Finding flamingos in Sambhar, India’s largest inland salt lake

A desert wonderland in Rajasthan, Sambhar is known for its vast silver salt bed, age-old temple ruins, wetlands and various species of flamingos that call it home every year.

The sky was a deep coral with a hint of blue when I stepped out of my Swiss tent that February morning. The air was nippy, and a soothing silence lingered except for the occasional whispers of the wind. At a distance, I could spot the famous Sambhar Lake. About 80 km southwest of Jaipur city in Rajasthan, the declared Ramsar site is the largest inland salt lake in India, most of which dries up to form a large pink dustbowl under the summer sun. Come monsoon, the same turns into a cluster of wetlands that are flocked by thousands of migratory birds every year.  

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Thousands of flamingos visit Sambhar Lake every year. Image: Shutterstock/Gouravdadhich.

“It is almost time for them to fly back to Central Asia and Siberia, but you can still spot some flamingos deep in the lake,” I had been told. All I could see from afar was a deserted salt basin that looked like a colossal, lifeless bed of silver. The funny part is, before arriving at Sambhar, I had no clue Lesser and Greater Flamingos find their way here in search of sun. But now, all I could think of was spotting those giant pink birds wading over a saline wetland or tracing the open skies in unison.

A land of tales, temples and more 

The blazing sun has been a constant motif ever since I arrived in this little village, so I had limited myself to the comfort of my luxury tent at Sambhar Heritage Resort during the daytime. The cooler, calmer evenings, however, were saved for the interesting sites–from climbing up the winding staircase to the cenotaph near the 16th-century Shakambari Devi Temple to get a bird’s eye view of the salt brine, to speeding in an SUV through the same desertland for an experience closer to dune bashing in Jaisalmer, to taking a village tour and learning recipes and stories from the local women, I had done it all.  

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The cenotaph near Shakambari Devi Temple offers a panoramic view of the salt brine. Image: Shutterstock/Nitish Waila

If local folklore is to be believed, the tutelary goddess of the Chauhan Rajputs, Shakambari Devi has converted the region into a vast land filled with precious stones and jewels, but later, had turned it into a silverly saline lake to save it from greed of neighbouring states. Sambhar is also home to the revered Devyani Sarovar, often known as mini Pushkar, where Mughal emperor is said to have married Rani Jodha in 1562. If you wish to add thrill to your trip, visit Ulta Sambhar, a half-excavated ghostly site with small dwellings in ruins that seem upturned. Legend has it that this part of land is haunted by a beggar’s ghost who once cursed and turned it upside down! I also paid a visit to the Circuit House that stands witness to the town’s colonial connection. The first circuit centre built in India in 1880 by the British, it is now a part of the Sambhar Heritage Resort and has eight suites tastefully done in a tranquil setting.  

Painting it pink 

It was my last day in Sambhar and so far, I have had no luck. The sun had started to go down when I decided to give it a final shot. The idea was to hop on a vintage buggy, restored and painted in a lovely pink by the resort, and take the track that would carry us deep into the lake. The track is made for the goods train that carry unfiltered salt from the lake to the salt production plant. Sitting in that little wagon, we passed through the wetlands in the middle of nowhere, watching men and women harvest pink salt on the production site that resembled Rann of Kutch.   

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Taking the much-needed break from work! Image: Shutterstock/Iryna Rasko.

After another half an hour on the buggy, our ride came to an end. From there, it was a two-kilometre walk on the baked salt bed to reach the last few patches of wetland that hadn’t dried up yet. The sweltering heat from the setting sun was still too strong to walk under, and I was losing hope. Just when my mind was about to tell me to give up and go back, I caught sight of something wallowing in the muddy green water at a distance. With each step closer to the basin, the number of bird-shaped shadows kept growing. Finally, there it was, a few feet from us, a huge stock of giant flamingos wading their way through the marshland. The site was surreal—few grunted and growled at each other, playfully sploshing in the water, another group glided over the white desertland, adding a hint of pink to the blue above. I waited several minutes to take in the view, before it was time to head back.  

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A flock of flamingos wading in the lake. Image: Shutterstock/Dmitry Rukhlenko.

A rising concern 

This was three years ago. Sambhar Lake is constantly shrinking, thanks to the degradation of soil and water quality, resulting in a serious decline in the population of migratory birds. The death of over 20,000 migratory birds of 10 different species had made headlines in 2019. Experts believe that there’s an urgent need to restore the ecosystem of the lake for protecting biodiversity as well as conservation of the salt brine worth US$300 million.  

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