Four cubs at Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan rescue our contributor from visions of post-pandemic doom. Text by Meraj Shah; photographs by Johan Castell
The locusts. They came in from the sun, like fighter jets ambushing an unsuspecting enemy. Taking a roadside break on our drive from Delhi to Sariska, my partner and I were admiring the landscape—the Aravalli hills covered in lush green foliage after the first monsoon rains. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a voice from a WWII comic strip crackled over the radio. “Dive, dive, dive!” We scrambled back into the Jeep Compass, shut
the doors, and waited for the swarm, so dense that it nearly eclipsed the sun, to pass by.
“It feels almost biblical, doesn’t it?” she said, finally. I shrugged. The thought had crossed my mind. In March this year, standing on the summit of Mount Nebo in Jordan, where Christians believe that Moses led his flock, saw the promised land, and died, I’d got a phone call from the Indian embassy advising me to hop on a flight home immediately. That mysterious pestilence, COVID-19, was sweeping across the globe, and countries were going into lockdown. Coming as it did, after calamitous bushfires in Australia, floods in India, China, and Indonesia, countries teetering on the brink of wars, it did seem rather ominous. “You were laughing at us,” snickered a doomsday prepper on the flight home. “The end is nigh.”
“In that case, I’m glad we’re at Sariska,” she said when we woke the next morning. “It’s the original sanctuary, isn’t it?” It took me a while to realise she was referring not to the animals, but the Hindu mythological epic, Mahabharata. You see Sariska’s 880-square-kilometre arid deciduous forest is where, according to believers, the Pandavas took refuge. On a safari in the park later that day, we would witness that legacy in action: the devout, who flock year-round to a temple inside the sanctuary, feed animals that gather on the roadside like clockwork on afternoons when the temple is open for visitors. Not the tigers, to be sure, but the monkeys, wild boars, and various species of antelope and deer are quick on the uptake when it comes to a free meal. Except for those who’d consider these ‘confirmed sightings’, I’d highly recommend avoiding the park on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons.
Given the preponderance of erstwhile royalty in Rajasthan, I was circumspect about checking into Sariska Manor. I need not have worried. Gajendra and Sunita, who own the place, are chatty, down-to-earth folk with decidedly un-manor-like demeanours. ‘Manor’ is, in fact, reasonably accurate when it comes to the look and feel of the resort: very neocolonial, awash in pastels, sepia-tinted pictures on the walls. The roomy living quarters are an extension of the same architecture and ambience. Spaced generously apart, the seven cottages perimeter a gorgeous pool (that’s currently out of bounds), and a garden. You half expect David Livingstone to walk in, hang his hat on the stand, and sit at
the table at the old-world verandah while liveried staff discreetly pre-empt his requests. Hitendra, the resident naturalist, plays that role rather well. ‘Hatsy’ is an expert on tiger behaviour and likes to narrate from his repertoire of exciting, unverifiable tiger tales to wide-eyed guests. The uncrowned king of Sariska Manor, however, is Oliver II, the golden labrador. With a delightfully playful mien, His Holiness rules Sariska Manor with a light paw and has a reputation for being man-child’s best friend.
On the park safari, we don’t spot a tiger. It isn’t the end of the world. As magnificent as these animals are, people tend to fixate on them, ignoring all the other denizens of the forest who, at least at Sariska, are only too happy to say hello. There’s a veritable army of antelope and deer—blackbuck, sambar, blue bull, spotted deer, etc. The 21 tigers in this reserve are not going to starve anytime soon. And then there are the birds. Sariska is connected with the Keoladeo Ghana National Park and is hugely underrated as a birding destination.
I, too, have been guilty of giving Sariska the short shrift, subliminally influenced by the one blemish that the park has not been able to wipe clean. In 2005, the sanctuary acquired the
shameful mantle of being the only tiger reserve in India to lose all its tigers to poaching. Shaken out of apathy, the authorities nabbed Sansar Chand, the despicable poacher believed to have done most of the damage. Shockingly, a road that runs through the sanctuary was allowed to continue as a thoroughfare till 2008. While Ranthambore, a mere 170 kilometres away, has flourished, Sariska’s big cats have been stymied by conflict with people—we cross paths with residents—there are 29 villages within the park—nonchalantly riding motorcycles in the park. Once upon a time, the tiger corridor stretched from Sariska to Sawai Madhopur and Karauli—a range that’s now been claimed by farmland.
I sigh at the losses we sustain—the big cats and us—as our worlds grow too circumscribed for the allowance of freedom. Three months of lockdown have impressed upon us the value of free-range. That freedom, all travellers understand, is the way to the centre of things.
To take that away from a traveller, from the big cats, is to take away everything.
Defying all odds, six cubs have been born in Sariska this year. Four of these have definitely survived. We saw but a pug mark—and that was the shiniest, happiest moment I’ve had since the pandemic hit us. “Imagine these cubs running around the forest with their mother, learning to hunt and survive,” says my partner with a broad grin. “It’s a miracle!” Nothing short of one, I concur. Maybe, the world isn’t ending after all. Maybe we just need to learn to share it better.
Sariska National Park is around 110 kilometres from Jaipur, which hosts the nearest airport. Sariska Manor lies at the southern edge of the park at Tehla village—a drive of 230 kilometres from Delhi. The best way to reach is to take the Delhi-Jaipur highway and turn off at Daruhera for Alwar. We took two cars, the Jeep Compass, which had no difficulty navigating the occasional crater, and the Toyota Camry Hybrid, a luxury sedan that wafted over terrain it’s obviously not been built for, with remarkable poise.
Sariska Manor offers 26 rooms. Doubles from INR 17,300, includes three meals, snacks, and high tea.
Sariska is among a clutch of national parks in Rajasthan that were reopened in June 2020. Safety protocols in light of the pandemic include masks, head-covers, and sanitisation on entry. The number of people allowed in each vehicle has been halved to three, and a guide is mandatory. The national park will remain open throughout the year—the only time in recent history that visitors can visit during the monsoon months. Safari timings: 6 am-9.30 am, 3.30 pm-7 pm; INR 4,530 per gypsy (includes entrance fee, gypsy, guide charges). The hotel can organise the same for guests (INR 7,000).