Category Archives: Rajasthan

Looney Dunes: Quirky Rajasthan

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Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Rajasthan has the uncanny ability to surprise you. On a 10 day road trip, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover ‘Suryavanshi’ lampposts, turbaned men with outrageous moustaches and camels named after celebrities… Here’s a list of Top 10 offbeat experiences.

1. Bullet Banna and his 350 cc Temple

Most people know about Deshnok’s Karni Mata Temple where locals worship rats as their ancestors. But the shrine of Motorcycle Baba? Near Rohet, along NH-65 to Jodhpur, is the roadside temple of Bullet Banna, dedicated to Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a bike crash in 1988. The cops seized the bike, but the next morning it disappeared from the police station. After a frantic search, it was found parked at the crash site. Strangely, every time the bike was impounded, it returned to the accident-prone spot. Recognizing it as divine will, a temple was built in Om Banna’s memory. The 350 cc Bullet (BNJ 7773) is enshrined alongside his garlanded photo, where travelers stop to pray for a safe passage.

Don’t Miss: Bishnoi villages at Rohet and Guda Bishnoi near Jodhpur, Participate in an opium ceremony, Khejarli Memorial where 363 people sacrificed their lives to protect a grove of the sacred khejri tree

2. More Bhang for your Buck: Jaisalmer’s famous Bhang Shop

Move over Dr. Dang, Dr. Bhang is here! He has a YouTube video, a Facebook page and a killer dialogue to hawk his wares – ‘We start from Baby Lassi, special for Japani-Korean because they have small baby eyes, then we have Medium, Strong, Super Duper Sexy Strong and then Full Power, 24 Hour. No toilet, no shower!’ Doctor Bhang or Chander Prakash Vyas aka Babu, represents the savvy third generation of the Govt. Authorized Bhang Shop, located at the base of Jaisalmer fort since the early 1970s. The Banana Lassi (Strong) is strongly recommended. Bhang chocolates (lasts 2-3 days) Bhang cookies (lasts few weeks) and CDs of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the shop are good take-aways.

Don’t miss: Jaisalmer Fort, India’s only ‘living’ fort with a maze of houses, hotels, eateries, exquisite Jain temples & Mr. Parekh’s gemstone shop ‘Light of the East’, Photograph Dhanna Ram’s 4.5 ft long moustache outside Patwon ki Haveli 

3. The Ghost town of Kuldhara 

The skeletal remains of Kuldhara represent a Golden Age gone to dust. Located 18 km west of Jaisalmer off the highway to Sam, this was one of the 84 villages of Paliwal Brahmins which were abandoned overnight! The large houses, wide streets, excellent drainage and water harvesting to grow wheat in a desolate land speak of an advanced society. Paliwal Brahmins were wealthy agriculturists who traded along the Silk Route to the north, contributing hefty taxes to the kings and often giving them loans! However, when trade routes changed and the river Kak ran dry, the community bore the brunt of unjust taxes imposed by Salim Singh, the ruthless dewan. Continuous harassment and threat to their women resulted in a mass exodus of the Paliwals. They left in the dead of the night, never to be heard of again. Fearing their curse, nobody has ever settled in their villages till date.

Don’t Miss: The 80-year-old caretaker Sumer Ram narrates the legend of Kuldhara and also plays the algoja (Rajasthani double flute) very well… sometimes, with his nose! Similar ruins at Khaba (10 km away)

4. Ranthambhore Ganesh ji: Postcards to God

Atop Ranthambhore’s historic 1000-year-old fort is a unique temple of trinetra (three-eyed) Ganesha. Every day, the Lord receives 10 kg of mail from across the globe. This isn’t fan mail or supplications; as per tradition the first wedding invitation card for any marriage is sent here. Temple priest Ramavtar explained that the first wedding invite sent here was ‘Krishna weds Rukmini’, roughly dating the temple to 6500 years. So um… what happens to all the wedding cards? The envelopes are recycled for giving prasad and the cards are cleared annually! Wednesdays (Lord Ganesha’s Day) tend to be crowded and the annual Ganesh Chaturthi fair attracts thousands.

Don’t Miss: Tiger safaris, hand-feeding wild Rufous Tree-pies with biscuit crumbs, Shopping for traditional textiles and crafts at Dastkar

5. What makes Mehrangarh a formidable fort 

Easily the most spectacular fort in Rajasthan, Mehrangarh hides a grim tale under its magnificent facade. When Rao Jodha decided to move the Rathore citadel from Mandore in 1459, he selected the hillock of Bhaurcheeria (Mountain of Birds), home to an ascetic Cheeria Nathji. Though a temple was built to mark his dhuni (place of penance), the evicted sage cursed the place to be drought-ridden but conceded that the fort would be unassailable if a man was buried alive in its foundations. A skinner Rajaram Meghwal (or Rajiya Bhambi) volunteered, in return for the welfare of his family till perpetuity. To this day his descendants live in Raj Bagh. On Jodhpur’s founding day (May 12), the Maharaja worships the humble skinner’s tools and felicitates Rajiya’s kin. A stone tablet opposite Rao Jodhaji’s Phalsa (the original fort entrance) commemorates his supreme sacrifice.

Don’t Miss: The elevator inside the fort, Royal dinner at Chokelao Bagh, Stay inside the walled city at Pal Haveli, Visit Jaswant Thada (royal cenotaphs) and the old capital of Mandore 

6. Mishrilal’s Makhaniya Lassi, LMB & other culinary delights

If Dal-bati-churma and gatte ki sabzi seem passé, try Nutella pancakes, Marmite toast, Mexican enchiladas or Israeli cuisine in Rajasthan. At Pushkar, it’s not just the menu that’s offbeat. Eat at Pink Floyd Café, Out of the Blue, Funky Monkey, Meter Palace or Rainbow Café. Most rooftop cafes offer ‘panoramic lake views’, making Pushkar a novel experience. For conventional fare, try the Rajasthani Thali at Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar – Traditional Halwaies since 1727 (0141-2565844) at Johari Bazaar in Jaipur, or feast on Kachoris at Rawat’s. At Jodhpur, Mishrilal (0291-2540049) at Ghanta Ghar has been churning out their signature ‘Makhaniya lassi’ and Special Rabdi over five generations. Nearby, under the Sardar Market arch you’ll find an ‘Amalate (omelette) Shop – Recommended by Lonely Planet’!

Don’t Miss: Bikaneri Bhujiya, assorted gajak from Ajmer and tandoori parathas, dal and ker-sangri at the highway dhabas around Pokharan 

7. Why Michael Jackson will never Die

At the dunes of Sam, you don’t just listen to Michael Jackson, you ride him! And learn how to grab your crotch along the way. After all, a camel ride is often a ‘hump-and-grind’ routine. But there’s a reason why most of Sam’s camels are named after MJ. Our camel guy Bariyam Bhai had flawless logic, ‘If he was called Ramesh, would you have cared? Michael Jackson’s universal appeal makes the name quirky enough to amuse foreign tourists. Besides, climbing and alighting from a camel is like break-dance.’ You might also chance upon other superstars like Sean Connery, Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh, Salman and Raja Hindustani but the sudden demise of The King of Pop has resurrected his name. Out in these dunes, MJ still moonwalks on the sands of time.

Don’t Miss: Camel safari in the Desert National Park, Stay at desert camps with Kalbeliya dancers and Rajasthani folk artists performing under a starlit sky

8. Deogarh Mahal: Royal attitude
The story of Deogarh is a tale of pride and honour. Chunda Sisodia, heir apparent to the throne of Mewar, was the most eligible bachelor of his time. When a proposal for Hansabai, the Rathore princess was brought to Chittor, Chundaji was away. His father Rana Lakha joked that the bride could surely not be for an old man like him. When the prince returned, he refused to accept a woman ‘spurned’ by his father. So the princess married the old king. The proud Chundaji renounced his claim to the throne and carved a new bastion for himself in the lawless lands north of Chittor. Deogarh Mahal, a legacy of this Chundawat clan, still bristles with the same centuries-old attitude. Its quirky signboards (London Raining, New York Snowing, Deogarh Fine Weather, Only 3 km), vintage cars like Thapero, Bhachero and Car-o-Bar (a renovated bar on wheels), clever ‘Duck or Grouse’ tags on low doors and the opulent rooms, make Deogarh Mahal a delightful indulgence!

Don’t Miss: Anjaneshwar Mahadev cave temple, Stay at ‘Khayyam’ luxurious tents in the wilderness or Seengh Sagar, the erstwhile royal recreation lodge overlooking a lake

9. Chacha, Lathi, Bap & other quirks on and off the highway

An uncle, a stick, a father, a child’s cry for milk – no, these aren’t clues to a treasure hunt in the desert, these are places you encounter on a road trip across Rajasthan. Chacha, Lathi, Bap, Dudu – milestones whizz by flashing strange names, making you wonder who or what could have inspired them. It’s really… Luni?! The monotony of the arid landscape is broken by distractions like large trailers carrying weird equipment from Kandla Port, pilgrims traveling to Ramdevra on foot and Hotel Shimla in Pokharan. Severe-looking men sport fluorescent turbans, veiled village belles dodge the camera with practiced ease while herds of camel hold up traffic as they nibble on trees by the wayside.

Don’t Miss: Milestones, signboards and photographic opportunities galore

10. The dhurrie that never catches fire

Horrified by the sight of a man trying to set fire to a beautiful rug, we protested wildly. Hansmukh, true to his name, smiled benignly as if nothing was amiss. He explained, ‘Pure wool fibre gathered from camel and goat hair is naturally fire resistant and closely-woven knots make the carpet fireproof’. As if on cue, the extra-long Karborised matchstick died out, bringing the show to a dramatic end. We were at Ranakpur Tribal Dhurrie Udyog (02934-285191), a humble venue with an array of hand-woven dhurries and carpets crafted since generations. Their popularity was apparent in the stack of cartons waiting to be shipped. In the low light, we squinted at the addresses – ‘Nagpur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi? Not bad!’ we mumbled. Hansmukh smiled. ‘No, it’s Norway, Australia, New Zealand.’

Don’t miss: Ranakpur’s 15th century Jain temple of Adinath with 29 halls and 1,444 intricately carved marble pillars; the elaborate Jain lunch served as prasad

Fact File

The route: Jaipur-Ajmer-Pushkar-Deogarh-Ranakpur-Jodhpur-Sam-Jaisalmer-Sawai Madhopur

Getting there: Jet Airways operates direct flights to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur from Delhi and Mumbai.

When to visit: Winter months are ideal, but the festive season brings out the best in Rajasthan, with something special every month: Desert Festival in Jaisalmer (16-18 Feb), Elephant Festival at Jaipur (19 Mar), Mewar Festival at Udaipur (6-8 Apr) & Summer Festival at Mount Abu (15-17 May)

Where to Stay

Deogarh Mahal, Deogarh
02904-252777, 253333, 9314420016
info@deogarhmahal.com

Nachna Haveli, Jaisalmer
02992-251910, 255565
nachna_haveli@yahoo.com

Pal Haveli, Jodhpur
0291-3093328, 2638344, 9350408034
info@palhaveli.com

Ranthambhore Bagh, Sawai Madhopur
07462-221728, 224251
aditya@ranthambhore.com

Giri Sadan Homestay, Jaipur
0141-2371385, 2364191
girisadan@dataone.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Golden Miles: Rajasthan by Road

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It’s a long sunny drive to Jaisalmer. ANURAG MALLICK test-drives a brand new Toyota Innova to bring back tales from the desert

When it comes to Rajasthan, Jaipur has always been like foreplay, that preliminary bit of fooling around until you get down to business—Rajasthan itself. With a road trip to Jaisalmer  staring back at me from the odometer, it was my fastest ride to Jaipur ever. Besides, it was late at night, the four-lane highway was excellent and I had the unfair advantage of a brand new Toyota Innova I was asked to test drive. The mid-point Behror and Kotputli whizzed past and we wheeled into Jaipur at the break of dawn. The doodh mandi was stirring to life. Elephants were being readied for their daily ritual of 15-minute rides to the top of Amer fort.

After zipping along the near empty streets of Jaipur, we finally drove into Raj Palace, our first halt. Built in 1727 and owned by the royal family of Chomu, it is believed to be the oldest mansion in Jaipur, even older than the city palace. It is a local joke that every visitor gets lost in the maze of corridors at least once. Thankfully we had stopped by only for a wash and breakfast; our tight schedule didn’t even allow us to explore the twin holy cities of Ajmer and Pushkar. Besides there’s a belief about Ajmer that ‘Ajmer-e-sharif wahi jatey hain, jinhe khud khwaja bulatey hain’. It’s a divine calling and perhaps no one had heard it as loud and clear as Salim Shah.

He was our first major road discovery. On a highway with whizzing traffic here was a man for whom the world moved at 10 km/hr. For over three decades, since the age of eight, Salim had been running his own messenger service. Every year he cycled to holy Muslim shrines preaching the word of Allah, from Rajasthan to Assam and Gulbarga to Kashmir. He slept, ate, prayed and lived his life in his green contraption. As we talked over some good dhaba tea, a thousand questions erupted in my head. Why? How? What next? And almost every query was disarmingly countered with a simple shrug of the shoulders and a motion towards the heavens above. I left my Sufi Forrest Gump with his rag tag band of followers and moved ahead.

We crossed Bhim by nightfall and soon took a 20km diversion from the main highway to Udaipur towards our halt for the night, Deogarh, the citadel of the gods. Bhajans from the nearby temples—Jain mandir, Sri Ram mandir, and the Karni Mata mandir—intermingled clamorously. We stayed at Deogarh Palace, built in 1617 when the Maharaja of Udaipur appointed Sanghaji as the jagirdar of 260 villages. Over the years, the cannon store has given way to a swimming pool and the horse stable to a string of shops. The rest of the town though remains pretty much the same—narrow galis, shops jostling with each other and the great spill of humanity.

From Gomti we turned right towards Charbhuja, and the terrain slowly mutated from flat shrub land to hilly tree-lined roads as we made our way towards Kumbalgarh. Before long we were alongside the second longest wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China. Kumbalgarh is also a wildlife sanctuary and a longer stay would have probably rewarded us with a leopard sighting. However, content with a visit to its magnificent fort we headed for Jodhpur with a brief stopover at the richly carved Jain temple of Ranakpur.

Having crossed Pali, Rohit and Loni we entered Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city. Winding past the first city gate and the clock tower, we stumbled upon the Pal Haveli—our halt for the night. The inclined driveway and the gate looked almost  perpendicular to each other and it was the toughest access to any hotel I have ever known. Once inside, we could barely hear the chugging engine of the city.

The better part of the next morning was spent joining dots on the map of Rajasthan. This part of the state was once an important link in the Silk Route, and legend has it that local kings used to loot caravan parties carrying gold and other riches. From Lodarwa, Amar Sagar, Osian, Chautan, Tannoth, Kishangarh to Ranjitpura (the middle of the desert and hence a den for opium smugglers), this was one desert highway I didn’t want to venture on, at least not in a car. An armoured tank might have been better.

I got a lesson in history the next morning, as the car wound its way up a hillock. In the 15th century, Rao Jodha was on the lookout for a secure bastion. He came to this hillock and found a holy seer meditating. The king’s men had just about evicted Mehran Baba when the constructed walls collapsed. Mehran Baba refused to stay anymore, but blessed their project and asked that his dhuni (place of penance) be left undisturbed. While leaving he also told the king’s men that the place was cursed and that any structure built there would remain incomplete, unless a human sacrifice was offered. Rajiya Bhambi, a skinner by caste, offered his life and was bricked alive into the fort walls to guard over it as a spirit. There’s a small memorial slab at Rao Jodha’s Phalsa, which marks the exact place. Every year on May 12, the founding day of Jodhpur, the Maharaja worships the humble skinner’s tools and felicitates the kin of Rajiya Bhambi.

After a brief visit to Jaswant Thada and Ajit Bhavan we were off to the Bishnoi villages of Kejarli and Guda Bishnoiya. We stopped at Jodha Ram’s house, and while his son took out the paraphernalia for the opium ceremony, Jodha Ram elaborated on the Bishnoi cult. It was founded in the late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji, who laid down 29 (Bish-noi) conservation principles. According to local folklore, in 1730, a Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi courted death by clinging to a tree being cut to provide fuel for the cement lime kilns to build the Maharaja’s palace. Following her example, her two daughters, husband and 363 people in total clung to the trees and gave up their lives. This sacrifice was commemorated at Khejarli village, where there is a grove of khejri.

The opium was good. In fact the drug is so potent and caustic in its pure form that it has to be stored in lumps of milk and sugar. “When two warring parties consume opium together, it means they’ve made peace with each other,” Jodha Ram elaborated. “And it is very good for a cough.” That was my cue to cough ostentatiously till some more was hastily procured and packed for the rest of the journey.

The drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer was a four-hour daze. I wanted to see the nuclear test site of Pokhran but was told that visiting the actual site involved a 20km detour. I thought I was hallucinating but there were actually milestones with place names like Baap, Chacha and Lathi. I was still laughing as we reached Jaisalmer. It was late evening, so we decided to stop overnight at the Himmatgarh Fort, and visit the sand dunes of Sam early next morning. Sunsets on the dunes are supposed to be spectacular, and I was hoping sunrise would be the same. It was.

Even before the car could come to a stop, camel riders came rushing towards us. After a couple of teas and a lot of persuasion we were ready for a camel ride across the dunes. “Michael. Michael!” a man shouted and shortly Bablu, Raja Hindustani and Michael Jackson trooped in. The oont-wala laughed when we quizzed him on the names, saying that the names were pretty much left to the imagination of whoever bought the camel. We were informed that only male camels are used for rides, since even as sedate an animal as the camel can find the presence of a female distracting. Keeping a camel is no easy task either.

What it saves on water, it makes up with everything else. It needs a diet of jowar ki phali, ghee and gur, involving an expense of about Rs 200-250 every morning and evening. Since we had a little time we decided to explore a section of the Desert National Park and managed to see some chinkaras. To add to the adventure the oont-walas made the camels gallop at breakneck speed. Half an hour of riding and we were ready to get back to the car.

It was going to be a long 1,000km ride back to Delhi but oddly, I wasn’t perturbed. The Innova was proving to be the perfect ship of the desert—smooth in handling, excellent road grip and roomy interiors. As we approached Bikaner, I could see nothing but a bewildering succession of Ramdevs—Ramdev dhaba, Ramdev ji Bhojnalaya, Hotel Ramdev—lining the highway. It was a truck driver who enlightened me about the Ramdev cult. The Tomar king Biram Dev, he told us, had given up hope of producing an heir to the throne, and had decided to kill himself at Dwarka. As he was drowning, Lord Krishna appeared before the king. Not only did he save the king, but also promised Bikram Dev that he (Lord Krishna) would take birth as his son.

Ramdev grew up to be a man of great spiritual powers. He produced bowls for five Muslim fakirs from Mecca out of thin air, and with his lance he created a well in the middle of the desert, which still supplies water from Ramdevra to Pokhran. Till some years back, I was told, people used to jump into the well to heal themselves and an iron grille had to be installed to prevent accidents. Thousands still apparently flock to Ramdevra during the annual mela in August.

We stopped for tea and some Bikaneri bhujiya in Bikaner. By now four days of crazy driving were catching up with us, and as the car rolled down the highway, the surrounding countryside passed in a blur of hazy images. We were soon knocking on the doors of Delhi—the colours of the city coming as a shock after the austere browns of the desert—and shaking the dust from our clothes.

The Route

Delhi – Jaipur (258km) – Deogarh (240km) – Kumbalgarh (200km) –  Jodhpur (90km) – Pokhran (180km) – Jaisalmer (120km) -Sam (45km) – Jaisalmer (45km) – Bikaner (350km) – Jaipur (350km) – Kotputli (118km) – Delhi (140km).

THE DRIVE

Delhi-Jaipur-Deogarh: The four-lane NH-8 to Jaipur is probably the best highway in the country. If you are averse to dhabas, Behror is a good midway stop with restaurant facilities. Thirty kilometres from Jaipur on the route to Ajmer is Mahela, a traditional village known for its blue pottery artisans. Take the Ajmer/Pushkar bypass and continue via Bhim onwards to Deogarh. The roads are excellent but off the main highway, many stretches are single-lane, which can increase driving time considerably.

Deogarh-Kumbalgarh-Jodhpur: From Deogarh, drive 35km to Gomti chauraha, turn right towards Daisuri (20km) and Sadadi, from where it’s a 15-minute drive to Kumbalgarh. To get to Jodhpur you can either return to Sadadi and head via Sayra and Ranakpur or you can backtrack the way you came via Kelwada, Charbhuja, Desuri, Narlai. Both routes will take you via Pali, from where Jodhpur is a little over an hour’s ride.

Jodhpur-Jaisalmer: The road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is a ramrod-straight road via Agolai, Baleshwar, Dechu, Pokhran, Lathi, Chaandan and Hayat Hamira. Despite the distance of 300km, the road is perfect and the journey takes just about four hours. Manwar Resort & Camp is a good midway stop. To visit the sand dunes from Jaisalmer, you need to drive 45km to Sam. There’s another set of dunes at Khuri, 45km in the opposite direction from Jaisalmer town crossing.

Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Delhi: You will need to backtrack to Pokhran and then take the left towards Bikaner. Though on the same route Ramdevra, Khichan and Deshnok are all diversions from the highway. On your way back you needn’t go to Jaipur city. Thirty-three kilometres before Jaipur, you turn left from Chomu towards Samode and join the Delhi-Jaipur highway near Chandwaji. It saves you about 70km. Just ask for the Chomu-Chandwaji bypass.

WHERE TO STAY

Jaipur: The Raj Palace (Rs 2,999-10,000; 0141-2634078, www.rajpalace.com) is a good heritage hotel located on the Ajmer road. Some of the cheaper and convenient options in Jaipur are the Alsisar Haveli (Rs 1,850-2,650; 2364685, www.alsisarhotels.com) and Jaipur Inn (Rs 500-700; 2201121).

Deogarh: Deogarh Mahal (Rs 4,200-11,750; 02904-252777, 253333, www.deogarhmahal.com) is an imposing 17th- century palace that offers beautiful views of the surrounding Aravalli ranges.

Kumbalgarh: The Kumbalgarh Fort Hotel (Rs 1,695-5,000; 02954-242057, hilltop@bppl.net.in) can also organise visits to the Kumbalgarh Sanctuary.

Jodhpur: Pal Haveli (Rs 1,300-1,800; 0291-2638344, www.palhaveli.com) is a beautiful haveli, which is still occupied by the family of Thakur Bhawani Singh.

Jaisalmer: The Himmatgarh Fort (Rs 2,900-3,500; 02992-252002) is located just outside the Jaisalmer fort.

WHAT ELSE TO SEE & DO

Kumbalgarh Sanctuary safari: Apart from lingering to explore the magnificent fort, you can stay longer for a visit to the wildlife sanctuary for leopards and sloth bear sightings.

Bishnoi village safari: Kejarli, Guda Bishnoiya, Rohet, Loni are all bastions of the Bishnoi tribe though Kejarli is the closest to Jodhpur. A good person to contact is Jodha Ram Ji Budhiya (0291-2838666) of Guda Bishnoiya village.

Camel safari in Sam: The oont-walas usually quote a low rate of Rs 30-50 up till Sunset Point. However, a more extensive tour of the dunes can take up to an hour and set you back by Rs 300. On busy evenings you may end up paying a lot more.

If you’d rather have some of these activities organized for you in advance contact Exclusive India (9314620141, 0294-2529015). They organize everything from camel safaris to trips to Bishnoi villages.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Tiger Spotting: Ranthambhore Tiger Census

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In Ranthambhore you don’t just see a tiger. You see Jhumroo, Jhumri, Machchli, Bachchi, Nick-ear, Jhalara female, Sultanpur mother or Isabelle (named after BBC cameraman Colin’s daughter). Every single of the 38 odd tigers of the high profile park are so well documented that when you see one your guide will elaborate on its antecedents like it were the scion of a royal family – what its name is, how old it is, how much it measures from head to tail, who its mother is, what area is under its territory and more importantly, when it had its last meal. Perhaps no one knows as much about the individual tigers of Ranthambhore as Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh of Ranthambhore Bagh. 

I was lucky to have been invited by Aditya, himself a wildlife expert and keen photographer, for an insider view of the annual tiger census at Ranthambhore. These 15 days offered a chance to explore the park in a way unlike the rest of the year. Safaris inside the park were restricted only to evening drives, tourists were less, guides had more time and you had the rare opportunity to explore the park on foot from early morning till afternoon. Add to it the prospect of the all-night full-moon waterhole count inside the park and it was an offer too good to resist. 

There were other volunteers too. Waiting to be deployed inside the park, the college freshers would ask innocent questions like ‘Does the chowki have an attached western bathroom’, ‘Do you get mineral water inside the jungle’ or more importantly ‘Will we get a certificate from the Forest Department for this?’ There were almost 70 counting units working for 15 days. After a week of the Rajasthan heat, an absolute lack of urban luxury and the mortal fear of being in the jungle on foot, half the volunteers wilted. It isn’t easy earning your stripes in the Indian jungle.

Meanwhile, the hardier ones were dusting the tracks, scouting for prints and making Plaster of Paris casts of the pugmarks. We exchanged info and I continued on my morning walk with Sharif and Aditya. It is in the quest of the tiger that the forest opens its secrets to you. The tiger is like some unattainable Higher Truth and the jungle path is like a mystical journey to salvation. Often blinded by the religious zeal of seeking the Truth one misses the little epiphanies that come your way. The dance of the peacock, the ballet of a Black-naped Hare, the sly glint in the eye of a jackal or Painted Spurfowls nimbly scaling the steep ravine slopes. We arrived at our Truth quite early in our journey. Scarcely had we crossed Padam Talao that Sharif stiffened. In a low whisper he said ‘tiger’. The thrill of seeing a tiger on foot is unimaginable. It’s a lot pleasanter if the tiger is 60 feet away. By the time we reached the track, Bachhi the young tigress had disappeared into the bushes.

The park has an excellent network of tracks and more than half the core area is open to visitors. Since the tracks follow the general lay of the land and are covered in soft dust, tigers prefer walking on the tracks because of their soft pads. This facilitates excellent tiger sightings from open jeeps and also makes tracking relatively easy.

It was during a regular inspection round with CF Saheb (Conservator of Forests Shaukat Hussain) that I saw a Black-tailed Mongoose. ‘It’s a good omen. We might see something’, he said. That’s when we encountered Jhumroo. A strapping young male, son of the ferocious Jhalara female, measuring 9 feet from head to tail, Jhumroo was The Lord of the Lakes. He had dominated the area around Padam Talao and Malik Talao and during summers stayed in the cool confines of Raj Bagh. No wonder the guards said that these are truly ‘Royal’ Bengal Tigers. It is these forest guards and local guides who name them, usually after some bizarre connection. Take the case of Chimpoo Kapoor. Supposedly an ill-tempered sloth bear that loved running around trees, it was christened Chimpoo by Billoo the guide because it was slightly balding and in a vague way reminded him of the Bollywood actor.

Soon, the big night arrived. Once during the 15-day census a 24-hour waterhole count is conducted, usually on a full moon night. This is essentially done to get an estimate of the ungulate population. Ironically, there was a lunar eclipse on the full moon night of Buddha Purnima so it was decided that the all-night waterhole count would be conducted the night before. It was a massive operation. 4 forest ranges, 177 outposts, as many watering holes, 300 volunteers inside the park and I had the best job. Distributing food packets to them. Poori-alu and a pack of Tiger biscuits. Makeshift machaans had been erected on trees and cliffs overlooking different water holes. One guard and one volunteer were to man these precarious machaans for 24 hours (from 1100 hrs on 3rd to 1100 hrs on 4th). One wrong move and it would be the tiger doing the census.

The team had to note down the number of ungulates and predators that visited the water hole. Chital, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, wild boar, tiger, leopards, sloth bear, jackal and hyenas were on the guest-list. The results were to be tabulated later to arrive at an approximate count of these populations. At every machaan, I’d hand the goodies and ask: Kuchh dikha? Nahi sahab! Next waterhole. Aapko kuchh dikha? Bas ek saheli (porcupine). Another machaan. Haan bhai, koi aya? Sahab aap hi aye ho! By the time we had done the rounds from 8 till 2 in the morning we had seen 5 tigers, 2 leopards, 3 civet cats (the same guys who gave us SARS) and the Savanna and Indian Nightjars. 

Later, we returned for another midnight jaunt with the dashing Balendu bana, a man of good taste and great stories who runs the sprawling Dev Vilas resort. Apart from Aditya of Ranthambhore Bagh, he was the only resort owner helping out with the census. Slowly the silvery moon sank behind the walls of the 1000-year-old Ranthambhore Fort. It had been a long night, we were tired but more than us it was the creatures of the night who needed a break from our prying eyes. I silently promised not to disturb them till next year, when I’d be back, not as a volunteer for the tiger census but as the traveling tiffinwala distributing food packets…

BOX | How to Cast a Good Impression: Census Methodology

In India the Pugmark Plaster Cast Method is followed. PIPs (Pugmark Identification Pads) are prepared at strategic places on the tracks that criss-cross the park. To make the PIPs the soil in the ground is sieved to remove stones, pebbles and twigs and then the soil is evenly spread over the same place. This makes the ground soft with fine soil so that a good impression of the pugmark is cast on it. The PIPs are prepared a few days before the census begins. Once the census starts, the various Counting Units are allotted a forest beat. A counting unit consists of a few forest guards and some volunteers. They set out on foot at the crack of dawn and walk down their assigned beat. Every time they find pugmarks on the track they take a trace on tracing paper and a plaster cast of the left rear pugmark. They note down the area where the pugmark was taken, the date, the time and the direction of movement of the cat. Over a period of time many casts are made all over the park. At the end of the census a small team of experts sit together and analyze the different pugmarks. Since no two pugmarks are identical it is technically possible to make out the different tigers by the plaster casts of their pugmarks. The same tiger can leave seemingly different pugmarks depending on its speed, gait and even the soil type. It takes an expert to figure out the nuances but the method does give a decent estimate of the tiger population though it can never be dead accurate. The margin of error through this methodology is very high but since it is an inexpensive method and the guards are trained in it for a long time, this is the method the forest department prefers.

Aditya suggests that the best way to conduct such a census is by setting up infrared trip cameras at different PIPs. But this is very expensive and time consuming and is hence not preferred. A more reliable and cost-effective system is the Line Transact Method. You take a contour map of the different geographical regions in the park. Ranthambore has seven, six if you don’t include the out of bounds wetland area. You draw an imaginary straight line across the geographical regions, take a team of two people and note down what all you see in a fortnight. You do the same with another team, take an average and you have a decent approximate figure.  

FACT FILE

Getting there:

By Road: Delhi – Jaipur – Tonk – Sawai Madhopur (440 km/8 hours)

By rail: Kota Jan Shatabdi Express from Nizamuddin to Kota. Dep 1:10pm arriving at Sawai Madhopur at 6:15pm. Overnight journey in Dehradun Mail from New Delhi Station. Departure at 10pm arriving at Sawai Madhopur at 5am

Where to Stay:

Ranthambhore Bagh

Located on the main sanctuary road, Ranthambhore Bagh is a homely resort run by Aditya Singh, who much to the consternation of his wife Poonam spends more time inside the jungle than at the resort. The Bagh comes equipped with 12 Swiss Cottage tents, 12 double rooms, a well-stocked library, a boutique, cycles and is a haunt for wildlife enthusiasts, professional photographers and birdwatchers. The garden itself acts as a sanctuary with close sightings of Golden Orioles, Rufous Tree Pies, Green Bee-eaters, Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and Red Wattled Lapwings. Legend has it, 6 years ago a tigress had stayed on the terrace of the Bagh for 3 full days. Even today, leopards are known to snatch fowls and dogs from the fringes of the resort in the dead of the night.

Food & Acco: Double rooms for Rs.2400 and Swiss Cottage Tents for Rs.3050 (for two persons per night on twin sharing basis with all meals, taxes as applicable). Food is a delicious blend of Rajasthani, Indian and Continental fare.

For bookings: Call Ranthambhore Bagh at 07462-221728 or its Delhi office at 26914417/2681792. E-mail: tiger@ranthambhore.com Website: www.ranthambhore.com 

Safaris: There are 14 routes presently, essentially 7 that are done on a forward and reverse basis with a limited number of jeeps allotted a fixed route so it’s advisable to book in advance, which can be done 65 days in advance.

When to go:

The park is open from October to June, shutting down in the monsoon season between July and September. The peak season is till May, after which it gets very hot. The winter season offers good light to photograph the tigers though in summer, the water sources begin to dry up and the undergrowth is scanty making tiger sightings far more convenient. 

Around Ranthambore:

Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary

The terrain is flat and rocky with gently sloping hills. The Devpura irrigation dam within the sanctuary is a useful source of water for wildlife and a good habitat for aquatic flora and fauna.

Keladevi Sanctuary 

The northern extension of Ranthambhore, Keladevi has the curious feature of two separate ridges running parallel to each other with dense forests in between. Some gorges with high moisture retention and cooler temperatures, known as ‘kiwil’ act as nature’s treasure houses. The sanctuary is bound to the west by the Banas river which finally flows into the Chambal to the south, making it a varied landscape.

Mansarovar and Surwal 

Mansarovar is a large deep-bottomed lake 24km from Ranthambore Bagh known for its picturesque sunsets while Surwal is a shallow lake. Both these water bodies are excellent for winter migratories like Demoiselle Cranes, Pelicans, Flamingoes, Bar-headed and Greylag Geese.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Keoladeo Ghana: Why Bharatpur will never give up

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Statistics reveal that from the time of creation, nearly 99.96% of all animal species has been wiped out from the face of the earth. After years of environmental disasters, meteorite strikes, the ice age and human intervention, what we see now constitutes a mere 0.04% of the original count. Take a moment to reflect on that and imagine what this planet has lost…

One single human invention that altered the scale of killings was the firearm. India, a country that once boasted of 40,000 tigers in 1940 is now a land of around 4000. That’s after Project Tiger. Thanks to the maharajas and the British, the cheetah has been shot out of extinction and the King of the Jungle, the Asiatic lion, ekes out a living in a few patches in the wild. While it is the big cats who have hounded most of the spotlight, the fate of the feathered creatures has been largely ignored. In the bloody history of Indian wildlife, one place that really stands out is Bharatpur.

Bharatpur became a bird sanctuary almost by accident. A natural depression of 29 sq km frequently flooded by the Yamuna, it became a rich habitat for diverse bird life. The Maharajas of Bharatpur recognized the potential of this marshy area, added a few dykes and promptly appointed it as a royal duck-shooting reserve. They would often throw it open to whet the bloodlust of visiting dignitaries. The first official duck shoot was inaugurated on December 1, 1902 by Viceroy Lord Curzon and his Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchner. The party shot 540 birds.

The bloodiest expedition, credited to the then Viceroy and Governor General of India, is also the world record in duck shooting. In one single afternoon in 1938, Lord Linlithgow and his hunting party slaughtered as many as 4273 birds. A memorial inside the park lists out the heinous exploits of Bharatpur’s many distinguished guests. Though it was declared a bird sanctuary in 1956, shooting continued till 1965 and the Maharaja himself reluctantly gave up his shooting rights in 1972. But much before all this, Bharatpur’s history had already been written in blood.

Locals believe it’s something in the air. Perhaps a coalescence of Jat brashness baked in the feudal and bloody atmosphere of Rajasthan. According to a legend, the moment Shravan Kumar entered the town’s boundaries; his pious and mild manner was transformed into that of frustration. He cursed his fate for having to carry his burdensome parents and abandoned them, only to return later in a fit of remorse. However, the pendulum of karmic fate had already swung.

King Dashrath who was on a hunt, mistook Shravan filling a water vessel to be a deer slaking its thirst and let loose a shabd-bhedi vaan (sound-directed arrow). Shravan died and his father cursed Dashrath of eternal separation from his son, thus setting the course of the Ramayana. You can still find a Shravan Taal (lake) inside Bharatpur where this incident occurred. Locals love to narrate this story with devilish glee, taking sadistic pride in the region’s harsh brutality that tests the will and character of the noblest of beings.

Interestingly, the 2000-year-old epic Ramayana also has the earliest historical reference to the Sarus Crane. Sage Valmiki, its author, was deeply angered by the sight of a Sarus fatally wounded by a hunter’s arrow. On hearing the cries of its distressed mate, he cursed the hunter in impeccable verse, thus beginning the epic tale of love and separation. More than anything else, it portrays a deep understanding of birds in ancient India, for today we know that most crane species pair for life. The gracious Sarus cranes, the tallest birds of flight in the world, are considered sacred in India and enjoy rare diplomatic immunity not just in Bharatpur but also across the entire Indian countryside.

One would imagine that after all these years of degradation, Bharatpur would be an avian graveyard. Call it the resilient nature of Bharatpur, but the place is not just heralded as one of the finest bird reserves in the world, UNESCO has even acknowledged it as a World Heritage Site. Some 425 species of birds have been recorded in and around the 29 sq km park, making it an amazingly dense and diverse bird habitat. Bharatpur is considered the finest Heronry in the world as well as an unrivalled breeding site for the Painted Stork, Purple Heron, White Ibis and the Eurasian Spoonbill.

The park is also the last known wintering ground in India for the central population of the Siberian Crane, the most exotic of all crane species. If you discount the birdwatchers that flock from different parts of the world, the Siberian happens to be the park’s most far-flung visitor. It undertakes a mind-boggling marathon of 6400 km from the Arctic, its only other wintering ground in the world being Feredunkenar in Iran. The visitor list reads like a UN delegation, with exotic dignitaries flying in from Afghanistan, Central Asia and Tibet. The Grey-lag Geese come from Siberia while the Bar-headed Geese from China. Bharatpur is the much favoured winter destination of the Bar-headed Geese, an unassuming bird that holds the record of being the highest-flying bird in the world. A flock was found flapping at 9375m in Nepal, a good 500m above Mount Everest!

Open throughout the year, the park is at its full glory when the migrant birds visit between October and February. Though numbers have been dwindling because of successive years of drought, something keeps them coming. Locals believe it’s the blessing of Keoladeo, or ‘The Only God’. Said to be a form of Pashupati Shiva, the Lord of the Animals, Keoladeo is the patron deity of the region. The ancient Shiva temple in the center of the park lends its name to the sanctuary, which was renamed as Keoladeo Ghana National Park in 1981 (Ghana meaning dense). It is one of the few parks in India with unlimited access and it remains open from sunrise to sunset. While some tend to take a luxurious 5km walk from the main gate to the center of the park, others take a rickshaw. Most of the rickshaw pullers double up as guides and are so adept that they’ll tell you where to find what. But if you want to know what stage 2 in the life cycle of a sarus is called, you must meet Lakshmi.

A veteran birdwatcher of Bharatpur, Lakshmi’s usually perches at Birder’s Inn, a joint run by Tirath Singh, himself an avian enthusiast. Birder’s Inn is just 5 minutes from the park gate and acts as a watering hole for serious ornithologists. Excellent accommodation facilities, a wide array of local and Western cuisine, knowledgeable guides, a birder’s library and a garden that acts like a sanctuary to passing birds. As if on cue, a Common Tree Pie perches on a nearby tree and all the other birds scoot as if they have seen a ghost. The Tree Pie is an unusually aggressive bird and a peculiar habit has earned it the nickname ‘Tiger’s Toothpick’. The bird is so fearless that it forages between the teeth of tigers to dig out pieces of meat. Obstinacy, as you see, is the recurrent theme in Bharatpur.

It’s ironical that the place was named as Bharatpur after Bharat, the compassionate, all-loving brother of Lord Rama. But it comes as no surprise that it was the hotheaded Laxman who was worshipped as the family deity of Bharatpur. Rustam, a Jat of the Sogariya clan, laid the foundation of the modern city and after him, control passed to his son Khemkaran and then to Maharaja Suraj Mal. In 1733, the legendary Jat ruler fortified the city, built the fort and transformed Bharatpur into the only Jat dominated pocket in Rajasthan. It defied the British, the Mughals, the Rajputs and any military force that dared to challenge it.

The Lohagadh Fort, whose walls were reinforced with iron, is a sullen reminder of Bharatpur’s resilience. Dull-white, squalid and as chunky as an unwieldy block of cement, the fort successively repelled four British onslaughts. The Jats erected the two towers Jawahar Burj and Fateh Burj to commemorate the victory over the Mughals and the British. It wasn’t until 1804 that Lord Lake managed to capture it for a brief period. But like a wild mustang, Bharatpur shook the saddle of foreign power off its back and proved yet again that it would be tamed by none.

Many years have since passed. The deep moat that once surrounded the fort is now a dirty culvert. The Bharatpur Lake inside the sanctuary is a barren wasteland. Boating, once the preferred means of watching the park’s aquatic birds, is now a distant dream. The Siberian cranes that once visited Bharatpur in flocks can now be counted on fingers, while some of the best birders have been lost to alcohol. Four successive years of drought in Rajasthan have wrenched Bharatpur’s soul from its scarred earth, slowly draining away the last vestiges of life.

I’d like to imagine all it needs to revive itself is a good bout of rain. Perhaps the Siberians will remember their ancient flight path and return again. Maybe the boatmen will pick up their oars once more. It might sound like an idle fancy or a romantic idea, but such optimism stems from nothing but Bharatpur’s Terminatoresque grit. Something tells me that long after empires have crumbled, cities have perished and species have become extinct, some tough microchip embedded in the mental map of Bharatpur will still keep it ticking.

FACT SHEET:

Getting there: Bharatpur’s strategic location at the center of the golden triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra make it a popular stopover. It also easily accessible from Fatehpur Sikri and Mathura.

By Road: Bharatpur is 182 km from Delhi. Take NH-2 via Faridabad-Palwal-Hodal-Kosi and go straight from Mathura Road junction onto the flyover. The right turn for Bharatpur is on the flyover but you can’t turn right because of the divider. Take a u-turn after the flyover and turn left on State Highway 33 towards Bharatpur. In spite of being only 32 km away, the appalling condition of the road makes the journey both painfully slow as well as painful. Watch out for potholes, especially at night though it’s not advisable to travel after sundown.

By Rail: Regular trains connect Bharatpur with several cities on the Delhi-Mumbai track and it also lies on the frequently traveled Agra-Jaipur route.

By Air: Agra, 56 km away, is the nearest airport though Delhi is better connected

WHERE TO STAY

Birder’s Inn: Bird Sanctuary Road, Bharatpur 321001 Ph: 05644-27346

Run by avid birder Tirath Singh, Birder’s Inn is the hub of all bird-watching activity in Bharatpur. 12 air-conditioned double rooms overlook a garden that acts like a sanctuary to passing birds. Located just 5 minutes from the park gate, Birder’s Inn has a small library dedicated to ornithology and a curio shop, which among other things sells beautiful hand-painted bird sketches.

Bharatpur Forest Lodge: Inside Bharatpur Sanctuary Ph: 05644-22760-22722 Fax: 05644-22864

Part of the Ashok Group of Hotels, the ITDC-run Bharatpur Forest Lodge is an abominably expensive choice of accommodation. Not even its prime location inside the sanctuary can redeem it. It’s generally a haunt for super-rich foreigners who have either got off or plan to get on the Palace-on-Wheels. The Lodge has 18 double rooms, of which 10 are Air-Conditioned. Rs.2500 for a single and Rs.2800 for a double. And that excludes the food, which is a choice of Indian and Continental.

Best time to visit

There are two broad seasons to visit the park; the first is the monsoon, which is the breeding season for many of Bharatpur’s resident and local migratory birds. The other, more popular season is winter, when long distance migrants travel thousands of kilometers from Eastern Europe, Siberia and central Asia. And that’s just the birds.

AROUND BHARATPUR

Deeg (34 km)

North of Bharatpur is the beautiful garden town of Deeg that served as the summer retreat of the princes of Bharatpur. It reeks of the indulgence and eccentricity of Bharatpur’s rulers, who quite like the Decorator Crab or the Magpie Robin, would haul any object that caught their fancy to adorn the pleasure palaces of Deeg. Neither size nor distance was a constraint. Gopal Bhavan, easily the most impressive structure has an exquisite swing that once belonged to Noor Jahan. Maharaja Suraj Mal dragged it from the Mughal court in Delhi as a war trophy. In one of the rooms on the upper floor is a solid slab of black marble. It was actually a gravestone from a mausoleum, which one Maharaja mistook to be a royal bed and used it thus. In an operation of CKD assembly that would put Toyota to shame, entire pools and marble fountains were dismantled from Macchhi Bhawan in Agra Fort and re-assembled at Deeg. The Deeg fort has a watchtower that still has a gun captured from the Agra fort and another cannon captured from Ahmad Shah Abdali. The list goes on and it’s best to let a local guide extol the prowess of Bharatpur’s maharajas and the beauty of their leisure resort.

Peharsar (30 km)

Situated 30 km from Bharatpur on the Agra-Jaipur highway, Peharsar used to be a small village called Lohagarh until a freak battle changed all that. Legend has it that Sultan Mahmud captured it in just three hours (Pehar means a three-hour period and sar means victory, hence the name). Pehersar is littered with specimens of Mughal architecture but one magnificent building that has stood the test of time is Chandra Mahal Haveli. The mansion, built in the 1850s by rich Muslim nobles, today serves as a heritage hotel. The management organizes cultural shows, jeep safaris, rural visits to watch carpet weavers at work and excursions to Deeg, Hathorigarh, Weir Fort, etc. Peharsar’s strategic location also makes it an excellent stopover on the way to Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, Fatehpur Sikri (40 km) and Agra (75 km).

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in May, 2003 in Deccan Herald (Sunday).