Antique rock crumbled under my grasp and bounced down the side of Ranthambhore Fort to the sprawling, dusty forest below. I walked into the skeleton of a house broken into by the roots of trees, and standing on a carpet of grass, I looked out of a thousand-year-old window. Really, Ranthambhore is pure magic. The place is fraught with romance and intrigue — old ruins smothered by roots, herons sharing lakes with holy men and a million myths about Raja Hamir and the glory days of the ‘impregnable’ fort.
Ranthambhore Fort’s fall, along with that of the one at Chittaurgarh, is what is unanimously credited with finally breaking the spirit of the legendarily resilient Rajputs and the establishing of an undisputed Mughal Empire in India. Locals still visit a Ganesh temple here, as did their ancestors. And like them, they must walk through tiger forests to do so.
My pilgrimage was slightly longer. Leaving the madness, gloom and grime of Mumbai late in the evening, I arrived to the bright light, cold air and red brick of Sawai Madhopur Railway Station the next morning. Once through the main gate, dust and sand gave way to a canopy of trees and a leaf-dappled shade. My open-top gypsy added whiplash wind to the experience, and at the ticket counter I was greeted by Ranthambhore’s omniscient presence — a tree full of langurs. Scavenging on the leftovers from pilgrim picnics, screeching for attention, somersaulting, showing-off, swinging from the vines, they landed with unnerving thuds on the tops of tourist buses.
Breathing the tiger air
Ranthambhore is a popular holiday destination and in winter it is often chock full of noisy tourists on an obsessive search for tigers for whom driving through the reserve is like making small talk, very loudly, while waiting for audience with The King. It is hard not to hope for tigers when you’re in Ranthambhore, but there is something tainted about tracking them with walkie-talkies and harassing them with a constant barrage of gawkers. The trick to getting the most out of the park is distancing yourself from the madding crowd and being satisfied just breathing tiger air. Suddenly then, everything about it becomes thrilling.
On my first day in the park, while watching cormorants dry their wings on a bare tree in the middle of Rajbag Lake, someone in the next vehicle swore they had spotted a tiger peeping through the window of a ruin far on the other bank. Everything looks like a tiger when you’re desperate to see one I said, but around the bonfire at Ranthambhore Bagh (lovely tented accommodation) that night, a photographer confirmed reports of a young tigress hiding her cubs there. The next day back at the same spot, while a sambar stag foraged in the water, I have to admit I had stripes on the brain. About a quarter of an hour later, for no apparent reason, the sambar stumbled out of the lake, antlers festooned with vegetation, and dashed off. The mother tigress had begun her languid amble towards me long before I had noticed her. Making her way across a sliver of land in the water — literally a catwalk across the lake — she stopped just a stone’s throw from my parked vehicle, crouched down and began to drink. Close enough to see her whiskers quiver, the slapping of her flat pink tongue against the water was the only sound I heard for what seemed to be an eternity.
Finally, she crossed the path in front of us and walked ahead, letting us follow her in our vehicle for at least 20 mins down the road before disappearing into the foliage. Tigers, my guide informed me, like walking on the Forest Department’s untarred roads because they’re soft on the paws. Which makes for incredible tiger sightings, I found out.
The hunt is on
The hunt is on Slightly peeved with the six vehicles blocking the path in front of me first thing the next morning, I was forced to join the fray waiting for their promised tiger (a tip-off from a forest guard). There was no way any wild animal was going to make an appearance with those many people around, I thought. I was wrong. Not only did the tiger make an appearance, he was on a hunt. Slipping silently into the tall grass just off the road, he crouched, waiting. There was no prey as far as anyone could see, but soon there was a wretched yelp, immediately thwarted. A few minutes later, out came the gorgeous predator awkwardly dragging along a cheetal almost as big as himself by the neck. There, right on the road in full view of a few dozen awe-struck Homo sapiens, he sat down and halfhidden by the grass, began to feast.
Not all trips to tiger reserves are this rich, I know. Even forests guards don’t see a kill in action very often — tigers are only successful once in 20 tries — and at the end, it’s down to luck. Leaving the park a few days later, as I drove past Rajbag, past Jogi Mahal, past Gomukh, past the soaring cliff face (where eagles nest and leopards hide), past the last racket-tailed drongo and dhok tree, I turned around just in time to see the ancient fort looming like a vision borne of opiate excess…. Leaving Ranthambhore is like leaving a vital organ behind. You have to come back for your heart.
Story by Tara Sahgal