Ranthambore _ The City That Macchli Made Out of the Forest

Ranthambore, as legends and records go was a dense forest into which came a Yadava chief by the name Jayanta in 5 AD to create the fort. Since then, it has been built upon and expanded over centuries to assume the gargantuan proportions it does today. The entourage of Prithvi Raj Chauhan, fleeing the Khiljees, shifted into this area in the forest and emerged out of what was merely an asylum into creating one of the most formidable regional powers of the Rajputs lending Rajasthan its name. 5 AD, is a hoary time of history, the later days of the Mauryas with the Brahmanic Sungas, most also a Sino Asian force was foraying into the subcontinent, and it is possible that they could have driven the riverine Yadavas into the forest. However, the Yadavas, who was more an economic power than a political one, started the impossible task of building a fort out of stone, rather than of bricks or wood as were the conventions. Yadavas must have been able to garner a huge labour force, which means that they either had money or the means to pay the army of workers and yet with that money they retreated to the forest instead of bidding on political power. Interesting.

In the hands of the Rajputs, Ranthambore was a site of bitter rivalries between them and the Khiljees, though it was always a sort of a hiding, where kings went when out of power, pouncing on Kumbalgarh or Chittor as the opportunities came. Hamir was its legendary king, who moved in the forest, made friends with both the Bhils as well as the leopards and tigers and made them his allies against his enemies and rivals. Myths and folklore claim that Hammir was protected and guarded by a pair of black panthers.

The tiger seems to be a recent feature; for dense forests in epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are dangerous because of demons but not for tigers. We have the ghosts and spirits in the Vikram Betaal stories, but not the predators. They occasionally do stalk the jungles but not as dominant as they were when Babur and Sher Shah kill tigers. Akbar has a veritable forest policy of protecting wildlife; hence the rise in the predator population is a matter of a millennium but not of a deep past. Rather, terrifying rakshasas are seen to be killing tigers and sloth bear rather than the other way round.

It was only in the 20th century when India’s population started to rise that forests, so far considered as being impregnable to human habitation came to be encroached upon and cleared out. In the year 1973, when Indira Gandhi’s government undertook a massive road construction project that Fateh Singh, the man who is said to have restored the forest, a PWD engineer took upon himself the mission to rehabilitate the natural flora and fauna to the earth again. He was himself a man of the land, living off the forest for generations and yet, he designed and imagined the future of the earth, not in human terms but as an ecological balance of the nature’s elements. Stiffly resisted by bureaucrats who would not allow displacement of the human for the tiger, Fateh Singh continued tirelessly, supported by the friends of the then PM, most importantly, Pupul Jayakar who created a Dastakar for the displaced persons to sell crafts and other interventionists who helped in agriculture and irrigation. But the humans did not take to these kindly, as the forest was their livelihood and now to leave it for infestation of tigers would mean disaster. They kept on infiltrating and even actively promoted poaching. A wild animal is not necessary to the forest, it is needed to keep the humans off; a similar initiative in the present times is to infest the river Chambal with gharials to help the waters remain unpolluted.

It was an uphill task to ward off attacks of villagers in the forest and its guards, to reign over the poachers and to save the tiger by keeping it safe from the human. Fateh Singh started to “cultivate” tigers to earn their faith in humans. He found a tigress with five cubs; determined to save her and the cubs, he started to assure her. He named her Padmini, after his own daughter and used to visit her regularly. Initially Padmini was aggressive and defensive, she attacked Fateh Singh many times, only to be read as mock attacks. Though mortally afraid of attacks, Fateh never used a gun; he probably did not have a license either and in this way, he started the culture of forest officers to abandon weapons. Should a wild animal kill a man, so be it, but the man must never kill an animal. Encroachers are discouraged for the predators must bever get into the habit of catching milch cattle or goats as easy prey for that will make them lazy to chase the deer and eventually risk the creation of man eaters.

Out of generations of trust, tigers began to grow in Ranthambore. Encroachments and poaching remained problems, despite strong vigil. This suited Rajasthan since the state is almost wholly dependent upon tourism; the forest fetched revenues and not the encroachers. Resentful of their fate, villagers have known to attack officers, Fateh Singh being nearly fatally wounded once. In such times, was born Macchli, the legendary tigress of Ranthambore, its brightest star of national and international fame. She was massive, heavy, fast, nimble, and immensely fertile, having produced 11 live cubs. She was aggressive and yet strategic in saving her infants from the dangers in the forest and feeding them well. However, as her daughters would grow old, they would need the space, Macchli had to seek her own protection. Somewhere in her middle years, she realized that she was not as fast as she would have liked to remain. It was then, which means around 2007 that with a human intelligence, she made a strategic connection, and which was that she was supposed to be “seen”. So far, the tigers would develop “relationships” with the officers and staff but Macchli started to court the tourists. She became the most seen as well as the most filmed. She would make a kill in the presence of tourists; she would fight the crocodile and boars as she would sense cameras rolling in. An extremely self-conscious lady, Macchli became the Lady of the Lake, named after the water body around which she created her home.

It was because of Macchli’s visibility and her accessibility to the tourists, that the traffic soared into Ranthambore. The tourism industry exploded, and it drew the locals into a boisterous set of opportunities as hoteliers, restauranteurs, drivers, guides, and safari providers. There now grew also a market for handicrafts, many even charging fancy prices for the wares. Hand painted pictures of tigers and wildlife, already traditionally practiced by local people were selling swiftly. What the rehabilitation programmes of the government could not do, Macchli established with one stroke, she made tourism into such a big affair that people had more opportunities living off the forests and then living in it. The people grew protective of the forest and the tigers. Poaching slid down remarkably as the villagers were now protecting the forest and wildlife instead of considering these as enemies. Just as Jamshed Tata established the steel city, Macchli too established an entire city based around the forest. It is not for nothing that the Government of India has issued a stamp on her, given her a lifetime achievement award recognizing her contribution towards the ecology and economy of an entire business.

That Macchli did not always work on an animal instinct and instead, had a thinking mind is evident in the way she spent her final years, seeking the protection of the people and the forest officers as she lurked behind the property of Fateh Singh, the one who started an entire journey of trusting her species. She moved about in hotels and resorts, sunbathing by the side of the swimming pool ever since her daughter, Sundari, by the laws of Nature drove her off her lake over which she established her ladyship. The villagers set their dogs to kill nilgais and then served Macchli with the carcass, the forest officers also made easy prey like goats available for her. As she lay breathing her last, having stopped eating, the dedicated forest guards were constantly by her side. She died peacefully, rejoicing in the illustrious life she led and the rewards she enchased from her status by way of a peaceful demise. The Rajasthan Government declared a state of mourning of three days, a huge crowd of devotees followed her pall bearers as she was cremated with full honours. Covered in a white sheet and decorated with coloured flowers of the forest, Macchli looked as dignified in death as she did while she stalked the earth to emerge as the longest living tiger in the wild, dying only at an age of 20 full years.

Macchli has a huge fan following, a Facebook page, Instagram account, YouTube videos, where she is still searched. She had almost a human brain. Without tigers of her intelligence, Ranthambore cannot and will not survive on the strength of its hotels and bars. It is not an easy drive or the addition of hotel rooms nor the addition of safari jeeps that will sustain Ranthambore. It is a forest where people go to see the tiger; tigers must be seen and for this, everyone must put in their best efforts to cultivate more Macchlis.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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