The dragonfly flapped its transparent iridescent wings with a slow deliberate jerk, like the early swivel of a chopper’s rotator blades before taking off while I zoomed in carefully. Its dark head and bulbous eyes grew bigger and closer in the view finder. As the focus rim turned, the image grew clearer… There she was, holding onto a tall stalk by the bank, basking in the soft warm light of a November morn and then I clicked, and she was gone, buzzing her way along the bank in search of a corner where a man with a camera would not pry into her morning duties.
I followed her for as long as the eye could follow, out of the canopy of the trees by the bank and then lost her as the expanse of the lake, Sultanpur jheel, stretched out in front of me. It is early November, and many winter visitors are yet to arrive. It does not have the fairground look, with constant quacking and kroo-krooing of all the waders and new arrivals jostling for prime space on the lake, just yet. It is more like a sleepy Eden-like resort town, going about its easy business as it prepares for the tourist season.
Sultanpur National Park is not for you if a trip to Ranthambore is a waste of time if you do not get to see a tiger. The only large animal I have seen in all my visits over all these years is the ubiquitous nilgai. But the place has plenty of large birds. Flocks and flocks of painted stork dot the skies as they fly to and from their roosts, while the black necked stork is hard to spot because there is only a pair in the park. Egyptian ibis and spoon bills share space with egrets in the shallows while the meditative grey heron stands aloof, all by itself near a little grassy island.
Up on a dead tree sits a cormorant, its wet feathers glistening in the sun that has now gained strength. As it stretches out its wings for them to dry in the sun, the vignette of the bird, with wings out stretched on the naked tree against a still blue sky, acquired a stunning silhouette. I hurriedly changed lenses and trained the camera on the image and clicked and clicked till I felt I had gotten it right. I need not have rushed though, for long after I was done, bird, tree and sky remained like that, as if fused into one another.
Sultanpur’s joys however lie not in the sighting of a bird or tree, although that nutty species called birders might disagree (I once ran into an old birder friend of mine at Sultanpur who was hopping up and down with his digi-scope and joy for he had finally spotted a wood sand-piper. Infected by his enthusiasm, I asked him to point that rare jewel out to me. And so he lined up his digi-scope for me and with baited breath I panned the scope, and there it was – a rather unremarkable mid-sized brown bird with a slim and elegant bill scampering along the sand. I tried but failed to match his enthusiasm with my reaction. He packed up his scope and walked away with a “you’re not a birder, you wont get it” look. And I had to agree, I did not. But where was I, yes, Sultanpur’s joys… and yes they stretch far beyond the sighting of a particular species of bird or beast. The joy of wetland lies in the way along the path oothes all the senses. The water, the trees and the birds have a therapeutic effect on the body and the mind. If you are having a low day, go to Sultanpur (avoid the crowded weekends though) and I dare your spirits to not lift themselves up once you are there by the lake.
I will be lying however, if I did not admit to having a special agenda every time I go there. Actually every time, I am there, I hope to catch either the glorious and utterly beautiful sight of a pair of sarus cranes dancing.
Once long ago, while on a 2nd class train ride back from Kolkata, I was sitting near the window and watching the darkening clouds gather over the horizon. There were no farms nearby and the ground was a bare sandy brown and right next to the train, these two large birds were dancing, literally stepping in synchronised and apparently well choreographed steps, to the beat of their own calls that rent through the silent sky and the chugging train. I was a mere boy then and yet I remember the majesty of the moment in all its delicate detail. And hopes of seeing the resident pair at Sultanpur dance draw me to the park over and over again. Incidentally, saruses mate for life and are even said to die of pining and self-imposed starvation when its mate is killed or has died.
The other dark desire I harbour is a little more primal. I hope to catch two blue-bulls (male nilgai) lock horns in a battle for the right to love. I have heard a lot about the spectacle where rival males go down on their front knees as they wrestle for supremacy. And do not blanche, it is usually a bloodless affair which involves a lot of parrying and thrusting but little blood-letting.
But though I have never seen what I set out to see at Sultanpur, walking all alone into a tongue of land that juts into the marsh, away from all the visitors, and watching the sun set over the red and gold waters makes up for it all. The stillness and the magnificence of the moment is a precious gift that needs to be preserved. But Sultanpur is not free from woe. Poaching and drying up of the lake waters have been intermittent problems that have found a bit of space in the press but one consistent trouble that I have seen plaguing the park over the last decade and a half has been cattle grazing in the park. Catttle, unlike wild ungulates, uproot the vegetation that they feed on, and this, especially in the soft soil environment of the marsh can really change the character and composition of the park’s botanical values. This could be for both better or worse, but when uncontrolled it would always be rather damaging and could increase run-off and siltation of the lake.
Delhites, mired as we are in our smoggy concrete jungle, are fortunate to have access to this little eden in our backyard. Let our apathy not see it go the way of other wetlands in the region which have been neglected and drained, and once the birds have gone or driven off, ‘reclaimed’ for callous industrial or housing projects.
And while you mull over the pros and cons of the above comparison, I suggest you do that while admiring the sunset in Sultanpur. You will know which way your weight should go...