Distance: 190 km S of Delhi
Travel Time: By road 4 hrs; By rail 3 hrs; By air 40 mins + 11/4 hrs by road
When to go: November to February is best, also the season for migratory birds. The park is open all year. August-October are the peak months for breeding and October to late February for wintering migrants Tourist/ Wildlife/ Forest Dept Offices: Keoladeo Ghana NP near Shanti Kunj (Park area)
Tourist Reception Centre: Dept of Tourism Agra Road, Bharatpur
STD code: 05644
Air: Nearest airport: Agra (60 km/11/4 hrs)
Rail: Nearest railhead: Bharatpur Junction (41/2 km/20 mins).
Road: Route from Delhi: NH11 to Keoladeo Ghana NP from the Bharatpur-Mathura Rd via Yamuna Expressway Alternate Route NH2 to Mathura via Faridabad, Hodal and Kosi Kalan; state road from Mathura to Bharatpur
Keoladeo Ghana National Park, formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, is a gem in India’s ecological crown despite being one of the smallest parks in the country. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1985, this national park is a paradise for birdwatchers. Keoladeo is actually another name of Lord Shiva and is the form in which he is worshipped at the small Keoladeo Temple in the heart of the park, near a canteen that serves a welcoming cup of hot tea. Ghana refers to the thick tree cover the area once had. The king of the adjoining town of Bharatpur created the park in the late 19th century for shikaar, and conservation was only a by-product.
In 1956, the hunting preserve was declared a sanctuary but the VIP hunts here continued until 1964; the royal family maintained their hunting rights until 1972. It is perhaps ironic that bird numbers seem to have decreased since hunting stopped. Other problems have hit the park, including a decline in the number of migratory birds in their summer homes, drought, and cattle straying into the park from nearby villages. Pesticide contamination in the water bodies is also a huge cause for concern.
The huge number of tourists visiting the park has also contributed to the park’s decline: many leave behind litter and plastic, adversely affecting the water quality in the swamps.
Things to see and do
You can park either at the main gate or the ITDC Hotel, and take a cycle rickshaw whose pullers have been trained by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to recognise birdlife. At the main gate, there are bicycles and cycle rickshaws for hire. You can go on walking trips too. Motor vehicles are not allowed inside the park. Binoculars are essential to make the most of your visit, even though many of the birds are large and close to the road.
Morning is the best time for birdwatching. The best way to see the diverse species of birds and animals is to make trips at different times of the day. Wake up with the birds in the early morning, see water birds in daylight and, of course, catch night birds such as owls at dusk and after sunset. There are many routes inside the park, but opt for the ones near the swamps; this will ensure the maximum number of sightings.
The Mansarovar and Hansarovar marshes and the swamps and lakes of Bharatpur form one of the most important heronries in the world and you are likely to see these magnificent birds here.
In winter, the sheer variety of birds is astonishing. With just a little attention, you can see as many as 100 species of birds in 24 hours. The most thrilling sight is a water surface full of birds, and the way they take off in swirling flocks at the slight disturbance. Waders from the godwit family, with oversized bills and tiny stints, abound in shallow muddy areas. In low bushes and woodlands, you can look out for orange-headed ground-thrushes, ruby throats and sleeping nightjars. The largest and most impressive is the imperial eagle, while the smaller marsh harrier has an entertaining habit of gliding low over assembled ducks and putting them to flight. The most visible breed of owls is the magnificent dusky horned variety, and if they are nesting, they are clearly visible at the top of the tall tree they have chosen.
In drought years, Keoladeo Ghana becomes a haven for the desert species of birds but a large area of the park is always dry land, home to pipits and larks. Among mammals, apart from deer and antelope, you also have a chance of seeing otter, porcupine, wild boar and fishing cats as well as palm civets and hares.
At the Tourist Reception Centre, you can book boat rides if there’s water in the lakes and it’s boating season. Boats are available for hire from the boarding point near the ITDC Hotel Bharatpur Ashok (see alongside for details). Boats are the easy way to get close to the birdlife and the otters.
Where to stay and eat
The best heritage option here is the Laxmi Vilas Palace (Tel: 05644-223523; www.laxmivilas.com), run by the Bharatpur royal family. It is set amid 50 acres in Kakaji-ki-Kothi on the old Agra-Jaipur Road. Other heritage options are Udai Vilas Palace (Tel: 233161-62; www.udaivilaspalace.com) near Saras Circle and The Bagh (Tel: 228333; www.thebagh.com) near Circuit House. Both have a pool, a bar, a restaurant and room service.
The ITDC Hotel Bharatpur Ashok (Tel: 222722; www.thashokgroup.com), the only hotel inside the park, clearly has the best location. In-house facilities include a multicuisine restaurant (open to non-residents) and bar, and they also help you hire forest guides. The Birder’s Inn (Tel: 227346; www.birdersinn.com) is near the sanctuary entrance. Kadamb Kunj Resort (Tel: 220146, Cell: 09214204489; www.kadambkunj.com) on Fatehpur Sikri Road, 3 km from the park, has a restaurant, a bar and organises cultural events in the evenings. The popular Hotel Sunbird (Tel: 225701; www.hotelsunbird.com), close to the park, offers clean rooms. Hotel Saras (Tel: 223790; www.rtdc.rajasthan.gov.in), run by the RTDC, has 28 rooms, a restaurant and a bar.
At Shanti Kutir, 2 km inside the park and near the Tourist Reception Centre, the Wildlife Warden’s Office complex houses a Forest Rest House (Tel: 222777) with four rooms for forest officials. Rooms are rented out at the warden’s discretion.
Salim Ali Road is the best bet, as most of the restaurants in the hotels are open to non-residents. Hotel Sunbird has a good breakfast, and the menu boasts of crepes, while Nightingale has tandoori options. The ITDC Hotel Bharatpur Ashok is the best place to head for lunch – the food is decent and you can have it in the park. The menu feature Rajasthani, Indian and Mughlai fare and some Continental options.