Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Massive Stepwell of Abhaneri

Chand Baori Stepwell, Abhaneri Village, Rajasthan

The stepwell is a peculiar architectural phenomenon, which is unique to the Indian Subcontinent, where the hot and dry climate creates a need for shaded water reservoirs - especially in the and around the desert landscape of Northwest India.

So far, the deepest, biggest and most amazing stepwell I have seen is 9th century "Chand Baori" located in the small village of Abhaneri a few kilometres of the Jaipur-Agra highway. It is absolutely massive and I think the picture above really doesn't convey the full scale of it.  We stopped there on the way back from Ranthambore to Gurgaon and that was definitely a good call.

Many stepwells feature simple designs as they are basically just - as the name suggest - a series of steps leading down to a water source. But a few of them are much more elaborate than this suggesting that apart from the practicalities of providing water they also played a ceremonial and recreational role within the local community. This particular stepwell at Abhaneri has a small palatial complex built into its design, making it one of the more impressive archaeological sights in India.

Until recently Chand Baori could not even be found in guide books, but these days it has started appearing on the tourist radar, although still not attracting anything near the throngs of tourists the masses you see in nearby Agra and Jaipur. This is however, bound to be just a matter of time, since the stepwell is ideally located as a road stop when travelling in India's Golden Triangle. It won't be long before the visitors roll in by the bus load.

Abhaneri is also home to a few stone temple ruins, including some with erotic motifs, which is not something you see that often in these parts.

Chand Baori is undergoing restauration efforts - probably in
expectation it's coming increased importance on the tourist circuit

My travel companions inside one of the palatial pavilions facing onto the well

One of the nearby temples, which is being painstakingly restored from scattered piles of of old rubble, stones and sculptures

One of the erotically themed reliefs. I believe these were quite common in India in the old days, but few survived the more prudish invaders that overran India over the years. Perhaps this one survived by being already ruined at that time?

A little further down the road to Delhi: A colourful assembly

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ranthambore Birds

A pair of Spotted Owlets, Ranthambore

As with any trip to a national park, part of the fun in Ranthambore (at least for a nature lover/geek like me) is to see how many different species of birds you can spot or even capture on camera.

On this trip we had lots of good sightings including a couple of species I haven't seen before. This post has a small selection of some of the best sightings/pictures.

Juvenile Crested Serpent Eagle in the canyon through which you enter Ranthambore

Grey Francolin

Male Bluethroat

Male Plum-Headed Parakeet

Grey Heron

A handsome male White-Naped Woodpecker

Nearby we found his companion: Female White-Naped Woodpecker

Black-Tailed Godwit

Rufous Treepie - a very bold bird which will eat from tourists' hands

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Queen's Subjects and her Realm

Crocodile, Ranthambore National Park. The lakes of Ranthambore are filled with crocs

Ranthambore attracts throngs of visitors each year, all hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the world's few remaining tigers living in the wild. And this is understandable for it is a truly electrifying event to see the regal creature up close in its natural habitat. I wrote in my last post about our amazing meeting with the Queen of the Lakes.

That being said, there is more to Ranthambore than it's royalty - the tigers rule a beautiful realm with many other amazing creatures as their subjects. They are of course not benevolent rulers as most of the non-flying inhabitants of the park live in fear of the tigers. But whereas we rightly deplore such systems of governance in human society, there is drama, beauty and poetry to be found in the ever-intense battle for survival, which in Ranthambore unfolds itself for the very eyes of the tourists on a daily basis.

Ranthambore is a beautiful park entered through a dramatic narrow gorge, which helps in giving a total sense of isolation from the nearby human settlements in and around the town of Sawai Madhopur. The park is dominated cliffs, lakes and adjacent meadows and finally a dry bush-like forest. The narrow gorge which today acts as a fairy tale entry gate to the park once served as an easily defended road to the mighty Ranthambore fort. The area was densely populated by humans, resulting in historical fort and palace ruins being dotted around the park, furthering the sense of regal grandeur and mystique, which can be found in the air here.

I hope the pictures in this post manage to convey a sense of the atmosphere of the park and why I consider it to be one of the greatest attractions that India has to offer. The only real drawback are the crowds of tourists, but it's no wonder that other people have discovered the attraction of roaring Ranthambore.

The dusty road out of the park - past a grand lake and Ranthambore fort at its spectacular hilltop location

Sambar dear enjoying the shallow waters in front of the ruins of an abandoned palace

Sambar mother with her baby

The golden glow of the late afternoon sun lighting up the colourful leaves of the trees of one of Ranthambore's many dirt roads

Langurs blending in perfectly with the surroundings

In several places you pass under defensive gates of old ramparts in the process of being eaten by the jungle

An old Maharaja's hunting pavillion (possibly used as late as 1970 when the last royal hunt took place here)

Chinkara, also known as Indian gazelle

View of Ranthambore from the ramparts of the massive fort in the middle of the park

Massive Structure inside Ranthambore Fort. Allegedly this is where the Princesses' swimming pool was

Cliffs of Ranthambore's canyons

Emily, James - two of my co-travellers - and myself descending a slope to get a closer view of a couple of crocodiles (Photo: Lone Aagaard Østerbøg)

Our little group visiting Ranthambore together. From the left: Myself, Joanne, Lone, Emily and James

Saturday, 7 May 2011

An Audience with the Queen in Ranthambore

Tigress T17 looking straight at me as she walks towards our canter in Ranthambore

In February 2010 I went with a group of friends to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan and we were lucky enough to have an audience with the local Queen. Not a human queen of course, but a tigress known locally as the Queen of the Lakes or to the local park rangers and conservationists as T-17.

I visited Ranthambore once earlier in 2005 and at the end of our fourth and very last safari we saw two cubs and finally their mother: legendary tigress Machli who become world famous and was the first pronounced Queen of the Lakes.

As it so happens T-17 is the daughter of Machli and younger sister to the two cubs we saw in 2005. At some point she deposed her mother and took over her territory, making her the new Queen.

Natural born killer stalking her prey - less than an hour after this picture her hunt would prove succesful

My best close-up of the tigress. A truly royal creature.

Although we were not the first canter to spot T-17, we had an excellent guide and driver who managed to navigate the traffic and get us close to the tiger for three separate sightings as we followed her across the park stalking deer. As you can see in the pictures T17 is wearing a collar tracker, but this is only used for scientific and protective purposes. She is in every sense a completely wild animal, and the collar is not used by the tourist guides to track her. So managing to get so close to a wild tiger was a truly majestic experience, just as it was back in 2005. This time we only saw one tiger, but we got much closer and had much more time with her, so overall it may still have been a better sighting.

The tiger - being used to the crowds - takes hardly any notice of the crowds as she lies on the road silently observing a herd of deer not far away.
Our audience with the queen ended in with a bang: As we were parked on the lakeside we could hear T17 catching a sambar deer on the other side of the lake. She had not made a kill for a several days earlier so this was an important catch for her. According to the guide this was her first kill in several days, so she must have been very hungry.

Ranthambore is a fantastic park for watching tigers in the wild, although you should hurry up and go - there is talk of shutting down all tourist visits to the park. However, the park has more things to offer than just tigers. Apart from many other animal and bird species it is also home to some fantastic scenery and interesting ruins. I will return to these things in my next few posts.

Nervous deer drinking water by a lake deep inside T-17's territory
Myself and T17 (Picture by: Lone Aagaard Østerbøg)