On the tiger trail in Bandhavgarh

July 02, 2006 12:00 am | Updated March 26, 2012 01:09 pm IST


Experiences in a place famous for having the highest density of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world.

AFTER a flight to Delhi from Bangalore and later a 17-hour train ride, the only thought that crossed our minds as we entered the thick dry sal forest of Bandhavgarh was: Will this place actually deliver what it promises - tigers and more tigers? Exactly 10 minutes later, we intercepted a long line of open-top Gypsys with tourists along the park's jeep track. Two impressive camp elephants were steadily carrying more tourists into tall elephant grass. Their mahouts were casually pointing to a tigress in the grass! We couldn't believe it! We had to see the sight and off we went into the grass atop an elephant. A minute later, the mahout announced, "Yeh dekho saab, Baghvaa!" We craned our necks to see a majestic tigress sleeping on the grass, blissfully unaware of the many prying eyes. This lady must have been at least 8-feet in length.

Our driver, Dadan, who would be a huge asset to our trip, told us that she was the Chakradhara female, the grand old mother of the several tigers that we would see in the coming days. "Wow!" I thought, "So, we surely would see more tigers!" Great! We had seen our first tiger exactly ten minutes into our arrival into Bandhavgarh!

The Bandhavgarh National Park is set amongst the Vindhya Hills and is in the district of Sahdol in Madhya Pradesh. It was declared a national park in 1968 and today covers an area of 437 sq. km. The park derives its name from the most prominent hill fort of the area, which is (mythologically) said to have been given by Lord Rama to his brother Laxman to keep a watch on Lanka (Bandhav = Brother, Garh = Fort).

Stunning backdrop

The ruins of this ancient fort provide a stunning backdrop to the action in Bandhavgarh. Eleventh-century statues of various incarnations of Lord Vishnu, which were carved out of monolith rocks, are found in the fort. "Sheshshaiya", the statue of Lord Vishnu in reclining pose on a bed of snakes, is the biggest of them all.

Bandhavgarh has been an excellent habitat of the tiger and is known for the highest density of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world.

Half an hour later, we backtracked to spot another tigress closer to the entrance gate - Siddababa, the place was called, as there was a small Shiva's shrine nearby. All the drivers and guides of the Park believe that a respectful bow to Siddababa before the start of a ride will bring them good luck: the sighting of many tigers and hence, happy tourists. Beside the shrine is a large meadow with several rivulets that drain the area. The reason we were here: "she will cross the jeep track in front of us, along with her cub. She has left one cub on the other side of the track, so she must cross any time now," said our driver in a confident tone. She was the local favourite tigress, the Siddababa female.

Suddenly a loud "aauungh" from the grass broke the rhythm and the mood of the moment. It occurred to us that the tigress was not more than 10 feet from our jeep. She then peeked over the grass, growled some more and walked a few steps in the grass. Thirty seconds later, a lovely young tigress with a brilliant ochre coat came out of the grass. About a million photographic exposures went off simultaneously from the various awaiting cameras! We made our first good images of the Royal Bengal Tiger. We were just about rejoicing in the marvel of sighting and photographing a tigress in the open in great morning light, when one of the drivers pointed out to the grass and cried bachcha ("cub")! Out came the timid one - well fed, healthy, and about three months old. The little one scurried across the track to join its mother and its sibling in the cave on the other side of the rocky hill.

Satisfying sightings

Our very first three-hour drive in the Tala range of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve had converted us into total tiger devotees. The next three days were going to be tiger-chasing on steroids! The next day, our chance sighting of a large male tiger, B2, the undisputed hero of Bandhavgarh, was the highlight of our entire trip. We realised that our driver, Dadan, was a terrific tiger tracker. His mind worked like that of the tiger. And so it was that we saw B2, the reigning tiger of Tala range, the revered male; all the cubs we saw were his progeny. A massive creature, absolutely sure of himself, walking with a care-a-damn attitude and a full stomach, B2 demonstrated his masculinity as he marked his territory in regular intervals. Over the next few days we saw B2 twice again.

On the last day, on elephant back, we were taken very close to yet another tigress - the Jhorjhora female and two of her almost fully grown cubs. It was an absolutely fabulous setting - straight out of Kipling's Jungle Book - deep in the jungle, beside a steep shaded cliff face with a huge cave, among the shade of the sal trees and with langur alarm calls booming in the enclosed area.

Four days, twelve individual tigers, twenty four sightings... what more can one ask? Bandhavgarh lived up to the hype and delivered what it promised! Well, there was more to Bandhavgarh than just tigers though we were completely bowled over with the awe and wonder associated with tiger sightings like these!

During the jeep drives we got great opportunities to photograph three species of vultures (Red-headed, Long-billed and Scavenger), Lesser Adjutant and Woolly-necked storks, the resident photogenic Brown Fish Owl, Brown Shrikes, Green Pigeons, Eurasian Thicknee, Chestnut-shouldered Petronias, the endemic and stunning Painted Spurfowl, Peacocks and peahens of all shapes and sizes and the famed Malabar Pied Hornbills. The total number of bird species recorded in the area is nearly 250.

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Nearest airport is at Jabalpur (165 km)

Nearest town and railway head is Umaria (30 km). The other railway stations are Jabalpur (165 km), Katni (102 km) and Satna (120 km)

There are varied government and private options for accommodation in Tala village that adjoins the park.

The Park is open to visitors from October to June. But the best season for viewing wildlife is November to April.

Getting around: Maruti Gypsys are used to explore the park. The reservation of these can be done at the Project Tiger office or the hotels where one is staying. The tour is accompanied by a guide and in the park one must adhere to the allocated route.

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