We reached Kheechan by first light and made our way to the terrace of a building next to the “Chugga Ghar” (literally feeding house) in the semi darkness. It was a typical cold and silent pre-dawn of a desert village. After ensuring that we had a good vantage point, Ram Narain, our guide went downstairs to organize tea for everyone. Soon we were enjoying a steaming cup of sweet masala chai (Indian milk tea) and biscuits while we waited.
We had travelled all the way to Kheechan to witness an amazing spectacle. Every morning, during the winter months, wild Demoiselle cranes (Grus virgo) fly down to feed at the Chugga Ghar in thousands. By some estimates on a good day more than 15,000 cranes come to feed at the enclosure, making this is one of the most spectacular crane congregations of the world.
It all started about half a century ago when Ratanlal Maloo, who was working in Orissa, was asked by his uncle to return to his ancestral village of Kheechan to look after the family’s affairs there. Among other duties, Ratanlal’s uncle also asked him to feed grain to doves, pigeons, peacocks and other birds, which frequented a place near the periphery of the village. Being a devout Jain and a great believer in the sanctity of life, Ratanlal liked this duty and performed it conscientiously. Initially only the common birds and some squirrels would come to feed. But, one day in the month of September, he found half a dozen tall grey and black birds feeding along with usual peacocks and pigeons. On enquiry he found out that these were the famed migratory Kurj (Demoiselle cranes).
Over the decades Ratanlal Maloo continued to feed the birds regularly. From a modest beginning of 6 birds, today over 15,000 Demoiselle cranes come to the Chugga Ghar every day, feeding on over 200,000 kilos of grain every season.
At 7:15 am, just as we finished the tea, we noticed a thin, undulating, black line far away on the horizon. A look though the binoculars confirmed that it was a large flight of cranes, headed towards us. By the time first flight was overhead, the horizon was dark with innumerable flights all slowly and deliberately flapping towards us. The cranes were coming in from all directions and soon the sky was resonating with their loud trumpeting calls. They did not head for the Chugga Ghar though, instead, they started alighting, in small family groups, on the sand dunes near the village.
Presently the dunes were covered in a sea of black and grey cranes, all facing towards the morning sun. They were all waiting for a signal from their leader. Astonishingly, for the last decade, a one legged crane, fondly called “Langda” (lame) is always the first crane to land in the enclosure. The feast begins only after he alights in the Chugga Ghar. And, after he alights, it is a regular free-for-all. Thousands of cranes fly into the enclosure and start feeding noisily. They are accompanied by large numbers of doves, pigeons, sparrows, peacocks and even some domestic chicken. In the midst of all this activity, workers walk in to replenish the grain creating even more chaos. As all the cranes cannot fit into the enclosure at one time, some keep waiting on the dunes. They fly in once others, who have had their fill, leave. For a few hours there is a constant relay of cranes flying into and out of the enclosure.
After observing this spectacle from the terrace I decided to get closer to the action. I climbed down and walked to the fence of the Chugga Ghar. The images in this gallery were made while standing at the fence and photographing this amazing communal feast.
Limited edition, museum quality fine art prints of images from this gallery are available for sale.
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A location map of Kheechan and the Chugga Ghar.
View Kheechan and the Chugga Ghar in a larger map