The land of Maharajas – Rajasthan has always been a favourite among the travelers from all over the world. The largest state of India has countless lesser-known destinations and hidden wonders. There are places with unique biodiversities – home to exquisite birds and mammals and unique flora. There are many locations where the rare migratory avian species are seen in particular seasons, making them heaven to wildlife and nature lovers. Travellers’ World explores a few of these lesser known destinations in Rajasthan through the eyes and words of real travelers and explorers. We begin our journey with Tal Chhapar, a sanctuary located in the Churu district in the Shekhawati region of Northwestern Rajasthan.
It came out quite unexpectedly in a conversation the other day !
Being an avid traveler and wildlife lover, there are hardly any known or little known Sanctuaries or national parks in India that we have not yet explored. My own fascination for mammals, my childhood friend Gaurav’s passion with bird photography and Yokesh’s mastery of landscape and videography have taken the three of us together to many exciting locations in different parts of the country.
So, that chilly Delhi winter morning as the conversation went from Cheetah to Brown beer to Black Rhino, Yokesh who hails from Bikaner, casually asked “have you guys clicked Black Bucks yet?” And it occurred to all three of us immediately, that, indeed, we missed photographing this amazing not so common species! Interestingly, the state animal of Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana the Indian Antelope Black Bucks are most commonly found in Tal Chhapar sanctuary in the Churu district of Yokesh’s home-state Rajasthan. Chappar is specially known for the high density of Blackbuck population along with a variety of Harriers and other birds.
Finally, on a foggy December dawn the three friends hit the road. Destination: Tal Chhapar – the kingdom of Black buck.
As the black Scorpio dashes through the NH-8, leaving behind the high rises of Gurugram, replacing them with green landscapes and farm lands around, I felt the familiar thrill of exploring the unknown, after a long gap, courtesy the Pandemic.
Well before reaching Ratangarh the landscape had changed to a typical desert look. Phoge and Kair bushes and Khejri (Prosopis cineraria), Babul trees are the only shades of green on the grey and reddish canvass touching the dark blue sky in the horizon. Gaurav stopped the car by a small tea shop. As soon as we stepped out of the car the tired souls immediately found a strange solace. The dry sandy grounds, very few people within miles, the empty charpai placed under a babul tree, a clean and chilling wind wiping the faces I felt a sense of contentment difficult to explain. Gagan singh, the man in charge there, looking at the boiling teapot informed us calmly “ temperature here goes extremely low in the night, sir”, “last night only it was minus five degree and my bucket of water turned ice by the morning,” he added.
As the GPS lady announced our arrival in the little town of Chappar, the clean and wide roads, road-lamps welcomed us. we knew we were already behind the schedule running. As the vehicle entered through the main gate of the beautiful forest guest house, the sun was closing up to the horizon. Amit Singh the forest staff was more than happy to show us the way inside the sanctuary to shoot the best view of the setting sun. Without wasting a minute we rushed to take the sunset beyond the expansive grassland horizon of Tal chappar sanctuary. Only a few minutes and the golden ball disappeared behind the horizon.The magical spectacle of blackbucks and blue bulls rambling around the vast savanna basking in the golden light of a descending sun slowly disappearing behind the rocky highlands are memories to remain stored for ever.
“Friends, enjoy the Arabian Nights fairy tale on a full moon night,” announced Gaurav as we stepped inside the Forest Guest house. It was indeed. As the temperature started falling rapidly, the moon clad silvery sky was adding a mystic unworldly effect to the typical heritage-Rajasthani architecture of the old forest guest house. We soon retired into the cosy bed after a simple but tasty vegetarian dinner hoping the coming days are going to be full of adventure.
The call of a domestic fowl somewhere near brought me back from a deep dream of the dawn. Yokesh was already out on the balcony with a hot cup of tea and his camera. As I joined him with my cup, I could not recall the last time when I enjoyed such bliss, peace and silence in a place far away from the mountains.
We stepped a few meters inside the Tal Chappar sanctuary and knew why this place is called a hidden gem of Rajasthan. Such a unique landscape with a trove of rare species creating a marvelous tapestry.
The sanctuary is a saline depression locally known as “Tal” that has its own unique ecosystem in the edge of the Thar Desert. An open grassland that spreads all over with sporadic Acacia and prosopis trees, the colour of the grass ( which changes significantly with the season) and clear blue sky with patches of milk-white clouds floating around give it a look of a typical Savanna. Ever since it was declared a national park in 1962, Tal Chhapar is an exemplary success story of succession conservation by the Rajasthan Forest Department. Tal Chappar is truly a slice of paradise. For an area of less than 10 square kilometers there are about 2500 estimated blackbuck population along with rarely seen species like Jungle cats, Desert fox, Desert jird, Chinkara, Spiny tailed lizards etc.
Umesh Ji , the forest Range Officer who was kind enough to accompany us that day pointed us towards the grass there. “This special grass is called ‘Mothiya’ which comes from moti or pearl. This is probably due to the shape of the seeds of this grass that somewhat resembles pearls. You can taste it, it is very sweet” he says with a smile. The production of Mothiya grass ( Cyperusrotundus) is limited to only a few small patches every season and is a favourite among blackbuck as well as birds which dig the tubers from the ground with their starks. Hypnotised with the virgin beauty of raw nature we were busy shooting a herd of around 100 black bucks when Umesh ji suddenly drew our attention towards a khejri tree. A Montagu’s Harrier sitting there while taking a stock of his territory. The habitat of Tal chappar with large open area for breeding and abundance of food, is ideal for this species and other harriers like Marsh Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Imperial Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Short-Toed Eagle, Sparrow Hawk.
Gaurav’s camera went on non stop clicking. Being a bird photographer, his face was so filled with excitement and could not even be bothered to talk to any of us ever since we entered the park. Meanwhile , we focussed on the star attraction, the elusive antelope, Black Buck. Looking at this safe haven for this wonderful creature it was hard to believe that once upon a time the area was used as hunting ground for the Maharaja of Bikaner. A Desert Thorn Forest with extremely low rainfall has been converted into a domain of unique biodiversity with rare animals and birds ( both resident and migratory) telling a story of a successful geo conservation. The thriving population of Blackbuck in the area with no real predators around, is a treat for nature and wildlife lovers. All three of us were so involved in taking photographs, enjoying nature and listening to the interesting stories from Umesh ji that we almost forgot the time. Suddenly we realised it was almost lunch time. We decided to explore the town after lunch.
All three of us had been to other places in Rajasthan before and yet, we all agreed that we had never tasted a more delicious dal-bati-churma’ meal before. Adding to that experience was the hospitality of guest house staff and we had those simple yet unforgettable local dishes at the guest house dining space. Post lunch we went to explore the surroundings. The palace of Maharaja of Bikaner is now converted into a school. As we approached the campus next to a beautiful lake full of Geese and a pair of large peacocks welcomed us right in the front of the iron gate of the palace school. On our way we met local Anandji who was escorting a group of photographers to the Gaushala area to photograph desert foxes. A jovial person, Anandji invited us to his home-stay for a cup of coffee, to which we readily agreed. The more we interacted with the local people there, the more we felt an organic bond between the people and the forest. The mutual respect and interdependence of man and animal reduces the man-animal conflict and helps in the sustainability of the ecosystem in this part of the state. There are about 15 villages near the sanctuary areas with a population of 43000 only with the lowest populated village Chadwas having a population of 6945.
Anand ji’s homestay could be an ideal nest for travelers looking for serenity close to nature and experience the way of the locals. A cosy and clean little house adjacent to the grassland has facilities for 6 people to stay comfortably. Local food is served. Anand ji who was born and brought up in the same village makes sure to take the guests to visit the sanctuary, photograph the animals and birds as well as help them to take a trip to nearby attractions like Balaji temple, salt processing unit etc. The warm-hearted gentleman would become a friend in no time.
As suggested by Anandji, by afternoon we reached a 400 hectares buffer area across the road, called ‘goshala’ by the local folk. The area lies outside the sanctuary and is a village pasture and offers a different landscape in contrast to the dense grassland inside the sanctuary. Here again are herds of Blackbucks roaming around unperturbed by the presence of our car, males guarding their territory. A pair of desert fox took an interest in the big tele lens of Yokesh before running back to their den by the bushes. Gaurav was delighted to spot Egyptian Vultures flying above. He could not hide his joys of triumph in this trip so far capturing all four types of Harries – Eurasian Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Montagu’s Harrier (C. pygargus), Pallid Harrier (C. macrourus), and Hen Harrier (C. cyaneus). We were told the golden grass turned into lush green during sept-oct and during that time along with many other migratory birds come Eurasian rollers (Coracias garrulus) which pass through the area, gorging on grasshoppers that thrive on the green grass.
The night could not have been better. With tired bodies but rejuvenated souls, we sat around the bonfire arranged at the Guest House ground, enjoying the almost surreal atmosphere of this little village in the Land of Maharajas under the starry night. Range Officer Umesh ji joined us and entertained us with buckets of stories from his experience in the forest and Rajasthan in general. “ Yes, there are lots to achieve in terms of making Tal chappar more prominent in the map of most sought after forest destinations in India. It is also true that we have come a long way from a hunting ground,water scarcity issues and pressure of urbanisation all around to today’s thriving ecosystem,” he said with pride gratification.
Last day of the trip. Hot alu paratha and achar charged our battery enough to start another eventful day. Today’s destination is Dungar Balaji temple. The temple is located on a hill top at 2100 feet above sea level. A 30 km drive from Chappar to Sujangarh will take you to this unique landscape of a high hill standing in the middle of desert. We could see the temple top from a long distance, it being the only highland in that area for miles. Yokesh told us the legends and history associated with this place last night and we were already feeling transported back in time. History says the temple was bult 500 years ago by the Maharaja of Bikaner.
Anyone going to Tal Chappar should not miss a chance to visit this place. The drive , the uphill view of this unique landscape, blue sky and of course the legendary temple make it more than worth a visit. On our way back , we stopped the car by a small lake full of water birds and at least a dozen peacocks playing around. Mesmerized by the beauty of this hidden gem of Rajasthan, our camera shutter never stopped clicking the magical sunset behind the temple with its golden beams spreading all across the lake water.
None of us wanted to bid adieu to a place like this but as we started our journey back at dawn the next day, piercing through the dense fog, we were content for now, we have seen it all !
GHAR GHAR OSUADHI YOJNA
In course of our visit ,one name that came into almost every conversation with villagers and local residents is Ghar Ghar Osuadhi Yojna.
Amidst the pandemic, a unique scheme was launched by the Rajasthan government, which was named Ghar Ghar Aushadhi Yojana. This innovative scheme which was started from 5th July 2021 for all the families of the state, has not only been accepted and appreciated by the people here, but they are all now speaking about how medicinal plants are distributed to all the families of the state by the Forest Department of Rajasthan. The plants include Tulsi, Giloy, Ashwagandha and Kalmedha. These four medicinal plants are distributed absolutely free of cost. The number of plants to be distributed district wise in the state is decided in advance. These plants are grown in nurseries under the supervision of the Forest Department.
It’s the foresight planning of the state government that ensured the distribution of these medicinal plants to every house and successfully communicating to people the benefits and the strength of boosting immunity through the use of simple home made preparations to fight against a wide range of common ailmenets.
The salient feature of the scheme are :
- Medicinal plants are raised by the forest department in nurseries and distributed free of cost to the families of the state. Each family is eligible to receive 24 plants in 3 years.
- Distribution of medicinal plants is done through Panchayat, Municipality, Municipal Corporation, Tehsil and other departments.
- The communication strategy is aimed at creating awareness about conservation of these medicinal herbs and how to use them effectively as a part of wellness.
- This scheme will run from 2021 to 2024.