Monday, May 28, 2007
THE Ranthambore National Park is perhaps the best place in the world to see tigers in the wild. I knew that the tigers we see on National Geographic and Discovery Channels are almost all natives of Ranthambore. I had heard enough stories of Genghis, the beloved tiger, who was famed for hunting down his prey into the waters of the lake. But what I found out was that there is much more to Ranthmabore than tiger trails. I will always remember it as a comprehensive jungle experience that leaves one thirsty for more.
Set amidst undulating topography with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, the open habitat of the park makes for spectacular views. The arduous hilly terrain which varies from flat topped mountains of the Vindhyas to the conical and comparatively steep ranges of the Aravalli, is interspersed with jungle streams. For the initiated, the area boasts of over 300 species of trees and 272 species of birds! The park gets its name from Ranthambore fort, the remains of which can be found on top of a hill overlooking the park. Old fortifications that dot the forest claim a splendid architectural past for the area. The juxtaposition of the fort and the jungle is a constant reminder of the grandeur of the past nurturing majestic presence.
Once the place was chosen, I began working on the details and the creature comforts. Planning the journey was not without its usual quota of excitement! As soon as our travel and hotel reservations were confirmed, the park closed suddenly due to some legal issues. My aunt had organized a field trip with her students from National University of Singapore but they were not allowed into the precincts of the park. As we dully toyed with alternate destinations – Sariska, Kanha, the park re-opened again, just as abruptly. If my scepticism regarding travel and tourism in India had raised its ugly head with the government’s quirky actions, it was proved wrong as soon as I stepped on to Sawai Madhopur station. The station was comfortable and well organized and I had to give the thumbs up for Rajasthan tourism for everything I saw and experienced between my two stops at the station.
The hotel itself was a haven. We were a motley crew and the hotel had enough facilities to make everyone happy. If I was content to admire the purple haze of the imposing Aravalli right behind our cottages, the more energetic members of the group could toss a ball in the green lawn; the children were delighted with camel rides that made off into the wilderness; for the not so brave there were hammocks and sand pits. The more inquisitive amongst us marvelled at the thriving rose bushes and all of us appreciated the prompt service that provided good food and beverages all through the day just as they had promised on the website. All in all, they pampered us to the extent that if they had relegated us from a covered jeep to an open canter for the forest safari (to upgrade more privileged guests?) we chose not to be too offended.But it is the forest that held me in its thrall. I have prided myself on being rather a veteran of forest tourism in India-- Periyar, Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nagerhole, Sundarbans, Jaldapara, Bandhavgarh – each forest unique and spectacular in its own right. I was prepared for scattered clumps of trees or an extended copse may be. After all, Ranthambore borders the arid Thar desert, how could one have expected more?
I was proved pleasantly wrong. Not quite the “woods are lovely, dark and deep,” Ranthambore forest had a lovely golden-brown hue quite unlike the lush tropical forestation I had mostly seen and enjoyed in southern, eastern and central India. The vegetation is varied and forms an interesting combination of dry deciduous trees, tropical moist vegetation and shrubs and climbers that can survive in drier climates. The deciduous patches interrupted by evergreen glades make for some spectacular scenery. The main tree cover comprises of the dhok or flame of the forest (the tongue twister version of it is anogeossis pendula) as it is a hardy tree that can withstand spells of drought. Other than the ubiquitous banyan, I could also spot jamun, berry, teak, tamarind, kadam, babul, neem, mahua, khajur apart from plenty of bamboo. In fact, our local guide mentioned that the banyan tree at the gates of the fort was the second largest banyan tree in India, the largest being in Calcutta Botanical gardens. Later, I checked that this is most likely true. Local guides have never ceased to amaze me with their wealth of knowledge. We see so much of this ‘be proud of your heritage’ drive here in local counties and I think the wonderful local guides would be an excellent example of people who have being doing that for ages.
Ranthambore fort, situated at the meeting of the Aravalli and the Vindhya mountains, was our first destination. The ornate and intricate carvings have helped historians to conjecture that it was probably built in the tenth century A.D. by a member of the Chauhan dynasty. Because of its location it was one of the more invincible forts, it was also the point of control for central India. Amongst the ruins (the fort was clearly ravaged by many wars) the Badal Mahal and Hamir’s court are redolent of past grandeur. I was fascinated by the colourful stories regarding Alaudin Khiljee’s unsuccessful attempt at conquering the fort but it is Rana Hamir (circa 11 A.D.) who holds a special place in the hearts of the locals as the legendary hero who fought the superpowers to save the fort. The Mughals were finally able to acquire the fort in late 16th century; from them it passed as a gift to the royal family of Jaipur and was used as their hunting grounds. In the 19th century the fort was supposed to have become a prison.
While I was engrossed in the tales of the past, the others were busy spotting crocodiles in the aquamarine waters of the lake right below the fort. It is in the jaws of a couple of such crocodiles that the local star Genghis had met his end. There are plenty of lakes within the forest that serve as watering holes for the animals; Padam Talao, inside the perimeter of the fort, provides a kaleidoscope of animals as they come to quench their thirst. It is also an excellent place for sighting birds – we saw gulls, terns and storks.
Our onward journey into the forest had us quivering with excitement. Craning to catch a glimpse of the majestic predator, we encountered the lovely cheetal deer and a lonesome black buck. The chirpy langurs dramatic as ever, snatched, quarrelled and jumped swiftly from one branch to another. Nilgais, in large groups, moved across our path. Most animals in Ranthambore forest seem not to be too perturbed with human intervention. Herds of sambar settled comfortably on their own land and did not as much as glance at us as we drove past. The rufoustailed hare and the palm squirrels scampered across looking very busy. A jackal slinked across. The children were intrigued with their first glimpse of bats hanging from trees– being used to the more glamorous batman stories on celluloid. The rich birdlife was evident in the number and variety we saw; peacocks walked around leisurely. One of them even deigned to show off their glorious feathers. We saw parakeets, a beautiful golden oriole, kingfishers, wagtails, the Paradise flycatcher, Partridge, red spur fowl, and the odd camouflaged owl, the last being a unique sight, the memory of which never fails to amaze me. By 5.30 in the evening we had to leave the park; the rules here seemed to be more rigid than most Project Tiger reserves.
The next morning we were in the forest right after sunrise. It was our last opportunity and by then we were quite desperate for a private audience with the lord of the jungle. We mistook every shape and outline to be that of a tiger. If the bamboo trees swayed, so did our expectations, only to be dashed at the next turn. My son is convinced that he saw the disappearing beast on a mountain slope. Our hopes truly skyrocketed when we saw fresh pug marks en route. But alas, we did not get a glimpse of the elusive predator nor its sleek cousin, the leopard. The other jeeps/canters that went out that morning had all been rewarded but we returned empty handed…or have we? Even as I close my eyes now I can see that gorgeous kingfisher amidst a splash of blue or that deer, trying to reach the overhanging branches of the tree, wanting to sample new delights. As for the tiger tale, this is only the beginning…