Ranthambore is tiger country. Everything here is about the tiger, and before this sovereign of the jungle pale the stories from the history of the place, the myths and legends drawn from battles between Rajput princes and their struggles with expansionist sultans, battles fought for the Ranthambore Fort that runs along the ridges of the green and pink hill-range within the Ranthambore National Park.
The most-narrated contest here is of Allauddin Khilji's successful siege to this fort in 1301 and the Rajput prince Hamir Dev's tenacious, months-long defence of it. The story is mentioned only in passing, though — the meat in all talk is the big cat.
The books collection in the kiosk at my hotel is focused on tigers and the larger wildlife, among them a polythene-clad copy of Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger. The tiger is only metaphoric in Adiga's novel, but the beast is mentioned on its cover, which will do just fine.
And every corridor, every wall face in the lobby, bar, restaurant, and guest room sports artwork and photographs of tigers — of the cats at dawn and dusk, hunting and bathing, on the plains and in shrubs and woods, fighting and making love and cuddling the offspring. These are exquisite pictures, each a potential candidate for a major prize.
Across the dusty, busy street before the hotel, there's the Riddhi-Siddhi Ice Cream Parlour. Riddhi and Siddhi are sisters, tigers both. Riddhi is in the news now, having delivered three cubs. Forest guides and guards, tour operators, the hotel staff, and seasoned visitors to Ranthambore speak of Riddhi's cubs in the tone they'd use for their own newborn.
We found Riddhi on my first day's safari minutes after we entered the park. She was on her hunkers, chomping on what'd been tender young chital. It didn't bother her that we were a huge mass of big and small vehicles before her. She took no notice of the frisson in the air and the commotion as drivers manoeuvred in all directions to gain a clear sight of her. She was altogether into her fawn, taking her time with it, but there were moments when she looked up and into our eyes.
Her little ones were in the bushes behind, hidden from us. She threw glances every few seconds in their direction, reassuring herself from the rustle in the greens where they played. Not for one moment did they emerge from their shelter.
We spent a couple of hours watching her, tracking her after she finished her meal and took a walk, crossing a vast grassy plain into the trees. We waited, anticipating her return patiently, which she rewarded by walking back from where she'd been toward where she'd hidden her little ones. We gaped at her gleaming coat, the elegance in her gait, her ease of being – at the sheer majesty of her.
"She brought tears to my eyes," a young law firm owner in our group of four said as we drove out. "To mine, too," said another, a country-head of a finance company. With eyes dry and the heart overflowing, I had no words to contribute.