We are driving through the mountains in Ladakh, listening to local music and our driver Dorjee turns out to be a die hard romantic. As the landscape changes, Dorjee gets a bit emotional talking about his family in Zanskar and the baby he is expecting in a few months. And then he goes on an impromptu karoke session and sings out aloud . I ask him to translate the lyrics and he complies with a grin.
The chortens and the mani wheels whizz past us . The music suddenly changes and Dorjee is a bit silent. I tease him and he interrupts me in Hindi, “ This is not a romantic song madam, its a poem by Tsangyang Gyatso, our 6th Dalai Lama.” Dorjee does not elaborate further as we drive towards the lake Panggong Tso .
We spot a bit of green as we near the wetlands. And then something moves . The birder in me comes alive as I gesture to Dorjee to stop. “ Cha Tungtung karbo, madam..never seen them near Panggong before, “ he says as I move closer to take a picture of the black necked cranes .The national bird of Kashmir is a large whitish grey bird and has a black head, red crown patch , black upper neck and legs and a white patch near the eye. Another car stops by and we spend some silent moments clicking away.
Then Dorjee breaks the silence. “Cha means bird and tung tung karbo is long legged and white. That song madam, “ he says referring to the earlier melody “is a poem on the white crane . It talks about the rebirth of the Dalai Lama who was believed to have been murdered .”Cranes do have a spiritual significance in Buddhism as they symbolize marital longetivity. In fact I read later they have their own monastery and festival in Bhutan where they return every year.
Back home, I spoke to Gopi Sundar from the international crane foundation . I learnt that these Tibetan cranes visit Ladakh probably from the river valleys of Tibet for breeding between June and September. “When the snow melts, you will find these birds coming in pairs, marking their territories and dancing- a part of their hormonal activity. You would probably find 30 nests here, “ he says adding the remaining 60-70 are non breeders. The chicks later fly with their parents who are fiercely protective, guarding them from feral dogs. “Real estate is a serious issue here, “ says Gopi referring to the loss of habitat for these cranes as wetlands become lesser and tourism increases as well. Its tough life to be a crane now , “ he laughs. Listening to him, I go back to the walks around the lakes where Dorjee treated us to the prophetic song and dedicated it to his family
White crane, lovely bird,
Lend me your wings!
I’m not going far and away,
I’ll return through the land of Litang.
Peacocks from the east of India,
Parrots from the lower Kongpo area!
Though (their) birthplaces are different,
(Their) meeting-place is Lhasa, the land of Dharma wheels.
The willow lost its heart to the bird,
The bird lost its heart to the willow!
If affection concords in harmony,
The hawk cannot overpower (them).
This is one of the stories published in my column, Inside Story in the Metro Plus. I thank Karthikeyan, chief naturalist of JLR who put me in touch with his friend Gopi Sundar , an authority on cranes. As a birder, I was keen on spotting this bird which is believed to be found only here in Ladakh besides a few in Arunachal Pradesh. You can otherwise spot them in Bhutan and Tibet among other places. I was lucky to see a couple enroute to Panggong Tso at a much closer distance than the ones I saw in Tso Kar.