* The birds are wintering seagulls, thousands of miles from their breeding grounds ranging from Europe and the Caspian Sea through the Central Asian steppe to Siberia
* The seagulls start coming in September still in their bland workwear; but when they leave in February, they are dressed in breeding finery
* For anyone wondering why they return, the answer is namkeen. The ethics of feeding wild creatures is debatable, but it is a culture ingrained in many Indians
Our captain is asleep, his oars dry and the boat moored to the steps. It is a bitterly cold morning. The whole bleak world is in slumber, cloaked by a suffocating fog. Wisps rise from the water, banks of it rolling in from the sky. Smoke from still smouldering fires mix with the taint of Delhi. The Yamuna, black and stagnant, is barely flowing under the monstrous iron bridge. Clouds of mysterious white shapes quietly tread the water or meditate on the sand banks across the river. Everything is still but for a half-submerged priest offering a tumbler of tap water to the sun, weak and hidden somewhere in this apocalyptic world.
And then a distant, hoarse cry — “Aao! Aao!” — comes from somewhere in the haze. Swirls of yellowing fumes magically congeal into a lone boatman floating on pieces of broken sun. He is standing up in his boat, both hands raised and calling out.
The white shapes suddenly come to life, sprouting pinions and waking to his call. They rise in a vortex of luminous wings, raising a storm of fine water droplets and screaming at the silence. Thousands of them, converging and spiralling in a heady cloud around the boatman, the centre of their world for the moment at least.
The birds are wintering seagulls, thousands of miles from their breeding grounds ranging from Europe and the Caspian Sea through the Central Asian steppes to Siberia. Every year they make this pilgrimage, escaping the harsh winters of their homeland to find milder climes in India. Many stop here along the riverine systems of North India. Others go further south to the coasts. I have seen mixed flocks numbering in their thousands at the lighthouse beach in my home town, Kochi.
The seagulls start coming in September still in their bland workwear; but when they leave in February, they are dressed in breeding finery. They are as cosmopolitan a group of birds as possible, breeding across the world and while they prefer the proximity of water, adapt to every kind of habitat including dirty urban landscapes.
Which is why they are quite at home here at the Nigambodh Ghat in Delhi. It is a burning ghat, Delhi’s oldest surviving such place where bodies have been burnt for centuries according to Hindu tradition. It is said to have been built by Yudhishthira of the Mahabharata. My boatman tells me that it is older still and that the four-headed creator Brahma once took a dip in these waters to clear his head. Bodies are still burnt here, both in traditional pyres as well as in electric and CNG crematoriums.
The river, too, appears to have come here to die. The water is malignant and opaque from drinking in the poison of the metropolis. It carries nothing but refuse. Surely, it cannot be alive, nor can it sustain life. And yet, it does. And it is holy, as many who take a dip in these vile waters will testify.
Nevertheless, the gulls come here. They have been doing so for as long ago as the priests and boatmen and their familial memories can go back. They just call them panchhi, Hindi for birds. For anyone wondering why they return, the answer is namkeen. The ethics of feeding wild creatures is debatable, but it is a culture ingrained in many Indians. This is a place where the soul leaves the body and so the souls must return annually to pay a visit, or so believe the residents here. They believe it is their duty to feed these ancestors. It is also good business to attract tourists and birdwatchers.
And what do we Indians feed guests, but fried namkeen (savoury snacks)? The gulls don’t mind it. They play their role of pure white souls with gusto and put on a spectacular show. They respond to calls and waving of hands with mind-boggling flight patterns and ear-splitting cries. They glide, they dive, they rob, they scream and some are bold enough to land on your hand or head. For the information of any errant visitor out to feed gulls, they prefer namkeen to bread and biscuits. And of course, no fish; these are vegetarian souls.
The collective noun used for gulls is ‘colony’. But that word in no way captures the essence of the gull collective. ‘Frenzy’ or ‘mayhem’ seems to be more appropriate. Trying to photograph a single bird in this maelstrom is an education as to why birds fly in flocks to avoid predators.
Look carefully and you can see that there are a few different birds in there. A majority are swarms of brown-headed gulls, joined by smaller flocks of slighter built black-headed gulls. These mostly white-and-grey species can be quite hard to tell apart. The best way, which isn’t easy, is that brown-headed gulls have tell-tale ‘mirrors’ on their black wing tips while black-heads have a white wing tip. They seem to adopt slightly different styles of flight, too. The black-headed skim across the water with quick angled-back wings, while the brown-headed are more aerial. There are also occasional slender-billed gulls and shy river terns that stay at the margins.
Most impressive of them all is the malevolent Pallas’s gull, with a villainous mask and formidable bill. These hulking loners dwarf the other gulls in the mêlée. They move through the heavy air like old boats, their pinions like creaking oars. It is interesting to note that the local thugs, crows and black kites, stay away despite the presence of easy food.
A birder, like me, will snootily tell you that there is no such thing as a “seagull”, just gulls of different species. Some of them, like brown-headed gulls, are almost never found by the sea. But even as far inland as this, there is a whiff of the sea always about these birds — something of its preternatural calm on the birds’ snowy plumage. Also its fathomless depth in their glassy eyes and hunger. And in the pure chaos of their flocks and their relentless wings; the living, churning sea.
Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi