Sariska

After years of infamy, Sariska is clawing its way back into the league of India’s premier national parks

Shashank Birla

Sariska Tiger Reserve

It was the end of 2003 when the first reports started coming in. Sariska, declared the 11th tiger reserve of the country in 1978, suddenly didn’t seem to have any tigers. As investigations would later show, habitat pressure and to a larger extent, poaching, had wiped out the presence of the animal which was, and continues to be, the face of disappearing wilds of our country.

The sheer public outcry led to concerted efforts by the government and the forest department to improve the management of the reserve and also reintroduce tigers from other reserves. Now, there is hope, and wildlife enthusiasts are returning to Sariska again.

It’s not just those in search of the big cat, either. Sariska’s recorded avian diversity has now led to it being designated as an IBA (Important Bird Area) in 2004. Several culturally significant landmarks in the area draw pilgrims and the historically inclined. 


Plan Your Trip

Getting there

Air

The closest airport is in Jaipur (120km away; about a 2.5 hour drive). The Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi is also an option (180 km away; a 4 hour drive)

Rail

This is probably the most convenient way to get to Sariska. Alwar is a major railhead, located just 35km from the park. There are several private taxis that offer drops to Sariska. They charge anywhere between ₹500 to ₹1,200, depending on the type of vehicle. State buses also ply to Sariska, with tickets costing ₹30.

Road

Some visitors also choose to combine a road trip to Sariska with two other popular destinations: the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) around 150km away, and Agra, 200km away.

best time to visit

Winter: Sariska sees its greatest influx of visitors from October to March. It is cold in the early mornings and evenings; at night, temperatures can drop to as low as 4°C during December-January. But the pleasant conditions through most of the day make safaris a pleasure. There is good wildlife movement in winter, and birdwatching is particularly rewarding, with many migrant species making Sariska their retreat during these months.

Summer: The blazing heat from April to June ensures this is off-season in Sariska. Peak temperatures in May hover around 45°C. But for the intrepid, this is actually the best time to see mammals – especially water-loving animals such as the tiger, as the park’s vegetation becomes sparse and activity becomes concentrated around water sources.

From July to September, much of the park remains closed but visitors needn’t fret. As of last year, the forest department has initiated safaris in the buffer zones during this period. It is a rare chance to see Sariska at its most beautiful – most of the park is covered in a canopy of lime green dhok trees, the dominant tree species in this park. Visitors will be able to sight big cats along with a host of other wildlife during these months too.

Stay

The park can be accessed through two main gates: Sariska and Tehla. Currently, there are more options for accommodation near the main Sariska gate, although there are some newer properties near Tehla.

Wherever you decide to stay, make sure to check the distance from the safari gate, as safari gypsies charge an additional amount for pick-ups from hotel. (The two exceptions are Sariska Palace and RTDC’s Tiger Den, both located very close to the gate.)

One can also choose to do day trips from Alwar, where there is a range of hotels catering to different budgets. Siliserh Lake Palace and The Jungle Lap are two options, roughly halfway between Sariska and Alwar.

High-end: Sariska Palace, Vanaashrya, and Trees-n-Tigers Sariska are luxury options. These range from ₹10,000 to ₹16,000 per night.

Mid-range: Sterling Resort’s Tiger Heaven and V-Resort’s Utsav Camp Sariska are good mid-range options, at around ₹6,000 to ₹8,000 per night.

Budget: The most affordable option is always the forest rest house. In Sariska, it is located right next to the safari booking office and close to the park’s boundary. However, this requires special permission and one needs to write directly to the field director to make a booking (fdsariska@gmail.com). RTDC’s Tiger Den, Alwar Bagh by Aamod and Sariska Tiger Camp are also options. They range from ₹3,500 to ₹5,000 per night.

See|Do

  • Safaris in Sariska are conducted in what is known as the ‘Core 1’ area of Sariska (not to be confused with the core zone of the park, which is off limits to tourists). Core 1 is divided into Zone 1, Zone 2 and Zone 3. Unlike its more famous cousin, Ranthambhore, there are no constant preferred zones. Guides might recommend a particular zone depending on big cat movement at the time, but all zones are worth a visit, showcasing an abundance of wildlife. In this hardy wilderness where trees such as the ber and khair abound, many visitors now report amazing sightings here.
  • Visitors should note that the recently reopened Kankwari Fort, which provides majestic views of the landscape lies in Zone 2. The fort has a chequered history: it is here that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned his brother Dara Shikoh during the 17th century.
  • Sariska is rich in birdlife. The frequently seen resident species include the Grey Francolin, Rufous Treepie and Plum-headed Parakeet. More elusive species include the Painted Spurfowl and the Indian Thick-knee. If you are very lucky, you may spot rarities such as the Dusky Eagle Owl. A variety of migrants can also be seen here, from the flamboyant Indian Pitta in summer to the many migratory ducks such as Garganey, Northern Shovellers and Tufted Pochards in the winter. You will certainly see Indian Peafowl – Sariska has possibly one of the highest concentrations of peafowl, compared to other reserves.
  • On safaris, one can expect to sight mammals such as Hanuman Langurs, Indian Grey Mongoose, Spotted Deer, Sambar Deer, Nilgai, and the Golden Jackal. If you’re lucky, you might spot predators such as the jungle cat and the striped hyena. The Chausingha has been reported here, but is rarely seen. Another rare animal here is the Asiatic Caracal, an athletic feline of the arid regions – recognised by its distinctive long black ear tufts. It was last sighted here three years ago.
  • Of course, visitors do come in search of the big cats. Sariska is not the best-known reserve for such sightings, but both leopards and tigers are sighted here fairly regularly. Leopards appear to be in good numbers, though they remain elusive, as they do in all prime tiger reserves. As for tigers, the reserve’s current estimate stands at 14, the majority of which have been reintroduced from reserves from Ranthambhore, though by now, the second generation of these individuals has also made an appearance. It remains difficult to see one, but given time, effort and plenty of luck, you may be among the lucky ones to spot this charismatic animal in all its wild glory.

Good to know

  • While Sariska isn’t as popular as some of the other tiger reserves, it is still always a good idea to book safaris in advance, particularly during the peak months of early winter.
  • When booking safaris online, you have the option to choose a zone, but depending of local conditions and weather, the final confirmation of your safari zone happens only at the safari booking office when you show your online ticket.
  • As with other major reserves, there are two slots for safaris, from 6 - 9:30 am and 3 - 6:30pm, subject to minor changes with the seasons.
  • Currently, travellers can book buffer safaris - conducted in the buffer zones of the tiger reserve - at three ticketing windows, located at Balaqila, Bhakheda and Siliserh. Safaris can be three, four or six hours in duration, depending on your preference.
  • Prehistoric cave paintings depicting forms of elephants and rhinos - animals that are no longer found here - can be seen at the Shyamsa Caves located near the Dadhikar fort, most easily accessible from Balaqila range.
  • Do not venture out alone after dark, even in areas of Sariska that seem busy during the day. Venomous snakes and large predators may be active in such areas at night.
  • The Sariska Café located next to the safari booking office provides good food and a variety of refreshments, and is a good place to exchange safari stories.
  • Don’t attempt to feed the animals and birds in public areas here. This does more harm than good for these animals – it either habituates them to such an extent that they cause damage, or affects their health when they consume food that is not suitable for them.

What to pack

  • Water bottles and caps or hats are essential during the summer.
  • Jackets, sweaters, mufflers, woollen caps and gloves during the winter.
  • ID cards for safari registrations.
  • Binoculars and camera gear.
  • An electric blanket or hot water bottle if you are prone to aches after bumpy safari rides.
  • A first aid kit and basic medicines.
  • Field guides are a great way to allow you to identify wildlife you may see on safari. Some, such as Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Indian Butterflies, are available as apps on smartphones.
  • A torch may come in handy. 
  • Chargers and spare batteries for all your electronic equipment.

For photographers

  • A minimum focal length of 250-300mm is recommended to take photographs of wildlife on safari (on point-and-shoot-cameras, this is roughly equivalent to an optical zoom of over 10x, depending on the model). Of course, Sariska provides plenty of opportunities to shoot landscapes as well so if you possess a DSLR camera, do carry wide-angle lenses in the minimum range of 10-24mm as well. 
  • It’s a good idea to pick high vantage points to shoot landscapes while on safari. Also, since the ride itself can be dusty, covering your lens with a cloth when it’s not in use can provide some degree of protection. Do remember to carry your lens cleaning kit, so you can wipe any dust or dirt off the camera lens or your binoculars after the safari.

in Between Safaris 

  • The Alwar district, within which Sariska is situated, has a rich heritage, with several sites notified by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Sariska too, has special significance in Hindu mythology – it is said that the Pandavas of the Mahabharata found sanctuary here during their last year of banishment. According to legend, it was here that Bheema, the strongest among the Pandavas, was defeated by the might of Lord Hanuman. A shrine dedicated to Lord Hanuman now stands at Pandupol (in Sanskrit, ‘the gateway of the Pandavas’), and is visited by thousands on the days that pilgrims are allowed to enter the park. The temple can be accessed while on safari.
  • There’s a touch of dark history to the area as well. The well-known Bhangarh fort, constructed by Maharaja Man Singh I, one of Emperor Akbar’s foremost military commanders, is widely believed to be one of the most haunted places in the world.
  • Sariska has two other demarcated areas known as Core 1 and Core 2 as well. There are no safaris in these areas but certain points such as the Mangalsar dam (known locally as Mansarovar lake) can be visited. It’s a good place to see a wealth of avifauna during the winter, including rarities such as the bean goose which have been recorded here. Also, look out for the Neelkanth temple built in the 8th Century, with beautiful erotic sculptures reminiscent of Khajuraho.
  • Siliserh Lake on the northeastern boundary of Sariska Tiger Reserve is a scenic location. A boat ride here will afford sightings of mugger crocodiles and various birds. If you’re lucky, you may get to see some wildlife on its banks.

Budget per person

Renting a gypsy for safaris will cost about ₹2,100 per trip, and accommodate a maximum of six people, although it would seat four more comfortably. A jeep has the advantage of greater maneuverability, and can traverse some of the narrower forest routes. A canter that seats 20 people and costs around ₹5,000 per trip would be a more economical alternative. Additional costs per vehicle include ₹300 for guide fees, ₹250 for vehicle entry, and an additional eco-development fee of ₹1,000, which goes towards the Sariska Tiger Conservation Foundation, a local NGO that works on conservation and park management issues in conjunction with the forest department. The individual entry fee is an additional ₹105 per person for Indians, and ₹570 for foreigners. All in all, a shared two night-budget stay may cost around ₹10,000 per person, inclusive of accommodation, meals and safaris.

Shashank Birla - Writer and Photographer

Shashank Birla

Writer and Photographer

Shashank Birla works in a family business in Mumbai involving imports of recovered waste paper. Passionate about wildlife since childhood, he is happiest tramping off into the wilderness whenever the opportunity arises. He has undertaken several short-term courses to improve his understanding of natural history and conservation and participates in various citizen science initiatives. He posts as @birlashashank on Instagram and blogs at shashankbirla.wordpress.com.