Rajasthan has been the crown jewel of India Tourism for as long as we remember. Photographs of its forts and palaces have drawn millions not just from overseas but also from within our own country. Should it come as a surprise that the desert state welcomed as many as 35.2 million domestic tourists and 1.46 million foreign travelers in 2015? Rajasthan has something to offer for everyone: from the luxury suites of Rambaug Palace in Jaipur to the abandoned havelis in the dustbowl of Shekhawati and of course the old hunting grounds of the former maharajas that have now been converted into national parks and sanctuaries. Even though Ranthambore and Sariska are the two most well-known names outside of the state, Rajasthan has 25 designated sanctuaries that cover a total area of about 5380 sq km. Ready for a tour?
Ranthambore National Park
Spread over 392 sq km, Ranthambore National Park is perhaps Rajasthan’s most popular wildlife sanctuary. Ranthambore is also the place where history, wildlife and nature come together. For in the heart of Ranthambore National Park is the 10th century Ranthambore Fort and scattered nearby are ancient temples and mosques, crocodile-filled lakes and cenotaphs. While these ancient ruins to tend to add to the charm of Ranthambore National Park, the real winner are the authorities whose efforts have helped the park score high on tiger conservation. In fact Ranthambore National Park is one of those few places where tigers are so accustomed to human presence that it is the best place to photograph the wild cats. Besides the tigers, Ranthambore National Park is also home to more than 300 species of birds. Go for nature walks or bird-watching or simply take a hike or go on a safari. If none of this interests you, pay a visit to the villages around to experience rural Rajasthan culture first hand. Alternatively, you can pack a mini lunch and relax at some nice spots on the outskirts of the park.
Best time to visit: October to June (Summers are really hot but it is also the best time to visit the park to spot tigers who venture out near watering holes.)
ALSO READ How to reach Ranthambore from Delhi by road
Sariska Tiger Reserve
Located just a little over 100 km north east of Jaipur and some 200 km south west of Delhi, Sariska Tiger Reserve is yet another popular sanctuary in Rajasthan. Serving as a great weekend getaway from both the cities, Sariska is known as much for its varied topography as it is for its population of tigers, langurs, nilgais and a large species of birds. Sariska’s diverse topography ranges from grasslands to dry deciduous forests and dramatic cliffs to rocky landscape.
Covering an area of about 850 sq km, the Sariska National Park was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1958 and a national park in 1979 after consistent efforts of Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur. The Sariska National Park has several historical sites including the 16th-century Kankwadi fort that stands near the very heart of the sanctuary. Sariska also served as a haven for the Pandavas and a Hanuman temple in Pandupol is, in fact, a popular pilgrimage site… so popular that the traffic often disturbs the wildlife in the area.
Sariska has come a long way since the dark times of 2004 when the rumors that there were no tigers left in the sanctuary. The rumors turned out to be true when, in 2005, Rajasthan Forest Department and Project Tiger launched an emergency tiger census, which was followed by a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Today, there are 14 tigers in Sariska thanks to the consistent efforts from wildlife conservationists and government authorities.
But Sariska isn’t just home to the tigers, it also provides shelter to leopards, jungle cats, caracals, striped hyenas, golden jackals, chitals, sambhars, nilgais, chinkaras, four-horned antelopes (or chousinghas), wild boars, hares, Rhesus monkeys and plenty of bird species and reptiles. Several species like Pea fowls, Grey Partridges, Tree Pies and golden backed Woodpeckers can also be found in Sariska.
Best time to visit: October to June
Keoladeo Ghana National Park
Just like Sariska, the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (better known as Bharatpur National Park) is located between two of India’s most popular tourist hotspots: Agra and Jaipur. Keoladeo Ghana National Park is home to over 300 species of birds and just a stone’s throw away from Bharatpur, known as the Eastern Gateway to Rajasthan. Keoladeo Ghana National Park is relatively smaller, when compared to Sariska and Ranthambore; it covers an area of just about 29 sq km and gets its name from an ancient temple that is dedicated to Keoladeo and located within the park. Ghana means dense in Hindi and refers to the thick forest that surrounds the temple. These forests served as the hunting grounds for the Bharatpur royals who often organized duck shoots for visiting British viceroys.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park attracts birds not just from India but also from Tibet, Siberia, Europe and China. Siberian Cranes, ducks, pelicans, shanks, hawks, wagtails, stints, wheatears, warblers, buntings, larks, flycatchers, night herons, spoonbill, barheaded and grey-leg geese, imperial eagles, laggar falcons and marsh harriers can be found in the park. Beside the varied species of birds, Keoladeo Ghana National Park is also home to black bucks, sambhars, spotted deer, nilgais and pythons
The Park has come a long way since the time it served as a retreat for visiting viceroys who engaged in duck shoots. By mid 1960s, hunting was banned in the park and it in 1971, it was declared a protected sanctuary. In 1982 Keoladeo Ghana was declared national park and in the December of 1985 it became a World Heritage Site.
There are several hotels in Bharatpur, several of which are located in close proximity of the park. You can also stay within the park at the government-run Bharatpur Forest Lodge, which is the only one located inside the sanctuary.
Follow this link more information about the park, fees and entry timings,
Best time to visit: September to February
Desert National Park
Jaisalmer’s Desert National Park is one of the largest in the country, covering an area of some 3162 sq km. Desert National Park is located in the Thar Desert, about 40 km from Jaisalmer and not very far from the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan. It was accorded the status of a national park in 1980. Even though about 20 per cent of the park primarily comprises sand dunes, Desert National Park is home to over 120 resident and migratory birds. It is home to several species of vultures, eagles, harriers, falcons, larks, kestrels, buzzards and shrikes as well as some rare species of the Great Indian Bustard. While the Desert National Park is known for its birds, it is also home to desert foxes, the Bengal fox, desert cats, blackbucks and hedgehogs as also a large variety of reptiles such as saw-scaled vipers, monitor lizards, kraits and Russell vipers. In fact the Desert National Park is home to more than 40 species of reptiles. Jaisalmer’s Desert National Park also has several lakes, of which Gadsisar, Padam Talao, Rajbaugh and Milak are the main sources of water. Fossils dating back to over 180 million years have also been discovered in the park.
Best time to visit: October to February
Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary
This sprawling wildlife reserve located in the heart of the Aravali mountain ranges is spread across 600 sq km and across the districts of Pali, Rajsamand and Udaipur. It serves as a great getaway from Udaipur http://www.india.com/travel/udaipur/. The Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary gets its name from the majestic fort that it encircles and is known as much for its majestic hills and narrow valleys as it is for its population of leopards, nilgais, sambhars and wolves.
The Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary also serves as a natural divide between Mewar and Marwar, the two socio-cultural regions in Rajasthan that lie on either side of the Aravali Hills. (Mewar is to the east of and Marwar to the west.)
Home to more than 40 wolves, the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary has the unique distinction of being the only sanctuary where wolf breeding has been successfully conducted. Besides wolves, the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary also hosts several species of birds — from the rare grey jungle fowl, (which isn’t so rare in this sanctuary) to the white-breasted kingfisher and red spur owls, parakeets, golden oriole, doves and of course peacocks.
While Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary is open throughout the year, it is best visited during the monsoon months when the sanctuary turns a hundred new shades of green. During this time the jungle safaris and horseback tours are more pleasant and enjoyable than ever. These safaris start from the Kumbhalgarh Fort and continue till Ghanerao.
The newly relocated lions are a new feature at the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary and lion safaris organized to spot this majestic beast are particularly fun. The historic Kumbalgarh Fort that stands within the sanctuary is also a major tourist attraction and most definitely worth a visit.
Best time to visit: October to March
Just a little over 51 km from Udaipur is the Jaisamand Sanctuary. Spread over 62 sq km, Jaisamand Sanctuary stands right next to the eponymous lake, which was featured in Rajasthan Tourism’s latest ad campaign. As with almost all forests, these woods were the hunting grounds of the kings of Mewar before they were converted into a sanctuary in 1957. Besides being home to several species of panthers, birds, deer, wild boars, crocodiles and leopards, Jaisamand Sanctuary is also a haven’t to birds such as open-bill storks, herons and darters. The Jaisamand Lake which stands right next to it is the second largest artificial lake in Asia and served as a scenic backdrop to the Rubi Rani Ka Mahal, a pleasure palace built by Rana Jai Singh for his queens.
Constructed in 1685 by Maharana Jai Singh while building a dam over the river Gomti, Jaisamand Lake covers an area of 36 sq km and was the largest artificial lake in Asia for more than 200 years till 1902 when the construction of the Aswan Dam over the river Nile in Egypt was completed. Jaisamand Lake is 14 km long and 9 km wide. At its deepest the lake is 102 feet and has a circumference of over 48 km. The dam on the river Gomti is as unique as the lake that it helped form. Standing tall at 116 feet in height and 70 feet wide at the bottom, the dam is a little over 1200 feet long.
Jaisamand Lake comprises seven islands of which one is inhabited by a local tribe. The largest of these islands is called Babaka Bhagra and the second largest one is called Piari. Beautiful marble steps descend to the lake that even offers boat rides making it absolutely perfect for honeymooning couples.
Best time to visit: November to April
Darrah National Park
Darrah National Park is one of the newest in the country, having been established only in 2004. Located near Kota, Darrah National Park comprises Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary, Jaswant Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary. The former hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Kota, Darrah National Park is spread over a sprawling 250 sq km. Located just a little over an hour away from Kota, the town known for its IIT coaching classes, Darrah National Park has been a protected zone since 1955. Home to species of boars, deer, nilgai, wolves and cheetahs, the Darrah National Park is known as much for its natural beauty as it is for its cultural history. A highlight of the area is the Jhalwar Fort which lies close to the Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary and its Zenana Khas or the women’s chamber is particularly popular.
Besides the fort, the Darrah National Park also has several ancient temples standing along the banks of the river Chandrabhaga. Of these, the Sun Temple in Jharipatan is particularly popular. Several of these temples date back to the seventh and eighth centuries. Do note that the Darrah National Park is closed between July and September.
Best time to visit: October to March
Mukundara Tiger Reserve
Also located near Kota is the Mukundara Tiger Reserve. Covering an area of about 760 sq km, Mukundara Tiger Reserve is home to 50 tigers and is the third most thickly populated reserve in the state. Mukundara Tiger Reserve came into being in August 2012 and is the third big cat reserve in Rajasthan. Spread across four districts — Kota, Bundi, Chittorgarh and Jhalawar — Mukundara Tiger Reserve covers of 759 sq km of which 417 sq km forms the core area. The remaining 342.82 sq km serves as a buffer zone cover.
Since its inception, Mukundara Tiger Reserve has eased the tiger population pressure in Ranthambore to which it serves as a natural extension. Tigers from Ranthambore are known to often stray into the Mukundara Tiger Reserve for breeding. The reserve is even officialy recognized as an extension of the core area of Ranthambhore.
Besides the tigers, Mukundara Tiger Reserve is also home to leopards, panthers, wolves, sloth bears and chinkaras.
Best time to visit: January to March
Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary
Mount Abu is the only hill station in Rajasthan and the eponymous wildlife sanctuary is also the highest in the state. Located between 984 feet and 5650 feet above sea level, the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary is rich in floral bio-diversity. Thanks to its varied heights, it has subtropical thorn forests as well as evergreen lush forests within its boundaries. Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary is home to 112 plant families, 81 species of trees, 28 species of climbers and 89 species of shrubs. At least 17 species of tuberous plants that have medicinal importance have also been located in the heart of the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary.
The sanctuary is also the only place in the desert state where you can see an exceptionally wide range of orchids. Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary home to at least three species of wild roses and 16 species of feras grow here, some of which are very rare.
While the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary has been home to lions and tigers neither of the two cats are present here. The last tiger to be spotted here was in 1971 and the last time a lion was spotted was way back in 1872! Today, the leopard is the apex predator of the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary. Besides the leopard, you can also spot hedgehogs, jungle cats, sambhars hyenas, wolves, common langurs, jackals, bear, wild boars, common mongooses, pangolin, porcupines and Indian hares. Also making its home here is the sloth bear since the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary provides a great natural habitat to it. And while the sanctuary is home to more than 250 species of birds, it is best known for the grey jungle fowl.
The Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary that got the sanctuary status only in 1980 rises all the way till Guru Shikhar, the highest peak of Rajasthan. Besides the flora and fauna, the most interesting features of the sanctuary are rock formation of igneous rocks that have large cavities thanks to the constant exposure to wind and rain. Whether you want to spot leopards, or smell the roses and see the orchids or simply just enjoy a day picnic amidst sylvan surroundings, the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary is the place to be.
Best time to visit: April to June and November to February
Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary
Located in the Pratapgarh district of Rajasthan, the Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a protected zone in 1979. The sanctuary is spread over an area of over 423 sq km and has three distinct topographies that include the Vindhyachal Hills, the Malwa Plateau and the Aravalis. The elevation of the Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary falls between 918 feet to about 2,000 feet above sea level. Despite this though the summer temperatures can be killing as they range from 32 degrees C to 45 degrees C. Winters are relatively cool with temperatures falling to as low as 6 degrees C.
Located a little over 40-odd km from Pratapgarh and some 108 km from Udaipur, Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary has a large number of teak trees. The rivers Budho, Sita Mata, Tankiya, Jakham and Karmoi flow through the Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary, which is also home to a large variety of flora and fauna. Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary is better known for its avian species and is a paradise for birders. Ergets, eagles, herons, grebes, buzzards and several other birds have made the heavily wooded forests of the Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary their home. Of these, two new species — the black necked monarch and the white-throated ground thrush — were discovered in Wildlife Sanctuary.
Even though the Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary is better known for its birds, it also houses jungle cats, wild bears, neelgais, porcupines, jackals, wild bears, foxes, spotted deer, leopards, hyenas, wild boars, pangolins, four horned antelopes and caracals among others.
However, the star attraction of the sanctuary is the flying squirrel. Leopard safaris are also quite popular and local tour operators will be happy to arrange one for you.
Sita Mata Wildlife Sanctuary gets its name from the mythological heroine of the epic, Ramayana. It is believed Luv and Kush, the twins of Sita and Rama, were born in these very forests after Sita walked away from Ayodhya when her character was questioned. The sanctuary also has the only solo statue of Sita (ie without Rama) in the country as well as an ashram which is believed to be the home of Valmiki, the author of Ramayana and the guardian of the young princes of Ayodhya.
Lakhiya Bhata is yet another place of interest in the sanctuary, which is one of the few places in the world with drawings of prehistoric animals are engraved on rocks.
Best time to visit: October and March
Photographs: Shutterstock, Creative Commons