Entering the vast bowl of Ranthambhore's National Park, it's difficult not to visualise tigers everywhere. The dense scrubby undergrowth, green for just a few weeks during the wet season, is the perfect backdrop for the creeping hunt of a tiger to take place.
Winding among the steep valley sides, home to the park's bears and leopards, the safari trail takes you between dark-and-dense dhok forest one minute, and the blazing sunlight of open plains the next. Rising into the highlands, you can see how the herb-filled plateaus, sandy plains and steep, forested hillsides come together to create an extraordinary variety of habitats.
The park's epic, mirror-like lakes are bordered by acacia thickets and lush reed beds, teeming with deer and birdlife, and peppered with the drifting heads of mugger crocodiles. Among the ruins of a Maharani's private temple on the bank, it's not uncommon to see one of the park's tigers resting among decayed grandeur. Besides being one of the very best places to see wild tigers, it also marks the western boundary of their distribution on Earth — and the only place in Rajasthan to encounter them.
As well as its richly diverse non-human population, millions of visiting pilgrams head toward the sprawling 10th century Ranthambhore Fort each year. Perched 200m above the park, it seems in places to be magically suspended along hundreds of metres along the preciptously ragged edge. Many cross the park on foot to reach its temples, dedicated to Lords Shiva, Ghanesh and Ramlalaji. It provides ample opportunity for both spiritual and aesthetic enlightenment, and the perfect place to watch the sun go down on the truly epic landscape below.
Ranthambhore's terrain is mostly rugged and hilly, and intimately related to the Great Boundary Fault, sitting between the folded peaks of the Aravali mountains and Vindyahn hills. A mix of ridges and gentle slopes creates a undulating landscape with small plateaus and valleys between, overlooked with table-top plateus.
To the south west of Great Boundary Fault are the Vindhya hills, with their sandstone beds making up extensive tablelands known as dangs. These rise abruptly from the flat ground, creating bold, vertical cliffs. Shallow soil and a lack of moisture causes a dry and leafless environment in the summer, but the monsoons prompt a lush green revival, attracting an array of predators and prey.
Over millenia, small seasonal streams (known as nallas) have eroded deep, long and narrow gorges among the dangs, which remain cool and retain moisture all year, providing refuge for wildlife during the heat of summer days.
The reserve, with its sub-tropical dry climate, has three very well defined seasons – summers, winters and monsoons. October sees end of the moonsoons, with summer beginning in March.
In the larger, flat-bottom valleys below, the rich soil sustains a wider variety of vegetation, leading to grasslands and wetland areas too. These are a great focus for wildlife throughout the year, which inevitably leads to a high chance of spotting a tiger making the most of the rich pickings.
With a largely dry habitat keeping visibility high, it can be surprisingly easy to see more secretive wildlife in Ranthambhore.
There are over 320 species of birds, more than 40 species of mammals and over 35 species of reptiles, with mugger crocodiles being the most conspicuous of the latter.
Besides tigers, there other wild cats to discover, including leopards, caracals, jungle and rusty-spotted cats. Rare fishing cats and leopard cats have also been reported, if not verified.
Sambhar, spotted deer (chital), blue bull (nilgai), Indian gazelle (chinkara) and wild boar are also present in good numbers, as are sloth bear, Indian fox, jackals and several species of civet and mongoose. You may also see striped hyena, and - if you're very lucky - Indian wolf and wild dog (dhole).
Ranthambhore's rich history spans the centuries. The reserve takes its name from the ancient hill fort, perched 700ft above the steep valleys below.
Now a Hindu pilgrimage site attracting millions of visitors a year, it's seen a long and bloody history with many of the slain warriors buried where they lay, leading to stories that the very bricks and mortar are built from the blood of the fallen.
Its early origins are unclear, but it's widely believed that the Chauhan rajput King Sapaldaksha started construction in 944 AD, on site initially settled in the 8th century.
The Chauhan reign, and the building of the fort continued for the next few centuries culminating in a golden age with its most famous ruler, Rao Hammir Deo Chauhan. The famous battis kambha chhattri (32-pillar canopy), which can still be seen today, was built to mark the 32nd year of his father's reign.
In 1301, Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, finally ended the reign of the Chauhans after several long sieges. The fort still bears panels of stone depicting the brave defending warriors, and the johar (ritual suicide, mostly by fire), committed by over a thousand women in the face of Khilji's forces.
The great Mughal Emperor Akbar took over the Fort in 1558, dissolving the State of Ranthambore. The Akbar Namah records the menu served to his general under the famous banyan tree that still grows at the base of the ramparts, and is considered to be India's second largest.
Mughal rulers remained until the mid-18th century, when Sawai Madho Singh, then Maharaja of Jaipur, requested the fort be handed over. It eventually it became a royal hunting reserve, turning the focus of the battles away from the fort, and towards the surround landscape .
By the early 20th century, population growth and the wholesale felling of forest for firewood and charcoal was taking its toll. In 1925, the Jaipur state appointed a Superintendent of Forests and, in 1939 the Jaipur Forest Act was enacted, banning grazing and tree-felling in areas of the forests used for royal hunting by the royalty.
It wasn’t until the Rajasthan Forest Act of 1953, that the forests gained some legal protection, with declaration of Sawai Madhopur game sanctuary in 1955 making Ranthambhore one of the first protected areas in India, It took another decade for the fort to come under the auspices of the Archeological Survey of India.
Despite landscape protection, legal hunting still remained commonplace over the next few decades, including a shooting party for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1961, where two tigers were set up to be shot.
Then in 1973, Ranthambhore became one of the first reserves of Project Tiger. This bought a full ban on hunting, and the now legendary Park Director Fateh Singh Rathore embarked on an amitious period of habitat restoration. By 1979, 12 of the 16 villages inside the sanctuary had been relocated outside its borders.
282 sq km of the inner part of Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary was declared National Park in 1980, banning the collection of forest produce, with a further 647sq km of forests to the North becoming Kela Devi Sanctuary in 1984, and 130 sq km to the South (Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary) the following year.
By the mid-1980s, Ranthambhore was widely regarded as the best place in the world to see wild tigers. While the 1990s saw a sharp increase in poaching, the park boasted nearly 40 tigers by 2002, one of the highest densities in the world. Another bout of poaching in 2003 took numbers below 30 again, prompting increased protection from the authorities.
Today, Ranthambhore’s tiger numbers are the highest they’ve been since Emperors battled over the ruined ramparts above.
• The magnficent banyan-covered entrance into the heart of the park. You can also catch a glimpse of India's second-largest (and ancient) banyan as you enter
• Epic views across the huge lakes, with all the wonderfully evocative architecture and drifting crocodiles you could wish for
• Hugely diverse bird life, with raptors, owls and stunning migratory visitors taking the spot-list into the hundreds
• The 10th century Ranthambhore Fort with its bustling temples, endless stream of pilgrims and panoramic views
• A chance to encounter the world's most famous tigress: Machali, the Queen of Ranthambhore
• Plenty of mother and cub tiger groups