A Ladakhi song on Kashmir's famous black-necked cranes sets LAKSHMI SHARATH thinking

We are driving through the mountains in Ladakh, listening to local music.

Our driver Dorjee is a die-hard romantic. As the landscape changes, he gets emotional, talking about his family in Zanskar and the baby he's expecting in a few months. And then, he starts an impromptu karaoke session.

Chortens and mani wheels whizz past us. The music suddenly changes, and Dorjee is a bit silent. I tease him and he interrupts me in Hindi: “This is not a romantic song madam; it is a poem by Tsangyang Gyatso, our sixth Dalai Lama.”

Bird-watching

As we drive towards Pangong Tso, we spot a bit of green as we near the wetlands. And then, something moves. The birder in me comes alive as I gesture to Dorjee to stop. “Cha Tungtung karbo, madam…never seen them near Pangong before,” he says, as I move closer to take a picture of the black-necked cranes.

The State bird of Kashmir is a large whitish grey bird and has a black head, red crown patch, black upper neck and legs and a white patch near the eye.

Another car stops by, and we spend some silent moments clicking away. Then, Dorjee breaks the silence. “Cha means bird and tung tung karbo is long-legged and white.”

The earlier melody, he says, “is a poem on the white crane. It talks about the rebirth of the Dalai Lama who was believed to have been murdered.”

Cranes do have a spiritual significance in Buddhism as they symbolise marital longevity . In fact, I read later they have their own monastery and festival in Bhutan, where they return every year.

Back home, I learnt that these Tibetan cranes visit Ladakh, probably from the river valleys of Tibet, for breeding between June and September. “When the snow melts, you will find these birds coming in pairs, marking their territories and dancing. You would probably find 30 nests here,” says Gopi Sundar from the International Crane Foundation. The chicks later fly with their fiercely-protective parents, who guard them from feral dogs.

Lately, there has been a loss of habitat for the cranes, says Gopi. Listening to him, I am reminded of the song Dorjee treated us to

White crane, lovely bird, Lend me your wings

I'm not going far and away, I'll return through the land of Litang.

Peacocks from the east of India, Parrots from the lower Kongpo area

Though (their) birthplaces are different, (Their) meeting-place is Lhasa, the land of Dharma wheels.

The willow lost its heart to the bird,

The bird lost its heart to the willow,

If affection concords in harmony,

The hawk cannot overpower (them).

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