Spring-watching in Rajasthan
Inside the tent, I hear the morning before I see it.
Chweep. Caoooo. Rutta-tat-tat-tattt.
A bird orchestra streams in through the patio, blurring the edges of my 6 a.m. dream. I wake up fresh but disoriented. Why does my tent have glass doors? A bed, a sofa, dimmers, and a wooden deck? Looking around, I’m swaddled in earth colours: taupe from the canopy cloth; cushions the colour of moss; bark-dark furniture; and gulmohar gold stitched onto the wings of sequin birds overhead. With a nudge from the February sun sliding down the skylight, I remember.
Time moves playfully at RAAS Chhatrasagar, a birding bubble built on the 130-year-old Chhatrasagar reservoir—the life-giving nucleus of Nimaj, Rajasthan. Luxury staycation with a side of wilderness sums up my weekend haunt, barely a three-hour drive from Jodhpur airport. My tent, third in a cluster of sixteen semi-permanent structures that make up the campsite, autosyncs with the dusty greens of acacia, soapberry and desert teak trees. Yet inside, there is the option of marinating fatigued limbs in a big-bellied bathtub, or picking up the phone to request laal maas for lunch (no room service). Welcome to glamorous camping—glamping, for the cool cats.
At breakfast, a visual affair with bajre ki kheech (millet porridge, with desi ghee and jaggery) and big blue slices of the lake, resident naturalist Bhanu Pratap Singh chalks out the day ahead. But first, some history lesson is in order. It all started in the late nineteenth century when local noble Thakur Chhatra Singh decided to dam a seasonal stream flowing through his estate. The idea was to harvest monsoon rains, an ambitious aid for the parched scrublands of Marwar. Indeed, with the construction completed in 1890, Chhatra Singh invited farmers to settle down around what would, over the centuries, evolve into prime agricultural land. As Nimaj thrived, its lush centre, with access to panoramic desert skies, played host to both passing birds and visiting dignitaries. Perhaps a natural extension of the high teas and starry dinners, Chhatrasagar was reimagined in its luxe camping avatar in 2019, when largely sustainable extensions were made to existing tent structures. “And here we are, one pandemic later, counting new birds of the season,” grins Bhanu, leading me into 1,500 acres of wild.
Even before you’ve made it out of the al fresco extension of the Baradari restaurant, wildlife grabs you by the wrist. From the deck chairs, you’ll spot coots and tufted ducks savouring the water, or red-wattled lapwings, streaking through. Walk away towards the neem groves, and a nor’wester of black drongos and parakeets may haze your vision. Coupled (white-throated) kingfishers, or copper-in-sun dazzle of the rufous tree-pie—it’s a throw of the dice. As we trek in, the cat-like whine of peacocks and periodic tik-tik of coppersmith barbets offer company; I learn to open my ears to the forest. With us is Asuram ji, pro birder and one of the many locals employed with the property. A striking figure in crimson turban, dhoti, and handlebar moustache, he regards my sky-starved-Mumbaikar enthusiasm with amusement, nodding gently as I lose it over peahens or squirrels giving chase.
Deeper in, sounds and colours amplify, adding depth to a super-ambient experience. Watching a purple sunbird, its oceanic plumes clashing against orange flame of the forest trees, you’d think Holi has come early. Add to that Mexican poppies, yellow and violet, or the scarlet blooms of thor (leafless milk hedge), whose cacti-like appearance lends major drama to the terrain. The path we walk too, is crumbly red, cutting through clumps of bushweed, gum and cotton trees. “We call this one oont kantalo,” says Bhanu, pointing at a burst of globe thistle. From a distance, its spiky ball-shaped flowers look like sea urchins, dyed purple, chilling on lanky stems. As the name suggests, the camels (oont) nurse a fondness for it. Plenty others are fond of the bounty of a fruiting forest—bulbuls flock to peck at ripening ber (jujube) and porcupines hanker after fruits from soapberry trees. These denizens, even when invisible, leave tell-tale touches across their turf. A dug-up mound of earth (wild boar), itty-bitty paw prints (jungle cat), or feathers strewn asunder (crow pheasant, ambushed by a raptor): there are clues everywhere. “You have to look for the signs,” Bhanu explains.
As a jungle detective, I’m a partial success. A greater spotted eagle and Eurasian eagle owl soar out of sight in the second it takes to grab my binoculars, and silverbills are a warm blur, spinning away. But I spot a tiny orange-streaked minivet, jazzy in its black suit and 70’s tangerine pants. I see black redstarts, marsh harriers, Brahminy starlings. The one I’m most proud of? A portly partridge that I catch crossing the road like a harried Bandra aunty. I watch skittish nilgais (blue bull) scamper, kicking up a dust storm in their wake. I hear babblers and thick-knees, noisier than my mother’s Zoom classes. I up the volume and lean into the crunch of leaves, wings splashing in water, and the thrum of thrashers husking grains just beyond the forest. Where the landscape shifts from dusty to sandy to grassy green, I linger to wander and wonder. I’d say Bhanu has trained me well.
Lunch is robust, and rooted in the soil. Mutton curry, pithod ki sabzi (chickpea flour dumplings in yoghurt gravy), and the piquant ker sangri (dried berry and bean sabzi) still jostling for space in my stomach, I descend down the stone steps of the lake. The sun is starting to look eggy, and when it sets we’ll be in the water, watching. Of course, the agenda is also to sail as close as possible to the colonies of water birds that inhabit this part of the lake, without disturbing them. Hanging on my life jacket, phone, and binoculars prove a bit too much, so I relax the carpe diem, focusing on nothing but the water and the sun.
As our oars slice into water that’s turned Rasna orange, I realise that calmness attracts its own kind of luck in the wild. Minutes into our ride, river terns swoop into vision, trading gossip above our heads. And I don’t need binoculars to admire the smooth, white strokes of great and little egrets flying about. “There’s an intermediate egret—larger than cattle egret and the little egret, but smaller than the great egret,” chips in Bhanu, exposing my joyride to the terror of mental Math. Skirting around submerged shrubbery, we come upon the intermediate guys, sitting mixed up with a flock of shiny, black cormorants. I’m told the entire lake would take a half a day to explore, and yet the small section we drift through seems endless. It’s getting cooler too. Away from the shore and its selection of more sociable birds, the lake switches from Disney to Tim Burton. Deadwood stand in the water, still and glistening, clouds of silver spider web tangled up forever. “Until two years ago, when a good monsoon flooded up the area, we’d row up to mudflats in the lake, set up for sunset picnics,” remembers Bhanu.
We don’t have an island to stop at, but our senses feast on chance sightings. A lonely osprey, two great white pelicans, and a swarm of rosy starlings. I had heard about the murmurtion of starlings. Birders rave about the aerial display of acrobatics the back-pink bird is known for, but seeing it up close exalts the imagery—Potter nerds, imagine baby dementors breaking out of prison. By the time we approach the shore, the sun is a red puddle, blotting out. Dragonflies are tailing our boat and cast in lamp light, RAAS looks resplendent in the distance. Bhanu tells me how during the end of the British Raj, Maharaja Hanwant Singh Rathore of Jodhpur had conferred with his men at the very site, to discuss the fate of the royal estate. Suddenly it makes sense. The rich hospitality, the sophistication of the tents (by Studio Lotus), are not some modern day brainwave. In Chhatrasagar, the present borrows from the past shamelessly—man and nature, bird and beast. And now, I’m a part of the tale.
My appetite for local history is tended to at dinner, over mouthfuls of shorba (meat stew), zingy imli baingan sabzi (tamarind and eggplant curry) and safed maas (meat cooked in yoghurt, poppy seed, and cashew nut). Bhanu tells me how the ker sangri I’d favoured the other night, now a culinary icon of the state, was actually fashioned out of dire circumstances—in the face of famines. Rajasthan’s complex relationship with resources and Chhatrasagar’s own past is also why one might believe its ethos to extend beyond the customary woke-talk of sustainability. Barring the air conditioning in the tents, likely retained for the extreme weather and the luxury clientele, most practices attempt an integration of eco-friendly elements. Backyard farming, indigenous building material (fabric from Jodhpur, rocks from Bur), repurposing of deadwood (as fencing, then as village firewood), water recycling, and a strict no-plastic policy—royal descendants and next door neighbours Nandi and Harsh Vardhan wouldn’t have it any other way. Neither would Bhanu, who’s worked as a guide and a conservationist at various Indian national parks, and just happens to be related to the royal lineage!
Birders’ Day Out
Royal sums up our foray into the wild come morning, this time in an roofless gypsy that screams: safari. Bumping and braking, we drive into the greens one last time, choosing a different route from that of our forest walk. Laughing doves and white-eared bulbuls kick off the sightings, the latter a scrubland cousin of the red-vented beauty often spotted in cities. We stop twice to stalk preening peacocks, and it pays off when I catch one in a brief moment of flight—”I didn’t know it could fly that high!” I exclaim, probably sounding like an idiot. The trail, arid and ochre on both sides, hosts a large number of thorny trees, of which angreji babool proves to be the big ticket. Pouring out of a spiny prosopis juliflora comes my first ever lark song—now I know Shelley wasn’t entirely hyperbolic. With a humbler, but more persistent background score, the Eurasian collared doves are always with us, like a jungle jam on infinite loop.
When the jeep runs on what monsoon claims as a part of the river bed, water birds, perhaps fishing for leftover pockets of water, start to make appearances. White-tailed lapwings, black-winged stilts, sandpipers and common snipes peck around, too busy to be shy. The ground here is stark white rubble, and rattling around in my seat, I almost miss the brilliant emerald of a green bee-eater. But by now my eyes are hawk-like (haha!), and a steady stream of show-offs—herons with long legs, slender paddyfield pipets, and the inky Indian robin—fill up our end-of-trip bounty. The cliched best of the last is prophecy is fulfilled on our way out, when a rosy starling ventures close enough for me to finally see the ‘rosy’ part of its anatomy. A pink, mellow as can be.
Back in the tent, I have two hours to pack for my flight from Jodhpur. I should hurry, but a printed note on my table catches my eye. Staring back in earnest black cursive is an excerpt from “The Peace of Wild Things,” by American poet Wendell Berry.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I check my watch, thrust some clothes into the backpack pell-mell, and draw up a chair at the waterfront. Sanitizers and masks can wait awhile. For now, I want to breathe.
To read and subscribe to our magazine, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.