I went to Jaipur recently for a shoot, and it was my first air travel post-pandemic. I have been to Jaipur before, and my visits have mostly been related to horses and polo. The city is steeped in heritage and history. For me the city has been all about Rambagh Polo Ground, Rambagh Palace, 61st Cavalry and Samode Palace, all other palaces and places of perceived privilege.
On this trip however this was to change. Just before leaving I got a call from my friend, photography teacher and fellow wildlife lover Sarosh Lodhi, who told me about the Jhalana Leopard Reserve, which I found is a marvel in the heart of the city, whose heritage no doubt surpasses man’s structures.
I had over the years heard of Bera Jawai, earmarked for leopard safaris, and thought it was time we Indians recognised the urban or semi urban leopards around us from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Gujrat to Manipur. There are great such opportunities in the newly designated forest areas of Aarey Colony (Mumbai), Bhondsi and other Aravalli Range areas in Gurgaon and Faridabad, Haryana, as also the proposed artificial Tiger Safari in Jabalpur, where people can get to see leopards in their natural habitat instead of a man-made atrocity.
On the day of the shoot we took a scenic route with the forts of Amer, Hawa Mahal, Johri bazaar and little heritage gateways reminding me of our transient existence. En route we came across so many elephants bouncing their way to wherever they were headed, making Hathi Gaon a destination on my list, for the future for sure.
The shoot took place on a road going through Nahar Singh forest division, just outside Jaipur. Riding the winding hill road meandering through the forest on a motor bike reminded me of a more carefree existence and a character I played in Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster, shot in similar terrain in Gujarat’s Devgadh Baria, a hidden gem that I’d love to take you through my travels soon.
The signs of the ‘protected forest’ surrounded us along with the scant traffic of mostly two wheelers crawling on the narrow hill road. I learnt the forest extended into and enveloped most of Jaipur. Little tribal villages sprinkled the range, living in harmony with nature.
After the shoot I visited my school friend, an accomplished rider, veterinarian Colonel Dahiya, just retired from the Army, and his lovely wife, Roohi, whom I’d never met in the years I’d known him. The evening unfolded into a beautiful night over great food, storytelling and other refreshments.
The whole day to late night Sarosh kept fussing on the phone over timings and pickups to make sure I don’t miss my appointment with the Jhalana Leopards next day. At 3 AM I finally got to bed, a bit unsure of the possibility of making it to the safari.
Sarosh, as promised, promptly called at 5.15 AM. Not wanting to waste his efforts and the bookings, I dragged myself out of bed and drank some strong coffee to get going after 12 hours or shooting in the sun and an evening with the man of laughs Colonel Dahiya.
The man on the ground, Sumit, looking fresh, dressed in camouflage, greeted us at the lobby. Now, the full jungle feel was coming on! I became more aware of the camera in my hand and the origin of this arrangement – the reason Sarosh was pushing me to go to Jhalana Leopard Reserve was that in fact I’d never seen a leopard in the wild.
I’d seen a fleeting tail at Pench Tiger Reserve. Everyone thought I was hallucinating orange as one tends to do when eyes continually scan the greens for a splash of orange. I was soon vindicated though by the eternal forest telegram service, the alarm call.
Anyway, back to this trip. We reached Jhalana Reserve in barely 20 minutes from the centre of Jaipur. I was struck by its proximity to a big city, as I’ve always had to travel hours to get to any such areas.
The 23 Sq Km area of Jhalana housed 30 odd leopards. Sumit told me, due to human infrastructures like two highways, the Reserve is isolated from the rest of the forest or it could’ve been an area big enough to be designated a full sanctuary. It does make one wonder, whose highway is it anyway?
Though the prey seemed sparse, not long into the safari, Sumit was to spot a leopard on a tree while I was busy photographing a kingfisher. As we went around on the roads surrounding that patch I mentally kicked myself for not being on a lookout for the elusive cat, the purpose of me sitting in that jeep, glass eyed and heavy headed.
Alarm call!! We were on a steep road, but our driver manoeuvred the jeep deftly and had us racing down the hill towards a couple of jeeps parked. There, lo and behold, was a mostly-eaten carcass of a Blue Bull female or a calf hanging precariously from a tree. The people already there told us they’d seen a leopard climb the tree and disappear into the thicket below. Damn!! So near yet so far. Every flick of non-green now seemed like a leopard, every movement enhanced. The quick breathing in the mask, the songs of birds, all seemed louder than a few minutes ago, because all the attention was on the jungle. The jungle, with the apex predators nearby!
And then a rather big leopard jumped onto the tree and with grace and speedily disappeared above into the branches. I was excited to see the big cat in its full glory and form, but at the same time disappointed that I couldn’t get my camera up quick enough to capture it.
The more we get the more we want! I saw a leopard finally in the wild, but so fleetingly. I waited for another look. The carcass moved violently in bursts as the leopard must be taking chunks of its meat. Again, the good old tail was the only thing visible.
I could hear the second’s hand of my watch as forever passed. I adjusted the zoom back and forth for a good frame. Negative space cursor to the right, because he would face the left, if and when he chose to climb down. Fingers crossed, I could hear small sighs and prayers of humans mixed with the songs of the birds and the whirring of the insects and grass.
And then, while we all focused on the tree top, from the thicket below emerged the cutest cat I’ve ever seen. She was, I came to learn, the mother of the young male leopard in the tree, and an epitome of feline grace named Flora. The camera went off in my hand in the multiple shot setting as she looked straight in my lens with a curiosity and calm bewilderment hard to describe. It was as if a model was giving me all the expressions and poses so my desire of capturing her could be satiated. This was the first leopard I photographed. I almost had to remind myself I’m not deep in some jungle, miles away from anywhere. This is Jaipur. This is Jhalana.
Flora disappeared up the tree as well. I lowered the camera and became aware of things outside the view through my lens. What a relief, finally I had a leopard through the lens!
A short moment later things were to go from unbelievable to unimaginable. The male cub comes down the trunk and pauses, and sweet beautiful Flora also climbs down to join him – as if to tell me to tell everyone of their beautiful habitat in the middle of the city, a call to secure their existence, which can resonate throughout the country and change the planet and its future. Both mother and cub stood there halfway down the tree trunk, giving me the shot that’ll imprint itself in my soul forever.