It is the golden hour of dusk and the fading light falls on dune settlements in the great Thar Desert as I speed on the desolate state highway. Cutting the magical light are the silhouettes of a multitude of Demoiselle Cranes honking away to roost for the night; columns after columns of the majestic birds, forming a perfect “V” with their leader at the pointed tip of the “V”. This lovely sight announces to anyone familiar with the terrain, especially birdwatchers, that s/he has arrived at the desert village of Kheechan.
To me, it signals the end of a 14-hour road trip from Delhi via Jaipur; Kheechan is midway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.
In the last embers of the winter day, I settle down in the courtyard of the feeding centre for birds as octogenarian Ganga Ram goes about the last chores before the light fades. The centre, at one end of the village, is a tennis court-size, a 50x40m enclosure with about 8ft-high walls on its north and south, and barbed wired fencing on the east and west. Its foundation was laid in 1983; a board in English describes it as “Bird Feeding Home” but locals call it the “Pakshi Chugga Ghar”. Over time the number of cranes arriving at the centre has increased, touching thousands.
The grains are laid down every evening for the cranes to feed on in the morning. As I begin to capture this ritual on film, children in their school uniforms gather around. Ganga Ram takes a breather as the children take over the task of opening the sacks and tipping the grains out. Ten quintals of grain are used to feed the birds every day.
Asked how many cranes visit every year, Seva Ram says the number peaks in January, at anywhere between 12,000 and 15,000. Towards the end of August, the migratory cranes begin to arrive at Kheechan from the plains of Central Asia, having crossed the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These cranes are primarily grassland birds. By December-January, several thousands of them are here, and they gradually begin leaving for their homeland by March.
To assess the conservation work at Kheechan, we have to delve into the village’s history. More than 500 years old, Kheechan was ruled by Rajpurohits around 300 years ago. Families of the Rakhecha (Jain), Ravana Rajput, Darji, Suthar , Nai and Meghwal communities settled in the village along with the Rajpurohits. The rulers of the village, with the help of these communities, created several ponds and wells to ensure a constant supply of drinking water.
The villagers say the cranes have been visiting Kheechan for as long as they can remember. Technically, the Demoiselle Cranes have been migrating to Kheechan for at least 75 years, but if a famous folk song is to be believed, they have been coming for centuries.
People in Rajasthan, particularly in the western part, believe in “Vasudeva Kutumbakam”— meaning all species living on earth are part of one family. This is strongly and truly reflected in their religion, culture and attitude. This belief might be the reason why wild life still flourishes in an otherwise hostile Thar Desert, where sustenance is difficult even for humans.
This is the region where the Bishnoi community fiercely protects the blackbuck and considers it tau (uncle). In Kheechan too, it has been a cultural and/or religious practice for each family to start the day by putting out grain for birds to feed on. It has also been a tradition to keep aside a portion of grain (jowar) for the birds on special occasions.
Even during droughts, people collect donations to arrange for water, food and fodder for wildlife. Almost all the villages in the region have an adjoining patch of forest called oran. An oran is protected and preserved, and felling of trees, hunting of animals or encroachment is not tolerated.
The practice of feeding birds has only been reinforced by the presence of the Jain community and its tenets of nonviolence . The community manages the Pakshi Chugga Ghar where approximately Rs10 lakh worth of grain is fed to birds every year.
The great descent
The next morning, I wake up to the familiar honking of thousands of cranes. I run to the terrace of Seva Ram’s house and catch the “Vs” coming in from the west, north and east and assembling on the sand dunes near the Pakshi Chugga Ghar. Their discipline startles me. After they have assembled, they march down to the Chugga Ghar in regimented fashion, each one a handsome prince or princess, with glittering red eyes displaying proudly the white tuft of plume over a black head and neck.
Some groups take to the sky and circle over the feeding centre, honking, inspecting their surroundings. Reassured, one crane descends and soon thousands dive into the compound, turning it into a huge tent of grey and white.
After the feeding, they fly away in batches to the village ponds, where they drink water and spend the afternoon, unperturbed by the tractors and labourers at work in the adjacent fields. Even the stray dogs don’t dare disturb them.
As another golden day comes to an end and the cranes begin to depart to roost for the winter night, I bid farewell to Seva Ram and start my long drive back to Delhi. But a surprise awaits me as soon as I leave the perimeters of the village—a rare sighting of the elusive desert fox.
The desert never fails to mesmerize with its bounty.
The first flock of 12 birds arrived in Kheechan on 4 September. By the end of November and beginning of December, this number will reach 8,000-10,000 birds. December and January are the best times to visit.