Sunday, March 28, 2004

GAJNER: Gateway to avian encounters
Chetna Keer Banerjee

A view of Gajner Lake. The palace is on the left
A view of Gajner Lake. The palace is on the left.
— Photo by the writer

GAJNER is an oasis with a difference tucked away in the desert state of Rajasthan. With its lush palm and peepul-lined avenues, it resonates with the sound of a thousand birdcalls. A country cousin of the better known nature spots of the state like the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, this retreat, about 40 km from Bikaner, is a treasure trove of avian and animal life spread over a 6000-acre expanse.

The shimmering lake on the fringe of the pink sandstone Gajner Palace that once played host to shikar parties of Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh of Mewar and British dignitaries now teems with avian visitors in winter. The stone slabs etched with names of the birds hunted and proudly laid out for display on the palace grounds in earlier times may well bear concrete testimony to a bygone era. But the multitude of ducks and cranes in the lake speak volumes about how the tide of time has turned in their favour. Bird names like the gadwall, pintail, mallard, red crested pochard, shoveller, etc engraved in this paved enclosure now serve more as a catalogue of the bird species that abound on the shores of Gajner’s man-made lake.

Not only is its lake a popular watering hole for swarms of migratory from freezing sub-arctic climes, Gajner also attracts tourists to its palace that has now been converted into a hotel. Its intricately designed jharokhas and arched corridors are a window to a glorious past. The historic Dungar Niwas with British manor-type royal suites, the sprawling Mandir Chowk where visiting dignitaries were received, the Mrigtrishna bar with its gilt-framed mirrors, jali-work carpets and chandeliered ceilings, and the lakeside Mirage restaurant with its stuffed animal trophies evoke the era of shikar and royal grandeur.

Northern pintails are found in large numbers in the lake
Northern pintails are found in large numbers in the lake

Migratory birds on the shore of Gajner Lake
Migratory birds on the shore of Gajner Lake

The solar-powered boat is a special attraction
The solar-powered boat is a special attraction

Besides these slices from history, the retreat also boasts of a solar-powered water taxi. The solar boat, which embodies the environmental concerns of the present House of Mewar, headed by Arvind Singh of Udaipur, is often used to ferry visitors across to the sanctuary beyond the lake.

Christened Solar Gajner, this water taxi symbolises the confluence of scientific innovation with contemporary ecological needs in a historical setting. On the photovoltaic panels lining its top hangs a tale. It is one in a series of solar water taxis whose idea was born on a paper napkin when Malcolm Moss from the UK made its rough sketch and showed it to the Maharana of Udaipur in the 1990s. This idea first took shape as Solar Pichola that traverses the waters of Udaipur’s Lake Pichola and later the form of Solar Gajner.

This noise and pollution-free boat takes tourists into the heart of the lake from where a closer peep can be had through binoculars at the feathered friends forming a whitish fringe on the edge of the lake. Among the commonly sighted birds here are the northern pintails. Part of the family of whistling ducks and geese, these friendly birds move around in big groups, nibbling at the water surface for food. They are often confused for the northern shovellers that also abound here but are smaller and different in shape. The pochards too belong to the duck family and the one’s habiting this lake are the red crested pochard and the white crested pochard.

Perhaps the one species which is synonymous with Gajner is the imperial sandgrouse or the black-bellied sandgrouse. For over a century, this place has served as a breeding and nestling haven for this stocky, short-tailed winged traveller. The palace terrace that juts into the lake is named after this avian visitor and aptly so, for it affords a panoramic view of the birds that crowd the skyline.

The other species to look out for are the flamingoes and the long-legged, black-necked demoiselle crane, the latter referred to locally as kurja. This feathered creature occupies the same place in Rajasthani folklore which is often ascribed to the kabootar as a messenger of love.

The sanctuary beyond, once the royals’ hunting ground, now stands preserved as a habitat of various wildlife species of antelopes like the chinkara, the black buck, wild boar, neelgai and jackal. Legend has it that even the shikar-loving Maharaja Ganga Singh had shades of an environmental conservationist in him. Once when he learnt that a certain deer species was afflicted by salt deficiency, he got slabs of rock salt tied to trees in the sanctuary for their cure.

The jeep and camel safaris are the popular means of exploring the sanctuary though the palace-hotel even provides cycles to trail the peacocks and sprightly chinkaras that dart into view on the sandy sanctuary floor as well as the palace courtyards.

For the city-stressed tourists weary of life in the fast track, these leisurely safaris and boat rides and the stay at Gajner afford a pleasurable, albeit expensive, way to shift life into slow gear.

This feature was published on February 7, 2004