On the hour-long drive from the railway station in Falna to Bera in Rajasthan’s Pali district, I imagine a shower of leopards. The physical landscape accommodates several other wild mammals—hyenas, foxes, nilgai, even sloth bears—but, betraying my amateurish big cat bias, my mental terrain is populated exclusively by falling leopards.

One need not be an expert to tell that we are driving through leopard country. Beyond the gleaming paddy fields—it is a rainy morning—but never too far away, stand little hillocks, conglomerations of boulders giant and small. They contain crevices and crannies that seem custom-built for a shy animal’s midday naps.

Some write-ups on the topography describe it as “post-apocalyptic". To me, it appears very much of this world, of the world of men and women, and the business of their lives. In the typically Indian way, some of the boulders have been written on in chalk, conveying declarations of loyalty to a woman or a political party. All the way or half-way up some of the hillocks are the spires and flags of little temples.

Ring-necked parakeets perch on the power lines, while common sandpipers sift through the dirt below. Occasionally, sinister-looking greater coucals make an appearance, their big, coppery brown wings managing to suggest the opposite of light-footed flight and whimsy. Snot-nosed, pot-bellied children chase the lurid gutka packets that streak the trickling village gutters.

My two companions and I are guests at Castle Bera, the ancestral haveli of the descendants of Rana Pratap’s fourth son, Rana Shekha. The four bedrooms, the dining room and the reception all contain relics of princely nostalgia, including photographs of men in polo breeches and the odd woman sporting oversized sunglasses. The republic may be quick to dismiss that world as irrelevant, but the edifice of modern feudalism (and heritage tourism) is built on the small courtesies and great imbalances of the past.

One need not be an expert to tell that we are driving through leopard country. Photo: Sandeep Mall
One need not be an expert to tell that we are driving through leopard country. Photo: Sandeep Mall

Our delightful hosts are very much men of the world—they have returned to their princely destiny only after the exile of youth. Thakur Baljeet Singh (or Winkuji, as he is known) lived and worked in Mumbai for several years. His son Yaduveer studied hotel management in Manipal, before completing apprenticeships in Mumbai and Jodhpur. They carry a self-assurance that comes with knowing the lay of the land in a way that city people find difficult to grasp.

Green eyes

In the evening, we are driven to the top of one of the hillocks by Behru, a young man of rakish style. He is one with the machine—he revs and breaks over the crags, nonchalantly skipping away from edges and drops, until we reach a spot with an expansive view of the Jawai Bandh, the lake created by the damming of the Jawai river. Peppered with little shrub islands, the water body tapers off into cloud-coloured crow’s feet. There is no sign—yet—of the 300 or so crocodiles that are said to inhabit these waters.

When shadows fall, we are stationed on the smooth rock opposite a wide hill pockmarked with cave openings. Through the lens, we can see a pair of Rabari shepherds, easily identifiable by their red turbans, calmly chaperoning a large flock of goats.

The Bera leopard displays a lack of interest in domestic scenes. It does not pounce or lurch or threaten to assault. Footmarks on the oily floor in the hillock shrines, we are told, are evidence that it visits the gods after humans have left for the day-

When we have given up hope, the guide shines a hand-held lamplight on the hill face. Green eyes flash back at us. A friendly leopard is half-concealed by the tongue-shaped rock. He looks down at us as if it is just another day.

The talk over dinner at Castle Bera is of spottings and sightings. We learn that a mere 20 sq. km of the Jawai Bandh area had been declared a leopard conservation zone in 2003. Most of the leopards, however, are found outside the designated zone. That is why the area is often held up as an exemplar of the absence of man-animal conflict. In these parts, there is a spiritual connection with the leopard. The locals consider it to be an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Mata.

By all accounts, it is an easy peace. The leopards have been known to pick up livestock on their nightly prowls through the dusty villages—locals do not offer any resistance. In turn, the Bera leopard displays a lack of interest in domestic scenes. It does not pounce or lurch or threaten to assault. Footmarks on the oily floor in the hillock shrines, we are told, are evidence that it visits the gods after humans have left for the day. This generation of the Bera leopard does not know the hunter’s bullet.

But this is India after all, and there is no question of paradise. The politics of land plagues the tourism industry that has mushroomed around the area. Many of the leopard hillocks stand on private property, and landowners are being asked to provide exclusive access in exchange for large sums of money. A couple of operators have been known to fix sightings by getting their trackers to attract leopards with huge hunks of carcass. It is the only way to justify tariffs of Rs70,000 a night.

Spotting one

Next morning, in the inky darkness and cold, we are driven to one such private property in the village of Perwa. A flight of steps built into the side leads to a temple peeking out from between big boulders.

The caretaker priest walks up the steps for the morning prayer. A few minutes later and 50m away, we spot a female leopard undertaking morning stretches. Her coat is mesmeric, muscles ripple through taut skin. This—the sacred, first few seconds of spotting and movement—is the point of it all.

There are few pleasures in life greater than basking in the sunlight of early winter in north India. The crocodiles must know this too, but they would rather wait for noon to reveal themselves fully. For now, they are half-submerged in the shimmering sea that is the Jawai Bandh, as long and as still as weathered logs. Again, we are reeled in by the first hypnotic tail lash as they propel themselves forward, slowly.

Lulled into somnolence by the fantastic food from the Castle Bera kitchens, we while away the afternoon on the modest ramparts, wallowing in the easy hospitality and alternate visions of the future. A move closer to nature, perhaps? Escape Delhi, flee Mumbai. In the beautiful sit-out just beyond the dining room, our pipe dreams are lightly scented by the flowers from Winkuji’s garden.

For our final safari, Yaduveer drives us to yet another hillock. Six pairs of eyes—two cubs and an adult—peek out from the background of a crevice. One pair of eyes is blue. This is the money shot—the amateur photographers scramble for their lenses. Yaduveer, the young veteran, already has his images. I forget to ask what he makes of the sacred seconds, has routine dulled even his capacity for wonder?

It’s late evening, and Yaduveer senses that the leopards will be descending the hillock on their way to a water body close by. He drives us around the base, and sure enough—with the help of a spotlight—we notice movement behind the cactii and kikar lining the bottom. The creature slips out of sight.

The spotlight is switched off for a few, interminable seconds. Even silhouettes are dying rapidly in the darkness. Yaduveer shines the light towards the back, almost in his blind spot. A second adult leopard is simply sitting there on its haunches. I try to play it cool, while running fingers over my goose bumps.

Next morning, we leave for Udaipur, two and a half hours away. The lean and swarthy Fateh Singh, chief of staff, says goodbye with his deep, handsome eyes. We are sorry to leave. We hold our gaze on the hillocks and scrub, but spot no leopards on the way out of Bera—the magic has become stale, the sacred seconds have passed.

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