The walled town of BHARATPUR is just a stone’s throw from the border with Uttar Pradesh and a mere 18km from the magnificent abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. The town itself has an interesting mix of bazaars, palaces and temples, but the real reason to come here is to visit India’s most famous bird sanctuary, the Keoladeo National Park, on the town’s southern edge, one of India’s, if not the world’s, top ornithological destinations.
Bharatpur was founded by the Jat king Surajmal, who constructed the virtually impregnable Lohagarh (Iron Fort) at the heart of town in 1732; time and modern development have had little effect on its magnificent eleven-kilometre-long bastions and immense moat. You’re most likely to enter the fort from the south, though it’s worth having a look at the impressive Ashtdhatu (or Eight-Metal) Gate, named on account of the number of different types of metal that apparently went into the making of its extremely solid-looking doors.
The fort is home to no less than three large royal palaces in various stages of dereliction, all built by the Jats between 1730 and 1850. The best preserved is the large orange Kamra Khas Mahal, on the west side of the fort, which now serves as the town’s mildly diverting museum, home to a large collection of finely carved sculptures and a superb little marble hammam (baths), plus the usual ragtag collection of miniature paintings, weaponry and other regal memorabilia.
Keoladeo National Park
Keoladeo National Park
Keoladeo National Park is India’s premier birdwatching sanctuary – an avian wonderland that attracts vast numbers of feathered creatures thanks to its strategic location, protected status and extensive wetlands (although the last are currently much reduced). Some 375 species have been recorded here, including around two hundred year-round residents along with 150-odd migratory species from as far afield as Tibet, China, Siberia and even Europe, who fly south to escape the northern winter. Keoladeo is probably best known for its stupendous array of aquatic birds, which descend en masse on the park’s wetlands following the dramatic arrival of the monsoon in July. These include the majestic saras crane and a staggering two thousand painted storks, as well as snake-necked darters, spoonbills, pink flamingos, white ibis and grey pelicans. There are also various mammals in the park, including wild boar, mongoose, chital, nilgai and sambar.
The best time to visit is following the monsoon (roughly Oct–March), when the weather is dry but the lakes are still full and the migratory birds in residence (although mists in December and January can hinder serious birdwatching). Unfortunately, the drought suffered by Rajasthan in the past decade has taken a massive toll on Keoladeo. Diminished rains over recent years have left the park’s lakes at a fraction of their customary size, with a huge consequent reduction in the number of aquatic birds in residence. A plan to artificially irrigate the park may have improved the situation by the time you read this, but don’t hold your breath. For the time being, even a waterless Keoladeo is still a richly rewarding place to visit.