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Hooray, we heard a tiger roar!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Galtaji » Ranthambhore National Park - 22 to 25 February 2013

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Warning! This blog contains negative comments!

But first, here are some positive ones:

We'd had a great time in The Pink City, but were now on our way to ten days of tranquil wildlife safaris and bird-watching, starting with the well-known tiger reserve of Ranthambore (that's the negative bit, which comes later).

On the way, we called in at the Monkey Temple, Galtaji, about 10 kilometres from Jaipur on the road towards Agra.

This is not a very well-trodden tourist site like most other places hereabouts. You'll be asked to make a tiny donation if you plan to use a camera and, for a few Rupees, you can buy some peanuts to feed the monkeys from the man at the entrance; he'll put them into little bags that he makes from old newspapers. You might find a snake charmer somewhere around too, but that's about it. It's a refreshing change to come across a place of worship without crowds or overt commercialism.

It's actually a slightly down-at-heel complex of ancient shrines and temples, with holy pools of water (known as kunds), around which small gangs of rhesus macaques play and swim - yes, swim. The main temple has shrines to a saint who spent his life here in meditation and prayer (Rishi Galav, after whom Galtaji is named) and to Lord Hanuman, the ape-like humanoid Hindu deity. A steep path beside a large kund fed by waters flowing from the mouth of a marble cow's head, where pilgrims and monkeys alike come to bathe, takes you to another temple atop the highest hill.

It's a pleasant place to spend a while. And the monkeys are friendly.

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Then, it was back on the road southwards to Sawai Madhopur and the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

Now, I don't want you to get the idea that we didn't enjoy our visit to Ranthambore, but let's just say that with better accommodation, better conditions for tourism and better luck it could have been, well, better...

As our base for the next three nights, we'd chosen what we thought was a 'homestay', partly because we like to spend time with local people and to support their economy, and partly because the website said it was run by a naturalist who's consulted by documentary film-makers about wildlife in the reserve. It transpired that this expert actually lives in a big house miles away, the 'homestay' is a very average guesthouse run by a manager, and said expert, having promised to be our guide one afternoon, decided instead to take some Indian visitors he called 'VIPs'. So much for 'Guest is God', the maxim at most places we stayed elsewhere in India.

Poor tourism conditions, however, were a big area of concern. We booked our three half-day safaris 90 days in advance on the Internet; we were among the very first to do so, on the very first day that bookings opened. The park authority's computer lets you choose between safaris by Gypsy (an open-air jeep for six passengers sharing two bench seats) or Canter (an open-air truck with bench seats for 20). On the day, it allocates which of the eight zones within the park you'll visit. It obviously then ignores how early or late you made your bookings because it allocated us two of the notoriously worst zones for our first two safaris! You're supposed to present yourself at the booking office an hour or so before the 6.30 morning departure or 2.30 afternoon one. In practice, for an extra Rs.100 (£1.20/US$1.90/€1.50) per person per safari, one of the staff at our guesthouse went there during the night and queued on our behalf. Then, our chosen form of transport came to pick us up.

Each safari is scheduled to be for 3½ hours but, by the time you've picked up and dropped off other passengers at their hotels - all of which are a long way from the park entrance - you can kiss goodbye to about an hour of that.

Once in the park, you'll discover that the tracks are potholes with occasional rocks, that your vehicle's shock absorbers need replacing, and that you're one of at least 378 people (90 in jeeps and 288 in canters) who are bouncing around looking for tigers or anything else that moves - most of which have been scared off by the vehicle ahead of you! It's more like a circus arena than a conservation area.

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You'll also discover that there are very few tigers in the 275 square kilometres that make up the core of the reserve's total of 1,334 sq km. No-one seems to know precisely how many tigers there are; some say 50, some say 40, I think they're all guessing. Only a few individuals are regularly seen and, anyway, an adult tiger needs a territory of around 20 sq km (8 sq miles), so you don't need a calculator to realise that your chances of actually spotting one among the brown, boulder-strewn scrub are very low indeed. We did see a tiger's pug mark one day and we did hear a roar somewhere in the distance the next. People in a canter ahead of us claimed to have seen one running across the track just minutes before we arrived. Yadu, our driver, on his way to a temple outside the park in the evening, saw one. Perhaps we just needed better luck!

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Fortunately, although it's the one animal that people hope against hope to see, the tiger is not the only attraction at Ranthambore. We saw deer of several species, plus monkeys, crocodiles, turtles and birds of many kinds on our three safaris in the park. I'm not a wildlife cameraman, so you'll have to excuse the variable quality of photographs which follow.

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It was our final afternoon that was to be a real highlight of our visit, when just the three of us went with Vipul Jain, an amiable and extremely knowledgeable naturalist (who replaced the 'expert' to whom I previously referred) on a birdwatching sortie to a reservoir on the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur. Here were flocks of Flamingos, Geese and Pelicans, Black-headed Ibis, colourful Indian Rollers, an Osprey diving to catch fish, Sparrows attacking themselves in our jeep's wing-mirrors, and wading birds aplenty. And not another tourist anywhere to be seen!

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We were also treated to smiling women working in the fields alongside the lake and an informal visit to a neighbouring village, where adults and children alike delighted us with their friendly welcome and constant requests for pictures to be taken.

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It was proof, if proof was needed, that Rathambore's not only about tigers.

Accommodation: (No hyperlink provided as I do not recommend staying there!)
We stayed at Tiger Home. It has two floors with a total of eight double rooms with bathroom and air-conditioning, all rather basic and plain. One floor seems to be permanently occupied by documentary film-makers and their computer equipment. Meals, included in the daily rate of Rs.3,000 (about £36/US$55/€42) per double room or Rs.2,000 (about £24/US$36.50/€28) per single room, are taken at a table on each of the two floors. They were basic curry cuisine. There's no lounge or outside space and WiFi is intermittent.

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:23 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india rajasthan ranthambore galtaji Comments (0)

A Birder Paradise in Rajasthan?

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Abnaheri » Keoladeo National Park - 25 to 28 February 2013

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Okay, I know it's a corny title and I'm aware that a 'Bird of Paradise' doesn't exist here in Rajasthan*, but a man and his blog have to start somewhere!

Today, we were making the long journey from a disappointing Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to the Keoladeo National Park and the promise of a paradise for birds and birders alike.

However, unlike the Grey haired nomads, who have binoculars which cost a king's ransom and who put them to good use at the drop of a floppy beige hat, I'm not a birder. Until I came on this holiday, I didn't know a Purple Swamphen from a White-eared Bulbul - but, as the nomads will tell you, I was keen to learn and to take pictures of them, providing they posed nicely!

*The Asian Paradise-Flycatcher doesn't count!

*****

The journey from Ranthambore northeastwards to Bharatpur, across-country on notoriously poor roads, could take anything up to six hours. Instead, we opted to drive due north for three hours on a half-decent road with only a few small towns along the way. We would also make a stop to see an ancient step-well - and to buy a few tasty guavas from a roadside seller - before continuing east on a national highway for two hours to our eventual destination.

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The step-well to which I refer was in the village of Abnaheri, just ten minutes off the main Jaipur to Agra road near Bamanpura. It's worth making the detour if you're passing that way. Tourists doing whistle-stop Golden Triangle tours (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) with the more-enlightened coach operators sometimes make a brief cultural stop here (and the loos are not too bad either). Today, we had the place more or less to ourselves.

If you've never seen a step-well (called a 'baori' in these parts), I should explain that it's more like a deep pond or reservoir, usually storing rain water rather than ground water. The water's reached by descending flights of steps, which makes it relatively accessible, and the whole thing is easy to maintain and manage too. A baori often serves other purposes - a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies, for example. Remnants of stone carvings, some retrieved from the walls of the baori and some from the ruined and even more ancient Harshat Mata Temple close by, confirm this and are now stored under cover in buildings around the perimeter. At the bottom of the well, the air is several degrees cooler than at the top, making it an ideal place for locals to gather during periods of intense heat.

This particular step-well, called Chand Baori, was built during the 9th century and it's the deepest and largest one I've seen in my travels around India. The mind boggles as to how it could have been constructed by hand all those years ago. A sign near the entrance says it's 19.5 metres (64 feet) deep, although I've read somewhere that it's much deeper; whatever, it's a long way down 13 storeys and 3,500 narrow steps to the unpleasant green weed at the bottom. Chand Baori's clearly no longer in use, but I imagine it would have been darn hard work carrying water back up all those steps!

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*****

Next stop was Keoladeo National Park, formerly known to birders worldwide as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and formally known as the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Keoladeo is another name for Lord Shiva and is the name by which he's worshipped at an old temple in the park, and ghana is a local word for the thick forest once supported by the area).

To help understand how the park gained its enviable reputation as one of the finest bird sanctuaries in the world you need to know a bit about its history. Initially, a natural depression was flooded after a dyke was constructed by the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur in the mid-18th century. The area became home to huge numbers of waterfowl and later a hunting ground for the maharajahs, then for large duck shoots during the time of the British Raj. The last big shoot was held in 1964, although the maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972. It was eventually designated as a bird sanctuary in 1976, became a protected site in 1981 and was declared a national park a year later, when grazing within its boundaries was banned. It's now enclosed by a high boundary fence to minimise the possibility of encroachment. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

These wetlands are not entirely natural, so remain dependent on monsoons and a regulated water supply, mainly pumped in from a reservoir outside the park boundary. There's a system of dykes and sluices, some now powered by solar panels, to provide areas of varying water depths and, as the park is strategically located in the middle of the Central Asian migratory flyway, it attracts large congregations of birds of all kinds during the winter months. We looked forward to making acquaintance with at least some of them during our three-night stay.

We stayed at an excellent small hotel, one of several grouped together just minutes by cycle rickshaw from the park's entrance. Yes, I said 'cycle rickshaw'. You see, while you can take a car just a mile or so into the park, you then have to choose whether to walk, hire a bicycle, or take a cycle rickshaw with seats for two. You can arrange for one of the rickshaws to come to your hotel and transport you around the park for a few hours, or for a whole day, if you wish. The rickshaw wallahs displaying a yellow plate are authorised to double up as guides and have a good knowledge of the birds and mammals and of their whereabouts. The two we employed had been doing the job for more than 20 years, but still only charged Rs.100 (£1.25/US$2/€1.50) an hour.

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The best locations are through the dry scrub area to the verdant shallow lakes, about an hour's rickshaw ride from the entrance on rough but bearable tracks. If you'll excuse the pun, for the best bird-watching opportunities you have to be an early bird. The park opens at sunrise. Entry costs non-Indians Rs.400 (£5/US$8/€6) per visit. If you want a naturalist to guide you, as we did on our first day, this can be arranged through your hotel and will cost about Rs.1500 (£18/US$28/€21) for the whole day - a very worthwhile extra.

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We saw only a fraction of the hundreds of species of birds and mammals which call Keoladeo home. Although we still saw absolutely loads, we were able to photograph only some of them, like bulbuls, owls, ducks, storks, monitor lizards and monkeys. Enough words - take a look at the pictures that follow. The very small birds that true birders call LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) refused to pose nicely!

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Lesser-floating Flipflops - probably a male and a female, but certainly not a pair!


One bird, a rare Rubythroat (Luscinia pectoralis), usually found only in the foothills of the Himalayas and apparently blown off course, proved particularly elusive - see the picture of the nomads peering into the bushes on our first morning in the park. Next morning, while I had a lie-in, they hired mountain-bikes and ventured into the park alone, twitcher-like.

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One of the park wardens played a recording of the Rubythroat's mating call in the area where it had last been spotted - and hey presto...! Alas, it was only a fleeting glance and they failed to get photographic evidence!

*****

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Accommodation:

We thoroughly recommend The Birder's Inn, conveniently located close to the park entrance in pleasant gardens.

It has 24 simply-furnished, well-equipped rooms, all with shower & wc (some have a bath tub too). There are overhead fans and air-conditioning for when it gets warmer than it was during our stay.

There's Wi-Fi in a few of the rooms and in the lobby.

The restaurant serves good Indian food and the service is outstanding.

We paid per night, including all meals: Rs.4,000 plus taxes (£51/US$79/€61) for a standard double and Rs.2750 plus tax (£36/US$55/€42) for a standard single room.

As the name suggests, the hotel is very familiar with the needs of birders. The manager very ably arranged our rickshaw transport and birding guide - he was particularly caring and attentive and even upgraded the nomads to the honeymoon suite without extra charge!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:19 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india rajasthan bharatpur keoladeo abnaheri Comments (0)

Into the unknown

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Fatehpur Sikri » National Chambal Sanctuary - 28 February to 3 March 2013

sunny 30 °C
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A week into our wildlife adventure and we still had another three days to go. What I'd hoped would be a leisurely ten days had so far turned out to be anything but!

It had been a hive of activity, involving chilly early mornings and hot, sunny days in the open-air, with much hurtling around in jeeps or bumping along on cycle rickshaws. It had been exhausting, educational and exhilarating in almost equal quantities. Okay, I did get one lazy morning - but, boy, did I need it!

Although a veteran of many places on our itinerary, the last two animal sanctuaries, Ranthambore ('Hooray, we heard a tiger roar!') and Keoladeo ('A Birder Paradise in Rajasthan?'), were entirely new to me. While I won't hurry back to the first of these, the latter was fantastic!

Now, we were off to a third, the National Chambal Sanctuary, about 125 kilometres to the east of Keoladeo. It's little known to travel bloggers. In all probability, mine - the one you're now reading - is one of very few to have 'National Chambal Sanctuary' as its location!

*****

But first a sentence or ten about a well-known place through which we had to pass on the way - Fatehpur Sikri.

In the second half of the 16th century, the capital of the Mughal empire was right here on the Sikri ridge. It was originally called Fatehabad (Fateh, an Arabic or Persian word referring to military 'victories') and later Fatehpur ('pur', as you'll know if you've read one of my previous blogs, meaning 'city').

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Built by the Emperor Akbar, this massive city was 'considerably larger than London and more populous' according to Ralph Fitch, an English traveller who passed this way in 1585. It comprised palaces and public buildings, harems, and residences for the court, the army, royal servants and a huge population.

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There were mosques too, the largest of which, the Jama Masjid (not to be confused with one of the same name in Delhi), was designed to accommodate 10,000 faithful and, according to the dedicatory inscription, deserved no less respect than Mecca itself.

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Here too was the late-16th Century tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti, who foretold the birth of Akbar's son. That son was named Prince Salim after the saint. He later succeeded Akbar to the throne of the Mughal Empire in his imperial name of Jahangir. It's a superb piece of Mughal architecture with particularly fine jali (perforated marble screens) enclosing the entire shrine.

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The city's architecture is impressive and, perhaps more importantly, it's perfectly preserved for, although completed in 1573, it was only lived in for a dozen or so years before being abandoned. It was a bit like the thousand-piece jigsaw you bought at a charity shop. You had a place to put it and you had a picture of what it would look like. You spent ages putting it together and started to enjoy it. Then, just as it was more or less finished, you discovered there was one tiny piece missing! In this case, the Emperor's capital without a future was beautifully built in the right place to govern an empire - but there wasn't enough water to sustain the Emperor or his thousands of subjects!

Akbar's loss is our gain. It's a wonderful example of a city preserved in time.

*****

And so we continued, along the way passing overloaded taxis, halting momentarily to photograph them for posterity. If they'd been in the UK, the Health & Safety Executive would have had kittens!

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Although very familiar with the area, our driver encountered unexpected roadworks and lost his way, taking a wrong turn somewhere on the Agra ring-road. The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time we arrived at our destination, the National Chambal Sanctuary.

The Chambal River is part of the Gangetic drainage system and a tributary of the Yamuna (the river which runs beside the Taj Mahal). The sanctuary, in existence since 1979, is situated near where the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh meet, and is co-administered by all three states. It covers a large area where the river cuts through ravines and hills to create a long and narrow eco-reserve, about 450 kilometres long and two to six kilometres wide.

It was established primarily to protect critically-endangered small crocodiles called Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) and it now supports the largest population of this creature in the wild.

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It's one of the cleanest rivers in India, one of very few places where you might be lucky enough to see the rare Ganges River Dolphin and the endangered Red Crowned Roof Turtle, and the only place where Indian Skimmers are known to nest in large numbers. It certainly is a very special place.

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High on our list of things to do was a boat ride on the Chambal River. Now this wasn't to be any old boat ride. We needed a guide and he came in the shape of Gajendra Dagar, a young naturalist provided to us by our hotel. He proved to be a brilliant spotter, extremely knowledgeable and very pleasant to be with.

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In the space of a few hours, he found us several of the long-snouted Gharials (pictured above), Mugger (also called Marsh) Crocodiles (pictured below), some turtles and an array of spectacular and rare birds. There was also a Jungle Cat somewhere just above the river bank, although I would have needed better eyesight or binoculars to see it. Alas, there were no sightings of freshwater dolphins or the endangered turtle.

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In the grounds of our hotel and among adjoining farmland, we were introduced to a wide variety of smaller birds and some owls.

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Returning from an excursion to nearby temples, we encountered a pair of mongoose moving fast through the undergrowth just outside the hotel entrance. That night, in the gardens, by torchlight, Janice had a glimpse of a palm civet (a small tree-dwelling wild cat - similar to those that, in Indonesia, are responsible for Kopi Luwak, coffee made from the part-digested beans found in its droppings, yummy!).

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In the mornings, I was woken at some unearthly hour by a colony of Fruit Bats, some with their stretchy black wings wrapped tightly around themselves, others showing their ginger, fox-like faces. As the sun set on the previous evening, these giant, web-winged mammals had swirled around like dragons before leaving their roost in the tall tree overhanging my bungalow. You simply would not believe the amount of noise involved when they returned after their night's feeding foray and emptied themselves onto my roof!

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A downside to staying for a few days amid this truly wondrous area is the lack of good accommodation. Perhaps you could stay in Agra, about 70 kilometres away, and visit it on a day trip or book a room at one of the government Forest Rest Houses or Public Works Department Inspection Bungalows at Bah, Chakkar Nagar or Pinahat. Failing that, you'd have little option but to stay where we did, at what's called Chambal Safari Lodge. The name suggests that, like others elsewhere in the world (I'm thinking East Africa, Australia, Thailand even), this might be a smart, lodge-style hotel close to all the action. Wrong! This one's a former farm with fields and arid scrub around it and the journey to or from the river sanctuary, through small towns with narrow streets, markets and traffic could take three-quarters of an hour each way. It's run (not very well) by an Indian couple, who usually live in south-west London and who, although well-meaning and pleasant, seemed lacking in good hotel management skills. There's no competition in the vicinity, so it's grossly over-priced too. A pity really.

Perhaps one of the few compensations we found here was the nightly gathering with a glass of something around the fire-pit, swapping stories with other guests of what they did or didn't see that day. Oh, and for some maybe, a highlight might have been recognising a pungent 'weed' growing alongside a path to the cottages!

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*****

We enjoyed visiting a neighbouring village, where we met welcoming, smiling people eager to show us how they lived, where they cooked, where they slept. This was a true rural community of subsistence farmers living in tiny home-made houses of mud and brick. Many had a buffalo or two tied up outside to provide the family with nutritious milk and cheese, as well as fuel handmade from the copious dung. Villagers congregated around a communal standpipe to fill plastic containers with water. Girls in smart blue and white uniforms, their hair neatly-tied in loops, made their way to school. Boys bunked off school to play cricket on dusty, bare ground at the edge of the village. Dogs languished in the shade and bright-eyed small children proudly carried puppies to show us. It was a charming interlude which gave us a glimpse of a life that's lead by so many in this land and so seldom seen by visitors from the developed world.

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A short drive from the 'lodge' brought us to a remarkable complex of ancient white temples and shrines grouped along one bank of the Yamuna River at Bateshwar.

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This important spiritual and cultural centre contains more than a hundred edifices to the glory of the Hindu deity Shiva, the 'auspicious one', the Supreme God. Inside some, bare-footed worshippers and visitors alike had to step with care as many large bees littered the floor, attracted by flowers and sweetmeats offered to the 'lingam' semblance of the deity.

Brave youngsters swimming in the fast-flowing river, a sari-clad woman washing her clothes, priests and monkeys, bells ringing out, little stalls selling all manner of food and temple offerings, a hijra (a eunuch) in conversation with sadhus (ascetics/holy men) and the smouldering remains of a cremation on the river bank visited by a wandering dog all reminded us that this was very much a living place. A colourful, fascinating, busy, living place.

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Accommodation:
We spent three nights at Chambal Safari Lodge. No hyperlink to this hotel as I do not recommend it.

I can do no better than refer you to my TripAdvisor review, an extract from which reads: (quote) ‘Great for birds’ (unquote) That's all I wrote in the hotel's guest book. I resisted the temptation to add: ‘Not so great for humans’.

We spent Rs.5,500 plus taxes (about £75/US$115/€87) per night per double bungalow (all paid in advance) and another Rs.1500 + taxes (about £22/US$33/€25) per person per night for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a price tag that was more than hefty by Indian standards, we expected better things all round - it was two-star accommodation, food and service at five-star prices. And where, I wonder, was the friendly, welcoming atmosphere?

Posted by Keep Smiling 06:08 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india uttar_pradesh fatehpur_sikri chambal Comments (0)

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