Bharatpur, Deeg: "Birding at The Bagh"
February 17, 2007
Dear Friends and Fellow Bird Watchers,
One chilly, shivering evening last week at the open-air rooftop restaurant of my hotel, the Hotel Sri Nanak Continental (don't let the name fool you), smack in the middle of the incessantly beeping - beeping - honking - honking - beeping - honking - beeping - beeping - beeping and barking! automotive parts supply shop district of New Delhi, I met Penny and John, travelers from England who were pleased to sell me their guidebook Special Places To Stay - India.
My next destination is Bharatpur, just west of Agra. My first "special" choice, The Laxmi Vilas Palace, is fully booked. So here I am at The Bagh.
The guidebook reports:
Set in 200-year-old walled pleasure gardens, this place oozes calm and serenity. Rooms are spread across three white sandstone buildings, some as old as the garden - tranquil spaces of Mughal arches, verandas and inlaid marble floors. Bedrooms are elegant and cool with hand-crafted furniture, luxurious silk bed covers and five-star marbled bathrooms. There are quiet patios to retire to, and ten acres of flowering plants and fruit trees to get lost in. A luxury chill-out close to nature with ecological leanings.
A truly true description. I chill-out for two days. My respite from the madness out there. And the elephantine bathtub alone is worth the jumbo guest room rate.
Serious bird-lovers head for neighboring Keoladeo National Park. 350 different species. I order a serious coffee as I bird-watch from the patio of the restaurant.
First I spy a pair of gray birds with black stripes, waddling about on tiny red legs. Let's see. Pigeons. Definitely pigeons. Then a flight of black birds cawing up in the trees. Let me think. Crows, yes, surely crows. Then a gaggle of flightless birds with a red comb, scratching about in the sand. Obviously. Roosters. Anybody knows that.
The next day I am up for a dawn photo shoot. I snap a few birds in the trees but their identity is beyond my ken.
I confer with a young couple with jumbo sized binoculars. Serious folks. I describe my astute ornithological observations to them. They confirm yesterday's designations -- with some modifications. The pigeons are "rock pigeons." The crows are "black billed crows." The roosters are, well, "roosters." They add that if I want to observe real wild roosters I would have to trek out with them to the jungle. I thank them and order another coffee.
And then I go to lunch.
The bright dining room is "like an elaborate summer house." A drop ceiling with chandeliers; elegant window shades cover arched glass windows; sculpted walls.
Today's Lunch Menu:
- Tomato Soup
- Fried fish
- Chicken Lababdar
- Metha Kaddu
- Dum Aloo
- Mater Masala
- Dal Palak
- Lemon Rice
- Naan Roti Missi
- Gajar Halwa
The Host helps me with the selections:
The Tomato Soup is made from thick tomato stock of creamed vegetables.
The Fried Fish is crisp.
The Chicken Lababdar is de-boned and marinated, buttered chicken with lemon, yogurt and garlic cooked with butter and tomatoes.
Metha Kaddu is young green pumpkin sauteed with fenugreek seeds.
Dum Aloo. Potato filled with cottage cheese, reduced milk, dried fruits, cooked in tomato gravy-oil, onion, tomato paste, ginger paste, bay leaf or cloves.
Mater Massala. Peas boiled and cooked with chopped onion and tomato and seasoning.
Dal Palak. Boiled lentils, oil, cumin seed, tomato, onion, ground spinach, fenugreek, spring onion.
Naan Roti Missi. Bread of whole wheat flour and chickpea flour. 70/30.
Gajar Halwa. Grated carrots, cooked in reduced milk with dried nuts and sugar and cardamom. (I had this for the first time on my Indian Airlines flight and I am happy to discover it again.)
I am stuffed, with guilt. Shall I just veg-out here with my birds and my coffee?
I call Suresh my driver and we are off to Deeg.
After a bumpy ride we arrive at a small, busy, dusty town. Deeg is off the tourist trail, so everyone stares at me and I smile and everyone smiles back. One little girl really stares and stares and seems enchanted by my presence.
I climb the massive walls of the old ruined fort. A group of cheerful schoolboys accompanies me to the top. The view is excellent. Ahead is the palace and the large square pools where dozens of women are beating their clothes into spotless submission.
I tour Suraj Mahl's Palace: spacious gardens, pavilions and the palace of Rajput and Mughal architectural styles. I am alone. It's quiet. Peaceful. Beautiful.
The palace is best known for the hundreds of fountains that are turned on for special festivals. The water is colored with paint. Deeg is on my "To Return List."
But for now, I return to The Bagh. My jumbo bathtub beckons.
I wonder what's on the Dinner Menu? Who can eat?
PS As I walk down the garden path, a giant peacock struts along. Yes, I know a peacock when I see one. I guess he wasn't interested in me. His feathers remained at his side.
(Remember "Go to the Head of the Class" - the pre-Jeopardy children's quiz game? Here's a question: If you call a male peacock a peacock, what do you call the female?)
PPS On second thought, maybe my peacock is just a turkey. Any bird watchers out there?