Ranthambore will always feature on anyone’s tiger trailing map. And rightfully so. The hunting ground of an erstwhile Maharaja has fought its battles with plunderers and poachers alike. And while the fort atop lies in ruins, the vast spread of forest and lakes seem to have almost won the battle. Almost I say because the battle is won while the war at large still wages on.

As our guide to the fort ruins told us, the name Ranthambore is actually 3 words joined together. Loose translations are: “Ran” – the battle field, “Tham” – the fort and “bhor” – referring to the morning when this fort held its own in the face of a fierce onslaught.

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To anyone arriving at Ranthambore or any other Tiger Reserve, I have a most humble appeal. Don’t have your heart and mind set on spotting a tiger. There is much more out there than the tiger. If perchance you don’t spot one, belittling the experience by noting how you just saw pug marks which were probably planted and so on, is just belittling oneself. Please be cognizant that tigers are not only nocturnal but also totally reclusive and aloof. The fact that one sees them at all is because they choose to let you enter their sphere and not for any lack of this cunning behavior by the most majestic of all cats. And while the King may be engaged in some other repast, there are plenty of other animals, birds and trees to observe which enhance the presence of the Tiger by their exhibition of the awareness of the Tiger. Look for these signs and you would appreciate the Tiger and the forest much more.

There are plenty of options to stay ranging from the budget hotels to extravagant splendor. I preferred the government run Jhoomar Bawari. What caught my attention was the name which is full of a sense of romance and adventure. And when I saw the place from afar, it seemed to fulfill the emotions that the name evoked. Expect the basic here and you won’t be disappointed. The view of the place and from the place is breathtaking though and is definitely much more than one would bargain for. It is after all located in the buffer forest and the long winding uphill road appears fraught with danger and adventure.

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The National Park has many trails where with the help of the canters and jeep you can try your hand at tiger spotting. In most cases, your hotel will organize for drop till the government booking center for the canter/jeep pick up. The safari in itself needs to be booked in advance and online options through the government website are available. While I went on a jeep and a canter on 3 safaris on 3 separate routes, I did not see a tiger in any of these outings. What I saw though was not something I had seen ever before. A stag fight in progress of which I could in my excitement capture only this blurry image (digitally enhanced as much as possible for clarity).

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A meandering mongoose, countless roofus treepies, scores of lakes and smaller watering holes with peacocks and deer making merry, the fantastic landscape and the pugmarks, making the lurking presence of the Tiger felt at every corner, makes for a magnificent setting to observe nature in plentiful.

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After 3 long and sweltering (in March!) trips inside the forest, I thought it was finally time to pay obeisance at the Ganesh Temple located inside the park (a common feature in Rajasthan and a common struggle for the National Park authorities). It is at the foothill of the hill on which stands the once glorious fort. I could drive in my own vehicle for the temple so promptly after a hearty breakfast, I was on my way. In my rush, I forgot the camera and was equipped with a less than sophisticated phone camera (of the VGA variety). Close to the Padma Talao area, I spotted a canter stopped in the middle of the path with everyone peering to the left. I stopped too. We are often advised in life to be patient and let things take their own course. So true! Lo Behold! In front of me! The Queen of the Jungle lay on a rock in the bushes enjoying a peaceful afternoon siesta. Less than 50 meters away! And damn, no camera! But a sound mind does not need any other equipment to capture the magical image. After observing the tigress for a full 15 minutes, the canter drove away and so did I. A view from atop the fort overlooks the talao and from the flurry of activity there, one could sense that the tigress had not budged. Cars and canters thronged to the place as the news of the easy view of the tigress must have spread. A couple of hours later, as I made my way back, there was still a car there. It has been about 4 hours now and the tigress was absolutely comfortable and oblivious of the excitement she was causing.

I stopped and peered out of the car to get another look. The tigress turned over her back with her paws in the air like some kitty back home. I observed awe struck. She glanced at me. For a brief moment, our eyes were caught in an embrace…long lost lover’s meeting? predator assessing prey? couldn’t care less for the excitement? I wonder what was running through the tigresses’ mind at that time. For me that one moment and one glance was worth of all the pictures I could have clicked. It was awe inspiring and terrorizing at the same time. In 3 leaps she could have greeted me at very close quarters. With greater respect than ever before I saluted her and bid adieu. I was the last one to leave her in her happy place and she had let me observe her to my heart’s content. As I moved away, another car on its way to the temple, passed by and I refrained from telling them about my tigress on the rock. That’s how I know Ranthambore – the fortress of nature where I met my tigress.

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