Come September and the residents of Keechan, a tiny village near Phalodi town of Jodhpur district of Rajasthan gets ready to welcome their winged visitors from across the Himalayas.
Already 350 “visitors” have landed in the first week of September. Caretaker Sewaram is busy preparing for their comfortable ‘stay’. For the next six months, he has a great responsibility – to feed thousands of ‘foreign’ guests every day.
Every year, demoiselle cranes (Grus Virgo), the smallest of 15 crane species, travel from their breeding grounds in Eurasia to India. They complete an arduous 5,000 km journey, migrating over the Himalayas, crossing the mountain range at an altitude of up to 26,000 feet to reach Keechan.
The first small batch arrives in September and rests start arriving from October and stay here till March. These cranes stay in India for the winter. Declared as a World Heritage Site by the World Crane Foundation, Keechan attracts hundreds of Indians and foreigners who come to witness the spectacle of thousands of demoiselle cranes feeding right in the middle of a human settlement.
It was a great experience for me and my guide and wildlife photographer Kamal Sahansi, watching thousands of demoiselle cranes fly-in last year. The more I observed them, the more they intrigued me. Demoiselle cranes are migratory birds.
When they were first brought over to France from the steppes of Russia, Queen Marie Antoinette was so taken by their elegant, demure appearance she named them ‘Demoiselle’, which translates to ‘maiden-like’ or ‘young lady’.
Locals call them “kurja”. I learnt that wealthy Jain traders who had poured their riches into building havelis here, have supported feeding demoiselle cranes since the 1970s.
It began with village elder Ratanlal Maloo, a devout Jain who considered it his religious duty to feed the birds of the village. One September morning he noticed a number of cranes eating in the company of his usual flock of pigeons and sparrows. Every year after that, he would wait for the “kurjas”, lavishing them with grain.
Later, he coaxed the panchayat to allot him a piece of land on the outskirts of the village to establish a “chugga ghar” or a feeding zone. Over time, fellow farmers, traders, and merchants started supporting his cause, donating grain for the birds.
With access to plenty of food and no tangible threat insight, the cranes returned every year, their numbers increasing from hundreds to thousands. Word spread, and people from different parts of the country came to observe the spectacle. Soon, more contributions flowed in.
Apart from running the feeding operation, Ratanlal started rescuing and rehabilitating injured cranes. In 2009, he received the Salim Ali Nature Conservation Award. Two years later, the custodian of the cranes gently slipped into the night, leaving behind a legacy that continues to shine bright over this desert town. Now his “helper” Sewaram and other residents have continued the tradition of feeding demoiselle cranes.
Kheechan starts its day with the morning aarti at the village temple around sunrise. At the same time, demoiselle cranes fly to the sand dunes overlooking the Chugga Ghar. After the entire flock of a few thousand collects on the dunes, they slowly march towards the Chugga Ghar – a kilometre away. They fly around the sky to the melody of the morning ragas, making it a perfect sunrise. Meanwhile, a group of about 100 encircle the place, making sure it’s safe to land. Once the leader of this group lands, the entourage follows. And then ‘hell breaks loose’ – or is it heaven? Wave after wave of these beautiful birds land inside.
Standing on a nearby roof-top we watch in awe as large flocks of crane fly over from the nearby sand dunes. First, the ones that are close to the enclosure, and then the ones that have lined up all the way up to the dunes. But their discipline is extraordinary. Though there are thousands on any given day, inside the enclosure, there are not more than 500 of them. Through your camera lens, all you see is a mass of blue-grey backs, with a few necks popping up now and then. But if you watch from ground level, it is a fascinating scene. You see a crowd of spindly legs and bent necks, with long orange beaks urgently pecking at the grains on the ground.
Systematically organised flocks of birds arrive, feast and depart – making space for other groups. Their departure from the Chugga Ghar is like a military drill. Before taking off, each group arranges itself in a queue, the flock follows the leader and they cover the sky. The sight of so many live birds outside of a TV screen or photograph is a sight I will never forget. They’re usually a skittish bunch, and as soon as one sets an alarm, the flock takes off en-masse.
After a sumptuous meal, the ladies fly off to the two village ponds. They have a dip in the lake, and the romantic ones indulge in ballet-like mating dances. Just before sundown, they call it a day and fly off to nearby fields for the night. This routine continues till March, when one day, without a warning, they fly off to the land of their origin in the thick of the night.
Interestingly, I noticed one lone and limping demoiselle crane which was not part of the flock. Caretaker Sevaram says this crane was left behind two years back and is now a permanent resident of the village. Surprisingly, last year when the cranes arrived, neither this lonely one mingled with them nor did they try to include him.
Sewaram is full of stories and Rajasthan has a rich tradition of both oral narrative and written literature on these graceful birds. The most famous is a song ‘Kurja,’ which tells the story of a woman who wishes to send a message to her absent husband by a Kurja and is promised a priceless reward for this service.
You should also know why in this vast desert with numerous places with similar advantages, nowhere else you find demoiselle cranes in such huge numbers. Why? My guide quips: “Maybe, by now Kheechan is in the genes of these maiden-like birds!”
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