Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India is a melding of hues, tones and associations.
Amber, beige, puce, khaki, alabaster, butterscotch, camel, chamois, celadon green. Cinnamon, cloves and cocoa. Copper and cordovan. Splashes of apricot and bittersweet. Chartreuse and maize.
The greens are mostly faded, dusty, subtle.
Tiger sightings are a game of chance. There are ten zones – tiger territories – each fiercely guarded by its resident tiger/s who mark and delineate their property with urine, secretions and scratches on tree trunks, bushes and rocks.
Tigers per zone are few, not more than a couple or more adults (at most) and their cubs. Sometimes just a mother and her babies. Sultan, Noor, Ustaad, Krishna, Machli, Romeo, Bhola and Mr. Bond. Ladli, Fateh and T-13. Each known, named and identifiable by its unique paw print.
And you fix masks across your face to keep out the dust, don eye-wear to protect your eyes, button windcheaters, arrange shawls and snuggle into blankets as the jeeps hurtle down rutted tracks and trails. Guides hang down the side of the vehicle, keenly examining the dusty tracks for spoor.
Chances are that you will not see a tiger. What are the odds of seeing one in an area that can go up to 100 square kilometers – a space that is uniquely and solely that particular tiger’s territory ?
But there is a man in Ranthambore who has made it his life’s mission to document these magnificent cats with his camera and his unique style of painting.
Wildlife artist and photographer M.D. Parashar is world renowned for his work with lampblack – or soot – which is his uniquely developed style of painting (given limited to no access to sophisticated art supplies in the area). He collects domestic soot into a little heap in a bit of paper or plastic, crumples newspaper to form a nib and with this, creates impossibly life-like black and white paintings of the Ranthambore tiger.
His stunning artistic virtuosity has reached even the White House where one of his lampblack renderings grace a wall.
Back to Ranthambore.
Once the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur, and dating back to the 10th century, the Park today is about 400 square kilometers of plains and steep crags cradled within the Vindhya Plateau and the Aravalli Hills – between north and central India. The landscape is rocky, undulating and steep with impregnable dry and deciduous forests, sweeping bushland, lakes, rivers and the remains of crumbling forts, ruined pavilions, wells, walls and battlements.
Wildlife abounds -leopard, hyena, sambar deer, chital (spotted deer), nilgai (Asian antelopes), langur, macaque, jackal, jungle cat and caracal. There are sloth bears, black bucks, rufous-tailed hares, wild boars, chinkara (gazelle), common yellow bats and palm squirrels; false vampires, foxes and flying foxes, gerbils and mole rats, porcupines, long-eared hedgehogs, ratels (honey badgers), mongoose and civets. And marsh crocodiles, monitor lizards, various snakes (vipers, pythons, kraits, cobras). And 272 documented species of resident and migrant birds.
Yet you seek the tiger.
The mission, the safari, the pursuit is all tiger. The first day we – ostensibly – saw the ear of a tiger as it lay among the grasses at the edge of the river and I will accept this as gospel. But the second day we did spot the spoor, race and judder over rocks, stones and branches, clutching the mask to our faces while clutching the sides of the jeep as we were thrown around in the speed and urgency of spotting the tiger before it disappeared. And we did.
Before it got into a tug-of-war with a pair of sloth bears. A few moments of raw jungle life, living by one’s wits, two against one. The tiger walked away and we were too wonderstruck to photograph it.
But there are always Mr Parashar’s pictures (or paintings) that capture the majesty and the moment. And here are some.
Pictures of the tigers from Mr Parasher’s FB page, with thanks.
All other pictures, including the cat walking away, by PP Thomas and AA Thomas.