Swamps, bogs, and marshes may not be the first thing you think of when you’re planning a holiday, but consider this. Wetland areas are a storehouse of unusual plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Moreover, because they’re not as popular as the lakes at hill stations and other water bodies, they’re relatively crowd-free. On the water, the pace of life slows down, giving kids and adults a chance to notice dragonflies and snails, colourful frogs and sprightly crabs, exuberant birds catching duelling fish—it’s a fantastic way to spend time with family.
Wetlands are crucial to our environment. They provide habitats for many critically endangered species. They act as natural drainage systems, and prevent floods in neighbouring regions. In places like Kerala’s Vembanad Lake, they are a means of transportation, connecting coastal hamlets, islands, and towns, and providing local communities with livelihoods in agriculture, fishing, and more recently, tourism.
Take a quick look at the key terms below, and scroll down for nine of India’s most picturesque conserved wetlands. Each is listed on the Ramsar Convention list..
WHAT IS A WETLAND? Wetlands are marshy areas that are saturated with water permanently or seasonally, giving the area a distinct ecosystem.
WHAT IS A RAMSAR SITE? Ramsar sites are wetlands that are designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, because of the rich variety of plants, birds and other animals they host.
WHAT IS THE RAMSAR CONVENTION? The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is a global treaty that promotes international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It gets its name from the Iranian city of Ramsar because it was ratified there in 1971.
MAKE THE MOST OF IT
Chilika Lake is known for birding, boating, fishing, and angling. The best time for birdwatching is from November to March. Concentrated bird populations are sighted from Mangalajodi village, Parikud Island, Bird’s Island, and Nalbana Island. Nalbana, which has birdwatching towers, is at the centre of the lake and gets submerged every year, during the monsoon. As the water recedes, its mudflats attract flocks of flamingoes, pelicans, herons, egrets, and storks. A permit from the Odisha Forest Department—available in Bhubaneswar—is required to visit the island. The department’s boats take visitors from Barkul (105 km/ about 2 hours from Bhubaneswar) to Nalbana. The local boatmen are well-informed and act as guides pointing out various species along the ride. Leisure boats operated privately or by the state government can be hired from Satapada, Barkul, Balugan, and Rambha Bay. Excursions include cruising the open waters and visits to Kalijai Island and Rambha Bay, which is a cluster of small islets wedged between the southern shore of the lake and the Bay of Bengal. The Irrawaddy dolphins are best sighted from the Dumkudi and Somolo islands, and from Satapada village, which sits at the mouth of the lake.
Chilika Lake is spread over 1,100 sq km and three districts in Odisha. It can be reached by rail and road. The closest airport is at Bhubaneswar, which is 100 km/little over an hour north of the lake. Regular flights ply between Bhubaneswar and Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Chennai. The Chennai-Howrah rail route stops at Balugaon and Rambha. Balugaon, 5 km from Barkul, is the most convenient. Numerous buses make the trip from Bhubaneswar to Barkul (105 km/ about 2 hours) and from Puri to the scenic village of Satapada on the lake’s eastern shore. Satapada is 48 km/50 minutes southeast of the beach town of Puri.
Panthanivas, run by the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation has lake-side guesthouses (06810 278346; panthanivas.com; doubles from approx. ₹1,550 at Rambha and ₹2,200 at Barkul). Accommodation is also available at Ashoka Hotel in Balugaon (06756 250409; doubles from approx. ₹500) and Yatrinivas (06752 262077; doubles from approx. ₹1,6450) in Satapada. The Mangalajodi village homestay programme (88952 88955, 97766 96800; www.mangalajodiecotourism.com; doubles from approx. ₹3,900), which promotes ecotourism, offers cottages, and rooms to visitors.
Keoladeo National Park (earlier called the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) is a man-made wetland featuring numerous seasonal lagoons that fill up during the monsoons. Receding water in the winter creates varying habitats such as dry grasslands, swamps, and wetlands, attracting thousands of birds. Keoladeo is considered one of the best birding areas in the world. Over 366 species of birds, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, and seven species of turtles are found here. Among the variegated water fowls found in the marshlands is the Asian open-billed stork, tufted duck, little cormorant, painted shoveler, cotton teal, common teal, ruff, darter, and sarus crane.
MAKE THE MOST OF IT
Keoladeo National Park has a high density of birds throughout the year, evident from the multiple nests on each tree. The best time to visit is between October to March when thousands of migratory birds flock here for the winter. Expect to see laughing doves, jungle babblers, Brahminy mynahs, and water fowls such as black-necked storks. The park can be explored on bicycles or on foot using pathways that cut across the marshlands. Take a park guide along to make the most of the visit. Guides charge between ₹150-₹300 per hour. Cycle rickshaws and horse carts (tongas) also ply within the park and their drivers have been trained as guides.
Keoladeo National Park is on the outskirts of Bharatpur. The town is an easy, one-hour drive (about 55 km) west of Agra on the Agra-Jaipur road. Bharatpur is also linked to Delhi (195 km/3.5 hours) and Jaipur (186 km/about 3 hours) by road. Trains from Agra, Delhi, and Jaipur stop at Bharatpur Junction, which is the nearest railway station. The closest airport, at Agra, has daily flights from Mumbai, Delhi, and Lucknow.
There are plenty of accommodation options in and around Keoladeo National Park. Hotel Bharatpur Ashok (92127 77223; bharatpurforestlodge.in; doubles approx. ₹4,000 till March 31, approx. ₹3,000 till Sept 31) is a forest lodge within the park while resorts such as Birder’s Inn (9414023340/05644-227346; birdersinn.com; doubles from approx. ₹3,500), and Hotel Saras (05644-223790; doubles from approx. ₹1,300 till March,approx. ₹1,100 till Sept) are all walking-distance from the park’s gates.
Famed for its access to Kerala’s backwaters, Ashtamudi Lake encompasses diverse forms of life across its 61 sq km area. The lake, which receives its water from the Kalthuruthipuzha, Kulathupuzha and Chenthurnipuzha rivers, is really an estuary. The octopus-shaped water body (Ashta-mudi means eight-armed in Malayalam) features several mangrove species, and supports about 57 species of migratory and resident birds such as cormorants, terns, herons, and plovers. The region around the lake and the backwater canals are lush with paddy fields, coconut plantations, and palm trees. The wetland is home to approximately a hundred fish species, giving rise to a thriving fishing industry, apparent by the multitude of Chinese fishing nets that dot the lake’s banks and islands. The lake has three main islands: the scenic Thekkumbhagom, Munroe (cluster of eight isles), and the titanium-rich Chavara South.
MAKE THE MOST OF IT
Kollam (Quilon), a historic port town wedged between the lake and the Arabian Sea, is a good base for exploring Ashtamudi. Cormorants, ducks, and herons are commonly sighted on the short ferry rides from Kollam’s jetty to the islands of Munroe (25 km by road), Thekkumbhagom (12 km by road) and Chavara South (14 km by road). Thekkumbhagom and Munroe islands are ideal places for birdwatching. To catch a glimpse of the lake’s aqua fauna, stop by any of the Chinese fishing nets; the haul is likely to include the pretty pearl spot fish (a local speciality called karimeen). A leisurely way of exploring the wetland is to hire a houseboat and make short trips to different parts of the lake. The eight-hour ferry from Kollam to Alleppey (Alappuzha) showcases the best of what the wetland offers: varieties of birds and fish, open waters, backwaters, paddy fields, mangroves, and coastal villages.
Kollam is well-connected to the rest of the state by rail, road, and air. Trivandrum (72 km/1 hour south of Kollam) is the nearest airport; Kollam Junction is the closest railway station.
Kollam offers several accommodation options, from houseboats on the lake, to homestays, and luxury resorts along the banks.