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Urban Jungle

A Lost River and the Wetland Paradise of Hoskote Lake

Bengaluru’s Hoskote Lake and its surrounding marshlands host a wide variety of bird life and provide the city with a vital carbon dioxide sink. Efforts are on to revive the river system that once fed this vibrant water body.

By Samuel John

Bird Therapy 

The year was 2014, I stood looking utterly confused as a friend tried desperately to show me a rather conspicuous golden oriole that was sitting ‘right there!’ Hundreds of ‘birding’ trips, and a better part of the past five years later, I’m slightly better at spotting the not-so-elusive oriole. If you live in Bengaluru, there’s a good chance that you can relate to this story or know a friend that has become a ‘birder’ (somewhere between a weekend hobbyist and an ornithologist). I’ve witnessed weekend plans evolve from questions about a pub hop to “Have the baya-weavers started nesting yet?” Over the past decade, Bengaluru has been gripped by ‘birding fever’. If you’re one of the lucky ones that caught it, there’s a very good chance you’ve spent a morning looking at birds at the pleasant Hoskote Lake.

As dawn cracks on the glassy body of water, a vast sheet of gold shimmers, revealing silhouettes of hungry beaks that welcome the warmth of the sun with open wings. With a large water body and a healthy marsh on its banks, Hoskote Lake is a haven for wetland birds. Pelicans glide in for a dramatic landing as cormorants spread their wings to catch the first rays of the sun. White-breasted and common kingfishers sit on the banks waiting for an opportune moment to strike while pied kingfishers choose instead to hover in flight to spot their next target. Painted storks wade into ankle-deep waters and pheasant-tailed jacanas move closer to shore.

Dawn slowly warms the mist at Hoskote Lake and the many resident and visiting bird species begin their day. Photo: Samuel John  Ducks can be seen on the shore preening and preparing their feathers for the day’s swim. Cover Photo: Samuel John

Dawn slowly warms the mist at Hoskote Lake and the many resident and visiting bird species begin their day. Photo: Samuel John
Ducks can be seen on the shore preening and preparing their feathers for the day’s swim. Cover Photo: Samuel John

Wetter the Better

Beyond the shores, the lake is surrounded by a healthy patch of marshland. Wetlands like this marsh are complex ecosystems that host a wide variety of life, and multiple wonderful relationships connect these various forms of life. Many dragonflies call the wetlands their home and predate on small insects in the water. Aside from hunting in these waters, young dragonflies live as nymphs in the same wetlands and can just as easily become prey for insectivorous visitors to the water. Around the river floodplains of North India and the coastal wetlands of Bengal, the enigmatic fishing cat spends its entire life fishing in these puddles of biodiversity. While Hoskote Lake may not play host to the fishing cat, its marshlands gave the city a chance to witness a flamboyance of visitors that struck just as much intrigue. For a few days in September 2019, Hoskote Lake hosted a flock of flamingos. Excitement grew as bird-themed social media groups lit up with pictures. Those that had diligently visited the lake were rewarded with the sight of brushstrokes of pink on a white canvas resting on red stilts.

For omnivores like the flamingo that feed on a wide range of delicacies including plants and algae, wetlands are the place to go. Rich in its diversity of flora, wetlands help satiate the hunger of flamingos for food, and our collective hunger for fossil fuels. Phytoplankton and other plant life help wetlands act as crucial sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

A black-winged stilt focuses on the water as it goes on its morning fishing routine. Photo: Samuel John

A black-winged stilt focuses on the water as it goes on its morning fishing routine. Photo: Samuel John

Aside from providing us with a carbon dioxide sink and the inconspicuous sight of greater flamingos on the outskirts of a concrete jungle, Hoskote Lake originally had a more functional purpose. The lake was initially set up as a water catchment along the Dakshina Pinakini River. In its prime, the catchment provided Hoskote’s residents with ample amounts of water for their daily needs and agricultural pursuits. The lake also supported locals who fished for their own consumption.

The River Runs Dry

Medieval literature speaks of a bountiful river that meandered through modern-day Bengaluru, nurturing all forms of life along its path. Until the early 19th century the city depended on the Dakshina Pinakini for its potable water needs. This river once started in the Nandi Hills, flowed majestically through Chikkaballapura, quenched Hoskote Lake, and rolled past Malur before flowing through Sarjapur into Tamil Nadu. Sadly, the river now runs dry and a city that sits on its basin has grown dependent on the overburdened Cauvery. Bengaluru receives close to 1,400 million litres of water per day from the Cauvery with an unaccounted half of this volume lost before it gets to the city.

Even as recent as 1980, there is evidence of the Dakshina Pinakini flowing into Bengaluru. However, with explosive growth in human population and rapid urbanisation, the volume of water consumption in the area increased drastically. Bore wells were dug in the city to feed growing urban pockets and they were dug outside the city by farmers trying to feed the growing demands of the Silicon Valley of the East. The result was an ecological catastrophe that led to the death of a river and the city’s waste flowing into some of the river’s previous catchments. Sewage and waste collected throughout its path before flowing into Tamil Nadu.

Barn swallows preen as they sit on an electric wire that runs around the lake (left). The brilliant colours on the common kingfisher are a stark contrast to the backdrop at Hoskote Lake (right). Photo: Samuel John

Barn swallows preen as they sit on an electric wire that runs around the lake (left). The brilliant colours on the common kingfisher are a stark contrast to the backdrop at Hoskote Lake (right). Photo: Samuel John

There are multiple projects and groups now aimed at reviving the lost river. Estimates suggest that the river has the potential to feed nearly 400 million litres a day to the city that once leaned on its mighty shoulders. 

With great access comes great responsibility

Hoskote Lake, sits quietly off the Bengaluru-Tirupati highway. It is easy to access from Bengaluru and is visited by nearly a thousand people every weekend. While it is heartening to see so many people choosing to spend their weekend in nature’s healing embrace, not all these visitors treat nature with the same sensitivity. Amidst the many responsible nature enthusiasts and birders that visit, there are many who may act without considering the impact they have on the natural world around them. Photographers sometimes ignore ethics in pursuit of the ‘perfect shot’. I’ve seen the use of live bait and recorded bird calls to lure birds. Local fishermen sometimes compete with birds to access the limited fish stocks of the lake. While rural populations and local fishermen are within their right to get their daily catch, depleted water levels and other stresses on the water body have meant there is hardly enough for fisherfolk to catch for selling. Any fishing activity that goes beyond immediate consumption for a few families leaves little to sustain the lake’s non-human residents and visitors.

A painted stork comes in to land at Hoskote Lake. The lake attracts birds of all sizes, through the year, and is a popular weekend getaway for photographers and bird enthusiasts. Photo: Samuel John

A painted stork comes in to land at Hoskote Lake. The lake attracts birds of all sizes, through the year, and is a popular weekend getaway for photographers and bird enthusiasts. Photo: Samuel John

The lake nurtures life and offers the gift of tranquillity to all who visit. To give back to this oasis in a desert of concrete, we must do what we can — fight the big battles to repair the larger ecological damage done to the river that once fed this water body. In the meanwhile, we can start giving back by interacting responsibly with the lake and learning from it respect for all life forms.

Samuel John
Samuel John

is an ex-corporate zombie who found the answers to life, the universe, and everything, on a spider's web. He can be seen at times playing the blues for his eight-legged audiences.

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