It is six in the morning. The moon is still out and the road is a silvery ribbon. Indeed, ribbon is a fitting description in more ways than one, for the road spread out in front of us is just a narrow strip. Our driver Muhammad Hussain, however, negotiates it with remarkable ease. His experience of driving around Kumbhalgarh for four years has made him an expert.

As the sun begins its slow climb up the sky, the tall grass on the sides of the road glimmers in thefirst light of the day. The sanctuary is a field of gold, but none of its residents are out basking in the sun. Then a crested hawk eagle comes in our view, its prominent crest bobbing up and down.

The view is spectacular from the point where we are: at Mahuti Khet, which flaunts a dense cluster of mahua trees, clearly a favourite with langurs. We can see the Kumbhalgarh Fort, from which the sanctuary takes its name. The fort rises above the forest, a picture of formidable isolation. We get off the jeep, lingering in this patch of rustling trees, till the driver, eager to get on, woos us with promises of bigger and better sights.

We reach Choti Aodhi, once a hunting ground for the former rulers of Ghanerao, now a waterhole where animals and wildlife enthusiasts alike break journey. Along the way, a young sambar looks out anxiously, hidden partially by a rock. At Thandi Beri, we meet a French couple, with whom I compare notes about sightings. They have spotted only sambar, and our travel agent pitches in with an explanation: “This year, we have had good rain, and there’s water all over the sanctuary, so animals don’t necessarily come to these waterholes. Evening is a better time to spot animals.” We make our way back from Thandi Beri, taking in the wild purple flowers brightening the forest. Grey jungle fowl run zigzag on the path for a while, and for no apparent reason dart off into the bushes. They add to the forest’s atmosphere with some spirited screeching. We return to the hotel with the sounds and smells of the forest.

The following day, we visit the famous 15th century Jain temples at Ranakpur, located at one end of the sanctuary. We make our way back to Kumbhalgarh via Ghanerao and the Muchala Mahaveer Temple. In the twilight hour, as the candles inside the old Jain temple flicker haunt-ingly, darkness takes on another meaning. Heading back to Kumbhalgarh, we sit shivering slightly in the open jeep, the road again a ribbon of moonlight.

From somewhere in the darkness materialises the spotted-inky coat of a panther. It crosses the road in a lightening flash, disappearing from one dark patch of forest to another. “See,” says our all-knowing travel agent with a smile, “I told you evening is a better time to come to the forest.” For once, we can’t help but agree.

Courtesy Kumbhalgarh Fort
The majestic edifice of Kumbhalgarh Fort
The majestic edifice of Kumbhalgarh Fort

ABOUT KUMBHALGARH WLS

The Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary will come as a surprise to those who see Rajasthan only as a desert state. These green tracts form the dividing line between the former states of Mewar and Marwar. Once the hunting grounds of royals, this area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1971. The diverse topography of the sanctuary adds to its charms. In its eastern part are ranges that loom over 3,478ft, as well as the source of the River Banas. The Marwar plains are to the northwest of the sanctuary. The rainwater on the western slopes forms small rivers such as Sukdi, Mithdi, Sumer and Kot, all of which are the tributaries of River Luni that ultimately merges into the Arabian Sea. The sanctuary is known to be home to chausinghas (four-horned antelopes), leopards, panthers and sloth bears.

ORIENTATION

Kumbhalgarh spreads across 610sq km of the Aravalli Ranges. If you are coming via NH76 from Udaipur, then you will pass through the Ranakankar Forest House, on the sanctuary’s eastern boundary, 7km south of the Kumbhalgarh Fort. Another way to enter the sanctuary is through the Areth Gate, from where the Thandi Beri Forest Rest House is 15km away. Ghanerao lies on the western side of the sanctuary, northwest of Kumbhalgarh.

Falna, the nearest railway station, lies 80km west of the sanctuary. This is closer to the famous Jain temples of Ranakpur, which lie on the western boundary of the sanctuary. You can either stay at one of Ranakpur’s many hotels or travel another 25km to the Roopanmata Rest House. Thandi Beri is closer – just 10km away. The Sumer Forest Rest House, close to sanctuary’s Joba Wolf Point, is 35km from Ranakpur.

Since the forest department does not have its own vehicles, it’s best to hire your jeep safari from Kumbhalgarh or Kelwara (about 6km before Kumbhalgarh). At Kelwara, you can contact Umaid Singh of Ashapura Taxi Service (Cell: 08769306700), near the courts. The forest office (no phone here) is above his place. Kumbhal Castle Hotel arranges jeeps to take their guests around the sanctuary.

Sanctuary entry fee Indians 50, Foreigners 300 Vehicle entry fee Two-wheelers 30, Gypsy fee 200 Cameras Still free, Video 200 Timings Sunrise–sunset

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Kumbhalgarh has many options for tourists – apart from jeep safaris, you can also go trekking here. There are points of historic interest in the sanctuary too.

Jeep Jungle Safari

The 15-km-long drive from Kumbhalgarh to Thandi Beri is the most popular jeep journey in the sanctuary. In the roughly 3.5hrs that it takes to get to Thandi Beri and back, you can see leopards, bears and sambar – if you are fortunate, that is. You can also visit the famous Jain temples at Ranakpur, dating back to the 15th century, located at one end of the sanctuary.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
Visitors enjoying a jeep safari at Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary
Visitors enjoying a jeep safari at Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary

Horse Safari

This is not a regular feature, but the staff at the Kumbhal Castle Hotel might agree to arrange a horse safari in the sanctuary for you. Popular routes in the sanctuary include Kumbhalgarh to Ghanerao via Thandi Beri; Ranakpur to Thandi Beri; Thandi Beri to Sumer; and Roopanmata to Ranakpur.

Trekking

Trekking is allowed in the sanctuary, and the hilly terrain is ideal for it. You can either request a forest guard to accompany you (200 a day) or ask your travel agent to arrange a guide. Popular walking trails are Kumbhalgarh to Thandi Beri (14km), Roopnagar to Sumer (98km), Ranakpur to Ranakankar (15km), Malgarh to Magga (8km), Ranakpur to Kumbhalgarh (25km), Roopanmata to Ranakpur (30km) and Ranakpur to Thandi Beri (15km). Your entry permit to the sanctuary is the only document required to go on treks.

Tirthankar Nature Trail

Located opposite the Ranakpur temples, this 3.7-km-long trail is an ode to the Jain tirthankaras and is also representative of an ideal Aravalli ecosystem. Planted along this trail are all the species of trees under which the 24 Jain tirthankaras attained enlightenment.

Joba Wolf Point

This wolf habitat lies 7km from Sadri near Joba village. Set at the foothills near the Muchala Mahaveer Temple, Joba Wolf Point encompasses 500 hectares of the forest here. It is home to the Indian wolf.

Kumbhalgarh Fort

The Kumbhalgarh Fort, located about 2km from the sanctuary is considered the second-most impressive fort in Mewar, after Chittaurgarh. It was built at a height of 3,600ft in 1448 by Rana Kumbha of Mewar (after whom the fort gets its name). The fort is the birthplace of the famous Maharana Pratap. There is a settlement inside, making it a ‘living’ monument. There are also two tea-shops in the fort premises.

Muchala Mahaveer Temple

This Jain temple near Ghanerao is devoted to Lord Mahaveer. The unique feature of this temple is that Lord Mahaveer sports a moustache – hence the name Muchala.

WHERE TO STAY

Tourists to Kumbhalgarh have the option of staying either within the sanctuary or outside. As people visit Kumbhalgarh for both the sanctuary and the fort, peak season is usually very busy – so do book rooms in advance.

In the Sanctuary

The forest rest houses in the sanctuary are located at Thandi Beri, Ranakankar, Sumer, Sadri and Roopanmata. All have 2–3 rooms each at 1,100 per night. For bookings, contact the Chief Conservator of Forests, Rajsamand.

Remember to carry your own food and provisions as the forest guesthouses don’t provide food. However, in all the rest houses, the caretaker can arrange meals on request. All the rooms have attached bathrooms, but be warned that the facilities are rudimentary.

Outside the Sanctuary

One of the best hotels here is The Aodhi (Cell: 08003722333; Tariff: 7,500–8,500), a pleasant luxury hotel with a multi-cuisine restaurant, a swimming pool, a bar and internet. The Fateh Safari Lodge (Cell: 08696945109; Tariff: 12,500–17,000), set in a beautiful location, is a boutique hotel with good food. There are camping facilities too. Kumbha Bagh (Cell: 09001992598; Tariff: 8,999, with two meals) is an all-suite luxury resort with each room offering views of the fort. Its multi-cuisine restaurant serves Indian as well as international fare. Club Mahindra Fort Kumbhalgarh (Tel: 09672723444/ 4555; Tariff: 7,500) is a family-oriented luxury hotel with a swimming pool and a gym. The Wild Retreat (Cell: 09460774368, 09194408176; Tariff: 7,000, with two meals) offers cottages close to the sanctuary.

Tribhuban Tiwari
Verdant premises of The Aodhi, a luxury hotel
Verdant premises of The Aodhi, a luxury hotel

Other good options with all modern comforts include Shaam-E-Retreat (Cell: 07023891929, 07023895979; Tariff: 9,000–11,000 for 3D/ 2N, with meals); Tiger Valley Resort (Cell: 08233665893, 0941071693; Tariff: 5,300–8,300, with meals); The Haveli Resort (Cell: 09587526687, 08769335824; Tariff: 6,000–8,000, with two meals); and Kumbhalgarh Forest Retreat (Cell: 09829024798, 07727065539; Tariff: 3,000–5,000).

Kumbhal Castle Hotel (Tel: 242171, Cell: 08003180979; Tariff: 3,750–4,250), about 2km from the fort, has a swimming pool, a multi-cuisine restaurant and AC rooms.

The Dera Kumbhalgarh (Cell: 09783907100, 09983996511, 09414935200; Tariff: 3,300–3,800) offers tents, cottages and rooms.

Karni Palace (Tel: 242003, 242281, Cell: 09950159301; Tariff: 2,000–3,000) is a budget option in Kelwara village, 6km away. The Devi Palace Heritage Retreat (Cell: 09829070075, 09950290245; Tariff: ,500–3,000) stands by the lake.

WHERE TO EAT

For meals, stick to your hotel’s restaurants. All of them serve hygienic and very tasty Rajasthani dishes such as safed maas (mutton in a curry of almonds, cashewnuts, coconut kernel paste, poppy seeds and white pepper) as well as international fare such as pastas and fish and chips.

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Maharana Pratap Airport, Udaipur (84km/ 2.5hrs). Taxi to Kumbhalgarh costs 1,900–2,100. Government and private buses run practically every hour from the Chetak Bus Stand

Rail Nearest railhead: Falna (80km/ 2.5hrs). Taxi charges 1,900–3,100 for a drop

Road From north of Udaipur, take NH76 for about 25km till Iswal; turn right to the main Losingh Crossing from where you turn left for Barwarha, Auda, Kelwara and Kumbhalgarh

 FAST FACTS

When to go Open throughout the year. December to March is a good time to spot animals

Wildlife/ Forest Dept offices

DFO (Wildlife) Rajsamand

Tel: 02952-223813

CCF, Chetak Circle, Udaipur

Cell: 09414156229

DCF, Sajjangarh, Udaipur

Cell: 09462914500

ACF, Kelwara, Kumbhalgarh Cell: 09414352737

Assistant Conservator of Forests

Kumbhalgarh WLS, Sadri

Cell: 09460014811

Tourist office

Rajasthan Tourism

Tourist Reception Centre

Fateh Memorial, Suraj Pol

Udaipur. Tel: 0294-2411535

STD code Rajsamand 02952,

Udaipur 0294

State Rajasthan

Location In southern Rajasthan, near Kumbhalgarh Fort in Rajsamand District

Distance 84km N of Udaipur, 372km SW of Jaipur

Route from Udaipur NH76 to Iswal; district roads to Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary via Losingh Crossing, Auda and Kelwara Route from Jaipur NH8 to Gomti Crossing via Ajmer; state highway to Charbhuja; district road to Kumbhalgarh