When we read in our guide book that it was a former Portuguese trading outpost located on the south east coast of India, we imagined something akin to Goa and Dieu (their antecedents also Portuguese) on the west coast – only without the tourists.
We thought we had found a hidden gem.
And well, the few lines in our guide book about Vailankanni were written by a travel writer who had never been anywhere near the place.
So there it was; after a long day travelling on local buses, hot, overcrowded, sitting on hard wooden bench seats or standing in an aisle crammed between people, we were expecting to arrive in a place with deserted pristine beaches fringed by palm trees….
And were met by a sight which left us momentarily in a state of utter bewilderment……
So it seemed logical, in order to visit the Verdengtal bird sanctuary, to catch the bus to Verdengtal and find a hotel and then go out to see the birds.
But Verdengtal wasn’t a town: it was a road head next to the bird sanctuary.
There was nothing there; a line of stalls selling coconuts, cool drinks, biscuits and plastic souvenirs. Behind the stalls was an expanse of rich green rice paddies partially flooded by water.
I had a problem. It was late in the afternoon. I was at the bird sanctuary – where I wanted to be – but I had nowhere to stay and nothing to eat.
At the ticket office at the entrance to the sanctuary, I had a stroke of luck. There was an elderly man there who spoke excellent English – something I realised when I asked him, one word at a time, if I could leave my rucksack with him whilst I wandered about the bird sanctuary – and he answered:
‘I don’t see why not.’
We went into an adjoining room where I eased off my rucksack and he handed me a glass of milky tea; we got talking and I soon discovered that he was a remarkable man who not only spoke good English but was also a walking encyclopaedia about birds and many other subjects including history and politics. He was one of the people whom I have often met in India who, given better opportunities in life, would have risen far higher on the socio-economic ladder. In another life, this ticket seller might have been a professor.
We talked for a some time. He lived in a small town about 10 kilometres away from the sanctuary. He rode his bike there and back every day. He had worked at the bird sanctuary for 40 years and met many avid bird watchers from all over India and, the world.
I raised the subject of my miscalculation with respect to ‘Verdengtal’ and asked him if he knew anywhere nearby where I could stay.
As a matter of fact, he did. There was a government rest house about two kilometres back down the road. He knew a lot about that rest house. It was over a hundred years old. It was built during the time of the Raj to provide accommodation for the district administrator during his tour of duty. It was one of those district administrators who was responsible for the establishment of the bird sanctuary, he told me.
I left the ticket office and entered the sanctuary.
The sanctuary was a series of overgrown green islands set in a shallow lake.
On one side of the lake was a short dyke and on top of the dyke, a paved walkway. Between the walkway and the first of the islands was about twenty metres of water. Every one of the islands was covered in birds. On some of the islands, one species of birds predominated, on others, there was a mix.
It was claimed that during breeding season – November to March – up to 30,000 migratory birds appeared there. I wasn’t quite sure how anyone could measure the number of birds in an 85-acre bird sanctuary, but one thing was for sure: there were an awful lot of birds there, certainly running into the thousands.
It was really quite incredible.
Bird sanctuaries often have a particular species which is their ‘crown jewel’, a type of bird which is unique to that sanctuary. Take for example the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (it’s not far from the Taj Mahal in Agra). For many years its crown jewel was the Siberian Crane. This bird alone brought bird watchers from all over the world. In 1983 and ’85, I was lucky enough to have visited Bharatpur and seen the Siberian Crane; it was a magnificent bird of pure white plumage with an enormous orange beak and haunting call. Every year it migrated from the far north of Siberia to one place and only one place in the world: the Bharatpur sanctuary. The last Siberian cranes were seen in 2002. It is now believed to be extinct: Bharatpur lost its star attraction.
The crown jewel of the Verdengtal sanctuary was the painted stork. This was the bird which was most visible from the walkway and in prolific numbers. The painted stork indeed looked as if someone might have painted it on a canvas – albeit running the risk of being accused of exaggeration. It had a long slender orange bill and snow-white plumage. The underside of its wings and the tips of its wings, however, were jet black. Its tail feathers were bright red. Its long legs were orange. Like the Siberian Crane, the painted stork was a glider, its wide wings allowing it to float on upper air currents with little expenditure of energy – and to carry it every winter from Tibet to the south of India. It is here that it built nests, mated, raised it chicks – and then began the long flight back to Tibet.
From the walkway, there were only three good spots from which to watch the birds. The rest of it was lined with trees growing out of the water which obstructed one’s view. I ensconced myself in one of these good spots and got out my binoculars.
It was sheer pleasure to watch the painted storks. The species was a miracle!
Later in the afternoon – I was looking forward to the sunset which was always a good time for bird watching – a large party of Indians appeared. It consisted of an important politician and his entourage. The politician wore a loose white cotton shirt and a longyi coming down to his sandaled feet. Around his neck was an orange scarf, the ends of which hung either side of his sizeable paunch. He was an elderly, jowly, man, partly bald, wearing thick black rimmed glasses. In his entourage, there were five or six younger men wearing safari suits and their wives, dressed in saris and wearing jewellery and looking as resplendent as peacocks. There were three police, all of them armed with automatic rifles. Following up the entourage was a photographer carrying his camera and a tripod. The group had come to the sanctuary to have photos of them taken with the painted storks as a background.
And the spot that I had chosen as the best place to watch the painted storks from – was also the same spot that someone in the politician’s entourage decided was the best place to take photos.
There was a local or regional election in the offing and the politicians were evidently visiting their constituencies to elicit votes. In a country where so many people are illiterate, symbols play a crucial part in political campaigning. Every party has a symbol. At the national level, the Congress Party has the palm of a hand, held upright – as if to indicate ‘stop’ -, and its major rival, the BJP, has a lotus flower. All over India, the various symbols of the political parties can be seen painted on the walls of buildings and houses and bus stations, along with written exhortations to vote for the relevant party or politician. During my travels, I had made a habit of noting the symbols used by the various political parties. Once you got to the regional and local level of politics, there was a proliferation of symbols as every party tried to latch on to something. Very popular was anything suggesting light – eg, a candle, a lamp, lighthouse, light bulb, rising sun. An obvious one was, of course, the cow. The others I noted were: a drum, chair, comb, clock, truck, ox and cart, spinning top, tap, keys, two leaves on a stem. During the bus trip out to Verdengtal and my walk to the rest house, I noticed that there were political symbols everywhere. Some of them were painted on to bus stops and shops, others on people’s huts and houses. Some were even painted on the road. The predominant symbols I saw were: bucket, padlock, palm tree and plane.
I didn’t know which symbol the politician in the bird sanctuary represented. What I did know was that any hope I had of he and his party disappearing soon was in vain. The photo session seemed to last forever. Various combinations of people were assembled for each photograph. Some of the groups were of only the men, others of the wives; still others were a mix of men and women. The only person who consistently starred in every photo was the politician. The others who weren’t in the photo stood aside and spoke volubly and laughed.
I gave up for the day and departed.
The Verdengtal bird sanctuary is located in the midst of classic South Indian landscape – lush green tropical countryside carpeted with rice paddies. Walking down the road in the mid-afternoon heat and humidity, rucksack on my back, I passed small, thatched roofed houses, tall trees, rice paddies, a temple and a school; women filling up pots of water at a hand pump and a small boy herding water buffalo and cows.
The rest house was, in comparison with the local dwellings, a grandiose two-story structure set back from the road and surrounded by a high wall. There was a big painted wrought iron gate and a drive. Opening the gate, I was greeted by the sight of a neat and very English looking garden; there were paths and beds of flowers.
I walked down the drive and was met by the surprised caretaker (or ‘chowkidar’ as they often known in India). He had a plum job, which was to maintain the rest house and provide meals when Indian bureaucrats or bird watchers booked the place. With sign language and a few words of English, he gave me to understand that he would Phone his boss in Chennai to see if I could stay the night. It was Thursday; he had no bookings for that night but on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights it was fully booked.
After a lot of discussion on the phone, I was given permission to stay.
On the lower floor, there was a hallway opening onto a large room with tables and chairs and view of the garden. On the walls, were large paintings of birds in polished wooden frames.
On the top floor were large, spacious and clean rooms. I chose a room and dumped my rucksack in a corner.
The caretaker indicated he could make me an evening meal; we arranged a price.
In the evening, the chowkidar appeared with two bowls of curry, a pot filled with rice, and 12 chapatis. I’d ordered a large number of chapatis in order to have something to eat on the following morning when I was planning to get up early and walk to the bird sanctuary. After he brought me my food, I paid my bill, gave him some extra, and then he disappeared.
I was in the place on my own.
In the darkness of the deserted house and the creaking of the floorboards, I felt as if I was in a museum.
Lying in bed, enshrouded by darkness, the story which the ticket collector had told me about the bird sanctuary and how it was established echoed through the silence.
I saw the generations of British district officers who had stayed in this very rest house: Oxbridge men with lofty, aristocratic accents.
How simple politics was in those days!
The Englishman appeared, listened to local complaints, and administered justice.
In 1936, the basis for the Verdengtal bird sanctuary was established when local villagers protested to the district officer about the English ‘sportsmen’ who were appearing in the area in ever larger numbers and shooting out the birds. The villagers knew only too well that the birds were an essential part of their economic survival. The birds ate the insects and pests and their droppings fertilised the paddies.
The district officer, who hailed from the same nation and same class as the ‘sportsmen’ – decided in favour of the villagers.
The birds were saved.
A good man, working for an oppressive colonial system, made the right decision.
Early the following morning, in the tranquil moments before sunrise, I walked to the sanctuary. I got there as the ticket collector arrived on his bike. We chatted for a while and shared a glass of hot tea. Then I went inside.
Most of the birds, including the painted storks were asleep.It was quite a sight to see so many birds, many of them quite large, balancing on thin branches, silent and immobile.
As the intense tropical sun rose higher, illuminating the water and the islands and the trees, the birds woke up.
The air was filled with the sounds of birds calling and flapping their wings.
Yes, this was why I had come here….what a sight! what a sound!
Eyes wide open, all my senses alive, I watched thousands of birds explode into life in a beautiful tropical morning.
When I left, I went to the entrance, where the ticket collector was sipping a glass of tea and smoking a cigarette. There were no one in sight.
We talked about the sanctuary. He was pessimistic about its future.
‘The birds are no longer a part of our life…’
This was where for him everything had gone wrong in modern India.
In 1936, he explained, when the sanctuary was established, there no chemical pesticides and fertilisers, so the birds were essential to the lives of the farmers. They were worshipped. They were regarded as aspects of the Divine.
I left the sanctuary with those words in my mind: ‘the birds are no longer a part of our life.’
That statement could be made for the entire human race. I only had to think of the declining numbers and diversity of birds in Europe. It hardly ever made the news, but it was catastrophic.
Perhaps, I reflected, the painted stork might one day become the symbol of another aspiring Indian politician.
This at the same time that it was about to share the fate of the Siberian crane.