“Is there a ‘loin’ here?” someone whispered into my ear as we tried to catch sight of the animal behind the bushes on the right-hand side of our vehicle.
“Loin?” I thought with a jolt, wondering how someone visiting Ranthambhore could confuse a lion with a Royal Bengal tiger. But to the large “loin spotting” family in our Canter (open mini-bus), a safari in the Ranthambhore National Park was little more than a family picnic, but with the promise of the exotic. Armed with a supply of snacks and cold drinks (ahem … carrying food into the jungle is prohibited), and large umbrellas to protect them from the afternoon sun, they seemed to be having a jolly good time. Their loud guffaws pierced through the peace of the forest, and constant banter drowned out the sound of silence. Travel does mean different things to different people, I thought, on that first safari at the national park.
While traveling to a new place might mean a change of scenery for some, for others, like my husband and I, every trip is about exploring a new place, absorbing the local flavors, reveling in the journey. We had set out on an almost-impromptu trip to Rajasthan with a map, bottles of water, a rucksack full of clothes and cameras, and loads of enthusiasm. Jaipur, the city of palaces and forts, had been out first stop. After we’d spent a few days in the bygone era of the Rajput kings, we hit the road again, this time headed for the Ranthambhore National Park, which is situated near the small town of Sawai Madhopur.
Valmik Thapar’s programs on the Discovery Channel about the burnished-gold tigers that prowled through a forest dotted with crumbling ruins of an ancient town and once-majestic fort, had already cast a potent spell on us. Enchanted by the promise of a unique blend of wildlife and history, we set out for Ranthambhore after Jaipur.
So, on a bright, sunny October morning, we found ourselves driving, or rather, gravitating toward the land of the tiger. The road, flanked by endless stretches of scrubland, was dotted with mud-plastered huts and the occasional, abandoned fort. The journey was peaceful; apart from a few villages that we passed by, it was all camel carts and women in brightly-colored outfits sauntering by.
After three hours on the road, we finally arrived at Ranthambhore. A few quick enquiries led us to the Tiger Den Resort, where we had booked a suite and a travel package that included four safaris and a visit to the ancient Ranthambhore fort.
Delighted by the warm welcome and hot lunch that awaited us, we were sure of enjoying the fours days that stretched ahead. We dumped our bags in our cozy little suite and got ready for the afternoon safari that the resort had already booked. The Canter, they said, would pick us up from the resort. Since we were hoping for good seats, we were a wee bit disappointed to find a jam-packed vehicle making its way down the dusty road. As it turned out, the only vacant place was at the back of the vehicle, between members of the noisy family.
So, sandwiched between four people, with the spokes of an umbrella pointing dangerously at my eye and a surly “naturalist” as a forest guide, we were off into Zone 2 of the forest to find the king of the jungle. We watched long-tailed langoors loping from one tree to another; sambar stags showing off their antlers; and herds of cheetal (spotted deer) gazing innocently at us. We also chanced upon a sloth bear (this was the animal behind the bush that the person had mistaken for a “loin”), foraging for termites.
The safari was interesting, but we were definitely not pleased with the noisy, snack-munching Canter companions, or with that handkerchief-sized space we were tucked into at the back of the vehicle. Was this how the other jungle safaris would be, we wondered with sagging morale. But the resort had other plans for our second safari. They assured us a better seat with a better view for the next jaunt into the jungle, and invited us to be part of a special evening on the lawns that they had planned for all the guests.
Cheered by the prospect of the next morning’s safari, we walked towards the verdant lawns where the resort had laid out a feast fit for kings. As we tucked into an assortment of lip-smacking tandoori snacks next to a crackling bonfire, folk artists entertained us with song and dance. After an enjoyable evening, we retired to our rooms with a bellyful of delicious food and a head full of tiger dreams.
The next day, room boys were sent out to book good seats for us in advance, and we set off early on that misty morning for our second safari, in Zone 2 again. Ranthambhore National Park, you see, is divided into five zones. Before the safari, every driver has to pick lots, and the number on the chit is the zone that particular vehicle goes to for the safari. The naturalist informed us about some tiger movement in that territory: a tigress and her cubs had been spotted in Zone 2 a few days ago, so we hoped to get lucky this time. We said our hellos to the peacocks, langoors, cheetal, sambar, neel gai (blue bull), and sloth bear—the animals that we had spotted the previous day, but all we could see of the tiger were some pug marks in the dirt track.
“Ah! I told you there’s tiger movement on this side of the forest,” whispered the naturalist mysteriously, pointing to the fresh pug marks. But, as much as we wished for the tiger to emerge from its hiding place, the King or Queen of the jungle decided to elude us. Well, maybe we would get lucky in the afternoon, we thought optimistically, as we soaked in the crisp morning air and the greenery of the pristine forest, placating ourselves with hope that the tiger would emerge out of the lush green forest.
Our third safari took us to Zone 2 again; by this time, my husband and I were confident enough to take over the naturalist’s job. We knew at which spot we’d find the deer and the langoors, where we’d get that breathtaking view of the Ranthambhore fort, and at which bend we’d encounter the oldest banyan tree. We had done three safaris, in the same zone, and no trace of the tiger. With just one safari left, we prayed fervently to at least get the chance to see another part of the forest, if not the tiger.
As it happened, the royal resident of the National Park seemed to have decided to save its magic for some other time. As night descended on Ranthambhore after our third safari, we lounged around on the porch, sipping cups of coffee and swapping tiger stories with the room boys and waiters, who had spent several years at the place and had a bagful of interesting anecdotes to share.
The next morning, we woke up early for what would be our last safari in the forest. And guess what? Lady Luck smiled down at us—we were allotted Zone 5, hurrah! At least we would see a different route, we thought. 10 minutes into the forest, we came across a serpentine row of Canters and Jeeps, and cameras clicking away furiously. Ah! The tiger at last. An orange blur in the thicket was all we could see of the tiger, so we willed it to move to our side or for our vehicle to move forward. The Gods seemed to be listening to us because both happened at the same time. As our vehicle started inching forward, the tiger decided to climb over to other side. As it ambled towards us at a leisurely pace, we didn’t know what was more important: capture the majestic animal with our cameras,or just soak in his presence.
The huge male might have been “Jhumroo,” the naturalist told us. All the tigers at Ranthanbhore have names. There’s Macchli, the lady of the lake; Ghengis, Lakshmi, Noon. Jhumroo was so much more awesome than any tiger we had seen on TV.
Back at the resort, we excitedly told the staff about our encounter. “Chalo, you finally got to meet the tiger on your last safari,” said Raju, the smiling waiter.
Happy at having met the most important resident of Ranthambhore, we were now ready to explore another aspect of the place—the Ranthambhore Fort that lies in the park’s precincts. We had already seen a few ruins on our safaris: chattris, and old fortifications, and had been enthralled by the vision of the magnificent fort emerging out of the forest. Being inside the fort was a delicious experience in itself.
The fort, which is now home to a troop of langoors, has palaces, temples, mosques, and gardens within its walls. As we walked about, mulling over the quaint names of the buildings—Hammir’s Court, Badal Mahal, Dulhan Mahal and Phansi Ghar—I wondered how the crumbling buildings must have looked in their days of glory, in an era when Ranthambhore was a powerful kingdom that many rulers had fought had over.
It is said that the construction of the Fort was started during the reign of the Chauhan Rajput King, Sapaldaksha, in 944 AD. The Fort had its golden moments during the reign of Rao Hammir, the last ruler of the Chauhan dynasty (1282-1301 AD). During 1300 AD, Ala-ud-din Khilji, the ruler of Delhi sent his army to capture the Fort. After three unsuccessful attempts, his army finally conquered it in 1301 and ended the reign of the Chauhans. Legend has it that women committed jauhar, or self-immolation, to escape from enemy hands.
In the next three centuries, the fort changed hands a number of times, until Akbar, the great Mughal emperor, finally dissolved the state of Ranthambhore in 1558. The fort stayed in the possession of the Mughal rulers until the mid-18th century.
Each piece of crumbling rock seemed to have a story to tell. While the magnificence of the fort once attracted several rulers to invade this kingdom, the Ganesh Temple ensconced in the premises of the fort even now attracts a steady flow of pilgrims from the rural hinterland around the National Park. They walk all the way through tiger country to pay homage to the benevolent laddoo-loving God. It is believed that the idol of Lord Ganesh rose from the earth at this very point, and a temple was eventually built around it.
Ranthambhore is swathed in legend and mystery, a place where nature and the ghosts of the past dwell in harmony. Indeed, this image of an ancient fort with a chequered history, surrounded by thick forests and prowling tigers, is what fascinated me the most, and what would compel me to return.
Chandana Banerjee is an independent writer based in India. She writes for various media including websites, newspapers, magazines, e-books, e-learning and corporate communications. She also has her own writing company.