Seeing a tiger in the wild was a dream I had been nursing for a long time. I made several unsuccessful attempts towards this end by visiting Corbett National Park, the Sunderbans and Nagarhole. In 2007 when the rate of extinction of tigers became so alarming that it even found mention in the Finance Minister’s speech I decided that I had to visit Bandhavgarh (which had been described in glowing terms to me by various wildlife enthusiasts) before tigers went extinct altogether. With work and other commitments looming large over my life this plan did not fructify for another two and a half years after which I resolved that this was one thing holiday I had to take before the sun set on 2009.
I embarked on this quest with a friend who had also never seen a tiger in the wild before. We decided to spend four days in Bandhavgarh. We had been deprived of a sighting for so many years, we were not going to take any chances this time. We reached Umaria station, the nearest railway station one sunny afternoon in December. Recognising us as tourists from a mile away a bunch of taxi drivers descended on us, jostling with each to take us to the Forest Rest House in Tala where we were supposed to stay. An hour and a rollercoaster ride on a pot-holed road later we arrived at the Forest Rest House.
In order to start on our mission as soon as possible we decided to take the afternoon safari on that day itself. Our taxi driver got us a driver called Babloo for our safaris. Babloo turned out to be quite a resourceful nature guide as well. There are various zones in Bandhavgarh National Park but the Tala zone has the highest density of tigers so it is advisable to enter from the Tala gate. The safaris in Bandhavgarh National Park are quite regimented. Only petrol jeeps are permitted inside and the Forest Department assigns a guide to every jeep. There are various routes which the jeeps can take within the park but each jeep is assigned its route before the safari starts. There are steep penalties for drivers and guides who deviate from the assigned routes.
We embarked on our first safari with our fingers crossed. The temperate sal forests of Madhya Pradesh which were the setting for Kipling’s Jungle Book do not have the lush greenery of tropical forests. There is less undergrowth and the tree cover is not that dense. In many patches one sees sunlight streaming in and dust particles dancing in the sunrays. The colours are more muted. The leaves are a dull green, the grass is a yellowy-gold giving the jungle an eerie ambience. The calm of the jungle is occasionally pierced by the hooping call of the langurs, the loud twittering of the babblers and the high pitched calls of the chital and sambhar.
The safari started in the afternoon at which time we were informed that the big cats would generally be resting. Tiger sightings we were told usually happen towards the evening. Like in most other national parks in India there were plenty of chital (spotted deer) and sambhar to be seen. Unlike the ones I had seen before, these were not very camera shy and quite willing to pose for eager hordes of tourists. We saw a jackal in the distance which looked like a moving blue speck to us but we were assured by Babloo and the guide that it was indeed a jackal. We saw a tree which had so many langurs on it, it looked like langurs were the fruit of this tree. We were told to listen for alarm calls, which are the warning mechanisms of the herbivores in the jungle. If any of the herbivores sense that a tiger is approaching they let out an alarm call which is then echoed by others of their and other species. We kept our ears peeled for alarm calls but heard none.
Our safari was nearly over and we were about ten minutes from the gate when we reached a spot where some other jeeps had also halted. We took a cue from them and stopped the jeep and waited. Suddenly from the hillock on one side of the road emerged a tigress. We were told that she was known as the chor behra female. She stood on the hillock and observed the enthralled audience for a while before starting her descent. Completely unperturbed by the presence of so many people and their clicking cameras she came down the hillock, crossed the road and went over to a stream on the other side. She drank some water and disappeared into a thicket. It’s difficult to put into words the feeling when one first sees this magnificent beast face-to-face. When I first saw the tigress I felt a rush of excitement and I pulled out my camera (a Canon DSLR which looked positively Lilliputian compared to the telephoto-lens- equipped-cameras everyone else seemed to be carrying) and started clicking. This was soon tempered by a silent awe at the realisation that my dream to see a tiger in the wild had come true and the experience was everything I had imagined and more. It walked with a majestic step, with almost a royal bearing as if to tell us ‘this is my territory’. We were convinced that this was a good omen and portended good things to come.
On the second day we decided to take a morning safari since we were told that it is the best time for a sighting. Layered in many layers of woollens we set off for our first morning safari. The jungle presents a sleepy picture in the morning with mist slowly lifting with the first rays of the sun filtering in. As the sun rises the jungle awakes with sounds of various birds, insects and animals ringing through the air. In the midst of the trees close to the road we spotted a barking deer which is generally quite a shy creature, eyeing us gingerly. We spotted a lesser adjutant stork standing near a small body of water pensively. We had not planned on going for an evening safari that day but a couple of wildlife enthusiasts advised us to do so to maximise our chances of good sightings.
Following their advice we returned with Babloo to the jungle post-lunch. We spotted some red-billed vultures patiently sitting on a tree. A bright blue kingfisher on a tree added a spot of colour to the otherwise dull landscape. This time again towards the evening we saw a tigress for the second time. This time there were fewer jeeps around. The people in the jeeps which arrived before us had seen her cross the road. We first caught a glimpse of her only after that, behind some trees. Then she crossed over a large patch of low lying grass where we got a good view of her before went into the trees.
On the third day we only did a morning safari even though waking up on a cold winter morning seemed like some form of medieval Chinese torture. Like we had been told the previous day we were maximising our chances. By the end of this safari we realised that as far as tiger sightings went mornings safaris had not proved fortuitous for us. However we were luckier as far as other animals were concerned. We spotted a wild boar doing a quick sprint across the road into the trees. A jackal strode nonchalantly across the road coming very close to our jeep and went into a patch of grass. We saw the footprints of a bear which was most unusual for that time of the year since bears are in hibernation in winter. However there was no other sign of this unusually enthusiastic bear.
Some time towards the middle of the safari we began to hear alarm calls for a leopard. Babloo told us that the reason he was sure this was an alarm call for a leopard and not a tiger is that the langurs were making a big racket this time. Langurs are not too scared of tigers since tigers are not good climbers so when a tiger is in the vicinity the alpha male of the langur lets out the alarm call. However when there is a leopard around all the langurs let out furious alarm calls since they are in great danger from this agile climber. We waited at the spot where we heard the alarm calls but lady luck had forsaken us this time and we did not see a leopard.
The next day we decided to skip the morning safari and explore the Bandhavgarh Fort. The exact provenance of the fort is not known but it has been occupied by various dynasties such as the Magh, Kalchuri and Baghels. In 1617 the Baghel King Vikramaditya Singh abandoned Bandhavgarh Fort in favour of Rewa. The fort is on a hill and is mostly in a state of disrepair. As we ascended the hill we observed quite a few Malabar pied hornbill. We went to a point called the vulture point from where we could see a few nests of long-billed vultures on the sheer cliff face below us. Quite a few vultures were circling around below us. Another point on the hill was called Natin named after a dancer known as Natin who is said to have met a gruesome end there.
Legend has it that she was an enchanting dancer in the court of the one of the kings who lived in the fort. He told her that if she could cross one from hill to another while dancing on a tightrope he would give her half his kingdom. Accepting the challenge she started dancing her way across to the second hill. As she was approaching the second hill the king ordered that the rope be cut. This was done and she plunged to her death. Further up we reached a temple known as the Kabirgufa. It is said that Kabir meditated in the cave that is within the temple. The cave is also said to lead to Chitrakoot but no one in the recent past had sought to verify this. There are many tanks in the fort obviously used as water sources when the fort was populated.
On the summit is the Bandhavgarhdheesh temple. This temple is still used for worship and there is a priest who lives there. We were told that the priest has many interesting stories about his encounters with tigers but unfortunately he was not around on that day. Close to this temple are a palace and the royal treasury. The hillside is also dotted with statues of various avatars of Vishnu like matsya, varaha and kurma and various gods and goddesses. Not much seems to be known about who built these structures and most of them are not even ASI protected sites.
Since it was our last day in Bandhavgarh we decided to maximise our chances by taking an evening safari. We told Babloo that since it was our last day he should ensure that we take a final look at a tiger. He smiled indulgently at us. He must have fielded such strange requests from tourists numerous times in the past. We were told that a pair had been mating on the route we were supposed to take. And to our surprise on the route we saw a tiger known as Kallua lying on the road in a languid fashion blocking all movement of jeeps on the route. Occasionally he would lift his head to survey the audience gathered around him and would then lie down again. He rolled over on his back with his legs in the air like he was laughing over something very funny. Suddenly from the bushes emerged a tigress. She walked up to him but he seemed to be enjoying being the cynosure of the human attention so much that he was in no mood to leave. She went over to the other side of the road and sat there. Kallua still didn’t move from his spot. Clearly he preferred being photographed to her company.
After some time the guides in the jeeps on the other side started getting impatient as they had to get to the gate before it shut. So one of them started the jeep and moved ahead. Seeing this, the tiger and tigress beat a quick retreat into the trees. We could still see Kallua walking into the forest. We tried to follow him as far as our eye could keep up but he soon vanished from sight.
This was definitely an incredible end to our trip. I took back many wonderful memories of our trip. I have been told that summer is a good time for sightings so I hope to return in summer again, hopefully with a better lens for my camera this time.