India: Mission Accomplished

Thirty-seven long hours after leaving Darjeeling we found ourselves once again in Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambhore National Park. We learned from our visit one month earlier that in order to secure a spot in the core zones of the park we needed to book them in advance online- so that's what we did. Without having to worry about the park bureaucracy we could just relax and enjoy our daily safaris and final days in India. We booked a total of 5 safaris spread over 3 days: 3 morning safaris and two evening ones. On our first morning safari the weather was miserable and it poured for nearly two hours solid. The weather all over India had been abnormal as of late, but rain in Rajasthan in April was probably the greatest anomaly of it all. This was very unlucky for us because we were there to see the park's star attraction, tigers, and cats don't like getting wet. It was still an enjoyable safari though and it was kind of comical to see all the other animals sopping-wet and slightly uncomfortable looking. The weather improved for the remainder of our safaris but our luck in sighting tigers didn't. Of course there are many other animals to see on a safari in Ranthambhore. Over our days we saw thousands (literally) of spotted deer and langur monkeys, as well as many sambar deer, blue bulls, wild boar, and countless species of beautiful birds. There were also crocodiles, mongooses, turtles and many more that I'm likely forgetting.

Top: a pair of kingfishers Bottom: an owlet and a peacock lookin' to impress

However, we had seen all these animals during our first outings into the park so we were really only focused on the tigers. People are always saying how lucky we are to see all the animals we have seen during our travels. This trip alone we've seen leopards and lions and it was a goal of ours to see all of Asia's 'big three' cats before returning home. Yet after a combined seven safaris we still couldn't find a tiger. Many other people were seeing tigers while we were out there, but not us. It looked as though our animal-spotting luck had run out. We decided at that point to spend one extra day in Ranthambhore in lieu of one more day in Delhi, a last-ditch attempt in our quest for tigers. So in the evening we signed-up for one more safari. That was the one we were waiting for!

Finally we found what we came for

We had an amazing 15 to 20-minute-long interaction with a beautiful tigress who had wandered across the road from her usual territory. She was gorgeous and at times was just a few short meters away from us. It wasn't luck that accounted for our tiger sighting this time, but rather sheer determination. Our quest for the 'big three' was complete and we could return home with all our boxes checked. Our final safari count stood at nine and we covered all the core zones except zone number one. Our decision to revisit Ranthambhore was a good one. It was a relaxing and exciting way to wind down our trip and we really enjoyed spending time with Vishnu and his staff at Hotel Green View. The next day we took a very uncomfortable train ride back to Delhi, but at least it was the last of our trip through India.

Our final two days in India were spent in Delhi and were intentionally low-key. Delhi has many interesting attractions to visit, but it was hot and we were spent and just wanted to relax before our long journey back to Canada. So we ate good food, we drank strong coffee, we did some last minute shopping in the buzzing bazaars, we took a few short walks, watched a couple movies in our room, and I finally got the chance to get caught-up on this here blog. The rest of Delhi will have to wait until the next time, and there is no doubt in my mind that there will be a next time.

Truly the most magnificent of Asia's cats

265.5 is the total number of hours that we spent on public transportation during our 110 days in India. If my math serves me correct, that's over 11 full days of road and rail travel. It is a lot of time, and much of it unquestionably uncomfortable time, but there really is no better way to experience the real India.

 

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Darjeeling and Sikkim: Mountains and Momos

A view from the Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

It was time to get away from the heat of the plains and only the north could deliver on that. We had never been to Darjeeling or the state of Sikkim before so that's where we decided to cool off. We took an exhausting train journey from Varanasi which still only got us as far as Siliguri. From there it was another 3 hours by jeep up into the northern mountains of West Bengal. Darjeeling is one of those places that you've heard so much about yet didn't really know what to expect. With mountainsides dotted with tea estates and a toy train winding its way up to the ex-colonial hill station, it conjures up images of lush green charm. However, upon our arrival we found something totally different. The streets were narrow and congested with fume-belching jeeps and throngs of people squeezing between them to get where they were trying to go. I thought it would be a small and charming town but it is actually a sprawling city of over 100,000 inhabitants. But charming it still is and as the days passed by the more charming it seemed to get. It was a world apart from the city of Varanasi that we just left behind. It didn't feel like India at all. The air was cool (even freezing at times), the streets were clean, and the demographics reflected the neighboring Himalayan states of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and some of the north-eastern tribal territories such as Assam, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh.. It was so nice to be surrounded by people with faces constantly locked in smile mode and be embraced with their warmth and hospitality. The food too reflected Himalayan preferences like momos, thukpa, thanthuk, and shyabhale– the ultimate comfort food for cool days and colder nights. We pretty much sustained ourselves on those four dishes the whole time we were up north. We were in Himalayan heaven!

Tea Plucker @ Happy Valley Tea Estate, Darjeeling

April is not the best month to visit Darjeeling or Sikkim (from a clear skies point of view), but this April was particularly cloudy and rainy. It rained at some point every day we were there. The morning we went up to Tiger Hill for the sunrise views it was a complete white-out. Still we woke up early every morning to see if we could catch a glimpse of the Himalayas, in particular, Kangchenjunga (Khangchendzonga)- the World's third highest mountain at an elevation of 8,586 meters. One morning we did see some of the peaks briefly but Kangchenjunga remained hidden in the clouds. But on the morning after we returned from Sikkim, the clouds parted just after dawn and revealed a completely clear view of the prize mountain and its companions. Other than mountain gazing and momo munching, there are a few other things to do in the Darjeeling area. We took the Toy Train to Kurseong and back on one day, walked to the Japanese Peace Pagoda and the Bhutia Busty Gompa on another, visited the zoo as well as the Happy Valley Tea Estate. All were very worth while except for maybe the Happy Valley Tea Estate which was not one of the better we have seen. As you enter the estate a sign proudly proclaims that the tea produced here is packaged exclusively for Harrods (of London fame) yet the tea bushes were less than healthy looking to say the least. To make things worse, we found out from a local that the tea pluckers employed here work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and only earn 65 rupees per day- that's like $1.20 A DAY! Harrods will no doubt market the inferior tea in fancy packaging and sell it for a premium price. Remind me again how the rich get richer and the poor poorer?

Tibetan Buddhist painting at Lachung Gompa

We also arranged our permits for Sikkim while in Darjeeling, which is good for the south-east, central, and western parts of the state and valid for two weeks. To visit the northern reaches you must obtain an additional “restricted area” permit which is easily done from Sikkim's capital of Gangtok. Gangtok is even bigger and busier than Darjeeling and it is also far more commercial and modern, but I liked it almost immediately. The food we ate (again Tibetan) was the best we had on the trip by far and the people were still smiling and friendly. But it is still just a city and it held our attention only long enough to organize a trip up north to the scenic Yumthang Valley which we enjoyed with some fellow travellers that we met already on the train from Varanasi.

Prayer wheels, Lachung Gompa

The drive from Darjeeling to Gangtok was beautiful, but it only got better from Gangtok to the Yumthang Valley. Sikkim's “National Highway” is nothing more than a potholed gravel 'road' barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. It's a slow road which was made even slower by our novice driver. It is a stretch of road susceptible to landslides and other harsh weather conditions and the ride at times is the very definition of discomfort. But beautiful it is. Sheer rock walls on one side and sheer vertical drops on the other. You pass by lush, steaming jungles, pristine waterfalls, amazing valley views and gorgeous Himalayan mountain scenery. Well worth the discomfort! We spent two nights in the peaceful village of Lachung and from there we explored the wild Yumthang Valley- 27 kilometers to the north. Lachung sits at the bottom of a lush valley split in two by the icy Yumthang River and surrounded on all sides by high Himalayan peaks- some spilling long ribbons of water from their precipice. Again, Himalayan heaven. It also has a small but interesting monastery worth a visit and wonderfully warm townsfolk decked-out in traditional Tibetan and Nepali garb. The last 27 kilometers into the Yumthang Valley is about as scenic as it gets. The road twists in hairpin turns another 1000 meters in elevation passing many yaks along with their herders and revealing more stunning mountain vistas. By the time we arrived in the valley the mountains were already being concealed with the daytime cloud cover. Withing a couple of hours it began to rain, hail, and even snow a little, and as a result, I took very few photos. It just gives me a great excuse to visit this area again soon. One more night in Gangtok, two more nights in Darjeeling, and then it was time to take the longest train ride of our trip- nearly all the way to the other side of India. From Darjeeling we would travel to New Delhi and from there another 6-hour train trip to Sawai Madhopur where we would again try our luck at spotting tigers in Ranthambhore National Park.

Our one and only view of Kangchenjunga (in the centre) with Darjeeling in the foreground

A staggering 231.5 hours of road and rail travel to date and soon to get much longer!

 

Varanasi: Mind the Crap!

One of the essential stops on most Indian itineraries is the holy city of Varanasi. It is such a holy city that it is venerated by Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs alike. Supposedly founded by the Hindu God Shiva, Varanasi is the holiest of India's seven sacred cities. Over the centuries it has been referred to by many names including Benares and Kashi and it remains one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

The spiritual side of Varanasi

By the time we got off the train in Varanasi from Khajuraho, I knew something wasn't right with me. A few hours later I was running a high fever and very very sick. After about three days in this condition, I was around 15 pounds lighter but once again feeling kind of like a human being. There is no doubt in my mind that the lack of love and hygiene in the food in Agra and Khajuraho was the chief culprit. The daytime temps in Varanasi were topping 40 degrees so we usually retreated to our room or a restaurant during the hottest hours (there are some good eats to be found in this town), but every morning and every evening we walked along the ghats from Assi, where we were staying, to Marnikarnika (the main cremation ghat) or further. Before Varanasi I found myself getting down and frustrated with India- mainly due to the constant feeling of being on-guard. Maybe it was the sickness followed by the wellness, but I felt a rejuvenated optimism toward it all again and we really ended up enjoying our time in Varanasi- even more so than 10 years ago. But from a photography perspective, the ghats are not nearly as picturesque as they once were. The main bathing ghats are now postered or painted with advertisements for cellular networks, guesthouses, and the like and boats have been parked in front of them to give bathers and puja participants some privacy from the hordes of tourists getting rowed down the Mother Ganges. You are also now not allowed to photograph the cremation ghats unless you are willing to fork-out an astronimical amout of currency to the local mafia for the privilege.

Tea vendor in the old city

But the energy remains enchanting and enigmatic. Even walking through the organic and disorientating laneways of the old city is a feast for the senses. But this is where Varanasi's chief shortcoming should be pointed out… it can be utterly filthy! The narrow lanes are shared with cows, dogs, goats, and people. You really need to watch where you step or you're bound to step in the excrement of any of the aforementioned animals- people included! Then there are the restaurants and businesses who dump their waste into the same paths and the mystery seepage that runs onto it from each and every building. The smell can be unbearable at times and the stench attracts swarms of flies just as the waste attracts scores of rats. A stroll is never dull in Varanasi. But with all that said, Varanasi is a beautiful place that needs to approached head-on and with a healthy sense of humour. But always remember to mind the crap!

You can't say India isn't colourful!

184 hours on rails and roads.

 

Before There Was Porn, There was Khajuraho!

After Agra we started heading east and Khajuraho was our next destination. Ironically, we were warned by the touts, rickshaw drivers, and guesthouse staff in Agra about how pushy and persistent the touts, rickshaw drivers, and guesthouse staff in Khajuraho were. This isn't how we remembered Khajuraho from our first trip but we prepared ourselves for the worst anyways. What we found upon our arrival was quite the opposite though. It was still a charming smaller town and the townspeople, including touts, rickshaw drivers and guesthouse staff, were all very friendly and hospitable. We decided we would stay in Khajuraho for the big Hindu festival of Holi, see the temples, and just chill-out for a few days. On our first full day we visited the spectacular Western Group of temples just a few minutes walk from the town centre. Over the next couple of days we didn't do much more than enjoy the fan and satellite T.V. in our room and wait for something exciting to happen in town for Holi. Do not come to Khajuraho for Holi if you are expecting, as we were, a colour and water-fueled party of epic proportions. Apparently that just doesn't happen here. Most people couldn't even agree on which day was the main day of the festival and there was very little colour-throwing and water-dousing as a result.

Intricate carvings of Khajuraho

So don't come to Khajuraho for Holi but do come to see some of India's finest temples and artwork. While the temples themselves might not be as impressive as some found in Ellora or perhaps even Hampi, the detailed carvings are second-to-none in India especially considering their age. The temples of Khajuraho were constructed by the Chandelas in the 10th and early 11th centuries and are best known for the erotic carvings that adorn the temple facades. Before there was porn, there was Khajuraho! While the intricately carved sexual positions gather the bulk of the attention, these make up the minority of the temple's well-preserved sculptures. Most would still fall into the category of sensual though. Khajuraho is less frequently visited than say Agra and Varanasi, but if traveling overland between these two destination, then these temples are more than worth a stop-over.

Amazing Chandelan architecture

 

The Taj Mahal: Agra’s Saving Grace

Agra, a.k.a. “Agro”, is a filthy, foul-smelling, scat-hole of a place with more than it's fair share of scheming and undesirable people. It is also home to some of the country's worst budget accommodations and restaurants that force you to consider an impromptu 2-day fast. Yup, few people who have visited Agra have anything positive to say about the city itself, yet almost all who have ever visited India have paid this place a visit. This is because India's most iconic structure lies along Agra's south section of the holy Yamuna River- the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. By far the most tourist frequented sight in all of India, this is just one of those places where you have to suck it up, endure the city, pay the $15 entrance fee, and go see it with your own eyes (not that there's any other way of doing it). Often confused as a palace or a mosque, the Taj Mahal is actually a tomb and justifiably deserves its reputation as being the most beautiful building on this planet. Rudyard Kipling referred to it as “the embodiment of all things pure”- and Kipling don't lie! The story that encircles the Taj Mahal only adds to its romantic allure.

India's iconic Taj Mahal

The mausoleum itself was built over a 9-year period (the rest of the complex took an additional 12 years to complete) commencing in 1632 after Emperor Shah Jahan's beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the delivery of his 14th child. So strong was his love for Mumtaz that he spent the next full year devising the ultimate resting place for his one and only love (the other 2 wives and the 100s of others in his harem just didn't measure up I guess). Perhaps too strong was his love though, as the Taj Mahal, which employed over 20,000 skilled craftsmen and labourers and used only the finest quality (and most expensive) materials, nearly drained the once mighty Mughal empire's coffers and ultimately contributed to its demise. Disgusted by his father's weaknesses, Aurangzeb overthrew Shah Jahan and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort for the remainder of his life. But being a good son, he granted his father's final wish of a cell with a Taj-facing view (Happy Father's Day!). Upon his death in 1666, Shah Jahan was floated down the Yamuna River and buried beneath the Taj Mahal alongside his most cherished wife.

Dramatic clouds over the Taj

We spent one morning walking arounding the Taj complex and an afternoon exploring the expansive Agra Fort (another attraction not to be missed when in Agra) as well as a sunrise and a sunset on the Yamuna's riverbank opposite the Taj Mahal. We didn't have a proper sunrise the morning we visited the Taj. It was a little overcast and the colors in the sky were somewhat lackluster as a result. But an hour or so after the sun came up some interesting cloud formations peppered the sky above and the lighting conditions proved very dramatic at times. My advise is to get there as the gates open- you won't be alone or even one of a hundred, but the cool early morning hours are the most enjoyable time to wander around the grounds and you might be rearded with a perfect sunrise. The hazy views from the fort can also be atmospheric (if distant) but at least you can experience the same view that Shah Jahan had for the last eight years of his life. The Taj Mahal is nothing less than breathtaking and no doubt the apex of Mughal architectural achievement.

The Taj as seen from Mehtab Bagh

Sitting on top of one of the rooftop restaurants in Taj Ganj affords a decent view of Agra's star attraction, but looking around at its “modern” surroundings also provides a very stark and bleak contrast. Agra is one of those places where the juxtaposition of the old and the “new” is overwhelmingly profound- you can really let your mind wander here about how beautiful it would have been to visit India in its better days.

Our sunrise at the Taj

For a far better history of the Taj Mahal than I've provided, I recommend clicking on the link below to watch an excellent short documentary put together by the fine folks over at the Nat Geo network.

Secrets of the Taj Mahal

 

A Tardy Tour Through Rajasthan

Travel blogging is an excellent way to reach out to fellow travelers and connect with friends and family when you're out exploring the world. In a time when travel guide books constantly let you down, travel blogs can provide up-to-date information and personal opinions on destinations you might consider visiting- that is, if they are done regularly and properly. This is not one of those travel blogs! My intentions were good, and for the first couple of months I posted regularly, but writing a decent travel blog takes time and commitment- two things that I've struggled with for the past little while. It has been over a month since I've last posted on this blog and like everything, the longer you procrastinate the more difficult it is to get caught up.

A young girl performs her skills on a tight-rope, Jaisalmer (iPhone photo)

So, today's post is on our few weeks spent in Rajasthan- the Indian state that we left almost one month ago. On our first trip through India 10 years earlier, Rajasthan was the state that we probably spent the most of our time in. When you revisit places that you've been to such a long time ago, things inevitably change- and usually not for the better! This results in waxing nostalgic about your 'first time' and a certain degree of disappointment upon your return. This was the case for us in some of the places in Rajasthan, particularly Udaipur, a once charming and romantic city which has been marred by hotel over-development and overt commercialism, and Pushkar for the exact same reasons. By all means, if you haven't been to these places before then they are worth a visit, but for us, the changes were just too drastic to enjoy them the way we did the first time around.

The wind-manicured Thar Desert

The “golden city” of Jaisalmer seemed to retain most of its prior charm despite the pressures that the influx of tourism has placed on the ancient fort and its surroundings. It is the only “living” fort in Rajasthan and it's a memorable experience to stay in one of the many guesthouses within the fort walls. The winding labyrinth of streets outside the fort are equally enjoyable to explore as are the magnificent old havelis that are scattered throughout the town. Aside from visiting the town and fort of Jaisalmer, people come to take one of the popular camel safaris into the beautiful Thar Desert. We did a 3-day, 2-night trip into the desert and this time I can honestly say that it was a far more gratifying experience that our initial one. In 2003 we traveled through India during the off-season summer months and in Rajasthan during the hottest month of them all. We suffered through temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius and relentless winds. If the weather conditions weren't severe enough, I was stung by a scorpion on our first night sleeping on the open desert. This time the weather was perfect and our three days with Ali, our camel driver, and our camels Raju, Kalu, and Michael Jackson, couldn't have been any better. We even had a chance to spot some desert fox, eagles, and plenty of chinkara (gazelle).

Sunset in the desert

After Jaisalmer we headed south to the “blue city” of Jodhpur, which, for the most part, has remained pretty much the same as ten years ago. It has an impressive fort, nice walks in the hills that surround it, and the best lassis in India. I also highly recommend taking a cooking class with Rekha over at Spice Paradise– you will leave with some delicious recipes, a very full stomach, and an amazing story about a woman who made something out of nothing.

Jodhpur's Mehrangarh

Pushkar, for us, was like I stated earlier, a disappointment. However, the morning and evening puja on the lakeside ghats are still a beautiful spectacle and the bhaang lassis are as good and strong as ever. The town of Bundi was a new destination for us and was our next stop. It is actually a charming Indian town with a handful of interesting sights. The crumbling palace is worth a walk through even if just for the well preserved paintings and frescos. You can give the fort a miss unless you want a prime example of how India totally neglects some of its historical monuments while charging foreigners a hefty sum to see them! Bundi is known as the town of step-wells, or baoris, but really only a fraction of the more than 50 scattered throughout the town are worth a visit. The two on either side of the centre market are impressive (and very deep) as is the Raniji-ki-baori (Queen's step well) a further 5-minute walk away. The rest, unfortunately, have become garbage dumps- another reminder of the current disrespect displayed towards the labour and craftsmanship of a more civilized time in this country's history (a very common and sad theme in modern India).

Morning puja on Pushkar Lake

We then headed to Ranthambhore National Park to try our luck at spotting tigers (as we did 10 years earlier). Again, we were disappointed to discover that if you hadn't reserved a spot on a jeep or canter in one of the core zones of the park well in advance, it is nearly impossible to arrange it upon your arrival. The N.P. will still however rob you of your currency and shuttle you through an area that yields very little wildlife in general (zones 6-9) and virtually no chance at seeing the big cats. After a couple such safaris we left Ranthambhore for Jaipur- Rajasthan's capital. We have since booked safaris online for the core zones and will return once more to Ranthambhore to try our luck yet again before leaving India.

Portrait of a street man, Jaipur

Jaipur, the “pink city”, is big, hectic, and polluted, but it defiantly shouldn't be missed if in the area because it contains some amazing architecture- most notably it's City Palace, the Hawa Mahal, and the nearby Amber Fort. The old city is also a great place to walk around taking in the sights and smells of the bazaars that flank the streets.

Well, that pretty much concludes our time in Rajasthan and this belated post. After Rajasthan we would push on to Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi- this will be my next post which I hope to get up within the next few days. Better late than never!

157.5 hours on rails and roads.

 

Seeing Spots with the Leopard Man

Bera: a small rural community in Rajasthan's south, 150 kilometers from Udaipur- home to about 7000 people, mainly farmers and herders. While it's a pleasant, albeit dusty, little village with many colorful Rabari men and women, nothing seems to be extraordinary about this town. In the even smaller villages that surround Bera, women carry water to their houses in stainless steel pots perched on top of their heads and children in blue and white uniforms ride one speed bicycles through the sandy tracks that weave through the countryside on their way to and from school. Charming, but a pretty common scene in India. So what sets the area around Bera apart from other villages in Rajasthan? Well, when we watched the women carrying water from the well down the road to their modest homes, a mother leopard was hiding a few short yards away on one side of the road and calling out to her two young cubs visible on a rocky hillock on the other side. The hills around Bera are alive with leopards! When one thinks of Rajasthan, many things may come to mind; towering stone forts, men with turbans and impressive mustaches, camels, sand dunes, intricately chiseled havelis, and perhaps if one did associate a big cat with this place it would probably be one of the few remaining tigers found in Ranthambore National Park. Leopards are not often associated with Rajasthan.

We first heard about the leopards of Rajasthan quite by accident. We were up on top of a hotel not yet completed in Udaipur enjoying the setting sun when the hotel owner came up and chatted with us. He told us about his family, some of their history, and about his brother- the King of Nana, another small town not too far away from Bera. “Do you want to see leopards?” the man inquired. “What, like in a cage?”, I asked. “There are many leopards living in the hills around my brother's castle, and if you wish to see them you can stay with my brother and he will show you”, he replied. Within a couple of minutes I was on the phone with the King of Nana himself who invited us to stay with him in his fort and promised us that he would indeed lead us to many leopards. Still skeptical, I said I would call him back. I did some research over the Internet that evening and discovered that these stories of leopards up in the hills around Nana were true. I also learned of a place- Bera, and a man who was quite famous in the area for the work he has done in the field of leopard conservation. I called him up, instead of the king, to see if now was a good time to spot some of these big cats. He said it was. So we hired a motorcycle and drove 150 kilometers down roads which steadily deteriorated until we reached the town of Bera and our leopard expert, Mr. Devi Singhji.

Thankur Devi Singhji, also a descendant of Rajput royalty and owner of Leopard's Lair Resort, has had a history with the leopards of Bera since he was four years old. As a toddler he was frightened by these animals, as a young man he hunted a few of them, and then something changed inside him. He told me that “when you hunt an animal your experience with it is over the moment you pull the trigger, but when you shoot an animal with your camera, you learn its behavior, its routines, its personal characteristics”. His passion for these animals is obvious. He lives for these creatures, and on the many days in the year when he is not guiding guests to the regular leopard haunts, he will be there watching them from his gypsy nonetheless. He never misses a day and he never stops taking pictures and videos of his one true love. He has over 20,000 pictures and 54 DVDs of video to prove it! We watched a couple of his favourite DVDs with him over beers in the evenings after our outings. In between our safaris he spoke with such profound compassion for his leopards. He would tell us about the latest WWF findings that state '5 leopards in India are slaughtered each day', or the moment he first set eyes on Zara's new cubs, and so on. But he does more than just talk. The dry landscape around Bera supports little in the way of natural prey for the leopards. They hunt the occasional peacock, rabbit, or monkey, but their main sustenance is comprised of the livestock that graze in the fields and forests below. This created a problem with the local farmers and herders whose very own subsistence was being threatened by the leopards. Their response to their predicament was to poison the meat of the goats, calves, and sheep that the leopards killed (they often return to their kills over a period of days to finish their feast) thus killing the leopards. In the absence of any government intervention, Devi Singhji stepped in and offered the shepherds 2000 rupees (about $40) out of his own pocket for each of their livestock lost (with adequate proof that it was killed by a leopard). This financial gesture really helped to turn around the relationship between the herders and hunters, and one can only imagine how many leopards have been saved due to Devi's generous compensation pact. He affectionately has given many of the leopards names which include Zara (his main love), Charger, Cutear, and Devraj to name just a few. These creatures are his extended family, his children. His expertise on the leopards of Bera has garnered him some international attention as well. A few months back the BBC spent a couple of weeks with him shooting for a documentary not yet released. National Geographic has also dropped by. Now it was our turn!

Over three days we went out in Devi's gypsy four times. During our four outings we had 15 sightings in total with six separate leopards spotted- but to Devi Singhji this is not out of the ordinary. He prides himself on his 95% sighting success rate, and with us, it was 100%. Leopards are known to be elusive animals though. With equal parts determination and luck, one would have a far better chance of spotting tigers and lions in India than leopards- but not in Bera. Bera is different because of the lack of any thick vegetation impeding ones vantage of these animals, and, there can be no doubt that Devi's familiarity of their routines and anticipation of their next moves has much to do with it as well. With all that said though, leopards have a very different schedule than us humans. They hunt at night and sleep in the day which leaves only a couple short windows of opportunity to fraternize with these felines. They can be seen for a couple of hours after sunrise and again for a couple of hours before sunset. If you're lucky you can see them in good lighting but the tall rocky hills, and shadowy boulders in which they call home make that very difficult- and even more difficult to photograph! They are incredibly camouflaged with their environment as well which just adds to frustration of photographing these animals. I only wish I left Bera with a few of the quality leopard pictures that Devi Singhji has in his collection. If only I had more time. But photos or no photos, watching the leopards with Devi was an experience I won't soon forget. His love for these animals is infectious and in the immediate days after we left I couldn't help but think of them often.

Even in photographs these leopards are hard to see

The leopards of Bera are healthy and safe today because of the efforts of one man. But a different kind of threat is now on their doorstep. Devi was the first to offer guided leopard excursions in the area and has been doing so for quite a few years. A couple others have followed suit over the years, but still the rural town of Bera remains blissfully devoid of any real tourism. However, still more people, businessmen from Delhi and other cities in India, are buying-up property with the intentions of developing safari-style lodgings and running leopard tours in the area. These are the kind of people who put profits before preservation and could have a real negative impact on the future of the Bera leopards. The hills and jungle around Bera are not a part of any national park, wildlife sancturay, national forest or any other protected area, which means there is no governmental constraints on development. All animals need a healthy amount of privacy and if tourism descends on this area as it has in other parts of India, the leopards will have no choice but to find new homes in an altogether different area. There they will once again face the struggles that they faced in Bera during the early years, and wherever they finally decide to settle down, there might not be a man like Devi Sighji around to look out for them.

As we drove down the narrow streets of Bera and the sandy roads through the small villages with Devi in his Mahindra jeep, many people bowed or passed him subtle hand gestures of respect. This is most likely due to his status as a nobleman, but I would like to think, and I'm sure Devi would like it too, that these were given to him because he is the one true “Leopard Man” of India.