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The royalty of wild Rajasthan

While I love the Rajasthan of valour, chivalry and legend (and of course, tiger sightings), I’d take the wild beauty over the grand palaces any day

brunch Updated: May 20, 2019 16:38 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
The beauty of the Vilas properties of the Oberoi group is that they seem to grow organically from the environment around them

Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. I am beginning to wonder if Rajasthan was wasted on me. I went to school there for seven years and then, liked it so much that I even went back to teach at the same school.

As my school was ostentatiously Rajasthani and had originally been set up for the children of maharajas, I thought I had got a full dose of Rajasthani culture and believed that I knew the state well.

I have never stopped going to Rajasthan ever since but it is only now that I recognise what an amazing place it really is. I loved the Rajasthan of the Rajputs I went to school with; the Rajasthan of valour, chivalry, legend and Cycle Polo (don’t ask). But there is another Rajasthan.

My rediscovery of Rajasthan began a decade ago. In 1980, as part of Project Tiger, an ambitious programme to protect and nurture our tiger population, pioneered by Indira Gandhi, the government set up the Ranthambore National Park near Sawai Madhopur. The area had previously been the hunting ground for the Jaipur Royal Family.

Ranthambore has a huge historical importance. And when I finally went there in the mid-1990s, I was struck by its natural beauty. The park spreads over 300 square kilometres and almost from the moment you drive in, you see herds of chitals, sambhar, nilgais, chinkaras and many kinds of deer. Langurs and peacocks are the most common sights and if you are lucky, you can see hyenas, jackals, foxes and jungle cats. If you are really, really lucky, you might see a sloth bear. And though leopard sightings are rare, you can sometimes see one. (Leopards are shy animals, notoriously difficult to spot, even at Ranthambore which is full of them.)

It’s hot, but oddly enough, this is the best time to see animals because they tend to seek shelter near watering holes

But of course the reason everyone goes to Ranthambore is to see the tiger. When I went in the ’90s, I spent several days on safari trips into the park hoping to spot a tiger. But somehow, to everyone’s astonishment, I did not see a single tiger.

I was bitterly disappointed, of course, but still quite thrilled. In all those years in Rajasthan I had never seen the wild side of the state and it was both exciting and different to see a wild boar in the distance or to watch the deer scatter when they heard the distress call of the peacock.

Herds of deer are a regular sight in Ranthambore ( Shutterstock )

In the 1990s, there were not that many great hotels in Rajasthan (and certainly not in Ranthambore). The state was famous for the palace hotels, many of which (the Lake Palace, Umaid Bhawan and the Rambagh Palace, for example) were truly spectacular as palaces though not all of them worked that well as hotels.

Then, in the early part of the 21st Century, the Oberoi group began opening the Vilas properties, which would come to be ranked among the world’s best hotels.

Peacocks are a common sight in the historical park ( Shutterstock )

A lot has been said about the Vilas hotels in the media – especially the foreign media which can’t get enough of the Vilases – but most of the raves have focused on the beauty of the architecture, the extraordinary quality of the service, the unparalleled levels of luxury, etc.

The legendary Machhli, the Queen of Ranthambore ( Shutterstock )

This is all true but, as far as I am concerned, the beauty of the Vilas properties is that they seem to grow organically from the environment around them. Most palaces, almost by definition, seek to overwhelm their surroundings. Umaid Bhavan is a jazz age palace, built in the era of The Great Gatsby. The Rambagh Palace is a rich Rajput’s idea of an English country home. (The Lake Palace is the notable exception.)

The Vilases, on the other hand, don’t seek to stun. They tend to soothe. They are built to blend into the environment, using artisanal materials and taking care to respect wild Rajasthan.

The lapwing makes its nest on the ground and not on the trees) ( Getty Images )

When I went to Udaipur’s Udaivilas last year, for instance, it was the hundreds of species of birds that flew in the air that really grabbed my attention. I went back to Jaipur’s Rajvilas earlier this year and all I noticed were the peacocks. They were everywhere. They would make themselves at home in the courtyard outside my room. They would dance in the garden. Their calls would wake me in the morning.

I went back to Ranthambore nine years ago to stay at the then recently-opened Vanyavilas, a small property spread over 20 acres, adjoining the sanctuary, with just 25 luxury tents. Of course, the hotel was wonderful but what I liked about it was that it never deviated from its true purpose: if you had no interest in Ranthambore or in wild life, then Vanyavilas was not for you.

Even then, I went for safari after safari to the park and saw lots of interesting animals but no tigers. I explained to the hotel’s then general manager Tapan Piplani that he shouldn’t take it personally. I had bad luck with tigers.

But he was utterly distraught and on the final morning, just before I left for the airport, took me on a safari himself. My luck suddenly changed. We saw three tigers. One of them walked calmly besides our jeep and another – the legendary Machhli, the Queen of Ranthambore – actually chased and killed a small deer in front of us; a sort of NatGeo moment.

A tiger spotted recently at a safari

Ever since then, wild Rajasthan has eclipsed Royal Rajasthan in my mind. Three years ago, at Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur (run by the Taj), I knew my attitude was changing when I began to remember relatively silly things – camel races in a village near Jodhpur or the herd of deer we suddenly came across on the road outside town one evening – rather than the grandeur of one of the world’s great palaces.

I went back to Ranthambore last fortnight. The trip did not begin well. The Air India computer system crashed so they cancelled my fight to Jaipur and I missed my ride to Vanyavilas. But there were compensations. I drove to Jaipur, spent a magical night at Raj Vilas, where the peacocks were waiting, and drove to Vanyavilas (around three and half hours on a good road) the next morning.

Within 10 minutes of arriving at the hotel, I was in a safari vehicle driving through the park. The heat was at its height (around 40 degrees) but somehow I didn’t mind.

I had never seen Ranthambore like this: we went when there were few other vehicles so we were alone for most of the time and the landscape was dry and arid, with leafless trees.

Oddly enough, this is the best time to see animals because they tend to seek shelter near watering holes and are easy to spot.

Within minutes of entering, I saw my first tigers: a tigress (Arrowhead) and two cubs, sleeping in the shade. I knew somehow that this was going to be a sighting-packed safari.

If you are really, really lucky, you might see a sloth bear ( Shutterstock )

And indeed it was. We found another tiger shortly afterwards, paddling about in a pool. It seemed as delighted to see us as we were to see it. It peered curiously while I aimed my iPhone. Later another tiger walked by. Then we saw something even rarer: a sloth bear with its baby on its back. While we were staring at the bear, so was yet another tiger. We noticed it watching silently and wondered if it would stalk the bear. But no, it had other plans and wandered off.

In all, I think I saw six tigers on that first safari plus the bears, wild boar, deer, monkeys, etc. Last time Machhli had given us a NatGeo moment; now we had an entire documentary.

I loved the tiger sightings. But I also loved the little things that most people don’t notice. There are 300 species of birds at Ranthambore and most of them fly across to Vanyavilas.

Jaydeep Patil is one of the Oberoi group’s best chefs

Apart from the glamorous ones, there are the little ones that always fascinate me. What does one make of the lapwing, a bird that make its nest on the ground and not on the trees? They say that when a lapwing makes a nest with high walls, this means that the monsoon will be heavy. How does the lapwing know?

It just does.

After the safaris and the exceptional cuisine (chef Saurabh Tyagi is a man to watch), I drove back to Rajvilas to more luxury and more great food (the kitchens are run by Jaydeep Patil, one of the Oberoi group’s best chefs). And the peacocks were still dancing around in the garden.

So yes, I love Rajasthan. But on balance, I’ll take the lapwing over the tiger; the wild beauty over the grand palaces.

From HT Brunch, May 19, 2019

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First Published: May 18, 2019 19:55 IST