A former Royal hunting ground, the Ranthambore National Park is a wildlife reserve, near the town of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan (India). Chitra Singh takes the reader on an armchair safari to the Park which is home to Marsh crocodiles, sloth bears, deer and of course the lissom leopards,magnificent tigers and the Park celebrity Riddhi.
Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright.
"The tiger is a solitary creature and loves to rule alone,’’ the voice of our guide whispered conspiratorially. The Canter in which were sitting, shoulder to shoulder, in the cold crisp winter afternoon, jostled along in a bone shattering ride along the rough forest road. We were on a safari in the famous Wildlife sanctuary in Ranthambore, Rajasthan, India. He had us all on high alert, with pin drop silence, with our eyes and ears darting here and there, in our quest for the elusive Tiger, the king of the jungle.
The winter is a good time to visit Ranthambore. The sun is bright, the air is chilly, and the forest looks eminently inviting. The National Park, which is situated here is a game reserve for a host of varied wildlife. The area was declared a sanctuary in 1957 as part of the ‘Save the Tiger’ resolve. Ranthambore spans the eastern parts of Rajasthan and is situated on a hilly tract of the Aravalli mountains. The township of Sawai Madhopur nestles at the foot of this outcrop of mountain. The term ‘Sawai’ is derived from the Hindi terminology ‘sawa’ which denotes the extra quarter, thereby indicating that you get more than what is designated. Sawai Madhopur definitely lives up to its name with its rich forest cover and undulating hills and its ample scenic beauty. It is surrounded by rivers and nurtures the flourishing surfeit of wildlife. Truly an oasis in the otherwise wild desert topography of the rest of the state. As soon as you leave the township of Sawai Madhopur and approach the hills, which is roughly a ten-kilometre drive, the scrubby land metamorphoses into a luxuriant forest providing a compatible habitat for a variety of wild animals. Ranthambore was a favourite hunting ground of the erstwhile rulers of Jaipur. Its easy accessibility makes it a very popular and enjoyable destination for most people. Ranthambore is approached by state-of-the-art expressways for most of the distance, both from Jaipur which is about two hundred kms away and Delhi which is roughly four hundred and sixty kms away. There are also train and Bus services in place.
Ranthambore derives its name from an ancient 10th century fort built by the Chauhans, the ruling Hindu kings, on the summit of the hill, spanning an area of 16 square kms. The fort itself falls within the precincts of the park and is a UNESCO World heritage site. A rampart wall runs around the periphery and entry to the fort is from a series of seven gates or “Pols ‘’ as they are known in the local dialect, starting with the Ganesh Pol. The fort is approached by a series of steep steps, more than two hundred of them, etched out of the natural rock, leading up to a plateau, on which the fort is situated. It must have been a daunting location in ancient times. Most of the construction is in red sandstone which is found in abundance locally. The vast area of the summit is dotted with many small palaces, barracks for the soldiers, ‘Chattris’ of the rulers, entertainment halls or rang Mahals as they were known, temples and mosques. Mosques because for much time Ranthambore was under the rule of the Sultanate of Delhi. There is a man-made pond in the centre of the summit made by one of the Hindu rulers which housed a baradari and bathing space for the queens. The fort became famous because it was captured by Allauddin Khilji in the 13th cent who ruled it briefly for two years. So the fort has both Hindu and Muslim monuments. The dargah Kazi Peer of Khilji’s general is also built there. But today it is mainly a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Hindu devotees who visit the centuries old ‘trinetra’ Ganesh temple which is situated along one of the rampart walls. The significance of this temple lies in the fact that it is one of the oldest temples of Lord Ganesha in Rajasthan and comprises his whole family and is considered a symbol of wish fulfilment. A trek to the fort is an absolute must for any traveller to this region. The panoramic view of the park which lies at its foot is breath taking at dusk.
The highlight of the excursion to Ranthambore is of course the safari in search of wildlife, in the National Park. The Park lies in close proximity to the Fort which it surrounds. A drive along a rough track, snuggled at the base of the hill, propels you into a verdant forest which forms the starting point of the safari. The main entry to the fort also lies close by. The safari is exclusively managed by the Rajasthan Forest Department. The forest comprises all kinds of tropical trees. There is a predominance of Babul and Khair trees mingling with the famous Khejri tree of Rajasthan, which is distinguished by its dark leaves and bark. The tree can exist even in near drought conditions. The ubiquitous banyan tree also spreads its branches practically everywhere.
The National Park has a vast area stretching to about 515 sq miles of undulating terrain. It is bounded by two rivers, the Banas and the Chambal. The park itself, is divided into nine zones, each having its own particular and distinguishing features. Some parts of the park are hilly tracts, with gnarled trees dotting it, while others are open grass lands with thick outcrops of the tall tiger grass. There is abundant green cover in most of the park providing a luxuriant setting for all kinds of flora and fauna. The most popular zone is zone three which boasts of a large artificial lake which is the recipient of all the ground water seepage and is almost perennial in nature. It is home to an assortment of crocodiles which bask in the ample waters and is a convenient watering hole for most of the wildlife. A hunting lodge of the erstwhile rulers of Jaipur is also situated here. Zone Five is a perilous drive through steep inclines and rough causeways, and thick forest adding to the spirit of adventure. And so it goes on according to the visitor’s choice.
The safaris are regulated by the Forest Department of Rajasthan. There are two modes of transport, the canters which are bigger and can hold more people or the smaller gypsies which seat four people. A guide who can explain all the intricacies of the wildlife, their idiosyncrasies and the prevailing environment is mandatory. His running commentary throughout the safari is highly insightful and entertaining. There are set timings for the safari, one commencing at the break of dawn, and the other from about two in the afternoon. Each shift typically lasts four hours and covers about two zones, so that a visitor can enjoy the varied terrain. The canter ride is rough and bumpy and is a real test for the spinal column.
So, as you embark on your quest for sighting the wildlife in their natural habitat, you are sitting on the edge of your seat, your eyes darting here and there to drink in the vistas, and you gear yourself up with anticipation to enjoy all that nature has to offer. The guide keeps you enthralled by his vast repertoire and his deep knowledge of the ways of the wildlife and the habitat they favour.
You sight all kinds of deer, like the Sambhar, the largest species of the deer, with its huge antlers. The spotted deer or Cheetal grazes in clusters and forms easy prey for the big cats. Hidden in the shrubbery you can spot the smaller ‘kakar’ or barking dear in their richly coloured vivid brown coats. The ‘kakar’ is known as the ‘chowkidar’ or ‘watchman’ of the forest as he gives his warning bark as the tiger embarks on his hunt. The forest is alive with the chirping of pheasants and the muttering of partridges and a host of winged creatures. Monkeys and baboons swing from the overhead branches and provide a lively chatter. When you approach the water bodies, they are full of ducks, waterfowls, cormorants, king fishers and storks. The trees house parrots by the thousands. But your sense of anticipation is not quelled till you get a glimpse of the elusive big game like the leopard or tiger. The tiger likes to reign supreme in an area of a minimum of twenty - four square miles. He doesn’t like to share his domain with anyone. So, sighting a tiger is like finding a needle in a haystack. There are other variables to consider as well, like he hunts only when he is hungry and stores his kill for his next meal. Or if he is thirsty only then will he approach a water body. This makes the tiger a rare commodity indeed. These days only one female tigress called Riddhi is the main attraction of the park. Riddhi has chased her mother and her male counterpart out of her area and is ferociously guarding her cubs. Thus, most of the other tigers have been pushed deep into the park and remain unsighted. Sloth Bears also abound in the park and if luck is on your side, you may very well run into one. Bears feed on ants which make huge anthills in various nooks and crannies. Bears also relish honey which they forage from the many hives which abound on the trees. The safari makes for a very exciting and interesting excursion.
What is disturbing though is the sheer numbers of the visitors. They are crisscrossing the park in droves in gypsies and canters with not a care about the protocol of the forest. They treat the outing as some kind of visit to a fair or circus, with a touch of rowdyism. They are unaware that stalking animals is serious business and that the silence of the jungle has to be observed at all times. The forest Department must realise that a surfeit of visitors is detrimental to the environment and a cap must be put on commercialism.
The park supports a flourishing hospitality business and myriads of motels, guest houses, luxury tents and hotels have sprung up in the vicinity. They are located on the periphery of the park and stretch right up to the township of Sawai Madhopur. Lodgings range to suit every pocket and practically every five-star hotel chain of the country has an outlet there. Staying in them can be a very entertaining experience because they offer other amenities as well, like spas, gyms, beauty parlours and shopping arcades. One can experience gourmet Rajasthani cuisine along with an exotic array of other cuisines as well, forming delectable treats for every palate in most of the resorts and hotels. If you are staying in a slightly up marketplace, you can be assured of an evening of entertainment by Rajasthani folk artists who will regale you with their melodious song and dance and culture.
What I found particularly interesting was that the tiger has spawned an entire range of cottage industry in the area which is very beneficial for the locals. The shops are flooded with memorabilia on the tiger theme. There is linen, fancy clothes, tea shirts, figurines, sculptures, pottery, and what have you, based on the majestic tiger and his habitat. These have a universal appeal. But the piece de resistance are the beautiful fine art paintings by local artists. They portray the tiger in all his moods and nuances, in close ups and in panorama. They capture his existence in vivid imagery, be it his drinking water from the pond, or stalking in the golden-brown tiger grass or simply basking in the sun with the young ones. The paintings come in all shapes and sizes, in all kinds of mediums, like water colours, poster colours and rich oil. Various kinds of paper and canvas is used, and the paintings are made to suit every pocket. The painstaking work of the artist and his eye for detail is beautifully captured in the rich colours of his painting. The visual appeal is manna for the eyes. A ‘simply must’ appropriation for every connoisseur.