It was late afternoon, and the summer sun blazed over Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve, the dry heat driving the park’s animals towards a waterhole just 50 feet from us. Rakesh Panwar, our guide, was confident that a tiger would emerge soon. In the parched summer season the land had a fierce rugged beauty, clad in shades of yellow and grey, a mix of thorn, scrub, and dry deciduous forests, and some clusters of bamboo around the water. We had been waiting for an hour, watching the many birds—oriental white-eyes, rufous treepies, cinereous tits, and Indian peafowl—that came to the waterhole to slake their thirst. The park’s landscape resonated with birdsong, the “kee-kya, kee-kya, kee-kya” of the grey francolin, and the lilting “kee-ow” of the Indian peafowl.
There was a rustling in the undergrowth. The peafowl stopped mid-sip and rushed away. Slowly, a large, striped form emerged from the bushes, hidden in the shadows at first, then illuminated by the golden sunlight falling on his tawny coat. Without as much as a backward glance, the tiger made for the waterhole, immersing himself comfortably.
Rakesh identified the relaxed tiger as ST-6, one of the dominant males in Sariska.
Set against the backdrop of the majestic Aravallis, Sariska is regarded as the place in the Mahabharata where the Pandavas found sanctuary during their last year of banishment. According to legend, it was here that the strongest Pandava brother, Bhima, was defeated by Hanuman. A shrine dedicated to Hanuman at Pandupol, which means “gateway of the Pandavas” in Sanskrit, is thronged by thousands of pilgrims on certain auspicious days.
Historically, the beauty of the forests here have caught the eye of royalty too. The Kankwari Fort, located within the core of the reserve, was built by the Rajput Maharaja Jai Singh II in the 17th century and was recently reopened to visitors. It had gained notoriety when Mughal emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned his elder brother Dara Shikoh here.
Despite the intrigue surrounding Kankwari, it is Bhangarh, another fort located on the southern border of the reserve that is more well-known. Bhangarh Fort is older, constructed by Maharaja Man Singh I, one of Akbar’s foremost military commanders and navratnas. It is famous for being one of the most haunted places in India.
In more recent history, the jungles of Sariska were the private hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Alwar, who entertained guests, including British royals, until hunting was banned in the area in 1955. In 1978, Sariska became India’s 11th tiger reserve. In 2004, it notoriously became the first tiger reserve in the country to lose all of its tigers as a consequence of habitat pressures and poaching. Today, with a mix of conservation initiatives, village relocation, and translocation of big cats from Ranthambhore, Sariska seems to finally be on its way to regaining its former glory.
A mix of habitats makes Sariska a park with rich biodiversity. The lowlying forests comprise thorn, scrub and hardy tree species such as ber and khair, while the distant hills have a dense canopy of fluffy, cottony dhok. The dhok trees are bereft of leaves in the summer, but transform Sariska’s dull grey shroud into a blanket of lime green during the monsoon. The palash or dhak, also known as the flame of the forest, provides dashes of brilliance with its bright orange-and-red cup-shaped flowers. These summer blooms attract a bevy of birds. The wetlands at areas such as Karna Ka Bas and the Siliserh Lake—the latter located on the northeastern boundary of the reserve— are also major congregation points for wildlife, including freshwater crocodiles and a variety of avifauna.
Safaris are conducted in the three zones of Sariska’s Core 1. Core 2 and Core 3 are not currently open, though visitors are allowed up to a point, such as the eighth-century Neelkanth temple and the Mangalsar Dam. The temple is devoted to Lord Shiva and embellished with erotic sculptures; the dam, also called Mansarovar Lake, is a wetland paradise which offers sightings of rare birds such as the bean goose.
Zones 1 and 3 are the most visited. Zone 2 has some human habitation, but sightings can be rewarding there too. It is a scenic zone, with native date palms and a majestic view from the restored Kankwari Fort.
Designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International, Sariska is strategically located to attract a range of migrating birds, apart from its host of resident species. Over 200 species are known to inhabit the park, and the most frequently sighted among them include the grey francolin, rufous treepie, jungle babbler, plum-headed parakeet, and Indian peafowl. Peafowl can be found in particularly high density here. More elusive species include the painted spurfowl, the brown fish owl, chestnut-bellied as well as painted sandgrouse, and the Indian thick-knee. Rarities such as the dusky eagle owl and Marshall’s iora have also been spotted here. The summer months see visitors such as the pied cuckoo, known as the harbinger of the monsoon, and the flamboyant Indian pitta, known in Hindi as the navrang. Winter is of course the best time to see Sariska’s rich avifauna in all its glory: cranes, storks, warblers, and a host of waterfowl such as northern shovellers, common teals, and tufted pochards make this their winter retreat.
On safari, besides the elusive tiger, even the commonest species of Sariska’s fauna inspire delight. Families enjoy the antics of langurs, the sight of an Indian grey mongoose slinking away, or the nonchalant swagger of a monitor lizard as it searches for its next meal. Sambar can be sighted more frequently here than in some of India’s other reserves, and the graceful spotted deer or chital is also common. Stags of both species are particularly impressive with their magnificent antlers. The nilgai or blue bull is another regular sight, however, its cousin, the four-horned antelope or chausingha is far more retiring.
Nocturnal animals, such as the Indian crested porcupine and small Indian civet are seldom sighted, but with some luck, you may spot a jungle cat, a jackal, or a striped hyena. There is also an animal here so rare that the last confirmed sighting of it was more than two years ago. This is the Asiatic caracal, an athletic feline that prefers arid regions. It looks somewhat similar to a jungle cat, but is a bit larger, with characteristic long, black ear tufts. Sariska is one of the few places in India where this creature has been spotted.
Finally, the two charismatic big cats. Leopards have a healthy presence in Sariska. Waiting by a forest check-post, I was lucky to actually hear a leopard making its trademark call, almost like a man sawing wood. It called out, not once, not twice, but three times. The secretive feline didn’t reveal itself, but the guards later informed me they saw a mother with two cubs in the vicinity, after safari hours. As for the tigers, by the forest department’s current estimate, around 13 roam within Sariska’s boundaries, some with radio collars. While there have been concerns about whether they will breed in the wild, recent news of another cub in the park in May has improved the outlook for the big cat here.
The best way to explore Sariska is by jeep or canter safari. As with other tiger reserves, safaris take place twice a day (6-9.30 a.m. and 3-6.30 p.m.; ₹2,100 for a jeep with up to 6 people). The per seat cost for the canter depends on the total number of people on safari (₹5,000 for the canter, for up to 20 people). The canter is more economical, but the jeep offers greater manoeuvrability on narrower trails. Other additional costs include guide fees of ₹300 per vehicle; vehicle entry fees of ₹250; and individual entry fees of ₹105 per person for Indians, and ₹570 per person for foreigners (reserve safari seats online at www.fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in). On Tuesdays and Saturdays, and on certain religious holidays, private cars are allowed to visit Pandupol temple between 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Visitors may indicate a preferred zone while making online bookings, but final assignments are made at the booking window itself. Since all three zones offer great wildlife sightings, this is only relevant if visitors wish to visit a specific landmark such as the Kankwari Fort. Besides the main gate, Sariska is accessible via a second gate at Tehla, near the southern boundary, where there are also a couple of hotels.
Having a well-informed guide who knows the area well can make a huge difference to your safari experience, so consult online forums, previous visitors or your hotel for recommendations. Monsoon safaris in the buffer zones can be booked at ticketing windows at Siliserh, Balaqila, and Bhakheda.
Tiger sightings have been reported in the area, as have leopards. The hard-to-spot rusty spotted cat, is also known to inhabit this area. Visitors can also see the endangered guggul herb, extensively used in Ayurveda and native to only a few parts in India. At Shyamsa caves, travellers can see cave paintings that even depict elephants and rhinos, animals that are no longer found in Sariska (open 6 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry Indians ₹50, foreigners ₹100; vehicle ₹100; guide fees ₹200-600 depending on duration of safari which can be 3, 4, or 6 hours; gypsy rental ₹1,000-2,200 depending on duration).
Sariska is 180 km/3.5 hr south of Delhi; 120 km/2.5 hr north of Jaipur; and 35 km/30 min south of Alwar by road. Alwar is the closest railhead, while Jaipur is the nearest airport.
From May to June temperatures soar to 45°C. While this is off-season for travellers, it is a good time to see most mammals as they congregate near water sources. With the vegetation sparse sightings are easier. The park is closed during the monsoon (July-Sept). However, to cater to visitors during this time, authorities have opened up Sariska’s buffer zones. The Pandupol temple continues to be accessible through the monsoon. It is a pleasant drive, and visitors may spot deer, boar, peacocks (dancing), and other birds. As the mercury dips from November on, Sariska becomes a popular destination. In December-January early mornings can be quite chilly, with temperatures approaching freezing.
The Forest Rest House is conveniently located and most economical. However it is not open to the general public and requires prior permission from the Field Director. If you have a specific purpose in mind, write to the Field Director at email@example.com, or contact the office at 0144-2841333 (₹600 a night). However Sariska has many hotel options, in a range of budgets.
Hotel Tiger Den is a typical government-run property managed by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation and checks all the boxes in terms of basic facilities. It is the first choice for most wildlife enthusiasts on a budget (rtdc.tourism.rajasthan.gov.in; 0144-2841342; doubles from ₹3,500).
Sariska Tiger Heaven is run by Sterling Holidays and located about 5 km from the main entrance. It is a good mid-range property offering modern amenities, and ideal for families (www.sterlingholidays.com; 070-2310-1119; doubles from ₹6,000 for non members).
Alwarbagh by Aamod, located about 20 km away, midway between Alwar and Sariska, is designed as a heritage property and is popular for corporate retreats and small events (aamodatsariska.in; 95875 08222; doubles from ₹6,000).
Sariska Palace is a heritage property that is a bit dated, although the higher-end suites still offer a taste of royal luxury. It is conveniently located for safaris (www.thesariskapalace.in; 0144-2841322; doubles from ₹10,000).
Sariska Wildlife Camp–V Resorts is located at Tehla on the southern end of the park, and offers comfortable tented accommodation. It also offers nature walks, cycling tours, and birdwatching excursions (www.vresorts.in/resorts/v-resorts-sariska; 081-30777222; doubles from ₹9,000).
Vanaashrya has luxury tents and offers a host of activities including yoga, folk music, camel cart rides, and other cultural activities in the region (www.vanaashrya.com; 088-60518883; doubles from ₹9,000).
Trees & Tigers Resort is fairly new and offers spacious cottages with balconies overlooking the Aravallis (www.treesntigers.com; 070-23888887; doubles from ₹9,000).
Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Comeback Kid”.
This story has been updated in November 2017.