Tigers, ancient temples and haunted forts: the little-known treasures of Sariska

Even if you don't spot any of the rare felines, there's still plenty to do and see in this corner of Rajasthan

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The jungle’s intoxicating scents, paired with piping hot adrak chai. Safaris, treks and historical ruins. And a heartbreaking farewell to a place that will remain etched in my memory. A recent trip to Sariska, in the lap of the Aravalli, the second oldest mountain range in the world, in India’s Rajasthan, offered all this and more.

It’s a place where vibrant outfits are accentuated by nature’s varied shades; prestige is touted through a multitude of turbans, yards of tie-dye and the size of a man's moustache; and animals and trees are granted reverence.

Complementing the eclectic mood was the warmth and hospitality at Sariska Manor — a luxury jungle lodge with abundant open spaces that provided the backdrop for a weekend seeped in calm and serenity.

In keeping with its pristine surroundings, Sariska Manor is firmly rooted in sustainability. Designed as a colonial-era British-inspired hunting lodge, the resort has installed a rainwater harvesting system and modern equipment to recycle used water and replenish its soil. Orchards brim with citrus fruit and Indian gooseberries, and a pond developed around a natural spring attracts numerous bird species.

Even an amateur birdwatcher such as myself spots kingfishers, asian bee-eaters and little ringed plovers, as well as hundreds of peacocks and peafowls, from the comfort of my room. Sariska has been designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International and is home to more than 200 varieties.

Leopards have also been spotted resting on boulders and rocks around the resort. As a result, loud music, littering and squandering natural resources are big no-nos at Sariska Manor — a conscious decision to help support the area’s thriving wildlife, as the property sits on the fringes of a core part of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, adjoining the Tehla gate.

Although the Thar desert occupies a sizeable area of south-western and western Rajasthan, the rest of the region is verdant, and home to three tiger reserves — Ranthambore National Park, Sariska Tiger Reserve and Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary. A fourth is being carved out of the Ramgarh Vishdhari Sanctuary.

“There are 102 tigers in the three reserves. And Ranthambore tops the list,” says Mahes Gurung, manager of Sariska Manor and a naturalist with more than a decade of experience, as we embark on a tiger safari. “Sariska now has 23 tigers in total.”

“There were none in the year 2004,” adds Sunita Panwar, the resort's owner, who goes on to tell me about a series of unfortunate events associated with a notorious poacher named Sansar Chand.

Chand went on a killing spree in Sariska in the early 2000s, turning the reserve into a graveyard. Sariska became the first reserve in India to lose all its tigers to poaching and human-animal conflict, an event that has been named the “Sariska Shock”. Chand was jailed in 2005, and the authorities accepted responsibility for their own negligence.

Today, Sariska is again home to a respectable number of the striped felines, thanks to conservation initiatives such as Project Tiger, which helped with the translocation of big cats from Ranthambore to Sariska.

As we drive along marked trails during our safari, Gurung and Panwar share anecdotes about their own sightings, encounters with Yuvraj, one of Sariska’s resident tigers, and folkloric tales about the area, all while watching out for fresh marks. While I soak in their stories and the scent of the jungle, my eyes dart continuously in all directions, but our journey yields no sightings.

As a silver lining, we watch spotted deers known as chitals, langurs, wild boars and birds having animated discussions near a waterhole. Breathtaking views of rugged cliffs and bountiful streams are an added bonus.

But Sariska isn’t just about wildlife. Steeped in history dating back to the Mahabharata period, it is also the site of historical ruins, temples and forts.

The Pandavas, the five acknowledged sons of Pandu who are central to the epic of Mahabharata, are said to have found sanctuary here during their last year of exile. Associated with this legend is Pandupol, a temple dedicated to the demi-god Hanuman, who is said to have defeated Bhima, the strongest of the Pandava brothers, on this spot. Pandupol translates from Sanskrit to mean “gateway of the Pandavas”, and on auspicious days is thronged by villagers from in and around Sariska.

To the west of the Sariska National Park lies Mangalsar dam, a paradise for birdwatchers, and the 7th-century Neelkanth Mahadev temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The ruins of about 200 Hindu and Jain temples, complete with fascinating sculptures, lie further up a hilltop.

A trip to Sariska remains incomplete without a visit to the medieval Bhangarh fort, situated in the south of the reserve. Although beautifully built out of a mountain under the rule of Maharaja Man Singh I, it is now an eerie sight with its dilapidated palace floors and marketplace ruins. This, perhaps, is why it is considered the most haunted fort in India.

With its breathtaking vistas, forts engulfed in history and mystery, and growing population of rare wildlife, Sariska turns out to be an ideal non-Himalayan Indian getaway during these turbulent times.

Updated: April 17, 2022, 7:22 AM