Dance of the Demoiselle Crane, Kichan Rajasthan

The Migratory Demoiselle Cranes Gather to feed at Khichan Village, Rajasthan. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

(Published first in the Mumbai Mirror, April 2014.)

Photos and text by Sanjay Austa

It’s that time at dawn  when  the  dark blues begin to  ooze out of  the  blackness of the sky.  In the dusty, nondescript Khichan village in western Rajasthan ,  the  first of the temple bhajans have begun  their low-volume drone aimed seemingly not at stirring the faithful to worship but lulling them further into somnolence.

But even before the liturgies can crackle into life, the dark-blue  sky begins to erupts in squeaks,  at first distant and faint but soon  nearer, shriller and urgent. And before long, they   overwhelm any sounds emanating from the village making sleeping  impossible.  In a near-perfect V formation , wave after wave of  silhouetted   demoiselle cranes descend on Khichan announcing their arrival. At first they arrive in groups of a dozen but as the morning progresses, multitudes of them fly in,  blackening the brightening sky.

Until a decade or two ago,  Khichan was just another forgotten village 144 kilometers north-west of Jodhpur. Today  its on the world map,  famous as the Demoiselle Crane Village,  attracting bird lovers, photographers and tourists  alike from India and abroad.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

It all began in the early 1980’s when the Jains of the village  began putting out bird feed.  This attracted the migratory demoiselle cranes who at that time did not number more than 200 at the feeding grounds.  But after decades of sustained feeding , as many as 20 thousand of them arrive here each winter charting a long perilous journey from Mongolia and Eurasia. The first of the birds begin to trickle in by late August. By January they are 20 thousand strong.  And as the temperatures begin to soar in Rajasthan in March,  all fly back with very few remaining till early April.

The village has apportioned a fairly largish feeding enclosure  for the demoiselle cranes , named so, as per some accounts by none other than Queen of France,  Mary Antoinette ( of the Let- them- eat- cake fame) for their maiden -like elegance and coyness. Locally however,  they are known simply as Kurja. They have been traditionally revered in this part of Rajasthan and find mention in folk songs going back almost a hundred years.

The feeding enclosure sits amidst a row of houses,  wire-meshed on two sides and walled on the others.  The cranes  are shy and tentative even though they have been performing the same ritual in Khichan for years.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

They let the pigeons have a go first while they swoop down on empty lots around  the feeding enclosure. Most of them however roost on the  sand dunes abutting  the enclosure , from where they take off  intermittently in batches,  flying over  the feeding ground as if checking if its time to land and feed.

Gathered in huge groups,  the demoiselle cranes, the smallest of the crane species, are a pleasure to watch. They move this way and that together,  like in a ballet,  their wide red eyes sparkling in the morning sun.

Its not until 8-30am, almost two hours after they have flown in, when they begin to descend into the feeding enclosure. But its always in  batches as if they are aware there isn’t space for them all. They feed , they fly and circle , they roost until about 11-30 when everyone has had their fill. After which they ascend higher and higher into the thermals and by late afternoon vanish, leaving Khichan  gutted in silence.

These shy birds don’t stay on in the village in the evening. They spend the evening and night in the water logged plains  or salt beds 30kms off Khichan.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

I met a man at the salt beds who said  he regularly rescues the injured demoiselle cranes , attacked often by feral dogs in the salt beds, taking them on his bike to the animal- care center in Khichan.

Sevaram, whose house adjoins the feeding enclosure is a militant bird campaigner known for uprooting any electricity poles that  comes in the demoiselle crane’s path.

This is all in keeping with the  Rajasthani people’s age old love for the wild,  many of them,  like the Bishnoi community revering all living things including plants as part of their  religious tenant.

 “ If we have a problem we can speak. These birds cannot. Therefore they deserve all our attention and empathy”, says Sevaram.

Its is because of this affection that more and more demoiselle cranes are coming to Khichan every winter. But no mater what their number, the  villagers make sure they have laid out enough bird-feed to feed them all.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

2 Responses to “Dance of the Demoiselle Crane, Kichan Rajasthan”

  1. Aakash Karnawat says:

    Hi Sanjay,

    Myself ‘Aakash Karnawat’, I’m perusing bachelors in Urban & Regional Planning from School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal. Presently working upon my thesis, a rural tourism plan for the desert circuit of rajasthan (i.e. Jaisalmer-Jodhpur-Bikaner region). For a pilot project study I’ve taken Khichan Village near Phalodi in Jodhpur District of Rajasthan.

    I was just going through some of your photographs of Khichan village. The way your captures describe the relation Khichan village and the demoiselle crane share, it’s almost like an actual experience, for a moment I felt as if I’m back in the village embracing the exquisite of nature.

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