Explore the popular day-trip destination of Khichan, Rajasthan

Sandip Hor/Dubai
Filed on October 14, 2021

(Sandip Hor)

The sprawling Dera Dune resort
(Sandip Hor)

Villagers with their handicraft
(Sandip Hor)

Khichan, in Rajasthan, is a small rural hamlet in the Thar Desert which is becoming a popular day-trip destination

Coronavirus is not an issue for them, so they don’t stop travelling. Every year in October, they land in big numbers on the dusty grounds of Khichan — a small rural hamlet in the Thar Desert region of Rajasthan in India.

These visitors are not humans; they are a type of crane species named Demoiselle by the 18th-century French queen Marie Antoinette for their grace. To escape the harshness of winter in their breeding grounds in Mongolia, Russia and North China, they fly almost 5,000 km across the mighty Himalayas to reach warmer Khichan, their sabbatical for the next six months.

Following the age-old Indian tradition of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ meaning ‘Guest is God’, the local villagers look after their avian visitors pretty well. The credit for organising the hospitality goes to 40-year-old Sevaram Mali who has dedicated his life to the welfare of these winged creatures. With the support from other locals, he not only organises 2,000 kg of grains daily as the feed for the birds but also maintains a logbook on their movements and takes care of any bird falling sick or getting wounded during their stay. He even fights with local electricity authorities to get overhead power lines replaced with underground cables so that the large-winged cranes can glide freely without any obstruction. In recent times, he has received good attention in the local and international media for his commendable efforts, which sets a great example of human-animal relationship.

The media attention has not only made him famous but also dotted the otherwise ordinary rural nest on the tourist map as a bird sanctuary worth discovering. With the news further spreading, Khichan is fast becoming a popular day-trip destination for tourists visiting well-known Rajasthan destinations — Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner — from where Khichan is less than four hours’ drive.

According to Sevaram, the first batch of the birds arrived in Khichan in the early 70s. Initially, the numbers were very low and were fed by villager Ratan Lal Maloo in his backyard. He was a Jain by religion and feeding the birds was part of his religious routine. However, as the news of warm climate and food availability presumably got passed by the cranes on return, season after season the number of cranes flocking Khichan just increased. The current number of these winged visitors is estimated to be around 30,000.

Their annual arrival awakes the impoverished village.

The serenity of the atmosphere is then taken over by the ceaseless ‘kraw kraw’ pitches of the winged visitors, which at times turns loud enough to make one deaf. The dirt roads soon get dustier as bird lovers from nearby areas start pouring in to see a matchless spectacle of avian life in action.

During the day the birds can be spotted around the sand dunes, waterbodies, bushlands and neighbouring salt pans, but the best exhibition is in the morning when they congregate at a village courtyard, where Sevaram with other local villagers lay out the food for them.

It’s a sight to behold watching thousands of these grey bodied, red-eyed, two-legged graceful creatures with a long black neck, pure white plumes and a wingspan over a metre descending on the scattered grains to fill their bellies. From a distance, the feeding panorama looks like a patch of grey and black flipping up and down on a splash of yellow.

Few exciting things amaze onlookers. The cranes do not enter the ring until it’s clear of all humans. Before plunging, they wait and watch the space from nearby sand dunes and begin to descend only after receiving instructions from their leader who can be easily recognised. As the feeding arena often referred to as the open-air cafeteria has limited capacity, it’s incredible to observe the way the first batch of cranes descend, eat and fly out to make room for the next.

If staying at the resort there are other things to see and do. Guests have the rare opportunity to experience the unspoilt desert life by visiting nearby villages, where friendly locals welcome them to their mud houses called ‘Dhanis’, narrate their lifestyle tales, show the handicrafts they produce and even plead to have a cup of tea with them. Their hospitality touches hearts and reveals a different genre of India.

While staying there guests have ample time to chase the cranes at various spots at different times of the day, see them closely and know their features and capture their countless actions through the lenses.

Trekking through the sandy domain on a camel — the ship of the desert — is a highlight of the stay. While gently crossing over the dunes in rolling rhythms, it’s not unusual to get transported back in time to the era of camel caravans voyaging these sandy paths from China and Turkey to Italy and Spain, this region then being part of the famous Silk Route.

The cranes and the desert combine with the comforts of the place to bestow a memorable experience of a different character. It’s worth adding this expedition to the bucket list for your next visit to India.