Ranthambore: Where tigers rule
Our Gypsy sped past through steep cliffs of Aravalli range in Ranthambore. The forest road on either side was lined with Banyans, Dhok and Ghost trees (Sterculia uren), contorted in inconceivable positions. Dawn was beginning to break and spirals of mist rose from dank vegetation. The whole forest seemed to be suspended mid-air with yet unformed outlines. A trickle of pilgrims had already begun their ascent to pay obeisance to famous Ganesh Idol housed in the Ranthambore fort. Like his father, this Ganesha idol also has three eyes and is known as Trinetra. There are not even a handful of temples which have a Ganesha idol with three eyes. Sometimes a broken bastion or a ruin straddling the cliff peeped at us, through the foliage. The gypsy suddenly came to a halt in front of Jogimahal Gate. And at this point we first came face to face with the ancient sentinel of Ranthambore.
The windows, still dark in recesses, looked like old sightless eyes.
Ranthambore fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. The windows, still dark in recesses, looked like old sightless eyes. Eyes of an old witness, which in its prime has seen too much and for too long. Ranthambore which means “pillars of war”, like other forts of Rajasthan has endured too many sieges and its masters have changed a number of times. It has been ravaged by armies of Iltutmish and Alauddin Khilji and lost and re-captured by Rajputs of Chauhan, Sisodia and Hada clans. Briefly it was captured by Sultan of Gujarat and finally by Akbar in 1558 AD. It finally passed over to Kachwaha Rajputs of Jaipur and remained with them till 1949, whence it became part of Rajasthan.
We resumed out safari from Jogimahal gate with a forest guard Umed singh. Just before Padma Talav we encountered a remarkable banyan tree whose numerous aerial roots had developed into thick trunks. Umed told us that it among the biggest Banyans in India. Crossing an arched gateway, we came across a large pond known as Padma Talao. The sun had risen above the summits of Aravalli hills and outlines of mountains had become more distinct. A herd of Chitals stopped pulling out tufts of grass to watch our movement, with ears shaped like funnels to catch every sound. There was no sign of the reigning queen of the forest, also called arrowhead (T-84), grand-daughter of legendary tigress, Machli (T16).
But we were not too discouraged. Around us lay the ravishing landscape of jungle littered with crocodile infested lakes, swamps, grasslands, ruins, hills and moldering pavilions and Chattris. All of this covered in the gentle golden light of a wintry sun.
Banyan of Ranthambore, one of the largest in India.
Sun rises over the Aravallis
Around us lay the ravishing landscape of jungle littered with crocodile infested lakes, swamps, grasslands, ruins, hills and moldering pavilions and Chattris.
Dawn was beginning to break and spirals of mist rose from dank vegetation.
Herd of Chital crossing road
But after wandering for an hour in zones 3 and 4, still there was no tiger spotting and just as we were beginning to feel a little underwhelmed, the wireless radio squeaked and relayed a message to driver that a tiger has been spotted. We scudded through the dust roads as if our life depended upon it and reached the edge of a ravine. On the opposite end lay, amidst golden grass the color of ripe wheat and basking in the gentle warmth of morning sun, the current “Lady of the Lakes”. A traffic jam of Maruti Gypies and touring vehicles had occurred on our side.
The queen apart from a cursory glance towards us, did not move. However the cursory glance was enough to send a ripple of excitement through the crowd. Drops of perspiration gathered on foreheads of professional photographers, who stood transfixed with their lenses bigger than bazookas. After a good half an hour when the intensity of sun had increased, she woke up and started to walk through the jungle in an elegant gait and disappeared behind the trees.
On the opposite end lay, amidst golden grass the color of ripe wheat and basking in the gentle warmth of morning sun, the current “Lady of the Lakes”.
However the cursory glance was enough to send a ripple of excitement through the crowd.
She woke up and started to walk through the jungle in an elegant gait
This action produced an immediate frenzy among the piled-up vehicles to disperse and within no time, vehicles scattered from the spot like ants from a disturbed crystal of sugar. Every vehicle has a pre-determined zone and path in which it can roam and no matter what path a tiger takes you cannot stray from your designated zone. I remark on this because I observed a gypsy which stopped at the boundary between two zones. Our driver signaled the gypsy to go further, as a chital had given an alarm call. It signified that a tiger was nearby. But the gypsy did not move and remained firmly on the side of its designated zone. We saw that the occupants of that gypsy were the famous tiger expert Valmik Thapar and his wife, Sanjana Kapoor (daughter of actor Shashi Kapoor. Umed singh later told us that “Valmik sir, never breaks the rules, despite being one of the foremost tiger specialists of the world.”
Anyways we waited sometime for Arrowhead to show up till another message on wireless confirmed that she had again made an appearance. Less than half an hour had passed since she had disappeared. During this time, she had managed to kill a Chital fawn and was busy having her breakfast behind a fallen trunk. Her tongue covered with sharp papillae, meditatively shredding the smooth fur of unfortunate animal. Occasionally her yellow feral eyes glistened behind the cover of grass, showing she was intently keeping a watch on us.
All of a sudden, she rose and walked towards the dust road. Gypsies accordingly reoriented themselves and lined up on either side of her prospective path, like cars on traffic lights. We fortunately had a good view. Slowly she sauntered towards the road, rubbing her self against trees and lifting her tail to spray urine. She is ready to mate again. Her cubs Riddhi and Siddhi named after wives of Ganesha were born in February’2018 and are almost three years old. They had left her sometime back to find their own place in the circle of life. In fact twice Riddhi has tried to usurp her mother’s territory and has been beaten both times. This mother daughter conflict appears runs in the family. The matriarch Machli (T16) was also ultimately beaten by her own daughter Sundari (T17) (aunt of Arrowhead) and Arrowhead had ousted her mother Krishna (T19). History is repeating itself. In laws of nature beauty and cruelty go hand in hand.
We were however graced with a great sighting. It was our first tiger sighting after unsuccessful attempts in Madhai National park and Sunderbans. It was the perfect finale to a delightful safari.
Occasionally her yellow feral eyes glistened behind the cover of grass
कई बार बिल्ली का रास्ता काट जाना अशुभ नहीं होता
It was the perfect finale to a delightful safari.
Biographies of Dramatis personae
Machli: was born in 1996 when the tiger population of park was only 15. She was a ferocious tigress and an outstanding mother who went to any length to protect her litter from dangers around. Over her life she gave birth to 11 cubs. Her offspring increased the tiger population significantly. Riddhi and Siddhi are 51st and 52nd tigers of her lineage. More than 70% of tigers in Ranthambore trace their lineage to Machli. As a result, the footfall in the park increased steeply. She is supposed to have contributed 10 million US$ to tourism of India and indirectly provided livelihood to local population of Sawai madhopur. She famously fought and killed a 14 foot crocodile. As a result of this fight she lost two of her canines. But such dare devilry fired the imagination of local population and her fame spread far and wide. Local population revered her as a goddess. She became the most photographed tigress in the world and subject of numerous documentaries. She grew to be 20 years old and holds record for the longest living tiger in the wild. She was given a tearful farewell with cremation as per Hindu customs. Umed told us that when she grew told old and couldn’t hunt herself, the forest rangers provided her food. She was after all a goddess to them and not just any tiger.
Krishna (T19): Born in 2006 and daughter of Machli from her last litter. Her two sisters were Sundari (T17) and Baghani (T18). Sundari had ousted Machli from the lakes area after a ferocious fight. Sundari died soon after giving birth to her only litter and Baghani (T18) was re- located to Sariska. That made Krishna by unexpected stroke of luck, the queen of Ranthambore. She was then ousted by her daughter Arrowhead (T84) in 2016.
Arrowhead (T84): Born in 2013 and daughter of Krishna and Star Male (T-28). She is the reigning queen of lakes area.