Thursday, 25 August 2011

Ranthambore minus the Tiger

Ranthambore is an all season destination provided one does not have a single-point agenda of sighting the tiger. While summers are ideal for sighting the tigers, winters offer pleasant weather but it is the monsoons when the forest is at its best in its looks. Lush green, scenic, serene, incredibly beautiful and something beyond words. This is what we felt when we visited RNP (Ranthambore National Park) last week.

We took the Dehradun-Bandra express train from Nizammudin Station around 10 pm and reached Sawai Madhopur station next morning at 5:40 am. The overnight journeys have an element of magic in them, you board the train in the night and while you sleep, you get magically transported to your destination. Once at the station, we walked a few meters and then climbed down a small over-bridge. It was easy to get an auto-rickshaw, the driver asked for Rs 50 to go to the Taj- Sawai Madhopur Lodge.

This hotel used to be a hunting lodge for the Maharajas of Jaipur and was built 80 years ago. We were way too early for a normal 12:00 pm check-in time but we were received warmly and told to wait in the lobby while the room was getting ready. The lobby turned out to be a semicircular drawing room, not big but quite cozy. The walls are decorated with stuffed heads of deer, tigers and leopards. We were served tea and biscuits. The lobby overlooks big, nicely maintained lawns. I took a short walk to the lawns and saw a big bird about a foot long. As it flew over my head I felt something was un-usual about it. Perhaps, the wings? Could it be a bat? I had never seen a bat of that size. I called my husband to check it out too.  He confirmed it was a bat. Not just one, there was a colony of bats spread over a few trees. It was amazing to see how the bats would fly for a short distance and on reaching the tree, they would hang upside down. We took a few pictures from my new camera - Canon SX230. I later figured out that they were the Indian flying foxes. An amazing beginning to our trip!
Lawns in front of the lobby

Bats roosting in trees
While we were still waiting, it began to rain. The room was ready and we were driven to the room in a hotel golf cart. Our room was a bit far from the main lobby and the reception area. It was surrounded by trees all around. I loved the setting. While it was still drizzling, I took my umbrella and went for a short walk to explore the surroundings. I had not gone too far when I felt a sudden movement in the grass. Was it a wild animal? For a moment, I was scared. It turned out to be a hare. I saw him hide behind the bushes. When I walked a few steps towards him, he ran and vanished.

From the bats to the hare, all in the premises of the hotel, in the first couple of hours. My excitement level was increasing. I walked around the area. I observed a bird which looked like a partridge. When I walked a little further, I saw some babblers on the ground and also an unfamiliar bird, which appeared vaguely like a chick - but not quite. It was brown in color and had white underparts. I later checked in the birding books and suspect that it was a water hen but I never got an opportunity to see him again in my stay. It began to rain heavily and I came back to the room.

The room was luxurious though not very big. But the bathroom was huge. In retrospect,  in this trip I spent very little time in the room. I was outdoors most of the time. The big trees and the lush green surroundings were very inviting.

Lawns in front of our room

During breakfast time, the staff told us that a limited area of the RNP is open and a safari can be arranged. It was clear to us that tiger sighting was out of question and if we took the safari, it would be primarily for the jungle experience. We had missed the slot for the morning safari, which may have been canceled anyway thanks to the rains. We still had some time to decide for the afternoon safari. Mr Nagendra, the Operations Manager of the hotel came around to introduce himself. He was very warm and helpful and gave us personal attention throughout our stay.

After breakfast, I was out again. I spotted a few parrots. Then a few more. Initially I would exclaim and call my children 'Look Parrots'. But within no time, I realized that the place was completely full of parrots. As I took my walk, I saw that a couple of neem trees were absolutely filled with parrots and they made a lot of noise. I have always enjoyed looking at parrots and I got my fill there. I specifically liked the ones with the rose-pink ring around the neck and the plum headed ones. These parrots are lovey-dovey birds. I mostly saw them in pairs and in romantic moods. I got to see Asian Koel, both male and female from very close. Soon, I learned that the Koels  had a favorite tree and I could always spot two or three Koel sitting there. An amateur photographer with a new camera in my hand, I was trying to take as many shots as possible, when one staff guy called out to me 'Good morning. An owl there'. Immediately I followed him and he showed me as many as three owls sitting in the trees. I could see one smaller one very clearly while the others were hidden by the leaves. I looked at the owlet and he looked at me. He was simply adorable. My first experience of seeing an owl in the wild. Oh boy, did I need to take a safari! I was already in a jungle.

Adorable Spotted Owlet

The upper one is a male rose-ringed parakeet

After an early lunch, we decided to check out the possibility of a safari.The booking office is at a walking distance from the Taj hotel. This could be a major benefit for the peak season. I believe, even after doing the booking on-line, one needs to go to the office to deposit papers before every safari. A hotel staff member accompanied us to help with the booking formalities. Since it was an off-season, there was no option available of sharing seats in a gypsy. The only option was to hire the complete gypsy (all 6 seats) for Rs 3000. I looked outside. The rain had stopped and the sun was out. We decided to take the safari that very day. I am glad we did! It was great traveling in the open gyspy, comfortably occupying all the seats and entering the jungle. Only three zones are open at this time of the year - zone 6, 7 and 8. The zone 7 and zone 8 belong to the Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary at Balas. We were allocated Zone 6, which was the best of the lot. The trail was broken at most of the places and we had to cross streams at many places. In the summer season, these streams are completely dried out, but in monsoons, they are a challenge for the driver. This is perhaps the reason, the canters do not run in the monsoon season.  We had a great driver Mr Mahavir, who knew more about the jungle and the birds than the guide allocated to us. On the way he learned from some forest guards that they have seen a sloth bear. He tried his level best taking us through all the different paths trying to sight the bear but all we spotted were a few holes freshly dug by the bear and more importantly we traversed interesting parts of the park. The forest itself was amazingly beautiful - it was a 360 degrees beauty around us. Lush greenery and lovely water streams all over.
Inside the jungle

Crossing a stream
We spotted many animals- neelagi, sambar, spotted deer, langurs, peacocks and many beautiful birds. My four year old son was completely bowled over by the beautiful peacocks and he kept demanding 'I want to see one more'. We saw painted spurfowl, bush quails, gorgeous golden oriole, Indian blue roller,  treepie, drongos,  magpie robin, laughing dove, greater coucal and many others. I wished the safari would never end. I could spend the full day inside, the night would be a different matter though.

A small waterfall

Painted Spurfowl
Unfortunately, before the safari ended, my camera started showing low battery. While I am yet to debug the problem with the new camera batteries, it was a let down in the middle of the trip. To make matters worse, we were not carrying the charger. The sales-person had guaranteed 500 shots and we had taken only a 100 odd stills and a couple of short videos. This meant, we had to be very selective in clicking photographs from that time.

When we were back to the hotel, the only bird that had left an impression in my mind was the golden oriole. And guess what, next morning, my husband woke me up to show a golden oriole sitting on the tree, right in front of our room.There could not have been a better way to start the morning. I decided to reserve the remaining battery to click the golden oriole.

We decided to visit the Ranthambore Fort on the second day. The fort is actually open from 6:30 am but we decided to take it easy and left after breakfast.  A magnificent fort with an interesting history, standing 700 feet above the plains, in the middle of the RNP, it is known for offering splendid views of the forest. Great! another chance of traveling in the open gypsy and entering the RNP.

The right way to visit a fort is to read the history of the place beforehand. Though I intended to, I did not get time to do so and that is the reason, we decided to hire a guide with us. The fort was founded in 944 AD by Nagil Jats, a branch of Chauhans. The guide told us the story and the legend that go around the most famous king who ruled this fort, Hammir Dev Chauhan. Standing there, I was getting shivers, thinking about the bloodiest battles fought there and the jauhar performed by thousands of ladies. Stairs in the fort have been made for the visitors, originally there were ramps made of stones, to facilitate the horses getting in. Hammir Dev, a direct descendant of Prithvi Raj Chauhan was a brave king who won 12 out of 19 battles he fought during his reign. The reason for the last ill-fated battle was Hammir's givingshelter to Muhammad Shah, who had escaped from the wrath of Allaudin Khilji. This infuriated Khilji,  who immediately attacked Ranthambore fort. It was a tough battle. Finally Khlilji won the battle not out of his bravery but essentially with the help of Hammir's treacherous generals Raitpal and Ranmal, who sided with Khilji.

The guide showed us foot marks of Hammirs' horse on the walls of the fort. Apparently, his generals had closed the door to enter the place and the horse magically climbed up the wall. A legend goes that after losing the war, Hammir Dev, severed his head and put it in front of Lord Shiva's idol.

There are many tunnels in the fort, which have now been closed for the safety of the visitors. There are good viewing points, including one from the Badal Mahal.

If interested, in knowing about Hammir Dev Chauhan and the battle, look here

There is an ancient Ganesh temple in the fort. It has idols of Trinetra Ganesh, his wives Ridhi and Sidhi and his sons Shubh and Labh. The guide told us that the people send the first marriage invitation card to the Ganesh temple by post. People who wish to build a house of their own, build a symbolic house using a few stones outside the Ganesh temple.

We spotted a few more birds including crested bunting, rufous treepie and rockchat inside the fort. Thanks to the low battery, we were not even carrying our camera.

We spent the last day relaxing and with the precious little battery charge, I managed to capture the golden oriole in my lens. The male is extremely attractive to look at, bright yellow and black plumage and an orange beak. It is a rather shy bird and I had to work hard to take its pictures. I also spotted another new bird, called coppersmith barbet, one with a crimson forehead and throat. As the names suggests, his calls have been appropriately likened to a copper smith striking metal with a hammer.

The Beautiful Golden Oriole
Coppersmith Barbet

Before I close, would like to say a few words about the  the hotel. The one thing, that really touched us during the stay was the warmth of the complete team. Right from the cleaning guy to the top management, everyone greeted us with respect and genuine smiles. Even as Indians, we felt humbled by the way the staff would bow down and fold their hands in Namaste. The food was good but not great. But the service was outstanding. On the first two days, there were only 2-3 families in the hotel. They asked us what we wanted to eat and planned the meals accordingly. They have not learned to say 'No' and accommodated all our requests, whether it was for a simple item like boiled potato or elaborate Rajasthani specialty like Dal-Bati-Churma. I loved the fresh sweet lime juice, made from the limes in their own orchards.

The hotel has a neat swimming pool. They have TT table and badminton courts too. What was a hit with my family was their small library which had a decent collection of books. Books on bird watching came in real handy.

Visit to the wild forest and the magnificent fort,  the bats, owls and birds at the Taj lodge was a great experience. I think I will remember this for a long time.


  1. You have a new fan Bindu :) Got to your blog from BlogAdda and have been reading your posts...!

    I like the way you are being honest in coming across to the readers and not be just a pretentious blogger trying to impress ! loved it :)

    I am not really a big fan of watching birds, but the way you have put it, I might as well start a little ! Have a couple of my friends who are crazy about birds... I never really got into it, but now... its starting to interest me :) I have anyway been a huge fan of the Wild !!! Be it the jungles, rivers through the forests... unexplored tiny waterfalls... streams... wild animals... even a dog found in a forest fascinates me.... ;) all of them !!! I had somehow missed out on birds !

  2. @Nandkishore - Thanks a lot for dropping by and commenting. The best part of enjoying bird-watching is you can do it even when you are not traveling. You just change the way you look at the trees and the bushes and very soon get rewarded by the presence of birds, you failed to notice earlier.

  3. Hey,

    Thanks for the extensive info...We are planning to visit Ranthambore this Dec, hope we get the similar kind of adventures experience...Although I am a little more crazy about wild animals rather than the birds around... :)

  4. @Neha - Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I am glad you found it informative. Dec is the season time, all the best for sighting animals in the wild!

  5. I have never managed to spot a Golden Oriole though I have heard of others spotting some in the NCR region!

    The owl looks great!! Now maybe we should plan a visit to this place... will come back and read the post at leisure.

  6. Great writeup Bindu!!! Will have to read through some of your other posts...!! :) Thanks for the link!

  7. Nice post bindu! I am planning to go there this weekend and ur post made me optimistic about going there on off season!.


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