A picture in a travel magazine of a train cruising past a bunch of rosy pink flamingos had caught our fancy a few years ago. Ever since M and I had been planning to visit the vast expanses of the Sambhar Salt Lake. For one reason or the other, the trip was postponed until last week, when we were cruising down the excellent Yamuna Expressway towards Mathura.
Leaving the Expressway, we negotiated the narrow alleys of Mathura’s ancient quarters and took the SH 33 to Bharatpur and thence NH 11 to Jaipur. This convoluted route necessitated by horror stories narrated by friends and family while stuck in massive jams on the NH8 between Delhi and Jaipur. Bypassing Jaipur from the south, we hit NH 8 heading due west and at Dudu we turned off the road leading to Sambhar Lake. Road conditions on this entire stretch were excellent bar a few short patches.
The Sambhar Lake is India’s largest inland saline water body, covering an area of almost 200km². It is home to a vast variety of birds, both native and migrant. Of foremost interest are the visiting flocks of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes. More than 10,000 birds make this lake their winter home each year along with many others.
The lake is also the production hub of Sambhar Salt Works and produces nearly 10% of the country’s supply of salt. The Salt Works’ lovely colonial Circuit House was our home during the trip. It is better to call in advance and make bookings as there isn’t any other decent stay option available.
After checking in, we decided to head straight to the south eastern shores of the lake – where the Shakambhari Mata Temple is located at the base of a promontory that provides stunning views of the lake. A short but stiff climb to the top of the cliff leads to further magic. The entire lake is visible from the Chattri on top and the sheer scale of the place can boggle the mind.
After witnessing a gorgeous sunset over the temple, we headed back to Circuit House to be treated to a lovely home style meal cooked by the caretakers.
Next morning at the crack of dawn we were on the earthen anicut that divides the lake in to two. One needs to drive down the Shakambhari Temple road and past the village of Japhog, take the dirt track leading off to the right. Keep your eyes peeled as it is easy to miss. The anicut controls the supply of water in to the pans used for salt production. A railway line belonging to the Sambhar Salt Works runs atop the dam, all the way to Gudha on the other side.
We spotted a small flock of sub-adult flamingos foraging near the dam. Their plumage was nearly white, not having reached the pink colours that the species is famous for. The pink ones, in their large numbers were far away in the water – far even for my 500mm lens.
We drove further down the road to find a closer vantage point. Another dirt track past this freshwater pond
leads to the dried portions of the lake bed. This was the closest we got to the birds. Trouble is that a soft mushy layer of mud stands between the water and dried bed. This is almost impassable and hence we never got close enough to the birds for any close up photography. Yet the sight of thousands of flamingos stretching into the horizon against the backdrop of the temple was one to behold.
In the afternoon we were taken on a guided tour of the Salt Works around the lake. The saline water of the lake is evaporated to produce salt via a three stage process. The first step is to channel water into reservoirs from the main lake body. The aforementioned anicut performs that duty From there it is directed into ‘condensers’ – another pan in which the salinity of water is adjusted. Depending on the prevalent weather the salt content in the water can vary so water is pumped in accordingly until the right level is reached. Thence, it is channelled in to a third pan where the sun does it magic to evaporate the water, leaving only the salt crystals behind. The crystals are transported by the company’s unique railway system
to be processed in a nearby factory and then shipped across the country.
One last visit to the promontory above the temple followed in the evening. The flamingoes were glowing pink in the blue waters – a sight forever to be imprinted in our memories.
Useful Info on Sambhar Salt Lake
Location – 26°58′N 75°05′E
Access – Nearest major town is Jaipur. From there, take NH8 towards Ajmer and turn right from Dudu. Sambhar is 26km from Dudu. Trains from Delhi and Jaipur halt at Phulera (10km away) and the odd one at Sambhar Lake as well.
Stay – Sambhar Salt Works Circuit House – Phone:- 01425-224249, Fax:- 01425-224244. Email:-firstname.lastname@example.org AC Room – Rs. 1000/- per night, Non AC Rs. 500
Eat / Drink – Samsosa & Kachori at Sonu’s cart opposite the Community Health Centre in the main town square. Chai at Banwari Lal Prajapat’s stall next to it. Classic Restaurant on Nawa Road is also a decent meal option. The Circuit House caretakers will cook nice home style meals on payment.
Other Tips – October to February is the best time to visit. The birds including flamingoes are in full force. The light is good and so is the weather. One does need a vehicle to get around the vast shores of the lake, so it is best to drive down in your own car or hire one from Jaipur. Locally, only rudimentary Jeeps are available. The locals are friendly, but don’t have much knowledge about the birds. Best to keep a bird guidebook handy along with binoculars.