Discovering JAWAI: The Leopard Country with Thakur Baljeet Singhji of Bera
Photo courtesy: Urvashi Singh
Sherwood, a male leopard at Jawai
Bordering Gujarat, Rajasthan’s South Western region is popularly referred to as Godwar, meaning the water (god) territory (war). The Sukri river and its tributaries gush through its otherwise arid and rocky terrain before joining the Westward Luni river. Back in 1946, Jodhpur’s Maharaja Umaid Singhji had commissioned a dam project in Jawai for 2 crores to cater to irrigation in the Pali and Jalore districts. The Jawai dam, also known as Jawai bandh attained completion after eleven years of hard work and forms the largest dam of Western Rajasthan. Not only is it the main water reservoir for all of Pali district, but the decades following its establishment have witnessed Jawai becoming home to many migratory birds, and its erstwhile flora and fauna have further thrived. Moreover, thirty-odd lakes in this locality provide ample waterholes for Jawai’s territorial and aerial fauna.
A bird's eye view of Jawai's Sena Village
The Jawai Bandh / Jawai Dam
Rabaris constitute the region’s dominant community of shepherds, whose cattle and Jawai’s clusters of wild boards and antelopes serve as prey base for Jawai’s iconic wild cats-the leopards. After hunting in the thick of the night, these majestic panthers prowl about their caves to bask in the Sun atop a territorial rock. Should their livestock serve as an occasional casualty, the Rabaris surrender to its fate as divinely ordained by their fountainheads, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Their bony frames are accentuated by fitted white angrakhas atop white dhotis; and can be spotted from afar due to their scarlet turbans. They escort flocks of goats, cows, buffaloes and camels to nearby pasturelands in between dawn and dusk, and make for an unmissable sight to the increasing throngs of Jawai’s safari-bound tourists.
Not very far from this symphonic wilderness, there lie concrete Jain colonies, home to a sizeable community of rich and affluent families that found fortunes in faraway cities, and the pristine white domes of their numerous temples. Nestled amidst one of these colonies in Bera is the present-day dwelling place of the erstwhile jagir’s Ranawat clan, its Rawla. A faction of Bera Rawla’s premises is the contemporary hospitality domain of its younger Thakur sahib, Baljeet Singhji, wherein he hosts diverse flocks of tourists from all around the world. Castle Bera, as it is now known is a quaint homestay of five rooms that emanates an unassuming and jovial essence identical to its host. And although it is far from claiming itself to be a luxury homestay, it derives its old world charm in the rare and personalised hospitality extended by Thakur Baljeet Singhji, or Winku bana as he is fondly known as.
Banner courtesy: Castle Bera
Come rain, hail or the scorching summer sun, there isn’t a safari that Winku bana would voluntarily miss. His dark green gypsy awaits him twice everyday, once before dawn and once around late afternoon. Freshly shaven and donning a safari hat, Winku bana serves as the driver Narayan’s ace shotgun for each safari, regardless of whether there are guests to be taken along or not. His keen enthusiasm for Jawai’s native cats was nurtured right from his childhood days, when his father would take him along for their daily sighting adventure. Now at over 60 years of age, Winku bana does the same with his children and guests. Every morning carries with it the hope for a rare sighting, a gorgeous sunrise and the thrill of venturing out into the rugged terrains of his homeland. Throughout his life, he has either discovered or been confided in with knowledge on over fifteen safari routes across Jawai. Host to the region’s oldest lodging, it comes as less of a surprise that its more recent hoteliers are barely beginning to grasp a few.
Upon returning from his evening outing from the arid forest, Winku bana shares fond childhood memories over two Bera pegs of whiskey in water, a reference to his preferred pegs of 10 or 15 ml each, depending on the size of the bottle cap. His infectious laughter makes it nearly impossible for the visitor not to crack up in amusement to Winku bana’s animated collection of anecdotes. Juxtaposed with these comical descriptions of life’s oddities is the veteran’s unparalleled passion for wildlife and conversations.
The ardent follower, admirer and friend of the fabled M.K. Ranjitsinhji proudly shares hand-signed books of India’s biggest wildlife pioneer, who also happens to be wedded to Winku bana’s immediate sister-in-law. And unlike the usual conservationist, Winku bana is a man of few words but much meaning. His observations seldom honour conventional happenings. Rather, he shares the very essence of Jawai’s wildlife as one of its oldest and most heartfelt companions. He laments the recent overpopulation of hotels and tourists in the area, which is evidently pushing back Jawai’s already hesitant leopards further back into their shells. Poor safari knowledge, irresponsible tourism and the absence of government regulations over Jawai are unitedly contributing towards his homeland’s ruination and true to his cause, Winku bana is amongst the few nature lovers who have learned to continue being wistfully in love with Jawai through its incumbent blotting. After all, what temporarily serves most of us as an exotic getaway essentially comprises of the very foundations of his past, present and future.
Another capture of Sherwood
A cub spotted with his sibling's tail in sight
Laksmi, a leopardess descends down a hill at dawn near Sena
Leopard hills at dusk
The priest at Bera's Ram Temple