WHAT HAPPEND AFTER THE TAJ MAHAL?

Beneath India's skies, abounding in the beauty they searched for, a globe-circling party of bird watchers led by the author sweltered in blowtorch heat, explored teeming cities, probed a troubled paradise and, amidst the moving legacy of past splendor and present hardship, pondered the question

FRED BODSWORTH November 15 1965

WHAT HAPPEND AFTER THE TAJ MAHAL?

Beneath India's skies, abounding in the beauty they searched for, a globe-circling party of bird watchers led by the author sweltered in blowtorch heat, explored teeming cities, probed a troubled paradise and, amidst the moving legacy of past splendor and present hardship, pondered the question

FRED BODSWORTH November 15 1965

WHAT HAPPEND AFTER THE TAJ MAHAL?

FRED BODSWORTH

Beneath India's skies, abounding in the beauty they searched for, a globe-circling party of bird watchers led by the author sweltered in blowtorch heat, explored teeming cities, probed a troubled paradise and, amidst the moving legacy of past splendor and present hardship, pondered the question

World hopping—it’s the for birds: Part 3

THE CLARKS-SHIRAZ in Agra, near the stately Taj Mahal, is typical of India’s modern hotels which have sprung up in recent years as lures for tourist dollars. It is an oasis of good dining and posh, air-conditioned comfort in India’s sweltering miasma of squalor and poverty, a way of life as unattainable to the ragged and destitute Indians who pass its gates as New York City is to Eskimos. But my first night at Agra’s decorous Clarks-Shiraz had a bizarre incident. I was awakened by a tomcat yowling miserably in the corridor outside my room. It seemed so peculiar that I got up to have a look. He was a big, grey, mangy tom with huge ears, prowling and howling along the immaculate broadloomed corridor like a drunk who had forgotten his room number.

How did an alley cat find his way up to the fifth floor of a luxury hotel in which all doors and windows were closed tight to keep the 105-degree outdoor-air outdoors? I haven't a clue. Furthermore, it was the only cat l saw in two weeks spent in India. Yet somehow it seemed fitting and symbolic, for in India, animals and birds all seem misplaced.

Despite its teeming people and abused, parched, low-producing land, India abounds

with bird and mammal life, domestic and wild. One's first impression is of the number of people living here; the second impression is of the number of birds and animals living in close association with them. In some respects, it is one of India’s attractions; it is also India’s curse.

The curse, which even the country’s own educated people freely admit, is its sacred cattle that the Hindu religion makes it an offense to kill. Scrawny, stunted, hump-backed cows literally possess the land in thousands. Through neglect in breeding most are no longer milk producers and have been released to fend for themselves because they cannot be killed. Neglected but revered and patiently tolerated, they roam everywhere — on city streets, in parks, on rural roads, grazing the limited and needed grass to its roots and yielding nothing in return.

Great herds of sheep and goats block roads and city streets as they are being herded about to new hill pastures, the lambs and kids too small to keep up often being carried on the herders’ shoulders. Flocks of ducks waddle everywhere.

Yet despite the population pressure of peo-

ple and domestic animals, there is room for wildlife, too. Tigers, leopards, elephants and monkeys roam freely in the vicinity of many native villages. Wild birds abound in close communion with man. Storks, herons, cranes and ibises live in sanctuaries where they have been undisturbed for thousands of years. In the bazaars and villages, Jungle Crows, Jackdaws and Mynas walk around as tame as chickens, dodging people’s feet. The carrion - eaters, Whitebacked Vultures and Black Kites, are always soaring above to converge in flocks on anything that dies.

This abundance of wildlife was what had brought us to India. We were tourists, albeit with a new and rather eccentric purpose. We were, in all, a party of thirty-five Canadian and U. S. bird watchers, each of us clutching an airline ticket that opened up accordionfashion six feet long, for we were on our way around the world to find, study and photograph birds. Dr. Austin Cameron, of Montreal’s Redpath Museum, and I were tour leaders. Our seven-week itinerary was arranged by Treasure Tours of Montreal, a travel agency that specializes in special-purpose tours.

We landed at / continued on pape 28

continued from pape 26

Delhi airport at 10 p.m. after a flight from Bangkok and even at that hour the temperature was one hundred and five. Wc were fearing that two weeks in this climate was going to be an unpleasant ordeal, but a surprise waited. Here is what my diary says for the next day:

“Flew out of Delhi early this morning, north across flat plains of the Punjab. Two hours later we were descending through Himalayas’ Banihal Pass, gateway to India’s northern state of Kashmir. At fifteen thousand feet there were great, snow-streaked peaks rising still higher on each side of our plane — yet here in the Himalayas they say these are just foothills. Landed at Srinagar, ancient capital city of Kashmir, where we are to spend seven days. Stepped out expecting another blowtorch blast of heat. Surprise! We are at a climatetempering altitude of more than five thousand feet here, and the temperature is a cool and bracing seventy degrees.”

This is the fabled Vale of Kashmir, a high plain eighty miles long, twenty miles wide, walled in by massive snowy ranges of the Himalayas whose glacial streams tumble down and spill out into lotus-jeweled lakes that speckle the valley floor. One of the most beautiful regions of the world, it has since then become the scene of bitter fighting in the long-simmering Pakistan-India Kashmir dispute which erupted into open war a few weeks after we left. Srinagar and the airport where we found relief from Delhi’s heat have been bombed, and the mountain slopes where we listened to the songs of Kashmir’s alpine birds and watched Kashmiri herders tending

their sheep and goat herds have since then crackled with the gunfire of guerrilla war. But when we were there, the Vale of Kashmir still basked peacefully and lazily in its summer sun.

Here we had a switch from hotel living and for an idyllic week we lived in houseboats moored on the shore of Srinagar’s Dal Lake — a Kashmir holidaying tradition that began in pre-hotel colonial days when w'hites migrated to the cooler hill stations during the torrid Indian summers. Houseboats are less expensive than good hotels, and a lot more fun. They are floating cottages, each consisting of living room, dining room, two or three bedrooms with private baths, veranda, and an upper sundeck. They arc finished with fir or cedar paneling, and are comfortably furnished. For ten dollars a day a whole family can have houseboat, meals, three or four servants pattering around barefoot at your beck and call, and a shikara — the Kashmiri version of water taxi — always at your door.

The meals will be minus beef, pork and breakfast bacon because of Hindu and Moslem taboos, but your houseboat cook will dish up a varied and pleasant menu of lamb, duck and chicken, redolently flavored, if you wish, with such Kashmiri spices as saffron and cumin or marinated in milk or curds. He’ll also be complimented if you ask for Kashmiri tea — a mild sweet tea flavored with cinnamon, cardamom and attar of rose petals.

The most charming of Kashmir’s exotica are its shikaras, which are a sort of combination gondola and floating surrey with a fringe on top. They

are slender finlike boats, paddled by one man, with brightly cushioned and upholstered seats for two or four passengers, and a gaily decorated canopy overhead. Like all Indian services, where the average income is seventy dollars a year, the shikaras and boatmen are pathetic-ally cheap. The official rate for a two-hour hire is less than forty cents. And gliding across Dal Lake for a two-hour evening sliikara ride while the sun sets behind one jagged ridge of Himalayas and the moon rises over another is the best forty cents’ worth in India.

Bird-hunting from the -ushy comfort of a shikara was a new ornithological thrill.

“Off at 7 a.m. in a fleet of shikaras for a trip through the canals of Srinagar and then on for birding at Anchar Lake. Professor Samsar Chand Koul, highschool principal and Kashmir’s ornithologist. is with HS. He is seventy-three, tall, distinguished looking in a white suit and orange turban, and he certainly knows his Kashmir birds. We are all using his book. Birds Of Kashmir.

“Srinagar is a dusty dr-ab city with a look of rundown antiquity. The homes, some of them two hundred years old, are unpainted wood, stone or mud brick, often plastered with mud on the outside, and elaborately frilled with gingerbread trim. There is no water in the houses. There are pipes and taps here and there on the main streets, but the main sources of water are the canals and river.

“There are crowds of women at this hour, wherever steps go down to the river edge, getting water to take home in jugs on their heads, bathing, and doing the morning wash. They wash clothes by swinging them over their heads and banging them on a rock.

“Our boatmen are paddling furiously, throwing up water with their odd heartshaped paddle blades, racing with each other, and singing a Kashmiri song like Alouette in which one leads off and others follow.

“Ten o’clock, and we are on Anchar Lake. It is a shallow lake, full of duckweed. lilies and lotus, and alive with birds. We have stopped for cookies, and tea that the boatmen are brewing on little primus stoves.

"The most interesting bird here is the Pheasant-tailed Jacana, a striking bird, white and bronze, with a great, foot-long streamer of a tail. Despite the fact it is almost as big as a pheasant, it runs around nimbly on floating lily leaves because it has enormous toes that reach out like spiderlegs and spread its weight. But the weirdest is the Hoopoe, which has the delightful and euphonious Latin name of Upupa epops epops, and looks as bizarre as its name sounds. It is brown with black-and-white zebra-striped wings and tail, and has a fantastic crest that spreads like a big round fan when it is curious or startled. There is another bird here oddly reminiscent of home. It is Tickcll's Thrush, which runs, flies, cocks its head, hunts for worms and acts in every way like a Robin, but it is sooty grey all over and has no red breast. T don’t believe you,’ Martha Drake, of Cape Cod, said when she saw her first Tickcll’s. ‘It must be a robin that's just had a dust bath in a coal bin.”

We were out daily on bird-watching and people-watching outings. One of the most interesting was a trek by horseback up a four-mile mountain trail to Gulmarg, a beautiful alpine meadow at nine thousand feet. We had a thirty-mile taxi drive to reach the Gulmarg trail.

"In horse-and-buggy Kashmir, where an

umbrella to keep the sun off one’s head is a status symbol, like a mink stole in Canada, cars are few and taxi drivers have the status of jet pilots back home. They try to drive like jet pilots, too, with one hand almost permanently on the horn; because Kashmiris crowding the roads with their sheep and goat herds aren't looking for auto traffic and have to be warned.

“The Gulmarg trail was steep and rocky, and I felt sorry for the horses. They are stunted like most Indian animals, but the Indians are honest enough

to call them ponies, not horses. Some of our people went up in dandies, which are chairs carried by four porters or dandiwallas. The forest here consists of huge pines and firs, and there are magnificent mountain views. From the top we got glimpses of Nanga Parbat through mists eighty-five miles to the north. It is the eighth-highest Himalayan peak: it has killed twenty-nine climbers and was first climbed in 1953.

“Lunch on the green, lush meadow at the top. then several of us walked down to look for birds. A number of

new alpine species here, such as Scarlet Minivet and Crested Black Tit. Our pony boys are catching on to why we came; they showed us a Turtle Dove, very proud of themselves, and there was great excited chatter when we showed them its picture in a book. They had never seen a bird book before.

“Tourism has come recently to Kashmir, but the Kashmiris are not backward about soliciting tips. Most of them know little F.nglish. but they know ‘You like the service, sir?’ which they say with their hands out and dark eyes pleading.

Signs arc frequent in India saying tipping isn’t necessary because there is usually a service charge on the bill, but nowhere do they ask more openly and persistently for tips than they do in Kashmir.”

We returned to Delhi and the heat where the air was a red haze of dust from the parched surrounding country. matching the red sandstone that is a dominant feature of Delhi's picturesque blend of ancient and modern architecture.

“It is Dominion Day and Canadian members of our group have been invited to a party at the Canadian high commission . . . The party was pleasant, a breath of home, but I sneaked out early. Sorry, Mr. High Commissioner. Your hospitality was impeccable. But after all . . . 108 degrees, and you should see the Ashoka Hotel's swimming pool . . .

"Delhi airport. We've just been told that our plane to Jaipur is three hours late. It's one hundred and ten. The plane has probably melted.”

At Jaipur we had a taste for two

days of oriental splendor at its gleaming, arched and balconied Rambagh Palace Hotel. Until recently this has been the local maharaja’s main residence, but India’s potentates have been running on hard times since independence in 1947, and the former ruler of Jaipur has had to turn his Rambagh Palace into a hotel to keep the bills paid at his various other palaces in the neighborhood.

Our Jaipur stay included an elephant ride to its Amber Palace, but

there was plenty to keep us occupied right in the Rambagh Palace’s extensive, parklike grounds, for it had nesting Red-wattled Lapwings, Green Parakeets and India’s national bird, the Peacock, a wild bird here.

Agra was next, for its Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary, and of course its Taj Mahal.

“To the Taj as soon as we arrived, for a first quick look in evening light. I went with blasé, I’m - from - Missouri doubts, a feeling that anything touted as lavishly as the Taj Mahal couldn’t possibly be all that special. But it is. As a naturalist, my ideas of beauty lean strongly to natural features, and I cannot explain why something man-made can move one as the Taj does. But I’ll buy all those lyrical descriptions now. It is ‘a poem in marble,’ ‘a sigh in stone.’ There was a woman near me, also seeing the Taj for the first time. There were tears in her eyes . . .

“Up at 4 a.m. for the trip to Keoladeo Ghana. India is already coming to life, for there is some relief from the heat at this hour and it makes more sense to sleep in the torrid afternoons. We passed hundreds of people sleeping almost naked on thatched cots outdoors — on sidewalks, roads, roofs, everywhere ...”

Keoladeo Ghana is a seven-thousand-acre preserve of shallow ponds and marshes, rarely visited except by Indian biologists and naturalists. It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise. We listed more than fifty species in a few hours among its tremendous congregations of waterbirds.

“Back to the Taj for a close-up look this time. How can a people capable of creating a Taj Mahal three hundred years ago wind up with such poverty and hardship for its millions today? The grace and perfection of it, the endless inlays and mosaics of precious stones, the unbelievably intricate marble fretwork defy descriptive words. I can believe that it took twenty thousand workmen twentytwo years to build it. But I knew there would have to be some disillusionment somewhere. It came when we went down into the vault beneath to the tombs of the Shah-Jahan and his beloved queen in whose memory he built the Taj. Here in the sacred heart of the Taj, if there is sacredness anywhere, a dirty and ragged attendant stood beside a smoking kerosene lantern, shouting eerily to the vaulted, echoing ceiling, calling for the blessing of Allah on anyone passing by. And each time, as the echoes died, his hand snapped out for his tip.”

And this is the essence, the paradox, of India—squalor and poverty, beauty and charm, splendor beside slum, and all of it so inseparably wedded that one doesn’t know whether to weep or be enchanted. ★