Imagine yourself standing in a quiet, desert village with literally no-one around and suddenly you see thousands of beautiful birds flying overhead. Wouldn’t it be amazing? Just like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds, but these birds are prettier and kinder. This happened to me in Khichan and left me mesmerised and enthralled. Rajasthan surprises me all the time.
I read somewhere that ‘Everything has beauty but everyone can’t see it.’ Not until I visited Khichan did I know it is world famous and the best place in India to see the beautiful Demoiselle cranes. It all happened by chance after I heard it mentioned by my cab driver one winter’s evening, and decided on a whim to drop by this village on my way to Jaisalmer.
Honestly, this small, sleepy and then not-so-touristy town in Rajasthan, didn’t impress me much initially, as I found it dusty and secluded. Until all of a sudden, this peaceful town was transformed into a magical place. ‘Krok-krok’ calls filled the air, and the sky darkened as thousands of cranes starting hovering above the town. Their flights, in the backdrop of the village’s aristocratic mansions (some of them are heritage buildings more than a hundred years old, now converted to tourist lodges), present brilliant photo-ops for the large number of tourists who flock to the village for bird-watching. After feeding, the cranes, in large congregations, are seen at some of the water bodies (ponds) and sand dunes to the north of Khichan. Peafowl are the other dominant birds seen around the cranes. The cranes usually fly in different directions in small family flocks, in a disciplined order led by the female, followed closely by two young ones, with the male forming the rear guard. Again, during mid-day, they assemble for a drink, followed by an occasional bath, and a second feed. Acrobatic exhibitions of mutual affection between couples is also seen. They roost in far away agriculture fields and return to the same water bodies next day, early in the morning.
The International Crane Foundation says: “ All cranes engage in dancing, which includes various behaviors such as bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing, and wing flapping. Dancing can occur at any age and is commonly associated with courtship, however, it is generally believed to be a normal part of motor development for cranes and can serve to thwart aggression, relieve tension, and strengthen the pair bond.”
Demoiselle cranes are found in 47 countries and are the smallest and the second most abundant of the world’s crane species. The breeding grounds of these birds are reported to be from the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia. During migration, which is long and arduous (many perish due to hunger, fatigue and attacks by predators), the cranes fly with their head and neck arched and their feet and legs straight behind them and attain heights of 4,875-7,925 m (16,000-26,000 ft). Essentially grassland birds, they have plain bluish gray plumage and are omnivores. They feed on plants, insects, peanuts, beans and other cereal grains, and small animals.
Khichan achieved international recognition when it was featured in Birding World magazine, in an article titled, “Khichan, the Demoiselle Crane village.” It has now become very popular among international bird watchers. What is so remarkable about this village is the way it hosts around 20,000 Demoiselle Cranes yearly. The villagers in this Thar Desert town adore them for their apparent vegetarian eating habits and their practice of monogamy. One of the world’s major bird migrations, with thousands of cranes visiting the village year after year, and their numbers keep increasing.
This is attributed to the organised and organic feeding done by the village community, twice a day, during the birds’ entire sojourn from the months of August to March, with November to February being the peak season. In 2008, it was estimated that up to 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lb) of bird seed are consumed every day by the feeding birds. The villagers take great care of the birds, feeding them the grain only after they fly into specially created rectangular enclosures at the edge of the village, locally called chugga ghars, ensuring that they are safe from dogs and other predators. Here they have a breakfast session which lasts for about 90 minutes. They are fed in groups, one after the other.
The village has a number of Marwari Jain families. Sthanakvasi Jain monks Prakashchand (leader of Gyan Gutch sampradaya) and Uttamchand (leader of Samrath Gutch sampradaya) were born in this village. Jains believe in caring for animals. They are vegetarians and do not believe in harming any living creature. This annual bird migration began with around a hundred cranes in the 1970s, when a local Marwari couple, Ratanlal Maloo and his wife, both devout Jains, started feeding pigeons. Then, sparrows, squirrels and peacocks also started visiting the place. Initially, a 100 cranes, who used to graze in the nearby farmlands earlier and were called kurja by the villagers, joined the other birds.
As the cranes grew in number and the local dogs started hunting them, Ratan Lal asked the village panchayat to allot him land on the outskirts of the village where the birds could be protected. They carried sacks of grain to the feeding area, and his wife would help him spread the grains on the ground. Other villagers joined their efforts by building the chugga ghar (bird feeding home), along with a granary and fence, and several traders supported the initiative by supplying grains. Currently, the daily feed of the birds is managed by Pakshi Chuggha Ghar of A B Khichan Jain Shree Sangh. Donations by locals and tourists support the cause. The Marwar Crane Foundation and the International Crane Foundation are also supporting the villager’s efforts.
At dawn each day, I would join crane conservationist Seva Ram on the roof of his house overlooking the large enclosure erected to protect feeding cranes from stray dogs. Rows of bird formations in ‘Vs’ would come from every direction, the birds descending into the dunes. Once one had entered the enclosure, others would follow. Soon, it was filled with a sea of cranes, turning their heads in synchrony. As thousands of these graceful Demoiselle Cranes all flew over me, I couldn’t believe my eyes at the miracle I was witnessing, which filled me with immense happiness. The silence was replaced with their quirky, melodious voices and I lost all sense of time and place as I watched their joyous flight. I am so glad that I opted to visit this place where I witnessed the unique bonding between man and birds. The memory of the Demoiselle Cranes still feels like a dream, the experience of which shall remain with me throughout my life.
The spectacular, scenic landscape of Khichan, with glimpses of golden sand dunes on both side of the road and mirages’ often forming on the highway, is an added bonus in visiting the place. The best time for watching the birds is six to nine in the morning at bird view point, which is only 50 metres from Kurja Resort, where I stayed. This lovely hamlet has more than 100 heritage havelis made of red stone and many of them are beautifully carved with intricate patterns on the walls and pillars.
With many doors and windows interconnecting the various quarters, you can get lost in here. It’s sad to see such beauty being lost to the ravages of time, though I was glad to see some haveli owners doing their best to hold on to the past by hosting tourists in their homes.
There are Salt Lake safari packages on offer to the nearby town of Phalodi, famous as the ‘Salt City.’ The Salt Lake is only 25 km. from Khichan. You can also enjoy Village Safari tours where you can watch village people weaving, talking their local language, doing their daily work, etc. Handicrafts and traditionally woven clothes can be bought here. Or join wildlife tours to view Chinkaras, Peacocks, etc. in open jeeps.
Lunch is served on the open dunes, a beautiful experience. You can enjoy horse or camel rides on the dunes. The Pakistan border is about 100 km away.