It could have been a scene straight out of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers, a film about two tigers Kumal and Sangha. The sun moves towards his place of rest casting a golden glow on every piece of free creation, turning the whole space an unreal verdant moss colour. Dusk settles in on the cool evening, creating an almost surreal glow on the shimmering tree leaves. Frogs exercise their vocal chords almost as if they have rehearsed their musical piece to outdo each other in a guttural jugalbandi, while crickets sing in unison. Birds direct your eyes from one bunch of glowing leaves to another. At the end of our drive through the jungle, where we have crossed paths with a herd of sambhars and chatted and fed some colourful parakeets, and have almost given up hope of any real adventure, we are stopped in our tracks by a heart-plummeting wild call.
Our guide and the driver exchange one look, reverse the vehicle off the path and turn around. With his foot pushed hard on the accelerator, the driver flies the vehicle on the dangerously uneven winding jungle roads, through rustling trees, as we hold on for dear life, chasing the call of the tiger. Yet another deep guttural call comes from the other side. Our vehicle slices through the almost physical sound waves to reach a center point. Where the driver kills the engine. We wait in eerie silence. The world comes to an almost pandemic like standstill. And then we see it. The majestic tiger walking towards us in all its beauty. A collective taking in of breaths and all eyes are transfixed on the tiger as he languidly walks towards us. We are in his territory. And he looks right into my eyes. I do not want the blood of my family on my hands, so I suppress the rising blood-curdling scream deep in my throat, almost choking in the bargain. As I gasp for breath, he walks past the vehicle, to the other side of the jungle. That gaze stays with me for a long, long time. As anyone who has locked eyes with a tiger will tell you, the experience is surreal, at the very least.
THE WILD AND THE SURREAL
As we drive out of the jungle still in a daze, the magnificent Nahargarh Palace Fort looms ahead, as if magically rising out of the sands. The surreal does not desert us. This stunning fort palace, which every year is the setting for the Music and Wildlife Festival, invites us in through a large fort gate into a world of yore. Visible from the entry gate is the majestic building, built around three courtyards, numerous gardens and fountains. A 21st century fort built organically by Gaj Singh of the Alsisar family, is unique as Gaj Singh explains, “Rajasthan has always been about preserving legacies; this fort is all about creating one.” We chat next to a fountain in a beautifully designed courtyard, surrounded by trees, turrets and arches, regal yet decidedly relaxed and languid. The architecture is balanced and elegant in its simplicity. Despite the magnitude of the property, it does not overwhelm you, but quietly and seductively beckons you into its various spaces.
The predominant feeling is that of spacious outdoors. Which works well for today’s times when indoor, air-conditioned spaces are to be avoided. In fact, the safety measures start right from the time your vehicle approaches the fort palace gates. Temperatures are checked. You are greeted at a safe distance and since you are required to send all details while booking, the transfer takes place quickly in a large open area. All surfaces, handles, rooms, linen, toiletries are sanitized every day. The spacious open-air public spaces are perfect for keeping social distance while you wind down in this calm, spacious resort.
Ranthambore boasts of many such wonderful resorts and camps that extend the excitement of the outdoors while giving you an experience of the famous royal hospitality of Rajasthan. From Taj and Oberoi to standalone resorts, lodges and camps, there is a wide variety to suit every taste and fit any pocket.
Nahargarh has a special magic that in safer times, has wooed many artists to perform there. From Farhan Akhtar to Rasika Shekar to electronic music star Gully boy Naezy to folk artists Arko Mukherjee and sufi singer Mame Khan, the mesmerising spaces at the fort palace have been filled with soulful music and an energy all its own, many foggy winters. Even now, as the sun sets, its mysterious spaces seem to gather an energy of their own.
A special dinner is laid out at the beautifully lit Hathi Kund (the stepwell pool). Banana leaves rustle in the wind, lights glow in niches all around and water ripples into patterns as marble elephants preside over the pond. The stunning beauty of the place transports you to a magical land, where the dazzling canopy of stars watches over you while you experience a meal so divine you could well be in heaven. The magic of this trip has many dimensions, as we soon discover, where you trapeze delicately between the wild and the surreal almost as in a dream.
THE SAVAGE AND THE SERENE
At dawn or dusk, you could take a trip to the jungle and if you are as lucky as I was, a tiger might cross your path. The Ranthambore National Park is home to no less than 71 tigers, tigresses and cubs, many with legendary stories, that the rangers will be only too happy to divulge. You could also visit the magnificent thousand-year-old Ranthambore fort on the hill, where you could chase stories of passion, romance and valour lurking in the turrets and corridors, even as you look down on a breathtaking view of the Ranthambhore jungles. If you feel more adventurous you could book a boat ride on the Chambal river and lock eyeballs with the sitting-to-stare-you-out crocodiles. The serene boat ride on calm waters in the midst of a vast languid landscape at dawn can lull you into a dreamy state. Till an urgent whisper wakes you out of your smiley stupor and you find your guide pointing at a family of ghariyals (crocodiles) crawling on the riverbeds sleepily welcoming the sun. Your heart may do a quick beat or two at the sight of these magnificent creatures. Their savage beauty may well beat you into silence, but If luck favours you, you might get to witness the gentle beauty of the Gangetic dolphin leading you a merry dance up the river, while you try to identify the many beauteous birds on the water through your binoculars.
Once back from this exciting experience, a sumptuous beer brunch in the soft autumn sunshine in the courtyard awaits, followed by a long walk in the picturesque lawns and an amazing spa session.
The atmosphere is languid, the vibe magical, the landscape vast, the tiger majestic, the experience surreal. A mere 350 odd kilometres from Delhi, awaits this unique celebration of wildlife and nature—probably one of the few places one can drive down to rejuvenate oneself in today’s times.