A few years ago, while on a visit to the Panna National Park, my friend and regrettably now a former naturalist, Bejoy Issac, had commented that anyone promising a tourist of guaranteed tiger sighting in the wild is either lying or confusing a circus with a forest! Bejoy’s words had instantly reminded me of my visit to the Bandhavgarh National Park that I had long struggled to erase from my memory.
I had visited Bandhavgarh over a decade ago and had resolved to never return. The popular national park in Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district was in those days nothing short of a ‘tiger carnival’. Over 300 vehicles used to enter the park during the safari hours in the mornings and afternoons. Tourists and guides were invariably a noisy lot and the cacophony of humans drowned the intoxicating sounds of the jungle. Considering that Bandhavgarh is spread over a relatively smaller area compared to other central Indian national parks like Kanha, Panna and Pench, but with a robust population of the tiger, yes the sighting of the majestic feline was almost guaranteed. Often tourists would return with not one, but multiple sightings of the big cats. If you didn’t see a tiger in Bandhavgarh, tourists and guides alike would repeatedly say, you were doomed not to see it anywhere else in the country. I had returned then after four of these prized ‘darshans’. But, instead of elation, I felt a disgusting melancholy. Bandhavgarh since then has been not a wildlife sanctuary but a circus for me.
Earlier this year, a friend invited me to visit the wonderful lodges set up by Pugdundee Safaris around the national parks of Satpura, Kanha and Bandhavgarh and, naturally, also experience the safaris in these parks; I was truly sceptical. I was assured by several friends that Bandhavgarh had changed for the better since the Supreme Court struck down heavily on tourism in tiger reserves in 2012, allowing access to only 20 per cent of the ‘core area’ and capping a limit on the number of vehicles that could enter parks during safari hours.
I arrived at Pugdundee Safari’s Kings Lodge, situated in close proximity of Bandhavgarh National Park, after having spent the previous few days experiencing the wonders of Satpura National Park. However, doubts remained and occasionally overwhelmed the optimism that I had been nursing. The talk of one suffering a ‘tiger jinx’ if one wasn’t lucky enough to spot the feline in Bandhavgarh was still prevalent. Miserably trying to shut these voices out, I proceeded to my charmingly appointed cottage, built atop wooden stilts with an overhanging deck where one could sit and stare for hours at the rustic settings of the lodge within a forest and enjoy the melodious chirping of birds.
While others in the group of travel writers that I was travelling with, indulged themselves in a swim, spa or a simple power nap, I proceeded to speak to the lodge staff, hoping to know how different Bandhavgarh really was now from the haunting memories I had of my last visit. I met Saket, a budding naturalist at the lodge with a wonderfully pleasing demeanour and infectious interest in herpetology (study of reptiles and amphibians). Saket patiently heard my many concerns and reassured me that things were different and for the better in Bandhavgarh. Later that evening, Saket and his fellow naturalist Naresh, affectionately called Gudda, gave us a detailed presentation on the flora and fauna of Bandhavgarh to prepare us for the safari early next morning. As the dark of the night descended, we made our way to the open courtyard of the lodge that had been beautifully lit with lanterns and tea candles. A lavish spread of dinner and the ‘amber’ stuff had been laid out for us. We were at the ‘Kings Lodge’ and, true to its name, the hospitality was befitting royalty.
At around 5 in the morning we made our way to the Magdhi Gate, one of the three access points to the national park. I asked Gudda, who had been assigned by the lodge as our naturalist, about the number of vehicles the park allowed per safari and was relieved to learn that the number now stood at about 110 each during the morning and afternoon drives, and not the staggering 300 or more that had been the case a decade ago.
As we entered the park, the deafening silence was all I could notice and draw parallels with from that last visit when tourists and guides began their ruckus as soon as they entered the gate and kept it alive till their exit three hours later. Of course, the silence of the boondocks was also a cause for concern, since there were no jungle sounds – no alarm calls, or chirping of birds, leave alone the growl of the striped beast. A silent forest is never a good sign for sightings.
For nearly an hour we drove around without sighting even the most common of Bandhavgarh’s inhabitants – langurs, rhesus macaques and spotted deer. Even the avian life had decided on a no-show. As we stopped at one of Bandhavgarh’s many winding intersections, Rajesh, a member of our group, pointed at a tree that was swarming with butterflies, moths and other sorts of flying insects. With the aid of binoculars, we tried identifying these tiny beings while other jeeps, that crossed us every now and then, made predictable enquiries about the big cat. A particular moth caught Rajesh’s and then all of our collective attention. Visible only through our binoculars, this little moth had a combination of black, light brown, orange and white colours, a rather long and prominent proboscis and wings that constantly flapped exactly like that of a hummingbird. Though visibly fascinated by this moth, Gudda was at odds in identifying it and it was only a few months later that Rajesh informed me that the moth was actually called the Hummingbird Hawk-moth. The moth aside, we were fascinated by this tree, one that I haven’t been able to identify as yet. Of all the trees around, many of which were flowering, this was the only tree we noticed in the entire forest that was swarming with butterflies and moths.
With no luck at any sightings, we stopped at the place designated for breakfast inside the park. A few paces away, one of the elephants used by forest officials for patrolling had stopped by for his meal too. The mahout was busy making thick rotis for the pachyderm and posed happily for photographs. He informed us that the elephant is fed four huge rotis every morning and six in the evening. After patrolling rounds, the elephant is left to forage in the jungle. But, having developed a taste for these rotis, the giant creature never wanders away and always returns for more, irrespective of whatever greater feed he finds in the wild!
The remainder of our safari was a repeat of its earlier half – no major sightings besides a ruddy mongoose that was in a real hurry to get away, some spotted deer and large troops of rhesus macaques and langurs, who appeared to be having a gala party while all other inhabitants of Bandhavgarh were taking a day off.
We returned to the lodge for lunch and I am pretty sure that everyone in the group must have secretly heaved a sigh of relief at learning that all of us had shared the same experience. After a relaxed lunch, Gudda agreed to take some of us who were keen, for a brief tour of the nearby village of Rancha so that we could acquaint ourselves with the lives of the locals. At Gudda’s urging, an old woman allowed us into her home and with a bit of goading answered most of our queries about her way of life. Her huge house was built in the traditional style of the region – walls of mud reinforced with wooden columns, baked clay tiles, or khappars, to lay the roof, large open square-shaped veranda forming the centre of the house with rooms lined up around it and a corner used as the kitchen. Our host proudly pointed at the several mud figurines depicting gods and goddesses that were fixed atop the entrance to each of the rooms in the house and said that her husband had moulded each of them. Her entire family with the exception of a grand-daughter, she said, was toiling away at their farm and would return late in the day. She was at home to take care of the grand-daughter and prepare meals for the family. The few other houses we saw were expectedly similar with just some minor changes in their layout; the lives of the old women were exactly the same. As we made our way back to the lodge, I noticed how spotlessly clean the village was with the only real eyesore being a dilapidated government school which, I was told, had not been in use for several years.
The afternoon safari turned out to be only marginally better than the morning one. Besides the usual suspects – monkeys and deer – the only other sightings worth mentioning were those of a lone jackal, a black-naped hare and a fleeting glimpse of a jungle cat, which disappeared into the woods before we knew it.
To be honest, despite my very vocal resistance to the emphasis on tiger sightings while on safaris, I had by now begun to wonder where all the famed felines of Bandhavgarh had disappeared. Two safaris and not a single tiger sighting. Had we really been afflicted with the tiger jinx I talked about earlier and had Bandhavgarh decided to curse us further by not revealing any of its other inhabitants too?
With that thought in mind, we made our way out of the forest at the end of our afternoon foray. The team at Pugdundee Safaris had arranged a dinner for us at their other property in Bandhavgarh, the Tree House Hideaway. Situated right next to the Tala Gate of the park, the Tree House is an absolutely marvellous property with its five premium and very exclusive tree houses built atop actual trees with the help of wooden stilts. While the property was captivating enough and the dinner truly sumptuous, the real attraction of the evening was a dance performance of the Baiga tribals that our hosts had arranged. Although I was a little upset to see that the Baigas had turned up in an attire that I knew was not a part of their traditional wardrobe, their dances and stunts quickly erased any trace of disappointment.
I returned to the Kings Lodge wondering what the safari next morning would be like and hoping that our jinx would be broken. A few hours later, my sleep was broken by loud thudding sounds and I jumped out of bed only to realise that the rain gods had decided to unleash all their fury. Heavy showers were lashing down on Bandhavgarh and its surroundings and I wondered whether the downpour would subside in time to allow us our final foray into the park? Besides, would such heavy rains hours before our scheduled morning safari chase away all the animals into their hideouts?
It wasn’t all that bad, I realised an hour later, as the sky cleared. We were assigned the Tala Zone of the park for our final safari and this being the ‘prime’ zone of the forest known for its excellent sightings, did bring some cheer. But little did I know that Bandhavgarh had, as the adage goes, kept the ‘best for the last’. Well, almost.
On my earlier visits to the park, and during the past couple of days, I had heard much about the plethora of historical remains that are hidden inside the dense sal forests of Bandhavgarh. However, barring the hill on which the ruins of the near two millennia-old fort of Bandhavgarh is located and which we had only seen from great distance during the safaris, I had not yet encountered anything else of much historical relevance.
As we entered the park, my fellow traveller Anuradha prodded Gudda to take us to the site of the ‘Sheshshaiya’, a 35-foot long sculpture of Lord Vishnu reclining on the seven-hooded serpent – Sheshnaag carved out of a single sandstone rock! As we drove up the winding dirt road of one of the highest hillocks situated in and around Bandhavgarh, I could see several dilapidated structures that looked like remains of caves, stables and storage rooms, possibly built during the days when Kalchuri and later the Baghel kings ruled this region. We drove right to the top of the hillock from where we could get an aerial view of the vast expanse of the forest below us. We parked our jeep and took a small flight of stairs to get to the spot where Lord Vishnu lay hidden in the solitude of wilderness, away from the jarring sounds and frenzy that he would have otherwise been subjected to if this sculpture was in a more populated and accessible area.
Beyond the tiny rectangular pond, the massive sculpture rested covered in an uneven blanket of algae. A tiny distance away from the sculpture’s head was a ‘lingam’ representing Lord Shiva and, at its feet, the remains of a bust that would have represented Lord Brahma, to complete the depiction of the Hindu holy trinity. A plaque near the stairs that led to this marvellous sculpture stated that it was believed to be built by Gollak, a minister in the court of the Kalchuri king, Yuvrajdev, around the 10th century. The plaque also stated that a stream originating from the feet of Vishnu, called the Charan Ganga (or also referred to in scriptures as the Vetravali Ganga) merges with other streams and rivers of the region to form the lifeline of Bandhavgarh’s ecosystem. I did not really see any stream originating from the sculpture but seeing the pond, which didn’t seem to have any water source to feed it, I assumed that the stream perhaps flows through the rocks beneath this water body, as is often the case in hills and mountains.
As we made our way down the hillock to return to our wildlife spotting routine, the forest guide assigned to us by the park began narrating other ‘historical’ details’ about Bandhavgarh. As is the case with almost any other tourist destination across India, Bandhavgarh too must have a special significance for Hindus, or at least that is what the forest guide seemed to suggest. According to him and some other uncredited sources that I have since read on the internet, Bandhavgarh had existed in the time of the Hindu epic Ramayana; its name a combination of the words bandhav (meaning brother) and garh (meaning fort). You must have guessed the story now – it’s supposedly a fort gifted to Lakshman by his elder brother Ram! The adjoining national park of Kanha has a lake called the Shravan Taal, so named since it’s supposedly the spot where Shravan Kumar from the epic Mahabharata stopped to get water for his parents and got accidentally killed by Dashratha, father of the Kauravas. It’s a different matter that the Mahabharata states that the lake where Shravan was accidentally killed was in Ayodhya. Nevertheless, why should Bandhavgarh lose out to Kanha on a mythical connect?
History lessons over, we proceeded for the safari, hoping that with the blessings of Lord Vishnu, our foray into the forest would be more fruitful than the previous days. However, for a better part of the safari all we saw was a repeat of the previous day! Then, a jeep ferrying some of our friends from the group passed us, tipping off Gudda about their encounter with a tiger not too far off from where we were.
Our hopes soared instantly and Gudda sped off in that direction, repeatedly telling us that we’ll definitely see the tiger if it has been spotted since it won’t wander away so quickly. Suddenly, the jeep screeched to a halt and Gudda pointed to the woods on our left for a sighting Bandhavgarh is not known for. It wasn’t the tiger that we were all rushing to see but a sloth bear. The morning rain had made the soil damp and the bear had possibly sensed an opportunity to dig around the earth for its favourite diet – insects and termites. Just a few feet away from us, but absolutely indifferent to our otherwise excited presence, the bear aggressively dug pits all around, shoving its snout in the loose soil every now and then to sniff out its food.
In our excitement at this unlikely sighting, we nearly forgot about the tiger that was possibly lurking around nearby. We stood in our jeeps gawking at the bear for almost 20 minutes, documenting its every move through our cameras. Then a friend said that we had had enough of the furry beast and should move for the more prized sighting of the tiger. Almost on cue, as if annoyed at our giving the tiger more importance, the bear turned its back to us, raised and wiggled its bums and let out a loud fart! We laughed our guts out at the bear’s ostensible gesture of ticking us off for our impertinence, waited a few more minutes just so that he didn’t feel we were indifferent to his feelings, and then sped off in search of the striped feline.
The next hour, however, was spent in an agonizing wait for the tiger to make his appearance. But it was in complete vain. Despite the encouraging words of Gudda about the tiger being somewhere around and the possibility of an encounter at any moment, nothing of the sort happened. As we made our way back, a plaque near the exit seemed to taunt us with its message – the face of a tiger painted on one half of the plaque and the dialogue box on the other said, ‘Perhaps you may not have seen me but please don’t be disappointed... ‘I have seen you’.
Despite the visit to Bandhavgarh being a rather cold affair as far as sightings were concerned, I still returned happy. I had finally seen Bandhavgarh like a wildlife park should be – devoid of excessive human interference and unpredictable in its offerings. I no longer remember it as a circus.