We set off one foggy morning in a sparkling, well tuned ambassador with Sonuji from RTDC at the wheel, from Bikaner House in Delhi. We sped through the empty roads through Delhi-Gurgaon-Rajasthan towards our first stop, a tiny detour actually, to The Sariska Tiger Reserve.
We were keeping good time and there was no fog that had slowed down traffic only yesterday, 3 hours from Delhi and yet no sign of Sariska. Did we miss the turning? A traffic police confirmed that we hadn’t. ‘40 kms baad, ji’. 40kms soon whizzed past and yet no sign of the turning to Sariska. Sonuji got down to enquire disbelief writ large on his face. He hadn’t heard of Sariska. Seems we had left it behind. Sonuji clucked and asked in a low voice “jaana zaroori hai kya? Ek chiria ghar hai?”. “Chiria ghar? Nahin bhai. Jangul hain, sher hain”, was my father- in-law’s emphatic retort!!
Sonuji shut up and took a U-turn and this time we found the road although there were no signs. We had to stop frequently to inquire and were told we were on the right road but were given a bewildering variety of names of roads and villages through which we had to pass. And then suddenly there it was. A short turning to the right – past an ornate old gate on high pillars and domes and fading pink and green paint. Sariska Natural Park and Tiger Sanctuary. It had a colourful tiger painted on it too!
The gate was shut but there was a window alongside with an attendant who informed us that there was no entry fee on that day, Tuesday, because of puja at the Hanuman temple at Pandupole. What? A temple in a tiger reserve? He told me that there was a supine Hanuman temple at the other end of the Sanctuary and there were no guided tours on that day. But we could take our car in and drive straight through without leaving the metal road which ran straight through the reserve. Fine!
But first, breakfast, at the only place nearby – the RTDC hotel. There were quite a few guests there including two young chaps with binoculars slung around there necks. This cheered us up. The sanctuary must be full of tigers. A and father-in-law (fil) settled to sumptuous omelettes which were larger than the plates they were served in. (Reminds me of a line in a Bengali movie where the heroine, served with a 6 egg omelette remarks – omelette na carpet?). Mother-in-law(mil) is vegetarian on Tuesdays and I am allergic to eggs. So we settled for vegetarian sandwiches: Tiny triangles rendered tinier by slicing off the crusts – a hangover of the Raj, I think. Read somewhere that English teas were accompanied by wafer thin cucumber sandwiches. The cucumber was alas, missing, but wafer thin it was. The ‘vegetable’ consisted of a very thin, almost fine slice of tomato, salted and peppered. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This was followed by some milky coffee (A and I are by now used to strong black coffee – French style). Breakfast finished, we returned to our car and entered the sanctuary with hearts full of hope to catch sight of at least one tiger, if not more, although with empty stomachs (mil and I)!
We were handed a small plastic card with the do’s and don’t’s. A read it out and said we had to drive at not less than 30 km/hour – great! This surely meant the place was swarming with tigers! We were told to stick to the metal road which ran straight down the sanctuary and to avoid the tracks that ran off from the main road. Thick brush, trees, narrow gullies almost dry surrounded both sides of the road. There were a few cars crawling ahead of us. We didn’t have to wait long to get our first sight of wildlife. There were various types of deer – small, big, with and without antlers, in groups or single, pheasants and of course hanumans. No tiger yet. We kept our eyes peeled though. Just in case. Beginners luck. An old toothless woman in bright colours ambled past our car. Wow! Wasn’t she afraid a tiger would pounce on her? Another one – sunning herself. Wow! The locals are brave.
Then I found out that we had to travel at not more than 30 km/hr and not over. Mil was convinced we were on a wild goose chase – simply a waste of time. Fil and I were still hopeful.
Occasionally a car ahead would slow down and out would come the binoculars and we too would stop and crane our necks to see what could it be that was of interest to them? And then we’d reluctantly move on seeing it was a deer or perhaps a bird.
Suddenly, breaking the monotony, A shouted that he’d seen one. A tiger. Where? Where? There, to the left, no a bit to the right, go a bit ahead, no a bit back – there. Sure enough, deep in the brush, a tiger sat, partly visible only, with its back to us, sunning itself!! Yahoo. Cars behind slowed down to catch a glimpse of whatever it was we had stopped to watch. Not seeing the camouflaged tiger, they’d move on, but not before they saw the smug expression on my face – I saw a tiger – You didn’t!!
Will it turn, will it get up and come close? Should we shout to attract its attention. A wanted to throw a pebble in the brush. I forbade it immediately. What if the tiger decided to make a meal of my well endowed husband? Minutes ticked by but the tiger sat immobile. Why didn’t it move? Even if only to twitch its ears or swish its tail? Eh? What’s that? A large pheasant happily hopping around the tiger? Haven’t I read somewhere that when there’s a tiger in the vicinity, birds squawk all at once and small animals flee the area. No such squawking only happy chirping and certainly no exodus of small animals. Realisation dawned. It was a lump of granite half hidden in the brush that we had been staring at. Sheepishly, we moved on. Did Sonuji smirk? More deer, birds and hanuman later, we came to a sort of a checkpoint where the road branched off into a Y, with an arm to the right. The left arm went straight to Pandupole and the Hanuman temple. A wanted to turn right back out of the sanctuary and head for Jaipur. But mil was firm. You got your chance to see tigers (too bad you didn’t), now I want to go to the temple.
The road was by now quite populated with people and hanuman. The scenery was lovely though. Trees, brush, river through which the road wound its way up and down. At places the road was very bad and there were warnings chalked on huge granites. There were also warnings about not bathing in the canal which was completed ignored by all and sundry. And suddenly, we were at Pandupole Hanuman Mandir. We parked our car and made our way nervously through a huge bunch of hanumans sunning, picking lice or simply fighting among themselves. Mil and I bought prasad and gave hurried prayers to Lord Hanuman. There was quite a crowd. In the jostling, I quite forgot to see the supine Lord Hanuman properly. Later, it seemed to me a longish (sideway) block of granite with the face of Lord Hanuman chalked on, in vermillion. A sat glowering in the car, upset at the wastage of precious time. Mil was upset about the tigers or their lack.
On our way out, we met 2 forest rangers and asked them if there were indeed any tigers?
- Zaroor ji. (Ofcourse)
- Kitney? (How many)
- 30-35. Aur Jackal, Hyna, aur deer aur pheasants.
- Dikhai kyun nahin detey? (Why cant we see them)
- Kyun ayey wo bhala? Itni noise pollution mein? (Why should they come here? In so much noise and pollution).
Sach baat. But so disappointing.
We retraced our way back to the gate and then back to the main road to Jaipur. Our lunch was terribly delayed leading to terribly frayed tempers. Added to this, among the 100s if not 1000’s of dhabas lining the road from Delhi to Jaipur, we chose one with terrible food. Whoever heard of a dhaba with terrible food? Just our luck. The debate continued about the wisdom of our wasting half a precious day at Sariska. We were on a 3 day tour of Jaipur, Ajmer and Pushkar with Sariska thrown in.
Next morning, at our hotel in Jaipur, I read a newspaper article by a retired high ranking government official, on Sariska. How we were guilty of neglecting a gem of a reserve in our own backyard (referring to Rajasthan State Government). A heavy traffic road runs straight through the reserve (that explains the trucks we saw at Sariska) adding to noise pollution, no doubt not conducive to tiger’s well being. Worse, there has been a high rate of casualty among deer, jackals and birds crushed beneath the truck tyres. If immediate measures were not taken, the natural fauna of that reserve would dwindle away.
Then we weren’t wrong after all, just unlucky. I did read somewhere that tigers are very unpredictable. Even in famous tigers sanctuaries like Ranthambore, one might not see a single tiger for several days and then suddenly one might catch sight of hordes of them within couple of hours.
Perhaps, if we do wake up now and take care of it, then future tourists would be able to get a ‘darshan’ of not only the supine Lord Hanuman but of some tigers well!
Glossary Indian words
ji - a word added to names or end of sentences to show respect.
“jaana zaroori hai kya? Ek chiria ghar hai?” – Is it necessary to go (there). It’s a zoo.
Nahin bhai. Jangul hain, sher hain” – No brother, it’s a jungle with tigers.
omelette na carpet – Is it an omelette or a carpet.
Sach baat – True words
Darshan – sight, view
aur - and