Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ranthambore - the land of the Tiger

An Amalgam of Antiquity and Nature

How about a vacation under the shadows of one of the oldest fort in India - with tigers for company at breakfast and tea ? Ranthambore is the place I selected.


The magnificent Ranthambore Fort is one of the oldest forts in India. The Fort was built by the Kachhwaha Rajputs (Chauhans) but there is no certainty about the time and who the actual founder was. Some historians tell us that it was built by King Sapaldaksha in 944 A.D. Others historians say it was built by King Jayant of the same dynasty in 1110 A.D. There are other historians who give the credit to some one else.

The Fort was at its zenith during the rule of Rana Hamir Dewa who became king in 1283 A.D. The earliest authentic literature about Ranthambore is the Hamirraso, which chronicles the reign of Rana Hamir Dewa during the 13th century.Alla-ud-din Khilji defeated Rana Hamir Dewa. Alla-ud-din Khilji was in turn defeated by the Rajputs. Akbar defeated the Rajputs in 1528. In the late 17th century, the Mughals handed over the Fort to the Maharaja of Jaipur who ruled the place from the magnificent Amer Fort, not far away, till our independence.

The Fort is majestically perched on a table land at an altitude of slightly over 700 feet. It is surrounded by virtually inaccessible fortified walls. The massive walls, having a circumference of seven kilometres, enclose an area of four and half kilometres. Inside the fort are palatial living quarters, barracks, temples, and even mosques. From the living quarters, you get a fabulous view of the Padam Talao (one of the several man made lakes inside the Park). You see crocodiles lazing on the bank of the lake; flocks of deer and other animals drinking water; and a lot of birds.

There is a spring in the Fort, the Guptaganga, which is a perennial source of water. From the Fort, you can see miles and miles all around. It is impossible to approach the area unseen. This explains why this place was selected for the Fort. As if to make the entry still more difficult, the Fort is strategically located in the middle of the Ranthambore National Park.This is one of the few forts and monuments anywhere, where there are no guides and no entry fee.

National Park

The Ranthambore National Park, which surrounds the Fort, is famous for its tigers. The tigers here have provided the world with ninety five percent of all published photographs of tigers. Ranthambore forest was the private hunting resort of the Maharaja of Jaipur. It was declared the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary in 1955.

But the Maharaja of Jaipur was permitted to hunt in the Sanctuary till the 1970s. Hunting was totally stopped in 1970. The sanctuary, covering an area of 392 square km, was included in the Project Tiger in 1973. Ranthambore was, and remains, the smallest of the 28 Tiger Reserves in India (originally only nine). Ranthambore attained the status of National Park in 1980. In 1984, the adjoining forests were declared as Sawai Man Singh Sanctuary and Keladevi Sanctuary.

In 1991, the Project Tiger was extended to Sawai Man Singh Sanctuary, Keladevi Sanctuary and Kualaji Game Reserve - effectively extending the area of the Tiger Reserve to 1334 square km. The difference between a National Park and a Sanctuary under the Indian laws is that no human activity is permitted inside a National Park, while limited activities are permitted inside a Sanctuary. Moreover, National Parks receive more financial support from the Central Government.

Paradoxically, creation of private hunting reserves by the Royalty have contributed to the preservation of wildlife and forests. The reason is that Royal families could go there for hunting only about once a year and only very special guests were invited. Poachers were afraid of trespassing into Royal properties. Royal punishment was far too severe and swift.In 1960, the Maharaja of Jaipur invited Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth - II and her consort, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, for a royal hunt. This created some controversy.The Fauna Preservation Society of London referred the matter to Late E P Gee. Gee commented " the tiger is not a protected species in India and the shooting of the tiger by the royal party will be just the same as shooting a stag in Scotland and therefore should not be frowned upon".

This place had been lost in the pages of history - till Prime Minister late Rajiv Gandhi spent seven days, including the night of 1986-87, here. He stayed in Jogi Mahal, the two and a half century old beautiful Forest Guest House, which was closed to the public in 1992.Rajiv Gandhi fell in love with this unique place and a new eco-development project was taken up at his initiative. Rajiv Gandhi resurrected Ranthambore from the pages of history back onto the prominent tourist itinerary of India.

On 23rd March 2000, President Bill Clinton, and his daughter Chelsea, visited the Ranthambore National Park. Two of the tigers - Bambookhan, the largest male, and a female, gave private audience to them. They were thrilled.

My first tiger sighting

Tigers are found only in Asia. There were about 50,000 tigers a hundred years back. By 1970, their numbers dwindled to about 2000. The Project Tiger, which is one of the most ambitious and successful wildlife projects, was launched in 1973. Their numbers are increasing.

I had never seen a tiger in the wild. So when I decided to see and photograph one, I selected Ranthambore. I saw seven tigers in three days. My trip was a success.You can move inside the park only in authorized open Canters (mini-buses) or open jeeps. These are permitted to take only one of the seven pre-selected routes. The idea is that not more than two vehicles should ply on the same route at the same time.

During my three day stay, I went inside the Ranthambore National Park on three evenings. I traveled in an open Canter. We would start at 3.00 P.M. We had to leave the Park by sunset (6.30 P.M.). The monsoons had failed for three consecutive years. Everything was dry and parched. During the time we travelled inside the Ranthambore National Park, the blazing sun would be gliding down the horizon. It would still be very hot. But it would also be time for thirsty animals to quench their thirst at the few water holes.

On the first day, we sighted three tigers - a mother and her two cubs. They lay fast asleep sprawled higgly piggly about 15 metres from each other. They were at quite a distance from the road and partly hidden amongst trees and shrubs. I did take some photographs.

The second day, our guide pointed towards our right. A large tigress suddenly appeared. She moved parallel to the road. Three vehicles followed her. She took no notice. She entered a shallow pool of water. Everyone was ecstatic. Cameras clicked. We tumbled all over the vehicle, and over each other, to get better shots. The bathing tigress simply ignored us.Our vehicle reversed and took up position on the road a little distance away. Soon a young tiger came and sat down on the road in front of the vehicle. A younger tiger came and sat down on the ground a little to our left. These two were actually the offsprings of the bathing tigress.The bathing tigress appeared to our right and walked towards her cubs. She crossed the road and started calling. First, the smaller one on the left, and then the one on the road, joined her. The three disappeared into the forest.
The third day, our guide took us to a place where a pair of tigers had killed a sambar a couple of days ago. The tigers had eaten the sambar. We waited near a water hole. I looked down and recognized a pug mark on the ground (the first I saw and recognized) just next to the vehicle. A tiger had crossed the road a short while ago and should be back.Soon, a young tiger crossed the road from our rear and lay down on the ground a short distance away. Our driver reversed the vehicle and parked it in front of the tiger. The tiger ignored us and merrily rolled about on the ground while we clicked away.

Tigers need plenty of food. There are 10,000 cheetal (spotted deer), 8000 sambar (the largest Indian deer), 3000 neelgai (the largest Indian gazelle - also known as blue bull), plenty of wild boar - sufficient food to comfortably sustain a sizeable population of tigers.In 1991, there were 45 tigers in the Ranthambore National Park. But poaching took its toll. The numbers declined. The surviving tigers became extremely wary. And it became difficult to sight a tiger. Things have improved. There are 36 tigers. And they are not afraid of humans.

Thanks to the efforts of people like Fateh Singh Rathod, the first Field Director of the Ranthambore National Park, who has devoted his entire life to the welfare of the tigers and the local villagers, poaching has virtually stopped and the population of the tigers is steadily increasing.

Other animals

There are plenty of other animals as well. Leopards. Sloth bear. Gazelle, etc. I also saw jackals, mongoose and crocodiles. Numerous Langurs. I did not see a single Rhesus monkey. There were several species of birds, too.I also met Radha - a young neelgai who had been orphaned when she was very small. She had become accustomed to humans and muzzled up close to us and licked all over our faces and hands asking for eatables. Unfortunately, we had none.

The National Park is full of Dhak (Flame of the Forest) trees. There were large tracts of Dhak trees crowned with brilliant vermilion red blossoms which gives the trees the name Flame of the Forest.

The three lakes

There are three large lakes in the Ranthambore National Park. Numerous migratory birds come here for the winter. But the monsoons had failed for three successive years. All the lakes were almost dry. The result was very few migratory birds.I expected to see large numbers of crocodiles and turtles. I was told that these creatures can sense water from a long distance, and when the water becomes scarce in any place, they move away to other water holes, usually at night. I saw one turtle on its painful journey to some other water hole.

Why Ranthambore

In India, you can see tigers in 28 reserves. Why I chose Ranthambore ? The rules for visitors are far more rigid in Ranthambore than in most other tiger reserves. Only a limited number of approved vehicles are allowed inside the National Park. Every vehicle is allotted a specified route and only two vehicles are allowed on any particular route. All the vehicles must exit the Park by 6:30 P.M. These rules are strictly enforced.

The villagers have willingly relocated to areas outside the National Park and they have accepted the tiger as an integral part of their lives. There are several Non Government Organisations working here to save the tiger. As a result, the tigers here have become fearless and accustomed to human presence. If you are fond of nature, photography or history, you will love this place.Do carry a good camera, a good tele lens, and plenty of film.

Getting there

Nearest airport - Jaipur (180 km) Nearest Railway Station & Town (on the Delhi Mumbai route) - Sawai Madhopur (10 km) Best Season - September to March. April and May are hot, But the trees are barren and few water holes have much water. Animal sighting is ideal.Accommodation - plentiful - from the budget type to the high end.

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