By Priya Ranganathan
It was four in the morning and the scrubby landscape bounced in and out of my vision as our jeep made its way through the dark Rajasthan forest. The hardly powerful headlamps were our only chance at getting to the base of the steep hill going up to Khandar Qila. The Qila (fort, in Hindi) was an aristocratic stony structure with impenetrable walls and dark cavernous halls, located at the edge of Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. From the terrace of our small field station in Khandar village, located at the foothill of the Qila, we gazed up at the massive structure, excited at the prospect of finally breaching its walls. When the morning dawned (well, it was pre-dawn), I hastily pulled on my hiking boots and tied a rain jacket around my waist. My daypack was filled with water bottles and electrolytes in the form of Eno and GluconD. My first aid kit, spare socks, binoculars, and camera, along with my field notebook, all were stashed in the backpack.
The jeep halted at the base of Khandar hill and my two field assistants and I jumped out of the vehicle. One of the assistants, a local, warily studied the rocky slopes ahead of us. “Madam, there are leopards here, and bears too,” he warned. “And our cameras have picked up a tigress in the fort as well.”
“That’s why we have to go there to survey,” I replied, my voice confidently echoing in the dark landscape. A bush stirred nearby and my assistants both jumped; it turned out to be a black-naped hare (Lepus nigricollis). The rocky hillslope was not very inviting to behold, especially given the extreme darkness. My field assistant’s worry about leopards was not out of place, given the time of day and the setting. I hoisted my stout stick and struck it firmly against a rock; it did not break, and I took it as a good omen.
“Let’s start,” I said, ignoring the bleak expressions of my assistants. “We need to make it to the fort by daybreak so that we can get back to the field station by the time it gets hot.” The heat was the worst part of fieldwork in Rajasthan. By 11 am, the air was too starched and oppressive to take a breath, and the only solace could be found in lying beneath a fan on a charpai and sleeping until the heat lessened. We chose a relatively rocky goat path to reach the top. It started off as a goat path, but later joined the path that visitors took to the top. That was necessary because there was only one real entrance to the fort that was scalable by people. The walls were far too high and smooth to ever hope to scale. Up the path we scrambled, occasionally tripping over rocks and our own feet. My assistant slipped on his untied shoelace and skidded a few metres down the slope, thankfully stabilizing himself by grabbing onto an obliging tree and getting his footing once again. Considerably higher up the hill was my other assistant, who decided to speedily traverse the first stretch only to lose all stamina and willpower halfway. He, much like the rabbit in the fable The Tortoise and the Hare, was now sitting on a rock drinking through our day’s water supply and fanning himself. I nervously looked around; he would be an ideal target for a hunting leopard, sitting as he was, but the air was still and there was little space for a leopard to crouch on the part of the hill where we were standing. Relieved, I hauled myself up to the nook he had wedged himself into and asked for some water. It seemed prudent to drink some while it lasted.
At last, we found ourselves at the base of the soaring watchtowers and imposing stone-and-sand walls of Khandar Qila. The fort, much like others of its time, was built to be impenetrable by forces opposing the dynasty of Sisodia kings of Mewar, who ruled Sawai Madhopur until it was conquered by the Mughals. Post-Mughal rule, the fort and surrounding lands came under the jurisdiction of the Maharajas of Jaipur in the 18th century. There were three entrances to the fort, all of which had sustained heavy damage over the years. It was no wonder that a regal tigress had made her home here, in the battlements high above the rest of the Park. My field assistant led the way under the stone archway up the winding path that led us into the fort.
In comparison to other forts in Rajasthan, Khandar Qila was positively toy-like. Yet its pillars stood strong and its walls overlooked a gorgeous view of scrub forest and tiny jheels. Brightly painted village houses dotted the sparse scenery, and tiny flocks of livestock could be seen kicking up dust devils in the landscape. The fort itself was crumbling at parts but the various quarters were clearly visible: the king’s court, the queen’s residential quarters, the elephant and horse stables, and many more. It also housed a stone temple, frequented by pilgrims and cared for by a priest and his wife, who lived in one of the renovated rooms beside the temple. My assistant’s family would often come to this temple during the full moon to pray for their continued health and prosperity. Even today, I glimpsed a few people picking their way over the rocky ground towards the orange flag that waved brightly in the air from the temple dome. We wandered about the ruined pillars of the stables absorbing the historical significance of the land we trod upon until my second field assistant let out a hiss and pointed at the ground.
“What’s this?” he asked, pitching his voice loud enough to get our attention over the expansive area.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priya Ranganathan is a researcher with ATREE working on the CHANSE project. She is a geologist by training, with a master’s degree in Landscape Ecology and Conservation Management. Priya is interested in studying the ecosystem services associated with and conservation management of wetlands in India. Apart from adapting to new techniques and hydrological models, she writes popular science articles to promote knowledge about ecology and current environmental issues.