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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Memories of Sambhar

The death-scarred lake once bristled with birds of all feathers

Written by Ranjit Lal |
December 22, 2019 6:31:22 am
Sambhar Lake, Sambhar Lake tourism, ranjit lal column, ranjit lal, indianexpress, sundayeye, eye 2019, Ratan Talao, largest saline lake in India, Greylag Geese over Sambhar Lake. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

This year, Sambhar Lake, the largest saline lake in India, and a winter destination for thousands of migratory birds, especially waterfowl, has become a place of mass death. Way back in November 1994, I visited the place and spent three days there. I’ve just excavated the notes I made during the visit. Here are some extracts from what I’d written then: Sambhar Lake (and Salt Lake City) lies about one-and-a- half hours north of Jaipur and has been used for the extraction of salt for over 1,000 years since the time of Prithviraj Chauhan. About 20 per cent of the lake has been dammed for salt extraction. The only modes of transport are the system of rail-run trolleys and jeep.

Rattled over the dam in trolley no. 1, powered by a Greaves Lombardi diesel engine — a totally jugaad product. The horizons here are as wide as those on the beach, the brackish smell also littoral — the only missing feature here is the sighing of the waves themselves. Looking westwards from the dam, a vast hazy blue expanse stretches away — part mud, part water and part mirage. A small flock (around 200) of shovellers snooze contentedly in the foreground and sandpipers, stilts, redshank and other long-legged, long-beaked waders patrol the muddy edges. They are wary birds and have obviously been hunted. The ubiquitous black-winged stilts pottered about everywhere — especially in the filthiest-looking pools. Green sandpipers preferred the algae-saturated parts — where the water was a deep magenta, like the effluent from a distillery. At the far end of the western section, a craggy hillock rose, at the base of which stood the gleaming white Shakambari temple. Bird life here seemed sparse, and, in the saline salt pans, non-existent.

We set off next morning shortly after sunrise along the edges of the lake, towards the temple. Two small fresh water-bodies lay enroute — one called the Ratan Talao, the other too small to have a name, but proved to be the most promising. Ratan Talao hosted a pair of infinitely serene great crested grebes, coasting along with heads held high, straight-necked and graceful. The other water body is used for drinking by sand grouse.

We drove across the lake bed edging as close as we could to the water without getting stuck: Once the jeep sinks in, there’s no getting out. Beneath the thin crust, it’s all gooey mud! After darshan at the temple, headed out into the blue: And there, at last, a shimmering pink horizon of flamingoes — perhaps 20,000 of them, murmuring softly. Skeins of them would occasionally take off on low flights across the water. They were too far away for photography. They appear to be greater flamingoes, tall and graceful in silhouette, and beautifully rose-tinged where the sun fell on them.
After breakfast, we set off by trolley to the Guda railway station where a jeep was to pick us up and take us around the other side of the lake bed. The dust thrown up by the jeep is talcum fine and gets everywhere. The only thing of note seen on this perambulation was a group of 40-odd black storks all funereally sombre.

At 4 pm, we took off for a fresh water body called, called Naliya sur, just 10 minutes away and this proved quite rewarding. It was crammed with waterfowl. Saw shelducks for the first time, in flight, they were large and appeared pied in appearance. A large flock of greylag geese flew across the lake. Duck species encountered included shovellers (the most common), pintail, widgeon, cotton teal, common pochards, tufted pochards and spotbills. Most were snoozing comfortably in the sun, till, of course, the ubiquitous marsh harrier decided to pay them a visit.
After dinner, we were off for another trolley ride to see the lake by moonlight. On the waters, you could just make out the huddled silhouettes of the shovellers. The salt-encrusted edges shimmered like beaten silver, and, thankfully, the flies were all asleep. Attracted by the algae, they swarm this area and crawl into your mouth, nose, ears and eyes.

Early next morning, we set off again for Ratan Talao. A huge squat banyan tree, aged and ancient, provides shelter for what seems to be the area’s entire population of parakeets. A white-breasted kingfisher kept a glittering eye on the water, from a lower branch. Squadrons of snowy white egrets would explode from the trees for short sorties before returning. The upper reaches of the banyan were used by vultures for roosting and, occasionally, they would thrash their huge wings and raise their hoarse voices in argument. Small flocks of ducks and waders would wing in from time to time, notable amongst the latter being godwits, with their Pinocchio bills. Out on the lake, the two aristocratic great-crested grebes sailed with calm dignity. Black-necked, and little, grebes were also present chasing one another from one patch of water to another. Enchanted, we settled down to watch the super elegant great-crested grebes with rapt attention.

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