SAMBHAR SALT LAKE
The Flamingo Dance
By Akshai Jain
It’s five in the evening, and the searing heat of the day is giving way to a gentle breeze that murmurs over the dry bed of the Sambhar Salt Lake. There’s little sign of water. Instead, a vast glacial sea of compacted mud spreads out for miles. The fading light frames the craggy Aravalli Hills that skirt the north-western edge of the lake. Small towns and villages that lie scattered along the distant shores of the lake flicker hesitantly to life. Strains of music drift by on the breeze. And then a vast flock of flamingoes flies by, the gentle pink of their feathers catching the last rays of the sun. I stand gaping till their honking is swallowed by the silence, and their lanky shapes disappear over an embankment. I’ve been in Sambhar for three days, and I’ve seen many hundreds of flamingoes, but the odd and unlikely inhabitants of this muted landscape still come as a surprise.
The Sambhar Salt Lake is not so much a lake as a vast depression. A body of sand, saline and isolated pockets of water that straddles three districts (Nagaur, Jaipur and Ajmer) of Rajasthan, it spreads over an area of 190 sq km. For most of the year the lake remains dry. After the monsoons, a thin film of water covers the western reservoir, attracting migrants like the greater and lesser flamingoes, painted storks and spot-billed pelicans. Huge colonies of birds congregate in the centre of the reservoir. By October the water recedes to a few small pools (the rest either evaporates or is diverted to the salt pans in the eastern reservoir), leaving behind mile upon mile of treacherously wet sand that is ideal terrain for waders such as pied avocets, Kentish plovers and black-winged stilts. It’s also a time when the flamingoes breed, building their circular, 1-ft high nests in areas near Ratan Talao. During the day, a couple of hundred birds can be found feeding in the kyars (salt pans), the freshwater ponds near the Jhapog Dam and in the stagnant pools near Sambhar Town.
Come November, migratory birds start flying in. Shovellers, pochards, common teals and pintails gather in their hundreds in the less saline ponds; large groups of flamingos meander pensively through the waters. November to mid-March is also the best time to come to Sambhar — the cool sunny days allow for many hours of wandering. By this time, substantial areas of the lake would have dried out, making it easier to walk or drive on its bed, and get closer to the birds. It’s also less dusty, and the babul trees that emerge where the compacted mud of the lake bed gives way to looser desert sand, are still green.
I visited Sambhar in late-March, the fag end of the season, and I didn’t expect to find much. We took the road that skirts to the right of the Sambhar Lake Railway Station, and arrives a little beyond it at a railway crossing. A small bund there veered off from the tracks, flanking what appeared to be a pool of water. A raucous group of children played cricket in the sand, and a few groups of men stood gossiping. I walked for more than a kilometre, and had nearly given up hope of spotting anything interesting when I noticed them — hundreds of dots gleaming in the afternoon sun: a flock of at least 400 lesser and greater flamingoes barely 300 ft from me.
It came as a shock — a field of white and pink birds poised on tall dainty legs, wandering cautiously through the stagnant waters in their ballerina tutus. Some preened themselves, others balanced nonchalantly on a single leg, while most stood still in the saline waters, long necks curved back towards their feet so that their broad pink and black bills disappeared under the water. They stood in a spot for a while, sifting the water for spirulina algae that flourishes in these saline waters. Then they took a few steps — a slight wiggle, followed by a little self-satisfied preening, and then a disdainful glance at us, down broken Roman noses, and upturned beaks.
I woke up early the next morning. From my perch on the verandah of the Circuit House, I could just about make out the outlines of the lake. A pair of little green bee-eaters flitted from one gnarled babul tree in the courtyard to another. Daulatji, the caretaker, brought me a cup of sweet tea, and as I rubbed the last bits of sleep from my eyes, a long dancing line of pink flamingoes wandered across my imagination. And they kept coming back — as I wandered through the dusty unremarkable lanes of Sambhar Town, past old havelis and kirana shops, and back to the comfort of the delightfully old-world Circuit House, and as I made my way back to Delhi...
It starts getting hot in Sambhar towards the end of March. Dust-laden winds start blowing across the desert, the lake dries up and most of the birds leave. For the next three-and-a-half months, the lake retreats into itself — without its colourful inhabitants, the landscape turns a uniform, unmitigated shade of brown, while the still waters in the salt pans evaporate, leaving behind layer upon layer of the finest ‘Sambhar’ salt on the scorched earth.
ABOUT SAMBHAR SALT LAKE
The Sambhar Salt Lake is the largest lake in India (the last time the lake was full was in 1985). It’s a shallow wetland, with depths varying from 1.6-6.6 ft. Migratory birds such as pochards, waders and flamingoes are found here in large numbers. The lake is not a protected area, but it was designated a Ramsar Site in 1990 and was also identified as one of the sites for conservation action under the Indian Wetland Conservation Programme. The lake is owned by the state, but a large part of it is leased to Sambhar Salts Limited. Salt manufacturing units have been a cause of worry for conservationists, who say it has adversely affected the lake’s ecosystem. Dams built on the rivers that feed the lake, and poor rainfall, have also caused a drop in water levels.
The Salt Lake lies at an altitude of 360m, and gets an average rainfall of 54 cm. In the best of years, the average depth of water in the lake is a few centimetres, with the maximum depth going up to 3m. The length of the lake basin is 22.5 km, while its width ranges from 3.2 km to 11.2 km. A 5-km long stone dam between the dusty villages of Jhapog to the south and Gudha to the north divides the lake into two unequal parts. The western part is an undisturbed reservoir that supplies water to the salt pans that dominate the eastern part.
The Sambhar Lake in its eastern part is more industrial area than lake — huge mounds of salt, salt pans and salt refining factories alternate with shrub-scattered patches of sand. There is a metalled road that connects all towns on the banks of the lake. The road from east of Sambhar to the Shakhambari Mata Mandir via Jhapog and Pipla ki Dhani is very rough in parts. There is a dirt track that runs from the Shakhambari Mata Mandir to Kuchaman via Korsina, Badun and Manglana, but this short-cut should be taken only during the day. Sambhar, a small dusty city on the south-eastern bank of the lake, is the only sizeable habitation in the area. The flats of the lake extend right up to the town, and you can often find flocks of flamingoes feeding in the rich, stagnant waters near the railway station. A series of roads branch out from the town, two of which skirt the boundaries of the lake. Others lead to the salt pans. Salt production is the main occupation in Sambhar — the town has little else to offer. While there are no professional guides in Sambhar, the people (especially taxi drivers) in town will be able to tell you the locations of bird colonies.