We’re standing on a critical vantage point, the balcony of the once Dulha Mahal at World Heritage site Ranthambore Fort, that overlooks a breathtaking panorama of forest, lakes and hills now called Ranthambore National Park. The weather here in Sawai Madhopur is cool and sunny, and from our perch, we can see a row of safari jeeps lined up in the distance; no doubt a tiger has been spotted amongst the trees nearby. Invigorated after our walking tour of the 10th-century fort, my husband and I watch them in touristy fascination. Suddenly, two servings of sandwiches, pakoras, kathi rolls and juice appear like magic, spread out on red checkered napkins laid on the ancient stone steps leading down to our balcony. We are invited to sit and observe the proceedings in peace; there are no greedy simians in this part of the fort unlike most others.
As we munch on our evening snacks, a tiger emerges from the woods and walks down to a water body where nearly 15 jeeps and jalopies wait in breathless anticipation. Nonchalantly, it gravitates towards cars, which snake back and forth for better camera positions. Their excitement is palpable even thousands of feet up in the air where we are, marvelling at the scene that seems timed and orchestrated to perfection below us. The tiger then poses regally by the water just feet away from them – frenzied camera flashes go off – before making its way into the next mound of trees and disappearing. As the last of the cars leaves, we finally release our breaths and look up to thank our hosts, the good folk from Treehouse Anuraga Resort, who had arranged this outdoor picnic for us. The tiger sighting wasn’t included, of course, but at Ranthambore, you never know when you’ll be blessed.
With just about four dozen tigers spread across almost 400 kilometres of forest reserve, we were lucky to spot not just one but two tigers on our short visit to the little town where tourism depends mostly on the appearance of this elusive predator. But as our guide Pankaj Joshi half-jokes, we were probably blessed by Lord Ganesh, at whose ancient temple we had just paid our respects. And it wasn’t even a Wednesday, the day when thousands of devotees converge on top of the fort to offer their prayers and dreams to the elephant god, and bananas to the armies of langurs outside it.
As a destination, Ranthambore is a great pick for lovers of nature and, increasingly, those looking for five-star pampering along with it. With the launch of the Treehouse Anuraga a few months ago, wedding parties from nearby states also have an elegant new location to celebrate nuptials and related soirees. Located at a convenient five-hour daytime train journey from Delhi, the 40-odd rooms at the resort have been done up in gracious Rajasthani décor and the four suites have different themes. The rose-themed suite, for instance, is done up in red and white, and the aroma of roses lingers sweetly in the air. Run by the Treehouse group of hotels, the property – formerly the 20-year-old Anuraga Hotel – was named after Anuraga, the late son of former Union minister Jaskaur Meena and her agriculturist husband Srilal Meena, who continue to own it. Their interior-designer daughter Archana Kumar and software-professional grandson Aadhar now manage the hotel.
In fact, the personalities and professions of the owners play an interesting role in creating off-beat sightseeing opportunities for hotel guests. A visit to their Shabri Farm, named after Lord Ram’s ardent devotee, is a lesson in modern farming methods and agri-technology yet to become widespread in the desert state. “We use this farm as a model to teach local farmers how they can maximise use of their land and minimise use of chemical fertilisers,” says Srilal Meena. The farm makes its own manure and vermi-compost, and runs its own dairy. The dairy products along with the organic fruits, vegetables and flowers grown here are transported to the hotel besides being sold in the market. The farm’s grounds also serve as a lush green backdrop for an outdoor picnic and daytime outing for families looking for education along with relaxation.
Visitors can also drop by the rural girls’ school and university set up 20 years ago by Jaskaur Meena, called Gramin Mahila Vidyapeeth, in the village of Mainpura. Born in the year of India’s Independence, the dynamic politician was the first woman graduate and woman Member of Parliament from her community. An author of four books, she speaks passionately about women’s rights as she takes you around the school that caters to over 1,000 village girls from primary school up to graduation, with over 400 who stay in the residential school for very low fees or completely free. “For girls in Rajasthani villages, being allowed to go to school is a privilege, but in villages around there, there is almost 100 per cent enrolment,” she says, as she points out rows of over 150 toilets for students – lack of toilets is one of the key factors of school dropouts for older girls in villages across India. From the girls’ confident posture and deftness at their work and games, it is no wonder that the school also has a 100 per cent passing rate and has claim to some of the top spots in the state’s academic performance lists.
Much of the school was funded by the Meena family’s income from the Anuraga Hotel, and the arrangement will continue even with the Treehouse group in control of operations. “We were fortunate to find a partner that has complete understanding of our way of life and principles,” says Archana Kumar, referring to Treehouse. Hotel manager Arun Prasad, a senior hospitality professional who has lived and worked across India and the world, echoes her sentiments. “The resort is a ‘modern complex with a traditional inheritance’,” he explains of the concept behind the five-star property. “Almost 90 per cent of the employees have been hired from Sawai Madhopur and neighbourhood areas, with only senior management being brought in from the outside to train and look after operations,” he says, extolling the Meenas’ dedication towards inclusive growth for the entire community.
It’s dawn the next morning when we leave the hotel for our five-minute drive to the railway station. On the way we pass neat roads and a pair of young women on their way to college or work. Behind us, the Aravalli hills reflect the light of the rising sun. Somewhere in those green woods, perhaps, a tiger roars, and the tourists sit up in their jeep seats. Let’s get the day started.
First published in the January 2014 issue of Wedding Vows