Ranthambore National Park, Part 2: Castle on the Hill

I’m not one for a lazy holiday. I’ll spend about 3 hours on the beach before getting bored, my feet itching to try some thrilling new watersport or pack up my bag and go somewhere else. So when Mohammed proposed a whole morning languishing in the luxury resort, with some light sightseeing in the afternoon, I wondered what I was going to do with myself.

True, we needed a break. And true, the Tigress did have lots to do. Mohammed was right to pick this place – when you’re not on safari, Sawai Madhopur hasn’t got much in the way of tourist activities. Therefore, your accommodation needs to have plenty of entertainments. But instead of doing the fun things the hotel offered, we ended up just looking at them from afar as we wandered round the complex. We’d talked of pampering ourselves with a massage, but decided it was too expensive. I thought about swimming in the pool, but that risked turning me into a block of ice. There was a gym we could have used, but we’re too lazy.

There was only one thing for it. Though neither of us were keen to part with cash, we made an exception for the hotel’s gift shop. Having been denied the opportunity to shop so far, both of us were getting anxious about our limited chances to pick up souvenirs. We knew we’d be going into Sawai Madhopur in the evening to shop, but… a browse of this one couldn’t hurt, right?

After having another crack at haggling, I came out with a new pair of tailored trousers and a pashmina, while Mohammed bought reams of material to fashion into kurtas (longline shirts) when he got to Gujarat.

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Here’s me modelling my new trousers in Mumbai. £18 well spent, I reckon.

Packing up our new purchases and leaving our man Ankit a generous tip, we set off with Sattu for the day’s adventure – Ranthambore Fort. This awe-inspiring 10th Century World Heritage Site sits on a 700m hill, with the shimmering Padma Talao lake and a rainforest at its feet. The old fortress overlooks the entire National Park, allowing the visitor to see just how vast this area is.

It’s also in a higher zone of the park (Zone 3), which means the wildlife is better. Padma Talao lake is a crucial source of water for tigers, leopards, and other rare fauna, so a visit to the fortress is a must for those who want to get another chance at spotting a tiger.

It seems that no matter what kind of cat I’m trying to see, they will always evade me – even my own cat. We did, however, see even more biodiversity in this part of Ranthambore. The drive up to the fortress is fascinating – you pass through a desert oasis, with a small stream running alongside the road, while palm trees scatter the sunlight onto the ground. Within this lush pocket of dry Rajasthan, monkeys leap from palm to palm, while parakeets and other colourful birds sing to you. Hopefully, your guide will be as eagle-eyed as Sattu – in one of the lakes, he spotted some crocodiles, slamming the brakes on so we could look.

There they were – two green, serrated faces staring out from the still waters. One was a baby croc, and I presume the larger one behind it was its protective mother. Barbs and I weren’t brave enough to get out of the car to look at them, because the only thing stopping those crocs from turning us into lunch was a thin bit of scrub at the water’s edge. The monkeys, however, weren’t quite so bothered – they risked the vicious reptilian predators to come up to our car windows, demanding food. Humanity’s closest relative is evidently far braver (or much stupider) – than we thought.

I’m tempted to think it’s the former. Arriving at the fortress gates, we were greeted with this sight.

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These langurs have worked out how to manipulate, coerce, and even rob passing humans. If you look like you’re munching away on a packet of crisps, they’ll bring out their babies. If you’re stone-hearted enough to turn away, then they’ll scare you into dropping your packet. I didn’t have any monkey-appropriate food on me, aside from my trusty travel Mars bars (see Germany for more details on that) – and I wasn’t about to whip them out of my handbag. Sorry langurs.

We passed under the entrance gate and made our way into the fortress. Originally constructed in the 10th Century, this fort was incredibly strategic, changing hands between the area’s most powerful dynasties – the Chauhan Rajputs, Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. As a result of its plethora of occupiers, you’ll find mosques, Hindu and Jain temples, plus a host of other palatial buildings on the site.

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It’s a vast World Heritage Site, its boundary walls stretching for a whopping 8 kilometres. You could easily spend a whole day here, but we only had an afternoon. Along with an Indian-American bloke and his daughter, Sattu gave us the whistle-stop tour.

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Here’s the Padma Talao, but you can’t see it all that well as our fantastic selves are in the way.

First stop was the Queen’s mansion (Rani Haveli) and a guest house, which doubled as an entertainment area. They both have lovely views over the Padma Talao, and Sattu vividly brought to life the tales of the goings-on here in times gone by.

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Imagine the whirling of colourful skirts, their wearers dancing in unison, or the raucous games that would once have taken place.

I was looking for two things out of my India trip. The first was food, which had been fulfilled almost immediately after we landed. The second was historical atmosphere – a much less tangible travel experience. While I’d had plenty of Mughal history by now, I wanted to hear from the Hindu royalties of India. I wanted to see Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor running through the ruins of an old jungle fortress, as in that Coldplay music video.

You know, this one.

Okay, I knew I wouldn’t see Sonam Kapoor herself, but I wanted to feel what she was supposed to be feeling. I wanted to enjoy that side of India, as well as the gritty modern reality. Ranthambore Fort gave me that – the sun was shining, the birds were twittering, and stories seemed to seep out of the fortress’ stone walls. Sattu, for his part, did a great job translating them into a language we could understand.

Smiling to myself at this thought, we reached our next landmark, the 13th/14th Century Dargah Kazi Peer Janab. It’s a shrine and tomb of Sadruddin (a Sufi saint), now serving as a spiritual retreat for Ranthambore’s Muslim inhabitants. Decorated with ribbons and silver foil curtains, many visitors still come here to listen to stories and sermons.

 

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The Dargah is the old building in the background. The foreground contains something much more recent – the bones of an antelope killed by a leopard, in front of a crowd of tourists.

The baby blue Dargah blended in with the sky, but the lake next door to it certainly didn’t. Covered in bright red algae, the Rani Kund (Queen’s Pond) is one of Ranthambore Fort’s star attractions.

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The building on the left is a former women’s mosque. In days gone by – presumably before the lake turned the colour of that poor antelope’s blood – women would bathe and wash their clothes here, away from the prying eyes of men.

We’d seen green and blue lakes today, and now a red one. All we needed to do was find a yellow one, and we’d have completed the primary school colour wheel.

Continuing the warm colours scheme, we soon came to the ’32 Pillars Chhatri’, a red sandstone cenotaph with – you guessed it – 32 pillars.

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It’s also surrounded by these gorgeous pinky-purple flowers.

There’s a tiny Hindu temple in the base, a grotto big enough for about 3 people at once. I removed my shoes and stepped in, while Sattu, a devout Hindu, received blessings from the priest. My eyes squinting to adjust to the darkness (and only slightly relieved by the light of a solitary candle) Sattu had tilaka applied as he prayed to Shiva. It felt very intimate indeed – just me, Sattu and the priest, shoeless and standing in the presence of some higher power.

We climbed up the steps to the chhatri, dodging large families and even a school trip. Once you shake off the crowds, the 32 pillars make for a fantastic photo spot.

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Thinking about things.

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As close to Sonam Kapoor as I’ll ever get.

Photo op checked off the day’s to-do list, we walked through a garden to another lake. This one was called the Padam Talab, and it’s rumoured to be the location of one of India’s most famous stories.

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In the 13th Century, the aforementioned Delhi Sultanate had their eyes on Rajasthan. Originally from Central Asia, this Muslim powerhouse had already managed to conquer most of Northern India and Pakistan, and they aimed to reach all the way to Sri Lanka. Rajasthan was next in the firing line. Emperor Alauddin Khalji, whom we met in Delhi, led the charge.

Meanwhile in Rajasthan, a beautiful Rajput queen (they’re always beautiful, aren’t they? Nobody ever says ‘normal, reads-books-all-day kind of girl’) called Padmavati sat in her castle. Her husband Ratan Sen, who was away fighting, had been captured by Khalji. The Emperor soon learned that his prisoner of war was married to an absolute stunner. Khalji headed straight for Padmavati.

Learning of his approach, Padmavati and her ladies-in-waiting committed jauhar (suicide by a variety of grisly means – setting oneself alight, stabbing yourself, the list goes on). Sattu said that this lake was the place Padmavati weighed herself down with jewels and threw herself in, quite literally drowning in riches.

The Rajput queen has been lionised in some sections of Indian society for her bravery/decisive actions/commitment to her faith. Better to die a pure Hindu than to allow yourself to be raped by a Muslim, apparently. A recent Bollywood film starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor roughly tells this story, but calls for it to be banned permeated the press junkets and red carpets. Rajput associations claimed it showed Padmavati in a bad light (not sure how, as she is the heroine of the movie), while some Muslim organisations complained about the negative portrayal of Alauddin Khalji. I’m tempted to sympathise with the latter – at one point he *literally* bares his teeth. He couldn’t get any more stereotypical movie-villain! Historical sources suggest he was a far more complex character, a level-headed but ambitious man, known for his pragmatism as much as his ruthlessness.

Whether the story is true, and whether it actually took place in Ranthambore (a more likely candidate is Chittorgarh Fort, 300km away), is up for debate. We do know that this lake was used as another female bathing ghat, so it does make you wonder what other fragments of history could lurk in those murky depths. A lost bangle or a soggy love letter, perhaps.

We walked around the lake and admired the clifftop battlements on the other side. In the picture above, you can see donkeys and dogs milling about. But there are even more animals than that – there’s more of those pesky monkeys, plus cows (because it’s India).

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Our visit to Ranthambore Fort culminated in the Ganesh temple, which many reviewers said was the highlight of their trip. The pink and orange temple, with its domed roof (which looks a lot like an umbrella) and bedraggled flags, certainly looked vibrant. The chai stalls, religious paraphernalia and cow vs. monkey fights going on outside simply added to the atmosphere.

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This temple is dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant god of Hinduism. It’s one of the oldest temples in Rajasthan, constructed in 1299. Apparently, the local Hindu king asked Ganesha for a swift end to the war with Khalji. The next day, a three-eyed statue of Ganesh appeared in the walls of the fortress, and the war quickly ended. Admittedly, it ended because Khalji conquered him, but still. The war was over.

Sattu went inside to pay his respects to the three-eyed statue, while Mohammed and I made conversation with our Indian-American acquaintance over a mini cup of chai. We could hear the drums emanating from inside the temple, but the mooing of cows was even more audible. Mohammed, who we had discovered does an excellent impression of a grumpy bull, came frighteningly face-to-face with one of them.

With that alarming climax, our tour was over, and we were on our way to Sawai Madhopur. In a few hours, we’d be boarding a sleeper train to Mumbai, and leaving Rajasthan for good. But first – more shopping.

We pulled into a grockel stop (tourist tat centre, in West Country) and browsed. We were in there for some time, as there were plenty of things to look at – furnishings, clothes, trinkets and materials. I ended up spending about £35 after some hardcore (for a Brit) haggling, while Mohammed was relieved of £50. We may have been fleeced yet again, but to be fair, Barbs did buy some fabulous fabrics – by the time he left India, he came home with about 5 new custom-made shirts. I’d say that’s a win.

Many rupees lighter (but physically heavier after an Indian-sized dinner), we reached Sawai Madhopur station. Much to our amazement, the night train to Mumbai had arrived bang on time. In India, this is pretty much like winning the lottery. Sattu helped us board the carriage, shook our hands, and set off for home. His journey was over, but ours was only just beginning. After 13 hours on a mighty locomotive, we’d be chugging into the hot and heady heights of Mumbai. Join us soon in our first-class carriage to journey there with us.


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