It’s November and a weak winter sun has just begun to worm its way under my many layers of woollens. Our guide, at the wheel of the jeep, has been leaning over the door for a while, examining a large set of pugmarks and muttering under his breath. “Should be a tiger here somewhere,” he says fretfully. Twenty seconds later, we go round a bend in the forest road and, as I raise my eyes, I hear him say, “Tiger on the road! Tiger on the road!”
The tiger is walking deliberately down the exact centre of the path with the lazy gait of the all-powerful. There is no doubt in the mind of either the tiger or the tourists that the road belongs to him. He is a study in raw health. The sun glances off his coat and the tips of his whiskers. His colour is not the flame red or orange of drawing books, but a true and buttery gold, like silk lit up from within. His massive head sways a little, a large furry ball; the rest of him is muscle and sinew. He shines.
The guide edges up very close, so that we’re following at a distance of 15 ft. The big cat doesn’t even look around. He stops at a tree, turns his magnificent profile to us and raises his tail to spray the bark. Another jeep, approaching from the other side, can see neither him nor us and our frantic ‘Stop!’ signs. As the vehicle rounds the bend and slams to a halt, the tiger, squeezed between two vehicles, lets out an annoyed roar and steps off the road into the jungle.
Most forests are full of surprises and beautiful, occasionally transcendent moments. But there is nothing to beat one’s first sighting of a tiger in the wild. And to hear old hands tell it, every time is like that magical first time, marked by the same suspension of breath, the same dreadful awe, the same rearing of the most basic human instincts — attraction to beauty and fear of the predator. This is my first time, here in Bandhavgarh National Park, a small tract of protected forest in Madhya Pradesh that was once the shikargarh (game reserve) of the maharajas of Rewa and has in the last few years become as synonymous with the tiger at Ranthambhore or Kanha. Bandhavgarh is known for having the highest density of tigers of any National Park in the country — despite the fact that the erstwhile rulers enthusiastically adhered to the belief that it was lucky for the monarch to shoot 109 tigers. We follow the tiger’s progress via disgruntled bellows emanating from the undergrowth, then race down to catch him emerging to cross the road at another point. A quick exchange with other jeep drivers establishes that he’s on his way to a rendezvous with his mate, a tigress with four cubs, who is lying up in the tall grass at the edge of the forest some distance away. As soon as the beast has disappeared for the second time, we pelt up the road to where Forest Department elephants are saddled up and already ferrying tourists back and forth for a close look at the mother and cubs.
Twenty-five vehicles are standing in line full of people waiting for their turn on one of the three elephants, the third a young female who is not yet fully grown. While the male tusker and the adult female stroll back and forth with a certain cynical weariness, this little lady trots around like the eager-to-please trainee she is. We leap off the jeep and onto the huge tusker — I’m rather pleased about this because we’ll be a good 12 ft off the ground, and while a tiger is an unspeakably beautiful thing, it is also terrifying, and there is such a thing as getting too close to one.
Our elephant sets off down a grassy path to where the other elephants are standing. The approach is fortuitous: the tigress sees everyone coming a long way off, no surprises. Still, it’s amazing to me that in the face of three huge beasts standing 5 ft from her, with enormous camera lenses trained on her and the occasional whispered comment from the tourists, she doesn’t turn a hair.
In fact, she’s so unruffled that she barely opens her eyes; and soon enough she stretches out and falls asleep, the white on her face and belly whiter than any Surf-washed shirt. She and the cubs are recuperating from an enormous meal of chital, the carcass of which is lying next to her; one cub is snoring on his back with all his paws in the air and his distended little belly soaking in the sun; the other is still feeding on the deer. The other two have apparently gone off to play in the forest.
We watch for a couple of minutes, and the mahout considerately turns the elephant around so that everyone gets a good look. I’m in awe of how totally unconcerned about our presence the tigress and cubs are. Eventually, we turn around and lumber back to the road. Back in the jeep, we watch the tigers for an hour through the binoculars and the tall grasses; for a second, the mother’s great striped face looks me straight back in the eye and my knees turn to water even as my heart leaps with excitement.
Bandhavgarh’s so-called Tiger Show is as wonderful as it is awful. On the upside, the park’s size, the organised way in which it’s run and the efficient information dissemination makes it very likely that you will see at least one tiger over a stay of three or four days. On the downside, this lends an assembly-line quality to the experience, and demands less of tourists — for instance, the tigers are relatively used to jeeps and humans, which means that they are, in a sense, not as wild as other tigers may be. And of course, tourists feel less constrained to modify their city-bred behaviour; one of the most upsetting things about the Indian jungle is that tourists continue to chatter incessantly whether or not in the presence of an animal. They yell to each other, wear pink and gold colours, and eat parathas and pickles and then toss the wrapping on the forest floor.
And, sadly, many tourists feel their trip has been wasted if they don’t see a tiger. Those people miss out on the many other things that make up a fabulous forest experience: the smaller animals, like deer and wild boars; the birds; the crisp morning air; the beautiful mossy, grassy, twiggy, leafy, watery forest environment itself. Even the most common of animal sightings can be magical: a stag standing stock-still in a clearing in the half-light; a wild boar mother leading her piglets carefully through the brush; an Indian roller taking flight with the sun, flashing its sky-blue wings. And there is also the endlessly varied beauty of the forest itself, made different at every moment not just by terrain, but by mood and ambience contributed by a trick of light, of weather, of temperature.
About Bandhavgarh National Park
For some time in the 12th century, the Bandhavgarh Fort, in the centre of the reserve, was the seat of power of the Chandela Dynasty. Later, it came under the Baghels, and then the Rewas, who are said to have been their descendants. About 106 sq km of the reserve functioned as the hunting ground of the Rewas; each Rewa king was supposed to shoot at least a 100 tigers. Despite that, the fact that so-called ‘commoners’ were not allowed inside the reserve helped in the conservation of other animals and the forest itself. After Independence, the territory was taken over by the Madhya Pradesh Government but the maharajas retained their hunting rights until 1968, when the area was made a National Park. As hunting was stopped, the tiger population increased, and in 1982, the reserve’s area was extended to cover the present 448 sq km. Bandhavgarh, and the adjoining Panpatha Sanctuary (also made part of the reserve), came under Project Tiger in 1993. Despite the conservation efforts, Bandhavgarh National Park has its share of problems. Industrial pollution in the Sone River and bauxite mining in the Maikal Range (to the south) are just a couple of them. As the park is surrounded by 62 villages, poaching and grazing of animals in the forest are common occurrences. The park’s popularity with tourists is also a reason for concern, as the crowds disturb the animals.
State: Madhya Pradesh
Location: Bandhavgarh National Park lies in eastern Madhya Pradesh, in the northernmost spur of the Maikal Hill Range in the Vindhyas, which it shares with Kanha (located 160 km to the south), in Shahdol District
Distances: 978 km SE of Delhi, 565 km SE of Gwalior, 32 km NE of Umaria Route from Delhi NH2 to Agra; NH3 to Gwalior; NH75 to Satna via Jhansi; district road to Maihar; NH7 to Katni; NH78 to Umaria; state road to Bandhavgarh.
When to go: November-March for travelling comfort; May-June for best wildlife sightings. The park is closed from July-October, which includes the monsoon and, coincidentally, the breeding season. Temperatures vary from 0-20 degrees in winter, and go up to 46 degrees in the summer
About the Author
Mitali Saran has worked full-time for Business Standard and Outlook Traveller and is now a freelance writer in Delhi.