‘Unless we live with non-violence and reverence for all living beings in our hearts, all our humaneness and acts of goodness, all our vows, virtues, and knowledge, all our practices to give up greed and acquisitiveness are meaningless and useless. He who harms animals has not understood or renounced deeds of sin… Those whose minds are at peace and who are free from passions do not desire to live at the expense of others.
All beings are fond of themselves, they like pleasure, they hate pain, they shun destruction, they like life and want to live long. To all, life is dear; hence their life should be protected.
If you kill someone, it is yourself you kill. If you overpower someone, it is yourself you overpower. If you torment someone, it is yourself you torment. If you harm someone, it is yourself you harm’.
Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara
Situated on major trade junctions of Medieval India, the Thar Desert of Rajasthan has been a strong hold of Jainism for hundreds of years. However, as the trade collapsed and the patronage declined a large percentage of Jain merchants / Vanias moved out in the beginning of 20th century from their native towns and villages to as far as Chennai, Mysore, Kolkata and Hyderabad in search of new opportunities. But the core belief and practice of showing compassion for all forms of life is embedded in their DNA which they carry around with them. This is best evident in a small village called Khichan in the middle of the desert in Jodhpur District. Here one can see deep symbiotic bond between its people and the migratory demoiselle cranes.
At the turn of 20th century several rich merchants from the Jain community lived in Khichan. A leisurely stroll through the village lanes and by lanes reveals a number of abandoned or locked palatial havelis with intricate carvings on their facades. Their owners have however settled in distant Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata and come for their annual vacation during the chaumas (monsoon season) for a couple of months to connect with their roots.
As dawn breaks, these abandoned havelis wake up from their deep slumber to the chaotic krok-krok calls of thousands of demoiselle cranes in the sky above. The scene appears spectacular for visitors like us but for the villagers it is just another morning of celebrating life with the winged visitors.
Every year towards the end of August, just after the monsoon rains have ceased, they fly from their breeding grounds on the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia to Thar Desert (Rajasthan and Gujarat) in large flocks. All of a sudden the sleepy village of Khichan is transformed into a chaotic noisy place and the sky above the village is darkened by thousands of cranes. This is an incredible natural drama in a country of billions of human souls where there is constant fight for space related to human activities.
A couple of decades ago only a few dozen of kurza (the local name for the demoiselle crane) migrated to Khichan, but today their numbers have increased to many thousands, thanks to the villagers who decided to feed them in an organized way due to their strong jain beliefs.
A large space has been demarcated and fenced to feed the cranes every morning. Everyday throughout the season (November – February) 500 kilos of grains are spread on the ground for the birds. This is all paid by monetary donation from the Jain community in the village. After the cranes complete their morning breakfast they gather beside a pond nearby. This is where I first came in close contact with Khichan’s demoiselle crane.
After a two hour drive from Osian, yet another village in Jodhpur District known for its early Pratihara temples we reached Khichan around 11 AM with no idea where to spot the birds. After buying tickets we were shown a small pond, called Raati Nadi where not even a single crane could be seen at the spot. The frustration however turned into pleasure when all of a sudden we saw a large flock of kurjas above us heading towards yet another water body nearby. We followed them and were mesmerized by the spectacular sight – thousands of birds gathered on the dune beside a small lake called Vijayasagar facing the rising sun and their tie like black chest feathers contrasting with blue sky. A short while later they departed in different directions in small family flocks.
After spending an hour, we headed to the village again to explore the human – birds’ relationship and to arrange a stay for the night. Here we met Sevaram Malu, a man in his 30s, who has been known for healing the injured birds and fighting for their protection since his early childhood days. It was afternoon and we had to wait till early next morning to see the spectacle. With no options of staying in the village we drove to the nearest town, Phalodi where some basic and budget accommodations are available.
In the early evening we drove to Vijayasagar Lake for yet another experience. Against the setting sun the lake shore and the nearby dune looked very different from the noon scene. Most of the birds were engaged in gobbling copious quantities of pebbles that are found in abundance on the lake shore. It is a strange habit. Since the grains they eat are whole grains, the pebbles act as digesting agent. Just before the sunset, they called it a day and fly away to Malher Rim, a sand dune 25 km away from Khichan. We were told that they spend the night standing on one leg.
The story of Khichan’s association with demoiselle cranes is ancient, but their conservation effort is only 50 years old. And surprisingly it has an Odisha connection, the state I belong to and had recently carried a story on a similar topic from the Mangalajodi Bird Sanctuary.
Ratanlal Maloo, who initiated the project more than 50 years ago, was a legendary figure as he alone has taken care of the conservation of thousands of demoiselle cranes that came to this sleepy village every winter from time immemorial. It started with his uncle’s request to leave Odisha for Khichan to take care of his aging grandmother, who had recently crossed 100 at that time. However, little he knew that the decision of returning to his roots would change not only his life but also lives of thousands of innocent birds.
Here he could not sit idle. His uncle entrusted him with a job of feeding grains to pigeons, sparrows and peacocks that frequent a place on the outskirts of the village. Being devout Jains both Ratanlal and his wife liked the idea. They carried sacks full of grains to the feeding ground and disbursed them. Initially there were only squirrels, sparrows, pigeons and occasionally peacocks came and ate. But one fine day in September he saw for the first time a dozen of large black and grey birds feeding. On inquiring, the villagers told him that they were migratory birds frequenting Khichan every winter. They were called demoiselle cranes or kurja in Rajasthani. Ratanlal Ji started observing them closely. Their numbers increased to 80 in November, but in February all of them disappeared in one night. He had to wait for another year. This time the number was 150. This number kept on increasing and now has reached a staggering number of 25,000.
It was not an easy task for Ratanlal Ji in the early years. As their numbers increased the dogs of the village started pouncing upon them, either killing them for meat or leaving them injured. To protect the birds Ratanlal Ji first convinced the village panchayat to allocate a suitable space on the village outskirt. Later, he coaxed the local Jains to help him build a 6 feet high fence. It was done and he called it Chugga Ghar or the feeding home. He then got a granary made to store grains that started pouring in from members of the Jain community. He also got a room constructed to heal the injured cranes.
Here I bring in another soul who has followed Ratanlal Ji’s footsteps in conserving winged guests of Khichan. Sevaram Mali, thanks to his gesture, we were invited to his terrace beside the Chugga Ghar at the break of the dawn on the following day. We were there by 6.30 AM.
The drama unfolded. We saw flocks slowly marching towards the Chugga Ghar, but to our disappointment they did not land for almost two hours. They just flew over our head. However, the pigeons were first to finish their breakfast in the Chugga Ghar. After waiting patiently for two hours we saw a flock of about 30/40 birds enclosing the extended space making sure if it is safe to land. Slowly their numbers increased to thousands. Waves after waves of these beautiful birds landed. It was a spectacular show of wildlife. There are many congregations of different species of birds across the world, but here at Khichan it is not just dramatic but has a strong spiritual connection.
It was because of Ratanlal Ji’s dedication and vision that the cranes got the food they needed in the Chugga Ghar and therefore don’t ravage the farmlands of Khichan and the surrounding villages. As a result, they have become guests who are received warmly.
The cranes after a sumptuous meal flew off to the lake where we had met them first on the previous day. It was also the time for us to return from the village with a deeper understanding on India’s spiritual culture where respect for all forms of life is imprinted in our genes.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org