The parked vehicles ahead on the forest path made us skip a breath. Tiger sighting! We had seen these open-vehicle lines earlier, but this one was different. The visitors had their tripods and cameras trained towards a particular spot. The tigers were visible from the track.
All my conversations about tiger-sighting in India had ended on this advice: “Go to Bandhavgarh. You are sure to spot tigers. And in case the tiger refused darshan , Bandavgarh has enough charms to offer as compensation.” It’s well worth driving through the thick jungles of central India with the ever-changing terrain and foliage, past water bodies hosting smaller animals, past species of deer and myriad birds. But we saw tigers! Five of them, at close range. We drove quietly along as they moved towards a kill, a kilometre away.
If the tigers of Bandhavgarh made our trip memorable, Mahua Kothi of Taj Safaris made the experience complete. It sits in the heart of a forest zone surrounded by mahua trees, under which you are served meals. The rooms are furnished to create a sense of living in the forest — but with modern fittings. And you have a group of naturalists, headed by Karun Varma, who joins you on safaris and schools you on the forest’s offerings.
“Bandhavgarh means brothers’ fort,” says Amit Singhvi of Taj Safaris, taking us through the origins of the forest 2,000 years ago. “It suggests Lord Rama built the fort and gifted it to Lakshman.” Down the ages, Bandhavgarh Fort remained a stronghold of various dynasties. “Mauryans from 3rd Century BC; Vakataka from 3rd-5th, Sengars from 5th onwards, Kalachuris from 10th century. In the 13th Century, the Baghels took over, stayed on before shifting capital to Rewa in 1617. The last inhabitants left the fort in 1935.” The fort was deserted and animals took over. The ruins include the large reclining statue of Vishnu (Seshasaayi), stables, a temple and man-made waterholes. The forested Bandhavgarh, with its beautiful landscape and breath-stopping views became a private game-hunting reserve for the Maharaja of Rewa. Post independence, Rewa State merged with Madhya Pradesh, ruler Marthand Singh turned conservationist and asked the Indian government to declare it a national park. In 1967, 105 sq.kms were marked as reserve forest, more areas were added to the Tala range of the habitat under Project Tiger, and in 1991 Bandhavgarh was declared a tiger sanctuary. “Kabir, poet-saint of the 14th century spent a few years there, meditating and writing his famous dohas ,” says Karun. “Tansen started his prodigious musical journey under the royalty here.”
Renowned for tigers and lush saal trees, the sanctuary offers visitors views of an enthralling landscape, wide varieties of migratory and local birds, rich plant vegetation anddifferent species of wild animals within one forest area, says Varma. According to him, it is the only tiger reserve that combines wildlife, history and culture so beautifully. “The famous white tiger, Mohan was caught in Rewa district by Maharaja Martand Singh in 1951,” he adds.
The total area now is around 1,500 sq kms, divided into a core (700 sq) and buffer (800sq). The core area covers three zones — Tala, Magadhi and Khitauli. Bandhavgarh has 32 different species of mammals which includes tiger, leopard, small cats, deer, a host of other mammals and birds. The era of Bandhavgarh tiger started in the early 90's with tigers Charger and Sita commanding respect from keepers and visitors. “Their legacy continued with B1, B2 and Bamera.” The tiger population today stands at 65-70, and is dominated by Bheem, Kankati junior, Bamera’s son, Mahaman male... Bandhavgarh is considered to have the highest tiger density in the world. “Around 1,999 gaurs went extinct from Bandhavgarh but starting 2009 the Indian government, in a joint venture, relocated 30 gaurs from Kanha. At present the population is 100 plus, a success story,” says Varma.
Back to our sightings. Our tigers were lounging in the Magadhi Zone (Zone-2). The first two were at the Tadoba waterhole — a mother and a cub. “The mother, born in 2011, is Rajbehra Bachi/New Kankati and bears the number BTR-MP-T35, the others were a mother (Patia female, BTR-MP-T5, born in 2006) and her two cubs.” Despite being cubs, they looked huge. “The abundant prey in Bandhavgarh keep them healthy,” says the guide. “The only danger they face is from other tigers.” We saw elephants that have been trained to settle tiger disputes.
Vidya Pradhan, children’s books writer and fellow-traveller says she is impressed with the MP government’s efforts to ensure the safety and happiness of the animals. “I liked that they restrict entry, check IDs and are serious about preventing poaching. How can one forget guide Sukhnidhan Gupta who says he was poorly paid but looked forward to coming to his job everyday? He says he couldn’t afford to travel but the world came to him! The love and ownership of all the guides/drivers/naturalists who identify the tigers by name and habits is heart-warming.”
(How to reach: Fly to Jabalpur and hire a car for a three-hour drive to Bandavgarh.)