With CNN’s recent citing of Ranthambore National Park as India’s best park for “scenic tiger photos”, I was optimistic. We would actually get to see this majestic cat whose numbers are seriously dwindling. Or maybe we would have the privilege of encountering the famously reclusive leopard. Ranthambore is not in the traditional tourist golden triangle circuit, but it didn’t matter – I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Maharajahs of Jaipur and see a big cat.
What I hadn’t realized, however, is that the park is divided into 9 zones, and that visitors are randomly assigned in their jeep only to one zone per visit. Some of the zones are more scenic than others, some have lakes with crocodiles while others do not, but of greatest significance to us is that zones #2 and 4 are the most renowned for “tiger sightings”. The luck of the draw is now the 21st century way of life for tourists who come to India for big game vs for the Taj Mahal.
We were delighted when our guide announced that we would be in zone 2 for our first game ride. Zone 2 is magnificent and rich with wildlife. We repeatedly saw peacocks, monkeys, all types of deer – including the famous bluebull–, antelope, birds, crocodiles, hyenas, mongoose, even a few snakes (who are usually hibernating this time of year), and we listened repeatedly for the warning call that a cat was on the prowl. However, 3-1/2 hours went by and although we did see tiger paw prints at the edge of the dirt road, we didn’t spot one tiger. Still, we left the park that afternoon in the spirit of “tomorrow is another day”.
But when our guide arrived the next morning to announce we would be in zone 6, our optimism quickly faded. Much more arid than zone 2 and with far fewer animals, our ride in zone 6 was an enjoyable outing in a bumpy open-air jeep with scenic views (make sure to pack long underwear if you come during the high tourist season November through March), and sightings of friendly herds of deer, scavengers such as jackals and many species of birds. But there were no cats anywhere in sight.
So now what? It just so happened that India’s award-winning wildlife photographer and painter was coming to speak and demonstrate his art after breakfast at the Oberoi Vanyavilas (Oberoi “Forest Villas”) where we were staying. M.D. Parashar is famous for his tiger paintings and lampblack or “soot art” work. Born and raised in Ranthambore, he has a special attachment to the big cats and his love for them is clearly evident in his work which impressively hangs in many famous locations, from the residence of the Prime Minister of India to the White House.
Parashar’s illustrated talk about his recently developed technique of “soot art” was extremely impressive. And it just so happened that he had a completed piece of soot art with him, a drawing of Lawli whom he nursed back to health when she arrived at his home at the age of 3 months with an injury to her leg. After she regained her health, Parashar had her released back into the park where she is now 6 years old and living happily. But during her convalescence, Parashar clearly had the time to study Lawli and fall in love with her.
So our search for a “cat” in Ranthambore was fulfilled. A magnificent love portrait of Lawli will hang in our home and will remind us always of the land of the Maharajahs of Jaipur.
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