Ramathra Fort

Sunrise over Ramathara
 Winter sun

As a kid, the month of March was one of my favorite times in the year. It was in March, we as a family (back then 30 of us, elderly, uncles, aunts, cousins) would make our annual trip to Kaila Devi temple near Karauli in Rajasthan. For us kids, it was a grand event - it was a family get together. All the kids would wake up earlier than usual in order to get dibs on seats in the family's prized Jonga, the adults in other cars and we would make our way to Karauli in an armada that would put the Spaniards to shame. 
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Wildlife in Kaila Devi National Park
Indian Fox during the Jungle Safari

It was essential that we traveled together in a group as the area was (till the 90s) notorious for dacoits and kidnappings. The region is also densely forested with criss crossing ravines so deep that even the Sun's rays can't penetrate it's floor. We would stay the night in a dharamshala, bathe early morning in cold water straight out of a well, pay homage to the goddess Kaila Devi and head back or onwards to our next destination which was either Mahavirji or Mehdipur Balaji. Not once, did we venture beyond the temple complex to the Kaila Devi Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS).

Bhanwar palace karauli
Live like royalty in Karauli

Now that I have founded Travel With - a wildlife and back to nature travel company, I am always on the look out for off-the-beaten parts in India. Places that are not yet commercial but authentic, rich in wildlife, nature and heritage. Kaila Devi Wildlife Sanctuary came as an obvious choice to explore given it's close proximity to Agra (3.5 hours), Jaipur (3.5 hours) and Delhi NCR (7 hours). Most tourists do not venture beyond the temple because of the region's notorious past and also due to lack of information about comfortable places to stay, eat and explore. Interestingly, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve shares it's boundaries with KWS and is a corridor for wildlife including tigers.

Forts of India
The Fort in Monsoon 

I recently visited Karauli and I did so with the intentions of exploring KWS which is known to have a sizeable population of wolves, hyenas and sloth bears. I'm not hung up on tigers but on the lesser known mammals, birds etc. that inhabit our forests. Regardless of the wildlife, the quest of exploring a new region, especially one that I have fond childhood memories of was exciting. 

The Night Sky

My first stop, a comfortable three hour drive from Agra on excellent roads was Karauli city. Crowded with vehicles and people, it is the gateway to Kaila Devi temple which is another 45 minutes drive from the city, mainly because the roads are really bad leading up to the temple. Most people halt in Karauli, visit the temple and then head back home. Karauli does have a palace and the royal family has a heritage hotel which is a great option to stay overnight if you're visiting the area. The ambience and rooms are very princely and food and hospitality outstanding. A visit to the Karauli city palace and a tour of the historic by lanes of the main bazar are worth the time in Karauli.

Maheshra Kho - Kaila Devi National Park
Maheshra Kho - Kaila Devi Wildlife Sanctuary

KWS is around 700 sq. km of scrubby dry forests with gorges also known as a 'kho' in Hindi that swell up with waterfalls during the rainy season. The Sanctuary serves as the buffer zone for Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, however, KWS has over 40 villages and thousands of cattle inside. Then there are migratory graziers who cause significant damage to the ground vegetation by overgrazing in the forest.  This poses a big challenge to the Forest Department who intends to make it a safe corridor for leopards, sloth bears, wolves etc and the occasional tiger that makes its way from Ranthambore in to KWS. Man-animal conflict is common as wolves, leopards and tigers prey on cattle. 

Waterfalls in Rajasthan
Kurkeshwar Waterfall in the Monsoon

If you're visiting KWS you must visit some of the khos (gorges) in the plateau. The natural landscape is outstanding and views are breathtaking. I was shocked to see the depth of some of these khos and also surprised to know their existence as when you're driving on a flat surface you don't expect it to all of a sudden give way to over a 100 feet of free falling cliffs! Dangerous and difficult to go down a kho as wildlife call these dense ravines home. There are recorded sightings of two adult tigers with two cubs in KWS but who knows how many more there are, as the area is not rigorously monitored.

Daang Plateau
Monsoon in the Daang

If you are specifically going for wildlife, I recommend you get a vehicle with high ground clearance as you will have to go off road to reach some of the khos. There are no jeeps/gypsies available in Karauli and elsewhere. This makes exploring the region rather challenging and knowing the who's who of the region is very critical.

Luxury hotels Karauli
Outdoor Jacuzzi

I explored the Karanpur range and the forests around Sapotara. As we drove in the interiors and away from the villages it became more dry, dusty and warmer than normal. At points we were completely off road but thanks to my friend Mr. Ravi Pal Singh, the owner of Ramathra Fort and a local tracker we were able to manoeuvre without getting lost. It would be safe to say that venturing in to KWS without local intel is a terrible idea. Ravi's ancestors were granted a jagir - Ramathra by the Maharaja of Karauli in 1645. His family has graciously opened up their 17th century fort as a luxury heritage resort. Ramathra is devoid of traffic, pollution and all things urban (including the television). His father Thakur Brijendra Raj Pal ji and Ravi's son Udit are equally fond of wildlife and the wilderness and are excellent hosts.

Painted Sandgrouse
Painted Sandgrouse

I strongly recommend going on jungle drives early in the morning or at dusk if you're keen to observe wildlife and birds. During migratory season, several birds can be spotted in KWS.

Ramathra Fort Rajasthan
Winter Mornings in Ramathra

I didn't spot any wolves during this visit, I thought I did but they turned out to be Jackals! I did see the Indian Fox, Nil Gai, Chinkara (Indian Gazelle), Cheetal (Spotted deer), Hyena, Jungle cat, Indian hare, Indian Grey Mongoose, crocodiles and several species of birds such as painted spur fowl, painted sand grouse, black stork, flamingos, pelicans, common wood shrike, plum headed parakeets, alexandrine parakeets, larks, owls, drongos, quails, weavers, swallows, vultures and buntings etc. We also saw fresh tiger pug marks in one of the khos beyond Ramathra. Desert, Jungle and Rusty-spotted cats have also been spotted by the Ramathra team in KWS.

Magical Sunset in Rural Rajasthan
What an end to the day!
Photo: Ramathra Fort

I believe KWS is a great place to explore if you've been there and done that and Ramathra Fort is your best bet to stay in when in the area. Wildlife sightings are all about luck and timing and I am pretty sure I will be back to see wolves and other animals and further explore this wildlife sanctuary. 

A trip to KWS can be combined with a trip to either Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and/or Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

If you need help planning a holiday to Kaila Devi WS, please email info@travelwith.in or call (+91) 9717148483.