It is a difficult romance, the love of the wild. One spends one’s time going through accounts of the magnificence of dense jungles or planning trips and vacations that always seem to be put off for one reason or another. We are captivated as we read Kipling write of Toomai or Mowgli and how the tiger got its stripes. We are mortified when Ruskin Bond recounts the tragic betrayal of the Panther under the moonlight. It is a relationship at a distance from the object of our affection. Considering the march of civilisation, that is perhaps best, as the sprawling cities and towns seem to push the wild further into the distance. There do however, still remain some remote islands of tranquillity where one can still experience those brief encounters with the wild that sustain the romance and bring forth a wave of intense feelings of awe, admiration and wonder. One such island, nestled in the heart of the Indian state of Rajasthan, is Ranthambore National Park.
The Park itself is around 400 kms from the national capital New Delhi, located near the town of Sawai Madhopur. The town that thrives around the idea of the tiger. As one enters Sawai Madhopur, billboards welcome visitors to the “land of the tiger”. Everywhere the presence of the tiger lingers, from the empty jeeps and cantors that chase it down every day to its images plastered across shops which have nothing to do with the wild and even signboards painted in the colours of its skin. The big cat has imprinted itself on the very soul of the locals – an indication of the deep bond between Indian wildlife and the people. The park’s tale begins, as most stories do in Rajasthan, with a Maharaja.
The forest itself used to be a hunting ground of the Royal family of Jaipur, taking its name from the Ranthambore Fort which still looks over the National Park today. In 1955 it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and after the launch of Project Tiger, a national tiger conservation programme, it became a Tiger Reserve in 1973 and finally a National Park in 1980. It was in the 1970s that one comes across one of the most remarkable instances of communities coming together to protect wildlife in history. Between 1973 and 1980, 12 villages moved out from the within the area marked out for the park, sacrificing their homes to protect the dwindling tiger population. Today, when poaching persists across the world and the forests are disappearing, victims to the land hunger and population pressures, this seems inexplicable. But it all makes sense once you witness the ethos of Ranthambore and the relationship between man and animal in this corner of Rajasthan.
The people have preserved their connection to the forest and the region without impeding into the Tiger’s domain. A section of the forest remains open for all people to visit the Trinetra Ganesh Temple inside the 1000-year-old fort. The temple was built around 1300 A.D. and its legend speaks of how Trinetra Ganesh saved Raja Hammer and the fort from the onslaught of the emperor Alauddin Khilji invading from Delhi. It is said that the Raja was engaged in a prolonged war with the invading forces and was faced with depleting food stores. At some point during the raging conflict, Lord Ganesh chose to intervene. He came to the Raja in a dream and said all would be well in the morning. By sunrise all the food stores had replenished, the war had ended, and an idol of Trinetra Ganesha had appeared on the walls of the fort. The temple was built a year later, placing the idols of Trinetra Ganesha, his wives Riddhi and Siddhi, his sons, and his mount Musak (a mouse) within it (It is the oldest temple of Ganesha in Rajasthan and one of the few which houses his entire family). Another notable feature of the temple is that devotees may send letters addressed to Lord Ganesh, which the priest presents to the deity. A charming innovation, which in its latest iteration includes letters being sent via email, phone and whatsapp messages to be written out and submitted to Lord Ganesha. The temple is said to receive more than 1000 letters every day and pilgrims continue to throng the roads every day.
The walls of the ancient fort come into view as one drives to the Park. At this point visitors will realise that most of the official descriptions of Ranthambore fail to capture some part of its essence. Its soul lies not in the listing of its flora and fauna, or the chronological history of the fort, but in the interplay of all these elements with the river of vibrant human life that flows through here. It is why the villagers relocated from the park in the 1970s, giving space to the tiger and its entourage. It is why 2 tigresses bear the names of Lord Ganesha’s wives. The Fort ruins are very much alive in the pugmarks of the tigers patrolling Mahals (small palaces) and Talabs (ponds), the footsteps of the pilgrims walking to the temple with secret hopes and dreams, and the stories of the tigers including Arrowhead, Noor, and the great matriarch Macchli. All these different streams of life merge into one to create a tide that ebbs and flows around us in the land of the tiger.
(You can see the other famous tigers of Ranthambore here)
Tourist bookings work in an easy and streamlined manner in Ranthambore. The decline of animal sightings in the other national parks, and the general deterioration of untouched natural habitat into picnic spots, with all the accompanying noise and disturbances, may have led us to believe that we are condemned to either leave nature alone with the silent satisfaction that it will be safe in isolation or see it flicker out and disappear before our invasive eyes. Ranthambore seems to have found a way around this deadly choice. The park is divided into 10 zones and tourists book safaris online. Zones 1 to 5 have heavy forest cover while zones 6-10 have a more hilly and dry terrain. Tourists have the option of indicating a preference for a zone, but, depending on the availability of slots, they may not get their choice.
Ranthambore is a dry deciduous forest with a spattering of water bodies, the most famous being Padam Talab in Zone 4, which used to be the haunt of the famous tigress Macchli before she passed away. Driving through the park, one can come across several of its residents such as the Chital (Spotted Deer), the Sambar (Swamp Deer), the Nilgai (Blue Bull) and others, at the small water features scattered across the forest. The Chital and Langur often appear in groups while feeding. The fruit dislodged by the monkeys provided easy pickings for the deer, one of the many symbiotic relationships in the natural world. The graceful movement of the Chital is in sharp contrast to the muscular and lumbering Nilgai. A sambar stag taking a mudbath is a frequent sight and visitors to the hilly zones in the park may come across serpent eagles and other avian species. It is a testament to the forest authorities of Ranthambore that all animals go about their daily labours, unperturbed by the presence of tourists. The tourist guides and drivers have learnt not to disturb or threaten the animals and preserve the sanctity of the park. The tiger, however, is an elusive character. One can go on multiple Safaris without a sighting, but if there is any place in India where one can spot a Tiger easily, it is Ranthambore.
Those who have been on Safari in India’s great forests, are all too familiar with such sudden stops and expectant hushes of our forest guides and drivers. As a people who have mastered the art of literary hyperbole and have a penchant for storytelling, no less is to be expected from the Indian mind when placed in as fertile a ground for storytelling as the Indian jungle. Many of these halts do not yield any result except the annoyance of tourists. But, during all these incidents, one can observe the guide trying to read the forest in silence. The forest has a language of its own, and whenever one sees a committed guide in action, it feels as if they are trying to decipher a difficult text. They look over the inflexions of each letter and the meaning of each word the jungle utters. They try to understand the meaning behind each sound, a twig snapping here, a leaf falling there. If one bears with these efforts, one is likely to be rewarded with a Tiger sighting. Seeing a Tiger in the wild is an experience not easily put into words, and seeing one at close proximity as in Ranthambore, makes any attempt to do so seem impossible. The sheer grace and power of the tiger is a sight both wonderful and frightening and is the highlight of any visit to Sawai Madhopur.
A visit to Ranthambore National Park creates treasured memories that pull us back to Rajasthan again and again, which is a testament to the power of the wild and Indian culture to bring people together. Visiting this Land of the Tiger gives a chance to witness first-hand the balance between man and nature that is symbolic of the Indian tradition.