Radio carbon dating of pottery shards suggest that people lived and worked here around 1000 B.C. Geologists say that a major river used to water the region and an artesian well at a village called Mallah (which means boatman) further underscores this possibility. Less than a kilometre west of the sanctuary, hunting implements including harpoons, spears and swords were discovered. These are estimated to be 3,000 years old, suggesting that elephants, wild buffaloes and even rhinos were found here in the Copper Age of India.
Historians suggest that the plains of Bharatpur were contiguous with the jungles of Kanua, the site of the famous battlefield where Emperor Babar defeated Rana Sangha of Mewar. We also know that Babar laid the foundation of the Moghul Empire here on March 16, 1527. That both Agra and Fatehpur Sikri are so close further suggests that the area was the virtual centre of the Moghul rule during their Golden Age.
Interestingly, the 17th Century court painter Mansur painted a fairly accurate depiction of a Siberian Crane, suggesting that the birds visited these wetlands, but that they were nevertheless rare enough for an artist of his repute to single them out for special consideration.
According to the late Kailash Sankhala, a renowned forest officer who took charge of Keoladeo Ghana in 1954, the British used to shoot at the Keoladeo Jheel when Raja Kishen was just two years old. He suggests that it was the influence of the British that led the Maharaja to create a shooting preserve, as under normal circumstances a ruler might have prevented anyone from shooting so close to a temple. But this was what was done in the 19th century and for all the criticism of cruelty and bloodlust that modern-day animal rights activists might hurl, the fact is that without the incentive for duck shooting, this World Heritage Site would never have been created.
No less than Lord Curzon himself, together with Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchner, inaugurated the first duck shoot in Keoladeo Ghana when it was officially opened on December 1, 1902. A plaque still standing in the sanctuary reveals that the party of 17 shooters killed 540 birds on that one day. Other entries reveal that a retinue of VIPs came here to shoot duck, including King Edward VIII (when he was the Prince of Wales) and later Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy and Governor General of India (4,273 birds in a day).
After Independence, every high official in government demanded and most often won the right to shoot here. But because the habitat remained vibrant, the birds just kept coming in. But clearly the bloodlust was taking a toll because the number of birds able to be killed in a day fell by 90 per cent. In 1956 the area was finally declared a bird sanctuary, but shooting was only stopped in 1964. However, the Maharajah himself retained personal shooting rights all the way through to 1972, when the Wildlife (Protection) Act made it illegal. Bharatpur was declared a Ramsar site in October 1981. The area was declared a National Park in 1982 and a World Heritage Site in December 1985.
The devout believe that Keoladeo Ghana is part of Braj Bhoomi, the playground of Lord Krishna. That this is holy ground can best be gauged by the fact that Mathura the legendary birthplace of Lord Krishna is a mere 40 km. distant and Brindavan, his famed playground, is a mere 15 km. away. Depictions of ancient Krishna legends show wetlands populated by egrets, crocodiles, cobras and pythons. Somehow, the legends seem to fit in with the presumed natural history of the area.
This is arguably one of the most unique bird habitats on the earth. Those who knew him confirm that Dr. Sálim Ali, the grand old man of ornithology, was happiest here, in the midst of nature and the birds he lived to study and enjoy.
The Keoladeo Jheel existed here long before the Maharaja of Bharatpur constructed man-made dykes to attract birds for the duck shoots. For this purpose the jheel was divided into 10 units, each with its own sluice gates to control water levels. The extra water came from the nearby Ajan Bund, a 10 km. long weir, which, when it filled the lowland area, caused a whole new world to emerge in the shape and form of a magnificent marsh. Expert naturalists planted trees for birds to roost on. And water levels were carefully adjusted to suit the personal preferences of the thousands of birds of all shapes and sizes (that came like lemmings on a suicide mission to be shot).Sluices, canals and dikes from the Ajan Band inundate the Ghana twice each year in July and September to a water depth of between one and two metres (at Sapan Mori). But even today, few people really understand just how crucial catchment protection of the Gambhir and Banganga rivers are to the survival and long-term success of this bird haven. If these watersheds are not protected over-siltation would quickly result and the sheer amount of water required to keep the wetland ecology going (almost 11 sq. km. of the park goes underwater after the monsoon) would be dangerously reduced.
As the water levels start to fall from October onwards, new land features surface, with new food sources on offer to different birds. This slow transition is another reason why the diversity of birds is so high (just under 400 species). By June relatively few water sources remain and only die-hard avians are able to survive, with the competition having driven other species to greener pastures.
Every few years the monsoon fails. This makes the terrain even more difficult for the birds because the shallow pools disappear completely. This too is key to the ecology of the Ghana for waterlogged trees are given a chance to recover and grow more robust. On the bunds, which are really nothing more than embankments that separate different marshes, babul trees grow profusely and these provide perfect nesting sites for a variety of birds including parakeets. The soil is predominantly alluvial, but some of it is clay that is carried in thanks to regular inundations.
The Ghana Canal runs from northeast to northwest virtually bisecting the sanctuary in half. A metalled road further divides the park along another alignment (north to east). Smaller raised paths and walkways have also come to be lined with trees and these can take walkers deep into the wetlands.
Ghana simply means "dense". It possibly refers to the forests that may have covered the present area once. The park lies 370 m. above sea level and constitutes wetland, woodland, swamp, scrub and pasture. Wetlands comprise half the area, while the others occupy the rest. The aquatic vegetation of the marshes is rich and provides a valuable food source for waterfowl. Plant species include water lilies the true lotus, duckweed, water fern, sedges and lesser reed mace. Wild rice grows in parts, attracting birds. The other vegetation is typical of a semi arid zone dominated by babul, ber, khejri, kadam and peepul. About 44,000 trees in this park are used for nesting.
In Bharatpur, you will encounter squirrels whose whistles are often mistaken for birds. Wild pigs, snouts in the mud, search for tubers and nutritious roots. Sambar are found especially in the wetter areas, with nilgai, chital and blackbuck dominating the drier areas. Mongoose are major robbers of nests. Rhesus macaques are found here as also the Indian porcupine and the blacknaped hare at night. Otters and fishing cats, that feed on fish species such as rout, saran, murrel and bata are found here.
Jackals can be heard howling at night through the park and with luck you could see a small fishing cat, a jungle cat or a leopard cat. A small population of striped hyena, Bengal fox and small Indian civets also exist here.
Indian rock pythons, common cobras, Russell's vipers, common kraits, common wolf-snakes, blind snakes, checkered keelbacks, sand boas, common monitor lizards, calotes, skinks and turtles are some of the important reptiles of the park. An incredible number of tiny creatures buzz and zing across the waters including dragonfies, damselflies, butterflies and water beetles. Species that prey on them such as praying mantises and spiders also thrive here.
This is one of the world's best-studied wetland ecosystems. If ever you need to be well equipped with binoculars, telescope and photography equipment it is here. Nesting for resident birds, coincides with the arrival of the monsoon, which brings in its wake all the food that hungry chicks need for their development. In the crowded heronries, raucous 'fights' are commonplace as birds jostle for the best breeding sites and for nesting material. Half-submerged trees seem almost like they are bending with the weight of birds in August. At this time herons, cormorants, egrets and shags are all competing for space with each other for such nesting sites. Often different birds share nests in sequence (particularly in the case of raptors) and often Asian Openbills and Painted Storks nest within a couple of metres of each other. Till the young ones are able to take off and fend for themselves (around November/December), there is a constant race to grab food from the magical swamps that provide a virtual buffet comprising such exquisite aquatic offerings as snails, tadpoles and frogs, beetles, crustaceans and molluscs.
Jacanas use the floating vegetation, treading like ballerinas on the broad leaves that spread across the water bodies. Such vegetation is also used by them to lay their eggs, safe from terrestrial invaders. By October when migrant birds start to arrive, so do migrant birdwatchers! The latter in search of geese, duck such as Gadwal, Wigeon, Shoveller, Garganey, teal and pochard. Around now Rosy and Dalmatian Pelicans also arrive to compete with resident Grey Pelicans for fish stocks.
Sandpipers, redshanks, plovers and snipes can be spotted wading on the edges of the marshes. Scrub and forest species also support migratory birds such as warblers and tits. The most charismatic and rare bird is, of course, the Siberian Crane. Its well-studied behaviour and movements suggests it arrives after travelling 6,400 km. from its Siberian home and that it stays till March to feed and rest before making the long journey back home for the summer. Unfortunately, the Siberian Crane, with whom Bharatpur is synonymous, has stopped arriving here since 2004. Hunting along their staging grounds in Afghanistan and Pakistan (where the migrating cranes are readily hunted) is believed to be the main cause for their disappearance.
One reason why this miraculous bird haven is able to support such a large number of birds is that each species eats different foods and this reduces competition between them. For instance, Spoonbills prefer molluscs and weeds, herons gulp down fish in shallow water, geese graze like cows in a meadow while pelicans, cormorants and Darters fish in deeper waters. Quite separately, raptors such as kites, harriers, eagles and falcons are able to hunt rodents, snakes, lizards and, when they can get to them, young birds in nests.
Away from the winter migration season, birdwatchers can concentrate on such species as herons, moorhens, cormorants, Pied Kingfishers, owls, drongos and Darters. These birds tend to nest on suitable trees soon after the month of March, while lapwings and curlews nest on the ground in the hottest months, keeping company with bright yellow weaver birds that busy themselves stripping long grass 'threads' to craft their nests.
As water sources dry up, Sarus Cranes, the world's tallest flying birds, are attracted to the Ghana from far and near. In March and April perhaps around 400 individuals populate the park, but they start moving out again when the monsoon arrives and water is easily available elsewhere. Perhaps around two or three dozen mating pairs stay back and their breathtaking courtship dances around July, when their sonorous calls float over the swamps, are wondrous to watch.
A checklist of some of the birds of Bharatpur:
Waterbirds (wetlands): Painted Stork, cormorant, egret, Asian Openbilled, Black-headed Ibis, Darter, Shoveller, teal, Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Ruddy Shelduck, Demoiselle and Sarus Cranes, Gadwall, Pintail, Mallard, Coot, Purple Moorhens.
Raptors: King Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Marsh Harrier, Crested Serpent Eagle, Ring-tailed Fish Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Pallas's Fish Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Collared Scops Owl, Spotted Owlet, Dusky Horned Owl.
Others: Lark, pipit, kingfisher, dove, myna, bulbul, Blue Jay, oriole, Plum-headed Parakeet, Hoopoe, shrike, bee-eaters, wagtails, finch.
Migrants: Siberian Crane, Steppe Eagle, Pale and Marsh Harriers, Osprey, Common Teal, Indian Little Ringed Plover.
The best time to view wildlife is often before dawn. But with so much nesting activity, there are always some birds on the hunt for food to feed hungry chicks, looking for material to build nests, courting or preening. One can walk or cycle or use the boat so the pace of activity is entirely one's own. The whole day can effectively be used to spend in the outdoors.
The heronry 500 m. west of Shanti Kutir is a great place to bird watch if you are willing to hire a boat for a hour or two. From here a trip to the Keoladeo temple by rented rickshaw or bicycle is a wonderful way to enjoy the forest.
Cycle rickshaws must be hired at the entrance to visit Keoladeo, Kadam Kunj, and Python Point (where you are very likely to see one of the snakes!).
Ram Bund Trail is a 2.5 km. stretch from Shanti Kutir to the jetty, leading towards a heronry and terminating at the forest Lodge.
The Brijendra Bund Trail stretches six kilometres from Keoladeo Temple to Kadam Kunj, around Brijendra Bund, passing Python Point and returning to the Temple.
The Sapan Mori Trail stretches for eight kilometres beginning at Shanti Kutir extending to the jetty, turning south west and then turning south east to meet Sapan Mori. This then joins the tarred road that brings you back to Shanti Kutir.
Most bunds on which babul trees grow are excellent places to sit and quietly view birds. Most serious ornithologists tend to concentrate much of their time birding in the southern part of the park.
Visit the small exhibit at the park entrance consisting of photos, stuffed birds and aquatic flora found in the park.
Lohagarh is an 18th Century fort supposed to be impregnable, therefore the name Iron fort. The founder king of Bharatpur built it and also constructed two towers within to commemorate his victories over the Mughals and the British. It occupies the heart of Bharatpur town. There is also a museum inside that exhibits sculpture, paintings and stuffed animal trophies from a bygone age. Open daily except on Fridays.
Bharatpur lies within the Golden Triangle of Agra, Delhi and Jaipur and is a favourite stop for most tourists. It is easily accessible from Agra and Delhi. Some other interesting places nearby are: Deeg, the summer retreat of the princes of Bharatpur. The east wing of the palace Gopal Bhavan is one of the most well proportioned constructions of the Rajput and Mughal styles of architecture. The verrandahs that overlook the water of the Gopal Sagar tank are an architectural marvel. The intricate network of hundreds of fountains scattered in the palace gardens is functional and in use even today. It is open from 8-5 p.m. daily.
Dhaulpur is famous for the red sandstone used for building the Red Fort. Close by is the Jhor garden and Mach Kund Lake. Both are worth a visit.
Most rickshaw drivers are fair birdwatchers, but don't hesitate to quiz them before choosing the one you think best suits you (Rattan Singh, if he is free, is an absolute whiz!) If you enjoy cycling yourself, hire one from a convenient hotel and take a packed lunch into the park, where you can spend hours at a stretch.
Don't forget to take along good headgear because even the winter sun can burn.
A snack bar that also offers hot tea, near the Keoladeo temple can be a godsend (do ask him to stop stocking plastic-packaged goods!).
Remember to arrange for mineral water, mosquito repellent and carry a hat and a good pair of binoculars.
Travel by rickshaws authorised by the government. Only these are allowed inside the park. Tongas and boats are also available.
Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden, Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur. Tel.: 05644-22722.
Tourist Reception Centre, Hotel Saras (RTDC), Agra Road, Bharatpur. Tel.: 05644-22542.
October to February is the best time, for the migratory birds are there as well as the residents. But the park is a treat all year round.
Summer temperatures reach a maximum of 470C and a minimum of 350C. In winter the temperatures reach a maximum of 350C and a minimum of 50C The monsoon precipitation is about 69 cm.
In August local birds start their nest building and rear their young for the next few months. October/November is when the migrants arrive. Most stay till March including the Siberian Crane. Ground nesters like the lapwings and curlews nest in summer and this is also when cranes show their amazing courtship dance. The weaverbirds build their pendulous nests just before the rains and hundreds of them are found in the park, a bank of ceaseless activity.
ITDC Bharatpur Forest Lodge: It is inside the park, one km. beyond the entrance. There is a restaurant open to outsiders. Tel.:05644-722/22760/22864. Mumbai Tel. : 022-2023343.
RTDC Hotel Saras: Tel.:05644-23700. It is within walking distance of the park entry point and is very popular. For reservations contact: The Manger, RTDC Central Reservations System, Hotel Swagatam Campus, Near Railway Station, Jaipur. Tel.: 0141-203531/202586; Fax: 0141-201045.
Laxmi Vilas Palace, Agra Road. Tel.: 05644-25259.
Shanti Kutir (Forest Rest House) is situated inside the park. Tel.: 05644-22777.
By Air: Agra, 54 km. away is connected to all major cities.
By Rail: Bharatpur lies on the Mumbai-Delhi sector of Western Railway. The Fatehpur Janta Express leaves New Delhi at 2 p.m. and arrives at Bharatpur station at 6.15 p.m. It departs from Bharatpur at 8 a.m. reaching Delhi by 12.30 p.m.
By Road: Agra is 54 km. away. There are regular buses to Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur and Deeg. Other options include Alwar 117 km., Deeg 32 km., Delhi 182 km., Fatehpur Sikri 22 km., Jaipur 174 km., Mathura 36 km. and Sariska 130 km.