For Jawai’s Sweetest Spots, Go Beyond Leopard Sightings

Bijapur Lodge, Jawai’s latest hospitality offering, goes beyond leopards, with hideaway lunches, lakeside moonrises, birding excursions and more.

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Morning safaris into the outcrops of Jawai usually conclude in calming birding sessions at the Jawai Bandh. Photo by: Prannay Pathak

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Perched on the top of a safari jeep hurtling away towards the sunlight-swaddled horizon, I feel oddly buoyant despite my body as a grave of the mustard flies gaining one ignominious century per passing second. These kamikaze devils that crash on every part of my body like artillery fire are my true welcome into Jawai, Rajasthan’s burnished leopard country.

Namesake of the Karnataka city famous for its wealth of medieval architecture, Bijapur in Pali, Rajasthan, is in search of its own share of fame. A rustic settlement with a buzzing town square, it is populated mostly by Rabari shepherds and Garasiya tribals. One of the villages skirting the scenic Jawai Bandh, which together make up the region unofficially known as Jawai, Bijapur and around have seen a steady mushrooming of safari lodges and resorts catering to big cat-loving wildlife tourists.

At Bijapur Lodge, which I am visiting at the bright winter end in these parts, the experience is crafted both around the region’s abundant cave-dwelling leopards that thrive in harmony with humans, and away from the blinkered touristy approach that local legend can sometimes encourage. My hosts at the property, G Vishnu Vardhan and Devendra Shekhawat, are both passionate birders, well-connected with the local community, and committed to bringing Jawai out of the shadow of Udaipur and Jodhpur, its illustrious neighbours. A few days at the luxurious and laidback lodge shine the light on the broad spectrum of experiences the region has to offer.

 

Also Read | Spotting Leopards in Jawai

 

Built with reused materials in a clean and classy design, the six suites huddle around a spacious courtyard. Photo by: Prannay Pathak

 

Immersion into Rabari culture

Within an hour of arriving and checking in to my comfortable suite, I’m on the road again, driving through a rocky expanse speckled with green euphorbia caducifolia and pre-spring flame-of-the-forest. Soon enough, I find myself in a baked-mud courtyard, surrounded by old Rabari gentlemen donning bright red turbans and skittish goats vying for a go at my metal zipper running along my pocket. The men are giving these animals their summer haircut, and the ritual has caused excitement among the latter. 

“Of shepherds and leopards”, is how Jawai is often described in campaigns. These goats form the delicate link between the Rabaris and leopards: for a century and a half, no human has been harmed by a leopard in Jawai. This harmonious state of affairs has been dependent to a large extent on the sacrifices the shepherd community has made of their livestock, relinquishing them in return for government compensation, but largely the unspoken assurance that gods continue to watch over them.

Before long, we shift close to the buffaloes, where Hatna Ram, whose home we are in, joins us. He is bearing bowlfuls of hearty raab—a filling, nutritious traditional drink made with local staples chaach and bajra—that is redolent of the village dusk hour, of the goodness of simple meals cooked over dung cakes. Hatnaji is a core member of the lodge staff, which is how regional treats they do at the property are able to go so close to the textures and flavours of the heartland. The surrounding forest is also strewn with aak, a wasteland weed whose leaves are used to prepare paniya baati—a baked bread made by encasing flattened maize cakes inside these leaves—the centrepiece of the regional dinners that Bijapur Lodge organises under the stars.

 

Leopard Spotting at Dawn

On my first morning safari, we’re headed for Bera, one of the more commonly visited villages for leopard sightings. Jawai is known for its cave temples, and Bera is home to the iconic Devgiri temple where the ’pards routinely pay visits. 

As we pull into the somnolent village square, our guide, Pradeep, skilfully throws the torch beam over a rusty spotted cat darting out of view. We cut into the adjacent forest, driving through thorny kikar whose bristly arms force me to duck and bend sideways in order to avoid nasty scrapes. The flashlight, frantically pointed from one direction to the other, regularly catches hares and nilgai stealing away from the attention. We are told this is an oran, or a sacred grove believed to be protected by a local deity. Rajasthan has thousands of these bushland zones where a wide variety of biodiversity thrives. 

Soon, the static from the walkie-talkie returns to rouse the groggy night: Neelam, a leopardess who recently birthed, is resting at the Mines. This is a stone quarry where recesses in granite blocks carved from the face of the hill and piled together have been reclaimed by wildlife. As we wait here, Neelam’s absence hangs heavy in the surroundings, apparent in the dismay of telephoto lens-toting men.

 

Rabari herdsmen in the middle of a shearing session at the end of winter. Raab, the hearty yoghurt-based drink of these parts. Photos by: Prannay Pathak

 

Off-Roading and Bouldering

In Jawai, the be-all and end-all of these gut-busting safari drives doesn’t feel like merely spotting its leopards. Aided by trackers and guides communicating over walkie-talkies, you also undertake the unofficial adventure sport that is dune bashing in form and bouldering in spirit. Chintu Bana, our safari guide, is a master of the open-top gypsy, executing steep drops and hair-raising hoists with the nonchalance of Eric Clapton belting out Layla. Once you’re out into the patchwork fields of mustard, the tangerine sun slips behind the craggy peaks, and you climb up an otherworldly cliff from where you made the one-sided acquaintance of a blue-eyed leopard cub not too long ago, for a round of sandwiches and tea.

 

Lakeside Moonrises

The Bijapur Lodge team has discovered another dimension to the lakeside sunset—the lakeside moonrise. One of our sundowners is at another local reservoir, where a sublime sunset saturates the sky with a chromatic brilliance. We jump right back into the jeeps, drive around on an artificial ridge hemming the lake in, and access a little cape reaching into the centre. A few minutes pass in complete darkness, after which a blood moon ascends the sky, scattering its lunar radiance over the water. Not long after, I gaze up and meet the sky’s cerulean countenance lit up by hundreds of visible and hundreds of invisible stars. 

 

Secret Picnics and Hideaway Lunches

At Bijapur Lodge, the roster of experiences never feels monotonous. For instance, visitors might not always witness sheep-shearing, but trust Vishnu to don the chef’s apron and rustle up crisp dosas for the guests on the day of departure. Or one could be lured out of bed at eight and driven off to see a giant banyan tree in the middle of a forest, like I am, on one of the mornings. Langurs loiter around this centuries-old arbour’s million matted branches and an abandoned forest rest house sleeps peacefully across the narrow path. Then there’s the secret spot, about an hour’s drive away from the lodge, where we are taken for a leisurely lunch. Trudge into a ravine, and come upon an almost-tropical clearing, with a bayou hidden by the lush palm canopy—a veritable oasis in the middle of nowhere.

 

Clockwise from top left: Colours of Jawai—a kingfisher; a Eurasian owl; spiny euphorbia caducifolia speckle the landscape. Photos: courtesy Bijapur Lodge; Prannay Pathak (vegetation)

 

Birding Bonanza

Most excursions around Bijapur quickly turn into engaging open-air symposiums by Devendra. His subjects include leopards, local flora and the resident Rabari and tribal communities, but the sweet lives of birds is his true enjoyment. The shrikes that I see on that branch impale their prey on thorns. The weaver bird wouldn’t say yes to an alliance with the male unless he builds an abode perfect for matrimony. Try laughing it off once you’ve seen half a dozen baya nests on the same branch.

At the Jawai dam, he picks out demoiselle cranes, stilts and pied kingfishers with a practised ease. It’s incredible to witness the hovering hunter fishing for his breakfast in the dam with relentlessness. Near a place called Daberi, a seasonal pond forms a temporary habitat for an impressive variety of birdlife, from sandpipers and ruddy shelducks to grey herons and darters. In fact, one needn’t even go too far—the Bijapur Talab, which is a walk away from the lodge, is an effective teaser of what this region offers.

 

Also Read | 19 Urban Staycations Within India’s City Limits

 

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Essentials

Bijapur Lodge offers six spacious suites in a resort in Rajasthan’s Pali district. The nearest railhead is Jawai Bandh Railway Station (17km/40 minutes) and the closest railway station is Maharana Pratap Airport in Udaipur (135km/3.5 hours).

(bijapurlodge.com).

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  • Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.

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The warm ambiance of earthen diyas, extravagant firecrackers, mouth-watering sweets, and the sense of positivity or spirituality during the Diwali festival spread the waves of fun and joy. People all across the country celebrate this festival in different ways, from urban cities to rural alleys, all get lightened up with colourful lights.

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