On The Tiger Trail: Exploring The Untamed Beauty Of Ranthambore

Amidst Ranthambore's wondrous beauty, legendary tigress Machli's tales echo, reminding visitors of her remarkable reign and the enduring allure of the wild
Sultan is a male tiger from Ranthambhore National Park known for his aggressive behaviour
Sultan is a male tiger from Ranthambhore National Park known for his aggressive behaviour Shutterstock

The big cat's eyes were a sunburnt yellow, piercing and disdainful, as he surveyed his fawning audience of photographers, tourists and guides jostling for space to get a better look at his lithe girth. A convoy of jeeps had ground to a dust-kicking halt inside Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park exit.

As the jostling by jeeps to get a better view got more intense, the 10-foot-long tiger called Sultan, who probably weighed close to 200 kg, according to our forest guide, uncurled his mighty body. Then, in a flash, he disappeared into the thicket. A hushed sigh fell upon the adoring audience. The jeeps roared away, its occupants wearing a look of jubilation, of mission accomplished.

10-foot-long, Sultan weighs close to 200 kg
10-foot-long, Sultan weighs close to 200 kgGustasp & Jeroo Irani

This happened on a previous visit. On our most recent one, we embarked on a morning safari from our resort, Bookmark Resorts Jogi Mahal, a brand-new addition to the luxury retreats near Ranthambore. We were content to merely revel in the feel of the forest, the former hunting ground of the maharajas, and gaze at the supporting cast of Ranthambore.  However, here, the feline has been overtaken by its legend and the wondrous beauty of the forest is often forgotten.

We were not tiger-fixated, and on our second visit, Ranthambore did not disappoint—dishing out the sights to eager tourists like at a multi-course banquet. Muscled sambar wallow in an algae-coated water body under the gaze of the majestic Ranthambore Fort sculpted into a hill beyond; radiant peacocks greet the day, their plumage glowing in the wan sun while colourful butterflies flit around like living gems; families of langurs groom themselves, and with a flounce of tails; a grazing herd of chital dart into the undergrowth; a serpent eagle eyes us imperiously.

A family of langurs
A family of langursGustasp & Jeroo Irani

However, what makes Ranthambore special are the stories about a legendary tigress, Machli, celebrated as much in life as in death. Reportedly the most documented and photographed tigress in the world, Machli's bloodline still lives on in Ranthambore National Park via her daughters and sons, some of whom challenged her and even brutally made off with her kills. Machli ruled the roost over one of the park's most scenic areas for nearly 13 years of her 19-year-life span (from 1997 to 2016). Her territory spanned the area below Ranthambore Fort, including the three lakes where she stalked and hunted, powered by the laws of survival of the fittest.

She often sat under the arches of Rajbagh Palace, once inhabited by royalty, gazing out at the park where deer strutted and crocodiles glided by. Graceful and whip-smart, Machli started hunting when she was just a vulnerable two-year-old cub and birthed a record four litters.

Tigress Machli, the most documented and photographed tigress in the world
Tigress Machli, the most documented and photographed tigress in the worldShutterstock

The legend of Machli was enhanced by the stories related around bonfires in camps and resorts outside the park of how this muscled tigress had a tussle with a ferocious 14-foot-long crocodile that was trying to edge towards her cubs, grabbing her leg in the process and dragging her underwater. She fought like a warrior, extricated herself, and tore the crocodile apart in an hour-long slugfest. During her lifetime, Machli fought courageously with tigers that were bigger and more powerful than her and survived poachers who were rampant at the turn of the century. By 2004, Sariska Tiger Reserve had lost all its tigers, and Ranthambore had lost a substantial number, too. But Machli is credited with regenerating tiger numbers in Ranthambore thanks to her remarkable fertility. Today, around 80 tigers prowl in the tiger reserve.

Machli's reign near the fort, lakes, and royal monuments in the park ended when her daughter, Sundari, evicted her from her territory in a bloodless coup. Sundari initially challenged her sister Krishna for territory. And Krishna fell at her feet in submission and surrender, according to a documentary we watched at Jogi Mahal resort. Sundari then edged towards her mother, menace lacing her stride. By her aura of scarcely leashed power, she conveyed that she would brook no rivals. Machli limped away, knowing she would be no match for her young offspring.

The air in the jungle was taut as a guitar string as news spread of the proud tigress's ignoble fall, the loss of her once unchallenged domain and her nomadic existence in search of new territory. Deer that once trembled at her approach and the alarm calls of monkeys that once rang through the forest at even the whiff of her presence were soon muted. As her hunting skills declined, Machli lost weight and lived on carcasses and old kills.

Machli managed to find new territory (the area where she was born) even as Sundari's reign as the queen of the fort and the surrounding regions continued unchallenged. Sundari's power was unbridled, and her stealthy tread was as feared as Machli's had once been. Indeed, her striped grace and inherent power attracted Star, a fearsome big cat, and Zalim, who had been billed as a "spectacular stud."

But Machli's woes were multiplying as one of her sons, whom she had nurtured, fought with her for her kill, threw her on her back and injured her. 

The decline followed rapidly. For a week before her death on 18 August 2016, she had barely eaten anything and had been very ill, confined to a small area of the park. Toothless and worn out, she was given a ceremonial burial as the longest-living tigress and perhaps the gutsiest in the wild.

Ranthambore  fort rides the crest of a hill
Ranthambore fort rides the crest of a hillGustasp & Jeroo Irani

On our last night at Jogi Mahal resort, we dreamt of Machli. The striped beauty was sitting near our private plunge pool, her tawny eyes gleaming in the slanting moonlight, low growls emanating from deep within her. Strangely, we weren't terrified by that vision of sheer might and grandeur but felt privileged to have seen the legendary tigress so close.

The Information

Getting There: Located 145 km from Jaipur (the closest airport), Ranthambore National Park is located in the Sawai Madhopur district in south-eastern Rajasthan. Sawai Madhopur has its own railway station. 

Best Time To Visit: November to March is the best time to visit this park, though some of its ten zones are also open during the monsoons. April–May are extremely hot, but wildlife sightings are stunning as water bodies dry out inside the park and wildlife congregates around the few remaining waterholes.

One must book a safari (either in a six-seater private jeep or a 20-seat canter) at ranthamborenationalpark.com or call +91-8744012007 / +91-9212777225.

Where To Stay

  • Bookmark Resorts, Jogi Mahal, is the new luxury kid on the block with 40 spiffy rooms in villas that come with private plunge pools and garden views.

  • Other high-end accommodations include Sawai Madhopur LodgeThe Oberoi Vanyavilas, Sher Bagh, and the Aman-i-Khas. 

  • Rajasthan Tourism's Castle Jhoomer Baori Forest Lodge is an affordable option. Saini Guest House and Tiger Haveli are budget choices.

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