Bandhavgarh National Park: Wilderness and History Entwined Subhasish Chakraborty April 19, 2013 Asia, Feature, India, India Many of us marvel at the exciting wilderness oriented things that other people do, but we have lots of excuses for not attempting them ourselves. No time. Not fit enough. Too risky, etc. etc…… The truth is that you don’t have to be young to enjoy some of the things that seem intimidating. For example: Tracking Tigers. Whether you are six years old or sixty, there is a wilderness option within your range that will add a lot of fun to your life. India has some of the world’s top end national parks and wildlife sanctuaries whose areas extend several thousands of square kilometers where wildlife can be observed in their natural surroundings. One such National Park is the world famous Bandhavgarh National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Set among the Vindhyas, Bandhavgarh is a relatively small national park, but significantly with the highest known density of Tiger population in India. In Bandhavgarh, you are actually in White Tiger territory. It is unique among the National Parks of India in that it has a rich historical past. Rarely will you come across a National Park or a Wildlife Sanctuary that is steeped in history. By the way, aren’t wild havens far removed from civilization? But not so in Bandhavgarh where there is history written all over. The finest specimen is the magnificent Bandhavgarh Fort which forms the backdrop of the National Park from where the royal family of Rewa used to hunt. Though no records exist to inform you as to when the fort was constructed, it is believed to be about 2000 years old. Several dynasties have ruled the fort. For example : the Maghas, the Vakatakas, the Sengars and the Kalachuris. The last ruler to occupy the fort was the Maharaja of Rewa who converted the fort and its surrounding jungles into a hunting reserve meant for the royal family. The Maharaja took a lot of pride in preserving the forest cover since he had a vested interest – that of tracking tigers which was his number one passion. Although I had read a lot about Bandhavgarh’s bewitching beauty and gathered enough information from those who had visited the place, all my preconceived notions were swept aside once I found myself inside the National Park. The lush greenery, the majestic Bandahvgarh Fort with pastel grey clouds floating above and the rays of the evening sun lighting the wooded shrubs with Steppe Eagles perched on them, presented a sight that was truly breathtaking. Bandhavgarh never ceases to amaze you with it’s haunting wilderness. There is a wonderful wild isolation in this part of the world. Perched 15 feet up in the fork of a tree, with dart gun is the Park Ranger who directs his team of trained tiger trackers riding atop elephants to push their way through dense bamboo. Somewhere in between is a tiger sleeping off a meal from a buffalo he killed the previous night. The Ranger is hoping that the big cat will be disturbed by the elephants, slink away from them and head towards him. Listening to animal alarm calls, betraying the tiger’s stealthy passage, he muses about the ingenuity of the Asian Shikaris, who invented this technique, once employed by royalty to slaughter tigers. Ironically, today it is one of the tools he uses to help preserve these big cats in order to answer some basic questions about the species. Tiger tracking is not all fun and excitement – often it is as thrilling as land surveying! Oops. But there are rewards for entering the secret world of tigers. I was told by a “Mahut” (Master Elephant Rider) at Bandhavgarh that sometimes when they are looking for mates, their deep roars reverberate across the Bandhavgarh landscape. Tigers can stalk, mate and chase leopards up trees, but during most of the day they sleep. Sounds incredible. Isn’t it ? And tigers are a phenomenon at Bandhavgarh. The National Park has a core area which is all of 105 Sq.Kms and in addition to the tiger it is also possible to see Chousingha (Small Four Horned Antelope), Chinkara, Nilgai, Porcupine, Hyena and Rhesus Macaque. Tigers may be a phenomenon at Bandhavgarh but the avian life is no less astounding with as many as 150 species of birds nesting in Bandhavgarh’s favorable micro-climate. With the onset of winter, migratory birds flock in to the marshy surroundings of Bandhavgarh which makes for a truly colorful setting. You can have a date with Paradise Fly Catchers, Golden and Black Headed Orioles, Yellow Ioras, Purple Sunbirds and Red Vented Bulbuls. Each climatic change unfolds a different spectacle. With the variations in the water level in the “beels”(Marshy surroundings) different vegetation patterns emerge. As a result food potentialities vary, thereby attracting birds only as far as it can feed them. Temporary swamps and completely dry land in Bandhavgarh makes for an interesting habitat combination which is biologically rich, with conspicuous vegetation types and plant species. Each species of birds can be seen in separate cluster of colonies of more than thousands. The marshy areas of Bandhavgarh will delight you with sudden flights or calls. The best time for bird watching in this Park is early morning and evening. A few hundred yards away from the park boundary, on the grounds of the Maharaja of Rewa’s Hunting Lodge is located the Bandhavgarh Jungle Camp, which is easily one of India’s finest jungle resort. There large twin bedded walk – in tents are simply superb. The tents are insect proof and have a dressing of alcove with attached toilets and individual showers with running hot and cold water. The “Gol Ghar” serves as the central meeting point where breakfast and lunch are provided al fresco. Dinner is a royal affair at the Maharaja’s Lodge and the Lounge is used for slide shows, films and lectures. They have a good collection of high quality wildlife films, which one can view during leisure hours. After a fun filled day in the wild as I relaxed in my comfortable chair at the exclusive Mahua Kothi, which is run by the Taj Safari Lodges, I was told by the resident naturalist that a procession of elephants were wending their way through the high grass and I could hear the trumpeting as they marched. I was joined by Suzanne Haliwell, a keen wildlife enthusiast from far away UK. As the evening wore on and we moved from beer to cheap brandy, Suzzane talked more and more about animal conservation and that if things fell in place would start her own zoo. I thought she was mad. How could anyone, except a millionaire, start her own zoo. Suzanne was undaunted and most Britons are that sort really. Very touchy about wildlife! As a Travel Writer, I have had the privilege of visiting some of India’s top end National Parks and have stayed as guest in some of Asia’s most renowned jungle hospitality properties. But nothing quite compares with Bandhavgarh’s Mahua Kothi and the signature Taj luxury and warm hospitality amidst verdant natural greenery left me enthralled. This one-of-its-kind jungle Safari Lodge is located in a 40 acre land and its tented camps (Churhat Kothi) is much preferred by the discerning foreign tourists. Although, I was provided accommodation in the traditional cottage replete with elevated ceilings, terracotta tiles, a cozy fireplace as well as breathtaking window views, I made a friendly request to the Lodge Manager to provide me with an opportunity to stay the last night in the tented portion, which was graciously accepted and believe me, with a starlit night above and the haunting wilderness of Bandhavgarh, it felt like a fairy tale to me. After the day’s adventure, we would sit around the bonfire facing the open kitchen and as we relaxed with our favorite tipple, the earthy North Indian joy of Rotis being rolled and baked in the traditional “Chula”, organically produced vegetables being sliced and hot spicy masalas being grounded made for a truly authentic North Indian sojourn. For the discerning high end traveler, the “Kutiyas” (Cottages), twelve in all, replete with the local Central Indian vernacular style architecture, impeccably burnished wooden shutters, elegantly done up walls, stone floors, locally manufactured roof tiles and furnishings offer the very best of India’s discreet jungle hospitality. There is also the signature Taj Spa, which is much preferred by the lodge’s discerning guests, but due to paucity of time, I was unable to soak in the balmy spa at Mahua Kothi and the gracious Manager offered me the Spa option as a complimentary incentive when I visit Bandhavgarh sometimes next year. And believe me, the first thing that I will do upon my arrival at Mahua Kothi is –head for the Spa, lest I miss another golden opportunity. At dawn as you set out with the forest still dark with your elephants moving along in almost total silence, you can already hear the morning sounds of Bandhavgarh. Peacocks calling from their nighttime roosts and answered to by the raucous barnyard crowing of Jungle Fowls, gaudy ancestors of the domestic chicken. Gray Langur Monkeys give out the low self-satisfied hooting with which they greet the day and warn one another to be on alert. And as the elephants err on the road and the mirthful Squirrel play hide and seek, it can even be his majesty having forthy winks and asking in the sun. Here in Bandhavgarh, it is blue and green all around which spreads an unfathomable mystery. The mystery that is Bandhavgarh. Traveler’s Fact File: Best Season : November to June (The Park closes in July for the monsoon). Where to Stay: Luxurious jungle accommodation is available at the Forest Rest House, the Taj Safari Lodge – Mahua Kothi and Bandhavgarh Jungle Camp. Tented accommodation too is available on request. For reservations please feel free to contact : Field Director, Bandhavgarh National Park, P.o. Umaria, Dist : Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh, India. Nearest Town: Umaria, located 30 Kms from Bandhavgarh. Getting There: The nearest airport is Jabalpur (190 Kms.) and Khajuraho, 230 Kms. from Bandhavgarh. From Khajuraho, hired taxis and buses are readily available. Bandhavgarh National Park is easily accessible from cities like Delhi and Mumbai.