest on. In certain cases, Surajpur Bird Sanctuary’s resident population of Purple Swamphens take over a particular island, resulting in what can appear to be a purple floating mass:

Every winter, the resident population of Surajpur welcome travellers from the steppes of central Asia and the wetlands of Siberia. Unlike Donald Trump, the spot-billed ducks and the Sarus Cranes of Surajpur have not yet passed an executive order banning seasonal migrants like Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous Pochards, Bar-headed Geese, Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls.

 

DSCN2185
A male Northern Shoveller in all its glory
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A group of resting Teals.

The walking trail at Surajpur is essentially one long oval circuit, parts of which are often overgrown. On many a winter morning, I found myself walking through knee high grass, dripping with dew. Towards the end of the circuit, one comes across a grove, that stretches till the water’s edge. This is my favourite spot in the park. The picnickers do not make it till here, so it is often quiet, and if you sit here quietly for some time, the birds start to get accustomed to your presence.

Surajpur is a brutal reminder of what once was, and what precious little we have left. Surajpur is a cautionary tale against human greed and mindless ‘development’. Recently, I hear whispers of an ‘eco-village’ being planned on the side of the sanctuary that is the most undisturbed. Why? Why can we not let the wild things be? There is a large and very selfish voice inside me that wants nobody to know about the existence of Surajpur. This part of me does not want people to come here for picnics. This part of me does not want to see children running amok and parents running after them, dropping plastic bags and wrappers wily-nily. This part of me wants to keep Surajpur a secret.

So if you chance upon this blog, do not go looking for Surajpur. Do not share this blog on your social media timelines. Let the first and only rule of Surajpur be ‘You don’t speak about Surajpur’. So here is one last look at Surajpur before you purge its memory off your brain.

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Pelicans in the heart of New Delhi


In the recent years, Delhi has been in the news for mainly two reasons – the lack of safety for its women and the ever worsening quality of its air. So be it the shocking rapes, pollution or the other Delhi staple – politics –  you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing good could possibly come out of the city. But Delhi, in its own endearing way comes to the rescue of those like us who love this city.

We, as birdwatchers are used to travelling out of the city to take a look at the resident species and our migrant friends. We however, often overlook a gem that hides in common sight, right in the heart of this throbbing metropolis. Yes, I am taking about the Delhi Zoo, and no, I am not talking about the captive birds.

The Zoo is located under the lofty walls of Dinpanah, popularly called Purana Qila (Old Fort). Sections of the moat of the old fort were converted into water bodies and the relative protection offered by the park meant that egrets, herons, painted storks, spot billed ducks and other waterbirds started breeding here. While these birds can be seen all-year round, winters offer a special treat.

The habitat in the Delhi Zoo premises:

Every winter, a flock of Rosy Pelicans (also known as Great White Pelicans) descends on one of the water bodies, located right next to the tiger enclosure. Great White pelicans are some of the heaviest of flying birds. The birds swim effortlessly, their spotless white plumage in stark contrast to the algae-stained green waters and the even greener background of the park’s trees.

Getting the heavy bodies airborne is no mean feat, even if you are equipped with sturdy wings that span from 7 to 11 feet. Much like an airplane, the take off begins with a run, in the final stages of which the bird actually uses its webbed feet to walk on water. Once airborne, these huge birds glide through the air, gaining height and momentum with flaps of its massive wings. Touchdown involves a sudden drop to the water level and the use of the webbed feet as a brake.

The zoo is home to a flock of 30 Rosy Pelicans, all of whom live on a single water body. At the center of the lake is an island where the juveniles spend most of their time. Apart from humans, a fully grown pelican has no natural predator, but juveniles need to be careful. As I sat and observed this flock, one particular individual caught my eye. Unlike the others, it sported a rather flamboyant hairdo. The light on this winter morning was just about perfect and my camera was drawn to him over and over again.

Just look at him… can you really blame me?

Pelicans are great survivors and live and breed on all continents, except Antarctica. With their exceptional size, oversized beaks and an outlandish pouch they have fascinated nature lovers all over the world. This nifty little limerick neatly captures the weird appeal of these giants of the sky:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for the week;
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.

pelicans

BONUS IMAGES

The Delhi zoo is a good place to see birds that live in the city’s urban habitat. Although the focus on this particular trip was to observe and photograph the resident Pelicans, I did manage to capture some other birds that came my way:

 

Okhla Bird Sanctuary: A study in decay


Delhi, with its 2 crore people, buildings to house them in, vehicles to transport them is bursting at its seams. The cost of this human expansion is sadly being borne by the animals and birds that used to call this bit of geography their home. Nowhere is this terrible price clearer than at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, at the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Here are 5 things I noticed on a recent visit to the park:

The stench

The bird sanctuary is located along the eastern bank of the Yamuna, upstream of the Yamuna Barrage at Kalindi Kunj. Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and multiple attempts (and crores of rupees) to clean it has yielded negligible (at best) results. As a result, the moment you enter through the gates of the sanctuary, your nostrils are assaulted with the stench of untreated sewage and human waste. Even the otherworldly beauty of the reeds on a misty winter morning does not take your mind off this olfactory onslaught.

The dogs

I love dogs, I really do! I will also confess that I usually prefer the company of canines over most humans. But even I will admit that feral dogs have no place in a protected sanctuary. Okhla is home to a number of species of endemic waders and waterfowl and most of them nest on the ground amidst the reeds. Packs of dogs roaming across the sanctuary decimate the nests and massacre the chicks. Here is hoping that the UP government comes up with a humane process for relocating the dogs that roam inside the park. (The following photographs by Sriparna Ghosh)

 The rubbish

Okhla Bird Sanctuary is popular with a wide variety of people – birdwatchers, errant schoolchildren, lovers in need of a quiet moment and even picnicking families. While most leave with pleasant memories, they leave behind bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags and all forms of refuse that have no place in a bird sanctuary. The park is also massively understaffed, which means that the garbage rarely gets collected and removed.

Where are the migratory birds?

While Okhla is home to a vide variety of endemic species, every winter thousands of migratory birds descend on the marshes. With the birds come birders like yours truly. This time, however, things were different. Sure, we did see a number of resident birds like spotted owlets, Red and Silverbilled munias, spot billed ducks and purple swamphens, but the flocks of Northern pintails, Northern shovellers, Common Teals and Eurasian Wigeons were conspicuous by their absence. According to this report by News18, it was ‘due to the pollution at the Okhla barrage as the Chhath Puja concluded recently’.

 

Some welcome changes

On my previous visit to OBS in November 2014, I encountered a bizarre set of rules. You could drive your cars / motorcycles anywhere within the park. You would also have to cough up an exorbitant Rs 500 for the privilege of carrying a camera in the sanctuary. I am glad to report that both these rules have now been scrapped. Cars remain parked outside the sanctuary gates (no designated parking) and all you pay is a Rs 30 entrance fee.

 

Have you visited Okhla Bird Snctuary recently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Mobile Photography] As Seen in the City #2


This is a continuation of my photographic adventures in the city, armed to the teeth with my mobile camera. This is also an effort to convince myself (and any others that need convincing) that you do not need a DSLR to take good photographs.

No, I am not replacing my DSLR with my Nexus 5, not yet. I am using the mobile to go where the DSLR might be conspicuous or unwieldy. Let’s look at some images then:

 

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A man waits for his flight announcement at IGIA, New Delhi

 

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Vegetable seller adds a dash of colour to my street on a rain soaked morning

 

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Delhi on a rainy afternoon

 

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Continuing with the theme of precipitation: Going to work on a rainy winter morning

 

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Waiting for my dumplings to arrive, at a restaurant in McLeodgunj, Himachal Pradesh

 

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More Rains!! This time it is the seat of the government

 

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I loved the sky in this otherwise nothing photo

 

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If i could capture the spirit of my hometown Siliguri in one photo, this would be it.

My previous experiments with  mobile photography: Markets, Black and White, Delhi’s fiery sunsets and more street photography.

[Mobile Photography] As Seen in the City #1


I was a late adopter of the smartphone; and once I did, it added much fuel to my already flaming love for photography. Now I did not need to carry my DSLR around. As long as I understood the limitations of the mobile snapper and had help from an editing app, I could produce decent images.

It is true that my phone is unable to shoot in RAW, but in the next couple of years, most of the top-of-the-line phones will have that ability. Now, if the mobile OEMs can crack a practical optical zoom design, the point and shoot market should see a heavy decline. Are you listening Canon, and Nikon?

In this series within a series, I will post images from the life of Delhi and a few other cities that I keep travelling to. All the photos here have been taken with my Google Nexus5 and edited with the Snapseed app.

PS: My previous posts on Mobile Photography: Delhi Sunsets, Markets, Experiments with Black and White

 

[Mobile Photography] Delhi Sunsets


It is true that on most days, the air over Delhi is unbreathable at best; but then there are those evenings when the city throws you off with rich shades of crimson streaked over the azure skies. Few and far between they might be, but breath-taking they always are. Work leads me to commute between Delhi and Noida, and the route includes some open stretches along the Yamuna where the grasslands accentuate the beauty of the skies.

The images that will follow have bee clicked over the period of a year and range from late spring, early winter to late monsoon evenings.  All the images below have been shot on the Nexus 5 and have been edited on the Snapseed app. Though the app has options for filters, I have chosen not to apply any. Instead all of them have been edited by adjusting parameters like brightness / contrast, shadows / highlights, saturation, etc.

You can see my previous posts in the [Mobile Photography] series here (markets) and here (black and white)

[Mobile Photography] Markets


One central aim of this series  is to prove that you do not really need a fancy DSLR to take good photographs. Even though I do own a said fancy camera and a number of lenses, I have discovered that a decent mobile camera and a good editing app will cover most of your photographic needs.

Yes, there are restrictions when it comes to mobile photography. Your low light abilities are restricted. So is your ability to zoom in. But playing within these margins has helped me develop a my own style – one that relies predominantly more on the composition of the shot.

As I said in my previous post, all the images below have been shot on the Nexus 5 and have been edited on the Snapseed app. Though the app has options for filters, I have chosen not to apply any. Instead all of them have been edited by adjusting parameters like brightness / contrast, shadows / highlights, saturation, etc.

Today’s theme: Markets

 

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A Different Christmas


No, festivals do not excite me. The only use i see of them is the fact that you generally do not need to work on those days. But ever since I started working at a news channel, i had to say goodbye to those festival holidays as well. Because, you know, news just keeps on happening. So yes, I am not that big on festivals.

The last Christmas day was slightly different though. Everyone in my team was working and so I took advantage of the fact that that I am the boss and took some time off to join the good folks at Delhi Birds for an old fashioned bird walk. I am not big on group activities either, but the DelhiBird group is led by expert birders who know those secret little corners which I, on my own would never have known. This is how on a cold, foggy Christmas day, I landed up at Dankaur – a village in the middle of nowhere.

The map embedded above only shows you the location of the village. The spot, a now dry lake bed, was a few kms away from the village. The group met up at a designated spot in Noida before taking off towards the destination, around 50 kms away. I was looking forward to this trip for two reasons. Ever since I started working in the live news environment, i lost my weekends, a sense of time and personal life. So, unlike other years, this was to be my first day out birding this season! Secondly, I had finally managed to fix my trusty motorcycle (Dope, as I call him) and this trip out of the city would test my modifications .

For the first few miles we were on the Greater Noida Expressway. Turning off the Expressway at Greater Noida we kept turning into  smaller (and increasingly more potholed)  roads till we reached what looked like a massive grassland with a shallow pond at its center. This is supposed to be the fabled spot, where, on a good day over a 100  Sarus cranes congregate. Will this Christmas day be the proverbial ‘good day’?

Please click on any photo to open slideshow

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Snapshot: Stills from Sultanpur


Delhi is a good place to be if you are a birder. Not only does the many parks and green belts house a significant number of species you can, much like me, observe them right off your balcony (see THIS and THIS). Then there are the immediate outskirts of the city. Numerous wetlands (albeit severely threatened) dot the vicinity of this megacity supporting a wealth of endemic as well as migratory species. But the proverbial jewel in the crown is definitely the Sultanpur National Park.
For decades, bird lovers of the city have flocked here to see the winter migrants. Peter Jackson (the ornithologist, silly, not the film director) was impressed by the habitat at Sultanpur jheel (wetland) and wrote to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to protect the area. Working on Jackson’s recommendation, Sultanpur was turned into a Bird Sanctuary in 1972 and later upgraded to a National Park in `1989. At 1.43 sq kms, this is, in all probability the smallest National Park in the world. Size, it seems does not really matter.
I have only started noticing, studying and photographing birds for a little over two years now. In fact, after I upgraded my equipment, Sultanpur was the first place i visited. While it is clear that I am yet to perfect the art of spotting a photographing the residents of Sultanpur, I will nevertheless thrust my attempts till date on you unsuspecting lot!
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Walking among Tombstones: Nicholson Cemetary


It was the summer of India’s discontent. In May 1857, Indian soldiers in the East India Company – sepoys, as they were popularly called – revolted against their colonial masters. The spark ignited in Barrackpore, near Kolkata, soon reached Meerut. Delhi, for the sepoys was the next logical step.

The sepoys met their former masters outside the gates of Shahjahanabad in September, that year. After days of bitter fighting, the British forces emerged victorious, though not without losses of their own. One of the main casualties of the uprising was Brigadier-General John Nicholson. Known as the ‘Lion of Punjab’, Nicholson was a charismatic figure whose leadership was instrumental in settling the unruly North West Frontier Province (tribal areas now on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Along with Nicholson perished many other Christians. In fact, the numbers of those killed in the uprising were so large that there was an immediate need for a new cemetery.  The area right outside the Kashmere Gate, which has seen some of the bloodiest pitched battles, was chosen as the spot to commemorate the dead. Nicholson was one of the first to be buried in it. Along with his mortal remains, he also gave this patch of land its name – the Nicholson Cemetery.

That was then. The Nicholson Cemetery of 2015 is an oasis of calm in the middle of Delhi’s transit district. It will take you a minute to get used to the sight of a metro train zooming overhead as you try to read the epitaph of a tomb from the 1860’s.

Your portal to the city of the dead
Your portal to the city of the dead
In the city of the dead
In the city of the dead
Wild and overgrown
Wild and overgrown
A grave forgotten by time
A grave forgotten by time

The cemetery today is clearly divided into two parts. The grassless, almost barren, somewhat tidy part which still inters the recently departed and the wild and overgrown remainder which is older and, needless to say, more atmospheric.

The graves in the newer part of the graveyard are more or less similar. Neatly laid out, rarely with a headstone, almost always capped by a black granite tombstone. Every now and then, an old grave pops up – a visitor from a different time, in a different space.

Home to the newly departed
Home to the newly departed
A flotsam from the distant past
A flotsam from the distant past
Resting in peace
Resting in peace
Gone but not forgotten
Gone but not forgotten

Walking among the graves, it is difficult not to notice the overwhelming number of infants and children buried here. Born in an alien land, a land of heat and dust, of malaria and cholera, very few children lived beyond the age of five. The Raj, it seems, paid a terrible price for its fortunes.

Unbearable grief
Unbearable grief

Scrawled on the grave pictured above are two lines, telling the story of an unimaginable tragedy:

Cornelius: Born and died 1st January 1868, Kussowlie
William: Born 13th and died 14th August 1869, Barrackpore

A large number of graves are also marked Deo Notus: ‘known only to God’.

These are the graves of soldiers who died anonymous, an overwhelming majority of whom perished in the Battle of 1857. There are also those who died fighting in various other outposts of the Raj – from Rangoon to Peshawar and Gwalior.

Alone in her corner
Alone in her corner
And onto the land he returned
And onto the land he returned

And then there were people who left this world rich in love. The tombstones often bear words which, even after a century and a half, continue to touch the strings of your heart.

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Tomb of the mother

The following lines were etched on the grave pictured above:

A loving wife
A mother dear
A faithful friend
When she was here
A loving hear
So true and kind
No companion on Earth
Like her you’ll find
We miss her more
Than tongue can tell
The loss is more severe
In life beloved by all so well
In Death forever dear

A beautiful black cross
A beautiful black cross
Grave of the 15 year old girl
Grave of the 15 year old girl

Among the many epitaphs i came across, the one that moved me the most was etched on the tomb of a 15 year old girl (pictured above):

“Safely safely gathered in
Far from Sorrow, Far from sin
God has saved from weary strife
In us drawn this fresh young life
For our loss we must not weep
Nor our loved one long to keep
From the Home of rest and peace
Where all sin and sorrow cease”

As I walked past one forgotten corner of the graveyard, a very familiar name appeared on a tombstone. It was the final resting place of Satya Nand Mukarji, the sixth principal of St Stephen’s College, my alma mater. He taught in the college from 1912 onwards, serving as the Principal from 1926, until his death in 1945. The hostels in St Stephen’s College are named after past principals; I happened to have spent four of the best years of my life in Mukarji West.

Oh Captain, my Captain
Oh Captain, my Captain

We end where we began – at the tomb of John Nicholson, one of the few protected by cast iron railings. The life and exploits of the Lion of Punjab lie summarised on a marble slab, looted from a Mughal Garden in Delhi in what is a somewhat fitting idiom of British rule.

In peace
In peace

Some say that, even now, on dark moonless nights, a headless Nicholson can be seen galloping through this necropolis on his otherworldly steed. Curious, considering Nicholson was shot in the chest and died with his head still attached to his torso!

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Birdwatching from my Balcony: Barbet you not!


These early spring days are the best. It seems that everyone is out to find a mate. Yes sir, even the Brown-headed Barbet (Megalaima zeylanica) that calls the park next to my balcony home.

One particular morning, in the usual rush to get to work on time, i almost missed the rather enthusiastic kutroo…kutroo…kutroo call of the male bird. I put on my Sherlockian deerstalker and decide to investigate (work be damned). A short search later, i locate the male bird, perched on the crooked branch ardently calling away.

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Hello there

He was clearly calling with an agenda. By the time i spotted him, he has been calling for an hour with no sign of tiredness. Hopping from one branch to another, his calls added another dimension to a slightly still Tuesday morning.

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Who’s that hiding behind the branch?
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Just perched here, being cool
Can you see me now?
Can you see me now?

The calls, especially at this time of the year are meant to attract a female. Given the enthusiasm of the male bird, a female had to be close by. And sure, there she was, a fluffy little thing sitting coyly on a neem branch across the park.

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You talking to me?
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Yup, it’s me. Nice calling, btw!

The thing about Brown-headed Barbets are that they are rather large, ungainly birds. Along with their cousins from the Western Ghats, the White Cheeked Barbets, they are perhaps the lest visually appealing of the Barbets. But there is another of the species that nests on the Gulmohar tree near my house – the Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala).

Yup. Its me
Yup. Its me

It is a small bird and due to its predominantly green plumage it is rather difficult to spot. However, the red forehead, yellow eye-ring and throat patch with streaked underside and green upperparts gives it a fairly striking appearence.

Look ma, so pretty
Look ma, so pretty
I nest in holes in trees, yes I do
I nest in holes in trees, yes I do

This tiny little bird has a metronomic call that is similar to a coppersmith’s hammer hitting the metal. Hence the name. The bird usually calls more during the springtime so in my native Bengal, its calls are considered to be a prologue to the golden season.

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About to fly away

I love these Barbets and I am waiting for when they come a little closer to my balcony. Till then, I leave you with this one parting shot of the little Coppersmith.

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Till we meet again!

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Birdwatching from my Balcony: White Eyes, warblers and smooth operators


Living alone sure has its charms. Oh Yes. Especially when you live in a barsati (rooftop flat) in a leafy South Delhi colony. The laburnum tree grows so close to my balcony that I can just reach out and touch the branches.

This tree is also the favourite haunt to some of the tiniest birds in this part of the world – okay, maybe with the exception of the Fire Breasted flowerpecker – the Oriental White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus).

Hence the name
Hence the name

One lazy Sunday afternoon, my siesta was disturbed by a huge racket outside. I open to door to see at least half a dozen of these tiny beauties darting from branch to branch announcing their glee to the entire world. I have never had them come so close. After a frantic dash into the other room to get the camera, fix the right lens, I managed to get a few shots of the passerines.