Tuesday, January 21, 2014

India: Part III A Tiger in its Home

We got side-tracked driving through Agra to get to Fatehpur Sikri*, and what we saw was reality. Our previous days' adventures included visits to gorgeous monuments, delicious restaurants, sublime boutiques, such as Good Earth (Tara's family's home decoration store) and a birthday party that Delhi's creme de la creme attended in all their splendor. That was one side of the Indian reality coin. The other was the view from our car, as it maneuvered through the streets of Agra. The stereotypical chaos of cows on the road, bicycles, rickshaws, people, cars, all of them moving. Together. Everywhere. Across. Around. Through. Over. Under. At. The. Same. Time. Sensory overload. 

I was glad to arrive in a quiet, clean hotel, and grateful for my life of comfort and the opportunity to be reminded of the way many *many* people live.

Taj Majal at sunrise.

The Taj Majal at sunrise. Put it on your list of things to do before you die, if you haven't done so already. It looks like sugar, and changes color every five minutes as its exposure to the sunlight changes. I thought I would be desensitized to its splendor because I've seen so many images of it, but that was not the case. 

From Agra we took a train to Ranthambore, an area of Rajasthan where tigers roam and reign supreme. Tara recommended we include a Sher Bagh experience. Created with the intention of welcoming those interested in going on safari to visit Bengal tigers in their natural habitat, and enjoying some of the world's best guest services experiences, Sher Bagh is a place where you go to be pampered, eat very well, and have spiritual experiences associated with seeing a tiger in its home, from the comfort of doorless, roofless, open-topped safari jeeps. When our train arrived in Ranthambore, we were greeted by Sher Bagh drivers and butlers who offered us lemon water on a silver platter at the railway station. We embarked our jeep, and on our tiger adventure. We arrived at Sher Bagh in the midst of a forest and adobe grounds. A luxury tent "glamping" (glamour camping) experience, where good taste, comfort, and respect for the surrounding environment come together to humble you into submitting to the magic this place has to offer. 

"Glamping" (glamour camping) in Sher Bagh.
On our first outing, we visited a Hindu temple dedicated to Ganesha located in the heart of the tiger reserve. The temple is more than one thousand years old, and sits carved into the rocks that protrude from the hills of Ranthambore. Ancient engineers masterminded a design that curves along with the winding hills, creating a powerful spiritual experience for pilgrims and visitors. 

We returned to camp for dinner by torch light. The buffet meal
Dinner by torch light in Sher Bagh.
of typical home cooking from Rajasthan was presented on an adobe buffet mound made of a mixture of manure and red soil that is used to make houses in this part of India. The design was brilliant and included a cavity in the mound where candles were placed to keep the food warm. Butlers helped us serve scrumptious daal, okra, chicken paneer, yogurt, and chutney on gorgeous copper plates. All this was accompanied with the best naan I've ever had. After dinner, we enjoyed a drink with our hosts, the family who owns Sher Bagh and whose passion for Ranthambore and its tigers is contagious. Their anecdotes about tiger sitings peaked our interest and made us almost burst at the seams with anticipation. We returned to our tent for a hot shower and a comfortable night's rest under a mosquito net. I felt like I was living the Out of Africa dream of living in luxury safari mode. A sunrise safari awaited us the next morning, and I dreamt of tigers.

Tracking tigers.
Tiger sitings at this time of year were complicated because the recent monsoons had left a lush canopy of brush, creating hiding places for tigers. For hours, we roamed the jungle, which looked like an enchanted forest where fairies live. Recent rainfall allowed for fresh and crisp mint green leaves to shimmer against the charcoal black background of tree trunks that twisted and curved amongst the magic of the jungle. We spotted different varieties of deer, peacocks, monkeys, wild boar, dragonflies the color of fire, and birds galore. We even caught sight of a terrifying but gorgeous spider with black, orange, and yellow spots the size of my hand. It rested on its gigantic and perfectly symetrical web waiting for prey. 

The spider waited for its prey just as we sat by an enormous and ancient Banyan tree that looked like something from the Lord or the Rings, about to pull its massive roots and vines as if they were arms and legs to start walking deeper into the jungle. We waited not for prey, but for a tiger siting. We were on the look out for alarm calls (sounds animals make to warn us that there are tigers around). At one magical and nerve racking moment, a deer stood perfectly still and began patting his front leg as an indication that he sensed the presence of a tiger. I've never been so horrified and thrilled with anticipation. We waited for an hour, and deep down in our animal instinct (that woke up in Ranthambore after being dormant in our life in a concrete jungle) we knew there was a tiger near us. However, the tiger wasn't feeling sociable enough to say hello.
Sunset in Ranthambore.
At sundown, we witnessed one of the best shows I've seen the sun put on. A palette of pastel colors draping the sky above an ancient Hindu temple that has sat in the middle of a lake as a lounging area for many generations of tigers. My heart skipped beats and I sighed more than once.

While exiting the reservation that evening, we stumbled upon a traffic jam of safari jeeps on the main road. The guide in the jeep ahead of us stopped and pointed to our left, where ten feet from us, there he was...a tiger. My hands started to shake with excitement, fear, happiness, and a feeling of relief because this tiger had allowed us a glimpse, and appeased anxious anticipation. The monkeys in the trees yelled, jumped, and ran away from the tiger, while us humans clicked away with our cameras. I left Ranthambore a happier person than when I entered it. Tara and the family that runs Sher Bagh is addicted to the feeling of complete awe of seeing India's Bengal tigers, and perhaps I am now an addict as well. The power and imposing presence of a tiger living in his home are enough to humble even the most indifferent of spectators. I now understand what it means to be blessed by a tiger's decision to grace you with his presence. 
This is what happens when you're shaking so much, you can't take a proper photo of the tiger that is ten feet from you, and you're in an open jeep.

Seeing a tiger in his home solidified my belief that animals, and the environment we share with them, are sacred and to be revered and respected. 

*Fatehpur Sikri is a stunning Mughal city built with the purpose of bringing together artists, philosophers, theologists, and people from different religions far and wide. Stone is carved so intricately, it has the appearance of wood.