Kheechan is a quaint little village in Western Rajasthan that sleeps for five months. Then suddenly, it wakes up on a September morning when the first lot of about 20 migratory birds rent the air with a deafening 'kraaw-kraaw'. These birds, known as demoiselle cranes or kurja in Rajasthani, come all the way from Mongolia. Their number keeps increasing till it reaches a staggering 15,000 in January. In February, they start going back home in wave after noisy wave. And once the last bird flutters away, Kheechan becomes silent and goes to sleep again.
The reason why so many of these birds land in Kheechan, year after year is due to the tireless efforts of Ratanlal Maloo, known as the Birdman of Kheechan.
When I first came here to witness the avian spectacle of thousands of demoiselle cranes descending on a mere 1,000 square metres of the Chugga Ghar, I had the fortune of meeting this legend.
Sitting under the shade of a 200-year old khejri tree near his house, he explained how it all happened. What started innocuously as a Jain ritual of feeding birds, finally became a global phenomenon. From a mere 10 demoiselle cranes, the number rose to an astronomical 15,000 in 40 years, as word spread in Mongolia about a gentle soul who feeds them lovingly, whatever be their number. Locals say that some of these wild cranes allowed Malooji to actually feed them by hand. Surely, such trust that can only be built over many decades of compassion.
Malooji acknowledged the role of his Jain community in sustaining this amazing ecological effort. Imagine this. To feed 15,000 birds for the five months of their stay, you need 1,40,000 kilos of grain; and that costs somewhere in the region of 85 lakh rupees, every year! Though the grains came from traders across India, it was Malooji who single-handedly executed the act of feeding them religiously.
Unfortunately, in July, I received a call from his wife Sundarbai that Malooji is no more. And I dreaded the fact that come September, thousands of cranes would land in Kheechan as they have in the past, and would suddenly feel orphaned.
So the following December, I travelled to Kheechan. And I met Sewaram Mali, a young man of 35, who offered a room in his house for my wife, my son and myself. He assured me that all is well in Kheechan. When the 77-year-old Malooji realized that his arthritic legs couldn’t carry him anymore to the Chugga Ghar, he trained a Rajput named Gangaram Kadela to carry on the feeding. The Jain community continued its generous contribution of grains under the watchful eyes of a trust. But newer problems still needed to be tackled on the ground.
But to Sewaram, this was nothing new. For over a decade he and his team of young birdmen, which included Bhojraj and Raanoo, has been doing their best to protect the birds and their habitat, and in controlling the ever-increasing flow of visitors. If at all a kurja died in the village, he would even get a post-mortem done to ascertain the cause of death.
For this, Sewaram was conferred the prestigious Sanctuary Asia Award for Wildlife Service.
Sitting on his terrace that offers a ringside view of the spectacle, he shares the routine of the birds. He has been maintaining a meticulous record of the arrival of the first flock to the last, including the timing of their arrival at the Chugga Ghar and their departure from there, and their daily numbers.
Anyone is free to walk into his terrace; he charges no money for this or for the ‘chaay’ he offers with love. At his own cost, he takes the cranes injured by vicious dogs to the vet, and keeps them at home till they recover and are strong enough to join their flock.
In the past, he has fought with the state electricity board to remove open electric lines that were put up in their flight path. And he got the local land mafia to remove the shanties that they had put up perilously close to the Chugga Ghar.
The cranes spend the night in a salty landscape called Malhar Rinn, about 25 kms from Kheechan. And just before sunrise, they fly to the sand-dunes overlooking the Chugga Ghar. After the entire flock of a few thousand gather on the dunes, they slowly march towards the Chugga Ghar, a kilometre away.
Here they wait outside the enclosure patiently, for almost an hour. Meanwhile a group of about 30 of them encircle the place, making sure it’s safe to land. Once the leader of this group lands, the entire entourage follows. And then all heaven breaks loose! The demoiselle cranes, after a sumptuous meal, fly off to the two lakes at the periphery of the village: Vijaysagar Lake and Raatdi Naadi. Here they sip the water from the lake and then gobble copious quantities of the pebbles that lie on the lakeshores. Since the grains they eat are whole grains, these pebbles act as grinding stones and make it easier for them to digest them. Then they have a dip in the lake, and the more romantic among them indulge in ballet-like mating dances. Just before sundown, they call it a day. And fly off to Malhar Rinn to spend the night standing on one leg. This routine continues till March, when one day, without a warning, they fly off to the land of their birth, in the thick of the night.
Of the 50-odd places where the cranes land, Kheechan is the most popular because of the food they get here, and the protection that’s accorded here. Or it’s simply because the villagers treat them as their own kids. In fact the farmers here refer to their newly-married daughters as ‘kurjadi’! That may be because like the demoiselle cranes, they too will migrate to faraway lands, only to come back next year. Year after year.
How to reach
Take the road from Jodhpur to Phalodi, which is 135 kms to the north. Kheechan is 10 kms to the east of Phalodi. The base could be Phalodi, or Osian which is on the halfway mark on the Jodhpur-Phalodi Road.
Where to stay: If you are fine with basic stay next to the Chugga Ghar. Call Sewaram on 09982372596. There are more hotels in Phalodi and Osian. Check out on www.rajasthan_tourism.org
When to go: Dec-Jan is the peak migratory season