Ranthambore National Park is the highest grossing national park in India by revenue, and the second most visited. It is one of the only national parks in the country that sits firmly on the international tourist trail, and the only one where international visitors outnumber domestic ones. But in this heavily touristed place, the only site most people see on their visit to the area is the park itself.
The town where I am working on a rural tourism project with Udyogini, Khandar, is less than two hours from Ranthambore’s main gate, but tourists – domestic and international – almost never venture there. Far from being for lack of worthy things to visit, visitors whom I’ve shown around Khandar agree that it is one of the most interesting places they’ve seen in India. In this post, I’ll give a tour of some of the places that make Khandar a worthy visit.
Home to ancient, winding streets, busy markets, and stunning views of Khandar Fort looming overhead, Kasbah Khandar is Khandar’s historical heart. The streets are crowded with vendors selling vegetables, chai, haircuts, agricultural supplies, and everything in between. Although you may have to dodge a few pigs, walking around this part of town is fascinating.
Kasbah Khandar is also home to several beautiful Hindu and Jain temples. At the town’s oldest Jain temple, devotees happily invite visitors to view and participate in their ceremonies, like one in which worshipers bathe their stone idol at the above temple, then walk through town to another temple while singing prayer songs, before bathing another idol there.
Khandar Fort, or Qila Khandar, is believed to be about a thousand years old. Controlled by Mewar Kings, Bargujars, Mughals, Rajputs, and the British Raj before becoming a part of modern India, the fort has seen many rulers, and was strategically important during much of the medieval period. Today, its three crumbling entrances see few visitors on an average day, but those who do journey up the fort are amazed to find seven temples, an ancient Hawa Mahal (wind palace), two massive stone cut tanks holding water, and a picnicking spot where water is naturally filtered by porous rocks. In September of every year, the town of Khandar goes up to the fort together to worship at some of its famous temples and relax above the town. Use caution when exploring – tigers and other wild animals have been known to sleep in the fort’s ruins!
The Chambal River
The Chambal River, home to the National Chambal Sanctuary and Rameshwaram Ghat, is home to one of the only large populations of gharial crocodiles in the world. Visitors who take one of the tourist boats on offer at the National Chambal Sanctuary will very likely see crocodiles, rare migratory birds, turtles, and other wildlife. The peaceful Chambal is said to be the cleanest large river in India due to superstitions around development near it because of an ancient curse placed on its waters by Queen Draupadi. The Chambal is also one of the principal tributaries of the Ganga.
The shores of the Chambal are also home to Rameshwaram Ghat and its associated temple. At the confluence (sangam) of the Chambal and Banas rivers, the temple is said to sit in a particularly holy location, and devotees come from around India to pray there. At the temple, devotees take shifts to sing prayer songs around the clock, 365 days a year, so it is never silent. A fornight after dipawali, people from around the region converge on Rameshwaram to visit the temple and bathe in the Chambal’s waters as part of a festival.
Also at Rameshwaram Ghat, visitors can take a slow wooden ferry across the Chambal to the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh. Before a bridge was built down the river about 20 years ago, ferries like these were the only means that people in the area could travel between the two banks. Even today, the ferry is a vital link between the two sides of the river, with patrons heaving their heavy motorbikes aboard to avoid going far out of the way to reach the bridge.
Gilai Sagar Dam
Sitting on the edge of Ranthambore National Park, locals and visitors head to this dam for its fantastic views into the back of the park, which is off limits to tourist safaris and otherwise unseen. The area hosts crocodiles, tigers, and exotic birds, but most breathtaking is the view of the Aravalli hills reflected perfectly in the reservoir’s still waters. The best time to go is around sunset.
Khandar is home to two old, richly decorated step wells. Although not much is known about these specific wells, others around Western India were built as a way of accessing reliable groundwater sources, starting between the 2nd and 4th century CE and remaining popular through the 16th century. Pumping technology has reduced the need for these elaborately decorated wells, so today they stand testament to India’s long history of technological and artistic sophistication.
Khandar has an agricultural economy, and one of its foremost crops is chilly. Every winter the lower slopes of a mountain bordering Ranthambore National Park are taken over by chilly traders who turn it into a massive open air chilly drying, sorting, and shipping center for the region. The scale of the operation is amazing even for locals. Workers at the site are happy to sell you some chilly wholesale, but be careful – the chillys grown in this part of Rajasthan are famously hot.
Khandar’s sites deserve to be seen by more outsiders, but that’s not all the town has to offer. What truly makes the area a unique visit is experiencing local culture and interacting with its people. In my next blog post, I’ll talk more about this aspect of a visit to Khandar, which Udyogini hopes to make the true centerpiece of its rural homestay program.
Khandar Fort. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2019, from http://www.sawaimadhopuronline.in/city-guide/khandar-fort
Lautman, V. (2013, June 28). “India’s Forgotten Stepwells.” Retrieved March 15, 2019, from http://www.archdaily.com/395363/india-s-forgotten-stepwells/
National Chambal Sanctuary. (2017, April 14). Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://www.outlookindia.com/traveller/mp/mptourism/national-chambal-sanctuary/
Rameshwar Ghat Fair. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2019, from http://sawaimadhopur.rajasthan.gov.in/content/raj/sawai-madhopur/en/about-sawai-madhopur/festival-/rameshwar-ghat-fair.html
Singh, R. (2017, May 24). “Ranthambore Tops all Tiger Reserves in Earnings. The Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/ranthambore-tops-all-tiger-reserves-in-earnings/articleshow/58817058.cms