National Park in Rajasthan
The two most famous parks in Rajasthan, both within easy striking distance of Jaipur, are Bharatpur-Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a 2,600-hectare (6,400-acre) tract of land that attracts the largest concentration and variety of birdlife in Asia; and Ranthambhore National Park, which enjoys an enviable reputation as the one area where you are virtually guaranteed to see a tiger. Also relatively close to Jaipur (110km/68 miles; 2 hr.) is Sariska National Park where, sadly, tigers no longer roam , though the presence of a new luxury resort, Amanbagh, is cause for celebration. The Sariska Palace Hotel, an aspiring luxury hotel built by the Machiavellian Maharaja Jay Singh of Alwar, is a rather lovely French-Indo concoction (if you like your buildings to resemble over-the-top confections) furnished with many original pieces (rotting trophies included). Reports of service have been less than satisfactory, and it’s really only worthwhile to pop in for tea if you’re in the area. By contrast, Ranthambhore is far more beautiful and has two excellent accommodations as well as a fascinating conservation history.
BHARATPUR/KEOLADEO GHANA NATIONAL PARK
Referred to as the Eastern Gateway to Rajasthan, Bharatpur lies almost exactly halfway between Delhi (152km/94 miles) and Jaipur (176km/109 miles), and is a mere 55km (34 miles) from the Taj Mahal. The town itself holds no fascination, but a few kilometers south on National Highway 11 is Keoladeo “Ghana” National Park. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the park is definitely worth visiting if you’re a keen birder, but it’s not a must-see for people who don’t know the difference between a lark and a peacock.
A natural depression of land that was initially flooded by Maharaja Suraj Mal in 1726, the park abounds in large tracts of wetlands (covering more than a third of the terrain) as well as wood, scrub, and grasslands, a combination that attracts a large number of migratory birds that fly thousands of miles to find sanctuary here. It was not always so—for centuries, the area was the Maharaja of Bharatpur’s private hunting reserve, and in 1902 it was inaugurated by Lord Curzon as an official duck-shoot reserve (some 20 species of duck are found here). In the most shameful incident in the park’s history, Lord Linlithgow, then Viceroy of India, shot 4,273 birds in one day— the inscription of his record can still be read on a pillar near Keoladeo Temple. Thankfully, the park became a sanctuary in 1956 and was ultimately upgraded to national park status in 1982.
Today the park supports more than 375 bird species, including a large variety of herons, kingfishers, pelicans, storks, and ducks. It is the only known wintering region of the rare and endangered Siberian crane, which flies 8,050km (5,000 miles) to get here. The numbers are indeed staggering, and birds will fill your vision throughout your visit—particularly during the winter months (Oct–Feb), when the resident bird population swells to over half a million. The park is also home to 13 snake species (including the oft-spotted python); six species of large herbivores; and mongoose, civet, and otter. Although a dead tiger was discovered here in June 2005, Bharatpur is not regarded as a tiger sanctuary, and you sense that the signs urging caution are there to inject a sense of romance and wildness into what is otherwise a very tame experience. In fact, it is hard to understand how a World Heritage Site that attracts more than a million visitors a year can be so undervalued by those administering it—at dawn scores of people (as well as a few illegal vehicles) take the main road through the park as a shortcut into Bharatpur, feral cattle blithely grazing the grasslands transform the scene into one of ordinary farmland, the loud khudu-khudu of generators pumping water disturb the peace in many areas, and a general lack of facilities and tawdry appearance leave a lot to be desired, though the drought has no doubt exacerbated the situation over the past few years.
Bharatpur is a 41⁄2-hour drive from Delhi; it’s 55km (34 miles) west of Agra and 175km (108 miles) east of Jaipur. If you travel by train from Delhi, it will take 21⁄2 hours by the convenient Kota Janshatabdi; it takes a little over 2 hours for this train to link you with Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambhore National Park). From Agra, the Marudhar Express gets you here in just 55 minutes.