Delhi is such a glorious city! Yes, it's covered in smog, it's grimy, the traffic is maddening and the urban sprawl hugely excessive. But in the heart of the city, there are places of immense charm and elegance - and buzzing with bird life.
Last week, for the first time in twenty years or more, Anu and I spent a few hours, just the two of us, as tourists in Delhi - a city in which we have lived, in total, for seven years or more.
It's no longer home, but it still has the pull of home.
Lodhi Gardens is one of my favourite places in this world. I just love it. What a privilege to stroll past its fifteenth century tombs and gumbads, across its lawns, and around its lake.
I don't know much about Marie Adelaide Freeman-Thomas, the Marchioness of Willingdon, the wife of the Viceroy in the early 1930s. But this park initially took her name - and you can still see mention of 'Lady Willingdon Gardens' on the gate in the north-east corner.
Good on you, ma'am!
And Lodhi Gardens bird life? Well, the highlight on this visit was a pair of red naped ibis. Spectacular!
When I first got to know Lodhi Gardens almost thirty years ago, you could see the bewitching silhouette of vultures roosting at dusk. They are long gone. And on this trip I didn't see a grey hornbill, which I have caught a glimpse of in the past.
But on the lakeside, there was a real thrill - a white throated kingfisher as bold as brass perched on a low-hanging branch:
Next stop, the exquisite Humayun's Tomb, mid-sixteenth century and the earliest of India's 'garden tombs' (of which the Taj Mahal is the most famous).
Cheel or scavenger kites are common across North India, but here they were majestic as they circled and wheeled overhead:
Then, for the first time, we visited the adjoining Sunder Nursery - ninety acres of monuments, gardens, woodland and water. It's been wonderfully fashioned with support from the Aga Khan Trust.
We saw a black drongo and a family of peacocks - but for me the highlight was spotting my talisman, a group of hoopoes grubbing away. They are not particularly rare in Delhi but there is something special about them - beautiful. elegant, elusive:
This reads a little like a love letter to a city I didn't know I loved.
I certainly loved the alexandrine parakeets which popped over from Lodhi Gardens to perch alongside our sixth-floor breakfast table:
It's humbling to realise that these ruins are thirteen-hundred years old. This is the 'surya' or 'sun' temple at Martand in south Kashmir, a Hindu temple built in the eighth century - and demolished on the orders of a Muslim ruler eight-hundred years later.
Just take a look at the ruins - and you get a sense of the majesty that this temple complex must once have radiated.
If you've not heard of the Martand temple, you can be forgiven - while it deserves to be well known, it isn't. What is less forgivable is the neglect it's been allowed to slide into.
The site is fenced - but there's basically open access, no ticket required. There's no sign of maintenance or care. There are no guides. This corroding notice board is the only information available at the site about what exactly the visitor is seeing. And whether cause or effect, they don't get that many visitors - when I went, I suspect I was the only non-local there.
I was fortunate that a local youngster, Azhar, showed me some key aspects of the ruins. He says the ancient script he pointed out has not been deciphered. I'm not entirely convinced about that but it was another interesting aspect to a completely absorbing location.
And another delight at Martand, my favourite bird was there: the hoopoe, or 'breg' in Kashmiri. It comes to Kashmir with the spring sunshine - not that the sun was much in evidence today. But I did manage to photograph a hoopoe on top of a temple pillar, no doubt praying for a bit of sun..
I regard the hoopoe almost as a talisman - so it's great to have such a wonderful photo of this entrancing bird, by far the best I've ever taken, as this site's first post of the New Year.
I came across this hoopoe in the grounds of Humayun's Tomb in Delhi at Christmas time. The bird is not too hard to find in northern India, if you know where to look. I've seen hoopoes in the past in Kashmir and Agra as well as Delhi, and this last summer I was really chuffed to come across hoopoes in Tuscany. I've never seen one in the UK, where it is a rare and very occasional visitor. Perhaps one day.
Having said all that, this was the only hoopoe I came across in more than two weeks in India over Christmas and New Year. It's thrilling to see - and I would have felt cheated if I had been to India and not seen one.
Delhi's middle class doesn't go to the zoo, never mind the tourists. They don't know what they are missing!
Delhi Zoo is magnificent. It's overlooked by the commanding walls of Purana Qila, the Old Fort, with kites massing overhead. It's green, spacious - and has the most marvellous bird life. Not in cages, but all around.
I was there last week - to discover that the painted storks (entirely wild as far as I can make out) are still roosting in the 'hidden' lake, hardly visited at all, at the centre of the zoo. There was a group of pelicans too - I suspect they may have clipped wings. It is quite magical.
Of the sounds I associate with Delhi, and indeed India, one of the most evocative is the shrill cry of the pariah kite, a scavenger bird so common it's regarded with disdain by Delhi-ites.
The kites wheel and soar over rubbish tips - around Lodhi Gardens - and seem particularly attracted to the ancient monuments in the heart of the city, Humayun's Tomb and Purana Qila.
Maybe, like the ravens at the Tower of London, they are guardians of the city's past. They certainly deserve a little bit more respect from the city than they get.
But the still greater delight of Delhi Zoo is the birdlife you chance across amid the glades and parcels of grass. I love the hoopoe. Few things give me more delight than watching this shy, graceful, slender bird of great beauty pecking at the ground with its long curved beak and tugging up a grub. As a child, I used to stare at the painting of a hoopoe in my parents' big bird book. It is just wonderful to see it for real.
The photo here I took last week with a very ordinary camera. You can see the crown on the hoopoe's head, the probing beak, and the black-and-white chevrons on its back which become more marked in flight.
Towards the back of the zoo, there was a colony of wild peacocks - looking for a place to roost in the adjoining shrub. Then as I was leaving the zoo, with the light fading, I spotted this lovely kingfisher hopping around one of the drainage ditches. I went away happy.
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