Ranthambore National Forest and Tiger Reserve is a stunningly beautiful place that spreads over 450 sq. km. Writers like Jim Corbett and Rudyard Kipling have painted vivid portraits of Indian jungles for readers in the English speaking world. On a recent visit to Ranthambore, sitting in an open jeep, slowly winding its way along rutted jungle trails, tales of Mowgli, Bagheera and Balu the bear seemed to come alive. She expected to see a barefoot boy in a loin cloth peering out from among the tall grasses. Instead, she came face to face with …Shere Khan.
The moment was so unexpected, so pure, so anti-climactic that there seemed to be magic in the air. Noor is also known to the park rangers as Mala, a name that means ‘necklace‘ for the decorative, beadlike stripes on her flank. She had apparently just fed at dawn, the remains of the kill lay somewhere in the grasses nearby, her belly was full, and she was tired and too sleepy to investigate the little open jeep with three occupants parked at a respectful distance.
These magnificent animals are under threat from us humans. Ironically, one way to save them might be to bring more humans to visit them in their natural surroundings, just like the passenger in the jeep who watched her in awed silence for nearly two hours. For every tourist who comes to see them here, there are perhaps two or three locals who earn a livelihood, people who have been displaced from their own natural habitat in the jungle, displaced by the need to preserve wildlife. The villagers who used to live in Ranthambore forest were relocated when the tiger reserve was set up. These displaced people had to carve out a new existence in small settlements surrounding the jungle that was once their home.
We met one of the displaced people, a Rajput by the name of Dharamveer. He was proud of his forbears who had built forts and castles in these hills and jungles, and today he was one of the lucky ones; someone who had done well by doing good. When he was displaced from the forest, Dharamveer had trained as a tiger painter, painting iconic portraits of Shere Khan with the finest of strokes using delicate brushes that were a mere three or four hairs thick. This fine work gave the tigers in the paintings a lustrous lifelike glow that seemed to move as they caught the light. Buoyed by this success, he assisted widowed women to retrain in other handicrafts and has created a thriving business selling their work.
We visited his store after the safari and were welcomed by the artisans who proudly showed us their wares. There was exuberant patchwork art, as well as many other fabrics, woven on rural handlooms, carvings, tribal paintings and animal protraits. As usual, there was more than one person could buy, but an American friend is exploring the market for these attractive products outside India. More on that will follow in a later posting.
For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.