Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ranthambhore (June 2019) - Blessings from the tiger deities

While the tiger occupies a special seat in Indian mythology as the mount of Goddess Durga, for most of us it is no less than a goddess (or god) itself. This incredibly potent combination of drop dead gorgeous looks, indescribable feline grace, raw power and regal poise cannot be classified in the realms of regular beings. For every time this amazing animal grants you an audience, the first reaction is always one of awe, no matter how many times you've seen one before. Anyways, no prizes for guessing that I'm an unashamed tiger-devotee. For me, one of the finest temples to sight this magnificent deity is Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. A place that we visit unfailingly every single year for our annual pilgrimage, usually in the middle of summer.

Day 1 Morning - The Noor and Noorie show

And this year too, we arrived at Sawai Madhopur Station one sizzling June morning, to be met by the one and only Hemraj Meena; brother, mentor, tiger guru and naturalist extraordinaire. The burning (summer pun not intended) desire to be in the forest means that we head on safari directly from the train, stopping only to drop our bags at Tiger Home. This time we were headed to Zone 2, driving around the magnificent Ranthambhore fort. Its imposing ramparts still stand stoically tall, though defenceless against today's aggressors - the hordes of tourists that ascend to the fort and its Ganesh temple daily. Under the benign shadow of this majestic edifice, the tigers continue to thrive. 

But first we came across another (rarer) inhabitant- a Sloth Bear. He was right in front of us, feverishly working on a termite nest, blowing and sucking in equal measure to get his early morning meal. So engrossed was he that he didn't even look up at our vehicle for a second. The light wasn't great and we didn't want to interrupt his meal, so we headed further on, hoping for a tiger or a telltale sign of one- a parked gypsy. And a few minutes in, we found some of the latter near a waterhole and duly, our first tiger came into view. It was one of Ranthambhore's Queens - Noor or T39. She lay in the water, head behind a large rock and didn't move at all for the few minutes we were with her. She clearly wasn't in the mood for a photo session, so we headed further and came across her recently-separated daughter Noorie, at another waterhole. Noorie was easily more cooperative, more willing to indulge the amateur paparazzi and she gave us a few poses before finding a more shaded area to settle in for the late morning heat. She looked thin and under-fed and Hemraj was a bit worried about her ability to hunt for herself. We carried on to try and find T60 and her lone cub but she continued to live up to her nickname of 'The Ghost' and save for a fresh pugmark or two, we saw no signs. And that ended the first safari.

Day 1 Afternoon - Arrowhead provides an audience

That afternoon plan was to look for Arrowhead, the ruler of the Lakes, Ranthambhore's prime real estate. Otherwise the park's most sighted tigress, motherhood has made her slightly cautious and highly elusive. She was sighted near Malik Talao on the fringes of her territory that morning and we were hoping for a good afternoon with her family. And we drove to the dam at one end of the lake and through thick bush, we could see all three in the middle of their afternoon siesta. It was the cubs who rose from their slumber first and they tried their best to keep us entertained under an unforgiving summer sun. One of them tried, clumsily, to climb a tree and the other attempted to stalk a passing chinkara. They would take turns trying to nudge their supine mother to awaken but with no luck. Just as it seemed like we would end the whole safari with nothing more this distant sighting, Arrowhead finally woke up, probably out of embarrassment at keeping her audience waiting.  She quickly grabbed a drink of water and then paced up and down, as if deciding which way to head. And to our immense delight she chose to come to us. The three of them passed within metres of our stationary jeeps, all filled with starstruck humans. And we allowed them to walk on to their next destination, hoping to see them on our full-day safari the next day.

Day 2 - Full day. Full On.

The Full-day safari. 13 straight hours in the forest. Crazy enough in regular season but bordering on insane in 46 degree heat. But our expectations from Ranthambhore are always way higher than normal, so the full-day safari has now become integral to our summer trips. Last year we'd seen 10 tigers on the full-day and that was the benchmark now, not to mention the freedom to visit any section of the park that we chose (within the tourism zone, of course) We entered looking for Arrowhead, and found fresh tracks of her and the cubs, with the resident male, a minute into the park. She had scavenged a sambhar kill from a leopard and having polished it off with her mate, she had led her cubs into an area which was out of bounds for tourists. And we pushed off to find her mother, T19 or Krishna, another favourite for us.

Krishna, daughter of the legendary Machali, occupies a large territory in the hilly regions of Zone 4 in Ranthambhore. This makes her particularly difficult to find at times. And this time we found fresh tracks of the entire family on the main road and they seemed to head in every direction, so we started with her usual haunts, the valleys of Semli and Bhakola, both of which were empty. Bemused, we came back onto the main road and headed into one of the side paths which look down upon a rocky valley. Here, we were joined by a few other vehicles as we all looked high and low for this family. And then one driver spotted them in a valley further down and we all headed there to get closer. We got there in time to see the two male cubs cross over a nallah into thicker shrub. The female cub sat under a bush, enjoying the attention while mother Krishna sat and groomed herself. And then they all disappeared out of sight. And then all the vehicles began a game of 'where will they emerge?' as they all dispersed to the location of their choice. We stayed put to try and sense some activity and then Rajesh recommended that we head to the Adi Dagar valley. 

Adi Dagar is a beautiful valley, characterised by an almost sheer rock face and a green pool under it. And every time we drive down into the valley, we pray for a tiger in the green water. Like most times, this time too there was no luck. For, the luck was sitting a few metres higher!  On a ledge in the rocks, sat the majestic form of Krishna. Sitting there, she looked so much like her legendary mother, Machali and that too in her mother's favourite spot! It was a special half hour that we spent with her, and reluctantly we left to head to other parts of the park. And the next special sighting was not a tiger but a banyan tree full of fruit bats, thousands of them resting in the mid-morning heat. While the tiger always occupies pride of place in the pantheon, it is even more special at times to see other less celebrated, but equally important animals that make up the circle of life. And saying another goodbye, we headed back to the gate to pick up our lunch and head back to the other parts of the park.

We were back in Zone 2, said a quick hello to the sleeping forms of Noor and Noorie, and headed to the far reaches of the Guda area to look for T60, her single cub and the hulk T57, the dominant male. T60 had made a kill when the male came and appropriated her hard won meal. And he'd apparently polished off the bulk of the carcass and sauntered away while the poor lady had to scrap with the leftovers. We hovered around the kill till a jeep came up and said that mother and cub were in a nearby waterhole till a few minutes ago. After a quick check at the waterhole, Rajesh estimated that with the male gone, the tigress might come back to the kill. And as we came back, our driver Kantar saw the tigress sitting under a tree near the road with her little cub pottering around. We silently moved out of their field of vision and waited for them to cross the road to the kill. And at that very moment, another vehicle approached from the opposite side. We frantically motioned them to stop and to their credit they did so at once. But even that had spooked the little cub and it scampered back into thick bush with a despairing (and I daresay very hungry) mother following it.

It took a while for the tigress to coax her cub back towards the kill and by that time there were 4 vehicles on the road, all at a respectable distance to give them the room to access the kill. The mother sauntered across but the little cub showed its nervousness by dashing across the road to sit near the kill. And that for us, was enough; we didn't want to hang around and cause even a little discomfort to them so we decided to go further and see if we could track the male. We drove a few minutes to the Gandhra waterhole, a natural pool with a mound of earth around it, so one really has to drive up to the mouth of the pool to see inside. I had no hopes whatsoever but as the water came into view, so did a large and very 'stuffed' male tiger; his lordship T57, recent purloiner of a sambhar kill.

He looked very, very uncomfortable after such a large meal on a scorching hot day and he evidently hoped immersing his stomach in water would help digest his whopping meal. And even with the afternoon sun directly beating down on him, he did not move for the next 3 or so hours. We stayed with him in the vain hope that he would come out and walk for us but all he did was to stay jaw-deep in the muddy waterhole. We left him to his recovery and drove back to look for Noorie; we saw her in wonderful light and a full stomach and got some decent pictures. Then we looked for Noor and saw her still supine in the exact place we'd seen her earlier. She had been virtually immobile for 2 days now and we were a bit worried about her, especially given she'd had a fight with T57 (thankfully she was OK the next day, much to everyone's relief) We closed an epic full-day safari (10 tigers!) on the banks of the Rajbagh lake where the resident male T86 gave us a distant and uninspiring sighting but a small flock of Indian Skimmers more than made up for that with a superb flypast. Seeing Skimmers in Ranthambhore in the middle of summer was unusual and hence special, to say the least. 

Day 3 - Blanks on Zone 6, redemption on Zone 1.

The safari after a full-day is always a bit of an anticlimax and our trip to Zone 6 the following morning was the only one where we didn't get a tiger. There were 5 tigers in the zone but none was willing to appear for us, and only a solitary sloth bear provided us with a sighter. The morning's highlight was excellent samosas and kachoris at Porwal Kachori house in Sawai Madhopur town. The afternoon (One Zone 1) provided a tiger in the form of Sultana (another of Noor's daughters) who we spotted on a wooded hillside. She spent the full afternoon giving us false hopes and finally emerged just before departure time. Thanks to an overenthusiastic jeep she took a detour to the waterhole instead of passing right through the gap (that we had thoughtfully provided) much to our chagrin. Sometimes the best laid plans are ruined by less-intelligent mortals! Life.

Day 4 - Half Day. Full value

The last day began with a surprise for my daughter. She thought we were headed to Zone 10, but we'd sneakily booked a half-day safari. The goal was to spend more time with Krishna and her cubs. After a quick check for Arrowhead (absent) we headed again to Adi Dagar. While the tigers (again) weren't in the green water, we saw the male cubs in a valley from the lookout point. The two brothers were bathed in brilliant light as we got some satisfactory, if distant photos. And as they headed into cover, we moved forward to the Berda valley to check for the others. There was no tiger in the valley but we saw male pugmarks and remnants of a porcupine kill - quills and some blood. We followed the pugmarks, hoping it would be the dominant male T74 but lost them after a bit. And we were at a loose end, wondering what to do...

In forests, things can change in an instant. One moment, we were wandering about hopefully and slightly aimlessly, and the next moment we had a tiger in front of us. As we rounded a bend near the Semli valley, two parked jeeps were staring into a nala. And as we got there, a tigress stepped out, walked towards us and crossed the road right in front of us. It was Shakti, Krishna's daughter! She gave us a wonderful few minutes and wandered off to spend the day in more peaceful surrounds, no doubt. She is the most independent of the litter; her brothers stay much closer to mum. 

Buoyed by this unexpected gift, we drove into Semli and our driver Himmatji said "tiger" and in a bush right next to the road sat a male tiger. Again I hoped it was T74 but it turned out to be 'Blue Eyes' or T104, recently radio collared after an unfortunate encounter with a villager. He eventually got up, walked about and then climbed into a cave where we got some good eye-level shots. And then we left him to enjoy his snooze and headed back to Rajbagh where we had our breakfast on the banks of the beautiful lake. We still had time to head to Zone 2 to check for the local residents, but none seemed in attendance and we left the forest at noon, with 5 tigers under our belt.

Day 4 Afternoon - Beaten by a smarter adversary

The afternoon was supposed to be reserved for rest, but Hemraj brought news of a tigress with a kill in Zone 10. Naturally all thoughts of a rest were shelved and we proceeded with little reservation, this time with a local expert, Mukesh. We entered the zone harbouring thoughts of spending three hours clicking a tiger eating a kill. But the cunning feline took us for an almighty ride. Till the time we left, she didn't even come near the kill. We saw her a couple of times as she came for a drink but that was all. I'm sure she laughed till her stomach ached at how she outwitted these silly humans.

Later that evening, on our comfortable coach in the August Kranti Rajdhani, we reflected on that as well as on yet another spectacular trip to the home of tigers. We came home with 16 different tigers this time, including special sightings of 3 new cubs. And with hopes of Krishna, Noor and Laadli producing their next litters in the coming months, the next season promises to be very very exciting indeed.

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town, is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 9:45 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on largely good roads.


Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to full-on opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 

For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

At the mid-level, the Ranthambhore Regency is a superb option. It is comfortable, offers facilities like a pool and a bar and has some awesome food. And the hospitality of the Jains is incomparable.(www.ranthambhor.com). Another great option is Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 


Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 20 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book individual gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (https://fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in/

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there might be some checking at the entry gates.

In addition to morning and afternoon safaris, you can also do half and full days in the forest, though it is restricted to very few vehicles. If you're up for it, they're well worth

Other attractions 

Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips

Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

The full day safari is a delight but it also takes some getting used to. Please carry a bag or haversack with sun-block, adequate water and also some dry snacks or fruit if you get peckish during the day. 

While a gypsy can take 6 people, it's advisable for a full-day (or half day) safari to have no more than four people. 6 is a tight squeeze and manageable for a 3 hour safari, but to spend 6 or 13 hours like that is not recommended, definitely for your sanity!

Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.