Sometimes we don’t know what we are looking for until we find it’.
I grew up in Delhi, around great musicians, intellectuals, and around uncles who were fond of hunting and fishing and took us youngsters on camping trips and holidays to remote places frequently.
Ever since I can remember, I would be driving out of Delhi with luggage strapped to the roof of an old Ambassador car, egg sandwiches and a tea thermos tucked in the rear window shelf, fishing rods and guns stacked in the trunk, headed to some strange and unknown corner of India. Within a couple of hours outside of Delhi, the transformation would begin. From the urban bustle to the languid undulating rural landscapes. Gradually, I would notice a sharp freshening of the air, the smell of trees, rivers, flowers, mountains and a magically a desolate forest would emerge and keep me enchanted by its many wonders, through my holidays and to this very day.
Over the years, along with music, this passion for the wilderness has remained a constant in my life. I recently wrote an article, in partnership with my son Ishan Dhar, who shares my passion for ‘all things jungly’ for Condenast Traveller magazine on the obsession of seeing a tiger in the wild. I thought as my first blogpost, I’d share the expanded version of the printed article. ( The link to the printed article follows )
As we leave the bustling town of Sawai Madhopur and enter ‘Singhdwar’, the appropriately named entrance to the Ranthambore tiger sanctuary, there is a palpable change in the air. You can almost feel it on your skin. For someone from an urban lifestyle, it is a disorienting ride into a kind of DisneyWorld, except that this one isn’t make-believe.
Shafts of filtered sunlight pierce through prehistoric trees, and disappear into the deep dark thickets, quietly changing the color spectrum around us. Eerie gigantic banyan trees drift by, with their overhanging limbs swallowing up the relics of ancient monuments.
We motor on. Through over-amplified sounds of crickets and owls. Through the rutting bellows of a male Sambhar deer echoing across the escarpments. And the flutter of startled peacocks scampering away from our jeep. But the most dramatic sound one hears in the jungle, is its overwhelming silence.
This is the home of the Ranthambore tiger and we are following the hunch of an old forest guard on the whereabouts of a dominant male, rather impressively called ‘Ustaad’.
Tigers have captivated human imagination from the beginning of civilisation. According to leading tiger authority, Valmik Thapar, “ it has been feared, worshipped, admired, hunted, studied, photographed, written about, immortalised in art and poetry, and has enthralled king and commoner alike.” The seals of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa feature several animals as symbols – the tiger being the foremost among them. Some of the earliest Mughal miniatures depict Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, pursuing tigers on horseback.
In the colonial era, Jim Corbett, the famous hunter (of man-eating tigers and leopards) and author, calls the tiger a ‘gentleman’, in a class of its own above other fauna. Once he renounced the gun, Corbett took to the camera and is credited for being one of the first people to capture tigers on film. Roughly around the same time a lesser-known forester, FW Champion, laid the groundwork for future camera-toting wildlife enthusiasts with his sensational book, ‘With a Camera in Tiger-land’.
Tiger mania’s modern resurgence began in the 80’s when the tigers of Ranthambore National Park were made famous by the books of Fateh Singh Rathore and Valmik Thapar, who picked up from where Corbett and Champion had left off, by revealing the most secret and inner facets of the lives of tigers. But regardless of what time period or circumstances we find ourselves in, the tiger has remained a steadfast symbol and a ‘brand ambassador’ of India’s wilderness.
The most common scene in tiger reserves such as Ranthambore, are the dozens of 4×4 vehicles scouring every nook and cranny of the bush for a glimpse of the tiger.
Our nature guide, the unflappable Yadvendra Sing is a human GPS tracking device, who reads the forest like a Google map. As we pause to “listen to the forest”, he decodes the alarm calls of deer, monkeys and peacocks, which have a sophisticated language and grammar of their own. We try and gauge the proximity of the tiger by the frequency, distance and direction of the alarm calls. On seeing a fresh pugmark etched on the track, our senses are immediately heightened beyond belief. The ears listening for the slightest rustle in the deafening silence, the eyes strained and scanning the undergrowth for any unusual movement, a flick of a tail, the twitch of an ear.
The anticipation is suffocating us to the point of bursting, when Yadvendra leans over calmly and whispers, “Tiger. On your left.” Through a curtain of greenery, we spot a velvet golden patch gliding silently alongside our jeep. As we round the corner there it is, right in front of us! Ridiculously magnificent, he is much bigger than I imagined. His detached, piercing gaze is hypnotic and riveting. Being in an open jeep, there’s nothing standing between us, and we are in an electrifying trance.
We follow him until, like an apparition, he melts back into the forest. Overwhelmed, we eventually return to our hotel.
My city bred younger son has often asked me, “Once you’ve seen a tiger in the wild, why do you go again and again?” It is indeed a curious obsession.Something I’ve often pondered and discussed endlessly with other like-minded ‘wildlifers’. I tell him, “ Look at the face of any person just after he has seen a tiger in the wild. It will have a telltale glow that you cant miss!”.
“Seeing a tiger is like seeing a beautiful woman. How can you ever tire of seeing or photographing a beautiful woman,” says Shantanu Sharma, my jungle-buddy and photographer friend. Dhritiman Mukherjee, India’s leading wildlife photographer, delves deeper: “While our civilised and rational side looks for natural beauty, our instinct reacts to predation. Everybody wants to see predators. A tiger stalking, a lion killing is more thrilling than, say, watching an elegant gazelle or a peacock”. Even with birds, it is always the predators—the eagles and the hawks—that are most attractive, he points out. “The tiger sits at the top of this pyramid. He is the apex predator. His body language is the boldest. His gaze penetrates our eyes and reaches into our soul.” Balendu Singh is the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Ranthambore. To him, it’s the tiger’s persona that draws people. “The tiger is a magnificent and a pristine cat. Not scruffy, like lions or hyenas, ripping and shredding its prey. He is well-groomed [like] a thorough gentleman. He isn’t destructive and he will always rather give way than demand it.”
It was over 30 years ago that the thrill of seeing a tiger first drew me into the jungle. A glorious predator that exudes explosive power and dignified grace in equal measure, the experience left me breathless and wanting more, every time. To be in its presence for those few moments, when time stood still, was worth every bump and grind of the countless backbreaking jeep rides.
I find that it’s never the same experience twice and yet it’s the same primeval tingle, every time – a sensory, visceral and spiritual high, all at once. For some, being face to face with a tiger on his terms, in his natural environment is like deep meditation – an awakening of sorts. That moment opens up some wonderful home truths about our world and our place in it. Sensibilities, which urban conditioning has dulled out of our system, re-surface and remind us that there is a world order that works beautifully, if only man would leave it alone.
However, many such encounters later, a slow realization has now dawned on me. That the tiger is merely a key that unlocks a much larger treasure chest – of sights, sounds, and experiences – that is the Indian jungle. He is just the tip of this iceberg.
Bittu Sahgal, the editor of Sanctuary Asia puts it a bit more bluntly. “The tiger is undoubtedly a magnificent animal, but those who visit tiger reserves with the single-minded purpose of “seeing a tiger” do themselves and the tiger, a great disservice. It is like visiting a library and searching for the same book over and over again.“
Look, See and Feel, and India’s jungles will take your head and heart to places that they might never have visited. Strange, and yet, oddly familiar places. Charles Lindbergh, the aviator, inventor, and explorer described it best when he said, “In the wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it, our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.”
All of us, in one way or another, seek answers from the universe and from powers unknown, but for some, like me, who are drawn to the few wild spaces still left on the planet, those answers are likely to come from a temple such as this.
Sometimes we don’t know what we are looking for until we find it.