After the Pancrasine delights of CST, Mumbai Central (it isn’t even vaguely central, and had to be reached on the suburban railway from its dinky but frenetic terminus at Churchgate, beside the Maidans), was pretty dull. A corrugated iron shed, with a lot of long trains in it. The evocatively-named Golden Temple Mail was drawn up on platform 1, its baggage car being energetically filled with boxes of alphonso mangos for the mango-tree-less north. In keeping with the first part of its name, the train’s destination was Amritsar and a good number of turbans bobbed on the platform or in the claustrophobic-looking waiting pens for unreserved passengers. In keeping with the second part of its name, among the standard blue coaches was a bright red Indian Railways Mail Service coach, looking very empty. Nevertheless, a mail train – a night mail, no less – we were.
The Mumbai Central authorities seemed particularly concerned that the travelling public might be ripped off for ‘packaged water’, with Notices and announcements urging us not to be so relieved of our rupees. Undeterred, I bought a bottle for the regulation 15 rupees (as in most aspects of life, the Railway produces its own packaged water, Railneer, which is all the privately-run station stalls may sell) and settled into my cosy side lower berth, with a bedtime cup of chai, purchased at the regulation seven rupees.
By 7.30 next morning, the Golden Temple Mail was speeding north-eastwards on the mainline through Madhya Pradesh’s golden cornfields. At level crossings, bullock-carts patiently awaited our passage. Once this train carried the equally evocative name of the Frontier Mail, the premier train for transporting British officers and their families to the north west frontier states, fresh off the P&O steamer from Southampton via Suez. The train would have drawn up on the quayside right beside the Gateway of India. Modern India had no wish to recall such memories via train names, nor to be reminded of the existence of a post-partition frontier just seven miles from the train’s northern terminus
There was no coffee to be had that morning on the Mail, no great loss as Indian Railway coffee is over-sugared Nescafe; its replacement in this instance was a far more palatable cardamom-spiced chai. Generally awakened, I turned my attention to the pantry car’s breakfast offerings, specifically my continued explanation of Indian Railway signature dishes which involve putting everyday food items between bread. Today, the omelette. Specifically, a pea omelette, turned into a sandwich, known to all who sail upon the trains of the world’s largest democracy as ‘the bread omelette’. A little down the coach, a father was teaching his son the key English phrase “Yummy, yummy, in my tummy.” They must have opted for the dosa. This being a Western Railways train, there were again subtle differences in the interior design. Unlike Central Railways, for example, there was no sign in the vestibule warning that the delightful teddy bear could be a bomb, but there was a Notice reminding me that the train’s fixtures were national property and I should discourage others from stealing or damaging them. No-one had pre-emptively discouraged me yet.
While the soils here were clearly richer than in central India’s red dust belt, the villages of the Madhya Pradesh/Rajasthan border seemed poorer, the houses more shanty like. The main feature of village skylines were the rocks placed on the tin roofs to stop them blowing away. Our entry into Rajasthan was marked by the first sighting of a camel. A single, thin, rather disgruntled individual in a backyard at Bhawani Mandi, but a camel nonetheless. Beyond Kanwalpura, the line had to climb from a 300m-high tree-covered plateau to a 600m-high stone-covered one. This the train achieved by breaching a natural gap in the cliff face, graced by imitation moghul towers and then sweeping upwards, effortlessly overtaking fume-belching lorries making the same grinding climb alongside us. On the higher plain, the stone was not being left to rest – either it was fed into smoke emitting cement works or it was quarried for slabs, which were stacked over vast areas, leaning against each other like so many red gravestones, awaiting an apocalypse.
Kota was ringed by brickyards, women and men fashioning river clay into perfect blocks and placing them into house-sized piles, the outer bricks still grey and the inner layers brick red as the dried. Beside the brickyards, a black hog and her near-orange young bathed in the grey clay-rich water. Leaving Kota, we crossed the wide blue-green Chambal River, the sunnier-in-the-morning north bank being used for washing the town’s clothes. As the train crossed, women carrying bundles of laundered clothes the circumference of tractor tyres squeezed into the narrow space between the track and the parapet to let the Mail past.
Two children, including an eleven-year-old with superb English attached themselves to me. The 11-year-old phrased all his questions as though they were to satisfy the curiosity of his 9-year-old brother (“He is asking…”). In particular, they wanted to know the name of every member of my family, living or dead, over two generations. The interrogation ended, oddly enough, with my being offered a well-thumbed copy of Volume Six of A History of Ancient India.
Every little wayside station in Rajasthan seemed to have been built in the style of a moghul palace, with turrets and battlements. Sawai Madhopur Junction, where I alighted from the Golden Temple Mail at just before one, was no exception, just far larger – Notices even advertised the station’s retiring rooms as a chance to stay ‘in the Mini Pink Palace’. Sawai Madhopur was the first station I’d ever used which has a cattle grid. It hadn’t, however, prevented a white cow installing herself on platform 1. Perhaps she had been trapped by the installation of the grid and made the best of a bad job.
Sawai Madhopur was much more the dusty, chaotic, invigorating work-a-day India than most places I’d been so far. Ironically, therefore, it was the location for my mid-trip spot of luxury, staying at the Ranthambore Bagh lodge, run by a renowned wildlife photographer, and a base for tiger safaris into the national park. For the first time in my life I was met on the platform by a driver bearing my name on a piece of paper, who brushed off my apologies for the 30 minute delay. We raced through town in an open-top jeep, overtaking camels hauling carts full of bricks. The last time I saw camels working, it was carrying tourists along the Red Sea beach in Aqaba: this seemed altogether a tougher beat.
Within seconds of arriving at the verdant Bagh, I had had my laundry taken off me, told about arrangements for afternoon tea and a jeep arranged to take me to Ranthambore Fort, deep in the forest, that afternoon. The chef had knocked up a remarkable buffet lunch, composed of six perfectly spiced curries and, presumably as a sop to the occasional fussy westerner, macaroni cheese. Despite the temptation, I stuck to the paneer achari.
Sawai Madhopur sits at the foot of great golden sandstone cliffs, topped by trees and forming an impenetrable barrier for many miles. Behind these, lies the hidden world of Ranthambore National Park. Obviously, not actually that hidden, as tens of thousands visit every year, but the physical barrier from the chaotic towns of the plains feels important. Behind the line of cliffs, the forest cover is almost complete, as the land slopes gently from the cliff tops to a group of lakes. Ranthambore Fort stands on a rocky bluff above these lakes, its sandstone tracery, finials and gateways merging into the rockfaces until you are almost at its foot. Seat of a moghul dynasty, its abandoned creeper-covered, langur-haunted state adds to the feeling that you have stumbled across a lost world.
The fort sits in one of the park’s buffer zones, the only parts you can visit outwith an official tour. The jeep drove me through the guard gate and, as though a switch had been flicked, wildlife was suddenly on ever side in abundance. In ever other tree, grey langurs lounged. In marshy shallows, sambar deer wallowed next to black-and-white cranes. Peacocks strutted and swooped to and fro.
We were part of a steady line of traffic up the narrow road to the base of the fort, mainly jeeps whose occupants comprised mainly women dressed in their best gold-lined salwar kameez and done up to the nines in jewellery, often including nose-rings with the circumference of an orange. These were pre-wedding parties on their way to a temple within the fort complex, where tradition dictates that the statue of the elephant god Ganesh is invited to the nuptials. It all seems a bit Don Giovanni to me, but given the size of most Indian weddings, two extra pairs of feet and a trunk might not really be noticed.
Among the brightly-dressed parties, I climbed the two hundred or so stone steps up the cliff side, twisting and turning through several gateways, including blind corners to make the job of would-be attackers of this near-impenetrable site all the harder. On the steps and parapets, langurs sat in tens if not hundreds, grooming each other or picking at the grain spilt on the steps for them. Only if a camera-wielding human got too close to a mother cradling her young was there any reaction to the crowds trooping past – a baring of teeth and a gentle hissing urging you to step back.
Arriving at the top gate, the scale of the abandoned complex became apparent, many hundreds of acres across the entire hilltop, incorporating battlements, temples, lakes, palaces and even manicured lawns. Parts could have been abandoned yesterday, in others nature was taking over rapidly. Throughout the domed, stepped, intricately carved ruins, striped palm squirrels hurried around, while a huge variety of birds, few of which I instantly recognised (the ubiquitous wood pigeons were, of course, an exception).
The fort was so large that once at the top it swallowed the crowds completely, other than glimpses of brightly coloured saris when the vegetation cover broke to reveal the main path to the Ganesh temple. It was a magical spot, beguiling and intriguing, somehow familiar, whether from dreams of an idealised lost palace or a children’s book illustration. But it was the views that really stole the show, stretching over lakes and hills, themselves dotted with the remains of watchtowers and pavilions linked to the fort, across the miles of uninterrupted forest in Ranthambore’s depression, as far as the eye could see. Ranthambore might in reality be a tiny, threatend island among the towns, industry and agriculture of northern India, but from here it looked like an entire world.
Far below, beside a lake, a convoy of green jeeps ground to a halt in a cloud of dust, while others eagerly drove towards them. A guide next to me told his charges that the shoreline there had produced many evening sightings of a female tiger and her cubs recently.
If there was a large feline at the centre of the activity, she was invisible to the naked eye or to a camera zoom at this distance. As the setting sun stained the ruins a still deeper red, I worked my way back down the two hundred steps, stopping to throw the langues a handful of grain on the way.
Back at the Bagh, evening chai was taken in the beautiful garden as night fell, a hoopoe hoopoe-ing in a nearby tree, cicadas chirruping and bats circling. When the electricity failed, a nearby mother took great delight telling her daughter that the tigers had cut it so they could attack. I’ve never heard such a happy yelp as when the lights came back on. Dinner followed in the garden, with naans cooked over an open fire and live sitar music providing an accompaniment to eavesdropping on the internal politics of wildlife tour groups, the only grouping that could make the 1980s Liverpool Labour Party seem cohesive and un-factional.
I’d first heard of Ranthambore and its tigers when I was 13 and Rousseau’s painting Tiger in a Tropical Storm was loaned briefly to Leeds City Art Gallery. To accompany this star signing, the gallery held an exhibition and talks about the work being done to protect the last handful of Bengal tigers in their Ranthambore enclave (the exhibition included black-and-white newsreel footage of a Raj-era elephant-back tiger hunt: after one volley of fire, the commentator sonorously pronounced “I think the Home Secretary missed”). Since then Ranthambore and the Bengal tiger have been as tied in my mind as polar bears and Spitsebergen. If I was going to see tigers, it would be in this wondrous forest overlooked by the red, crumbling moghul palaces.
When the would-be-tiger-spotters assembled for morning coffee at 6am, almost every chair in the lounge was already occupied by camera lenses as long as my arm. As the time for pick-up approached, I slowly became aware that the sky was not steadily lightening as was the norm, but was stuck in a sullen grey, illuminated with increasing frequency by horizon-bound flashes of lightning. These increased in brightness as the accompanying thunder raised its volume. Suddenly, the lodge was hit by violent, heavy rain. It was the first wet morning of the dry season. It looked distinctly unappetising out, but on the plus side, was I about to see a tiger in a tropical storm, Rousseau-style? The hotel staff, however, were more concerned that our canters (twenty-seat open-top safari trucks) might not turn up in this storm. I could understand their drivers’ and guides’ reluctance to head out in an open-tip vehicle composed entirely of metal in an electric storm, but I was hoping I hadn’t got up at six for nothing.
We hung around a bit more, during which time I learned that we had lent Hindi the word ‘drizzle’, possibly as a fair exchange for ‘bungalow’. Sure enough, the rain – though still heavy – was slackening and the lightning had moved on. Various canters began to arrive to pick up their earmarked guests. In the confusion around the delayed departure, it emerged that my canter had left without me. Unperturbed, one of the Bagh’s excellent staff, Rahul, fetched his motorbike, saying we would catch it up. If asked to pick the conditions for my first ever pillion ride, soaking wet roads and Indian traffic would not be among them. Nevertheless, Rahul was a careful sort (or at least was on this occasion) and five minutes late we arrived in one piece at the junction of a side road where he was certain the canter would soon appear after picking up passengers from another hotel. It did indeed soon lumber into view out of the rain, was flagged down, and I grabbed my rather soggy seat.
We returned to the fort and at its base squeezed through an incredibly tight seventeenth century gateway, still with its original wooden doors. Passage was made all the more challenging by the crowds of Ganesh-bound pilgrims, already soaked, who were understandably reluctant to step out of the gateway’s shelter into the downpour. Permits were checked and off we headed into the heart of the park. Each vehicle is, supposedly randomly, allocated to one of the seven sectors and we had been given number 2, a promising sign as it included the lakeshore where I had spotted other possibly spotting a tiger from the fort the afternoon before.
The weather, however, remained less promising as we bounced along the sandy track, through more moghul gateways, beneath impressive banyan trees and along the shores of lakes. The driver and guide’s demeanours suggested they were not hugely hopeful of this trip. Steady rain was not great tiger spotting weather. They are cats, after all. Every now and again we would stop, turn off the engine and the guide would scan the forest for signs of life. This sector included the territory of a female tiger with two 3-month old cubs and a male. For now they were elusive. Spotted deer stood motionless under the branches to shelter and the occasional peacock strutted around, but for now the fauna was far less abundant tan it had been on the fort road yesterday.
The canter turned around, a pair of langurs watching us from the trees, occasionally shaking themselves dry. The rain was slowly easing off and bright patches were appearing in the southern sky as we headed back past the lakes. The guide was just undertaking his bilingual “Sorry, but…” spiel about how few tigers there were in such a large territory, when a jeep raced around the corner in the opposite direction and slid to a halt on the shoreline.
“Tiger, tiger!”, yelled the jeep’s driver to ours, gesturing to an island in the lake about 150m offshore. Our brakes were slammed on too and twenty cameras readied. A few moments silence and then gasps – there she was, the unmistakable outline of a huge cat, stalking her way through the long grasses of the island towards its tip. Swiftly the guides identified her as T-17, the young mother whose territory this was. When she reached the island’s end she stopped and sniffed the air. Something had interested her – maybe us, maybe prey, maybe another tiger.She placed one paw cautiously in the water, then curled up her tail so it almost touched her back so as to keep it dry, then began to make her way across to the far shore.
The water there hid a shallow ridge and she was able to paddle across getting no more than her paws wet. The tiger reached the opposite bank and glanced about her, including a long stare in our direction, then moved into the forests. The sun had now emerged fully and occasionally caught on her orange fur as she passed among the trees, heading behind the domed ruins of a moghul hunting lodge, no doubt unaware of the irony. A few moments of silence and then a roar – nothing really prepares you for the sound of a wild tiger’s roar, a sound which rises and falls in an instant, yet seems to shake the air, however distant. This confirmed it – there was another tiger and she was telling it to back off, probably to protect her hidden cubs.
Maybe five more minutes passed, interspersed by occasional roars, and she reappeared back on the shoreline at the end of the ford to the island. Tail once again curled, she made her way back across. Just before stepping on to the island, she paused again. Something was not right.
Sure enough, we spotted it – the other tiger, clearly a male from its size, though too well hidden to identify, was just visible among the undergrowth on the far shore. Her job not yet done, T-17 turned and crossed the water again, disappearing into the trees, the male doing likewise. They had a audience – not only had further jeeps and canters joined us, but a crocodile, barely visible but for its eyes, hovered mid-lake, apparently watching. More roaring ensued from the hidden cats, interspersed occasionally by the mating bark-wail of male spotted deer.
The tigers did not show again, but the experience had been incredible – two beautiful animals acting out a timeless ritual of aggression and defence against a timeless landscape.
As we drove back, the change in the weather had multiplied many times over the quality of wildlife. A huge freshwater turtle slowly submerged itself in the muddy fringes of a lake as we passed, two water snakes hung motionless in a clear pool, their heads just poking from the surface, langurs skitted across the road and antelope hid among the bushes. Ranthambore’s cliffs had changed from their earlier forbidding grey to their usual golden warmth. In the Bagh’s garden, a fellow guest who had taken fourteen visits to see a single tiger advised me to buy a lottery ticket then and there – two cats on a first trip was some achievement.
It was five days until the election in this corner of Rajasthan. Up and down Sawai Madhopur’s main road, tractors bearing candidates’ flags and trucks with loudspeakers blaring slogans and music paraded, delaying the arrival of the canter for the afternoon trip. The Times of India reported that in the states that had already voted, turnout was up from 60% in 2009 to 68% – a change election drawing out the supporters of change and, if Congress was to have any hope, of the status quo. Ten days in to the thirty-five day polling period, it was clear that the media was struggling to find enough intra-Gandhi clan feuds to fill the news gap.
During the late afternoon, my canter party scoured the gorges at the foot of the fort’s cliffs, a land of twisted rock, cactus trees, thorny undergrowth and the occasional ruined mandir or pavilion. The driver tested the canter’s abilities to their extremes, throwing it up stone-ridden tracks and over sump-scraping fords, finding good views of sambar deer, black storks and wild boar. Then, suddenly, dropping to a stream valley, we found ourselves in a tiger traffic jam. Or to be accurate, a traffic jam caused by one tiger.
A huge male, he lay on his side in the middle of the earth track, dozing, apparently oblivious to the jeeps and canters queued up behind him. Good-humouredly, the drivers jostled to give their passengers a good view while maintaining a respectful distance from the cat. Occasionally, the tiger would roll over onto his back, lackadaisically, stretching a paw skywards or flicking his tail, providing impressive views of the huge pads on his paws.
After some time, he slowly pulled himself upright, glanced at the traffic behind him as if to say, “You coming, then?” and set off leisurely up the track, his motorised entourage following at a distance. After about a quarter of a mile, he melted away into the forest. Our guide knew what this tiger was up to and we swerved off on a track heading back towards the stream. He was right – coming to a halt just above a ford, the tiger had laid himself down again on a rocky ledge, with a view of the small valley. We were so close we could see every mighty breath, each flick of the tail to swat away a fly. Occasionally, his head would rise and turn in our direction, catching us full with his piercing eyes. He knew we were there, and seemed pretty relaxed about it. After the amount of time set down in park rules that observing a tiger at such close range is permitted, we left him to surveying this one small patch of his territory.
As we left the park around an hour later, our road was briefly blocked by a sambar with a perfect pair of antlers standing four-square in the moghul arch which now bears a Notice urging visitors to return. I promised, inwardly, that I would do so. I had begun to understand, just a little, why the concept of ‘forest’ looms so large both in Indian literature and foreign literature inspired by the sub-continent. The forest incorporated an immense variety of landscapes, of light and shade – it was, in fact, a source of sustenance and livelihood for a dwindling but still significant number of India’s people. It was the home of fears, but also legends – so many of the Hindu gods clearly arise from the creatures of the forest. Within Ranthambore’s bounds were not just the tigers, but also the shy sloth bears, the stealthy leopards and the watchful wolves. It ought to be as much of an emblem of India as my next stop.