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Day into Night at the Pushkar Camel Fair & Festival of Brahma, India

Negotiating at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The “Jungle Book” Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure chapter of our Royal Expeditions trip to India ends, but a new story begins when we leave our hotel in New Delhi, again in the darkness before dawn, to take a six-hour train journey to Pushkar in Rajasthan for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. In many ways, this immersion into a centuries-old tradition transports us into the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 book even more tangibly than the game drives into the jungles of Mowgli and Shere Khan. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too? and Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

 

The Pushkar Horse and Camel Fair and Festival of Brahma takes place over a 10-day period in October/November every year, timed to take place during one of Rajasthan’s holiest festivals; the exact date varies on the western calendar but always falls during the full moon of the Indian lunar calendar month of Kartik. Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. A place of pilgrimage, the camel and horse fair developed out of this massive annual gathering.

The fair is a kaleidoscope of color, a swirl of motion, a cacophony of sound, unexpected up-close encounters (as with a camel), the crush of crowds.

Camel cart, Pushkar Camel Fair, India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the greatest spectacles anywhere, in my mind the Pushkar Camel Fair is a combination of state fair, carnival and pilgrimage with a smidgeon of circus thrown in. There are snake charmers, musicians, dancing horses, magic show, ferris wheels. You can buy anything and everything – household items, decorative reins for camels and horses; street vendors selling drinks made from sugar cane, merchants selling every manner of goods from stalls and from blankets sprawled out on the road.

Traveling by Train

Our trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair starts with a fantastic six-hour train journey from New Delhi, enhancing the movie-quality of the experience.

We speed through the streets from the Sheraton Hotel, dark and amazingly vacant at 5 am compared to the chaotic snarl of traffic we navigated through when we arrived the evening before from Kanha National Park, flying from Jabalpur to New Delhi.

We pull in across from the train station and out of nowhere, fellows appear who will porter our luggage (on their heads) to the train. We follow briskly after – going through the airport-style security that we have come to expect at every hotel – and are immediately grateful for their help when we realize how we have to climb up stairs to a bridge that takes us to our track. We have time to wait – there are hundreds of people who have basically camped out on the platforms.

Our train departs just after 6 am. A porter comes through our first class car with newspapers, then tea and coffee, and then breakfast (the omelet was very good). Our Royal Expeditions guide creates a WiFi hotspot for us.

Our guide who will take us around the fair, Thurka Durga Singh, comes aboard and begins orienting us to what we will see at the fair. He is a regal looking gentleman, descended from the Warrior Class, who carries himself with grace and dignity. His voice is sonorous, and I soon discover, he is very much a poet and a storyteller, steeped in India’s traditions and culture.

Durga Singh © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, as he would describe himself, Durga “is a keen observer of history, culture, religion, current affairs, and is a bank of knowledge so vast that he has a point of view on anything under the sun. He is what one could call a modern traditionalist, actively seeking the use of modern technology and methods to support the principles of traditional living. The inquisitive can have endless conversations with him on a number of his projects like rain – water harvesting, biogas plant, solar heating and, even, healthy cooking.” It only takes a simple question for him to launch into an entrancing narration.

“Before trains, buses, cars, all citizens traveled by animals – camel, horse. From the 11th to the15th day of the waning moon, pilgrims would come by the thousands on horses and camels from near Delhi to have a holy day. A fair developed. If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar Camel Fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. (Indeed, Dugar had just come from guiding a horse-riding safari to the fair.)

A horse trade underway at the Pushkar Camel & Horse Fair, India © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rural farmers still use camels and horses as work animals and the Pushkar fair is one of the biggest camel, horse and live-stock fairs possibly anywhere, attracting buyers and sellers from all over the country, as well as visitors from around the world. At the peak of the fair, there might be 11,000 camels and 400,000 people coming from far and wide, dressed in their traditional and regional clothes. For days before the fair and after, you can see herders driving their camels and horses along the highway.

Seller grabs his buyer by the hand to pull him into the tent where negotiations can happen away from prying eyes © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

”At the fair, everything is everybody’s business. Our sense of privacy is different. Eavesdropping is a custom of the fair. People standing around give their unsolicited opinion – ‘Good horse’.” (We actually find ourselves doing this exact thing). “Now the deal is getting serious. Now the seller and the buyer don’t want others giving opinion. They clasp hands to clinch deal. Now bystanders have even more curiosity. ‘What is it your business?’ ‘I just wanted to know.’”

An ancient tradition is that when the horse is sold, it is never given with reins “because that would declare he would never have that horse again. So the buyer puts his own reins on [you can see stands that sell decorative reins.] Then the seller has money and gives a little money back, to get the horse extra food, a parting gift to the horse.

“In the western mind, business is business, there is no sentiment [recall the expression: It’s business. Not personal.]. In the Eastern mind, it is etiquette to offer tea. A Westerner would feel obligated to buy, but not an Easterner.

Getting closeup view of camels at the Pushkar Camel Fair  © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He gives us a tutorial on the different types of camels and how they are still used as work animals and why the reputation of camels as being mean and spitting isn’t really fair. One kind “can go sunrise to sunset, 60 km and has more stamina than horse. It can go without water for weeks.  Camels live 26 years; 4-16 year olds work, 16-24 year olds still work but not as hard. Five minutes before it drops dead, it still doesn’t refuse work, then it drops dead.”

I ask how much a camel costs: a young camel, 2 ½ years old (they start training and work at three years old) might cost 14,000-15,000 Rupees ($205-$220); a grown, trained camel might cost 55,000-100,000 rupees ($735-$1500).

“The camel is God’s blessing to us. It browses, eats species that others don’t, like the thorny bush. He doesn’t compete for food, but he is plow, car, tractor.”

But things are changing, he says. Alas, “Young people don’t want to be stuck with an animal. They prefer a tractor…. It’s likely the Pushkar Camel Fair will disappear in 10 years.”

In India’s cash economy (they don’t use credit cards or checks), there may be 15 million rupees in cash at the fair, in bags, clothes. “There are no locks, no safes.” So men wear a vest that has a hidden pocket and put a shirt over that. “A man may have 1 million rupees and no one knows. He can’t be pick-pocketed.”

The state must collects its tax, but since there are no written records of transactions, the tax department charges a flat rate when people enter the fair.

A whirl of motion at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This year, is unusual, he says. We are there just as the Modi government without warning canceled the 500 and 1000 rupee bills in circulation that are the basis for an economy that still runs on cash.

“The Fair has gone into a difficult time. There are many unsold animals, owners sitting desolate. They spent money to buy the animals but have no money to bring them back. Many will leave the animals behind.”

We should also look out for the camel’s haircut. “They decorate their camel like fellows decorate their motorcycles. You wine and dine the barber – it can cost 2000-3000 rupees. The Barber used to make lovely design – a lotus flower – but the Barber has gotten quite old, he is about to go to heaven. He made peacock design; an Islamic barber makes a geometric pattern. Now you see a Sikh shearer from Punjab who works fast.”

Farmers used to collect the camel wool to make rugs, sacks; “Now nobody collects.” Well at least one group does, who we come upon in the market, Camel Charisma.

Acquiring a horse at the Pushkar fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He bemoans the disappearance, one by one, of traditions (“20 years ago, women would sing folk songs. No more: girls go to school now and don’t learn folk music”).

If you come during the first eight to 10 days of the Pushkar camel fair, you see more animals; in the last three days, there are more pilgrims. “Now pilgrims come in jeeps, buses – groups of pilgrims, in different dress.”

He paints pictures of what else we will see, and lo and behold, when we arrive at the fair later that afternoon, we see for ourselves exactly what he has foretold:

“When you go to cinema, you eat popcorn – well, for desert people, sugar cane is big – trucks and trucks of sugar cane come in from the neighboring state of Pradesh.” We see stalls (a little like cotton-candy machines) crushing sugar cane into a juice add lemon and ginger.

Traditional food at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We will see the “normal” food of the Indian countryside. “Who goes to the countryside? Hunters, nomads, pilgrims and animal trader and armies. They have to cook and eat in countryside. So they will collect dried cow droppings for cooking fuel (it’s free) [but you can actually buy cow dung patties on Amazon, I’m told] to prepare balls of wheat flour, served on a plate made of leaves.

“You light up a cow dung fire. When the fire dies down, you roast bread on the embers. It’s clean because after a half-hour of cooking, the cow dung is sterilized. Stores sell this round chat-patti fried wheat bread. It’s street food. The village pilgrims relish this food.”

The camel fair also involves a sprawling market (like a flea market), with all manner of goods for sale.

Interesting people at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He also alerts us that we can photograph regular people –they don’t take money – but there are also “professional” photo subjects – they dress like in various costumes and you are expected to pay 100-200 rupees to take a picture (kind of like the naked cowboy in Times Square).

He warns us that “skunks” spoil the visit for Indians and foreigners. They solicit money – “Mafia like” =saying they want to take you to the lake. Tell them ‘We have been to the lake.”

He says he will take us to the roof of a restaurant to see the lake and watch the rituals.

The beauty of the fair is its randomness, a kaleidoscope of colors, a swirl of activity, he says. “No guidebook will tell you this aspect.”

His narration has made the hours spent on the train fly by. Before we know it, we pull into Ajmir.

Ajmir, A Holy City

We arrive in Ajmir and once we are underway in our van for the half-hour ride to Pushkar, Durga has us join in reciting a Hindu blessing, since Ajmir is one of the holiest places for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

The story goes that when Sati died, Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds – one at Pushkara in Ajmer in India and the other at Ketaksha, which means “raining eyes” in Sanskrit.

One of India’s first cities, Ajmir was the Chahamana capital ruling all India until the defeat of Prithviraja lll in 1192 when the city came under Muslim rule. And when India was under British rule and divided into 526 Maharajah states, the Viceroy, the direct link to the British Crown, was based in Ajmir.

Religious ritual underway in Ajmir, holy to several major religions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ajmir also has one of the most important Sufi shrines, “next to Mecca and Medina, one of the holiest for Muslims.”

Moinuddin Chishti, an important Iman practicing the Sufi form of Islam, came to Ajmir from Iran, developing a large following, and gaining the respect of the residents of the city. Chishti promoted understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sufism is a Muslim movement which arose in the 8th-9th centuries, whose followers seek to find divine truth and love through direct encounters with God. Sufis, Durga explains do not believe that nonbelievers are infidels (like the more extreme Wahabis). Every individual is God’s children. Music is an important part of worship, connecting worshippers to the divine. He has as much a following among Hindus as Muslims. Many Muslims live here.”

In some ways, it seems Ajmir is like Jerusalem in that it is the confluence of these different religions.

During our brief ride, Durga explains reincarnation, predestination and freewill (no mean feat), connecting reincarnation to Darwin. “Darwin talks of physical evolution, Einstein of the soul transfiguring. There is a zero balance account when you are born – that’s free will. Now you start creating your karma; that brings you back again and again. The aim of life is to go back to the Godhead, to break the cycle of birth and rebirth.” Reincarnation, rebirth and nirvana, he says, is not that much different than Christianity’s belief in resurrection and heaven. “There are many commonalities.”

Free will and destiny are not contradictory. “Destiny is that you find a note, then free will is what you do with it. You receive your past and create your future – that is the secret of happiness. In the East, there is no place for guilt” because actions have repercussions in future life.

As for why cows are sacred, it basically comes down to a very practical reason: people depend on the cow. “The cow was revered before it became holy.” We see cows with their horns that had been painted for the Diwali Festival.

Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We make our way slowly through a snarl of humanity, traffic cops doing their best to organize. Because of the traffic during the fair, we are led the long way around, traveling around the lake and over Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain, separating Pushkar from Ajmer. We don’t mind at all because we get to see more of the city and landscape.

Coming into Pushkar, we bypass the entrance to the fair – it is wall-to-wall people, since it is toward the end of the fair now mostly pilgrims as opposed to camel and horse buyers – enroute to the Royal Tents, a luxurious tented camp set up by The Royal Jodhpur Camps specifically for the fair, where we stay.

Royal Jodhpur Camp provides luxurious accommodations at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Royal Jodhpur Camp is set up as a traditional “shikar” style camp: at a time when only royalty was allowed to hunt, these camps were set up to accommodate them. Ours consists of rows of elegant and luxurious twin bedded tents with verandahs with deck-chairs in front and attached bathrooms with running hot and cold water (even a shower), set out over an expansive sandy plain. There are electric lights, an electric heater, rugs on the ground. There is also a spacious Mughal-style dining tent and a recreation tent which serves as a lounge.  It is set on expansive private grounds surrounded by rolling mustard fields in flower and rocky hills, a walk or camel ride away from the fair.

It is the ultimate in glamping. We can tie a triangular flag to a rope outside the tent to signal if we want service (room service, hot water). We can order coffee delivered in the early morning.

We feel much as the royal entourage who would come on hunting expeditions and stay in these elaborate camps. The operative word is “royal.”

Royal Jodhpur Camp © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, The Royal Jodhpur Camps actually has a family connection to Royal Expeditions, the tour company that has organized our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure and this extension to the Pushkar Camel Fair, Jaipur and Agra. Royal Expeditions was founded by a royal family of Jodhpur related to a Princess who also served in Parliament and as India’s Minister of Culture, and the Royal Jodhpur Camps is her brother’s enterprise. It makes it all the more fantastic. And like our other accommodations – the Pench Tree Lodge and the Kanha Earth Lodge during our time doing wildlife safaris in the national parks – it enhances our Camel Fair experience.

We have a superb lunch in an enormous dining tent (complete with ceiling fan), before setting out for our visit to the fair.

Day into Night at Pushkar Camel Fair 

Durga has timed it so we arrive at the fair in the afternoon and will be here after dark, to get the full color and atmosphere.

Ferris Wheels light the night at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Soon we are caught up as we watch a transaction for a horse, just as Durga foretold we would during our train ride: “At the fair, everything is everybody’s business.” And just as he described, we watch a fellow eyeing a horse. And just as he described, soon we find ourselves chiming in as if it is our business, “Oh, that’s a fine-looking horse.” And just as Durga had described, moments later, the seller grabs the customer’s hand and pulls him inside the tent, where he most likely will be plied with tea so the negotiations can commence out of the gaze of prying eyes and gossipy critics.

The vast, bustling market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Durga leads us through a vast market with just about every item you can imagine for sale: shoes, scarves, household items; saddles and decorative reins and leashes for the camels and horses.

We see albino horses for sale, which Durga says are used for weddings. He introduces me to Bakshu, a prominent horse breeder he knows from Gudrash, and Raika, a professional camel breeder.

We pass by a tent where there is magic show on our way to the market.

Worshippers jam into a temple on a hilltop above the market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He takes us to what is probably the most distinctive shops at the fair, Camel Charisma, where you can buy paper out of camel dung; scarfs form discarded camel hair (and silk), 2500 R ($36), fresh camel milk, camel milk soap and just about anything you can imagine from camel. We taste chai made of camel milk. He takes us to his favorite textile stall (I’m still kicking myself for not buying an embroidered wool wrap for $25).

He takes us passed temples, jam-packed with worshippers, to where we can go to a rooftop to look down on the holy lake and the religious rituals underway. We watch as the sun sets, the lights come on and a super moon rises over the Pushkar Lake.

Temple of Brahma, Pushkar Lake, © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pushkar is the only place in the world where Lord Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, one of the Holy Trinity, is worshipped. The Brahma Temple, which officially is dated from the 14th century but is believed to be 2000 years old, is set on the lake, and during the night, lights of changing colors come on. In the distance, on a hilltop, we can make out the Savitri Temple, dedicated to Brahma’s consort, Savitri, but to visit involves an hour long trek uphill.

Rituals at Pushkar Lake © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Around the lake are numerous bathing ghats, where thousands of pilgrims take their holy dip in the sacred waters of Lake Pushkar, as religious chanting and pealing bells resound. We get to peer down on these activities from our perch on the roof, watching people gather around open fires.

We make our way back through the market and the carnival, now lighted up and festive, with five giant ferris wheels looming over the fair. We pass a crowd watching a dancing horse.

When we return to the tented camp, where we have a marvelous dinner (with Sula champagne!).

Dancers, musicians at the Royal Jodhpur Camp © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We comment on how good the papadom is – a seasoned dough made with mung bean flour fried or cooked with dry heat. “In my grandmother’s day, they used to invite women for lunch, sing, everyone came with a rolling pin, they would sing and make the papadom and put it out in the sun to dry,” Durga says.

There is a fireeater, musicians and dancers to entertain us around a bonfire.

I return to the fair the next morning by myself. Durga has arranged for the driver to pick me up at 7 am. As we pull up, I watch as a hot air balloon rises over the fair. (Hot air ballooning is a relatively new adventure activity in India and the desert state of Rajasthan is the most popular place.)

The bustling market at the Pushkar Camel Fair © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get to the fair and just wander around – I am one of a scant few Westerners at this point. It is amazing to me how busy it is even this early in the morning. There are only a few camels left for sale and I watch what looks like the end of a transaction.

Leaving the fair, I see pilgrims arriving in open-back trucks, and in trucks that have been outfitted with bunkbeds.

Durga has told us that it can take 10 days to travel from Agra with the camels, and that we will see people in their camel carts traveling along the highway, as we drive to our next destination, Jaipur. And we do!

Camels being led home along the highway from the Pushkar Camel Fair   © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In Jaipur, we learn more about this regal gentleman and his family, when we visit his boutique guesthouse, Dera Mandawa – his family’s century-old estate which, back in the day, accommodated dignitaries when they visited the Maharajah. The family lost their property and position when India nationalized such estates in the 1949, and families like his were forced to turn their estates and palaces into commercial enterprises or see them torn down. Instead of the path of a warrior as his ancestors would have taken, Durga has been involved in tourism for 35 years. (www.deramandawa.com) 

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

In the last moments of our last game drive, we see not one but two tigers – male and female – at Kanha National Park in central India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ in central India began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?)

It is approaching 5 pm, the final moments of our fifth and final game drive in six days of exploring India’s Pench and Kanha national parks, famous for tiger. So far, though we have seen amazing animals, birds, insects, the ultimate prize of a tiger sighting has eluded us. I have new appreciation for how elusive they are, particularly with the massive amount of forest territory and the fact they tend to be active before 8:30 am, then settle down in the jungle, coming out again in the evening in this season which is approaching winter.

I have also come to suspect they have also figured out the schedule for our safari vehicles which announce our coming with loud rumbling sounds.

The light is fading. This entire drive hastily arranged in Kanha by Royal Expeditions because none of us had spotted the tigers after the four scheduled game drives so far. Nara, our naturalist/guide from Taj Safaris, is laser-focused on finding a tiger for us. We have already gotten to see most of the animals for which these parks are famous – it has been thrilling to see them in such close proximity (I even got a brief sighting of a leopard!). But we have yet to catch even a glimpse of the star attraction: the tiger.

Langur mother and baby monkeys in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have seen and followed tracks left on the sandy road; listened to the “alarms” sent up by the black-faced langur monkeys (that look like wise men) that provide our guide and naturalist the best clues as to the location and movement of the tigers. The scene is quite fantastic, in fact, when one guide gives a scouting report to another, and we all tear off at great speed.

But we have yet to have the luck of being in exactly right place, right time to view.

We only have 2 hours this afternoon, so he races to get to the most likely territory known for tiger – it takes 20 minutes to travel there from the entrance gate even driving so fast, bumping on the rough road and holding on tightly to the railing in the open vehicle, the park is so vast. It is quite a thrill ride.

Kanha National Park is a bird-watchers delight © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Periodically, especially where the trails cross each other, he stops, turns off the engine, and just listens. Sometimes there is just complete (eerie) silence, but soon a fantastic cacophony jungle sounds come into focus. We hear various bird calls, which Nara identifies for us, and we find ourselves searching the trees and the sky, contenting ourselves with shooting photos of fantastic birds.

Nara and the park guide examine prints in the trail – and can tell how long ago they were made, whether a male (more rounded) or a female (more rectangular and pointed).

It is just after the rainy season, so the forest is thick, verdant and cool (actually cold in the morning); but in the intense summer heat and drought, the forest becomes dry and brown and the tigers come out to water holes (some made by the park) more predictably. So while the conditions are generally more pleasant this time of year for viewing, sightings are trickier.

Nara and the park guide who is assigned to us confer. We move on.

If we meet up with another jeep (there aren’t as many in this section of the park), they share intel, sometimes strategizing.

Whenever he stops, Nara explains his strategy for finding the tiger, based on its patterns, which is really insightful.

Other safari goers we chance to meet during our drives- particularly where we stop for breakfast – tell of their luck. A British woman makes us jealous when she shows photos she snapped off a tiny point-and-shoot camera of a mother tiger with her cub, while we are there armed with our superduper DSLRs and 300 and 400 mm lenses, with nothing to show.

Starting the game drive in Kanha National Park as the sun rises © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The best time to see the tiger is either very early – moments after arriving in the park (when I chance to spot a leopard on a ridge), or late in the afternoon. The park doesn’t open before 6 am, so we head out from the lodge by 5:30 am (they send us off with hot coffee and tea and biscuits, plus a blanket and hot water bottle for the safari vehicle), and it can take 40 minutes waiting at the gate in the surprisingly cold air, before we are processed, assigned a guide and a zone in the park, and allowed to enter.

So we race to get to some spot that our naturalist and guide believe has a good likelihood for spotting tiger. Of course, along the way and throughout our tour, we see an amazing array of animals and the guide patiently waits for us to take our shots before moving on, imparting information about the various animals we see. The landscape is really beautiful, and in the morning and afternoon light, dramatic. You never know what you will spot or when, so it is constantly thrilling – you are literally hunting (with a camera).

Barasingha (swamp deer) were endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the first couple of game drives, we all were a lot more casual, so spent a lot of time with the langur monkeys, rhesus monkeys, the jackals, the wild dogs, the wild pigs, the spotted deer and the swamp deer, and the myriad birds, not to mention the insects and trees that prove quite fascinating. But as we realized our window of opportunity for seeing the tiger closing, we were a lot more single-minded in that pursuit, rushing passed scenes of animals we had already seen before.

The naturalist and guide who accompany us are earnest to the point of frantic to succeed for their tourists. “Until people see a tiger, they can’t relax or do other things,” he tells us.

So when they get a hint of a tiger, they race with unbelievable speed, even dashing in reverse (hold on!) despite how crude the road (more of a trail) to get to a spot. Sometimes so many vehicles converge in both directions no one can move (this is particularly the case on a day that school and scout groups have come out by the dozens) – but the driver manages somehow to maneuver with tremendous skill.

This happens repeatedly with no sightings (which is why you will typically organize 3-5 game drives during your visit).

But here we are, at 5 pm, when Nara picks up on the alarm sent up by the langur monkeys. He says a steady alarm means the tiger is moving; intermittent means the tiger has stopped.

It’s our last game drive, hastily arranged by our tour company, Royal Expeditions (no small feat since permits have to be applied for in advance), our last chance. We follow the ‘alarm’ sent up by the monkeys. When their calls are not continuous, Nara can tell that the tiger has stopped moving, and calculates that it is in the middle of the forested area.

Nara has to guess which direction the tiger will move. After about 10 minutes waiting and listening (while we happily shoot photos of birds gathering in trees above us), he picks up again and goes to the last best spot, in the direction of a meadow with tall grass that leads to the water.

Several vehicles are already parked there and in an instant, excitement:

“People lose their minds when they spot a tiger.” The naturalist tells us. The drivers, also.

A female tiger crosses the road just in front of our safari vehicle in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the tiger emerges from the forest and crosses the road, just a few feet from the vehicle ahead of us – but we aren’t in great position to see and I am thinking how ironic this is to finally be where the tiger is, but not to actually see it.

But Nara is not to be thwarted. He maneuvers our vehicle through this enormous crowd, going off the trail into the thicket, to get us into a good position.

Meanwhile, we are holding on in open vehicles, trying to snap shots before the tiger disappears again into the forest growth.

I snap, snap, snap – get a shot (I am thinking it isn’t great, but a shot nonetheless, but actually, afterward I see I got more than a few) –before the tiger disappears into the woods.

Nara moves the vehicle again and lo and behold, the tiger remerges from the wood, now crossing the road directly between our vehicle and another one, to a grassy area on her way to the water. Amazingly, a male tiger emerges and walks after her.

On the last game drive in Kanha National Park, in the last moments as the light fades, a tiger! © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the other vehicles have already headed out because it is literally closing time and the drivers are fined if they are late to the gate. But Nara stays. We get shot after shot as the light fades to dusk. I’m lucky, standing up on the highest perch, to get some shots of both tigers together.

I shoot frantically, not knowing how many moments I will have. I can’t even take the time to check if my setting is right. I’m going on instinct. I fight between needing fast exposure and high ISO to compensate for fading light, the darkness of the woods, and the tigers’ motion, and fear I might actually be overexposing.

Getting the shot of the tiger in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now, we are the only vehicle still remaining. We watch as the female sits in the grass, looking back at the male as he approaches her. It is quite a scene.

Finally, Nara says we have to leave and he tears off at great speed to make it back in time, while we are giddy with our good fortune: We saw not one, but two tigers!

It’s an intense, thrilling feeling. I realize I have barely taken a breath.

The game drives have been fascinating. It is thrilling to not know what you will see, or when. Then momentary, serendipitous flashes.

Seeing the animals in their habitat, all sorts of questions and considerations come to mind.

And the landscapes are just beautiful.

Kanha’s Abundance of Animals

It is remarkable how this short distance away from Pench National Park where we spent the first three days of our “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure,” the ecology changes so much. The Kanha forest (“jungle is the Hindi word for forest) is much thicker, and because of the higher elevation, is much cooler. The Kanha National Park spans nearly 2000 sq km (only one-fifth open to tourists), and currently has an estimated 49 tigers.

Setting out in safari vehicle through the jungle of Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Instead of a teak forest like Pench, this forest is mainly sal – a wood that was used for railroad ties; three kinds of bamboo (bamboo gets flowers only once in its life, then dies), the saga tree (the tree, with bark that looks like crocodile hide, is worshiped by the people who harvest water from it to drink when necessary); and the Mahua tree (the flowers are made into a liquor which is a big money-maker for locals. “People only collect the flowers that have fallen from the tree, which drop after midnight, to make liquor. If animals eat the flowers, they also get drunk – that’s why you might see a drunk monkey.”

The first evening at the Kanha Earth Lodge, where we stay during our time here, there is a slide presentation by the naturalist about the animals in the park”

The male spotted deer (chital) has antlers to attract a female. “He will put grass into the antler to look more handsome.” (I actually saw one which had managed to find some blue plastic string for decoration).

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This park also has sambar (Asia’s largest deer, it depends on its sense of smell, but will foolishly go right up to a tiger to smell it); the Indian Muntjac (barking deer), which is only found in a bamboo forest. We even get to see all of these, including the Barasingha (swamp deer) which was endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left (it only gives birth to one baby a year, but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating).

There are also wild pig; gaur (like a big bull with horns), jackal (they can get drunk eating the Mahua flowers; dhole (wild dogs; only the alpha male and alpha female are allowed to mate); sloth bear.

There are more leopards than tigers, and unlike the tigers, are not endangered.

Leopards are sly, he tells us – they eat dogs, goats on periphery (that is, in the villages). They can climb trees so have more food options (monkeys) and hunt at night (which is why they are harder to spot during the day). “They call the leopard the ‘Ghost of the Jungle’ because one minute you see it and the next, disappears.”

Meanwhile tigers are more discriminating about mating – the male can mate with three females (depending upon food) and if the female he wants to mate with has cubs, he will kill the cubs in order to mate with her.

Sunlight filters through the branches in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are up before dawn for our first game drive in Kanha, which is supposed to be our last (we’ve had three in Pench National Park so far).  It is quite an experience to be at the park as the sun rises, and we head out on these dusty dirt roads with the red sun in our face, mist on the meadow, and later, as the sun filters through the trees.

We are so earnest to spot tiger, we tell our naturalist/guide not to bother with the breakfast gathering, but that we want to spend as much time as possible in our hunt to see the tiger.

He thinks there is a sighting and speeds off, frantically. There are five jeeps doing the same thing, one driving backwards at a furious pace.

Then we all stop still. Listen. A hand signal, and we all take off again.

A young cub crossed road, the guide announces. We missed it.

We hear an “alarm” from the langur monkeys and speed off again, bouncing, rocking,

No tiger. But we content ourselves with a sighting of White throated kingfisher  and a gathering of hard ground swamp deer found only in Kanha – a female and one young male (with just the beginning of antlers) and two babies (as adults, the males stay separate from the females).

Munna  ©2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we leave the park, we actually meet Munna, the park guide for whom the park’s famous tiger was named. “Munna” means “small child” and the fellow never liked the name very much. He had a limp, and the tiger was injured and had a limp, so they named the tiger “Munna” also. “After a tiger was named after him, he didn’t mind his name.”

On our way driving back up the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge, I spot the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo – the bird I have been dying to photograph – and our guide pulls over. We become engaged in chasing after this bird, then another, then a staggering array of birds: a scarlet minuet (male), a black-hooded Oriole, a Lesser Golden-backed woodpecker – more birds in this small area than you might see in an aviary. He tells us it is a hunting flock.

While seeing leopards or tigers might be the brass ring, just being on this carousel is sheer delight – the number and variety of animals we see at close range, the birds, even the insects are fascinating.

Drongo © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Kanha National Park Kanha, one of the first tiger reserves established by India under Project Tiger (1973), is also one of India’s largest National Parks, encompassing nearly 2,000 sq. km of deciduous forest, grasslands, hills and gently meandering rivers and home to literally hundreds of species of animals and birds. Prior to this, the whole area was one enormous regal hunting ground, its game the exclusive preserve for high-ranking British army officers and civil servants seeking trophies for their colonial bungalows.  One vast plain where we see a herd of deer used to be a village of 500 people, who were relocated when they created the park.

Deer, Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This picturesque reserve presently boasts of having large tiger population, as it has the ideal habitat. The meadows (called maidans) are surrounded by thick forests that create ideal grazing spots for the hundreds of chital deer, barasingha and sambar deer, which means they are ideal hunting ground for tigers, leopards, jackal and wild dogs (all of which we get to see). Kanha offers the last remaining habitat of the hard ground barasingha (swamp deer), which was brought back from the brink of extinction (which we get to see). During our visit, we also get to see many of the other animals that live here: wild pig, Rhesus Macaque, Langur monkey (my favorite). I think I even got a glimpse of a gaur (Indian Bison) before it retreated into the woods.

Other animals that are here but we don’t get to see include sloth bear, striped hyena, muntjacs (barking deer), chousingha (four-horn antelope), jungle cat and mongoose.

This diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species. The Indian jungle fowl, which is the ancestor of domestic hens, is common here.

Crested Hawk Eagle © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For bird watchers and photographers, Kanha’s diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species, a mind-boggling number we actually get to see during our brief time: Green Footed Pigeon, Pygmy Woodpecker and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher. Little Minivet, Scarlet Minivet and Long Tailed Minivet can be seen at Parsa Toala grasslands. Resident common raptors as the Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Crested Honey Buzzard, White Eyed Buzzard, Shikra and Common Kestrel can be sighted hunting and nesting in tall trees.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances our safari experience. It is also an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each night, offers fascinating presentations by a naturalist about the wildlife and the national park, while serving appetizers.

The dining room reminds me of a castle, actually, with the stone and wood, vaulted ceiling, candelabra and local artwork.

Dinner by firelight at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One evening, dinner is served outside in a garden by firelight. The food –and presentation – is superb.

The service is impeccable, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage. The lodge supplies coffee and tea and bottled water in the rooms. When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets and even hot water bottles for us in the jeeps.

The room is actually an entire villa, with massive living spaces and has its own patio that faces out to the forest.

In the evening, with the turn-down service, they provide a hot water bottle, and we are told that our rooms are inspected for possible intruders which might have hidden away in dark places.

The lodge is located away from a very busy tourist area – you feel you are in the national park – but very close to villages and farms, so you feel very much a part of the local culture. At night, we hear drumming of a festival.

Kanha Earth Lodge is located among villages and farms that surround the national park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Both ecolodges (only operated October to June) that we enjoyed are part of Pugdundee Safaris (www.pugdundeesafaris.com), which operates six ecolodges (Kings Lodge and Tree House Hideaway in Bandhavagarh; Denwa Backwater Escape in Satpura; Ken River Lodge, Panna; as well as Barahi Jungle Lodge in Chitwan, Nepal) as well as wildlife safaris, which means a kind of seamless quality.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Next: The Pushkar Camel Fair

 

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