A tryst with lions
10th May 2003


WE ARE welcomed with marigolds and aarti, as we step off the Royal Orient at Junagad, at the base of the temple-studded Girnar hill. We drive through this small town of mosques, temples and Buddhist monuments, to the place of erstwhile Nawab of Junagad, who after independence, accede to Pakistan.
The presenter, Sharad says to the camera, “The Nawab chartered several Dakota aircrafts, to ferry his family and movable treasures across to Karachi. Interestingly, two planeloads consisted only of dogs – his pedigree pets!” I walk through the Darbar hall museum, with its display of weaponry, silver clocks, huge coloured chandeliers, silver chairs and howdahs. Everything is in place, exactly as decades ago. The walls even have photos of the last Nawab with his various beloved dogs.
“The most amusing story is about the famous wedding that the Nawab held for his pet. The Nawab, mounted on caparisoned elephants greeted the arrival of the bridegroom by train. The marriage of the two dogs” dressed in brocades and jewels, in the presence of 250 other canines was celebrated with glittering pomp and ceremony.” Laughs Sharad to the camera.
After lunch, we visit the exquisite Mahabat Makbara en route to the Gir National Park, was once the private hunting reserve of the Nawab of Junagad. In 1901, the Nawab invited the Viceroy, Lord Curzon backed off when criticized in a local newspaper and instead requested the Nawab to protect the Asiatic lions, which were on the verge of extinction. The lion population was around 20 when the Nawab enforced a ban on hunting. Today, there are about 300 lions in the Gir National Park and Lion Sanctuary, covering over 1,000 –sq-kms – the only remaining refuge of this proud and majestic species.
The dry forest shines golden in the sun, surrounded by hilly and rugged slopes. Driving through dusty tracks in the jeep, I am getting really impatient. Three hours and still no sighting. “Where have all the animals disappeared?” We only have the day and I must capture the famous Asiatic lions on film. In desperation, I beg the forest guard, Lalji, to take us on foot through the jungle, to a stream close-by.
We walk through the jungle, crackling leaves underfoot. Suddenly the guide marks to a pugmark. He knows it is a lioness, which has passed by a couple of hours ago. He tracks the lioness and eagerly follows him through the dense growth. I run down the hill and abruptly the guide stops and clamps my mouth shut with his hand. He points under the tress and there she is- a lioness sitting six feet away! We stand motionless as she looks at us disdainfully and then walks off and sits posing on a hillock. By then the cameraman and Sharad have arrived and I gesture them to get closer for a good shot.
The Asiatic Lion, one of the most endangered large carnivores globally, has a majestic mane and a big tail tuft. These lions move about in prides, comprising of two-three male adults, lionesses and cubs stay with the pride, while the males leave after they are three years old. Lion males often live in pairs that last a lifetime. However, it is the females who go out hunting in packs and bring back prey, which is first devoured by the male and only then by the rest of the pack. In the day time, they live close to the waterholes and rest in the shade and hunt mostly at night.
As we continuing filming our lioness, Lalji to the right. Two clubs gambol toward the lioness. After a quick shots, we silently retreat, as a lioness with cubs can be highly dangerous and we are not meant to be out vehicles!
Lalji now drives us to the Kamaleshwar dam. En route, I spot some antelopes and deer. He tells me, “If you’re luck you can see some leopards, panthers, jackals and hyenas.” No such luck, but a few cormorants, egrets, a long tailed paradise flycatcher and kingfishers at the reservoir, make for good shots. I see a bunch of village women walk by with heavy loads of firewood on their head. “They are Maldharis and live within the jungle.” says Lalji. These herders of buffalo and cattle graze their herds extensively in the forest. The lion population often feeds on their livestock, for which Maldharis are compensated by the government.
We now climb onto the watchtower near the Kamaleshwar dam. The view of the scrub forest and the lake at sunset fills me with a sense of wonder. Soon, the howls of the jackals welcome the moon. The water in the lake makes rippling sounds, maybe of a crocodile. Some where the distance, I hear menacing grunts. A lion is on the prowl….
  • The Royal Orient of Gujarat Tourism offers luxury tours of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The route has recently been altered.
  • Sasan Gir village is connected by train and bus to Junagad and Veraval. There are just a few hotels here, so you must book ahead by phone or through a travel agent.
  • The best season to visit is mid-October to mid-June.
  • For more further information contact Gujarat Tourism (Delhi) Tel: 23744015 (gujarattourism.com)
To contact the writer, email at travelswithcam@yahoo.com