Rajaji National Park is something I always managed to miss despite having visited Rishikesh a million times throughout my life. This time when I was in Haridwar, I was invited to stay at the Chilla Guest House of Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN). In my mind, I wanted to do a safari, spend a night there and then stay in the Haridwar city that I wanted to explore. However, I so liked the environment of Chilla that I ended up staying there for 4 days and visited the city only during the day.
I reached GMVN Guesthouse around lunchtime and after a quick bite, we quickly headed for the safari. The National Park gate is right next to the GMVN guest. After doing the formalities, accompanied by Kundan Ji – our driver cum guide, started exploring the jungles of the National Park.
History of Rajaji National Park
Spread across 800+ Sq Km, it is a fairly large park that surrounds the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh and spreads into the districts of Saharanpur, Paudi Garhwal, and Dehradun. You can well imagine that before the cities grew into what they are today, most of this area would have been jungles. Even today, when it is so close to the crowded cities, it still maintains its bio-diversity. You can see various animals and a number of birds.
Technically, there used to be 3 wildlife sanctuaries – Chilla Wildlife Sanctuary established in 1977, Moticur Wildlife Sanctuary established in 1964 and Rajaji Wildlife Sanctuary established in 1948. In 1983, they were all combined to form Rajaji National Park, and in 2015 it received the status of a Tiger Reserve. It is named after Sri C Rajagopalachari – the first Governor General of free India.
However, the National park is best known for is its elephants. I had always heard of herds elephants that you can meet while driving through the forest. In fact, this is the North Western end of Elephant corridor in India. If you further North or West from here, you would not find wild elephants.
Chilla Reserve is next to the hydropower plant. So, you see a branch of Ganga flowing here, with many seasonal rivers merging into it. In fact, the GMVN guest house is located on a narrow strip of land where one such seasonal stream meets the Ganga.
Ganga flows for about 24 km within the park. Other seasonal rivers joining it at various places. However, you would hardly see them in flow as during the dry season they are absolutely dry.
The story of Mundal Dev
We entered the national park driving slowly on the mud path meant for safari jeeps. Our first stop was near a small temple. Now if there is a temple, a story has to be there. Kundan Ji told us that the temple is dedicated to Mundal Dev. He was a local who protected the forests and the flora and fauna here from the hunters. Now, all the villagers around offer their crops to Mundal Dev first before using or selling them.
Incidentally, Mundal is also the name of a seasonal river. Kundan Ji told us that locals call it Mangetar as well. Mangetar literally means Fiancée. I was intrigued whose Mangetar is this river. He then told us this story:
Mundal River fell in love with River Ganga & wanted to marry her. He approached Shiva and other deities and requested for Ganga’s hand in marriage. Now Mundal is supposed to be a handsome river when in its flow. So, the deities agreed but they left the final decision to Ganga. When Mundal River approached Ganga, she knew he would not take a No so easily. She used her wit and said, I will marry you if you come with your Baraat in summers & closed the story. You see, the Mundal River ceases to exist in summers while Ganga is eternal.
How I love these local anecdotes that tell you the seasonality of local rivers & eternity of Ganga woven in this story.
Jeep Safari at Chilla Reserve of Rajaji National Park
As we started driving, we kept meeting the herds of Spotted Deer. They were jumping around in the forest, playing, jumping, crossing roads or drinking water. At places, they walked in front of our jeep and at places, we stopped to let them pass before we go.
Sambar deer stood alert with their ears standing. They sometimes gave us hope that we might see some big animals like a leopard or a tiger. It turned out to be a false alarm. We kept meeting lone Sambhar’s looking lost in the jungle almost at every bend.
Elephants met us in small groups of 2 and 3. It was like meeting the elephant families as every time there was a baby elephant accompanying an adult one. A parent-child pair was grazing in the distance. You realize the length of the tall grass when you see them against the giant elephant. They almost hide the elephants within their slim talk stalks.
Monitor Lizards ran here and there – making their appearance on the mud path and then vanishing into the grass, camouflaging perfectly.
Birding at Rajaji National Park
It was the end of May and we were doing an afternoon safari, I was not expecting any birds in this heat. It is when you are expecting nothing that you get your best surprises. There were so many birds that we spotted. I want to go back again in winters when the park would be full of birds.
I first saw this hawk eagle with big round yellow eyes. The beauty of this bird is that it does not fly away even if you go close to it. It sits still and lets you take whatever photos you want to take. I remember getting good shots of it even at Bandhavgarh National Park.
Close to the water bodies, we saw River Terns and Lap wigs walking leisurely and drinking water. It is a pleasure to see their reflection in the water, though to capture that you must get down the jeep that is not allowed within national parks.
Multi-colored birds like Green Bee Eaters, Indian Rollers, Parakeets, Kingfishers, Yellow-footed Green pigeons jumped around. They so easily stand out because of their attractive colors. One of the parakeets peeped out of a hole in the tree trunk – it was a delight to see it go in and out of the tree as if it was playing hide and seek.
Most colorful and large birds were of course Peacocks who proudly roamed around with their prized wings. They could be found almost everywhere across the park.
Jungle fowls whose colors one can never count till you catch them ran around. They always challenge me as a photographer & I bow down most of the times.
Black and white Robins and Magpies tree hopped in a hurry.
Spotted doves lazily sat on dry branches of the trees.
Grey hornbills flew and always chose to sit on faraway trees hidden from the jeep path. I did manage to capture a juvenile on a branch.
Jungle babblers were babbling around as usual. Of course, there were birds I could not identify but totally enjoyed watching them living a life as free as possible.
Towards the end of our safari, as the sun went down, it created a lovely landscape to drive through. Sun played around with the trees around while engulfing the whole place in its golden warmth. It was also an indication that it is time to leave the forest to itself.
Read More – 15 Best Places for Birding in Goa
You need to choose hotels based on which part of Rajaji National Park you want. If you want to explore the Chilla Reserve as I did, the best place to stay is – GMVN guest house. It has beautiful log huts that overlook the Ganga. It is a perfect place to go for a morning walk and look at the Ganga up close and personal.
- Chilla Reserve of Rajaji National Park is conveniently located in the middle of Rishikesh and Haridwar. It is a hot favorite outing spot for most locals.
- Park remains closed during monsoon season – typically from mid-June to mid-November.
- You can do a morning Safari between 6-9 AM or an afternoon Safari between 3-6 PM. I always suggest a morning safari if it fits into your schedule.
- Best time to visit this sanctuary would be Oct-March.
- There is a souvenir shop right outside the Chilla Reserve gate where you can buy a lot of interesting souvenirs on a wildlife theme.
- As always, avoid bright colored clothes in the national park and cover yourself as much as possible.