Guffawing, even as he stuffs spicy onion tomato chutney in a chunk of bajre ki roti, my host is regaling us with nuggets of countryside stories. “I had gathered my herd and was turning towards the village when in the twilight I see a buffalo enjoying a laid-back munch in the bushes,” he says, recounting one such anecdote. “I land a blow of my bamboo shaft on its back. Out springs a shocked tiger. We are both equally shocked, and I’m also thankful to see it leaping away into the darkness.”
We are sitting inside a snug mud kitchen at Madhogarh village inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve’s buffer zone in Rajasthan. His pregnant sister-in-law is tending to a raging chulha in the corner, keeping up a steady supply of freshly baked millet bread as the rest of the household, and its few guests, enjoy the simple yet delicious meal. Vast stretches of farms surround us all around. From a distance, we are a speck of dull yellow in a world engulfed by the mysteries of the night. Though in Sariska one can’t harbour fear. Someone from the family will soon pack away and spend the night alone at the farm, keeping a watch for wild boars and porcupines who love to trample on onion yields.
It is a peaceful world. We left motorable roads far behind and bumped along a mud trail arriving around 6 p.m. when the temple was ringing with the sounds of the evening aarti and twinkling with oil lamps. Later around 8 p.m., it’s time for conversations to keep the night abuzz. We take turns charging our devices at the single electricity port in the house but have no signal. By 10 p.m., we are all tucked into quilt-layered jute cots.
Next morning begins with a round of chanch (buttermilk) followed by a heavy meal of bajre ki roti and curd curry followed by more chanch. We are soon out to explore the forest trails laden green with the misty shade of Salai Guggul, Indian Ash Tree, acacia, among many other varieties. The Indian Jujube drooping with ripe fruits (the sweet and tangy ber) keeps us company on most trails, and we make it a point to sample the produce of each tree we find.
The trees often reveal ashrams peaking in the distance, the residence of a lone sadhu ready to strike up a hearty conversation with amblers over cups of tea. One such hermitage is the Pandupol Hanuman Ji Mandir which has gained a steady footfall of devotees over the years. The hike to the temple leads us past a shrubby and thorny trail to rockier terrain. Bending past a sudden steep fall to translucent green waters, our ascend continues. We dodge our way past an entourage of grey langurs that have bullied innocent devotees into depositing the prasad before they reach the Hanuman temple. They don’t care for us passing by hurriedly and remain busy with a meal of dry roasted chickpeas and mimosa sugar balls.
The walk to the temple has me starving, and I decide to find lunch before moving on. However, I am lucky and invited to join in on a meal of puri, spicy and watery potato curry and ghee-drenched halwa–a feast open to all who walk into the temple. It is not a daily affair but a frequent one.
Shedding away food-coma, our adventures lead us to a nondescript trail in Kishanpur that deposits us at the banks of the Siliserh Lake. It’s already night by the time we reach, and our excitement for the unhindered views and countless stars doesn’t prepare us for the breathtaking surprise the morning will bring along. Built in 1845 by Maharaja Vinay Singh, the Siliserh Lake is a water reservoir, teeming with crocodiles, spread out across seven sq. km. We set our camp at a safe distance from the water and emerge early the next morning to the pristine blue lake shimmering in the sunlight.
A dainty fishing boat drifts away in the distance. Two men fling their net in anticipation of a fresh catch. Across the bank, catching the day’s first sunlight stands the Siliserh lake palace. Built for and named after Vinay Singh’s wife Shila, it once served as a hunting lodge and has since been converted to a government-run resort.
We spend the morning identifying migratory birds that swoop into a distant farm, all but ignoring the red sweater-clad scarecrow. I find myself thoroughly limited with a 50mm lens trying to capture cormorants, open billed storks, black ibis, Eurasia spoonbills, babblers and many more.
Eventually, the sun gets strong enough for us to wrap up our tents, pack away all our plastic waste and make our way to explore the mysteries of the past at Dhadikar. The folds of Aravalli that separates the grandeur of Siliserh from Alwar city is home to ancient caves that tell the tales of prehistoric humans from as early as the Mesolithic period. A trail through the farms surrounding Dhadikar leads the unsuspecting traveller to the foothills of an ancient igneous rock site, massive boulders stacked over each other in a careless tumble. Clambering up, we discover rock shelters marked with monochromatic paintings in ochre and sometimes in white. Hunting scenes, pregnant women, what looks like a blazing sun, and many undecipherable stories etched on weathered walls, transferring primitive knowledge across millennia.
The Dhadikar caves stand in a state of neglect, braving the sun, wind and rain without protection. They are among many similar sites spread across the Aravalli Range, which remain forgotten and consumed by stone quarries or cement factories.
Roughly 125 km from Jaipur, follow the Jaipur-Alwar highway to reach Sariska Tiger Reserve (under 4 hours). Siliserh Lake is roughly 30 km from Madhogarh village. The ancient caves at Dhadikar are also about 30 km away from Siliserh lake.