Congress of Demoiselle cranes at Khichan
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
It is believed many mythological moons ago, Rishi Valmiki was observing courtship of two Krauncha Birds on banks of river Tamasa, when suddenly an arrow pierced the male’s chest. Anguished and angry at the hunter, the rishi cursed the hunter with a shloka which is said have been the first ever verse composed by man and the first of what would later become Ramayana, the Adi Kavya( First Poem) of Earth.
मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः । यत् क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम् ।।
(O Hunter! Since you killed one of the pair
of Krauncha birds in love, you shall never
complete your span of life)
In present times, one winter morning I found myself travelling in a roadways bus to Khichan to witness congregation of those very Krauncha birds known as Koonj or Demoiselle cranes. Khichan is located only 5 Km from town of Phalodi, whose another distinction is being among the hottest places in India. Temperatures exceed 50 degree Celsius regularly. On entering the otherwise sleepy and featureless village, I went straight to their breakfast table locally known as Pakshi chugga ghar. But it was already afternoon. As expected, I found the table deserted. “You won’t find them here now” shouted a passing urchin from his over speeding bicycle. “Go to the pond” and pointed at the other side of hypotenuse before disappearing round the corner of an alley. Lumbering through the serpentine and deserted streets, I reached a small pond. My heart sank at the sight.
Except for a few pigeons at the opposite end, it was devoid of any other avian specimen. “Where are they” I said accusingly to the person selling tickets to the pond. “They have flown away. Two of them got caught in the manjha of kites being flown by village folk in the morning and badly injured themselves. They have been restive ever since. There’s another pond yonder. Vijay Talav , it is called. Look there !”.
As I moved towards the other pond my spirits soared. I saw few of the our visitors from Kazakhastan flying over the horizon. Below them were excited tourists fumbling with cameras, trying to get best shot of the Demoiselle cranes. They were standing on elevation on extreme edge of the pond.
When I looked at other side, it was a sight I would remember for the remainder of my life.
Sight to behold
They sat there in thousands filling the air with their guttural calls. The whole arena trumpeted with their Trr Trr,s and as I glanced sidewards, all those present were as astonished as I was. Never before in my entire life, I had seen so many birds at once. Looking at gaping tourists, I knew they too were experiencing something similar.
Bloodshot eyes, distinct grey lock across the head
Noticing our alacrity one of the guides requested to not let eagerness be the master of our actions.
“Don’t get too close. You will disturb them. They will be as large to view even if you step a couple of metres back.” he cautioned. Demoiselle cranes however are the smallest of crane species in the world and possibly the grittiest. Filmed flying over Mount Everest itself in BBC’s Planet earth episode on Mountains, Demoiselle cranes brave journey of around 50000 Km’s in approximately 15 days through most grueling air turbulence, surviving the talons of seasoned predators like Himalayan golden eagles to reach here. Voice over By Sir Richard Attenborough (God Bless Him) explains :-
“Nepalese call it a mountain so high, no bird can fly above it. But each year over 50000 demoiselle cranes set out on most challenging migrations on earth”. “In Final ascent every wing beat becomes an exhausting struggle. At last they are over the highest barrier that lies in their way.”
In local folklore they are often depicted as messengers between lovers separated by impossible distances. Marwaris, as we know are native to Rajasthan and travel to distant lands for business. Birds of flight are often depicted as deliverers of messages . There is a story of Damayanti from Mahabharata in which her lover Nala sends a swan to Damayanti to sing his praises and make her enamored by him.
Painting By Raja Ravi Varma
Heeding to the guide’s advice I hid behind wall of a nearby Tridev temple to click some pictures of these magnificent birds.
A mongrel annoyed by their trumpets, quietly slipped into the pond and tried to ambush one bird. And in an instant, they rose in unison. Wings that had surmounted insuperable odds worked up a tornado. They formed a giant helix with one chasing the other. Their cries threw caution to the desert winds and combined wingspans eclipsed the sun. The hind legs of poor village dog were no match for their seasoned pinions which had overcome many an ordeal in their titanic journey. And they flew over me encircling me like a braid of milky way. It was such a thrilling moment. Another tourist who had till now been staring at the proceedings vacantly and devoid of any expression, suddenly broke into a fit of clapping. He went on till the cranes went higher and became but moving specks against the blue sky.
Mongrel annoyed by quacking
Formation of a gigantic murmuration
My time in Khichan was nearly over. I was wrong. This village was not featureless. Its forebears had cared for these birds with extraordinary tenderness which led to assemblies of such great numbers. And the tradition has been continued in what is a premium example of communal environmentalism.
I spent the night in Jodhpur with sounds of flapping wings still echoing in my ears.